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Barely five weeks short of its first anniversary in power, the Taliban regime failed to address or resolve any of the serious issues facing Afghanistan, with the three-day “Great Conference of Ulema” held in Kabul (June 30-July 2, 2022) proving to be a damp squib. The regime took care not to designate the gathering as a Loya Jirga, which is the traditional Afghan way for local leaders to have their grievances heard by rulers and vested it with the authority of Islamic scholars and clerics.
Simultaneously, the two-day meeting of Afghanistan finance and central bank officials with US officials in Doha, Qatar (June 30-July 1), to discuss economic and aid issues in the aftermath of the June 22, 2022 earthquake, concluded without progress on the critical issues of releasing $3.5 billion of the $7 billion Afghan assets frozen in American banks, and the lifting of sanctions. The talks were led by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West and Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the spokesman for the foreign minister, later tweeted that Muttaqi had expressed gratitude for the $55 million pledged in humanitarian aid for victims of the June 2022 earthquake. The Taliban quoted Thomas West as saying that Washington “preferred engagement and sought a stable Afghanistan.” The US envoy said Washington does not “support any armed opposition in Afghanistan” and said such actions were “detrimental” to that country. Both sides agreed to meet again.
Voice of America reported that a State Department spokesperson denied that Washington was legitimising the regime but that diplomatic engagement with the Taliban was necessary as “pure isolation” cannot help Washington to achieve its objectives there. The spokesperson said the Biden administration was “focused on advancing US interests” in Afghanistan such as human rights, counterterrorism, economic stabilization, reopening of all schools and safe passage for Afghans who worked with US-led international forces before the Taliban takeover in August 2021.
In Kabul, the 3,500-strong gathering of male clerics and elders exhorted the people to support the Taliban-led “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and urged the international community to recognise the regime. The resolution issued at the end of the meeting said, “The establishment of the Islamic system in Afghanistan which is the outcome of more than four decades of sacrifices and suffering of our people has ensured justice, peace and security in the country, and deserves support and we not only support but also defend it as our religion and national obligation.”
Calling for mutual respect and coexistence with neighbouring countries, the region and the world at large, the resolution assured that “the Afghan soil won’t be used against any country and Afghanistan also won’t allow anyone to interfere in its internal affairs.” It condemned the Islamic State (Daesh) as “insurgent, terrorist,” and declared that cooperation with the group is against Islamic laws.
Women were excluded from the gathering, and the critical issues of the return of girls to school and the right of women to work and travel, were simply avoided. Al Jazeera reported Habiba Sarabi, the first woman governor of an Afghan province (Bamiyan, 2005), lamenting that the Taliban’s “mindset is that women should stay at home.” “They don’t believe in human rights and that’s why no woman was invited.” Political analyst Lutfullah Lutf said the meeting did not include all political opinions, and the exclusion of women from the political sphere is “saddening in a nation where 50 percent of the population are women.”
The Great Conference of Ulema continued the charade that supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is alive though to this day no one has seen his face. Akhundzada addressed the gathering with his back turned, and urged citizens to accept whatever the regime does; he warned the international community from interfering with the regime. The Taliban urged Afghans to renew allegiance to Akhundzada and called for Sharia laws in the country.
Earlier, on May 1, Akhundzada reportedly led the Eid prayers in Kandahar, but no one present on the occasion saw his face either while praying or giving a speech. Local journalists said that someone spoke from the mosque’s loudspeaker, but remained unseen. The Taliban did not allow anyone to approach the person who led the prayers, intensifying the suspicion that Akhundzada, who has not been seen publicly even once, was killed in a bomb blast in Pakistan two years ago. Akhundzada became the supreme leader of the Taliban in 2016 after a US drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
It was in Akhundzada’s name that the Taliban banned girls from attending school beyond the sixth grade; women were also told to cover themselves completely in public, barring their eyes. At the Ulema conference, Shia scholar, Sayed Nasrullah Waezi, a Hazara from Bamiyan, raised the matter of reopening schools for girls.
Deputy Taliban chief and acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani addressed the Ulema meeting on July 1 and said the Taliban needs time to address the demand from the international community for inclusive government and education. Indicating the Taliban’s rigidity on these issues, he said, “This gathering is about trust, interaction, we are here to make our future according to Islam and to national interests.”
Acting Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund opened the meeting and urged the representatives of all Afghan groups to help uphold the Islamic system of governance. Mawlawi Mohammed Omar Khattabi from Kandahar, who runs a network of madrasas and Islamic radios in southern Afghanistan, urged Taliban authorities to seek consultations with religious scholars when it came to the Islamic system.
Arab News reported that gunshots were heard at the venue, Kabul’s Polytechnic University, during a lunch break. State broadcaster RTA reported that two assailants were killed.
Meanwhile, fighting with the National Resistance Front has intensified over the past few months. As the National Resistance Front claimed successes, Defence minister Mullah Yaqub reportedly took charge of the war in Panjshir. On February 23, 2022, the NRF announced the death of Mullah Ezatullah Kandahari, commander of the Taliban Red Unit, along with nine other Taliban, in Shotul district of Panjshir, and released photographs of the dead. The Taliban reportedly sent more than one thousand fighters to Panjshir, Andarab and Bamiyan, with helicopter gunships, to eliminate the NRF guerrillas. The fighting has spread to Kapisa and Parwan provinces. Special attention is being given to seven Tajik-populated provinces.
Reports have surfaced about internal differences amongst the Taliban in Panjshir. In the past two weeks, the Taliban have been arresting their own local leaders in different areas, the most notable being Qari Hasibullah Habibi, Taliban intelligence director for Khenj. The situation is blurred, with journalist Mohammad Natiq claiming that the only Hazara commander of the Taliban, Mawlawi Mehdi Balkhabi, has turned against the group after his removal from the post of intelligence chief in Bamiyan. Mawlawi Balkhabi is said to have seized control of the Balkhab district of Sar-e Pul in June 2022.
Amidst reports that local people are increasingly helping the National Resistance Front, the Taliban are taking people hostage and torturing them in the Wersaj district and Taloqan city in Takhar province. Taliban fighters force the locals to prepare food for their fighters, and beat and arrest those who do not comply. Sources say that Taliban casualties have been rising in recent weeks.
The reign of terror against those who served the previous administration continues unabated. In April 2022, army officer Rasool Khan from Paktia province was arrested by the Taliban and allegedly tortured before his dead body was handed over to his family (Aamaj News). Former interior ministry officer, Qasem Qaim, who was asked to return to his job in March 2022, was arrested from his office after two weeks. His body was handed over to his family on April 17, 2022.
Other victims include weightlifting champion Navid Afghan, who was tortured and killed inside the National Directorate of Security, in February, according to his family. On February 23, the Taliban publicly hanged a former police officer, Mahbobsha, in Herat city. Women activists are being abducted. Former member of parliament, Habibullah, told media that the Taliban had killed six members of his family in Kapisa province, on February 13, 2022. A carpenter, Naeem Karimi, was caught for being a Panjshiri, and brutally tortured. He died on February 14, 2022.
Thus, as the first anniversary of its seizure of power approaches, the Taliban have failed to pacify the unhappy women and girls in the country, or to win the confidence of the civilian population regarding their ability to govern the country in a fair and equitable manner. The schism between the people and the regime can only be expected to grow in the coming days.