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Monday, September 20, 2021

Explained: Who are the new rulers of Afghanistan?

Military victory is theirs, the Taliban will now seek to build a government — and here, negotiations and accommodation may have a bigger role to play. Who are the men to watch out for in the coming weeks?

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |
Updated: August 24, 2021 9:39:45 am
Haibatullah Akhundzada and Abdul Ghani Baradar of Taliban.

After rolling effortlessly to power, the Taliban face the hardscrabble of give-and-take politics, and appear to be in negotiations to accommodate several interests within the factions and tribes, and in the ecosystem that helped and supported them — Pakistan’s security establishment is a main part of this — and even their “enemies”.

Baradar, likely new head

Going by the signals emerging from the huddles in Kabul and Doha, where high-ranking Taliban leaders camped for nearly a decade for the talks with the US, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the number two in the organisation and in-charge of its political wing, is likely to head the new government.

He arrived from Doha in Kandahar, and participated in the first press conference of the new regime earlier this week.

The supreme leader, or Amir ul Momineen, Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzada, may not take part in government directly. There was talk during the Doha discussions about an Iranian-style Supreme Leader, and if that post is created in the new Afghan set up, Akhundzada could be the likely choice for it.

Mullah Baradar belongs to the Popalzai Pashtun tribe, and is known as a co-founder of the Taliban along with Mullah Muhammad Omar, the first Amir. Omar, of the Hotak tribe, is said to have been extremely close to Baradar, which means brother, a nickname that the Amir gave him. Baradar was designated under UNSC 1272 in 2001 and remains on the list.

In 2010, Baradar was detained by the ISI as he had begun to respond to overtures for peace talks from then President Hamid Karzai, a fellow Popalzai. Karzai was anything but Pakistan’s man, and through his years in office and until months ago, was vocal about the role of the Pakistan military in the conflict.

Baradar spent eight years in incarceration, and was released only when the Trump Administration launched talks with the Taliban in 2018. He headed the nine-member Taliban team that negotiated with US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad — they were the two signatories to the Doha Agreement last year, by which the US agreed to withdraw its troops on condition that the Taliban would not shelter al-Qaeda or ISIS, and would hold negotiations with other Afghans to arrive at a political settlement to end the war.

It is unclear if Baradar has now made his peace with Pakistan, which hand-held the Taliban through the talks. But if he becomes the head of the new government, he is likely to be more independent minded than the Pakistani security establishment — the Army and ISI — would like.

A scion and two veterans

Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, the 31-year-old son of Mullah Omar and operational head of the military wing of the Taliban, would likely be an important figure in the new dispensation. He did not pitch himself hard when the leader of the Taliban was being chosen in 2016; he may now claim a place in the new set-up.

Yaqoob was not in the Taliban delegation for talks with the US, or for the intra-Afghan talks. But he was part of the Rehbari shura, the Taliban’s leadership council that is also known as the Quetta shura because some of its members were based in that city in Pakistan after the previous Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.

Afghanistan The Taliban have promised not to take revenge on Afghans who helped foreign forces, but many do not believe them (Rahmat Gul/AP Photo/picture alliance)

Two other names that have cropped up in recent weeks — including in reports, flatly denied by the Indian government, that claimed a meeting with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar — are Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mullah Mohammad Fazl.

Both men are 54, and were among the five Guantanamo Bay detainees who were captured in the months after the Taliban were ousted, and who were released in May 2014 in exchange for the US soldier Bowe Berghdal, who was captured by the Haqqani network.

Khairkhwa is Popalzai too, and was interior minister in the previous Taliban regime; Fazl, who belongs to the Durrani tribe, was deputy defence minister.

The Taliban, then and now

Haqqani claimant

It is unclear if Sirajuddin Haqqani will emerge from the shadows to become an official part of the new dispensation, but he will remain a critical factor in the determining its decisions and actions. He inherited the leadership of the Haqqani network from his father Jalaluddin, has been a designated terrorist under UNSC resolution 1272 since 2007, and carries a US reward of $ 5 million on his head.

The Haqqani network is a militant entity allied with the Taliban but is distinct from it, and is closest of all the groups within Taliban to Pakistan’s ISI. It has found permanent shelter in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, and has strong links with al-Qaeda.

Taliban fighters patrol in Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (AP Photo)

Others in the mix

Two members of the Taliban have had a high profile during the Doha talks: Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who ran the political office of the Taliban in Doha since 2012, and Zabiullah Mujahid, the well known chief spokesman who first revealed his face only on Tuesday in Kabul.

Then there is the youngest Haqqani brother, Anas, who has been the public face of the Haqqani network. He led a Taliban delegation on Wednesday in a meeting with former President Karzai and members of the deposed Ashraf Ghani government for what seemed to be negotiations about government formation. Also present were Abdullah Abdullah, who led the High Peace Council of in the previous government, and former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Afghan women, Afghanistan, Taliban takeover Internally displaced Afghan women from northern provinces, who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, receive medical care in a public park in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. The extremist group that once stoned women and restricted their every move is now back in power. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

If accommodated — it is unclear what roles they might seek — Karzai and Abdullah would be useful to the Taliban in building bridges with western nations. The ageing Hekmatyar may look to old friend Pakistan for a seat in the bus.

A possible Hazara presence

Iran’s outreach to the Taliban in recent months, and its covert support to the Taliban fightback against the US, could mean that the new dispensation may have Hazara — who are Shia — representation.

A large contingent of the erstwhile pro-India Northern Alliance, made up mainly of Tajik and Hazara, flew to Islamabad on the day Kabul fell — indication that they want to be partners in the new government. Two men to watch in this delegation are Mohammed Mohaqiq, an ethnic Hazara and former mujahid from Mazar-e-Sharif, and Mohammed Karim Khalili, also Hazara and former vice-president during the Karzai presidency.

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