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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Explained: Here are 7 things to note in the new Afghan government

The second Taliban regime is in many ways a reflection of the first. Many of the same groups are still in power. It is non-inclusive and Pashtun-dominated. The stamp of the ISI is unmistakable. And among the men now in charge are global terrorists with rewards on their heads, and former Gitmo inmates.

Written by Shubhajit Roy , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: September 14, 2021 12:30:55 pm
Taliban, Taliban government, Taliban leaders, Taliban caretaker government, Afghanistan news, Indian ExpressIn this August 25, 1999 photo, Mullah Hasan Akhund, right, is received by then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in Islamabad. (AP Photo/B K Bangash, File)

The Taliban announced their cabinet Tuesday (September 7) evening, three days after the chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt General Faiz Hameed reached Kabul to decide on government formation.

In terms of structure, the new government in Kabul is similar in some ways to the one in Tehran. The top religious leader of the Taliban, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, is Afghanistan’s supreme authority, even though he is not part of the government.

According to a statement released after the cabinet appointments, Akhundzada has instructed the new government to uphold Islamic rules and Sharia law in Afghanistan.

In the statement released in English, Akhundzada also urged those in charge to protect the country’s highest interests, and to ensure “lasting peace, prosperity and development”.

The Government of Taliban

Here are seven key things to note about the new Afghan government.

First, it has Pakistani’s stamp all over it.

The imprint of Rawalpindi is visible in the dominance in the new cabinet of the leaders of the Haqqani Network terrorist outfit and the Kandahar-based Taliban group.

The Taliban group based in Doha, which had been negotiating with the international community and had established contacts with New Delhi, appears to have been sidelined.

The hand of Pakistan is evident in the choice of the new prime minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, and the induction of several Haqqanis in the interim Afghan government. The ISI chief reached Kabul three days ago to ensure that its proxies get plum posts.

For India, the Haqqanis getting Afghan government berths is bad news. The assessment in New Delhi is that at least 20 of the 33 men in the new cabinet are from the Kandahar-based Taliban group and the Haqqani Network.

Second, the biggest winner is Haqqani.

From New Delhi’s perspective, Sirajuddin Haqqani as Afghanistan’s interior minister is the most telling signal that the cabinet has been handpicked by the ISI.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the former mujahideen fighter and CIA asset Jalaluddin Haqqani whose death was announced in September 2018, is head of the Haqqani Network, a sprawling Islamist terrorist mafia with close ties to al-Qaeda, based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan.

Haqqani was responsible for the terrorist attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008 that killed 58 people, and the attacks against Indians and Indian interests in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010.

As interior minister, Haqqani’s mandate will include not just law and order, but also appointments of provincial governors, under the garb of “local governance”.

This will mean that he will have leverage and the ability to pack the country’s provinces with his — and the ISI’s — handpicked men. The sense in South Block is that this will have deep strategic consequences for India, and for the region as a whole.

Sirajuddin Haqqani is also a designated global terrorist. The Rewards for Justice Program of the United States Department of State has offered a reward of up to $ 10 million for information leading directly to his arrest.

Sirajuddin is wanted for questioning in connection with the January 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul that killed six people, including an American citizen. He is believed to have coordinated and participated in cross-border attacks against the US and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

He was also allegedly involved in planning the attempted assassination of then Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in 2008, the FBI says on its website.

Taliban, Taliban government, Taliban leaders, Taliban caretaker government, Afghanistan news, Indian Express Khalil Haqqani at the Pul-e Kheshti mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. Haqqani will be the acting minister for refugees of the Taliban’s caretaker government. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

The other Haqqani in an important position is Khalil Haqqani, the new minister for refugees. He too is a specially designated global terrorist who has close ties to al-Qaeda, and has aided and “acted on behalf of” al-Qaeda’s military.

Khalil Haqqani, who has appeared in several photographs from Afghanistan over the past few weeks, is the brother of Jalaluddin Haqqani and the uncle of Sirajuddin. There is a State Department reward of up to $ 5 million for “information that brings to justice” Khalil Haqqani.

One of the trusted men of the Haqqanis is Mullah Taj Mir Jawad, who will be deputy intelligence chief of the new government. Jawad led the Kabul attack network, which organised the various Islamist jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, in and around Kabul.

Third, the Taliban old guard remain in charge.

The cabinet announced on Tuesday is filled with Taliban from the previous regime (1996-2001) led by Mullah Mohammad Omar. Many are on the United Nations terror list. All are considered extremely close to the ISI.

The prime minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, is the hardline chief of the decision-making ‘Rehbari Shura’ council of leaders, often called the ‘Quetta Shura’ after the Pakistani city where many of the Taliban fled after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Akhund is also the man who ordered the destruction, in 2001, of the magnificent standing Buddha statues that were carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley in the sixth century.

Akhund, who is on the UN terror list, belongs to Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and was among the founders of the Islamist movement. He worked for 20 years as head of the Rehbari Shura, and remained close to Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader of the Taliban.

Akhund had served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister during the Taliban’s first government in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. He was also the governor of Kandahar, and vice president of the council of ministers in 2001.

According to the UN, Akhund is one of “30 original Taliban”. The National Security Archive of George Washington University states: “Akhund holds prejudices against both westerners and the mujahadeen. Considered one of the most effective commanders. Studied at various madrassas in Pakistan.”

The acting minister of public works, Mullah Abdul Manan Omari, is the brother of the Taliban’s founder leader, Mullah Omar, and the uncle of Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob, who is the acting minister for defence in the new regime.

Mullah Yaqoob was a student of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who had earlier appointed him as head of the powerful Taliban military commission.

Taliban, Taliban government, Taliban leaders, Taliban caretaker government, Afghanistan news, Indian Express Taliban officials arrive at a news conference to announce an acting cabinet for the new Taliban government in Kabul on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

Fourth, Mullah Baradar has been edged out.

Mullah Abdul Ghani, one of the co-founders of the Taliban in 1994 who is known as ‘Baradar’ due to his closeness with the founder leader Mullah Omar, had been the head of the Taliban’s political office in the Qatari capital Doha, and was the main face of the Taliban’s negotiations with the world.

Having been the man who signed the Doha Agreement with the Americans, he was expected to head the Taliban regime. But although he remains number two in the government, he is the first deputy prime minister, having been edged out of the top post by Mullah Hassan Akhund.

Abdul Salam Hanafi, an Uzbek by ethnicity who too, was part of the Doha negotiating team, will be the second deputy prime minister.

Mullah Baradar was captured in February 2010 in Karachi after Pakistani intelligence discovered that he had opened a channel of communication with then President Hamid Karzai.

The Pakistanis released him in 2018 at the behest of the Trump Administration, and from 2019 onward, Baradar led the talks with Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation.

In March 2020, Baradar became the first Taliban leader to communicate directly with an American president, when he spoke with Donald Trump by phone. It appears that his chances were scuttled by the ISI which does not trust him entirely.

Taliban, Taliban government, Taliban leaders, Taliban caretaker government, Afghanistan news, Indian Express Mullah Baradar meets members of the Red Cross in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this image uploaded onto social media on September 6, 2021.

Fifth, for all the promises made earlier, there is hardly any inclusivity in the Taliban cabinet.

As expected, no woman has found a place in the cabinet, and there are very few non-Pashtuns — only three out of 33. This has belied expectations in some quarters of the international community that the “new” Taliban would be “inclusive” and “representative”.

The non-Pashtuns — members of Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities — in the government are the second deputy head of government Abdul Salam Hanafi; chief of the army staff Qari Fasihuddin; and the minister of economy Qari Deen Hanif.

Hanafi is Uzbek, while Fasihuddin and Hanif are Tajiks. Fasihuddin was key to the Taliban’s advance in Badakhshan in north-east Afghanistan, and naming him army chief is said to be a reward.

There were women negotiators in the Intra-Afghan talks in Doha, but none of them have found a place in the cabinet.

Sixth, a potential Indian point of contact has been negated.

India had reached out to Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, who was being considered as one of the main contenders to be foreign minister. But he lost out in the race.

Stanekzai, who had engaged with many international interlocutors in Doha as the deputy head of the Taliban office, has been sidelined — deputy foreign minister is the same post that he had held in 1996 as well, before being moved as deputy health minister.

Stanekzai had met Deepak Mittal, India’s ambassador to Qatar, on August 31, the first official contact between India and the new rulers of Afghanistan that was made public.

Stanekzai’s boss is Amir Khan Muttaqi, who has been named foreign minister. Muttaqi had served as the minister of information and culture during the first Taliban regime. He too is on the UN terror list, but had served as a Taliban representative in the United Nations-led talks during the earlier Taliban regime.

Muttaqi was one of the members of the Doha group led by Baradar.

Taliban government: Rest of the cabinet

Seventh, there are some Guantanamo Bay prisoners in the cabinet.

Terrorists who had been incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay facility by the US for many years are among the members of the Taliban cabinet.

This list includes Khairullah Khairkhwa, the minister for information and culture, and Abdul Haq Waseeq, the intelligence chief. Mullah Noorullah Noori, the minister of borders and tribal affairs too, is a former Gitmo inmate.

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