As the twentieth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks that brought the US to Afghanistan to topple the Taleban’s emirate came round, it was the Taleban who were back in power. This week, they announced their new interim administration. It is all-male, almost all-Pashtun, almost all clerical and all-Taleban. Set alongside their sustained military campaign in the Panjshir, the only province that held out against the Taleban takeover, and their violent response to protests across the country, it seems the movement’s priorities have coalesced – internal cohesion, monopolisation of power, silencing of open dissent and dividing the ‘spoils of war’, in terms of government posts, between themselves. Also noticeable, reports AAN’s Martine van Bijlert (with input from Kate Clark and Thomas Ruttig), is the absence, still, of Taleban supreme leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada.A billboard with the images of the late Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the late leader of the Haqqani network Jalaluddin Haqqani along a road in Kabul.
Photo: Aamir Qureshi / AFP, 9 September 2021.
An inward-looking Taleban caretaker government
The composition of the Taleban’s 33-member government, announced in a press conference on 7 September, seemed almost intentionally designed to provoke and unambiguously signalled to the outside world and other Afghans that the movement currently sees no reason to compromise with anyone but their own. (For a full list of appointments, see the annex to this report.)
Despite much talk of Taleban recruitment going beyond its southern Pashtun heartland and thereby changing the makeup of the movement, there is little to show for the northerners and others who joined the insurgency. The list of ministers and other senior officials is almost exclusively Pashtun, with just two Tajiks and one Uzbek, and no Hazaras, Shia Muslims or members of Afghanistan’s smaller minorities. The list is further all-male and made up mostly of clerics, either mullahs or mawlawis (who have a higher Islamic madrassa education). All are from within the Taleban’s own ranks and many are old-timers – familiar faces from the 1990s.
The one possible exception is the minister of public health. No new acting minister was announced for this post and the Republican-era incumbent, Dr Wahid Majruh, has been pictured in office since the Taleban took power on 15 August. The Taleban may have thought it important to have a technically competent and experienced minister in this crucial post. Otherwise, there is often little to suggest that men have been matched to their posts; rather, the list looks like a division of spoils, the outcome of a nimble balancing act between the dominant regions and networks of the Taleban to share out positions.
Such a pattern of appointments is not unusual after a change of regime. The 2001 cabinet list was rather similar, when four-fifths of the ministers were military or civilian members of the factions that had opposed the Taleban. In 2001, however, there was at least the appearance of diversity – there were ministers from different ethnic groups, men in suits as well as traditional clothes and two women, including General Suhaila Sediq at public health, who was one of the few technical appointments (see her obituary here).
The 2021 Taleban cabinet is even more a victors’ cabinet than the 2001 line-up was. The most senior position announced, that of prime minister (rais-e wuzera), was given to Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhundzada. He had earlier served in this position in 2000 following Mullah Muhammad Rabbani’s death from illness and was head of the Taleban’s leadership council during the insurgency. Hassan fought in the 1980s with the largely Pashtun, clerical, non-Islamist mujahedin faction, Harakat-e Enqelab, that largely folded into the Taleban movement after it emerged in the 1990s, and later with Hezb-e Islami Khales. He was a close associate of Mullah Omar and a founding member of the Taleban.
Mullah Hassan is from Kandahar, the southern powerhouse of the Taleban movement, but is not an influential military figure. His appointment as prime minister is likely to be uncontroversial – a ‘continuity candidate’ based on his previous roles – but he may also have been chosen as a relatively weak leader whom other more powerful in the movement would prefer to one of their equally powerful rivals. This is rather like the choice of Hamed Karzai, another Kandahari, to lead the interim administration in December 2001.
Hassan’s two deputies are Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi, an Uzbek Islamic scholar who was deputy minister of education in the 1990s Taleban government, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who led the political negotiations in Doha after the US pressured the ISI to release him from detention in Pakistan (where he was detained from 2010 to 2018). Baradar was one of three deputies to the Taleban’s Amir ul-Muminen (commander of the believers) Hibatullah Akhundzada and appears to have lost out in this round of appointments, given that the other two deputies – Mullah Muhammad Yaqub and Mullah Serajuddin Haqqani – gained far more powerful positions as acting ministers of defence and interior. Yaqub, son of the late Taleban leader Mullah Omar, and Serajuddin Haqqani, of the eponymous Haqqani network of Afghanistan’s south-east, represent two major military networks within the Taleban movement.
Other commanders with a significant military presence, who might have been expected to get cabinet positions, are not represented at all. In particular, two major commanders from the south, Sadr Ibrahim, head of the military commission for the western zone and a close associate of the previous supreme leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, who had taken the interior ministry after the Taleban captured Kabul on 15 August, and Qayyum Zakir, head of the military commission for the eastern zone, who had taken defence, do not have posts in the new cabinet. They may have lost out in the complicated regional and tribal balancing act or become sidelined because of their fraught relationship with Pakistan.
These three men remain, for now, in the leadership council, which is expected to carry on as the major Taleban decision-making body and where a number of the new ministers and vice ministers will probably also keep their membership. This suggests there may be parallel decision-making, ie not just in the cabinet but also in the still-existing leadership council. However, cabinet posts are important because they provide opportunities to employ one’s followers and deploy state resources, provided there is any money to pay them. AAN’s recent report on the dire straights of Afghanistan’s economy suggests there is, for now, little in the coffers or the revenue stream.
Many of the Taleban government’s newly appointed senior officials are on the United States and/or United Nations sanctions list and two of them have an FBI bounty on their heads. Many have long held leadership positions and have been implicated in terror attacks or atrocities. For some, the allegations go back to before 2001, for example, the new deputy defence minister Mullah Muhammad Fazl Akhund (aka Fazl Mazlum), who was accused of command responsibility for the scorched earth policy in the Shomali in 1999 and several massacres of civilians (see The Afghanistan Justice Project, 1978-2001 war crimes report, especially pages, 126-153). Four of the newly-appointed officials were released from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for US serviceman Bowe Bergdahl in 2014. Being taken to Guantanamo, was of course, no evidence of wrong-doing, or even links to al-Qaeda or the Taleban; our biographies of the five detainees who were released in 2014 (here and here) found that, in terms of war crimes allegations, only Mullah Fazl had serious charges to his name (see also this special report about the Afghan experience in Guantanamo which found the majority of Afghan detainees held there were civilian).
Having so many officially appointed leaders who are on international sanctions lists hugely complicates the new government’s chances of receiving international aid and interacting with other governments. It is clear that no effort has been made to make the new government line-up palatable to those who have fought the Taleban, suffered their violence, or who might offer aid (which would help the new regime survive economically), indicating the extent to which this is a victors’ cabinet. This may be a reflection of the level of confidence – or hubris – in the movement after their total, swift and, as they see it, God-given victory. It may also reflect the bind that the more pragmatic parts of the leadership have found themselves in, as they are faced with the kind of decisions, appointments and compromises needed to be able to govern the country and deal with the outside world, but which would be difficult to explain to their followers.
Newly-appointed deputy minister for information and culture, and spokesman for the movement, Zabihullah Mujahed, stressed that these were still ‘acting’ positions (sarparast) and several spokesmen have indicated that more or other appointments are likely to follow. More importantly, the press conference did not clear up what the formal shape of the government would be or how the cabinet will relate to the Taleban’s leadership council. There was no formal proclamation of a second Islamic Emirate, no announcement that the Amir ul-Muminen, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, was head of state, nor that the Islamic Republic had been formally abolished.
The omission of any mention of either Mullah Hibatullah’s name or position in the formal statement was glaring (even though later, a policy document was released in his name). There is, as a result, still little clarity as to whether he is indeed alive or capable of appearing in public. Some of his supporters have suggested that this elusiveness is a sign of his reluctance to appear or be photographed unnecessarily. Yet, even Mullah Omar, when in power, although also not filmed or photographed, gave radio statements and interviews and met foreign officials (including our colleague Thomas Ruttig, then working for the United Nations). It would be strange, therefore, if Hibatullah, now that the movement is in power, were alive and still so secluded. For the moment, he appears to function as a symbolic figurehead who can unify without actually appearing or speaking (as was also the case for Mullah Omar, who continued to be cited as supreme leader for two years after he had died).
The run-up to the announcement of the government
The announcement of the caretaker government had been anticipated since the departure of the American troops on 30 August, while Taleban social media channels showed preparations for a celebration at the palace (see for instance here), an official inauguration which has yet to happen. Long convoys of military vehicles that paraded through provincial capitals, presumably in celebration of the US departure and to show off the capture of military hardware, also seemed to suggest that high-level delegations might soon be converging on Kabul (this was particularly in the case of Kandahar, as this suggested a possible arrival of the Amir ul-Mumi’nin).
At the same time, there were also strong rumours of internal strife (see also our previous report), which were heightened when the date of the expected announcement – 3 September, after Friday prayers – came and went. That evening, Kabul city erupted into gunfire again, as it had on the night of 30/31 August after the departure of the last American soldier from Kabul Airport. There was much confusion as to the source of the mayhem. Initial explanations suggested the firing was in celebration of the fall of Panjshir, even though this had, in fact, not happened. The Taleban had managed to enter the valley and mediators were again asking for a temporary ceasefire, but reports of the breach had been circulating well before the firing started. It was also unclear whether that would have been enough to merit such a celebratory reaction, which seemed fiercer and longer even than when the Americans had left. Others suggested the celebratory shooting was because the supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, had arrived in Kabul, which also did not seem true, or because the new government setup had been announced or agreed.
It is very well possible that, whatever the reason given, the firing was instigated as a sign of strength or implied threat, for instance, by the Haqqanis then responsible for Kabul’s security – particularly, since celebratory shooting had been banned after its first instance on 31 August, but apparently no efforts were made to curb it.
The next day there were widespread rumours that Mullah Baradar and Anas Haqqani had physically fought in the presidential palace, or alternatively that their forces had been involved in a shootout. Rumours that Baradar (or both Baradar and Anas) had been injured and hospitalised were dispelled when he appeared in public the next day, including in a meeting with the head of UNOCHA.
Clamping down on resistance and dissent
While the movement was involved in internal wrangling, it also began in earnest to move in on the Panjshir, the only province that was then still in Republic hands, held by the hastily established National Resistance Front, led by former First Vice President Amrullah Saleh and the son of anti-Soviet, anti-Taleban commander Ahmad Shah Massud, Ahmad Massud. Taleban fighters moved in from other provinces, secured mountaintops surrounding the main valleys, blocked all incoming roads and largely cut off all telecommunication. Since then, the information available on social media has been heavily dominated by the two warring sides and their supporters.
As pressure on the resistance forces mounted, the Taleban captured several districts (although this was invariably denied by the Front and its supporters), and within days the Taleban seemed poised to take the provincial centre, Bazarak. On 5 September, a number of religious scholars called for a ceasefire and a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Ahmad Massud in response indicated that he was, again, ready to talk, provided that the Taleban also stopped fighting, but by then he was no longer in a position to set the conditions. The Taleban pushed on and on 6 September announced that they had captured the whole province – a claim that was officially denied by the National Resistance Front, but privately corroborated (see reporting here). The disagreement may have partially been semantic since, with the fall of the capital, the Taleban were now formally in control of the province, but resistance fighters had retreated into the various side valleys with the intention to continue the fight.
The National Resistant Front, however, has been hit hard. It has lost several key members, including Fahim Dashti, the front’s spokesperson who was also a widely respected journalist. It is unclear where Saleh and Massud are now. Scattered fighting has continued, until on 9 September, a three-day ceasefire was agreed to allow civilians to leave. Images and reports of long lines of cars leaving the valley suggest that the break is only meant as a brief lull, in preparation for more fierce fighting.
It has been very difficult to follow what is happening. There has been almost no independent reporting, since communications were and the road into the Panjshir closed. The information vacuum has been filled by pro-Taleban and pro-resistance social media accounts and media appearances, often making unverifiable and conflicting claims in an attempt to dominate the narrative. (See, for an example, this Tolo News report from 2 September in which the Taleban claimed to have captured Shutul district centre and 11 outposts, killing 34, while the National Resistant Front denied the loss of the district and claimed to have killed at least 350 Taleban fighters in the various clashes.)
It has been even more difficult to get a handle on reports of possible atrocities, in Panjshir and Andarab, or of the rounding up of young Panjshiri men in neighbourhoods like Khairkhana in Kabul. The online clamour by diaspora pro-resistance supporters that there is both an ongoing genocide and a Pakistani invasion going on in Panjshir – generally without much details or ‘supported’ by footage that is either old, from other places, and in one case even from a computer game – threatened to drown out the gathering of corroborated reporting.
On the other hand, the Taleban’s apparent determination to completely root out Panjshir’s armed resistance, coupled with an almost complete information black-out and emerging anecdotal detail, does suggest that the onslaught in Panjshir is likely to have been brutal. This impression is only strengthened by the fact that ‘news’ from Panjshir has so far been very carefully managed, with only friendly journalists or those with minders having been allowed in.
Ahmad Massud and other members of the National Resistant Front have reiterated that the struggle continues, whether armed or not, and have tried to link their stand in Panjshir to other recent expressions of dissent – with some success.
This narrative was helped by the unannounced appearance of Pakistan’ ISI chief, General Faiz Hamid, in Kabul’s Serena Hotel on Saturday 4 September 2021. His presence sparked fierce speculation as to whether he was there to sort out the Taleban’s leadership impasse or to give advice to the Taleban on their offensive on Panjshir. His visit came on top of the claims of extensive Pakistani military support for the Taleban – first, as they made their way to Kabul and, more recently, in the Panjshir valley – that had been circulating on social media for weeks and had gained some traction.
In the days before his visit, there had already been scattered protests by women insisting on their right to work, study and, by implication, be present in the public space. Now these protests grew and became a mix of strongly felt sentiments (as illustrated by the main slogans: “Death to Pakistan” and “Freedom, Freedom” with possibly some “Death to America” and in at least one case of “Traitors” directed at the previous government).
The anger and suspicion over the visit of ISI Chief Hamid turned out to be a good cover for demonstrators unhappy with the Taleban takeover: What Afghan could openly oppose slogans against Pakistan, given the enduring dispute over the Durand Line? The demonstrations, on the whole, were not specifically directed at the Taleban or the Islamic Emirate, but in shouting the takbir – Allahu Akbar – the protesters appropriated the Taleban’s own chosen slogan to assert that those in power on earth are not invincible. Moreover, protesters taking to the streets in itself had become an act of defiance, after the Taleban banned unsanctioned protests. They met the demonstrators with much violence.
Initially, the violence seemed rooted in their fighters’ inexperience with crowd control and their inability to deal with open dissent and the flaunting of conservative norms – few Taleban will have seen a crowd of shouting women with their faces uncovered. But none of the violence was curtailed and on 8 September it became clear that there was a calculated decision to crack down, not only on the protests, but more importantly, their visibility to other Afghans and the wider world. This was most clearly felt with the widely reported brutal beating of two Etilaat-e Roz journalists (see here and here) and the detaining of several others.
For the twentieth anniversary of the death of Ahmad Shah Massud, killed by al-Qaeda allies of the Taleban in 2001, on 9 September, the Taleban ordered telecoms companies to shut down mobile data in parts of the city, thus limiting the use of encrypted apps like WhatsApp that are widely used to communicate and share information. There were reports of small demonstrations, largely by women, in various cities, which judging by the footage, were probably held out of sight of Taleban fighters. A few politicians referred to the life and death of Massud in online posts, but there were apparently no large public gatherings or commemorations, and certainly none of the convoys of cars filled with gun-waving men that had often punctuated the day in recent years.
Responses to cabinet, resistance and protests
In the meantime, the northern politicians who had travelled to Pakistan for talks about a unity government, just as President Ghani was fleeing the country, have dismissed the new Taleban government as “monopolistic” and a return to the past (see for instance here). Several are now speaking about an emerging resistance across the country, largely political in nature with possible guerrilla tactics, that specifically includes women and youth – see, for instance, this 9 September interview with Yunus Qanuni (in Dari). Qanuni indicated that the politicians would confer and come up with a joint position soon.
Several Afghan embassy accounts posted a reaction in the name of the (former) ministry of foreign affairs, condemning the announcement of the Taleban cabinet as “illegitimate and unjustifiable” and insisting all embassies and consulates will continue their normal functions and duties based on the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The National Resistant Front’s statement called the caretaker cabinet “illegal and a clear sign of the enmity with the Afghan people” and called on all international institutions and countries to hold off recognition, refrain from diplomatic ties and declare support for the “struggle to rid our country of occupation and terrorism.” The statement said the National Resistance Front would soon “make a decision on the future government after consulting politicians and policy experts.”
Whereas the Front, while still focused on armed resistance based in Panjshir, seemed poised to be largely irrelevant, it could now morph into a wider political front. Much, however, will depend on who takes the lead, including within the Front, what the focus becomes and whether an emerging group manages to escape the usual leadership squabbles and ethnic/factional politicking.
The Shia Ulema Council, which had earlier called for a government in which they – and Afghan women – would be represented, has not yet formally responded (although they did meet with former president Hamed Karzai on 9 September).
Karzai largely kept his thoughts to himself but told Tolo News that the formation of the new government was “necessary” and that he hoped its shortcomings would be addressed so that all Afghans could recognise themselves in it. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, on the other hand, welcomed the new cabinet that, he said, was made up of “Muslims and clerics, who had fought against the occupiers, and had endured imprisonment and torture.”
Former president Ashraf Ghani also released a statement, but it was not about the new Taleban government. Instead, he again tried to explain why he had left Kabul so suddenly and to respond to the allegations that he had taken millions of dollars with him. The statement was largely met with derision, including by close associates who have lately been trying to distance themselves from both the former president and his regime. He was mocked for addressing “the people of Afghanistan” in English and for focusing only on trying to clear his own name (and possibly pre-empt a criminal investigation), while the country was going through turmoil.
International actors have so far been surprisingly quiet about both the Taleban’s military onslaught on Panjshir and their heavy-handed response to the demonstrations. They appear to be focused on the evacuation of their nationals and those with links to their countries, and either do not have the bandwidth, the policy formulated, or enough information to deal with what is happening domestically in Afghanistan. They may also be reluctant to strain relations with a new administration that they still have to rely on for the short-term goal of the evacuation.
In the meantime, Afghanistan’s erstwhile international backers have been hard-pressed to justify their 20-year engagement in Afghanistan, particularly after the swift Taleban takeover. On the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, US president Joe Biden released a two-minute video, stressing that the central lesson of 11 September, as he saw it, was the need for national unity in the United States; he made no mention of Afghanistan.
Back in Afghanistan, people are dealing with a new administration that is heady with victory and in no mood for compromise. They wait for the Taleban to formally inaugurate the new government, an event that was expected to take place on 11 September in an additional provocative sign of victory, but did not. Who attends the inauguration and at which level, if it happens at all, will be closely watched, as it may suggest how – and indeed whether – the new Afghanistan will fit into the regional and international scene. In the meantime, the remaining population of Panjshir is bracing itself for war, while elsewhere, former government officials, civil society activists and journalists, women who want to study, work or enjoy other freedoms, Hazaras, and other groups who fear being sidelined or worse, face a new government that seems determined, if not to punish them, then at least to push them from view.
Edited by Kate Clark
This report has been amended since it was first published. It originally said that Gul Agha Ishakqzai, head of the Taleban finance commission, did not have a cabinet post. He did get a job, as finance minister, listed under his alternative name, Mullah Hedayatullah Badri.
Annex: Taleban Caretaker Government appointed 7 September 2021
1. Head of the Ministers: Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund
2. First deputy: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar
3. Second deputy: Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi
4. Minister of Defence: Mullah Muhammad Yaqub
5. Minister of Interior: Mullah Serajuddin Haqqani
6. Foreign Minister: Amir Khan Muttaqi
7. Finance Minister: Mullah Hedayatullah Badri, aka Gul Agha Ishakqzai
8. Education Minister: Sheikh Mawlawi Nurullah
9. Minister for Information and Culture: Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa
10. Minister of Economy: Qari Din Muhammad Hanif
11. Minister for Hajj and Religious Affairs: Mawlawi Nur Muhammad Saqib
12. Minister of Justice: Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Shari
13. Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs: Mullah Nurullah Nuri
14. Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development: Mullah Muhammad Yunus Akhundzada
15. Minister of Invitation and Guidance, Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue: Sheikh Muhammad Khaled
16. Minister of Public Works: Mullah Abdul Manan Omari
17. Minister of Mines and Petroleum: Mullah Muhammad Essa Akhund
18. Minister of Water and Power: Mullah Abdul Latif Mansur
19. Minister of Civil Aviation and Transportation: Mullah Hamidullah Akhundzada,
20. Minister of Higher Education: Mawlawi Abdul Baqi Haqqani
21. Minister of Telecommunication: Mawlawi Najibullah Haqqani
22. Minister of Refugee Affairs: Khalil ul-Rahman Haqqani
23. Head of Intelligence: Mawlawi Abdul Haq Wasiq
24. Head of Da Afghanistan Bank: Haji Muhammad Idris
25. Chief of Staff: Mawlawi Ahmad Jan Ahmadi
26. Deputy Defence Minister: Mullah Muhammad Fazl Akhund, aka Fazl Mazlum
27. Chief of the Army: Qari Fasihuddin
28. Deputy Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai
29. Deputy Minister of Interior: Mawlawi Nur Jalal
30. Deputy Minister of Information and Culture: Zabihullah Mujahed
31. First Deputy Intelligence: Mullah Taj Mir Jawad
32. Administrative Deputy of Intelligence: Mullah Rahmatullah Najib
33. Deputy Minister of Interior for Counternarcotic: Mullah Abdul Haq
This article was last updated on 15 Sep 2021