Monday night, Centcom Commander General Kenneth McKenzie announced the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan as complete, while the Taleban declared the country once again a “free and sovereign nation.” After the last American soldier left Afghan soil, Taleban forces giddily moved into the last part of Kabul airport that had still been in US hands, while in the streets of the capital, a deafening spree of celebratory shooting broke out. The following morning, 31 August, the city had gone back to business, as best as it could – long lines in front of the banks – while Afghanistan’s population wonders what their country will look like and how it will be ruled. As this 20-year chapter has come to an end, AAN’s Martine van Bijlert considers how the ‘new Afghanistan’ is shaping up.Taleban fighters stand inside an Afghan Air Force aircraft at Kabul the airport.
Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP, 31 August 2021.
The difficulties of forming a government
It is 17 days since the Taleban took Kabul. Two days later, in his first weekly press conference from the Afghan capital, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said that a new government would be announced “soon.” Yet, there is still little clarity on how the country will be governed and who exactly will be in charge. The Taleban may have been waiting for American forces to leave, reluctant to show their real intentions until all international troops had finally gone. Probably more important to slowing the decision-making down is the fact that the politics of government formation is proving tricky. The movement was wholly unprepared for President Ashraf Ghani’s sudden departure on 15 August, and for Kabul to fall into their lap so soon and anyway, had never prepared detailed plans or policies for government. The movement is now divided on the way forward.
So far, Taleban Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada has been marked by his absence, at least in public. Earlier last week, he was said to have arrived in Kandahar to meet with the leadership council – it is unknown from where he came. Today, on 31 August, the Taleban announced that a three-day consultation headed by Akhundzada had ended and that a number of decisions had been taken, including on the formation of a new Islamic government and cabinet. It is worth noting that though announced, Akhundzada has still not appeared in public, nor have there been recent pictures or recordings of either him or any of the meetings. This is relevant, given the persistent rumours over the last few years that he may have died.
In the absence of a strong, on-the-ground leader, there have been indications of power struggles between different Ghilzai and Durrani leaders, eastern and southern networks, and hardliners and those looking for more flexibility (see also this article). Various networks within the Taleban moved fighters to Kabul after its capture, eager it seems not to lose out on positions or power. Among them were Mullah Baradar, one of Haibatullah’s deputies and chief negotiator of the 2020 US-Taleban deal, and Khalil Haqqani, who is now a key figure in the city’s security set-up and whose 313 Badri Brigade had taken custody of most of the airport, while the Americans were still there.
Talk of a unity government has gone quiet for the moment. Although members of the Taleban’s political commission continue to meet a wide array of social, political and geographical groups in photographed gatherings – including Shia leaders, academics and provincial delegations – and several figures linked to the previous government have declared their baya or allegiance to the movement, it does not seem that anybody outside the Taleban’s circle is involved in any substantive discussions. The rumours that those originally putting themselves forward to negotiate a handover of power – former president Hamed Karzai, National Reconciliation Council head Abdullah Abdullah and leader of Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – might be appointed as part of the new administration (as deputies or members of a council) have gone quiet. There are no longer any indications that, even if they did happen, the appointments would be anything more than symbolic. Karzai and Abdullah were rumoured to have been evicted from their homes or placed under house arrest, which was denied by the Taleban (quoted here). Whether true or not, the rumours do illustrate the weakness of their position.
In the meantime, the Taleban continue to try to project the image of a government that is restarting, with pictures of newly appointed officials meeting staff and touring their sites of work. Yet, it still has a very preliminary feel to it, given the absence of clarity on rules, payment and governing structure. Caretaker appointments at various levels – provincial, district, department and ministerial – have so far been drawn (almost) exclusively from the Taleban’s own ranks, with no sign of non-Taleban appointments. A list of appointments published by Afghan journalist Tajuden Soroush, for example, was made up of mullahs and mawlawis now serving as minister of higher education, deputy minister of education, head of civil aviation and the sports federation, and chair of the Intercontinental Hotel.
One of the few non-Talebs still with a job, Kabul mayor Daud Sultanzoy, who had initially been asked to stay on (see tweet here), was first placed under an ‘oversight committee’ headed by former higher education minister Mullah Hamdullah Nomani (see this fascinating BBC interview with both men on 24 August) and now seems to have been replaced as mayor by Nomani (see this tweet). The former government’s acting minister of public health, Wahid Majruh, does still seem to be in his position, which may suggest that the Taleban understand the importance of keeping the health sector from collapsing (see for instance this latest interview).
Deputy of the Taleban political commission, Mullah Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, has sought to reassure Afghans. In a recent radio address, he said the leadership was consulting with “different ethnic groups, political parties and within the Islamic Emirate” to form a government in which people from all different walks of life would be included. All appointments were temporary, he said, and after the formation of the government, professional people would be appointed. The effect of the reassurance, however, is undermined by the current long train of mullahs and mawlawis that have been appointed to jobs they have little relevant experience in.
Violence in the new order
The Taleban leadership are grappling with the problem that, at the moment, anyone with a gun in traditional garb can claim to be a Taleb, and can then search for arms or impound vehicles. Their own fighters in the streets are policing the population based on rules that have not been announced, deciding themselves what is inappropriate behaviour, hairstyle or dress. They have beaten up, arrested and shot men and boys for flying the country’s old flag, particularly around last week’s independence day, even though the leadership had announced that all flags would be respected (and senior Taleban members occasionally appear in meeting rooms adorned with Afghanistan’s black-red-green flag, alongside their own white standard). After a journalist was recently beaten, the Taleban said they would punish the culprit, but that has not proved a deterrent to freelance violent policing.
The leadership has, without much emphasis yet, hinted at the need to disarm the fighters and remove them from the streets and there are already slick videos of new uniformed and disciplined forces circulating (see, for instance, here for Kabul and here for Kandahar), but so far, in the context of the current struggle for power at the top, there will probably be little appetite to start disarming, removing or reining in fighters.
In terms of reports of violence and targeting in the context of a declared amnesty, the picture is – unsurprisingly – mixed. On the one hand, there are the high and mid-level officials, who were feared to have been killed or harmed after their surrender, who are slowly, publicly or quietly, re-emerging and returning to their homes (most recently Laghman’s provincial and security officials – see Pajhwok report here). This matches what often happens after regime changes; those who surrender and disarm are generally allowed to sooner or later go home to their lives. However, many former officials and military people are still unsure about their safety.
A senior security official, for instance, told AAN from his home in Kabul: “Whether you’d want to call me a guest or a prisoner, I was with the [new Taleban] governor for a few days [after our surrender]. Then they brought us back to Kabul. It was like that in all provinces.” He said that while Taleban fighters had been staking out his house and taken away his private car, since his return and after he had made a few phone calls, he had not been harassed. Even so, he does not feel safe. “I don’t know what the leadership will decide. They have not been in touch with me,” he said. “But I fear the ordinary people. So many fighters came to Kabul from all provinces. There are so many personal enmities, after I’ve served as a commander for many years. We all feel the danger, especially those who served in different provinces. We don’t fear the leadership. We fear the ordinary people [the rank and file fighters].”
Whereas the announced general amnesty is supposed to reassure those who have surrendered, it is clear that there is little mercy for those who continue to fight the Taleban now. There have been summary executions and no prisoners taken during some of the recent fighting in the districts of Andarab in Baghlan province, Behsud in Wardak and Khedir in Daikundi.
Those who were not on the battlefield during the Taleban offensive, or who did not formally surrender, are also unsure of their status. Although the amnesty signals that there will be no blanket prosecution of anyone who fought or spoke against the movement in the past, there will still be a targeted reckoning. This is likely to focus on those whom the Taleban consider important architects or organisers of anti-Taleban operations, messaging or criticism, or who are seen as a possible threat to the regime in the future. There is also likely going to be harassment, and punishment beatings have been reported to AAN and others.
As in previous regime changes, there will be room for relationships and expediency to trump revenge and accountability. This outsized influence of relationships and personal grudges makes it difficult to determine or understand who is in real danger and who might be all right, particularly when seen from the outside or from a distance. What is clear from detailed reports we have received is that many of the people in hiding are doing so because of specific, targeted, personalised threats. Several have commented on the depth of knowledge and level of detail that the teams searching for them had, often referencing events, relationships and responsibilities that lay years in the past. This seems to suggest that, through a combination of horizontal and vertical ties, the movement, or individuals within the movement, can employ highly localised knowledge across the country. Men and women facing such threats include government and security officials, but also civil society activists, judges, journalists, local politicians and community leaders. Many have left their houses, which in some cases have been commandeered to now function as makeshift bases.
In addition to the targeted, and sometimes menacing, visits to specific addresses, there has also been seemingly scattershot questioning, with groups of Talebs knocking on doors and, for instance, asking to be pointed to the homes of people who used to work in government. Though it is unclear what kind of follow-up there might be to such queries, it is highly unnerving.
Panjshir province and neighbouring Andarab district in Baghlan remain the main focal point of possible armed resistance against the Taleban. Those holding out are led by the Republic’s First Vice President Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massud, son of the late Jamiat-e Islami commander, Ahmad Shah Massud. Hostilities between the two sides were briefly halted for two rounds of formal talks, but they broke down; the demands of the two sides for the moment remain too far apart to come to an agreement. Taleban forces have been massing around the entrance to the valley but have been hit in ambushes and have sustained casualties. Whereas both sides mainly seemed to be trying to hurt each other in order to strengthen their hand in negotiations, without starting an all-out battle, according to the latest reports, the Taleban are now summoning forces from other provinces.
Other flashpoints include Behsud district in Maidan Wardak province and, most recently, Khedir in Daikundi, with skirmishes breaking out around Taleban efforts to disarm local or former government forces. These cases, which are both in Hazara areas, are more complex than they may seem at first glance, as they both involve tense relationships between the new Taleban rulers, the Hazara commanders who aided the Taleban offensive, and the local Hazara population.
In Khedir the initial refusal to hand over weapons was said to have been inspired by a suspicion that local Hazara commander Muhammad Ali Sedaqat, who had sided with the Taleban and had been dispatched to collect the weapons, would not provide people with the necessary receipts; that would leave local people open to future harassment and accusations of still being armed. When the Taleban provincial governor went to the district to collect the weapons, people were reportedly ready to welcome him when his convoy was shot at (according to some reports, from the back). A firefight ensued. At least two teenage civilians were killed, a number of Taleban, and 12 former pro-Republic fighters. Several of the latter were said to have been summarily executed and some of the men’s faces were difficult to recognise (see also this detailed Twitter thread).
Finally, on 26 August, just as the Taleban had started removing blast walls all over the country, and after repeated threat warnings, a suicide bomb ripped through the crowd clamouring to enter the airport’s Abbey Gate. The blast, which was claimed by ISKP (the Islamic State Khorasan Province), killed at least 170 Afghans, many of whom had been told they were eligible for a seat on a plane. The US reaction to the attack focused almost solely on the death of thirteen US service members. In response, two drone attacks were launched in Jalalabad and Kabul, which, according to the US military, killed an ISKP “planner” and a car full of new suicide bombers, respectively. However, on-the-ground reporting showed that the second drone had hit a house and killed ten civilians (see reporting here and pictures of the funeral here). This was particularly bitter since many Afghans had hoped that, if nothing else, the Taleban takeover and withdrawal of foreign troops would at least mean an end to large-scale violence. Now they fear that ISKP may start a campaign of terror against the new regime in an ironic inversion, and the US may continue its deadly over-the-horizon targeting.
It is unclear where Afghanistan goes from here. Much will depend on who will dominate the government’s formation and how the movement will respond to its own violent factions. There are fears that the country may slowly go silent, with people inside Afghanistan becoming fearful of publicly giving their opinions in interviews or on social media. There is a role here, for journalists, analysts and diaspora Afghans, to pass on and amplify what they hear from relatives and contacts, but there is also a huge need for precision, context and accuracy.
At the same time, Afghanistan’s population, although tired of war and violence, is not the same as it was twenty-five years ago when the Taleban first captured Kabul. Kabul is not the shell of a city it was in 1996 when the brutal civil war had left a third of the city destroyed and only those who could not leave still living there. The population is six or seven times larger, younger, more educated and more connected to each other and the outside world. Discontent over the acute economic hardship that many are already starting to feel is rising, as illustrated in the recent demonstrations and palpable frustration around the banking crisis. Economic hardship will be higher in the cities, where more people worked in the foreign-funded sectors – directly in government or for aid agencies or indirectly in restaurants, wedding halls and supermarkets and other services, where foreign-funded employees and contractors spent their money – but the drought, displacement and a crumbling economy will hit the rural areas as well.
The huge airlift of Afghans connected with the twenty-year foreign engagement has removed many of the best-educated and most independent-minded, including those who spoke out against corruption and venality in the old government and would have been expected to protest authoritarian rule by the new. Given the lack of a functioning administration, an economy in free-fall (more on this soon from AAN) and the Taleban showing every sign of wanting to monopolise power, Afghanistan feels very unstable. The Taleban have declared a “historic victory.” celebrating the defeat of America and the re-emergence of Afghanistan as a “free and sovereign” nation, but as the new government, their work has not yet even begun.
Edited by Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour
This article was last updated on 1 Sep 2021