The various Taleban leaders have started converging on Kabul. The ever-elusive but eminently reachable, Taleban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahed showed his face for the first time in a press conference at Kabul’s media centre. What he said matched earlier messaging by the Taleban, as he sought to assure both the Afghans and the international community of the Taleban’s intentions. In the meantime, the other political forces—the remnants of the fractured republic—are starting to emerge, both in terms of where they are currently staying and what their positions might be moving forward. AAN’s new report by Martine van Bijlert probes the Taleban’s emerging strategy and the shifting alliances of Afghanistan’s political elite.People wait outside the French embassy in Kabul for word on evacuation flights.
Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP, 18 August 2021.
Members of the Taleban’s political commission headed by Mullah Baradar arrived in Kandahar from Doha on 17 August. The next day, they travelled to Kabul to start consultations and possibly negotiations on the new administration’s shape. They will be meeting the three-person coordination council – consisting of Hamed Karzai, Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – that was supposed to mediate the transition process before the president suddenly left on Sunday, 15 August. It is unclear whether these will be mainly courtesy calls (as suggested in this description of Karzai’s meeting with Anas Haqqani) or whether the council will indeed play a role as the Taleban consider what the new administration should look like. In general, throughout the city, Taleban officials engaged in an extended charm offensive that involved visits to government offices, hospitals and even a Shia mourning ceremony in Dasht-e Barchi.
On 17 August, long-time Taleban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahed gave his first press conference in the Government Information and Media Centre on Tuesday 17 August, sitting in the seat previously occupied by the centre’s director Dawa Khan Minapal, who the group assassinated on 6 August. Mujahed read a prepared statement and answered questions, several of which were quite pointed (including a question about the Taleban’s use of assassinations and bombings, referring to Minapal’s assassination, Mujahed answered that these were “side effects from war” and none had been “intentional”; see English transcript by Al Jazeera).
Much of the reporting on the press conference has focused on what Mujahed said about international relations, women’s rights and media freedom. But it is also important to single out how the press conference cemented the Taleban’s position that they no longer view themselves as a movement at war. This is also the grounds for their declaration of amnesty. In the prepared statement, Mujahed said (according to the Al Jazeera English transcript), “We have pardoned anyone, all those who had fought against us. We don’t want to repeat any conflict anymore again. We want to do away with the factors for conflict.” Later in response to a question, he added: “I would like to assure all the compatriots, whether they were translators, whether they were with military activities or whether they were civilians, all of them have been important. Nobody is going to be treated with revenge.” Although none of this implies that there will be no violence, it does suggest that the Taleban no longer identify entire groups as enemies or targets.
Mujahed further hinted that the new administration would be made up of an assortment of politicians – not just Taleban. Although he did seem to indicate that the Taleban’s political leaders would decide the particulars. There is to be some consultation, but it was not clear with whom.
Obviously, these are all just statements, and they come while everything is still in flux. They do not prove that there will be freedoms, but they do show that decisions on balancing the competing demands of different constituencies are still in the making.
Many people believe that the Taleban are putting up a show, presenting a moderate face while the eyes of the world are on Afghanistan to gain international recognition. However, the movement is already facing practical problems with the country’s assets having been frozen. According to this very informative thread by the Governor of the Central Bank, Ajmal Ahmady, not only is Afghanistan out of hard currency inside the country, but the future of international aid commitments also hangs in the balance.
Former president Ghani has, in the meantime, resurfaced after he left Kabul unexpectedly on Sunday 15 August (see AAN’s earlier report). Shortly after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) confirmed that they had “welcomed President Ashraf Ghani and his family into the country on humanitarian grounds,” Ashraf Ghani addressed the nation in a pre-recorded video on his Facebook page in which he gave his version of Sunday’s events (there is a lot of narrative building going on at the moment on all social media channels). He explained that he had not wanted to leave, but had done so to avoid bloodshed and because his security detail warned him that Taleban fighters “who did not speak any language of this country” had entered the palace and were searching for him (this does not seem to fit the timeline of events as generally known). He also denied that he had taken out large sums of money (169 million dollars according to the Afghan Ambassador in Tajikistan) and said he had left in such a hurry that he did not have a chance to change his shoes or take his diary.
Members of his cabinet have also flown out and are now spread across different countries. Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh, for instance, who had been quiet for days, unlike many others, reportedly left Kabul on a flight to Istanbul on 17 August. Foreign Minister Muhammad Hanif Atmar may be in Tashkent or Istanbul.
Other leaders had left the country overland before Kabul fell in Taleban hands. Ismail Khan, who the Taleban had captured on Friday 13 August, is said to have travelled to Mashhad in Iran after his release from Herat (see footage of a very subdued welcome here), while General Abdulrashid Dostum and Muhammad Atta Noor crossed into Uzbekistan on Saturday 14 August, with several other Balkh officials (including the governor, MPs, and the head of the provincial council). Atta later described the event as “a big and organised & cowardly plot” to entrap Dostum and himself and in which all government and ANDSF equipment was handed over to the Taleban. He said he had “a lot of untold stories” to share later. Ismail Khan also said something similar after his capture and release.
Former Defence Minister Bismillah Muhammadi, one of the officials who had responded furiously to Ghani’s departure, left Kabul shortly after Ghani did on 15 August. He later said he was in Dubai, not Pakistan, and intended to return to Panjshir. This is where First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh is said to be, together with Ahmad Massud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massud. They have both released pictures of themselves – in a meeting room and on a dark compound, respectively – which are meant to show that they are in Panjshir.
Saleh and Massud are currently positioning themselves as the possible focal point of an anti-Taleban resistance. Saleh also declared himself the de facto acting head of the Islamic Republic. Constitutionally, he may have a point since the republic has not been formally dissolved, but it is hoped that he will use this as leverage for talks rather than armed resistance.
The Afghan Ambassador in Tajikistan has publicly announced his support for Saleh (see the interview here and the changing of the portraits here). He has, however, not indicated that he intends to join the resistance, but stressed that the Taleban need to keep their word, respect women and human rights and agree to a coalition government.
Two groups have, in the meantime, emerged as possible go-betweens between the Taleban and the remnants of the republic. Both of them stress the need for an “inclusive government.” One of them is the three-person coordination council headed by Ghani’s predecessor, former president Hamed Karzai (the other two members are the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and leader of Hezb-e Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar). The council, which was established, immediately after Ghani left Afghanistan, has reportedly been in contact with the Taleban since they entered Kabul, including a meeting with Khalil Haqqani, a Taleban leader, in Dr Abdullah’s home, which also included former president Hamid Karzai, speaker of the upper house of Parliament Fazl Hadi Muslimyar and Karim Khoram.
When Zabihullah Mujahed was asked whether he was in touch with Dr Abdullah, Hekmatyar and Hamid Karzai, he said, “Let’s just say, that very soon we will be witnessing the formation of the government, announcing the government. We will do our most to make sure we are in touch with all sides, with Dr Abdullah, with others, we have been communicating with them. We’re continuing our communication with them we will do our most to make sure that all Afghans are included.” He also indicated that their leader was “going to enter the country, enter Kabul very soon.”
The other group that could potentially serve as a go-between is currently in Islamabad. They travelled there, supposedly in a pre-planned trip, to meet Pakistan officials shortly before President Ashraf Ghani left and the government dissolved (see a video of their arrival). The group, now referred to as the Delegation/Board (hayat) of Afghan Politicians, is headed by Yunus Qanooni and consists primarily, but not exclusively, of Jamiatis. Qanuni, in an interview with Afghanistan International, showed no appetite for armed resistance and seemed to foresee a continued process of political talks before the new administration would take shape. He cautioned against early judgement, called on the Taleban to back up their rhetoric with actions, deal with the violence and the ongoing house searches, work towards a government of unity and respect the majority of the country: women and youth. He also saw the departure of Ghani and his team as an opportunity since, he said, they had “held the government and the peace process hostage.”
Both groups, for now, consist of only men. It would be good for them to back up their rhetoric with actions and include some of Afghanistan’s women leaders, including possibly the women who had been part of the negotiating team in Doha.
Outside Kabul, there have been reports of skirmishes and protests. In Daykundi, there was a shootout between the Muhammad Ali Sedaqat’s forces and the Taleban earlier this week, which seem to have been due to a lack of discipline rather than revolt. Sedaqat is a local commander from Khedir district who had, for the third or fourth time in the last twenty years, joined the Taleban and, in doing so, eased the fall of the province into Taleban hands. There have also been unconfirmed reports of skirmishes near Charikar, in Parwan, which borders Panjshir (including a report from Russian news agency Ria Novosti that Charikar had been recaptured).
Khost saw a procession on 17 August waving the black-red-green republic’s flag, while on 18 August, Taleban fighters responded violently to a demonstration in Jalalabad in which the Taleban flag was replaced, killing at least three men and wounding several others. The Taleban spokesperson subsequently sought to defuse future protests responded by saying that people could raise whatever flag they wanted.
There continues to be a great deal of anxiety about reports that Taleban are searching for specific people. While there is no doubt that this is happening, it is difficult to cut through the noise, particularly since much of the current reporting on Afghanistan consists of repeating unverified claims.
In the meantime, the scramble to leave the country continues. Taleban fighters are now manning checkpoints and doing ‘crowd control’ outside the airport, often violently. It has become incredibly difficult to reach the airport due to the crowds and the chaos. Afghans who are at risk and have been advised to proceed to the airport are often turned back when the SMS that should give them safe passage is not recognised at the checkpoints. According to CNN Pentagon, the US could only evacuate 3,000 people over the past three days, well below the Pentagon’s 5,000 to 9,000 people a day. This is partly a coordination problem, with those organising the evacuations telling people to come without ensuring that this is indeed possible. Although this may feel counterintuitive to some of the people involved, there is a great need to better coordinate with the fighters at the checkpoints and with the fledgling administration to ensure that those who have been accepted on evacuation flights can enter the airport. They may need to negotiate and organise a corridor that would allow people safe passage from the road to the airport – rather than simply concluding that, apparently, “people are not showing up.”
A second problem is that many well-known women’s rights activists, human rights defenders and media personalities are still not on any country’s evacuation lists, which seem to focus on nationals and employees. These people are known to the embassies. They were often invited to receptions, introduced to high-level delegations and saw their work was trotted out as a success for the West, even if the struggle was their own. They became high profile, in part, because they were courted, quoted and put forward as the faces of the new Afghanistan. They are brave but also at risk and in need of, at the very least, temporary shelter – a safe harbour where they can sit out the transition, observe the emergence of the new political order, and assess its associated risks.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour
This article was last updated on 20 Aug 2021