Taliban forces patrol at a runway a day after U.S troops withdrawal from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 31, 2021.
Stringer | Reuters
The Taliban in Afghanistan have named a new interim government led by hardliners as the group pledges to implement a strict Islamic rule over the country of roughly 40 million. The new cabinet of the freshly restored Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan contains no women and no positions for opposition members or ethnic or religious minorities.
Few in the international community foresaw the speed with which the militant Islamist group would take over Afghanistan, making a series of stunning territorial gains in July and August as the U.S. withdrew its troops to end its 20-year war in the country.
The Taliban’s moves so far show a failure to meet the group’s earlier pledge of an “inclusive” government, even as the moves put Western financial aid at risk and do not bode well for those who wanted to see Afghanistan rid of terrorist activity. Experts warn that the global jihadi movement will feel emboldened by what they see in Afghanistan as a triumph.
“For the foreseeable future, Afghanistan will be led by senior Taliban leaders who include in many cases the worst of the worst,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, told CNBC on Wednesday. Kugelman pointed specifically to members of the Haqqani network, known as the most brutal faction of the Taliban.
In a controversial appointment, Sirajuddin Haqqani has become Afghanistan’s interior minister, in charge of police and security. Haqqani is the leader of the Haqqani network, which is known to have links to al-Qaeda. He is on the FBI’s most wanted list and is a designated global terrorist. The Taliban’s provision of a safe haven to al-Qaeda in the 1990s is what led the U.S. to invade Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the years since the U.S. invasion, Haqqani has deployed violent tactics as a deputy to the Afghan Taliban, including using death squads for executions and releasing videos of mass beheadings.
A history of mass casualty attacks
The Sunni Islamist Haqqani network was founded in the 1970s, fought the Soviet-backed Afghan regime in the 1980s, and later pioneered the use of suicide bombings in Afghanistan which killed and injured thousands of American, coalition and Afghan soldiers. High-profile attacks include the suicide bombing at Kabul’s Serena Hotel in 2008 and a 20-hour siege of the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul in 2011 that left 16 Afghans dead.
It’s important to note that while some Taliban representatives say the group will be more conciliatory now than in the past and will abide by certain international norms, the group itself is not a monolith; rather, it’s composed of numerous factions with varying degrees of extremism and propensity to support other terrorist groups.
And while the Taliban’s main rival is ISIS-K, or the Islamic State Khorasan, there are links between ISIS-K and the Haqqani network, according to Sajjan Gohel, international security director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation.
“There has, in fact, been a tactical and strategic convergence between the Islamic State-Khorasan and the Haqqanis, if not the entirety of the Taliban,” Gohel wrote in an op-ed for Foreign Policy magazine in late August. “The Taliban are comprised of several factions, each with their own leadership, structure, and control of Afghan territory,” he said.
“I think you’re looking at a situation where no matter what type of government we’re going to have in Afghanistan, terrorism risks were going to increase just because you have the Taliban in control,” Kugelman said. “The Taliban is not known for trying to deny space to its militant partners in the country, with the exception of ISIS-K, which is their rival.”
“But let’s be clear here,” he added. “You’re going to have several members of the Haqqani network — which has been implicated in some of the most mass casualty horrific terrorist attacks in Afghanistan over the years — and several of these leaders are going to be occupying these top spots, including the interior ministry, and clearly that is a major cause for concern, no matter how you slice it.”
‘Terrorist groups under the umbrella of the Taliban’
Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s leader since his predecessor was killed in a drone strike in 2016, will remain the ultimate authority over the group’s religious, political and military affairs. A hardline cleric whose son was a suicide bomber, Akhundzada has sworn that the new government would pursue Sharia governance.
Muhammad Hassan Akhund, Afghanistan’s foreign minister before the 2001 U.S. invasion, has been named prime minister.
“The government that was rolled out today includes a constellation of hardliners in the Taliban leadership,” Peter Michael McKinley, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told CNBC on Wednesday. He noted that the FBI has a multimillion-dollar bounty on Haqqani for acts of terrorism against troops and civilians and that the defense minister position was given to Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of the Taliban’s late founder, Mullah Omar.
Taliban members gather and make speeches in front of Herat governorate after the completion of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, in Herat, Afghanistan on August 31, 2021.
Mir Ahmad Firooz Mashoof | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
“So if the Taliban was looking to send a message to the international community that it’s looking to toe a different line from the government it headed between 1996 and 2001, this is not the best start.”
The State Department has reiterated its concerns about the record of some of the men in the new Afghan government and repeated its expectation that Afghanistan will not threaten other nations and will allow humanitarian access into the country.
The major fear across the international community, said Nader Nadery, a senior member of the Afghan Peace Negotiation Team, is of “a consolidation of power of all the terrorist groups [under] the umbrella of the Taliban and the space that the Taliban is providing for them.”
Bearing all this in mind, however, there are “a lot of calculations they have to make on responding to the emerging humanitarian crisis” in the country, McKinley said. And for that, they will need money.
With an economy overwhelmingly dependent on aid and a government that was 80% funded by Western donors, the Taliban “are going to have to take into account at least some international concerns,” he said. “So, opening signs are not encouraging, but we have to work with what comes in the following days in terms of actual actions.”