Report

What a Taliban Government Will Look Like

Early indications suggest Afghanistan will be led by a 12-man council of criminals, terrorists, and the more pliant members of the former government.

By , an Australian journalist and author.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar
The leader of the Taliban negotiating team Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (center) at peace talks in Doha, Qatar, on July 18. Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Taliban leaders will form a 12-man council to rule Afghanistan and will offer some pliant members of the former U.S.-supported government the ministries of their choice as they strive to form an administration that is acceptable to the international community, sources close to the leadership said.

The three most powerful men in the leadership council will be Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban; Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of the group’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and the man behind the victorious military strategy; and Khalil Haqqani, a senior figure in the Haqqani network, responsible for some of the most vicious terrorist attacks of the past 20 years, and who is blacklisted by the United Nations and United States. Together, these men represent one of the world’s biggest criminal and terrorist cartels. The Taliban make billions of dollars each year producing and trafficking heroin and methamphetamine, as well as smuggling mining assets including marble, lithium, and gemstones.

This strategy for governing Afghanistan avoids the recreation of such positions as president, or even that of emir, a title claimed by previous leaders of the Taliban insurgency, including Mullah Omar. But such a strategy opens the door to factional struggles and will leave the ruling council to grapple with an incipient anti-Taliban movement centered on the Panjshir Valley.

Taliban leaders will form a 12-man council to rule Afghanistan and will offer some pliant members of the former U.S.-supported government the ministries of their choice as they strive to form an administration that is acceptable to the international community, sources close to the leadership said.

The three most powerful men in the leadership council will be Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban; Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of the group’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and the man behind the victorious military strategy; and Khalil Haqqani, a senior figure in the Haqqani network, responsible for some of the most vicious terrorist attacks of the past 20 years, and who is blacklisted by the United Nations and United States. Together, these men represent one of the world’s biggest criminal and terrorist cartels. The Taliban make billions of dollars each year producing and trafficking heroin and methamphetamine, as well as smuggling mining assets including marble, lithium, and gemstones.

This strategy for governing Afghanistan avoids the recreation of such positions as president, or even that of emir, a title claimed by previous leaders of the Taliban insurgency, including Mullah Omar. But such a strategy opens the door to factional struggles and will leave the ruling council to grapple with an incipient anti-Taliban movement centered on the Panjshir Valley.

The Taliban took control of Afghanistan on Aug. 15, after a military romp through the country that led them into Kabul in just four months. The government of former President Ashraf Ghani—and all security in the capital—disappeared overnight, giving the insurgency a clear run into power. The Taliban victory followed U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to adhere to a deal brokered by his predecessor, Donald Trump, that committed the United States to withdrawing all troops by May 1. Biden extended the deadline to Aug. 31.

The Taliban leadership wants to look as inclusive as possible, said a variety of sources, both pro- and anti-Taliban. Informal talks have already begun with a so-called coordination council, set up by former President Hamid Karzai; Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who led the previous government’s delegation to ultimately fruitless peace talks; and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord close to the Taliban and the Pakistani authorities that have bankrolled the insurgents for two decades. Part and parcel of that quest for international acceptance is the Taliban claim that they will not seek retribution against supporters of the previous government or against advocates of constitutionally guaranteed rights, including women’s equality, freedom of speech, and respect for human rights.

But their actions speak louder than their words. Taliban gunmen are going door to door searching for people by name. While news from much of the country is scarce, thanks to the Taliban closure of media outlets and intimidation of journalists, some reports are getting through that relatives of journalists who worked for at least one international outlet were shot, including one fatally. At least one advocate for women’s rights was taken from her home; her whereabouts remain unknown.

“I’ve seen this movie before,” said a former Afghan defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect his personal safety. “The difference this time is that they have a head list, so they are continuing to go house to house looking for people on that list.”

“They searched my office, they went to my house, they shot a cousin, beat up another,” he said. “They have declared an ‘amnesty,’ and they say they are looking only for guns and ammunition, but you don’t need a name to ask for weapons. They have beaten people, shot people, people are disappearing.”

Reports from outside the capital, including in Herat, Ghazni, Faryab, and Balkh provinces, suggest that citizens who joined anti-Taliban militias in recent months are being targeted and, said one source, “being shot in front of their houses or over pre-dug graves.”

Nevertheless, Baradar and Yaqoob are expected to arrive in Kabul and take their place in the presidential palace within days, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the BBC. In Kabul, the embassies of Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan remain open, an indication of what support the extremists can expect as they seek international recognition. One source said the Taliban are also seeking support from Turkey.

The source close to Baradar and Yaqoob said that they would like to include in the ruling council Ahmad Massoud, son of the anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was killed by al Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks on the United States. But that seems unlikely. Massoud has formed a resistance movement in the Panjshir Valley, about 100 miles outside Kabul. The province remained outside the control of the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime, and sources close to Massoud say he is determined to keep it that way.

Fighting over the weekend around the Panjshir Valley was an indication that the resistance had at least pockets of support across the country, and this could spread into a full-blown civil war, the former defense official said. Sporadic fighting has also been reported from mountainous areas of Baghlan, Takhar, and Kapisa provinces.

Meanwhile, the Taliban efforts to consolidate control over the government are beset by factional divides. The old southern, Pashtun-dominated Taliban have given way to a newer generation with more Uzbek and Tajik insurgent leaders. And the Haqqani network has taken on a leading role in the subjugation of Kabul.

“The Haqqani group has control of the security and is the core of the force in Kabul, the real movers and shakers—which has angered the Kandahar faction under the leadership of Mullah Baradar,” the former defense official said.

In the north, the Uzbek and Tajik Taliban leaders “are more extreme and are intent on proving themselves, so we need to wait to see who emerges as leader,” the former official said. One group the Taliban will likely continue to shun: northern warlords including Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor. Dostum notoriously killed many Taliban gunmen after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Despite the Taliban’s near-complete control of the country, the international community should wait at least three months before offering the new Taliban regime diplomatic recognition, said several sources aligned with both the former government and the Taliban. One source, aligned with Hekmatyar, said the red lines should be “maintaining the republic, holding elections, human rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech.”

But he conceded the Taliban were unlikely to agree to most of those demands, as “they don’t know what democracy is, and they know they will never win an election.”

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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