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What Diversity Means for the Taliban

The new Afghan government will likely include ethnicities other than the Taliban’s own. But women are probably out of luck.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
The leader of the Taliban negotiating team Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar walks after the final declaration of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar's capital Doha on July 18, 2021.
The leader of the Taliban negotiating team Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar walks after the final declaration of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar's capital Doha on July 18, 2021. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The Taliban have promised to form a government in Afghanistan after Aug. 31, the deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. The group’s senior leadership has still not even entirely arrived in Kabul, and certain high-ranking leaders are expected to only emerge from their hideouts in Pakistan in early September. Still, in the coming weeks, the group is expected to make major announcements on how it intends to select its leaders and rule the country. 

Foreign Policy’s conversations with several Taliban insiders shed light on rivalry within the group and internal conversations over the structure and composition of their government. These insiders said that while most positions will go to Pashtuns—the community from which the Taliban hail—the group will deliver a coalition government that prominently features other ethnicities. The Taliban’s hope is to be seen as inclusive to gain international recognition. But that’s not to suggest they are willing to loosen their grip on power. The group has been grooming Tajik and Uzbek leaders at least since 2016 and intends to reward only those it is confident it can control. 

Foreign Policy has also learned that the role of women in any future government will be limited. To the extent that they are involved at all, it will only be to perform low-ranking responsibilities. 

The Taliban have promised to form a government in Afghanistan after Aug. 31, the deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. The group’s senior leadership has still not even entirely arrived in Kabul, and certain high-ranking leaders are expected to only emerge from their hideouts in Pakistan in early September. Still, in the coming weeks, the group is expected to make major announcements on how it intends to select its leaders and rule the country. 

Foreign Policy’s conversations with several Taliban insiders shed light on rivalry within the group and internal conversations over the structure and composition of their government. These insiders said that while most positions will go to Pashtuns—the community from which the Taliban hail—the group will deliver a coalition government that prominently features other ethnicities. The Taliban’s hope is to be seen as inclusive to gain international recognition. But that’s not to suggest they are willing to loosen their grip on power. The group has been grooming Tajik and Uzbek leaders at least since 2016 and intends to reward only those it is confident it can control. 

Foreign Policy has also learned that the role of women in any future government will be limited. To the extent that they are involved at all, it will only be to perform low-ranking responsibilities. 

The so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will have an ameer-ul-momineen, or commander of the faithful. But unlike the one-eyed Mullah Omar, who held the position between 1996 and 2001 and served as the equivalent of head of state, the next ameer will only be a spiritual figurehead. In the new Taliban-dominated government, a 12-member council, or shura, will collectively perform the task of a president or head of state under the guardianship of the ameer. This shura will be split among several Taliban leaders who will then decide the ministers, governors, and the size of the government machinery needed to run 34 provinces. An equal membership of the shura is intended to reduce infighting. 

Hibatullah Akhundzada, the current supreme leader of the Taliban, is likely to retain the title of ameer and announce the members of the shura in early September. But due to his ties to al Qaeda, the United States will likely remain reluctant to de-freeze the $9.5 billion of Afghan reserves that the Taliban desperately need to keep the country afloat. Akhunzada is a lesser known religious figure and won legitimacy among the more aggressive Taliban factions only after he secured an oath of loyalty from al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. 

Abdul Ghani Baradar, however, is the diplomatic face of the Taliban. He rose in the estimation of fellow Talibs when he signed the agreement on America’s withdrawal in Doha last February. He is increasingly seen as a more moderate working partner by the West and also has credibility among other Afghan politicians since he was the first Taliban leader to make peace overtures to former President Hamid Karzai’s government. It is still unclear whether the Taliban will have a prime minister or whether the task to represent the country abroad would be solely the foreign minister’s domain. Baradar is seen as a worthy candidate for both positions. However, experts say he is much further down in the Taliban hierarchy than the West would like to believe. 

Those who have been observing the group for years say neither Akhundzada nor Baradar commands the same respect or has the same clout as second-generation Taliban leaders like Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Mullah Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar. Both are deputies in the Taliban, but while Yaqoob has the right pedigree and is the military chief of the Taliban, the younger Haqqani has the financial means and a whole army of jihadi fighters, including suicide bombers. The Haqqanis led with terrorist attacks against NATO forces in Afghanistan and built an empire of illicit trade that has bankrolled the Taliban all these years. Both Yaqoob and Haqqani are seen as close to al Qaeda and are expected to be the real decision-makers in any future ruling dispensation. 

The most important ministries in the Taliban government will almost certainly go to Pashtuns from the south, the group’s traditional stronghold. The Taliban have already handed over the defense ministry to Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former Guantánamo detainee who hails from Helmand, and the interior ministry to Ibrahim Sadr, a Kandahari Pashtun. 

According to a nationwide distribution of ID cards that list ethnicity, 42 percent of Afghanistan’s population is Pashtun, who will likely dominate government positions. Once the shura is formed, it will decide how many employees are needed in the government, who should lead them, and how these positions should be split among different ethnicities. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban will offer a proportionate representation to Tajiks, the second-biggest community in the country at 27 percent, and to Uzbeks and Hazaras, who constitute 9 percent each of the total population. 

Atta Mohammad Noor, a powerful Tajik leader and former governor of Balkh province, and Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum have called for talks with the Taliban to agree to a power-sharing arrangement. Noor has even threatened war if the Taliban refused to include him. But Taliban insiders told Foreign Policy that these two warlords are historic foes and must not expect anything more than amnesty. “We have forgiven them, but we don’t see them as sole representatives of their sects, and it is very unlikely, nearly impossible, that we will include them in the government,” said a Kabul-based source in the Taliban in the know of political negotiations. The Taliban see these warlords as spent forces, especially since they fled their hometowns without a fight and will not easily be trusted by their own communities. 

32-year-old Ahmad Massoud of the Panjshir Valley, on the other hand, is well liked by his people. Massoud is resisting the Taliban, walking in the footsteps of his father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who kept the valley out of the Taliban’s grip during their previous stint in power. Panjshir has become a bastion of anti-Taliban forces, with Massoud calling for the United States and Europe to back him against the Taliban. 

Foreign Policy has also learned that while the Taliban are willing to include Massoud in the government, they refuse to see him as the sole representative of the Tajiks and wish to weaken him by distributing positions in the government to friendly Tajiks whom the group has steadily cultivated. “These people [Massoud and his allies] used to represent most Tajiks in the previous governments of Karzai and [Ashraf] Ghani. They want the same share now. But the Taliban are refusing,” Syed Akbar Agha, a Kabul-based Taliban leader, told Foreign Policy. “The Taliban cannot do this. They have promised other Tajiks, too.” Last week, Akbar Agha was visited by Khalil Haqqani, Sirajuddin Haqqani’s uncle and who is in charge of Kabul’s security, and the two discussed the fate of the Panjshir Valley and what to do with Massoud. Akbar Agha showed his photographs with Haqqani to Foreign Policy

Massoud and the Taliban have both threatened to escalate—but not until the next round of talks on power sharing and the governance model are held. Massoud wants a democratic election of the political leadership of Afghanistan, whereas the Taliban vehemently oppose elections and denounce them as a Western practice that has no room in sharia, or Islamic law. 

As Afghanistan turns from a young and dysfunctional democracy into an Islamic emirate, women in the country are terrified. The Taliban have not yet considered including a single woman in the shura. “Women will be in the government only where they are needed and not for any and every role like in the Karzai and Ghani governments,” said Habib Agha, Akbar Agha’s son and a Taliban member. 

By Aug. 31, Western forces will have evacuated and left the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan and the destinies of nearly 40 million people. The West can still use its diplomatic and financial leverage to have the Taliban respect basic political and human rights. But no one is hopeful it would make a drastic difference. 

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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