The announcement of the interim government by the Afghan Taliban on September 7 has reinforced the international community’s concerns about the country’s return to become a terrorist safe haven. The interim government consists of 14 members who are blacklisted by the United Nations (UN) as terrorists. These include Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund (acting Prime Minister), his two deputies, Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi and Sirajuddin Haqqani (Interior Minister) among others.
This interim government and the statement from Taliban supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada about upholding the Islamic rules and Sharia, send a firm signal from the Afghan Taliban to the international community that it retains its hardliner, conservative world view and it will be at the cost of Afghanistan’s governance. Many of the opposition parties have already criticised the Taliban for the non inclusiveness and lack of diversity in the cabinet.
Of particular concern is the prominent role given to the Haqqani Network, described as the veritable arm of the Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The group is notorious for its sophisticated, mass-casualty attacks and has in the past targeted American, Western and Indian interests. This violent past notwithstanding, the group with the blessings of the Pakistan Army is now firmly entrenched in the new cabinet with Sirajuddin Haqqani heading the interior ministry and his uncle, Khalil Haqqani heading the Refugees portfolio. Together, they carry a total of $15 million bounty from the United States. The Taliban has already called Pakistan their “second home”. It was not surprising to see ISI Chief Lt. General Faiz Hameed rushing to Kabul even as hectic negotiations were on for the formation of the Taliban government.
But resilient Afghans are not taking the interference of Pakistan in Afghanistan’s affairs lying down. Kabul and many other Afghan cities have witnessed anti-Pakistan protests in recent days. The same day of the Taliban’s announcement of the new cabinet, brave Afghans gathered in Kabul protesting against the Taliban and Pakistan’s interference. Many chanted slogans of “freedom”, “Allahu Akbar”, “death to Pakistan” and “we do not want captivity”, indicating the extent of their anger. Similar scenes have been witnessed from Balkh and Daikundi provinces too. No wonder, Taliban fighters scrambled to squelch the protests, lest it angered their masters sitting in Rawalpindi.
This resurgence of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network will certainly lead to the comeback of the most loathsome terrorist groups, who had been lying low for many years. The most infamous of them is the Al-Qaeda, which has waited in the shadows for a decade since the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan – a stone’s throw away from the Pak Army garrison. A crucial part of the now in tatters of the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban Doha agreement had required the Taliban to disallow al-Qaeda from using Afghan territory for its operations and sever its relationship with al-Qaeda. But such a possibility remains unlikely as noted by the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team. The symbiotic relationship between the two groups is evident by the fact that many al-Qaeda leaders killed in U.S. drone strikes are always located in the Taliban-held areas.
With these groups back in business, understandably Afghanistan’s governance has become the first casualty. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has warned that basic services in Afghanistan were on the verge of collapse and food and other aid was beginning to run out, following the Taliban takeover. This dire situation has come on top of the internal displacement of more than half a million people internally as many Afghans ran to escape the Taliban’s repression.
And yet, the Taliban has continued business as normal, pressing ahead with its violent ways. According to Reporters Without Borders, violence against journalists has spiked in weeks since the Taliban’s takeover. In one specific instance, reporters covering the anti- Pakistan protests in Kabul were detained and some of them beaten up. Some reports had also noted Taliban fighters doing a door to door search in Kabul for people who had worked for the earlier government or the Western forces. Such instances will increase the fears of not just journalists but also civilians of blowback from the Taliban and understandably have a ‘chilling effect’.
All these developments indicate that the Taliban is determined to implement its conservative agenda, contrary to what Mullah Baradar and his team in Doha had been arguing that the Taliban is now a reformed movement. It will not be wrong to say that the United States and the international community were hoodwinked for all these years by the myth of a transformed Taliban, which paved the way for the movement’s takeover of Afghanistan. After working for years to neutralise groups like the Haqqani Network, it is no less than a slap on the face of the U.S. and the West that the group is now calling the shots in Kabul.
However, it is also true that with the expected international opprobrium over this all-male hardliner terrorist government in Kabul, the Taliban will quickly realise that fighting with and terminating opponents is not the same as administering a country. Two decades since 9/11, Afghanistan is not the same country as it was during the Taliban’s earlier rule. Its people have seen the benefits of international engagement, stability and development. They have become assertive as evident from the anti-Pakistan protests, despite the Taliban’s threat of violence. So sooner or later, the challenges of Afghanistan’s governance are bound to arise, which will be no less than a nightmare for the Taliban to manage, lest it mends its ways and curtails dependence on the failed state of Pakistan.