Yes, they are deeply reactionary, writes Yassamine Mather. But they have learnt to survive, adapt and win
The formation of the new Afghan government has been the subject of much speculation in the western media, including of a rift between those who led the negotiations in Doha and those who fought in Afghanistan. Not much of it seems true.
No doubt there have been differences of opinion between Taliban leaders inside the country, who claim it was the wars they fought that won them power, and the older, maybe more moderate leaders in exile, who negotiated with the Trump administration and later with Joe Biden’s officials in Qatar. However, it looks like this dispute has been exaggerated by those hoping (or perhaps praying) that such disputes will pave the way for the Taliban’s downfall just a few weeks after coming to power.
On September 15 in response to reports of his ‘death’ following an internal dispute, deputy prime minister Abdul Ghani Baradar appeared in an interview and revealed he was “travelling from Kabul, so had no access to the media in order to reject this ... Thank god I am absolutely fine and healthy.” He added:
The news about our internal conflict the media are reporting is also not true. We have compassion among ourselves - more than a family. We assure the Afghan nation, Mujahideen, elders and youth: do not worry and there is no reason to be worried.
For all their differences, the Taliban have operated for more than a quarter of a century as a cohesive group in and out of government. They have their own way of organising a collective leadership that can deal with internal differences far better than the darling of the West, the ‘Northern Alliance’, which is composed of fighting warlords and groups that were briefly in power before 1996.
After a lot of speculation we now have what looks like the new Taliban government. There are few surprises in the top posts. The ministers are mainly from the Pashtun ethnic group, which make up around 40% of the country’s population. So far only three appointees come from other ethnic groups.
The prime minister is Mohammad Hassan Akhund, one of the founding members of the Taliban. He was close to its original leader, Mohammed Omar, whose son, Yaqoob, is the new defence minister. The acting interior minister is Sirajuddin Haqqani - the most controversial appointment, not just because he is the man on the FBI ‘wanted’ list with a $5 million bounty on his head, but because he allegedly oversaw a suicide bomb attack using an explosive-filled ambulance in Kabul in 2017 that killed 103 people.
The acting minister of economy is Din Mohammad Hanif, one of the few non-Pashtun appointees in the cabinet. He was minister of planning and higher education during the 1996-2001 Taliban government. Meanwhile, former Guantanamo detainee Abdul Haq Wasiq (released in 2014 as part of a negotiated exchange of prisoners) will be acting director of intelligence.
Earlier this week, the Taliban’s main regional ally, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, wrote on Twitter that he had “initiated a dialogue with the Taliban for an inclusive Afghan government to include Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks”, adding that such a government would ensure “peace and a stable Afghanistan”.
Khan also declared his support for Afghan girls being allowed to attend secondary schools. However, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the restrictions on girls and women, but suggested this was temporary: “soon it will be announced when they can go to school”, he said, adding that there were plans for their return.
In the echo chamber that covers the current global media almost every outlet has lamented the absence of women in the Taliban cabinet. I must admit that I find this obsession with female office-holders - repeated irrespective of the ideology and the politics of the government concerned - rather bizarre. I assume the Taliban have female supporters, who presumably share their misogynistic ideas. I fail to understand why the inclusion of such a woman in the new government would have made any difference to the plight of Afghan women as a whole!
For example, last week a video was shared on Persian-speaking media of a female supporter of the most conservative faction of Iran’s Islamic Republic, who was giving a lecture in Germany. She praised the virtues of fundamentalist ‘pure’ women - the fact that she was a woman herself made no difference to the content of her talk. Of course, there is also a whole myth, repeated ad infinitum by western media, that the previous Afghan government was a ‘liberator’ of women. Not quite the full story! Women’s access to education and jobs was limited to sections of the elite in Kabul and other major cities, whereas in rural and mountainous regions, it did not exist.
In August, just a few days before the fall of Kabul, British defence secretary, Ben Wallace, was claiming that Afghanistan was “heading towards civil war”, since al Qa’eda and other jihadi groups would “probably come back”.
This assertion is based entirely on the limited understanding of western governments. Since 2001, al Qa’eda has grown, splintered and evolved in the failed states of the region - themselves victims of unfinished US interventions - rather than in Afghanistan. Syria, Iraq and Libya are home to the most violent offshoots of al Qa’eda and in fact it is US violence that had created support for and allegiance to the most brutal of these jihadi groups.
So far, the Taliban themselves and their Pakistan allies do not seem to have much appetite for battles beyond Afghan borders. There is no indication that Afghani citizens, whether supporters or opponents of the Taliban, are more likely to join, sympathise with or finance jihadi terrorist groups than Saudis, Qataris, Iraqis or Syrians - not to forget the fact that people from European countries, including the UK, accounted for a large number of recruits to Islamic State.
No doubt there are many differences within the current Taliban alliance. However, they have also learnt from their defeats. Since 2009 they have used a council, the Peshawar ‘shora’, as a front primarily to unite with non-Pashtuns. According to reporters who have actually studied the Taliban on the ground (as opposed to those who write about them from London or New York), Tajiks, Turkmens, Uzbeks and some Hazaras have joined the ranks of the Taliban in recent years. If they did not have this kind of support in northern Afghanistan, we would not have witnessed the collapse of the previous regime in the major cities of the region in just mere days.
The conflict with the Shia Hazara community is also less tense, with the Taliban known to have protected them from their arch-enemies, Islamic State. During recent weeks when Shias celebrate Arba’in (‘40 days’ after the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in the 7th century), they were apparently allowed to proceed by the Sunni regime in Kabul.
Of course, the Taliban remain a reactionary force - no-one should have any illusions about that. However, as with everywhere else, nobody should take what the western media say about Afghanistan at face value.