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Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan
Who Will Run the Taliban Government?
Who Will Run the Taliban Government?
Still taken from Crisis Group video On The FrontLines, showing former Afghanistan Senior Analyst Graeme Smith [L] CRISIS GROUP
Impact Note / Asia

Pushing for a U-turn in Afghanistan

In 2013-2014, International Crisis Group’s work in Afghanistan helped shift the consensus on the Taliban insurgency from “the war is cooling down” to “the war is growing”. This was a fundamental revision of the way in which the conflict’s progression was viewed, and resulted in a critical rise in Western powers’ support to the Afghan government. In a conflict that no side could win outright, Crisis Group believed, this aid was vital to stabilise the situation on the battlefield enough for peace talks with the Taliban to progress.

Interweaving field research, report-writing and targeted advocacy, Crisis Group challenged the assumptions behind the NATO proposal at its 2012 Chicago summit to draw down troops by the end of 2014. Donors said they would significantly reduce their annual subsidy to the Afghan security forces to $4.1 billion annually. The NATO plan was based on the belief that the insurgency was diminishing and the Afghan government could safely cut more than 100,000 personnel from its security roster.

Crisis Group began to question this position during a June 2013 visit to Kandahar by our Senior Analyst for Afghanistan, Graeme Smith. The province was being hailed as a success story, an example of how recent surges of international forces had beaten back the insurgency. But friends and contacts Smith had known since he lived in Kandahar from 2006 to 2009 told him that while the Taliban had been pushed away from the urban areas, a desperate battle was underway for control of the outlying villages. A former official from Ghorak district told Smith about his colleagues in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who were starving in their outposts, running out of fuel and bullets, and dying of minor wounds that festered without medical attention. As he delved deeper, Smith saw the pattern repeating across Afghanistan, with Kabul’s crumbing control of outlying districts coinciding with the withdrawal of international forces.

Obviously, the narrative about the war cooling down was wishful thinking, with dangerous implications for military and political efforts to defeat the insurgency. Indeed, if NATO were to follow through on dramatic funding cuts to the Afghan forces, the Taliban’s pressure on government forces would likely gather momentum. It undermined the whole logic of the UN team working on negotiations with the Taliban, namely that no deal was likely until the Afghan government and the West reached a “hurting stalemate” with the insurgency on the battlefield.

Crisis Group’s Senior Afghanistan Analyst Graeme Smith exchanges ideas in Kandahar in 2015 with Abdul Halim, a leading Afghan regional tribal leader. Download permissions

As he pursued interviews and briefings with contacts for a new Crisis Group report, Smith raised the alarm in an op-ed in The New York Times (“Grabbing The Wolf’s Tail”, 16 January 2014). He pointed out that the Afghan conflict was not winding down, notwithstanding assurances to the contrary from the Pentagon. This prompted an invitation a couple of weeks later to present our research and discuss recommendations at a meeting of UN field office directors in Kabul.

Smith had similar discussions in March and April with Deputy U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley and his political staff. Informally, he got feedback from senior figures in the Afghan government during a dinner hosted by the deputy minister of interior in April; the next day he briefed (and learned from) an audience of representatives from the Afghan and donor governments and international organisations including the EU, UN and NATO.

Published in May 2014, our report, Afghanistan’s Insurgency after the Transition, attracted significant media coverage, making headlines as the first rigorous explanation of why the violence continued to grow, and calling for a reversal of funding cuts to effectively fight the insurgency. Two days after the report’s publication, Smith briefed the visiting advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also presented the report’s findings to European ambassadors and the EU special representative at a formal luncheon, hosted in a heavily guarded palace formerly belonging to the royal family of Afghanistan. The tide was turning: Western officials now agreed with Crisis Group that pressure on the ANSF was going to increase in the next two years. In confidence, they said the diplomatic community had begun encouraging the Afghan forces to adopt a less diffuse posture and to concentrate defences around major population centres and key roads. In the following weeks, Smith continued to push the message home in dozens of briefings to embassy staffers, military and intelligence officials, and UN staff.

“Informally the [ISAF] commander expressed interest in using our report as a way of challenging the analysis coming from his own headquarters

Informally the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command – which had issued a report in November 2013 stating that the war was winding down – expressed interest in using our report as a way of challenging the analysis coming from his own headquarters (it subsequently emerged that the NATO database of security incidents was flawed).

While some officials remained unwilling to accept Smith’s view that remote district centres risked being overrun, others were surprisingly receptive. Formal and informal briefings also continued with senior figures in the Afghan government, ranging from meetings with police chiefs in the embattled provinces of Kunduz and Kandahar to cocktail receptions in Kabul on the rooftop patio of a deputy minister’s house. While some of our Afghan interlocutors chided us for our negative outlook on the ability of Afghan forces to hold ground in the 2014 and 2015 fighting seasons, they were at the same time appreciative of our calls for greater ANSF support.

Even before our May report appeared, Crisis Group staff in Washington DC led by Senior Vice President Mark Schneider had moved into action. Schneider briefed the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, his deputies, and the National Security Council director for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The report generated a demand, he was specifically told, from the National Security Council to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense to explain the divergence between Defense’s initial optimism and the new Crisis Group findings. By the summer, the idea of clear gaps in the Afghan forces’ ability to engage in combat was common discussion, as was the need to increase the funds that had been promised in 2012.

Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno drove home the message in a meeting with the [U.S.] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who assured Guéhenno that the U.S. or NATO would ensure that Afghan combat readiness would be raised.

Subsequently, Schneider and Crisis Group’s South Asia Project Director Samina Ahmed briefed the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations and Defense Committees on the May report and a follow-up report on how the Afghan government could meet the threat (Afghanistan’s Political Transition, October 2014). That same month, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno drove home the message in a meeting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who assured Guéhenno that the U.S. or NATO would ensure that Afghan combat readiness would be raised.

Our efforts to draw attention to the serious risks of reducing support to the ANSF already paid off at NATO’s September 2014 summit, when the Afghan delegation received assurances of at least $5.1 billion annually, avoiding serious personnel cuts. The planning process within

NATO has continued to reflect this line of argument; while NATO continues to maintain that funding will gradually fall to the levels pledged at the 2012 Chicago summit, the timeline remains unspecified. Total funding for Afghan security forces in 2015 is $5.443 billion, with planned expenditures for 2016 exceeding $5 billion.

Sadly, our prediction of higher violence in 2014 and 2015 proved correct. Casualties among Afghan security forces doubled in 2014 compared with the previous year, and in 2015 they have run 60 to 70 per cent higher than in 2014. We also predicted that “continued escalation would put district administration centres at risk of capture by insurgents”, which unfortunately has been borne out in several locations. In 2015, for the first time since the beginning of the insurgency, the Taliban were capturing and holding multiple district centres as the Afghan security forces struggled to regain lost territory.’

International Crisis Group will always be on the lookout for such ways to nudge conflicts towards a resolution, using the same unique methodology: field-based research that capitalises on our staff’s long experience and deep network of local contacts, which allows us to identify the trends that others are unable or unwilling to see; and then taking our findings to key decision-makers, both formally and behind the scenes.

Press members and Taliban officials are seen as Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid holds a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on 7 September 2021. Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhundzada is announced to lead Taliban's administration in Afghanistan. Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat / Anadolu Agency via AFP
Q&A / Asia

Who Will Run the Taliban Government?

The Taliban have named a slate of officials to head an interim government in Afghanistan. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Ibraheem Bahiss and Graeme Smith review the roster and assess its implications for the country’s near-term future.

The Taliban announced an “interim” cabinet on 7 September, their first step since taking power on 15 August toward forming a government and signalling how they intend to rule. The cabinet is filled with long-time key Taliban figures from their days as a government and later an insurgency, and it bears a strong resemblance to their former regime of the 1990s. The appointments will reassure the Taliban’s rank and file that their leadership remains unified and has not succumbed to pressure to show a more moderate face, but it will not be appreciated by many others. The roster does not reflect Afghan diversity, and it offers no olive branches to a wary international community.

What did the Taliban announce?

At a press conference, the Taliban announced a slate of government officials whom they said would hold office on an interim basis. (During the entirety of the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule, their government was also nominally interim.) They did not indicate how long the temporary setup would last nor under which constitutional or extra-constitutional rules it would function. After the formal statement, Taliban officials told journalists that the new system will operate under their “emirate” model – as practiced in the 1990s, a theocratic model – and that the reclusive Hibatullah Akhundzada will continue as emir, the supreme leader. A Taliban spokesman emphasised that the appointments are not permanent, but he was silent about any mechanism by which new leaders might replace them. The Taliban have always rejected Western democracy, and since taking power they have not made any promises about holding elections.

Who are the key figures in the new government?

The list of names published by Taliban-affiliated media, and confirmed by Crisis Group, is headed by Mohammad Hassan Akhund as prime minister. He was a founding member of the Taliban who served in a variety of cabinet roles in the 1990s. A Taliban member told Crisis Group that Hassan was a logical choice because he previously served as head of government when the Taliban took power in 1996, so his appointment points toward the group’s desire for continuity. Hassan is understood to be elderly, however, and the Taliban have a history of appointing deputies who are more powerful than their bosses. Some Taliban interlocutors hinted that day-to-day management of the government could fall to Abdul Ghani Baradar as deputy prime minister, rather than the prime minister or the emir personally. Others, however, suggested Baradar’s appointment could be a demotion because, as deputy, he may not have his own bureaucracy. So far, Baradar has not appeared at the cabinet’s publicised meetings while Hassan has been convening meetings and issuing public statements.

A Taliban interlocutor told Crisis Group that a new office called the Administration of the Emir is expected to replace the Administrative Office of the President, a powerful office that oversaw the functioning of the executive branch of government. It is unclear how the emir’s office will work with whatever structures may be set up to support Hassan Akhund and Baradar in their roles.

Nobody could argue that the Taliban cabinet reflects the country's diversity.

The Taliban's military authority will rest with the sons of two deceased insurgent leaders. Mohammad Yaqub, son of the Taliban’s first leader Mohammad Omar, is slated to serve as defence minister; and as interior minister, the group has tapped Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the militant Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was a key figure in the U.S.-supported anti-Soviet mujahedeen of the 1980s. Sirajuddin Haqqani was a nemesis of the U.S. and its Western allies during the last two decades and is designated by the U.S. and others as a terrorist. Another prominent appointment is Amir Khan Muttaqi, designated as the foreign minister, who served for many years as head of the Taliban’s cultural commission that handled media and information. Muttaqi is a veteran diplomat for the Taliban, having led delegations to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia in the 1990s.

Some key Taliban figures are missing from the list, but the significance of the omissions is not clear. Prominent military commanders such as Sadr Ibrahim and Abdul Qayum Zakir are not included, even though both of them are heavyweights from the southern, Taliban heartland province of Helmand. Taliban interlocutors said Ibrahim and Zakir might be awaiting other postings, and this explanation is plausible: rumoured factional jostling among Baradar, Yaqub and Haqqani could have produced division of the main posts among the three factions they lead, leaving little room to accommodate relatively less powerful commanders. The Taliban might also have decided to exclude some leaders who lack a good relationship with Pakistan. Powerful military commanders including Ibrahim and Zakir, along with some elements from the Taliban political office in Doha, might have been perceived as too independent – a potential liability in a fledgling government that hopes for strong economic and political ties with Pakistan and its close ally, China. Given the closed and opaque nature of Taliban politics, the internal dynamics are hard for outsiders to discern.

Is this an “inclusive” government?

No. The new cabinet excludes women and several ethnic groups. Of the 33 men, all but three are ethnic Pashtuns. The size of ethnic groups is debated in Afghanistan (there has never been a complete census), but nobody could argue that the Taliban cabinet reflects the country's diversity. In recent days, the Taliban had promised an “inclusive” government and signalled that non-Taliban factions would be welcome to participate, but they did not say in what capacity or at what levels of government. Neighbouring states, regional powers such as China and Russia, and Western governments had all called on the Taliban to form an inclusive government. Former President Hamid Karzai and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah held several meetings with the Taliban in the days since 15 August, creating an impression that the Taliban might offer them some role, but the Taliban later dismissed these discussions as informal. The leader of a faction based in northern Afghanistan that is still fighting the Taliban, Ahmad Massoud, also indicated that he would welcome talks. None of those overtures led to any power sharing, and anti-Taliban politicians reacted to the new cabinet with defiance.

In forming the new government, the Taliban evidently prioritised maintaining their own cohesion and mitigating internal factionalism, rather than seeking to appease broader domestic political constituencies or external powers, including past financial supporters of Afghanistan. In their early pronouncements since coming to power, the Taliban have offered some compromises on their social policies, such as allowing women to study and work, albeit with gender segregation and other restrictions. Some Taliban followers appear to believe this measure will be sufficient to allay domestic and international concerns. In the hours after the 7 September announcement, a politician close to the anti-Taliban Jamiat-e Islami party told Crisis Group that backlash against the new Taliban government would inspire countries and local actors to rally behind the nascent anti-Taliban insurgency resisting in the Panjshir valley and other parts of the north, but this prediction’s validity is as yet unclear. By contrast, neighbouring Uzbekistan became the first state to welcome the new administration.

The Taliban has opted for a victor’s regime.

The fact that the Taliban announced their government without fanfare, before a ceremony to which several regional countries were invited, and labeled it “interim”, may indicate their awareness that few states will be willing to immediately recognise a new government composed entirely of Taliban stalwarts. External acceptability does not appear to have ranked high among the Taliban’s concerns while making these appointments: for example, the Ministry of Refugees will be run by Khalil Haqqani, whose new job will require liaison with foreign governments and non-governmental organisations, despite the fact that he is designated as a terrorist by the UN and the U.S. Several of his new cabinet colleagues are also designated as terrorists under international sanctions regimes.

What do the selections suggest about how the Taliban will govern?

The Taliban has opted for a victor’s regime. With all the power kept in their hands, the Taliban will now carry the burden of Afghanistan’s multitude of problems. Crisis Group and others have warned of looming humanitarian and economic disasters. Concerns about management of the Afghan economy grew on 23 August when the Taliban named a new head of the central bank, Mohammad Idris, who lacks any financial training. The latest cabinet list confirmed Idris in his role and added another senior official whose curriculum vitae will not inspire confidence among foreign donors: Hedayatullah Badri as finance minister. A Taliban interlocutor said Badri brings a decade of experience handling the Taliban’s finances in the shadow administration, a role that required management of a vast informal economy. The new finance minister has no formal education in financial or economic matters, though, according to a Taliban figure who knows him, “he is very open-minded” and can be expected to seek advice.

The new cabinet includes a minister for “inviting and guiding, ordering good and prohibiting evil” (as literally translated – in the Taliban’s English version of the cabinet list, this title was the only one not translated into English). This new ministry invites comparisons with the former Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the notorious religious police that started in the early 1990s under former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and became a harsh hallmark of Taliban rule. A Taliban interlocutor told Crisis Group that the new ministry will not resemble the feared department from past decades; rather, the new office is purportedly a continuation of the shadow administration previously run by Taliban official Amir Khan Muttaqi, who was responsible for persuading the Taliban’s military opponents to switch sides and join the insurgency. It is not yet clear whether the new ministry would continue focusing on military enemies or expand its remit to include moral policing or control of political opposition such as women protesting in Kabul.

The former government’s Women’s Ministry has apparently been dissolved, although the Taliban have been silent about the ministry’s status. Other ministries were not included on the cabinet list, including Health and Agriculture. In a WhatsApp chat with journalists on 9 September, Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen said “the remaining ministers will be appointed in the [coming] days or weeks”.

What caused the seeming delay in naming a government?

The Taliban appear to have been surprised by the speed of the former government’s collapse on 15 August, and remained distracted in the following weeks by airport evacuations, bombings by rival militants in Kabul and the northern insurgency. In the middle of debates about who should run the country, Taliban leaders were sending their best forces on brazen offensives into the Panjshir mountains, winning quick victories against the rebels in forbidding terrain. Some Taliban suggested that their leaders delayed the cabinet announcement until after they captured Panjshir’s administrative centre so that the Taliban could claim control of the entire country. Delays in the appointment of a new cabinet also led to speculation about rifts among Taliban leaders, as well as rumours of infighting, but these reports could not be confirmed. In the end, Afghans waited little more than three weeks between the collapse of their previous government and the naming of a new administration, a shorter interval than any other period of cabinet formation in the last two decades. There was little need for consultations outside of the group’s leadership to form a government that in its composition makes almost no concessions to their domestic opponents or the outside world.

What does the new government mean for Afghanistan’s humanitarian and economic crises?

The last few weeks have given governments in the region and the West a little breathing room to begin thinking through to what extent, and how, to engage with the Taliban government. Most are striking cautious notes, waiting for the newly formed government to begin revealing specifics of its political vision. The secretive nature of Taliban decision-making in recent weeks has heightened the feeling of uncertainty among Afghans and the outside world. For their part, the Taliban should have a sense of urgency not only about their own consolidation of power but also about Afghanistan’s growing humanitarian and economic crises; unfortunately, their moves so far suggest far more focus on the former than the latter. Foreign powers are concerned about mitigating rising hunger, poverty and forced migration, but wary of enabling a regime at the early stages of an uncertain transition from militancy to government. Finding solutions will depend to a considerable extent on the Taliban’s willingness to permit direct foreign engagement with Afghan communities and civil society for the good of the Afghan people, even if such engagement does not bring them political and financial benefits, such as official recognition and aid channeled into their own ministries.


Consultant, Afghanistan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan