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Who Will Run the Taliban Government?
Who Will Run the Taliban Government?
Afghanistan: The Humanitarian Crisis and U.S. Response
Afghanistan: The Humanitarian Crisis and U.S. Response
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.

Contributors

Consultant, Afghanistan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
smithkabul

Afghanistan: The Humanitarian Crisis and U.S. Response

In a 9 February 2022 hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Crisis Group’s Senior Afghanistan Consultant Graeme Smith outlined two long-term ways the U.S. can mitigate Afghanistan’s humanitarian and economic crises in the aftermath of war and subsequent Taliban takeover.

Chairman Murphy, Ranking Member Young, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee, thank you for your attention to this important subject and for inviting me to testify.

I am a Senior Consultant for the International Crisis Group, which covers more than 50 conflict situations around the world, including Afghanistan, with the aim of helping to prevent, resolve or mitigate deadly conflict. I have worked in the country since 2005.

In previous years, I listened to U.S. congressional hearings from Kandahar or Kabul, sometimes with gunfire or explosions in the background. The Internet connection was not always good, but I heard enough to understand that the United States had ambitious plans for Afghanistan.

Now the guns are silent. America has withdrawn its forces. In the aftermath of war, the United States and its allies should focus on more modest plans, such as easing restrictions on the Afghan economy and saving the lives of starving people. These are not the lofty goals of the past decades. What is required now is urgent action to help address basic needs.

Tens of millions of lives are at stake. Afghanistan ranks as world’s largest humanitarian crisis, and there is a serious risk of widespread famine. The United Nations estimates that 97 per cent of Afghans could fall into poverty this year. People are so desperate that they are selling their own daughters, anything to survive.[fn]“2022 Humanitarian Response Plan: Afghanistan,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, January 2022.Hide Footnote

U.S. and European envoys signalled that they understand these life-or-death issues at a recent meeting in Norway. They committed to 1) “helping prevent the collapse of social services” and 2) “supporting the revival of Afghanistan’s economy.”[fn]“U.S.-Europe Joint Statement on Afghanistan,” 27 January 2022.Hide Footnote Further steps are now required to achieve those two objectives.[fn]Further recommendations are listed in this report: “Beyond Emergency Relief: Averting Afghanistan’s Humanitarian Catastrophe”, International Crisis Group, Asia Report N°317, 6 December 2021.Hide Footnote

1. Help Prevent the Collapse of Essential Public Services

The United States has donated generously to emergency relief efforts, funding humanitarian agencies that are sending bags of food and other assistance into Afghanistan. However, such short-term assistance is not enough because this is not a natural disaster; it’s a man-made crisis resulting from the end of the war economy and the economic isolation imposed by Western governments on the new Taliban regime and – in effect – on the Afghan population. The Afghan state is collapsing. Half a million government employees lack salaries, and essential services such education, sanitation, and agricultural programs are not being delivered. Entire systems such as the electrical grid could fall apart. The United States, among others, invested billions of dollars to build these state services over the last two decades.

a) Support the Public Sector with Existing Funds

The largest support mechanism for civil servants’ salaries before the Taliban takeover was the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), a pool of aid to which the United States and other donors contributed. The fund has about $1.2 billion in unspent money waiting to be disbursed, which could be allocated immediately to health, education, and other social services. Health funding is uncontroversial because implementing partners are outside the Afghan state — but health programs cannot stand alone because otherwise the clinics will be overwhelmed by the medical needs of a starving population. Some funding should be directed to the public sector in areas such as agricultural support and village-level development programs. Support should be targeted at Afghan livelihoods — not the state-building efforts of the past, in which donors supplied 75 per cent of the Afghan government’s budget. Safeguards could be put in place to prevent the Taliban from diverting funds. Notably, nearly all of the civil servants on the job today were hired before the Taliban arrived in Kabul.

b) Build on Progress in Education

The biggest employer in the country is the education system, but right now there is no plan for paying 200,000 teachers and staff through the school year. The United Nations has successfully negotiated with the Taliban to allow girls’ secondary schools to re-open in some provinces, and building on that momentum now depends on making funds available to reward progress. The United States and its allies should offer funding for education in provinces where the UN has verified that secondary education is open for boys and girls. None of these transfers would reach Taliban appointees because the teachers were already registered for electronic salary payments. The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has started using these channels to pay teachers small emergency stipends, proving that the mechanisms work.

2. Support Economic Revival

Even more urgent than channeling targeted support to the public sector is releasing the chokehold on the private sector. Afghanistan needs a viable economy because humanitarian assistance will never be sufficient or sustainable. Unfortunately, many parts of the Afghan economy cannot function because of Western sanctions, asset freezes, and other economic restrictions.

a) Allow the Central Bank to Function

The United States has worked with the United Nations in recent months toward setting up a humanitarian currency swap mechanism, which, if implemented, could inject some of the cash liquidity that is urgently required for the functioning of the Afghan economy. These swaps involve humanitarian actors giving U.S. dollars to approved Afghan businesses in exchange for local currency. However, currency swaps are a short-term and limited workaround to make up for the lack of a functioning central bank. Swaps cannot supply all of the hard currency required — among other things, for imports of food and medicine.

Afghanistan needs an entity to serve the functions of a central bank, holding U.S. dollar currency auctions, printing local currency, and regulating the banking sector. A variety of options are under discussion, but the most straightforward and durable solution would be reviving Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), the central bank. This might require foreign technical assistance, and “ring-fencing” DAB to keep it independent from the Taliban-controlled government. The United States should exercise leadership at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to obtain these institutions’ help with DAB’s rehabilitation.

b) Describe a Path Toward Unfreezing Assets

The central bank’s frozen assets remain stuck in political and legal complications, mostly in the United States, but the U.S. government should immediately signal an intention to someday return these state assets to DAB on behalf of the Afghan people. While litigation is pending, the U.S. could ask European partners to return the DAB assets located in their jurisdictions. The U.S. could also return to their rightful Afghan owners the hundreds of millions of dollars among the frozen assets that comprise private deposits in Afghan banks. These owners include small businesses and ordinary Afghans who have been deprived of their savings. As reserves become available, the United States should return them in gradual tranches, monitoring closely for unintended effects. The U.S. should also insist on the appointment of qualified officials to DAB and undertakings by central bank officials to respect the Afghan laws that constrain the uses of reserves.

c) Reduce the Impact of Sanctions

The U.S. Department of the Treasury should be commended for publishing general licenses exempting from sanctions enforcement the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, many sectors of the Afghan economy remain negatively affected by the threat of U.S. sanctions enforcement. It is not feasible for the U.S. Treasury to devise lists of all of the various sectors of the Afghan economy that should be permitted; instead, U.S. officials must start thinking about what should not be allowed. This would mean relieving the Afghan people of the broad effects of sanctions that are choking the economy and, instead, targeting sanctions to people and activities of concern. (For example, an arms embargo could help to address proliferation concerns in the region.) Tailoring sanctions in this way would better fit their original purpose, which was not to constrict the entire Afghan public sector or the country’s economy. The financial sector may require extra assurances: to allow Afghan banks to regain access to the global financial system, the U.S. government must actively encourage international banks to resume transactions with Afghanistan.

Keeping economic pressure on the Taliban will not get rid of their regime, but a collapsing economy could lead to more people fleeing the country.

This set of proposals is not only the best way to save lives. This kind of pragmatic engagement with the Taliban-controlled government is also the most reliable way of protecting U.S. interests. Keeping economic pressure on the Taliban will not get rid of their regime, but a collapsing economy could lead to more people fleeing the country, sparking another migration crisis. It would result in more smuggled drugs and weapons. It might also raise the threat of terrorism. America’s reputation would also suffer if the U.S. legacy in the country was a famine.

Unfortunately, avoiding catastrophe requires cooperation with the Taliban on the issues I have discussed. That is, for many, more than distasteful after two decades of war. In power, the Taliban continue to flout human rights standards, as illustrated by the recent arrests of female activists. Still, sometimes it is necessary to work with bad actors for the sake of a greater good. That is not easy. Months of conversations between the Taliban and Western officials have not resulted in much cooperation on basic tasks.

The impasse is partly the Taliban’s fault, because they have not yet accepted Western donors’ reasonable demands: among other things, allowing universal education of girls and women of all ages. But part of the stalemate results from the U.S. and its allies pushing for unrealistic goals, such as an “inclusive” government with more ethnic minorities and women. American officials may be correct that the Taliban should select a more participatory form of government for the sake of legitimizing and stabilizing their regime, but U.S. diplomats can no longer expect to successfully insist on such things. Considering the Taliban’s strength on the ground, the new authorities in Kabul feel justified in rejecting what they view as Western meddling.

The way forward is limited cooperation on narrow goals. We can still dream of an Afghanistan at peace with itself and the world, a country that recovers from a terrible succession of wars and finds a way to sustain its own population. America had bigger plans at the beginning, but in the end this is what can, and must, be achieved. I look forward to your questions.