Opinion

Afghanistan and its evolving multi-dimensions


Published : 14 Sep 2021 08:48 PM | Updated : 15 Sep 2021 03:31 AM

The political dynamics in Afghanistan is transforming into a totally unraveling chess-board. Right now, through the formation of its so-called “interim acting government” it has gained center-stage attention.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced the interim government through a news conference in Kabul on 7 September and reiterated that the new government would protect "the country's highest interest" and uphold Sharia law as interpreted by the Taliban. The militant group also pointed out that it would name permanent leadership soon.

One needs to highlight some interesting aspects pertaining to the creation of the new government.

The Leader or Amir al Mu'minin of the interim government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be Hibatullah Akhundzada. The cabinet will be led by Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, one of the movement's founders.

In the 1980s, Akhundzada participated in the Islamist resistance against the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan, but his reputation is based more on being a religious leader than a military commander. Akhun­dzada worked as head of the Sharia Courts in the 1990s. It may be recalled in this context that after first seizing power in the 1990s, the Taliban introduced and supported punishments according to their strict interpretation of Islamic law: they publicly executed murderers and adulterers and amputated thieves' limbs. 

Under the leadership of the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar (who died in 2013), the Taliban also banned television, music, movies, make-up, and stopped girls aged 10 and over from attending school. It is understood that Akhundzada, in his 60s has lived most of his life in Afghanistan but also maintains close ties with the so-called "Quetta Shura" - the Afghan Taliban leaders said to be based in the Pakistani city of Quetta. As the group's supreme commander, Akhundzada is expected to be in charge of political, military and religious affairs.

The current acting Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, it may be recalled, was one of the four men who founded the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1994. He has been a longtime head of the Taliban's powerful leadership council- the Rehbari Shura. He served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister during the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan in 1996-2001. He is however under UN sanctions for his role in the government during that period.

The person chosen to be the acting Interior Minister is Sirajuddin Haqqani Sirajuddin Haqqani, is another of the group's top figures, who is on an FBI most wanted list. After the death of his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, he became the new leader of the Haqqani network, which has been credited with some of the most violent attacks that have occurred in Afghanistan against Afghan forces and their Western allies in recent years. 

The Haqqani network is currently one of the region's most powerful and feared militant groups. Some say it is even more influential than the Islamic State group in Afghanistan.  It may be recalled that in an opinion piece which appeared in the New York Times last year before the signing of the Doha agreement, Haqqani wrote: "For more than four decades, precious Afghan lives have been lost every day. Everyone has lost somebody they loved. Everyone is tired of war. I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop." One can only hope that this will happen. One can only hope that this will happen.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar a Taliban co-founder has been given charge of being the acting Deputy Prime Minister. He became a lynchpin of the insurgency after the militants were toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001. However he was captured in a joint US-Pakistani operation in Karachi, Pakistan in February 2010. He remained in prison for eight years, until he was released as part of a plan to facilitate the peace process. He has been the head of their political office in Qatar since January 2019. In 2020, Baradar signed the Doha agreement regarding the withdrawal of US troops on behalf of the Taliban. 

The new acting Defence Minister will be Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar. He is believed to be little more than 30 years old and is currently the leader of the group's military operations. Four men have also received senior positions in government who had previously been detained by the US at Guantanamo Bay, and were released as part of a prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014: The Taliban has appointed Noorullah Noori to acting Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs, Abdul Haq Wasiq as acting Intelligence Director, Khairullah Khair as acting Minister of Information and Culture and Mohammad Fazil Mazloom as acting Deputy Minister of Defence.

One needs to however note here that the takeover by the Taliban of Afghanistan has persuaded the office of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, to note that the U.S. and its partners should have paid more attention to- (a) rooting out corruption, (b) improving formal governance and eliminating the culture of impunity pertaining to financial management, (c) building a credible election process and (d) reducing cultivation of poppy.

An interesting question has also arisen about why China, India, Russia and the US have been so keen pertaining to Afghanistan. There is the geo-political angle but there appears to be another significant factor. Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world but the Taliban today are apparently sitting on US Dollar 1 trillion worth of minerals that the world desperately needs.  Supplies of minerals such as iron, copper and gold are scattered across provinces. There are also rare earth minerals and, perhaps most importantly, what could be one of the world's biggest deposits of lithium — an essential but scarce component in rechargeable batteries and other technologies vital to tackling the climate crisis. Demand for metals like lithium and cobalt, as well as rare earth elements such as neodymium, is soaring as some countries are trying to switch to clean technologies to slash carbon emissions. China has taken more interest in this regard compared to the others.

Bilal Kuchay, an analyst tracking India’s efforts in Afghanistan feels that the Taliban’s return to power is a major setback for India. New Delhi has invested US Dollar 3billion in development projects, in all 34 provinces of that country. Bilateral trade between the two countries had also increased significantly over the years and reached US Dollar 1.5 billion in 2019-2020. India is probably feeling a bit insecure now because they see the Taliban as a proxy of its archrival Pakistan. It is this element which probably persuaded their Ambassador in Qatar to have a meeting with the Taliban Representative there.

As expected, Pakistan like India is trying to open doors with the Taliban government. The chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, Faiz Hamid, has been to Kabul accompanied by a delegation of senior Pakistani officials. In addition, a Taliban delegation led by Abbas Stanikzair has met Pakistani Ambassador Raza Shah in Qatar on 3 September and discussed the current Afghan situation and the need for humanitarian assistance and strengthening bilateral relations based on mutual interest. In this context there was discussion also on facilitating people’s movement at Torkham and Spinboldak-the border crossings between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, Iran has taken an important step with regard to the Taliban government. 

US-made Afghan military equipment, including armored vehicles, which crossed into Iranian territory during the advance of the Taliban have been returned to the country’s new rulers. An Iranian source- Amwaj Media- which covers news from the Middle East, has quoted an Iranian source as saying that “almost everything” operated by former Afghan army soldiers, who escaped to Iran, were turned over to the Taliban following the US withdrawal.

Another interesting aspect needs to be noted. It has also been reported in the media that Google has temporarily locked down an unspecified number of Afghan government email accounts. This measure has been undertaken because of fears about the digital paper trail left by former officials and their international partners. There have been fears that biometric databases could be exploited by the new Taliban rulers to hunt their enemies. Google has not confirmed this move but has said the Company was monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and “taking temporary actions to secure relevant accounts”.

The Taliban is under pressure to form an inclusive government. The international community has also urged it to respect women’s rights as it takes over rule of the country. Many women fear a return to brutality seen when the group last held power 20 years ago. 

However Taliban officials have reiterated that they will respect different religious sects, and permit girls and women to be educated. Some of this is already evident- but with the premise that education facilities will be separate for girls and boys.

In the meantime UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric has stated on 4 September that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will hold an international meeting in Geneva to discuss about humanitarian aid for Afghanistan.- “the conference will apparently advocate for funding for a lifesaving humanitarian operation to make sure Afghans continue to get the essential services they need.” This is being done because nearly half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people are in need of assistance.

The world, particularly the neighbors of Afghanistan- Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran- in their own way have been trying to avoid creation of further instability. They are doing so to gain ground for better future bilateral relations. Russia has already done so by calling on the United States to release Afghan central bank reserves that Washington has blocked after the Taliban takeover of Kabul. It is true that America's longest war is probably over, but the battle for Afghans within Afghanistan has certainly not come to an end. The Taliban now has a quest for legitimacy through a Seat in the United Nations.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.