In Afghanistan, It’s Back to the Future — of Taliban Tyranny

A government of mullahs and terrorists snuffs out freedoms despite talk of inclusion and human rights.

September 9, 2021 (Foreign Policy)-Almost a month after taking control of Afghanistan and overseeing an economic collapse while violently suppressing public protests, the Taliban have announced a government of mullahs and black-listed terrorists that takes the country back a quarter century in time and hints at dark days to come.

The 33-member interim cabinet announced this week is exclusively male, exclusively Taliban, and almost exclusively Pashtun, meaning the old guard of the hated 1996-2001 regime is back in power, with tyranny more a reality than a threat for the majority of Afghanistan’s almost 40 million people.

Women have no positions in the interim government. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been abolished as has women’s participation in sports. The sinister Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has been reestablished. As university classes resumed with male and female students separated by partitions, the new minister of education said, effectively, that education is unnecessary.

Kabul residents report house searches, property confiscation, revenge beatings, and killings. Women protested misogynistic policies in Kabul and other cities this week and were promptly beaten by the Taliban. Journalists covering the demonstrations were also beaten—some requiring hospitalization—and several were arrested, sparking concerns over press freedom in the new “old Afghanistan.”

Since taking power on Aug. 15, the Taliban have struggled with a variety of challenges that would test even a competent government. Most economic activity has stopped, leading to a cash crisis and soaring inflation. Hundreds of thousands of people face drought-induced hunger, many more have been displaced by the 20-year war, and COVID-19 continues to stalk the country.

The new government of Taliban loyalists is unlikely to rise to these challenges in a way that offers any semblance of the government—no matter how flawed—Afghan people have come to expect.

Old names have rewarded themselves with power, providing what Ali Mohammad Ali, a senior security official in the former government, described as a “clear indication that the group’s modus operandi hasn’t changed and will not change.”

More than a dozen members of the cabinet are on the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions list. Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban and now interior minister, heads the Haqqani network and is responsible for some of the most heinous attacks on Afghan civilians as well as government and military targets throughout the war. He is one of the FBI’s most wanted men with a $10 million bounty on his head.

Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed cleric, is now defense minister. Yaqoob has headed the Taliban’s military commission, is taking kudos for the military victory, and is popular with commanders and fighters alike.

“The Taliban’s past, present, and future are one and the same,” Ali said, describing the lineup as “a ‘new’ cabinet of ruthless assassins.”

Even so, there was plenty of time for factional infighting, which pushed back the new government’s announcement. The absence of some senior Taliban figures “shows the Haqqanis have for now emerged victorious in the struggle for power between [tribes in] Kandahar and Paktia,” Ali said. “What do they owe their wealthy and/or well-placed patrons in return?”

The new Taliban government is officially a caretaker one. But, especially at a time when the new government has been met with a resistance movement and signs of urban protest, the collection of hard-liners “indicates the Taliban’s intent of further cracking down to consolidate domestic support,” said Caroline Rose of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a Washington think tank. (They can also hope to consolidate some international support. China just provided $31 million in aid, including several million doses of a coronavirus vaccine.)

But there are still embers of resistance, despite the Taliban’s apparent capture this week of the Panjshir Valley, the last holdout to their control. On Thursday, the Taliban shut down telecommunications, according to Kabul residents, who said the aim was to prevent commemorations of Massoud Day, which for almost two decades has marked al Qaeda’s killing of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. 

As evidence grows of the Taliban’s unreconstructed extremist agenda, their hopes for international legitimacy are fading.

Massoud was the father of Ahmad Massoud, who led the Panjshir resistance. National Resistance Front spokesperson Ali Maisam Nazary said Massoud remains in Afghanistan but would not say if he is in Panjshir. Nazary provided Foreign Policy with a video he said showed Taliban figures damaging Ahmad Shah Massoud’s grave, which is in a huge mausoleum that dominated the Panjshir Valley. “This is a very dangerous act on their part. It will provoke millions,” he said.

As evidence grows of the Taliban’s unreconstructed extremist agenda, their hopes for international legitimacy are fading, though the group made an important concession Thursday to allow foreigners to fly out of the country. Even so, Western leverage over Afghanistan is limited by China and Russia’s presence on the United Nations’ Security Council. International donors will meet this month in Geneva, but it’s unlikely they will provide anything like the largesse that formerly made up three-quarters of the Afghan government budget. In the meantime, the U.N. has called for $600 million in emergency relief.

Afghanistan’s two main foreign sponsors may pony up assistance, but there won’t be any of the strings Western donors used for years to try to improve living conditions in the country. 

“China and Russia might warm up to establishing diplomatic relations with Afghanistan’s new government, but women’s rights, democratic values, and freedom of speech will not be the values they will push onto the Taliban,” said Weeda Mehran, a conflict specialist at the University of Exeter.