For weeks, the Taliban promised to unveil an “inclusive” government: one that would respect women’s rights, albeit within the confines of Shariah law; represent different ethnicities; and bar terrorist groups from Afghanistan.
Then, on Tuesday, the Taliban announced the leadership of the caretaker government. It is all male and packed with veterans of the brutal Taliban regime of 1996 to 2001. The members are almost all Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in the country. One is on the F.B.I.’s most-wanted list, four spent more than a decade in the Guantánamo Bay prison and most have been sanctioned by the United Nations.
If there was a message that the movement, born in Pakistan’s madrasas nearly three decades ago, wanted to communicate, it appeared to be: We have not changed.
After the Taliban’s stunning takeover of Kabul last month — a triumphant end to its 20-year war with U.S. and NATO forces — the mullahs apparently saw no need to risk the cohesiveness of their movement or dilute their vision of a seventh-century Islamic emirate by granting any concessions to international sensibilities.
The Taliban seem to have calculated that the West’s wishful thinking and desire to move on from two decades of bloody conflict would be enough to win them global acceptance.
Even after the announcement of the new government, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain spoke of helping supposed moderate Taliban figures overcome “more retrograde elements.”
This is a test for the West. If the people of Afghanistan are subjected once more to oppression, the Taliban must be made a pariah, starved of foreign aid and recognition. Otherwise, universal norms of human rights will mean nothing. Even with no troops or embassy in the country, there are diplomatic, economic and military options still open to the United States.
The makeup of this new government should come as no surprise. In the weeks since the U.S.-backed Afghan government was toppled, the United Nations has cited “harrowing and credible” reports of summary executions and other human rights abuses across the country. Journalists have been beaten and thrown into jail. Just before the caretaker government announcement, a women’s protest in Kabul was suppressed with whips, batons and gunfire.
When the Taliban were last in power, their interpretation of Shariah law meant punishments meted out in sports stadiums before baying crowds. Women accused of adultery were shot dead; gay men were stoned to death. Girls were barred from school and women from working.
The uncompromising fundamentalists in the new government indicate that there will be no kinder, gentler new Taliban.
Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, is an avid proponent of the suicide bomb. His own son blew himself up in Helmand Province in 2017. Mullah Mohammad Hassan, now the de facto acting prime minister, was foreign minister and then deputy prime minister in the last Taliban regime.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the acting minister of the interior, has a $10 million F.B.I. bounty on his head and leads the Haqqani network, which is tied to Al Qaeda and designated by the State Department as a terrorist group.
Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqoub, the acting defense minister, is the eldest son of the one-eyed Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founding leader, who died in 2013.
Four of the “Guantánamo Five,” who were freed by the Obama administration in exchange for the American captured soldier Bowe Bergdahl in 2014, have senior government positions. The fifth is a provincial governor.
Their records speak for themselves. Mullah Mohammed Fazl, who spent 12 years at Guantánamo, will resume his former role as deputy defense minister. In 2001, he was behind a fake surrender at Qala Jangi that led to the death of a C.I.A. officer, Mike Spann, America’s first casualty after the Sept. 11 attacks. Mullah Fazl, who came of age during the mujahedeen jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s, commanded 10,000 Taliban and a substantial number of Qaeda troops in 2001. His nickname, Mazloom, which means “meek” or “oppressed,” is grimly ironic.
Both Mullah Fazl and Mullah Norullah Noori, the new minister of borders and tribal affairs, are believed to have orchestrated the massacre of thousands of minority Shiites when the Taliban were last in power. Abdul Haq Wasiq, the new intelligence chief, has been accused of being closely connected to Al Qaeda. Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, now minister of information and culture, was described in a leaked U.S. military document as “one of the major opium drug lords in Western Afghanistan” and as a Taliban envoy to Iranian-backed terrorist groups. Mohammad Nabi Omari, new Khost governor, is suspected to be a leader of the Haqqani network.
Several years after their release, the Guantánamo Five joined the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar, outwitting the Trump administration to secure a deal amounting to capitulation by the United States.
Today the Taliban are even closer to Al Qaeda than they were in 2001, though they are currently weaker than before. Mr. Haqqani, Mr. Wasiq, Mr. Omari and Mullah Fazl are all said to have longstanding operational ties to the group behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
There are some differences between today’s Taliban and yesterday’s. The group is much more technologically savvy, using social media, smartphones and WhatsApp to spread its message and orchestrate surrenders. And two decades of fighting American forces, being imprisoned by them and negotiating with American diplomats also have given the Taliban a deeper understanding of Western weaknesses.
But the West must not mistake tactical flexibility for real change.
Their idea of Islamic purity, rather than good governance, has always been the Taliban’s priority.
They just defeated what they view as a corrupt and depraved America. Why would they choose this moment to embrace American values?
But the Taliban aren’t ruling the same Afghanistan, either. Flawed though it was, the 20-year American occupation led to a whole generation of Afghans experiencing a measure of freedom and modernity. It is a societal transformation the Taliban will struggle to reverse.
Without even majority support among Pashtuns — who make up some 42 percent of Afghans — the Taliban need to control a population of almost 40 million, which has nearly doubled since 2001 and in which Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks predominate.
An Afghan opposition to the Taliban should be supported by the West. Economic sanctions should be applied against the Taliban regime and carefully calibrated military action taken against terrorist groups inside Afghanistan.
Back in 2001, Mullah Fazl promised a C.I.A. officer at Qala Jangi that Qaeda fighters under his command would surrender. “If this is fake, it will lead to your destruction,” the officer warned him.
Mullah Fazl was lying, but, against all odds, he survived. The return to power two decades later of the mullah and so many other notorious figures is an ominous sign for what’s to come.
Toby Harnden (@tobyharnden) is a former foreign correspondent with extensive experience in Afghanistan and the author of “First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11.”
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