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Who's calling the shots in Afghanistan? Pakistan wants us to believe it is

Islambad spy chief breaks cover, ensures 4 key men of the Haqqani network will be nominally in charge

Paran Balakrishnan   |   New Delhi   |   Published 16.09.21, 09:41 AM

Rest easy, folks. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the number two in the new Afghan government, has appeared in a video interview to say he’s alive and well and to deny reports he was injured in a reported brawl between rival factions of the Islamist group. “This is not true. I am okay and healthy,” Baradar, Afghanistan’s acting deputy prime minister, said in the interview posted on Twitter by the Taliban’s political office in Doha.

Rumours had abounded about the fate of Baradar -- who was tipped at one point to head the new Taliban regime -- after he disappeared from public view late last week. Baradar, who appeared to be reading from a piece of paper, also denied media reports of “internal disputes.”

“There is nothing (wrong) between us,” the Taliban founding member said, adding he had been away from Kabul in recent days “on a trip.” The BBC had reported a major bust-up between supporters of Baradar and the militant Haqqani network at the presidential palace in Kabul on who did the most to secure victory over the US. Baradar, who signed the Doha deal on the US troop withdrawal on behalf of the Taliban, reportedly believes the credit for the victory should go to diplomacy and while the Haqqani group believes it was achieved through fighting.

Meanwhile, though, there’s still the mystery about the whereabouts of Mullah Habaitullah Akhundzada, the titular head of the new Afghan government who hasn’t yet been spotted in Kabul’s corridors of power.

It’s one of the many questions swirling around the new Afghan government since the Taliban’s bearded, ragtag warriors swept into Kabul and put a moderate spokesman before the world’s TV cameras.

Now, the government’s dropped the veil, in fact, the entire burqa and the last pretence of moderation. It’s resurrected that old Taliban favourite: the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, according to a Taliban official, and punishment will be meted out according to Sharia law. Yes, adultery will be punished by stoning to death – both for men and women. It will all be evidence-based, of course – four witnesses will have to offer proof of adultery. Thieves will have their hands cut off. Murderers will be executed but if the crime was not intentional “there might be another punishment like paying a certain amount of money.”

Who calls the shots in this government? That’s not tough to answer, especially since Pakistan’s spy chief Faiz Hameed broke cover a few days ago in the lobby of the Serena Hotel, where the international press once hung out. Hameed attempted to make it look like he was playing a key role as a mediator and even visited other powerbrokers like former Afghan President Hameed Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a senior minister in the last government. In reality, he was there with a large bagful of cash to smooth the way for the government formation.

So it’s safe to guess that Pakistan calls the shots in the new government and that it has ensured four key members of the Haqqani network – who, incidentally, are not even mainstream Taliban members – will be the ones nominally in charge.

Why did Hameed break cover? Probably to tell the world that if they wanted anything done in Afghanistan, it would have to be via Pakistan. Hameed saw to it that Baradar’s claims to be prime minister were shot down and that Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund was installed as the ‘acting” prime minister. The joke doing the rounds was that if the new government was handed into the Americans, the bounty payments would take care of Afghanistan’s financial woes for a few months.

Akhund, for a start, is on a UN sanctions list and the new interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani has a $5-million US bounty on his head. Akhund famously defied the world in 1999 and said the Taliban government would never hand over Osama bin Laden. Says South Asia expert Christine Fair: “The Taliban cabinet is like a Who’s Who of international terrorism. Afghanistan will renew its status as the world’s Terrorism Finishing School.”

Baradar was also reported to be unhappy about the composition of the government.

And what about Mullah Akhundzada, who has been installed as the new government’s spiritual head? Will he play an Ayatollah Khomeini-like role? There’s only one difficulty about this: he hasn’t been seen for months. Speculation is that he could be firmly in Pakistani hands, or alternatively, in Kandahar, the home of many Taliban leaders. The third option, of course, is that he may be dead.

What’s certain is that Pakistan has seen to it that the current government will be one where the hardliners are in charge. Not an inch will be given to the Doha lobby, who’ve seen more of the world and who see the advantages of keeping international public opinion on their side. 

Instead. it will be a combination of the Kandahari lobby plus the Haqqani network who will be flexing their muscles in the coming months.

All talk of an inclusive government has been flung into an Afghan gorge and 30 out of 33 new ministers are Pashtuns. Similarly, the murmurings about representation for women have suddenly ceased. And former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who was acting as the mediator between different factions, has been relegated to a minor role in the new government as has Abdullah Abdullah.

Installed as Interior Minister is Sirajuddin Haqqani, of the deadly Haqqani network, sometimes described as the sword-arm of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service. Some months ago, eyebrows were raised when the New York Times published an article by Sirajuddin on its highly coveted Opinion page. The Haqqani network almost certainly masterminded the attack on India’s embassy in Kabul a few years ago which left more than 50 dead. 

Baradar was also reported to have been unhappy about the composition of the government. As one Afghanistan hand in Delhi remarked: “Making Sirajuddin the Interior Minister is the ultimate case of hiring the poacher to be the gamekeeper.” It’s thought by many that only the Haqqanis could have pulled off the Kabul airport bombing which involved getting through several layers of security and roadblocks on the way. Sirajuddin’s youngest brother Anas, who was sentenced to death by a Kabul court and later released in a prisoner swap, is also expected to play a leading role in the new government. 

When the new administration gets down to governing, if it does, it will have to deal with an economy that is collapsing, a banking system in chaos, frozen foreign reserves and lack of foreign aid which made up three-quarters of the government’s budget under the Americans.

Faraway in North America, a furious row has broken out at different levels about who is responsible for the Afghan fiasco. In an interview to the Financial Times, the US chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad insisted Wednesday that the blame for the retreat from Kabul turning into a rout should squarely be laid on former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Khalilzad argued that a deal had been worked out under which the Taliban would wait for a week on Kabul’s outskirts before moving into the city. But Ghani grabbed his chance and fled the city and this caused a breakdown of law and order which forced the Taliban to move in to prevent chaos. Ghani, inevitably, denies this and also denies that he left with sackfuls of cash.

There’s considerable debate about how India should deal with the new government. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar met Taliban representatives in Qatar a few months ago and India’s Qatar envoy linked up with them more recently. However, with the Haqqanis playing a key role in the new government, there are many who say we shouldn’t even be making these contacts.

For now, the best option may be to establish minimal contacts with all sides and see which way the cards fall in the coming months. But it would be unwise to bet heavily on this government lasting very long in its current shape. Safer to bet on more gun-battles and prolonged chaos. 

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