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Gandhara Briefing: Return Of The Taliban Emirate

Afghan women protest near the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul on September 7.
Afghan women protest near the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul on September 7.

Dear Reader,

Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If you’re new to the newsletter or haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.

The Taliban revives its emirate

The Taliban proved its critics right by announcing a caretaker government exclusively made up of the movement’s hard-line old guard this week. More significantly, it restored its Islamic Emirate as the Taliban supreme leader vowed to uphold their interpretation of Islamic rules and Shari'a law in the country.

The announcement, however, came as a disappointment -- if not exactly a surprise -- to those outside the Taliban’s ranks. Many inside Afghanistan and most countries have either refused to recognize the government or are waiting to see what comes next.

The administration lacks diversity, and it is telling that 30 of the 33 cabinet members are Pashtuns, with one Uzbek and two Tajiks as well. There are no women, Shi’a, Hazara, Baluch, Turkmen, or members of Afghanistan’s non-Muslim minorities despite repeated Taliban pledges to deliver an “inclusive” administration.

“The Taliban’s new government tells us that they only consider themselves entitled to running an Islamic government,” Kabul researcher Ali Adili told us. “This is an ethnically homogeneous, ‘mullahcratic’ government.”

Consider Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Sunni cleric who will now be the supreme leader of the theocracy. “[Akhundzada] is a religious figure who commands tremendous respect because of his religious credentials,” said Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai, indicating that he will be the likely inspiration for Taliban policies. “He was a senior Taliban judge and a close confidant to the movement’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar.”

The Taliban cabinet includes key figures whose reputations precede them. Most notable perhaps is Mullah Muhammad Hassan Akhund, de facto prime minister responsible for the government’s day-to-day running, who is on a UN sanctions list. Washington has designated others such as the Taliban’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and his uncle Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani, refugees minister, as global terrorists carrying rewards of up to $10 million for information leading to their arrest.

The Taliban, as Afghans remember all too well, has its own brand of justice. The militants’ shadow courts are set to become Afghanistan’s official judicial system based on their strict interpretation of Islamic law. “Soon we will see floggings for adultery and public intoxication, and we will see them executing people for murder,” predicted Haroun Rahimi, an exiled Afghan legal scholar.

New measure and dissent

Some Afghans have made it clear that a return to any of the Taliban’s hallmark policies is simply not acceptable to them. Women are at the forefront of the nonviolent protests that have erupted across many Afghan cities.

Demanding their rights and gains not be sacrificed in the name of a Taliban-style interpretation of Islamic law and decrying the Taliban’s new edicts on limiting education, placing bans on work, and strict new dress codes, Afghan women have been making a powerful statement of resistance.

“Women wearing black veils do not represent Afghan culture,” said Samira Hamidi, an exiled women’s rights activist who fled Afghanistan due to threats by the Taliban. “It is a clear sign of repression in the life of women and girls.”

Not only are the militants not keen to hear what women have to say, they apparently can’t bear even to look at women’s faces. They fired their guns into the air to disperse protests, set off tear gas, and lashed those who crossed their path. Two journalists who were covering the women’s protests were detained for several hours and severely beaten. At least one video on social media appeared to show the Taliban backing off from protesters.

Then came the announcement that all protests have been outlawed “for the time being,” which drew swift condemnation from rights groups who warned that the rush to stifle protests and media poses a looming threat to the Afghan public.

But some Afghans, for the time being, are refusing to back down. The day after the ban on protests, Kabul’s streets rang with chants of “We want freedom” outside the Pakistani Embassy -- where demonstrators rallied against what they called Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan -- and across the provinces of Parwan, Nimruz, Kunduz, and Kapisa. Most of the demonstrations demanded that the Taliban end its offensive in Panjshir, which the Islamist group claimed was seized this week after its fighters overran the province’s capital and major towns.

Violence and arrests were reported as the Taliban sought to rein in the growing dissent. Its tactics, however, will likely only serve to raise up even more of the voices that the militants want to silence.

(Listen to a sample of what women from across Afghanistan are telling Radio Azadi’s call-in programs focusing on their rights.)

Afghan exodus continues

Educated and skilled Afghans continue to flee their country in anticipation of the militants reneging on their promises of a blanket amnesty, imposing more draconian laws, or simply failing to gain recognition and the international aid and economic prosperity that come with it.

On September 9, the first civilian flight since the Taliban took over Kabul airport, mainly evacuating people with foreign passports to Qatar, raised hopes that the Taliban would allow the evacuation of foreigners and vulnerable Afghans to proceed. Western governments have been pushing for such flights since the Taliban refused to let chartered planes take hundreds stranded in Mazar-e Sharif.

Radio Azadi continues to bring you stories of those who have braved great risks to flee the Taliban regime or helped others do so. In a video interview, one of Afghanistan’s top pop stars, Aryana Sayeed, who made a dramatic escape from Kabul, says she is worried for the artists remaining in Afghanistan. “What can they do, the performers who earned their bread through their art?” she asks.

Another Azadi video profiles Zala Zazai, a female police officer who says she is worried about the fate of her colleagues. “The international community invested a lot in increasing the presence of Afghan women in [society] and government,” she noted. “It should not abandon these women now. These women should not be sacrificed.”

The exodus is erasing entire communities from Afghanistan. The evacuation of 35 ethnic Kazakh Afghan nationals by Kazakhstan this week further shrinks the community, which only has several hundred members. With the departure of Zablon Simintov, the last Afghan Jew, his country’s once-thriving Jewish community has ceased to exist.

“If you have decided to leave then it is difficult to stay,” he told Radio Azadi in March of his plans to flee if the Taliban regained power. Other minorities, such as Afghanistan’s Hindu and Sikh community, face the same prospects.

Preventing a humanitarian catastrophe

A much bigger displacement crisis, however, is snowballing inside Afghanistan where the UN estimates nearly half a million people have been forced to leave their country this year.

"Now that the Taliban became the government, it’s their responsibility to solve people's problems," one young woman who fled her home in Balkh to seek shelter in Kabul just before it fell to the Taliban told us. "We don't have a home to return to and we don't have food." (Watch our video from Zaranj in Nimroz Province, where the Iranian currency is now being used for most transactions.)

In a desperate appeal, the UN’s special envoy warned against cutting off money to the Taliban government because the Afghan economy could collapse. Her appeal was echoed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who urged a sustained dialogue with the Taliban to “extend our solidarity to a people who suffer greatly, where millions and millions risk dying of hunger.”

The Taliban wants to keep the humanitarian aid flowing to Afghanistan and celebrated a UN pledge to maintain assistance for the Afghan people. After a meeting in Kabul with senior Taliban representatives, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross has also pledged to continue working in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s long game

The protests in Kabul this week took aim, among other things, at the murky relations between Islamabad and the Taliban. Many took issue with the visit to Kabul by Faiz Hameed, head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which renewed questions of whether Pakistan’s spy services are able to influence one of the world’s most secretive Islamist movements.

That relationship, however, is due to change now that Taliban leaders no longer need their sanctuaries in Pakistan.

“Much the same way that Qatar has [been] a key intermediary between the Taliban and the West, Pakistan wants to replicate a similar role between China, Central Asia, Russia, and the Taliban,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan consultant with the International Crisis Group.

But Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on the Pakistani military, worries that the establishment’s quest to shape Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban will eventually turn domestic. “There will be a greater push for Pakistan to become a theocracy just like the Taliban [is creating in Afghanistan],” she noted.

Longstanding ally China, which worries about the prospects of increasing militancy in its neighborhood, is likely to keep Islamabad’s ambitions in check. “Beijing needs to be careful not to be sucked into Afghanistan and the wider region, which are viewed as a strategic trap,” noted Andrew Small, author of a book about relations between Beijing and Islamabad. “For now, China’s aim is to minimize the risks, not solve the problems.”

I hope you found this week’s newsletter useful, and I encourage you to forward it to your colleagues.

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Abubakar Siddique
Twitter: @sid_abu

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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