Taliban cabinet shows west has little leverage over Afghanistan’s new rulers

Afghanistan updates

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last month, western governments urged Afghanistan’s new rulers to form an “inclusive” administration, dangling the prospect of co-operation if they showed signs of newfound moderation since their ousting from power by the US-led invasion in 2001. On Tuesday, the Islamist militants unveiled a government pointing to the opposite.

The all-male 33-strong cabinet is dominated by Taliban heavyweights, all but three ethnic Pashtuns, who have for years exercised political control over Kabul despite accounting for 40 per cent of the population.

Among the ministers, many have close ties to Pakistan, including the new interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, whom the FBI has placed on its most wanted list with a $10m bounty. Five ministers are former Guantánamo detainees who were freed by then US president Barack Obama in exchange for the release of a US soldier.

Analysts say the appointments make it clear that the regime in Kabul cares little about diplomatic recognition from western governments or winning the much-touted “international legitimacy” — a prospect advocates of the US withdrawal had insisted would give Washington leverage over the Islamists following their return to power.

Among the reasons to seek normalised relations with the west is the fact that most of Afghanistan’s $9bn in foreign reserves are held in international accounts that have been frozen. The Biden administration has blocked Taliban access to Afghan central bank reserves held in US banks, a US official told the Financial Times. Some Taliban members are also on the US sanctions list.

“They don’t give two hoots about the west, that’s the message,” said Avinash Paliwal at Soas University of London’s South Asia Institute.

Analysts also say that the absence of non-Pashtun ethnic groups could fuel ethnic conflict, driving Uzbeks and Tajiks — who enjoy strong public sympathy and support in neighbouring countries — to resist the new power.

Iran has already denounced the Taliban for its offensive in the Panjshir Valley, the last opposition stronghold. Russia has said it would not recognise the Taliban government unless it was inclusive.

Militiamen take part in a training exercise in Panjshir on August 29 © Jalaluddin Sekandar/AP

“It will not only deepen the old faultlines but create new ones,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a former Pakistan senator. “All these ethnic groups, they are on the borders with other countries, so these differences will get regionalised and internationalised, leading to proxy wars.”

After the cabinet was unveiled, a statement from Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s elusive supreme leader who will also serve as the “emir” or head of state, declared that “all matters of governance and life will be regulated by the Holy sharia law”.

Western governments and some of Afghanistan’s neighbours have reacted with dismay at the new line-up, which the Taliban described as a “caretaker administration”.

“There is room for improvement in diversity, to put it mildly. No woman and no Hazara,” Andreas von Brandt, the EU ambassador to Afghanistan, said on Twitter on Wednesday, referring to the Shia minority. “Against all pronouncements.”

The US state department also expressed chagrin that the new government consisted exclusively of Taliban members and featured no women.

The two Taliban leaders with the greatest level of international exposure and best known to foreign governments, Abdul Ghani Baradar and Sher Mohammad Stanikzai, have also been effectively sidelined.

While running the Taliban’s de facto embassy in Doha, Baradar and Stanikzai had engaged in extensive talks with foreign governments, with Baradar even meeting former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. But both Baradar and Stanikzai — portrayed as moderate faces of a “changed”, reformed Taliban — have been given positions as deputies to men seen as more hardline.

“Any of those guys who until now demonstrated independence have been shunted out,” said Paliwal.

The cabinet bears the stamp of the Taliban’s oldest patron, Pakistan, he added. “Right now there is no leverage for most western countries in the situation, they can only respond through Pakistan and try to make sure that Rawalpindi — the Pakistan army headquarters — keeps these guys somewhat under control.”

Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan consultant at International Crisis Group, said Pakistan, Qatar and China were now the only countries that might be willing to recognise the new Taliban government in its current form.

“Everyone wanted an inclusive government but the Taliban’s internal politics won at the end of the day,” said Bahiss. “Regional countries were a bit more open to the idea of engagement with the Taliban — and even dangling the prospect of recognition. But increasingly we are seeing countries back away.”

Yet while the Taliban may not win formal diplomatic recognition, the international community is already providing emergency relief in an effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis that would trigger a mass exodus out of Afghanistan towards Europe.

“The western states will give money to the Taliban directly or indirectly,” said Nasratullah Haqpal, a Kabul-based political analyst. “They are very concerned about immigration and a great number of people leaving Afghanistan; they want to change the situation so that people are not coerced to leave for economic reasons.”

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