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Who Rules Afghanistan?

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

A few brief dispatches, for at least a glimpse of what some Afghans are seeing and discussing.

One of you commented below on the questionable value of relaying reactions I'm only hearing at a distance, through scratchy connections, or from third country officials. It is a fair point, and I initially hesitated before posting this, precisely because of a concern about lack of depth.

Still, these are voices of ordinary people -- who are rarely heard -- and interpretations based on my own long and unusual engagement with southern Pashtun society and with top U.S. and European decision-makers, both.

So, with those considerations in mind, I offer these snippets:

  • No word yet on who — which individuals — will now rule Afghanistan. This long silence rings loud.

By way of comparison, new leadership for Kandahar was announced within hours of the city’s fall. “They’re all mullahs!” said a friend, whom I reached in one of the outlying districts. “Even for technical jobs, jobs that need engineers, they put in mullahs.”

Real mullahs? Or mullahs in name? My friend snorted. “Fighters, commanders — that’s what all their ‘mullahs.’ are.”

In Kabul, by contrast, no list of names has been released. No well-wishers bearing bouquets of silk flowers have been seen filing through the presidential palace or ministry buildings, as is Afghan custom. The arm-wrestling match for top positions must still be underway.

On his initially secret August 23 trip to Kabul (widely reported afterwards), CIA Director Bill Burns reportedly met with Abdul-Ghani Baradar, a senior commander and Kandahar native who led the Taliban negotiating team in Doha. His recent public statements have been so conciliatory as to surprise Afghans -- and raise their suspicions about his real motives, and those of the Pakistani brass he is known to respect.

Some inside baseball here. In early 2010, the U.S. Embassy and ISAF HQ (where I worked at the time) were putting out independent feelers to some Taliban commanders, trying to leave the ISI out of the loop. Mullah Baradar was one of those. Within a period of about two weeks in January and February, a dozen of those contacts were either killed or arrested by the ISI. Baradar was arrested, and only released at the request of Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in 2018, in order to participate in the negotiations launched by the Trump Administration. Baradar would not have been released if the ISI was not confident he would hew to its objectives.

According to an account from the ground, Mullah Yaqub and Anas Haqqani, the sons of historical Taliban figures from the south and west, Mullah Muhammad Omar and Jallaluddin Haqqani respectively, are arguing over who should be president and who prime minister, and which powers each office should get.

  • With this wrangling raising dust above their heads, government workers are going unpaid, and street-level fighters are going hungry. “I don’t need any more men, I can’t feed them!” exclaimed a former (and now current) Taliban aviation executive to a radio reporter I trained.

In Kandahar, the Taliban fighters are begging door to door. “We have to give them something when they come knocking,” said my friend in the village. “What can we do?”

Amid rising prices and largely closed shops, banks, and borders, most Afghans are worried about their own families’ food, and green tea to fill the glasses they love to keep to hand.

These facts raise questions about how well the Taliban will do now that they have a country to govern. Western decision-makers might usefully remember that the only leverage they have left is international recognition -- long coveted by the Taliban leadership -- and the humanitarian and development support that goes with it. Those things are precious, and should not be given away freely. A different approach, breaking with past habits of writing blank checks, would be to use those carrots sparingly, attaching clear conditions, claw-back provisions, and mechanisms for independent verification. Those provisions are usually attached to agreements with a hostile government.

The temptation to give in to aching sympathy for the Afghan families buffeted by this latest reversal -- not to mention to feelings of guilt -- will be strong. But the gush of humanitarian and development assistance that poured into Afghanistan after 2001 hardly reached the most deserving people even when Western countries exercised some control over delivery of the resources. Can aid sent to and controlled by the Taliban leadership be expected to reach Afghan women and children now?

Or, let's compare humanitarian exemptions to sanctions against Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Did food and medicine sent under those provisions do much to alleviate citizens' suffering? Or did the goods allowed in serve to further enrich and entrench kleptocrats in charge?

I hope governments and humanitarian organizations resist the temptation to throw open the spigots. I hope they resist the temptation to dispense with the bother of conditions and verification measures and all that pesky oversight that slows down operations.

I wish I could even hope for any such restraint from businessmen and -women who are already itching to capitalize on current events. Investors based both in Pakistan and the United States have begun maneuvering to get in on the ground floor of the re-Talibanized Afghanistan.

  • More reports are coming in of Taliban who can’t speak Pashtu. Urdu rang out in the president’s office, the day the picture that made the rounds was taken. And Dari with such a strong Uzbek accent it was hard to understand barked orders at children still gathered by the airport on Saturday.

As of Sunday August 29, I had been interviewed on three broadcast networks just behind Pakistani officials -- or, in one case, the grandson of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. Gulbuddin was one of the bloodiest of the Soviet era Mujahideen commanders, whose forces fired heavy artillery into Kabul neighborhoods, leveling them, in a 1992 struggle for who would rule after the Soviet-backed government finally collapsed. He was in friendly partnership with Usama bin Laden from at least the 1980s, taking trips to southern Saudi Arabia, sometimes bringing Afghan women for marriage to Bin Laden's followers, according to a member of our online community who lived there at the time. The grandson of Gulbuddin who has been making the rounds of Western media, Obaidullah Baheer, is a professor -- of transitional justice, no less -- at the American University of Kabul.

In their television and radio performances, Baheer and the Pakistani officials all stressed how important it is for the international community to "engage" with the Taliban government and begin providing material support. Baheer called on Afghan civil servants to return to work. "The Taliban government will need technocrats," he explained.

I guess it will. If it wants to survive.

  • Finally, adding to my own sense of shame: from a Dutch and a British general -- one of whom had authority over his country's forces at the Kabul airport, the other who was in close contact with officers who did -- I have learned that US military personnel barred busses carrying the citizens of our NATO allies and their Afghan employees. No doubt they had orders to do so.

What is it that we’ve been hearing these past few months, about the U.S. being “back” — back on the world stage, back within the community of nations?

Back, yes. So it seems. But how?

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