Taliban Cabinet: Can India Regain Lost Influence as an ‘Impartial’ Player?
The Taliban government, rife with political friction, will need aid and assistance — India can play good cop.
It was strange, even for Afghanistan. Even as huge crowds took to the streets to protest the Taliban and condemned Pakistan, an expressionless Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesman to the Talib, announced the new ‘caretaker government’. Not that it’s going to do much of taking care of the people, given its composition. An all-Taliban team, there is not even a pretence at “inclusivity”, with no minority appointees, and certainly no women. That’s unsurprising. No one gives gifts to the defeated, and certainly not the Taliban. That the US even believed in the emergence of an inclusive government is doubtful.
Meanwhile, new appointees will be busy guarding against a competition for power that is far from over. Others will be required to take care of their sponsors’ interests, and that includes not just the Faiz Hameed, Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, enjoying his evening cup of tea at the Serena Hotel — it also includes his sponsors in Beijing and a very wary Moscow. Given the make-up of this government, political instability is almost certain. But the appointments also indicate that the doors are not shut to India weighing in with help if it chooses to.
The Old Guard Strikes a Ten
A review of the appointment list shows that the old-timers or the ‘original Taliban’ have managed to secure themselves. This includes Mullah Hassan Akhund as the head of the government, and Mullah Ghani Baradar and Abdus Salam Hanafi as his two deputies. Also appointed is Amir Khan Mottaki as Acting Foreign Minister. Akhund is the oldest and served as a political advisor to Mullah Omar. That, and the fact that he’s a Kakar from Panjwai, gives him a certain weight in terms of the right lineage, but with no fighting experience. He seems to be a compromise candidate between the old Taliban and the younger cadres, most of whom have stronger affiliations to Pakistan.
Hanafi, Mottaki and Baradar are of the same age group, part of the first Taliban government of 2001, and later the Political Commission set up in Qatar. Then there’s Sher Md Stanikzai, appointed as Deputy Foreign Minister, also of the earlier government, and who was second in command at Doha to Baradar. Broadly, these are people who have interacted with foreign governments (including China) and are likely to be acceptable to most governments. That could include India. Certainly, none have any reason to dislike Delhi, not least of all ‘Sher’ Stanikzai, as he was known to his batchmates at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun. These older Taliban would be those who want stability (including in their own positions) and who are used to engage actively with the world, not just Pakistan.
The Guantanamo Segment
Another segment is made up of those who were again part of the previous government and were formerly detained at Guantanamo Bay. This includes Noorullah Noori, who gets the Borders and Tribal Affairs Ministry, an important post that was earlier held by the Haqqanis. That charge ensured that Pakistan’s border was safe, and provided sweeteners to his Zadran tribe. Noori has no reason to like former Northern Alliance leaders, who handed him over to the US and led him to eventual captivity.
Then there is Abdul Haq Wasiq, who completed his education in Pakistan and was earlier in the intelligence department in the first government. He is now Acting Intelligence Director, which means he takes over the powerful National Directorate of Security (NDS), which reports directly to the President or Head of State.
Khairullah Khairkhwa, another Kandahari, is Acting Minister of Information and Culture, and Mohammad Fazil Mazloom, also from Kandahar, is Deputy Minister of Defense. He was captured along the Pakistan border.
All the detainees are obviously the trusted ‘core’ Taliban, since their release was negotiated in exchange for Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Haqqanis. It is unclear which way they’ll jump, except that they obviously have no reason to like the US or its allies. Like most earlier Taliban leaders, they also blame Pakistan a great deal for its arm-twisting tactics and the hijacking of the group.
The Haqqani Trap
Then there is the third and most threatening group, the Haqqanis, who have gathered core ministries. The dreaded Interior Ministry goes to none other than Sirajuddin Haqqani, with a $5 million bounty on his head. His faction has the most capable and well-provided armed fighters, and operates as a “hub for outreach and cooperation with regional foreign terrorist groups and is the primary liaison between the Taliban and Al-Qaida”, according to UN reports. Those crowds out in Kabul need to take care. It is the Interior Ministry, earlier under Amrullah Saleh, which has the intelligence clout inside the country, besides having a manpower of some 99,000 forces, including the Afghan National Police, which is more of a paramilitary force than traditional cops.
The Interior Ministry also holds the records and Afghan identity documents crucial for rooting out ‘liberals’, quite apart from data on the staff of every department in government and outside it. In addition, it also has the charge of counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics. It’s like asking the fox to guard the chicken.
Haqqani is to be assisted by Maulvi Noor Jalal, a former intelligence officer and cousin of Najibullah Haqqani, who gets telecom. Khalil Haqqani, who’s been lording it over Kabul as quite literally the chief whip, seems to have become Minister for Refugees. In that capacity, he will be expected to prevent the rising flow of refugees to Pakistan and house them within the country, as Islamabad is demanding.
The Son of the Father of Taliban
Finally, there are the imponderables. That includes Mullah Yakub, son of Mullah Omar. It is worth remembering that he was initially appointed to head military operations in major provinces to balance out the non-Kandahari Sirajuddin, and to prevent the movement from splitting into factions. He has spent almost his entire life in Pakistani madrassas and gained influence due to the support of senior leaders who had been close to his father.
His appointment to head the Military Commission just after the agreement with the US last year is seen as an elevation to promote his influence and position vis-à-vis Sirajuddin. Experts believe that his appointment was favoured by the Saudis as well, since he replaced the Iranian-backed Ibrahim Sadr. Note however that Yakub is to be assisted by Mullah Mohammad Fazil, which gives the old guard and the Doha group an additional source of influence.
The Defence Ministry has an unenviable task of bringing together US- and India-trained cadres and melding them together with their own cadres. That is potentially an area where India can help if it chooses to. There’s not much time. Cadres of both sides have to be paid.
Kabul is Rife With Political Intrigue
At one level, the appointments actually reflect the Taliban’s ability to take on board competitors and keep the group unified. That’s what Mullah Omar did, and, apparently, that’s what the present Ameer, Haibatullah Akhundzada has also done, even while he is mysteriously missing still. But at that time, the Taliban were fighting a common enemy. Now, it’s time for the spoils. The division between the older group, all of whom fought, ruled together, and then hid away together (mostly in Pakistan), and the Haqqanis and associates tied by the leg to the ISI, is writ large across the portfolios.
Even during the best of times, Kabul is rife with political intrigue. This one could prove to be far worse unless there is a strong restraining hand. The DG ISI might fancy himself to be that factor, but he’s not. That also requires a great deal of money, which can only come from China.
Meanwhile, Iran is already unhappy about the complete bypassing of “inclusivity” where its Shias are concerned, and Russia is unlikely to sit idly by which a Pakistan-China combine takes over. India has the luxury to choose to get involved, or not. After all, its influence was dispensed with by the US as much as Russia and China.
But as the brawling gets worse, it is likely that an impartial country is looked to for assistance and aid, both of which are strong points in the bilateral relationship. The trouble is that navigating between these warring factions is going to be no easy task. Delhi will have to wait till the new Interior Minister provides a clear assurance of security from his own mentors in the ‘Rawalpindi shura’. That’s not going to be easy. That particular shura is known to have a dangerously short temper. So no, Pakistan is not going to have it all its own way. There’s space for others to offer genuine help and advice. It’s good cop time.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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