- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2021

The Taliban prepared to formally announce the formation of a hardline Islamist government in Kabul on Friday, even as the threat of a slow-burning civil war loomed amid increasingly intense fighting between the militants and a fiercely anti-Taliban group in northern Afghanistan.

Four days after the final U.S. military forces left, reports from the Afghan capital said Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will be announced as head of the new government, with Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada set to hold influence over the brand of Shariah law that will be imposed on Afghans.

Taliban representatives had said their goal was to create a government of “consensus,” something U.S. officials hoped might involve the inclusion of former Afghan officials or some form of overture to women’s rights in Afghanistan. But all indications Friday suggested the government will be exclusively Taliban.

Reuters cited a source close to the Islamist militant movement as saying a soon-to-be-announced interim government will consist solely of Taliban members and will comprise 25 ministries, with a consultative council, or shura, of 12 Muslim scholars.

A Taliban official told the news agency on the condition of anonymity that all of the Taliban‘s top leaders had arrived Friday in Kabul, where preparations were “in final stages to announce the new government.”

Reuters cited other sources as saying Mr. Baradar, who heads the Taliban‘s political office, will be joined by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban co-founder Mullah Omar, and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, in senior positions in the government.

Mr. Baradar was a close confidant of Mullah Omar and a co-founder of the Taliban in the 1990s. He was seen during the initial years after the 2001 U.S.-led military invasion of Afghanistan as a top leader of the militant group’s insurgency against the post-9/11 Western occupation of the country. He was captured in Pakistan in 2010 and held in a Pakistani prison for eight years, before suddenly being released in 2018.

The Taliban had seized effective control over much of Afghanistan’s countryside by that year, and the Trump administration was looking for a way out of America’s longest war. The Associated Press has reported that Trump administration officials persuaded Pakistan to release Mr. Baradar, as Washington elevated its pursuit of peace talks with the Taliban.

Mr. Baradar led the Taliban’s negotiations with U.S. officials in Qatar that culminated in a February 2020 peace agreement, which set in motion the final withdrawal of U.S. forces.

While the interim Taliban government had not been formally announced as of Friday evening in Kabul, the government will face a range of challenges after it is announced.

One will be to try to stave off an all-out economic collapse and humanitarian meltdown in the country following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces and the fleeing of tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked with those forces and with international aid organizations in the country.

On the more immediate horizon is the threat of a civil war with fiercely anti-Taliban fighters known as the National Resistance Front (NRF) in the northern Panjshir province.

The only Afghan province that has not fallen to the Taliban, Panjshir is a stronghold of Northern Alliance fighters who joined with the U.S. to topple the Taliban in 2001. The BBC on Friday cited reports of intense clashes in Panjshir, with the Taliban claiming to have inflicted “heavy” losses on the NRF. The outlet also cited the resistance group as saying it continues to control all entrances to the Panjshir valley, and that the Taliban itself had lost hundreds of fighters.

Questions are swirling, meanwhile, over what the Biden administration’s policy will be toward the Taliban.

Administration officials spent much of this week dodging questions about whether or not the White House will recognize or attempt to establish formal diplomatic ties with a Taliban-led government.

Officials say the answer will depend on whether the Taliban follows through on promises made during the Qatar talks in 2019 and last year to be “inclusive,” to respect women’s rights and to deny safe harbor in Afghanistan to such terrorist groups as al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

“We’re not going to take them at their word, we’re going to take them at their deed,” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told reporters at the State Department. “They’ve got a lot to prove based on their old track record.”

When the Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan during the late-1990s, it offered a safe haven to al Qaeda, whose fighters carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The Taliban also imposed a harsh form of Sharia law during those years that denied women the most basic rights, including access to education. There were also regular reports of women being publicly stoned to death on dubious adultery allegations.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Thursday that the Biden administration is working to continue a flow of “humanitarian assistance” into Afghanistan regardless of whether the administration deems a Taliban-led government worthy of formal recognition.

“We have mechanisms in place to deliver humanitarian assistance through providers on the ground in a way that bypasses any government or de facto government entity,” Mr. Price said. “So we are confident – again, going through these providers on the ground – that we can continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people in a way that, if inappropriate, would not benefit any future Afghan government.”

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