Taliban forces stand guard in front of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2 2021. Picture: REUTERS
Taliban forces stand guard in front of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2 2021. Picture: REUTERS

A week ago, anxious Afghans and credulous Biden administration officials were trying to take comfort in reports that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar would head the Taliban’s new government in Kabul.

It seemed like the least bad option. As leader of the group’s political wing, Baradar had been the Taliban’s chief representative in peace negotiations with the US in Qatar, and was thought to hold somewhat more moderate views than most of the military commanders. In interviews, he promised an “inclusive” government, representing all of the country’s ethnic and tribal groups.

As it turned out, Baradar may himself have been fortunate to be included in the government. Announced on Tuesday, the new caretaker administration is dominated by the Taliban’s military faction, with hardliners in key positions. Baradar is only in the third tier of the hierarchy, as one of two deputy prime ministers. He will report to Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who will in turn answer to Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada.

Baradar’s relegation undermines Afghan hopes for a kinder, gentler “Taliban 2.0”. Far from being inclusive, the cabinet is entirely male, overwhelmingly from the Pashtun community and has no representative from the Shiite minority. This makes it even harder to believe the group’s other reassurances, whether about women’s freedoms or religious tolerance.

More alarming for the wider world, the new dispensation in Kabul abounds with men with bona fides that would be welcomed at the high tables of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The composition of the government lengthens the odds on US President Joe Biden’s gamble that the Taliban will make common cause with Washington in the fight against jihadist terrorism.

The most prominent of the hardliners in office is Sirajuddin Haqqani, a US-designated terrorist with long ties to Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups. Afghans with a morbid sense of humour can now claim the $10m bounty offered by the FBI “for information leading directly to the arrest” of their new interior minister.

If Mohammed Yaqoob, the defence minister, doesn’t have Haqqani’s terrorist credentials, he more than makes up for this in lineage: he is the eldest son of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s first supreme leader and host of Osama bin Laden. Yaqoob has supervised the Taliban’s military operations in recent years, as the group has embraced many Al-Qaeda tactics, including the use of suicide bombings against civilian targets.

The new intelligence chief, Abdul Haq Wassiq, completes the troika of security bosses. He is under UN sanctions for his role in the previous Taliban administration, when he was “in charge of handling relations with Al-Qaeda-related foreign fighters and their training camps in Afghanistan.” (More than half the 33-man cabinet are under UN sanctions.)

If Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri could pick three men to run Afghanistan’s security services, it is a safe bet that Haqqani, Yaqoob and Wassiq would have been at the top of his list. The Biden administration must assume that they will make it their business to make Afghanistan a haven for terrorism once again.   

It is unlikely to be much of a consolation for Washington, but the government in Kabul will also alarm other countries with an interest in Afghanistan. For instance, there will be disquiet in China about army chief Qari Fasihuddin, who has had a long association with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing accuses of terrorism in its Xinjiang province. (The Trump administration last year removed the ETIM from the State Department’s list of terrorist groups.)

Meanwhile, the Shiite shutout will cause grave concern in Iran, which regards itself as protector of the minority sect. There are fears of a resumption of the persecution of the predominantly Shiite Hazara community that characterised the previous Taliban administration in the late 1990s.

And there’s bad news for India, which invested heavily in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. The hardliners are all closely tied to Islamabad. The Taliban has historically sided with Pakistan in its dispute with India over Kashmir, and many Indians fear the group will contribute more than just moral support to insurgents in the restive region.  

Just as in Washington, fingers were crossed in Beijing, Tehran and New Delhi in the hope of a Baradar-led Afghan government. Now they must all brace for the worst.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on BOBBY GHOSHbloomberg.com/opinion

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