The Taliban’s new cabinet is neither inexperienced nor incompetent, but it comes from a narrow enough pool of candidates that suspicions about its inclusivity will only be put to bed if it actually is an interim, and not a permanent, one.
In the end, the Taliban movement’s much-awaited cabinet reveal seems to be a bit of a damp squib. The Islamist militants that overran Afghanistan with whirling speed in summer 2021 took a full three weeks to announce their interim cabinet before setting up an “inclusive” government.
When they did, observers could be pardoned for placing an emphasis on the word interim: the Taliban cabinet was an eerily familiar compound of the cabinet that had ruled in the 1990s and the shadow cabinet that had led the insurgency since.
This is not to suggest that such a cabinet is necessarily without its benefits: the Taliban emirate’s cabinet of 1996-2001, piecemeal and narrow as it was, was certainly more functional in at least its basic tasks than the chronically self-combusting mujahideen-militia coalition that preceded it; and the corrupt American-installed oligopoly that succeeded it. A major selling point for the insurgency was a relatively effective “shadow government” that established itself in much of the countryside.
The Taliban cabinet is not an inexperienced one nor, whatever classist sneers they may attract from privileged members of the ancien regime, an incompetent one. But it does come from a sufficiently narrow pool of candidates that suspicions about its inclusivity will only be put to bed if it actually is an interim, and not a permanent, cabinet.
Two important points possibly explain the need for a cabinet that includes other groups.
First in the centre, the precipitous flight of Ashraf Ghani from Kabul at the summer’s end meant that the Taliban insurgents were forced to take power much sooner than they had expected; hence the need for an interim cabinet comprising sufficiently trusted veterans to keep the government functioning without jeopardising the Taliban’s recent conquest.
Second, the defiance of Ghani’s deputy, Amrullah Saleh, and defence minister, Bismillah Muhammadi, in their native Panjshir valley – whence their figurehead Ahmad Massoud, son to their assassinated leader the former military leader Shah Massoud, tried to win over support on often dubious grounds from states like India, France and the United States – meant that the trajectory of Afghanistan’s periphery remained very much in the air.
The Panjshir insurgents had hoped to galvanise other parts of the Afghan periphery – most of which, partially in pique at Ghani, had melted away quickly during the Taliban attack – into a widespread revolt and kindle the sort of regional coalition of militias that Shah Massoud had once led.
This in turn meant that the Taliban could not afford to trust the recently surrendered factions until the Panjshir militants had been stamped out. If so, the end of the Panjshir revolt might lead to, from the Taliban’s viewpoint, a safer calculus in sharing cabinet seats with sufficiently reliable groups. In that case, it is likely that this will be an interim government before a more inclusive government is announced.
Andiwal and wherewithal
As it stands, however, the interim government is a limited one, whose members will be familiar to most observers of the 1990s Taliban emirate and the subsequent insurgency. It is led by Hassan Akhundzada, a low-profile but key leader in both periods. Having served as both interior and foreign minister in the emirate, Hassan later established the Taliban insurgency’s Quetta-based council with his better-known military counterpart, Abdul-Ghani Baradar; both were old friends to Taliban founder Omar Mujahid.
Always happiest as a lieutenant rather than figurehead, Baradar deputises for Hassan along with Uzbek Abdul-Salam Hanafi, who had served as a governor in the emirate and something akin to a foreign minister more recently.
Most other positions are split between talib networks from the southern lowlands and the Loya Paktia highlands, regions that comprised the longest-standing bulwark of Taliban support. Taliban support in these regions is epitomised, respectively, by the networks of Omar and the famous mujahideen-cum-Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. Omar’s son Yaqoob and Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin serve, respectively, as ministers for defence and interior; Omar’s brother Abdul-Mannan Omari and Jalaluddin’s brother Khalilur-Rahman Ahmad also hold less prominent ministries.
Similarly, longstanding friendship – andiwal, in frequent parlance – with Omar and Jalaluddin is a common factor in other parts of the Taliban cabinet. Like Hassan and Baradar, finance minister Gul-Agha Hidayatullah was a close friend and battlefield counterpart to Omar; he was also entrusted with the insurgent treasury.
Haqqanis Najibullah – not to be, though often enough, confused with a namesake who broke away from the Taliban years ago – and Abdul-Baqi are long standing members of Jalaluddin’s network, who also served as ministers in the 1990s Taliban cabinet. So too did Nur Jalal, now promoted to Sirajuddin’s second-in-command at the interior ministry.
In addition to the personal links of Omar and Jalaluddin, meanwhile, there are also plenty of Taliban ministers from similar backgrounds in their respective regions. For example, Khairullah Khairkhwah and Isa Akhundzada belong to the same clan, the same southern mujahideen front in the 1980s, and the same Taliban cabinet in the 1990s.
Abdul-Latif Mansur, leader of an influential mujahideen network from Loya Paktia, also reprises his 1990s role as a minister, while his nephew Abdul-Rahman serves as Kabul governor. There are also younger Taliban members who have climbed the ranks but belong to essentially the same background: Zabihullah Mujahid made his name as an insurgent spokesman and was rewarded with a ministry, while Younas Akhundzada and Rahmatullah Najib served as field commanders before their promotions to the cabinet.
A peculiar andiwal of sorts is the five Taliban leaders released from American custody in 2014. They include Khairkhwah; the ruthless former army commander Fazil Mazlumyar, now serving as deputy defence minister; former governor-general Nurullah Nuri, now frontier minister; former border commander Muhammad Omari, now a governor in his native Loya Paktia region; and former spymaster Abdul-Haq Wasiq takes up the same role, with Taj-Mir Jawad – who shares his eastern background and served as his lieutenant during the emirate – as his second-in-command.
Curiously Abdul-Qayum Zakir, another former prisoner in Guantanamo Bay who served as military commander, has not been given an official role, though rotations between Taliban commanders of similar rank are common enough. Instead Qari Fasihuddin, the Tajik commander from Badakhshan who led the Panjsher conquest, was rewarded for his efforts with a promotion.
Foreign minister Ameer Muttaqi – who played a major role in persuading former opponents to step aside during the 2021 summer campaign – is a veteran of the 1990s cabinet, as are his deputy Sher Abbas, chamberlain Ahmadjan Ahmadi, and the only Tajik minister Din Hanif. Justice minister Abdul-Hakeem Turjan, a prolific scholar who also played a major diplomatic role in recent years, is joined in the cabinet by his predecessor Nur-Muhammad Saqib.
These networks may be narrow, but they are nonetheless tight – which might explain why they were considered a safe option for an interim cabinet, before the Taliban can get such wherewithal as to expand their government.
It remains a narrow circle – though, in fairness, cabinets rarely exercised as much influence in Taliban history as did the separate Taliban council, led by emir Hibatullah Akhundzada, itself: in essence, a government controlled by a powerful party.
Its ethnic limitations – with thirty out of thirty-three appointees are Pashtuns – are somewhat assuaged by the far more ethnically and regionally diverse provincial governors and corps commanders, who can – if past is prologue – be expected to play a major role in everyday affairs.
Nonetheless, the Taliban cabinet is a limited one; and for that reason, it needs be fervently hoped, as seems to be the case, that the emphasis is on interim before the Taliban emirate expands its political engagement.