by Nicholas Dawson, Forecast International.
August 15, 2021, is the day that brought the war in Afghanistan full circle. As the American troops were steadily preparing to leave, the Taliban almost unabatedly stormed through Afghanistan and captured Kabul. Surprised by the swiftness of the offensive and the seemingly apathetic nature of the Afghan Security Forces, the Western world experienced a severe blow to its morale. The Taliban, now in control of the capital, allowed the Western countries to leave on their own at an expedited rate as it began to consolidate its control once again after 20 years of war.
Recently the Taliban announced what its government will look like and who will be in control. Despite international pressure for an inclusive government allowing the representation of women and ethnic minorities, the government is composed of men almost entirely of Pashtun origin who have been major figures within the Taliban movement. Within this article, we examine the government by comparing it to Iran’s government model and by presenting profiles of important appointed ministers to better understand how the Taliban government may act and the potential challenges it faces to stay in power.
From the onset, a careful examination of the proposed government shows that the Taliban would adopt an Iranian model. Within the Iranian government, the Ayatollah, or Supreme Leader, is the supreme decision-maker. In this case, it is Ayatollah Khamenei who leads the Iranian state. The Ayatollah appoints major positions outside the elected bureaucracy. For example, he assigns six experts in Islamic law to join the Guardian Council, or Shura, as well as appointing members of the judiciary and military staff, and provincial representatives. Most importantly, the Ayatollah controls the Artesh (the Iranian military) and Pasdaran (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC). Something to keep in mind is that the Pasdaran is a part of the military but runs parallel to the Artesh, as it acts independently from the armed forces.
Interestingly enough, Iran has somewhat of a parallel government. The Ayatollah and his appointed groups are not elected by the people, unlike the president, parliament, and the Assembly of Experts. However, both the elected and unelected areas of governance run side by side by intermingling. More specifically, a parallel state is a collection of organizations and/or institutions that are state-like in their organization but are not officially a part of the government. Hence in Iran and potentially the Taliban government, the Ayatollah and his appointed institutions aren’t necessarily the deciding body, despite the Ayatollah having the most power and the final say.
The reasoning is that the president and the bureaucracy can somewhat control the Supreme Leader through the Shura, as the Parliament can elect six members just as the Ayatollah can appoint six. The Shura is monitored by the Assembly of Experts, which also observes the Supreme Leader. If something were to happen to the Supreme Leader, the Assembly of Experts would elect a new one rather than the Shura. As a result, there can be tensions between the parallel state of the Supreme Leader and the government bureaucracy in addition to the Shura. Due to this interesting dynamic, various power struggles occur regularly. In layman’s terms, the government and president can outmaneuver the Ayatollah through elected government functions.
The proposed Taliban government is similar to Iran’s in numerous ways. First, an Ayatollah will work with a Shura. Following him will be a prime minister who can establish his cabinet and choose his deputies. Working with him will be 25 ministry leaders and a Grand Assembly, or as it’s also known, Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga is an Afghan tradition that will be made up of representatives and elders from various Afghan tribes to discuss national matters of major importance.
Although not as intricate as the Iranian government, the proposed government could lead to power-sharing agreements between tribes that could complicate the decision-making process. This is because tribes in Afghanistan are diverse both ethnically and religiously. These tribes are generally conservative and have specific needs and rivalries. As an example, while Pashtuns make up the majority ethnic group of Afghanistan, they can still be divided into many sub-groups that have different cultures and tribal affiliations. This could be somewhat circumvented as the Supreme Leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, has stated that like Iran, the Taliban will adopt Sharia law. It would be up to him and the Shura to dictate certain constitutional (if a constitution is adopted) or religious rulings as necessary, in addition to the judiciary. Another problem would occur in Sunni-Shia relations, where the Taliban has a bad track record, having killed Shiites in the past. This is one of Iran’s main concerns, and it worked out an agreement back in 2015 that stated that, in exchange for Iranian support, the Taliban would not persecute the Shia community. Whether the Taliban will honor the 2015 agreement remains to be seen.
On September 7, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced who will fill the positions of the new government, with the government now known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Beginning at the top, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Emirate will be Haibatullah Akhundzada. Akhundzada is one of the oldest members of the Taliban and is the third Supreme Leader of the Taliban, succeeding Akhtar Mansour. Akhundzada is known to have fought the Soviets in the 1980s and later joined the Taliban in 1994. After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, he was the head of a group of religious scholars known for issuing fatwas for the Taliban. It is reported that after taking the mantle of Supreme Leader in 2016, he remained low, with analysts debating his actual role in leading the Taliban. What is known is that he had taught at multiple madrassas throughout his time in the Taliban and is versed in its depiction of Sharia law. As now the head of the Islamic Emirate, he has stated that Sharia will be followed and that he will be leading from Kandahar.
Filling the role of prime minister will be Hasan Akhund, who back in 2001 was the head of the Taliban government in Kabul. Akhund will have two deputies: Abdul Ghani Baradar and Abdul Salam Hanafi. Similar to Akhundzada, Akhund is one of the oldest members of the Taliban and was the foreign minister of Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule between 1997 and 2001. Akhund is reportedly highly respected and was a close friend of Mohammad Omar, the first leader of the Taliban. Supposedly Akhund is related to Ahmad Shah Durrani, who was the founder of modern Afghanistan. One of the deputies, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was one of the negotiators behind the U.S.-Taliban-brokered deal and is a cofounder of the Taliban movement. Abdul Salam Hanafi, the other deputy, is one of the few Uzbeks in the government and was also a part of the negotiation team.
Perhaps the most infamous among the ministers is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was designated to be the Interior Minister of the Islamic Emirate. Wanted by the FBI, he is the head of the Haqqani network, which has supported the Taliban and other terrorist groups for over 30 years. The Haqqani network was instrumental in resistance movements against the Americans in Afghanistan and was first founded during the Soviet occupation. Sirajuddin Haqqani is Pashtun and a part of the Mezi Clan in the Zadran Pashtun Tribe. The U.S. government has blamed the Haqqani network for some of the deadliest attacks during the American occupation.
The founder of the Taliban, Mohammad Omar’s son, Mohammad Yaqoob, was appointed to the position of defense minister. Since the announcement of his father’s death in 2015, Yaqoob has been able to consolidate power within the Taliban and became its military chief. His position of being the son of Mohammad Omar allowed Yaqoob to quickly rise up in the ranks, an ascent that was bolstered by various military successes. He even helped work on the withdrawal deal with the U.S. Yaqoob’s successes allowed for him to take the deputy leadership position as ordained by Haibatullah Akhundzada.
Perhaps the last of the prominent figures in the new Islamic Emirate is Amir Khan Muttaqi, who was selected as the foreign minister. Due to the successful occupation of Afghanistan, Muttaqi will have a major role to play in regional politics. China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan are all major influences that can be courted to help legitimize the Islamic Emirate. So far Russia has refrained from recognizing the Islamic Emirate, and Iran is seemingly undecided despite previous agreements. Meanwhile, Pakistan and China have shown potential interest in working with and helping the new government. Muttaqi himself was also a part of the negotiation team that worked out the U.S. withdrawal deal, and was the minister of information and culture during the original Taliban government. Additionally, he served as the Taliban representative to the United Nations from 1996 to 2001.
The takeback of Afghanistan by the Taliban has the potential to be one of the largest and most important changes in geopolitics and international relations in recent history. The American withdrawal had changed the landscape of the region, and now other major states have an opportunity to further their influence in the region. Known as one of the most important areas in historical antiquity, Afghanistan served as a major hub for trade and as a buffer for major empires. Today it remains influential due to its strategic position and wealth of goods. Specifically, the nation’s gold, agricultural products, and raw minerals, having an estimated worth of over $1 trillion have the potential to greatly change the world market. In this regard, China is looking to expand its Belt and Road Initiative, Pakistan is looking for an ally against India, and other nearby countries such as Qatar are looking to sustain relations and gain prestige on the geopolitical stage.
All of this will depend on how the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan adapts to the changes in the region and how the Taliban runs its government. Afghanistan will always be in the eyes of Western nations, which will be ready to act and scrutinize the country if they perceive threats against human rights or their neighbors. History shows that the Taliban, in the past a breeding ground for extremist movements, will rule with an iron fist, with little regard for human rights. Despite this, the Taliban promises that it has changed. Only time will tell if the Taliban has truly changed or not. But with the world watching, the Islamic Emirate’s actions will be a major determinant in how the regional balance of power changes.