It didn’t take the Taliban much time to form its new government, just two weeks after storming Kabul after the hasty departure of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The line-up has sent shivers down the spine of Kabul residents, since 14 of the 33 ministers served during the Taliban’s first government, back in 1996-2001. People old enough to remember have bad memories of the first Taliban era, known as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, associating much of its brutality with the very same names who are back in office today, all serving in interim acting capacity.
The Taliban’s selection of ministers shows that the Taliban is clearly uninterested in theatrics or at projecting a moderate image to the world. Contrary to initial media reports, the group has not moderated its behavior nor any of its rhetoric. Its Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada recently made that clear by announcing that the new government will uphold Islamic Sharia, while making no mention of democracy, basic freedoms, or the rule of law. Four of the new Taliban ministers are former inmates at Guantanamo Bay, including Deputy Defense Minister Mohammad Fadel and Information Minister Khairullah Khairkhwa. There are no women among the list of names and the Shiite Hazara minority was visibly absent, although the Taliban had promised to include all ethnicities.
Although the list includes some Taliban old-timers, most of the newly appointed ministers are middle age, born between the years 1968 and 1978. At least two of the 33—Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob—are sons of prominent historical figures. Western analysts consider Yaqoob a moderate, but locals remember him only as the son of Mullah Muhammad Omar (1960-2013), the notorious founder of Taliban. It was Mullah Omar, after all, who dragged the country into a senseless war with the United States back in 2001, after having given sanctuary to al-Qaeda and stubbornly refusing all demands to extradite his friend, Osama Bin Laden. His son is now in charge of the country’s army while his brother, Abdul Manaan Omri, has just been appointed Minister of Labor.
Scratching beneath the surface, one can see the web linking the careers of all the new ministers. All were either co-founders of the Taliban or early members, who joined before the group came to power in 1996, meaning they had all joined out of ideological conviction, rather than for personal and material benefit. More importantly, none relinquished their ties to the Taliban during the twenty years that followed the US invasion of 2001, showing just how committed they are to the group’s ideology. They shared parallel careers, first in the underground, then in government, and finally, as outlaws in the caves and forests of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of the powerful ministers were part of the 2020 negotiations with the administration of former US President Donald Trump, held in Doha. The Americans had courted them with hope of breathing life into a stillborn peace process, going as far as to getting some of them out of jail.
Here is a look at the most important figures in the new government:
Acting Prime Minister: Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund
Veterans of the first Taliban era remember Akhund as the country’s foreign minister and deputy premier in 1996-2001. An ethnic Pashtun, he hails from the city of Kandahar. Akhund was born and raised in the Kingdom of Afghanistan, a secular state with a rising Islamic opposition. He obtained a standard clerical education and was a close associate of Mullah Omar. Little is known about him and even his date of birth remains a mystery, with the European Union (EU) saying that he is 76-years old. Other estimates put his date of birth anywhere between the years 1945 and 1950. Akhund publicly rejected a demand to hand Bin Laden over in 1999. During the underground Taliban years, he served as head of the group’s executive Rehbari Shura (Leadership Committee), also known as the Quetta Shura. He is the oldest member of the Taliban, who knows what went wrong during the Taliban’s first stint in power and what it takes to correct those mistakes today. Although young militants respect him, they wouldn’t necessarily like being bossed around by him, seeing him as too old, too scholarly, and too distant from the battlefield. On the available evidence, Mullah Akhund appears as a ceremonial figurehead, with real power resting in the hands of his deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Acting First Deputy Prime Minister: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar
Baradar is much younger than the premier, born in 1968. He, too, was very close to Mullah Omar but unlike Akhund, the two men were childhood friends and married to two sisters. They were also part of the core group of four militants that founded the Taliban in 1994. Baradar began his military career fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, back in the 1980s. Side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder, he fought with the Mujahideen, which were supported by US money as part of Cold War policy. During the years of Taliban rule, he held a variety of important positions, some being political and others military. He was governor of Herat, then commander of the Taliban forces in western Afghanistan and, finally, Deputy Chief-of-Staff at Central Commander in Kabul.
He fought the US-led invasion of Afghanistan before moving to Pakistan as a leader of the Rehbari Shura from exile. Pakistani intelligence arrested him in 2010 over charges of trying to negotiate a secret agreement with the government of Afghanistan’s then-President Hamid Karzai. He was eventually released at the official request of the United States in 2018. Baradar moved to Qatar, heading the Taliban’s “political office” in Doha and, in February 2020, negotiated and then signed an agreement with the Trump Administration for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. He returned to Kabul on 17 August 2021, amidst reports that he would become the next president after Ashraf Ghani.
Acting Second Deputy Prime Minister: Abdul Salam Hanafi
A religious figure and cleric, Hanafi is an Uzbek from the Jowzjan Province, educated at religious schools (madrassa) in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was not one of the Taliban founders but an early member who was also close to Mullah Omar, but never as close as Akhund or Baradar. During the first Islamic Emirate, he had served as Minister of Education, enforcing a strict Quranic system on schools and universities. Hanafi is close to Baradar and served by his side on the negotiating team in Doha last year.
Acting Minister of Defense: Mullah Yaqoob al-Mujahid
Born in 1992, Mullah Yaqoob is the eldest son of the Taliban’s founder Mullah Omar. He grew up with Osama Bin Laden at his father’s residence and was greatly influenced by him. He served as a military commander under his father, and was twice considered to lead the group — first, after his father’s death from illness in 2013 and secondly, after the killing of his father’s successor Akhtar Mansour in 2016. On both occasions, his name was dropped because of his young age, prompting him to storm out of one meeting in objection. As the Taliban overran Kabul last month, Mullah Yaqoob called on his fighters to treat soldiers, civilians, and foreigners fondly, echoing statements made by the Prophet Mohammad after his triumphant return to Mecca after being exiled to Medina. That phrase, which he might have picked up from Bin Laden himself, famously said: “He who has closed the doors of his home is safe. He who has entered the home of (Mecca notable) Abu Sufyan is safe.”
Acting Foreign Minister: Amir Khan Muttaqi
Another veteran of the first Taliban era, Muttaqi previously served as Information and Culture Minister. Born in 1970, he began his career with Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami (Islamic Revolution Movement) before defecting to the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Mullah Omar treated him well, relying on Muttaqi for propaganda purposes, official communiques, and indoctrination — especially right before and during the US invasion of 2001. After the fall of the first Islamic regime, Muttaqi disappeared with his comrades, re-emerging first as chairman of the Invitation and Guidance Commission (charged with handling defections from other groups) and, then, as a member of the Doha negotiations last year. He is neither a religious figure nor a military one, considered something of a technocrat — if the word applies to the new order in Afghanistan. His most memorable feat was the March 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas — two sixth-century statues carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan. They were considered idols and blown to pieces on the orders of Mullah Omar, infamously bringing the Taliban to the world’s attention.
Acting Interior Minister: Sirajuddin Haqqani
Sirajuddin (born in 1976) is the son of celebrated Afghan jihadi warrior Jalaluddin Haqqani (1938-2018), who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and was received by US President Ronald Reagan at the White House, who famously described him as a “freedom fighter.” Upon his death from illness in 2018, his son Sirajuddin took over the military units of his father, known as the Haqqani Network. Unlike his father, however, he is on the FBI’s wanted list over a January 2018 attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul that led to the killing of six people, one being an American citizen. He also confessed to having tried to assassinate Afghanistan’s then-president, Hamid Karzai, in April 2008. In addition to his battlefield credentials, Haqqani currently serves as one of the two deputies to the Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada.
In 2011, Haqqani released a 144-page book in Pashto, which served as a military manual for Afghani fighters. The literature bears a startling resemblance to al-Qaeda doctrine, advocating beheadings, suicide bombings and attacks against Western targets. Over the past two years, he has steadily tried to build bridges with the Americans — first, by marketing himself as an enemy of the Islamic State (ISIS), and, secondly, by “outreach” to the West, most notably writing an opinion piece for The New York Times on 20 February 2020 entitled, “What We, the Taliban, Want.”
Acting Justice Minister: Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai
Considered the second most influential cleric in the Taliban, Ishaqzai was born in the Band-i-Taimur village in the Maywand District, in 1967. He steered clear from politics during the first Taliban era, serving on their judicial courts while teaching at Darul Uloom Haqqania — a famous Islamic seminary in northwestern Pakistan often called the “University of Jihad”, whose alumni include notorious names like Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. Ishaqzai took a back seat during the insurgency years from 2001 to 2021, running a religious seminary in Quetta, only to emerge last year as a member of, then as head of, the 21-man negotiating committee in Doha. Ishaqzai is a respected scholar with moral authority over young Taliban fighters. They grew up reading his works and listening to his sermons, which were distributed secretly in Afghanistan, first on cassettes in the 1980s and then on CDS.
Acting Information Minister: Khairullah Khairkhwa
Born in Kandahar in 1967, Khairkhwa was the governor of the city of Herat under the first Emirate, before serving as interior minister in 1997 and 1998. He had also served as an unofficial spokesman for the Taliban, famously giving interviews to BBC and Voice of America. Originally a police official in Kabul, he allied himself with Mullah Omar, and helped establish the Taliban in 1994. The Americans arrested him after toppling the Taliban, and sent him to Guantanamo Bay, where he arrived on 1 May 2002. Khairkhwa remained behind bars until May 2014, when he was released at the official request of President Karzai, who erroneously believed that Khairkhwa’s release would give momentum to push stalled peace talks with the Taliban. Khairkhwa also has extensive links with Iran.
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