The creation of the Taliban’s first government included a subliminal message for US President Joe Biden: We won the war and you can’t tell us what to do.
In recent days, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has listed priority do’s and don’ts for the Taliban. Do let Americans still in Afghanistan leave the country, and perhaps Afghan allies of the US, too. Don’t let terrorists operate from Afghan territory.
It is too early to judge if the Taliban agree to all. Eight days after the last US troops left the country, reports of Taliban guerrillas blocking the exit of both American citizens and frightened Afghans have emerged from the interior. Taliban officials deny them.
Beyond these pending issues, the provisional cabinet signaled a rejection of other US calls in advance of normalized relations. One was for an “inclusive government” that represents Afghans outside the Taliban movement; the other for “upholding the basic rights of Afghans.”
To be sure, it’s unusual for the losing side in a war to make demands. But the Taliban have made clear they will not share power with non-Taliban groups nor conform to Western ideas of human rights. And, by the way, some of the people most despised and feared for 20 years by successive US governments will be running important ministries.
By selecting mostly old-timers, the Taliban ensure that Afghanistan will be governed by the same militants who hosted Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terror organization in advance of the aerial assaults on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.
The attacks, via hijacked passenger planes, killed more than 3,000 Americans. As such, Saturday’s 20th-anniversary commemorations of the event will be especially bitter not only for the US public and military veterans but also for Biden, who has overseen a chaotic finale in Afghanistan.
Here’s a partial list. Designated Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is widely accused of terrorist activities and has long been under United Nations sanctions including a travel ban and freeze of assets.
The US Justice Department has labeled new Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani a “specially designated international terrorist.” According to the FBI website, “The Rewards For Justice Program, United States Department of State, is offering a reward of up to US$10 million for information leading directly to the arrest of Sirajuddin Haqqani.”
Biden and Blinken have both emphasized the need for women’s equality, but no women were named among the 33 ministers and other officials announced today.
Under UN sanctions is Defense Minister Mohammed Yaqoob, son of the late Mullah Muhammed Omar. Omar ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, after the Taliban ousted Soviet occupiers.
His unwillingness to turn over bin Laden to the Americans prompted the US invasion of the country and the overthrow of the Taliban by allied Afghan tribes.
During their first turn in power, Taliban leaders maintained that Islam forbade educating women or girls. The current Taliban position is uncertain.
So far, they have issued videos of women in classrooms separated from male classmates, while at the same time barring women in the western town of Herat from returning to university studies.
Urban women, many of whom gained work and professional opportunities after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, have spearheaded a few anti-Taliban protests in recent days.
Earlier this week demonstrations against the Taliban and its long-time ally Pakistan broke out in Kabul and Herat. Taliban militia members broke up the Kabul protest by whipping the crowd and firing into the air. In Herat, two people were shot dead and some reporters were beaten and detained.
Biden insists that the “international community” is insisting on wide standards of human rights. Blinken advised that the US has “points of incentive and points of leverage” to compel the Taliban toward the American view of rights.
Assumed leverage includes the freezing of over $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank funds held at the US Federal Reserve and other financial institutions, as well as denying access to development organization funds from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The Taliban say they want to engage with the wider world, but on terms that are true to the group’s political and religious beliefs. These are based on their strict interpretations of sharia, or Islamic law, which will inform its newly formed “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
Indeed, when the US government discusses conditions it places on future relations, it steers clear of any reference to Islam – much less the Taliban’s version of it.
During its five-year reign that ended in 2001, the Taliban claimed religious authority to prohibit women’s work and education. The Taliban imposed dress codes keyed to modesty, banned popular entertainment and held public executions for sins of adultery and murder. Amputations were reserved for Afghans convicted of theft.
Since arriving in Kabul, Taliban officials have said mistakes made then and new circumstances may require rethinking. So far, eruptions of attacks on men or women have been excused as either criminal activity beyond the Taliban’s control or the result of untrained militiamen trying to keep order.
Yet demonstrators have already been tarred for being destabilizing agents of outside powers.
Sweeping generalizations by Biden and Blinken of what the “international community” will demand from the Taliban may be misleading. The countries moving most quickly to heal relations with Afghanistan and replace US influence are all serial civil and human rights abusers, namely Russia, China, Pakistan and Turkey.
Russia and China are especially averse to outside interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. Not surprisingly, the Taliban has invited Russia, China, Turkey and Pakistan, along with Iran, to the installation ceremony of the new government.
In any event, Biden’s insistence that the world is defined by a conflict between democrats and authoritarians may ring hollow. The US can hardly claim to be a pure player in the arena of human rights. Friends get a pass; in the Middle East, Egypt and Saudi Arabia leap to mind.
No matter. If the Taliban let remnant US citizens leave, stop short of promiscuously persecuting US-friendly Afghans left behind and permit no terror attacks to be launched from its territory, Biden will be happy to let Afghanistan slip down the memory hole of American foreign policy failures.