When the Taliban finalised the administrative outlines of their so-called “Islamic Emirate” on Tuesday, they chose the most narrow conception of Afghan identity possible. It flew in the face of the earlier rhetoric coming from the militant group-turned-government. For weeks, the Taliban had repeated calls from civil society activists for the need for Afghanistan to have an “inclusive” administration that would, it alleged, for the first time in decades, reflect the desires of Afghans more than the desires of foreigners.
Pluralism has always been the core of Afghanistan’s national identity. The country is a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups, languages and religious traditions. The country’s cultural diversity has always rendered national cohesion a tenuous prospect, putting extra pressure on would-be leaders to show that a united Afghanistan is an idea worth rallying around or, at least, not undermining.
The new Taliban administration sends no such signals. Instead, its Cabinet is almost entirely filled with established Taliban clerics. Only a couple are not Pashtun – the ethnicity of the vast majority of the Taliban’s members – and none are from the Hazara community, an important ethnic minority who were severely persecuted when the militants were last in power in the 90s. There are also no women in top-level positions. The Ministry of Women's Affairs has been removed altogether.
Hassan Akhund heads the government as Acting Prime Minister. Mr Akhund was a minister in the Taliban administration in place before the US invasion of 2001. He has since been blacklisted by the UN. Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar was a founding member of the group in 1994. The new Minister of Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is designated a “terrorist” by the US. He is the leader of the militant, Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, the most powerful insurgent organisation associated with the Taliban. Their record of attacks includes a 2017 truck bomb in Kabul that killed more than 150 people.
After the new administration was revealed, demonstrations broke out across the country. The Taliban responded violently, suggesting that another of the group's promises, to safeguard civilians, is next to be put to the test. Many Afghans fear the worst. As reported in The National, Saad Mohseni, the chief executive of Moby Group, which is the largest media company in Afghanistan, has warned of an impending humanitarian disaster and that the militants' limited patience with demonstrators could soon "snap".
The international community, therefore, has the delicate task of holding the new government – whose members have become masters at running rings around foreign diplomats – accountable without aggravating the crisis. Either way, the Taliban will use the clamour of foreign nations seeking to establish ties, formal or informal, as a way to bolster the legitimacy of their new government.
As domestic protests show, the Cabinet will receive far fewer requests for conciliation at home. But if taking to the streets really is set to become more dangerous, the world's diplomats need to overcome their shock and act.
Two months ago, the prospect of there being an Afghan government like today's seemed almost impossible to many Afghans. To alleviate what has been a huge strategic embarrassment for so many countries supporting those Afghans, diplomacy could still offer a way to influence the new Cabinet, particularly if it is facing an economic crisis brought on by an exodus of citizens and a lack of foreign aid. The protection of civilians should be a central condition for support of this new government going forward.