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Taliban Caretaker Government: Good for Internal Cohesion, Bad for Governance

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Taliban Caretaker Government: Good for Internal Cohesion, Bad for Governance

The new government might have saved the Taliban from internal fracturing, but it has certainly made it harder for them to govern Afghanistan. 

Taliban Caretaker Government: Good for Internal Cohesion, Bad for Governance

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid speaks during a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan Tuesday, September 7, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Muhammad Farooq

The Taliban announced their caretaker government on Tuesday. The appointments that were announced do not constitute a complete government — no judiciary appointment was announced, for example — but they covered most of the key government posts. In total, they announced 34 positions including important posts such as appointing the group’s emir as the head of state; a prime minister as the head of government along with two deputies; and ministers of interiors, defense, foreign affairs, and finance. 

The Taliban had promised to form an “inclusive government.” During the so-called peace negotiations, they had said that they did not wish to monopolize power. Just days ago, Mullah Baradar, now deputy prime minister, promised that the Taliban would form an “inclusive” government. In reacting to the Taliban takeover of Kabul last month, almost every country — friendly and unfriendly alike — stressed to the Taliban that they should form an “inclusive government,” implying that international recognition of the new government may hinge on the Taliban’s willingness to meet this demand. 

Is the partially announced caretaker government of Taliban “inclusive”? 

The Taliban and every other country that talked about the “inclusivity” of the government had their own definition of the word. 

When it comes to the Afghan context, we can think of inclusivity coming in three forms: gender inclusivity, ethnic inclusivity, and inclusivity of thoughts. Accordingly, the questions I would pose to assess the inclusivity of the new governments are as follows: Are Afghan women, who make up half of the population, included? Are different identities that Afghans hold reflected in the government? And are those who hold different or opposing views from the Taliban included in the government?

Judging by these three questions, I believe the Taliban did worse than even some skeptics expected.

In their announced caretaker government, the Taliban excluded women entirely. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (article 4) named 14 different ethnic groups as being part of the Afghan nation, but 30 out of the 33 announced appointees were from one ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Compared to the 1990s, the Taliban have brought more non-Pashtuns into their ranks, a factor that contributed to their gains in non-Pashtun parts of the country, but those newcomers are not reflected in senior leadership (with one exception: the head of the Afghan army). Overall, two appointees are Tajik, and one is Uzbek. No Hazara was included. 

Within the Pashtuns, the southern Pashtuns, where the Taliban movement was founded, gained the most. Pashtuns are a diverse group; positions only went to those who were senior members of the Taliban. Pashtun nationalists and Pashtun technocrats, who were major supporters of the former Afghan government, are also excluded. 

All of the appointees are Hanafi Sunni. No Shia was given a post, even though Afghanistan has a sizable Shia minority. The absence was more noteworthy because on the day of announcement, Shia religious scholars in a gathering had asked the Taliban to recognize some autonomy for Afghan Shias and not to collect the religious tax of Ushr from Shias under Hanafi jurisprudence.

At least two ministerial positions, including the important portfolio of the ministry of interior, went to one prominent Taliban family, the Haqqani family, the family that leads the notorious Haqqani Network. All appointees are high-ranking members of the Taliban movement, with most positions going to the vanguards who were prominent in the Taliban’s last government in the ‘90s.

Senior group members who were reputed to be unfriendly to Pakistan did not fare well. For example, Baradar, who was favored to be the head of the caretaker government, was appointed to the deputy prime minister position, which would amount to a demotion from his previous position as head of Doha political office. 

Many had hoped that the Taliban, as a government, would be different than the Taliban, as an insurgency, but through these announcements, in effect, the Islamic Emirate, the insurgency, formalized itself as the Islamic Emirate, the government. 

Why did the Taliban announce a Taliban-only caretaker government? 

Considering how costly the Taliban-only government is likely to be for the Taliban’s ability to govern, I argue the likely explanation for this move is that if the Taliban had announced a different government, they would have risked internal fractures. 

From the early days of the movement, the Taliban have highly valued internal cohesion, stressing the religious duty of obeying their emir and building internal consensus before making important decisions. That is how the Taliban remained a cohesive group for more than two decades, despite taking serious causalities. There were some breakaway fractions following the announcement in 2015 of the death of Mullah Omar, the group’s founder, but the Taliban reconsolidated itself relatively quickly. 

When the Taliban seized power last month, they were faced with a hard choice: Either mold the state into the group’s existing power structure and maintain internal cohesion, or share power with others to form a government acceptable to more Afghans and the international community but risk internal fracturing over such compromises. The Taliban chose internal cohesion over domestic and international legitimacy. 

The composition of the caretaker government announced is likely to roughly reflect the existing distribution of power and the main stakeholders within the movement. Zabihullah Mujaheed implied as much when he said that these are temporary and political appointments, and the future government, the permanent government, will consist of technical people. 

However, if the Taliban could not form a minimally inclusive government at this critical juncture, when they need international and domestic legitimacy to save the economy and mitigate domestic resistance, it is unlikely that they will be able to form a more inclusive government anytime soon. 

It is hard to imagine how the group will be able to move its most powerful members out of senior government positions once installed. The risk to the group’s internal cohesion is likely to increase with time rather than decrease, if for nothing but the endowment effect.

There are two other likely scenarios. First, the Taliban will delay the formation of a “permanent” government to avoid revisiting the internally divisive debate over how to distribute key government positions. Or they may restructure the state, creating politically powerful positions above the cabinet for top leaders and making room for technocrats in the cabinet.

What is the likely cost of forming a Taliban-only caretaker government? 

There is likely to be a real cost to this move. The caretaker government is unlikely to be an effective government because many of the appointees do not have the needed expertise to effectively run their respective ministries. 

The recent appointments are likely to at the very least delay international recognition of the new government. Several key appointees are under U.N. and U.S. sanctions for terrorism. The Taliban government will have a difficult time getting the funds it needs to save the rapidly deteriorating Afghan economy. This is important because the Taliban could partially compensate for their lack of fair representation through performance legitimacy, i.e., improving the Afghan economy. Beyond that, this move is likely to make other countries doubt the Taliban’s ability to moderate their stance, compromise, and balance competing objectives. If the Taliban are so beholden to their internal factions, many countries may ask, then how reliable a partner can the Taliban really be for friends and foes alike. How reliable are Taliban promises?

The Taliban-only caretaker government is going to have a harder time dealing with the growing domestic resistance as well. Afghan women are likely to continue protesting now that the group has completely excluded them from government leadership. There were women-led protests in Kabul the day following the announcement of the caretaker government’s composition. 

Afghans who hold the excluded identities — the Afghan youth, the educated class, the Pashtun nationalists, and the other ethnic groups — are likely to protest the Taliban government as well. 

The organized military resistance against the Taliban that emerged out of Panjshir, a movement that calls itself the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA), will try to mobilize the disfranchised Afghans against the Taliban government — and it has already started that work. The Taliban, via it’s announcement government, have made the NRFA’s job easier.

The new government might have saved the Taliban from internal fracturing, but it has certainly made it harder for them to govern Afghanistan.