Taliban co-founder reemerges to challenge reports of internal strife among militants

16 September 2021
Abdul Ghani Baradar, center, the Taliban's deputy leader and negotiator, is pictured with other members of the militant group in Moscow in March.
Abdul Ghani Baradar, center, the Taliban’s deputy leader and negotiator, is pictured with other members of the militant group in Moscow in March. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/Reuters)

Abdul Ghani Baradar, deputy prime minister in the Taliban’s interim government, took to the airwaves Wednesday to assure his compatriots that he is alive and well, and that reports that he was harmed during an internal clash among the Taliban leadership are untrue.

“I am fine,” Baradar said in an interview with Afghan national television. Top officials in the Taliban “have good and cordial relations with each other, even closer than a family,” he said, charging the media with telling “shameful lies.”

Baradar, the most visible member of the leadership in recent years, had been absent from public view for nearly a week, following reports of sharp disagreements between Taliban factions over the composition of the new government announced on Sept. 7.

The reports came as the Taliban continued to struggle to establish political and cultural dominance over what it has already won by force of arms, and to convince the world that it would adhere to more modern norms than the last time it governed Afghanistan.

Amid reports of violently suppressed demonstrations and the killing of perceived traitors, the militant army’s chief of staff said that soldiers and officers of the former government would be recruited for a new army, according to an interview published Wednesday by Tolo News, a private Afghan media organization.

At the same time, Deborah Lyons, the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, met with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the most violent Taliban faction, who has been named interim interior minister. Lyons, the U.N. said in a tweet, stressed “the absolute necessity for all UN & humanitarian personnel in #Afghanistan to be able to work without intimidation or obstruction to deliver vital aid & conduct work for the Afghan people.”

On Tuesday — as Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured Congress that the Biden administration would not unfreeze Afghan government assets or allow the Taliban access to humanitarian aid flows until it proved itself — interim foreign minister Khan Muttaqi said Afghanistan would not be “dictated to” and urged countries around the world to open formal relations with the new rulers.

The video of Baradar was recorded in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, where top Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada reportedly resides, although he has not been publicly seen since the month-old takeover. The broadcast came after a murky voice recording, tweeted Monday by the Taliban and said to be Baradar, denied rumors of his own injury or death. A handwritten letter, purportedly by one of Baradar’s top aides, said he was in Kandahar.

But the failure to provide real time video proving it was Baradar on the recording served only to increase rumors of his demise.

Baradar’s departure from the capital followed what people familiar with the situation said was an argument in which he was particularly concerned about the appointments of Muttaqi and the Haqqanis to the cabinet.

Sirajuddin Haqqani has a $10 million price on his head from the State Department as a “specially designated terrorist,” along with a $5 million reward offered by the FBI, for attacks during the war that were particularly vicious or killed Americans. The State Department has also offered $5 million for his uncle, Khalil Haqqani, now the acting Taliban minister for refugees. Muttaqi was minister of culture and education in the brutal Taliban government of the late 1990s.

Baradar is also widely believed to have wanted, and thought he deserved, the top job as prime minister.

The cabinet itself — all male and drawn from various Taliban power centers — “clearly was an effort at maintaining internal cohesion,” said a senior official from the region, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive issue. Whether part of the Pakistan-based “shura” leadership, or a leading commander, “some of them are meeting each other” after 20 years or even for the first time, the official said.

What is known as the “Doha group,” headed by Baradar — a former guerrilla commander and co-founder of the Taliban — includes those who conducted the negotiations with the United States in the Qatari capital over the past three years that led to last month’s U.S. troop withdrawal. He is seen, at least in the West, as more worldly than the others and more rational about the need for international support.

Released in 2018 from nearly a decade of imprisonment in Pakistan to negotiate with the Trump administration, Baradar reportedly has little sympathy for the neighboring country.

Sirajuddin Haqqani is the head of the so-called “Haqqani network” that has been based in Pakistan for much of the last two decades.

“This is clearly a situation where they have prioritized internal cohesion over inclusion,” said the senior official from the region, who suggested that this was the reason a permanent government has not yet been announced. “My understanding is they have also created a committee looking at ways they can make [a Taliban-led] government more inclusive” of non-Taliban political factions in Afghanistan, minorities and women.

Taliban officials have said women eventually will be included in the government, although not in the highest positions.

Baradar’s absence became most noticeable when he did not appear during Sunday’s visit to Kabul of Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Al Thani, who has met with him many times. In addition to hosting the U.S.-Taliban negotiations — and failed follow-up talks between the militants and the Afghan government of former president Ashraf Ghani — Qatar has been instrumental in the reopening of Kabul’s international airport, allowing additional Americans and others to leave the country following the U.S. troops withdrawal.

Al Thani, the highest level foreign official to visit Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, met with interim prime minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund — a member of the ruling shura and former head of various Taliban commissions — as well as with Muttaqi and his deputy.

Asked in the video interview why he did not meet with Al Thani, Baradar said that “we were not aware that the Qatari [foreign minister] was coming to Afghanistan. . . . If we knew beforehand, we would have stayed and met with him, along with our other colleagues.”

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.

Taliban co-founder reemerges to challenge reports of internal strife among militants