On May 18, the interim Taliban administration in Afghanistan announced that it has replaced caretaker Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund with his deputy, Maulvi Abdul Kabir. Akhund had been ill for a while and was unable to carry out his duties.
The appointment of Kabir, who hails from the Pashtun Zadran tribe and who played a key role in negotiating the 2020 Doha agreement with the US, is said to be a routine process, but the timing of it is significant and must be read very carefully, particularly by the West.
The announcement came following growing international dismay at the Taliban’s edicts limiting girls’ education and preventing women from working. This change in leadership can be seen as a positive development and an indication of willingness on the part of the Taliban to open up.
Pride may stay in the way of a drastic reversal of policy, but a desire to alter course can be read in the Taliban making small but important steps towards incremental change.
For example, the recent decision by the authorities in Herat to allow several middle and high schools for girls to reopen is one such step. Kabir may well make another soon by lifting the ban on women working in the humanitarian field, considering that there already are exemptions in the health sector and for certain key NGOs.
In the past, when the Taliban showed a willingness to engage with the international community, foreign leaders failed to seize the opportunity. They should not make the same mistake again.
In considering a response to this strategic move by the Taliban, the international community would be well advised to consider a few points.
First, from a Taliban perspective, the appointment of Akhund as an acting prime minister in 2021 was inevitable. It was meant to symbolise continuity with the previous Taliban regime of 1996-2001, in which he occupied different ministerial positions.
Also, as one of the most conservative among the Taliban leaders, Akhund no doubt played a role in reassuring its rank and file, particularly those coming from rural areas, that the movement would not abandon its values now that the war was over.
Feeling more confident on the domestic front and in their ability to govern without serious opposition, the Taliban appears ready for a greater degree of openness and dialogue with the outside world. Kabir’s appointment is a reflection of this openness.
Second, the Taliban must have learned a thing or two as a result of its isolation over the past two years. Most importantly, its leaders have certainly observed that in our interconnected world, the concept of absolute sovereignty is hard to apply, particularly in a country on the verge of a major humanitarian crisis.
Adopting rigid attitudes in the name of protecting sovereignty antagonises the international community, including those countries that are willing to help Afghanistan. A case in point is the Taliban’s position on the management of Kabul Airport.
The Taliban government, led by Akhund, was determined to have complete control over the airport’s commercial affairs and security, and hence, ended up accepting an offer from the UAE, which agreed to its demands. A year later, regional and international airlines, including those owned by the UAE, have not resumed flights to Kabul, and the airport continues to be in bad shape, as the Taliban authorities have failed to manage it properly.
Third, the appointment of Kabir reflects a significant shift from the traditional rigid Taliban decision-making to a more contemporary “Taliban 2.0” that is more open to dialogue.
It also shows the importance that the Doha Agreement holds for the Taliban as a point of reference for future talks with the international community on issues of security and inclusivity. Although on the face of it, the Taliban has refused any form of dialogue with other Afghans, the group has not ceased to engage.
One initiative that has sought to promote dialogue with the Taliban is the Afghanistan Future Thought Forum (AFTF), chaired by Ms Fatima Gailani, an Afghan politician and former negotiator. It has convened six times, bringing together leading Afghan figures from various ethnoreligious communities, professions and political persuasions. Away from the media spotlight, the forum has been quietly changing attitudes among Taliban and opposition participants.
Finally, it is critical to recognise that the political crisis in Pakistan, which can spill over into Afghanistan and the recent escalation along the Afghanistan-Iran border over water rights could destabilise the region, if no action is taken. If Afghanistan becomes party to a conflict, this would have major repercussions for the region and beyond. It is very much in the global interest to have Afghanistan remain stable and at peace with its neighbours.
Thus, the international community should not waste this opportunity, debating whether a change in the premiership is a sufficient indicator that the Taliban is willing to shift its domestic and foreign policy. It is, indeed, a clear signal that there is space for engagement.
The West should reach out to the Taliban and demonstrate readiness to negotiate the lifting of sanctions and the gradual reintroduction of development aid. Such engagement is crucial to prevent one of the worst humanitarian crises of the past decades and a new conflict destabilising the region.