Taliban calls protests ‘illegal,’ names caretaker Cabinet dominated by old guard

KABUL, Afghanistan —

The Taliban on Tuesday named an all-male caretaker government in Afghanistan dominated by hard-line figures from its old guard, and cracked down on some of the largest street protests since the group seized control of the country last month. The developments reaffirmed fears that the Taliban would return to its brutal ways of controlling Afghan lives despite promising moderation. The group’s interim Cabinet is made up of veteran militants. It does not include women and members of the former government, and it includes very few ethnic minorities. A senior spokesman also stated that protests like those in Kabul on Tuesday, where women called for the respect of their rights, would not be tolerated.

Calling the demonstrations “illegal,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid warned Afghans against trying to “use the current situation to cause trouble.”

Taken together, these actions indicated that the Taliban movement faces a difficult fight to convince a skeptical public it is willing to abandon the core attributes of its previous rule, which was marked by the brutal subjugation and death of women, as well as the retaliation against anyone who opposed it. At the same time, the country of 38 million people is stalked by hunger and a deepening economic crisis, lending urgency to the group’s quest for aid and recognition.

Senior Biden administration officials visiting the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which has emerged as a key player in American engagement with the Taliban since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on Aug. 30, tacitly acknowledged that Western leverage is limited.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told reporters in Doha, Qatar’s capital, that the Taliban had been reminded of the group’s commitment to allow anyone with valid travel documents to leave Afghanistan if they wished.

Blinken, who appeared alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, said U.S. citizens remaining in Afghanistan, including dual nationals, were believed to number about 100. He stated that the State Department was in constant contact with them, and that the Taliban had honored its promise in the case of four Americans who left Afghanistan via an unspecified overland route.

In Kabul, the new interim Taliban government was not a sign of a dramatic change in style or substance.

Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who heads the group’s top leadership council and served in several Taliban government posts in the ’90s, was chosen to be the interim prime minister, with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as one of his two deputies, Mujahid said at a news conference in the capital.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network, a Taliban offshoot regarded as a terrorist group by Washington, was named interim interior minister. Mullah Yaqoob was named the Defense Ministry’s youngest son. Amir Khan Muttaqi would serve as the foreign minister. He is a member the group’s Qatar negotiating team.

Though Mujahid insisted the lineup was temporary, he gave no mention as to when or how it would be finalized.

The State Department was asked about the composition and makeup of the caretaker Taliban government. It stated that it was concerned by some of the ministers’ affiliations and track records. They also noted that the Cabinet was composed only of Taliban and close associates and contained no women. A department spokesman said the Taliban, which has promised an inclusive government, would be judged on “actions, not words.”

In the three weeks since the Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15, its officials have insisted they have learned from their 1996-2001 rule, which was characterized by brutality and condemned by much of the world, and have promised to form a government that would reach out to its onetime adversaries in the U.S.-backed government.

As it stands, however, none of the 33 Cabinet members comes from outside the Taliban — no women and very few ethnic minorities (only three are not Pashtuns, observers said) — violating a condition placed by the international community on any prospective government in Afghanistan for unlocking billions of dollars in desperately needed aid.

Failing to get that assistance is likely to spur an economic meltdown, with the government — which needs aid to cover three-quarters of its expenses — unable to bring in foreign currency and prevent the fall of the afghani against the dollar. Already, food prices are rising, with people forced to queue for hours in front of ATMs to withdraw roughly $200 a week.

The government’s announcement was made one day after Taliban claimed that it controlled Panjshir Valley. There, a stubborn group of resistance had gathered around Amrullah Saleh, former Vice President, and Ahmad Massoud (son of anti-Taliban guerrilla fighter). But the attack did not cement the Taliban’s control over the country. It seemed to inflame those who believe that the Taliban has no intention of changing their militant tactics or oppression women.

On Tuesday, about 1,000 people flooded the capital’s streets, demanding freedom and the safeguarding of women’s rights. They demanded that Pakistani interference in Afghanistan be stopped. Many Afghans accuse Pakistan of supporting the Taliban. )

While there have been a few protests in the country, this was the largest. It involved men and women standing together against the Taliban gunmen. They initially allowed the march to continue peacefully, but then used violence to stop it.

Some of those bullets struck a nearby high-end hotel, shattering windows. For a short time, one journalist from Tolo TV was held. He is an Afghan broadcaster.

Demonstrators said they were undeterred and would continue with protests.

“We’re not fighting for our rights to a job or in a place we will work, but we’re defending the blood of our youth and defending our country, our homeland,” one woman said in a social media video.

Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said at the news conference that the protest had been incited by unspecified people from abroad. Responding to a question about the gunfire, Mujahid said that Taliban fighters weren’t trained to handle demonstrations. This is a similar assertion to the Taliban’s declaration last month that women should remain home until they are better taught how to interact with them.

Blinken met in Doha with an all-female robotics group, some of which managed to flee Kabul after it was overthrown by the insurgents.

” You are famous all over the world, and a source for inspiration around the globe,” he said to the dozen or so girls gathered at a community centre. They nodded as he spoke, their eyes wide above their COVID-19 masks and below their head scarves.

Businesswoman Roya Mahboob founded the group in 2017, and it went on to compete internationally, seen as an example of how far women in Afghanistan have come in education and opportunity. She spoke on behalf of the girls, many of whom were in their teens, to express gratitude to Blinken, but also to voice concern for those who remained.

The group and its supporters once hoped that Afghanistan would be a country with high technological skills. She said. She said that everyone is now terrified.

” There is a lot of uncertainty,” Mahboob stated, looking directly at Blinken. “What is your plan, what is your U.S. government going to do for the … futures of children and women in Afghanistan?”

Blinken didn’t have many answers.

“There’s so much change happening,” he said. “I can’t tell you where everything is going to land.”

Times staff writers Bulos and Wilkinson reported from Kabul and Doha, respectively. This report was contributed by Laura King, a Washington staff writer.

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