Here's What The Taliban's Leadership Looks Like In 2021

Originally published on August 20, 2021 9:42 am

Updated August 16, 2021 at 7:30 PM ET

Kabul fell on Sunday, reestablishing Taliban rule over Afghanistan for the first time in 20 years. Leaders of the militant group who've spent years fighting are suddenly in control of the whole country, with their internal divisions and actions affecting the lives of millions of Afghans.

The Taliban have been split in recent years between the group commanding the battlefield and the political leadership who were engaged in peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

"The Taliban have got some divisions, and then they have some fractures, but they do operate as a common movement," says Carter Malkasian, a historian and author of The American War in Afghanistan: A History.

The Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Malkasian says the main figures of the Taliban have remained at the top for some time — and that even though they care more about gaining international legitimacy this time around, they don't care enough to prevent violence and cut terrorist ties.

"It's pretty likely they will announce the restoration of their Islamic emirate within the week, if not sooner," he says.

Malkasian, who was also an adviser on strategy to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to Mary Louise Kelly of NPR's All Things Considered about the future of Taliban leadership, what we know about their goals for Afghan rule and how they've managed to stay well-funded over the years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On the Taliban's main ruler, Haibatullah Akhundzada

Haibatullah Akhundzada
Afghan Islamic Press / AP

Mullah Haibatullah — his background is as an Islamic scholar and Islamic judge. He was the head of the Taliban high court for years — until he became deputy leader after Mullah Omar died, and then after Mullah Mohammad Mansour was killed by the U.S., he became the leader. ...

Haibatullah is a very mysterious character. He only comes out with announcements a few times a year. We have only a few other glimpses and ideas of what he's saying, so he's not a public face. It is even possible that he's not alive, and I kind of say that remembering that Mullah Omar had been dead for two years before we knew it.

On the Taliban's political leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar

Abdul Ghani Baradar
Hussein Sayed / AP

He oversees the political effort, and the negotiating team that the Taliban [have] been running for years now [in Doha] falls under him. Baradar is someone who is involved in the original founding of the movement back in the 1990s. When that movement fell, he took refuge, eventually, in Pakistan. He became the deputy leader, and he was in effect like the CEO of the movement for many years because Mullah Omar was in hiding and kind of giving him strategic guidance. But Baradar was the guy actually running things.

However, I think that the Taliban would be more inclined, given their history, to have Haibatullah become the leader if Haibatullah is indeed alive. So we don't know exactly what structure the Taliban want to take when they re-announce the emirate. But the best bet, I think, is their existing structure, in which Mullah Haibatullah is at the top.

On the Taliban's vision for governing Afghanistan

One of the things that they're very sensitive about is their failure to provide goods and services and manage and administer the country well during the 1990s. So the Taliban want to do that better; they want development projects to occur. And because of that, they also want to maintain a relationship with the international community because they realize that they need the funding of the international community to be able to continue to provide those goods and services.

They also are aware of how their treatment of women and their support of terrorism and their harsh punishments gave them a very bad name. So they have said in a variety of ways that they won't behave in this manner, that everyone will be treated properly and according to Islamic law. But it's unclear how much that is really going to occur.

On who's funding the Taliban

The Taliban's primary source of funding by the available evidence that's out there is coming from within Afghanistan. And so partly from taxing commerce, taxing people, going through various cities and through border posts, partly through the taxing of [American] contracts that used to be in existence — but primarily through poppy, through taxing the growth of poppy. And that's a real benefit to them, because a lot of poor farmers, they can make money off poppy. They're happy to grow it, and it makes the poor farmers feel more allegiance to the Taliban.

They also do get some degree of monetary support from Pakistan and a lesser extent Iran and Russia — or at least they did — but that's a minority. And they've also gotten support from international donors from the Middle East. But that also has been a minority of support.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Over the weekend, we caught glimpses, photographs from inside the Arg - that's the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. And the pictures were of some of the men who may prove that country's next leaders. One striking photograph shows Taliban fighters, heavily armed, gathered around a carved wooden desk. So who is running the Taliban now? And who is funding them? Carter Malkasian is a historian of Afghanistan and a former adviser on strategy to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Carter Malkasian, welcome.

CARTER MALKASIAN: Thank you very much for having me today.

KELLY: Let's start with that basic question of who's running the show here? - because there is the wing of the Taliban that's been commanding in the battlefield. And then, there's the political leadership that's been engaged in peace talks in Doha.

MALKASIAN: So the Taliban rule has got some divisions in them, and they have some fractures, but they do operate as a common movement. And in charge is Mullah Hibatullah, and he's their Emir. Mullah Hibatullah - he has background as an Islamic scholar and an Islamic judge. He was the head of the Taliban high court for years, although Hibatullah's a very mysterious character. He only comes out with announcements a few times a year. We have only a few other glimpse and ideas of what he's saying. So he's not a public face. And it is even possible that he's not alive. And I kind of say that remembering that Mullah Omar had been dead for two years before we knew it.

KELLY: Before it was confirmed. He's also not the political chief. Talk to me about another Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar.

MALKASIAN: He oversees the political effort, and the negotiating team that the Taliban has been running for years now there falls under him. Baradar is someone who was involved in the original founding of the movement back in the 1990s. When the - when that movement fell, he took refuge eventually in Pakistan. He became the deputy leader, and he was in effect, like, the CEO of the movement for many years because Mullah Omar was in hiding and kind of giving strategic guidance, but Baradar was the guy actually running things. However, I think that the Taliban would be more inclined, given their history, to have Hibatullah become the leader if Hibatullah is, indeed, alive. So we're kind of - we don't know exactly what structure the Taliban want to take when they re-announce the emirate. But the best bet, I think, is their existing structure in which Mullah Hibatullah's at the top.

KELLY: All of these figures that you're talking about have been around for a while. This is not, like, a new generation of Taliban leaders. Do we know to what extent their views may have evolved since the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan? Do we know what their vision is for the country in 2021?

MALKASIAN: Yeah, so we know a variety of things about how their vision has evolved. One of the things that they're very sensitive about is their failure to provide goods and services and manage and administer the country role during the 1990s. So the Taliban want to do that better. They want development projects to occur, and because of that, they also want to maintain a relationship with the international community because they realize that they need the funding of the international community to be able to continue to provide those goods and services. They also are aware of how their treatment of women and their support of terrorism has - gave them a very - and their harsh punishments - gave them a very bad name. So they've said in a variety of ways that they won't behave in this manner, that everyone will be treated properly and according to Islamic law, but it's unclear how much that is really going to occur. I think it's fair to say that their punishments will be less harsh, and women will be treated better than they were in the 1990s. That doesn't mean...

KELLY: What makes you say that? What evidence, at all, do we see that they are inclined to treat women better, for example?

MALKASIAN: So in terms of the - in the areas that they've taken over, they have kept open some girls' schools, but they haven't kept all of them open. There isn't very much reporting right now that they've gone back to, say, stonings or public executions of women or beatings of women. Now, that doesn't mean it's not going to go back there. But based on, you know, what they've said and the few things we've seen in the areas that they've controlled right now, it appears it will be a little bit better than the past. But, I mean, I would certainly say it's going to be worse than it was under the government. I think that's undoubtedly going to be true.

KELLY: Yeah. You said something else that interests me, which was they're focused on how they are viewed by the international community. And it interests me because the warning from the U.S. was, you're not going to have any international legitimacy unless you play ball here. And I kept wondering, is it clear that the Taliban cares about international legitimacy? You would argue that they do care, that they do care about how they are seen by the rest of the world?

MALKASIAN: I would argue that they do care but not enough for the things that really matter to us. So they don't care enough about international legitimacy to have established a political settlement, as we can see. And it's pretty likely they will announce the restoration of their Islamic emirate, you know, within the week, if not sooner. They don't - they haven't cared enough about international legitimacy to have any kind of cease fire on - or to reduce violence in the past year. They may care enough about international legitimacy to not support terrorist attacks out of Afghanistan against other countries, but that doesn't mean they're going to stop them. And it's clear, like from the United Nations report earlier this year, that a lot of connections remain there, and they're extremely resistant to cutting those ties.

KELLY: And who's funding them?

MALKASIAN: So the Taliban's primary source of funding by the available evidence that's out there is coming from within Afghanistan. And so partly from taxing commerce, taxing people, going through various cities and through border posts, on partly through the taxing of our contracts that used to be in existence.

KELLY: Yeah.

MALKASIAN: But primarily, through poppy, through taxing the growth of poppy, and that's a real benefit to them because a lot of poor farmers - they can make money off poppy. They're happy to grow it, and it makes the poor farmers feel more allegiance to the Taliban. They also do get some degree of monetary support from Pakistan and a lesser extent Iran and Russia, or at least they did. But that's a minority. And they've also gotten support from international donors from the Middle East, but that also has been a minority of support.

KELLY: Last question. I mentioned you used to advise the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on strategy. If you were back in your old job today, how would that conversation unfold? What would your advice be?

MALKASIAN: My advice right now would be about helping the Afghans who have helped us and trying to preserve space to enable them to get out of Afghanistan and taking some risk and being willing to keep forces there a little bit longer, so that can happen and pressure the Taliban if necessary. But, I mean, one of the things about someone like me and those of us who have been in Afghanistan a long time is, I mean, I can't claim full objectivity. I mean, I do have friends there, and I spent a lot of time there, so I have to be worried about my advice, and I have to be worried about, do I really have - am I objective enough in what I am saying?

KELLY: Yeah.

MALKASIAN: I think it's easy to - a few months back to look forward and say, well, consideration of withdrawal is an important thing to do. We have big U.S. interests. It's a lot harder after going through the past two weeks.

KELLY: Yeah. Carter Malkasian, thank you.

MALKASIAN: No, thank you.

KELLY: He's author of "The American War In Afghanistan," and as you heard, former adviser on strategy to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

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