yousub ashraf ghaniAs Afghan president until the Taliban seized power last August, the country’s interior ministry oversaw much of the security apparatus involved in the fight against insurgents. It is now chaired by one of its deadliest enemies, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who led a faction of fighters known for their high-profile bombings in the capital Kabul. The hallways where US and EU advisers once roamed are instead crowded with Mr. Haqqani’s long-haired fighters. Civil servants who worked for Mr Ghani’s government rub shoulders with men who would have happily murdered them a year ago.
These shared offices are now found throughout the Afghan government. The country’s civil service, like those throughout South Asia, is a bloated, inefficient thing that places a premium on the power of rubber stamps and official signatures. The Taliban have embraced this bureaucratic machinery wholesale, filling it with their own people. After all, citizens still need permits, licenses and official forms.
Civil servants of the old regime have little choice but to make the most of it. They and their new colleagues rub shoulders as best they can. Pragmatic technocrats grow beards and trade suits for the traditional garments favored by their new masters. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between old and new civil servants.
At other times, the fracture is clear. “Don’t worry. I’m not one of them. I’ll help you,” an official whispers once he’s sure none of his Taliban colleagues can hear. “These people are ignorant “, complains another. In a department, a civil servant interviewed by a journalist fears to have offended his new Taliban director who intimidates him. “Please write that he is a great man”, he pleads.
The Taliban appointments fill the voids left by thousands of Afghan officials who fled the country last year. The caliber of substitutes is often questionable. The new Taliban counterpart to the medical director of a Kabul hospital has at least a medical degree. But at other hospitals, staff said new Taliban appointees were fighters or village clerics who were more interested in how women dressed than public health.
Things aren’t much better at the highest levels of government either. The cabinet is filled with Taliban stalwarts of Pushtun ethnicity. Other groups are sidelined. The appointments “have favored loyalty and seniority over competence”, notes a UN report. Decision-making is unpredictable, say foreign officials who deal with the new government.
Any hope that the demands of running a battered country could soften the militants’ ideology was dashed last week after the regime staged a jirga, or high council, of religious scholars. More than 3,000 clerics and notables, all men, are invited to Kabul for three days of confabulation. It was the biggest chatter since the Taliban took over. Speculation was rife that the jirga would reverse the unpopular decision to prevent girls from going to secondary school. Marginalized ethnic groups as well as some members of the Taliban have sought signs of compromise from a leadership they see as increasingly distant and autocratic.
Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhunzada has offered no such thing. Instead, he delivered an emphatic speech in which he called for total obedience and unity. He sketched out a theocracy where clerics would guide everything. Mr Akhunzada clarified that anyone associated with the former government would not be allowed to share power. Talibanized ministries and courts, he boasted, had banished bribery and corruption, and brought about justice and harmony. There was no mention of girls’ education. For those responsible for implementing these policies, more delicate conversations lie ahead.