- Nagieb KhajaDanish Afghan journalist and documentarian who has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Syria.
As the Taliban announces a new acting government in Kabul led by hard-liners from its previous stint in power and fight against U.S. occupation, Danish Afghan journalist Nagieb Khaja says the composition has been a “surprising outcome” as many observers expected the group to strike a more conciliatory tone. “It’s really been disappointing for the people who have been looking for a glimpse of hope,” Khaja says. This comes as protests grow nationwide, and aid organizations are warning of a looming humanitarian crisis.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Kabul, where the Taliban has taken a major step in reestablishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan by announcing its acting government. The new Cabinet does not include any women or any members of the former Afghan government.
The new acting prime minister is Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who was a close aide to the Taliban founding leader Mohammad Omar. His deputy will be Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar. The new interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is on the FBI’s most wanted list for a 2008 attack in Kabul that killed six people.
This comes as protests grow across Afghanistan. Hundreds of people rallied in Kabul on Tuesday, led by women, with demonstrators calling on Pakistan to stop intervening to aid the Taliban. Witnesses reported Taliban fighters beat protesters, and the crowd scattered after gunmen fired in the air. One protester condemned the Taliban’s response.
PROTESTER: [translated] The Islamic government is shooting at our people. The Taliban members are very unjust, and they are not human at all. They do not give us the right to demonstrate. They are not Muslims, but infidels, as you can see from the situation we are in.
AMY GOODMAN: Many of the people protesting were women saying, “Women’s rights are human rights.” This comes as two people reportedly died Tuesday during another protest in Herat. Meanwhile, aid organizations warn of the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, with the country’s fragile healthcare system potentially facing collapse.
For more, we’re joined by Danish Afghan journalist Nagieb Khaja. We recently spoke to him when he was in Kabul for the last three weeks reporting for the Danish television channel TV 2. He’s now joining us from Copenhagen. In 2008, he was kidnapped by the Taliban. He later embedded with the Taliban while making a documentary for Al Jazeera.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Nagieb. Can you talk about who is this new government of Afghanistan?
NAGIEB KHAJA: It’s actually a surprising outcome, because all of us observers, we had expected the Taliban to give Abdul Ghani Baradar the position as the new prime minister, but, instead of him, they gave the position to one of the old-school members, one of the more hard-liner members of the Taliban, Mullah Akhund, and it came really unexpected. But this outcome was also probably a result of the ISI leader, the Pakistani intelligence leader, traveling to Kabul and trying to sort things out between the different factions in the Taliban who had difficulties agreeing on who was going to be appointed for this post. And it ended up with a kind of a compromise, because Mullah Akhund is somebody who doesn’t have a strong power base, unlike some of the other top members. It’s not as strong as their power base, so he’s kind of a solution that probably the ISI leader suggested so they could get on with their plans, the Taliban.
And the other surprises in this new government, negative surprises, is that there are no — almost no minorities represented. There’s only a couple of Tajiks, which is the second-biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and only one with Uzbek background, which is the fourth-biggest ethnic group. And you don’t have any Hazaras, and we’re talking about the third-biggest ethnic group, which are also — they’re not only an ethnic minority, but they’re also a religious minority, because they’re Shia Muslims. They don’t have anybody in this new government.
And the obvious, of course, lack of presence is also the women, which is half of the population. The Taliban said it also before they announced the government, that there won’t be any women in this government. So, it’s really been disappointing for the people who have been looking for a glimpse of hope.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nagieb, you mentioned the role of the ISI in sorting out the differences between the groups. Could you talk a little bit more about the role of Pakistan and the ISI in what is going on now and what will occur in the future in Afghanistan?
NAGIEB KHAJA: The ISI, they’ve assisted the Taliban since they took power in the mid-'90s. They've been helping them with logistical support. They’ve been helping them with arms. They’ve been helping them with, you know, advices, strategies. And, of course, Pakistan has never admitted that they’ve been engaged that much with the Taliban, but several journalists, analysts — a lot of clear proofs have been put forward throughout the years that shows that this is the case.
And the thing is that the problem for ISI has been that U.S. has officially — U.S. and Pakistan, they are officially strategic partners in the region, but at the same time they have different interests. A U.S. interest was that they wanted the former Afghan government to consolidate themselves, and the Pakistani government’s interest was that they wanted a pro-Pakistani, anti-Indian government in Afghanistan. And the former Afghan government were very pro-Indian. So, the Pakistan, through its branch, intelligence branch, ISI, which sometimes also operates some of the missions independently and also against the Pakistani government — I have to emphasize this nuance also — they’ve been assisting and supporting the Taliban so they could change the tides.
And what happened after the Taliban toppled the Afghan government, the sources that I’ve been talking to, they’ve been telling me and other journalists also about this agreement between the eastern Taliban, the lower Paktia area — it’s, amongst others, the Haqqanis — and the southern Talibs — and it’s not as simple as I tell it. It’s not all southern Talibs from Kandahar and Helmand, they agree on everything. For example, Mullah Baradar, one of the founders of the Taliban, he’s one of the moderate guys, and he was the one that the easterners, they wanted as a prime minister, but ended up being sidelined now. And it was after compromise, that the director of ISI, who showed up in Serena Hotel — it was by a coincidence that a couple of journalists saw him and took pictures of him; it wasn’t supposed to be revealed, and, officially, he was there just to work on relations between the new government, the Taliban government, and Pakistan. But a lot of people, a lot of experts, they think that he was there to negotiate between the different factions. And after he arrived, the government was formed quite quickly.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Nagieb, about the women’s protests, the mass protest in Kabul of several hundred people, cracked down on by the Taliban? They were holding signs that say things like “Women’s rights are human rights.” Also, in the fourth-largest city, in Mazar-i-Sharif, you have the women marching. You had them in Herat, as well.
NAGIEB KHAJA: Yes. I actually attended one of these demonstrations not so long ago. I think it’s five or six days ago. I filmed one of these demonstrations, and I interviewed the women. And it was basically women going out into the streets because they wanted to keep some of the rights that they had been given during the former government’s reign. They were really disappointed with no women being represented in the upcoming government. The government hadn’t been announced at the time, but the Taliban had already said that it would be without women. And also in different other spheres of society, the Taliban has said it would be impossible to have women. And so, basically, the women, they were out there saying that they wanted to fight for the rights, that it was part of Islam that women also had some of these positions that the Taliban thought was wrong for women to have.
And I had — when I joined the demonstration, nothing happened. Nobody harassed them when I went with them. But I found out that an hour before I joined the demonstration, that a couple of Talibs, they had been very, you know, physical and pushed a journalist away and tried to take his camera from him. And the day after, one of the women were hit by a Taliban, one of the demonstrators who I also saw at the previous demo. She was bleeding from her eye. So this was basically only the start of what was going to happen, what we were going to see, because, for example, today there has been a really hard crackdown on the demonstrations. It’s not only on the women demonstrations, but also the other anti-Taliban demonstrations. You have a lot of people also going out now and chanting slogans against the Taliban and basically calling them agents of Pakistan and shouting slogans for some of the insurgents in the Panjshir region, the only region that was still fighting against the Taliban until a few days earlier, where the Taliban, they say they defeated them, but there are indications that there are some small pockets left up in the mountains.
So, it’s basically a movement which is anti-Taliban right now. But at the same time, parallel with this anti-Taliban movement, you also have women just being pro-women, pro-human rights, as they are saying, that they are not talking about who — that they have any opinions about which political party has to rule the country; they just want the new leaders of Afghanistan to know that the women, they should have a place in society, that the women, they should have a place in all spheres of society, you know, totally independently from what kind of a government Afghanistan is going to have.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nagieb, I’m wondering if you could talk — whether there’s been any indication that there is support for the Taliban coming to power, especially in the rural areas, where people were weary from more than 20 years of warfare, and whether there’s any indication that the Taliban are actually beginning to administer the basic services that a government is so — that’s so important to a population from its government?
NAGIEB KHAJA: So, Afghanistan is a very complicated story, you know, but at the same time it’s not that complicated at all. You have two different narratives in Afghanistan, and both are true. You have the narrative of the cities, where there were, you know, a slight progress during the former government, and you had more freedom in these parts of society. Women, they were getting more rights. People were getting much more educated. And you had a bigger middle class. You still had the so-called Third World problems: economical crisis, poverty and crime. But at the same time, you had certain segments of society were progressing and having much better times than under the Taliban.
At the same time, you had the rural area, where people, they were suffering a lot, because they were the ones who were experiencing aerial bombings from the U.S. airplanes, drone strikes from the U.S. military, you know, the military offensives. You had the battles out there in the rural areas. You had the Taliban putting mines, and you had assassinations. So the villagers in the rural areas in Afghanistan, they had a really tough time. And at the same time, you had people in the bigger cities actually taking advantage of the international awareness and presence, of course also suffering from suicide bombings, for example, but not at all at the same level as people living in the rural areas.
So, in the rural areas, people are relieved because the war has stopped, because they are not facing the same threats from different militant groups. They are not facing — you know, they are not as scared of going out, sending their children to school, because they’re afraid of sudden battles, sudden bombing and all these things. But at the same time, you have people in the bigger cities getting their rights rolled back. You know, there’s been — the new government is cracking down on their personal freedom, political freedom, freedom of speech. So we have this clash of two narratives happening right now.
And so, basically, people in the rural areas, they saw the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. They didn’t see the Taliban as somebody who could provide a lot of services. They saw the Taliban as somebody who could help them avoid a lot of the negative consequences of the war, compared to the Afghan government, whose representatives were typically criminals. They called themselves police officers, but it was organized criminal groups actually just taking advantage of their uniforms and positions. But in the cities right now, they are — now they are paying the price. Earlier, it was the villagers paying the price for the progress in the cities, and now the cities are paying the price for the security in the rural area. So, this is actually, you know, the big contradiction of the reality in Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Nagieb Khaja, we want to thank you so much for being with us, award-winning Danish Afghan journalist and documentarian who’s covered the wars in Afghanistan and Syria. He was in Kabul for the last three weeks reporting for Danish television channel TV 2, joining us from Denmark.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to the Gulf. Stay with us.