New Delhi: In Kabul, reports say, ice-cream carts are back in business two days after the Taliban takeover, Afghan top leader Mullah Baradar has returned from Doha, the insurgent group has held their first press conference in the Afghan capital, and Amrullah Saleh, the 49-year-old first Vice-President in the former Ashraf Ghani regime, has declared himself President of the country.
“According to the explicit provision of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, in case of absence, escape or death of the President, the first Vice-President will be the acting President. I am inside the country and I am legally and legitimately in charge of this position/chair. I am consulting with all the leaders of the country to strengthen this position,” Saleh said in a tweet.
The day before, Saleh had tweeted this, both in English and Pashto:
“In my soil. With d people. For a cause & purpose. With solid belief in righteousness. Opposing Pak bcked oppression & brutal dictatorship is our legitimacy (sic).”
Saleh’s open criticism of Pakistan is not new. As Ashraf Ghani’s Vice-President, and as national security adviser and head of the intelligence directorate (his Twitter bio says “spies never quit”) in the Hamid Karzai government, Saleh had access to information that few others had about the Pakistan military establishment’s role in aiding the Taliban with military and strategic support.
He never minced his words. He has survived two assassination attacks.
In an interview in 2014 with this reporter, Saleh recounted the time he told former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf during a meeting between Afghan and Pakistani intelligence officials, at his office in Rawalpindi, that al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan.
“Musharraf was so furious that he banged his hand on the table and called off the meeting. But we were vindicated when Osama bin Laden was found in Abbottabad in 2011, hiding in plain sight, a stone’s throw away from Pakistan’s military academy,” Saleh said.
Saleh’s open antagonism against Pakistan gave courage both to former president Ashraf Ghani — who declared in Tashkent recently that Pakistan had sent “10,000 fighters” to fight alongside the Taliban — as well as to national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib, who, in May, described the Pakistani military establishment as “Heera Mandi”, a red-light area in Lahore. Pakistan stopped talking to Mohib as a result.
But unlike Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country in the company of the director of his office, Fazel Fazly, and Hamdullah Mohib — all three are in Oman, before they return to their homes in the US, Sweden and UK — Saleh left for the Panjshir, a beautiful valley only 100 km or so from Kabul.
I will never, ever & under no circumstances bow to d Talib terrorists. I will never betray d soul & legacy of my hero Ahmad Shah Masoud, the commander, the legend & the guide. I won't dis-appoint millions who listened to me. I will never be under one ceiling with Taliban. NEVER.
— Amrullah Saleh (@AmrullahSaleh2) August 15, 2021
Afghan portal Tolo News reported Wednesday that the Afghan embassy in Tajikistan has asked Interpol to detain Ghani, Mohib and Fazly on “charges of stealing public funds in order to return them to the people’s wealth”.
سفارت افغانستان در تاجیکستان از پولیس انترپول خواستهاست تا اشرف غنی، حمدالله محب و فضلمحمود فضلی را به اتهام دزدی بیتالمال بازداشت کنند تا تا ثروت مردم، برگشتانده شود.
— TOLOnews (@TOLOnews) August 18, 2021
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Saleh, who was born in Panjshir, was not just going home. He was returning to the last redoubt of the legendary Afghan fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, ‘the Lion of Panjshir’, who refused to give in to the Taliban when they steadily took the country through the first half of the 90s — they could never take Panjshir.
Massoud was assassinated on 9 September 2001, by two al Qaeda men posing as journalists. Two days later, the al Qaeda crashed planes into New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania, killing more than 3,000 people. By December 2001, the US had invaded Afghanistan and thrown the Taliban out.
Twenty years on, the US are leaving, the Taliban are back — and Saleh has returned to Panjshir to attempt a last stand against the Taliban, just like his idol and mentor once did, a lifetime ago.
“He is a braveheart. He has joined forces with Commander Massoud’s son, Ahmed Massoud. Afghanistan faces an uncertain future. Let’s hope people like Amrullah Saleh will continue to play a role in shaping Afghanistan,” former ambassador to Afghanistan Jayant Prasad told ThePrint.
Saleh and Ahmed Massoud both hope their sworn allegiance and blood ties to Afghanistan’s most famous hero in recent history will galvanise the population into forming a cohort of resistance.
The odds, of course, are in the wind and cannot even be comprehended at the moment. There is the question of former president Hamid Karzai, who, with his three young daughters by his side — who were born in a Gurgaon hospital — has tweeted that he will stay on in Kabul in order “to prevent chaos and reduce the suffering” of his fellow Afghans.
Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, is the other top leader to have remained in Kabul, along with former Mujahideen fighter Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The difference is that Hekmatyar was fighting alongside the Taliban in the 1990s, while Abdullah Abdullah, like Amrullah Saleh, was a key member of Commander Massoud’s resistance.
The question of whether there will be a resistance to the Taliban has been asked, and answered — by Saleh. His open challenge to the Taliban has been made; whether it will sustain in the coming weeks and months is another question altogether.
A new chapter
For the moment, the Taliban are insisting they have changed their spots. They have said that women will be allowed to work, within the limits of the Sharia, and that they will not allow any harm to come to the people.
Asked at the press meet Tuesday about the killing of Kandahar’s beloved poet, comedian and historian Abdullah Atifi by Taliban members on 28 July, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said it would be investigated.
Certainly, the Taliban realise they cannot rest on their laurels. The soft approach at the press conference was clearly aimed at reaching out to the international community for legitimacy, and even financial aid.
Unlike 1996, when they dragged out then Afghan president Najibullah from the UN compound where he was staying, and hanged him from the nearest lamppost, the Taliban realise the world has changed and they need other countries besides Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to recognise them as the new power in Afghanistan.
This time around, Russia and China, besides Pakistan, have already reached out to the Taliban. India has given notice for another emergency session on Afghanistan at the UN Security Council, where it is president this month. External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar has met his US counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and discussed Afghanistan.
Certainly, the next few days and weeks and months will be important. The US, other western powers and India will weigh the Taliban’s words and compare them with action on the ground. How Afghans react to the Taliban will be the key ingredient in how the world community reacts.
From the Panjshir valley, Amrullah Saleh has blown the bugle. Whether he succeeds or goes down fighting, he knows he has begun a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan.
This is an updated version of the report
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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