China to keep Kabul embassy open and ‘beef up’ relations, say Taliban

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China has promised to keep its embassy in Kabul open and “beef up” relations, the Taliban have said, as Afghanistan’s new rulers worked on preparing their new government and winning international recognition.

A spokesman for the Islamist militia, Suhail Shaheen, said on Friday a senior member of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar had been told by China’s deputy foreign minister that Beijing also aimed to increase humanitarian assistance.

While the west has mostly adopted a wait-and-see approach and demanded evidence, as the Taliban move from insurgency to government, of more inclusive government and respect for human rights, China has said it seeks “friendly and cooperative” relations – although it, too, has yet to formally recognise the new regime.

Analysts have said a stable and cooperative administration in Kabul could pave the way for major Chinese infrastructural and other investment in Afghanistan, possibly including in the war-ravaged country’s big copper and lithium mines. Others say the potential for lucrative mineral projects has been exaggerated.

Beijing is also concerned by the threat posed by a small but committed number of violent Islamist extremists from south-west China known to be based in Afghanistan.

Amid mounting international speculation about the shape of the new government, Taliban sources repeated on Friday that the movement’s co-founder, Mullah Baradar, would head the new cabinet, expected to be unveiled on Saturday.

Baradar, who is in charge of the Taliban’s political office, will be joined by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob – the son of the late Taliban leader Mullah Omar – and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai in senior positions in the government, three sources said.

“All the top leaders have arrived in Kabul, where preparations are in final stages to announce the new government,” one official told Reuters. Another said Haibatullah Akhunzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, would focus on religious matters. Analysts say the reclusive Islamic scholar is expected to retain great influence, however.

The government would comprise 25 ministries, with a consultative council, or shura, of 12 Muslim scholars, sources said, and a loya jirga, or grand assembly, bringing together elders and other representatives planned within six to eight months.

The Taliban have promised to govern more moderately than during their previous spell in power between 1996 and 2001, when they were ousted by US-led forces in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks. However, many Afghans, especially women, are deeply sceptical and fear a rollback of rights gained over the past two decades.

Video shared on social media on Thursday appeared to show a Taliban victory parade, reportedly in Kandahar, featuring seized weaponry, military equipment and explosives but also members of the group’s suicide bomb squad.

A small group of Afghan women protested near the presidential palace in Kabul on Friday, demanding equal rights. Facing looming economic collapse and with the UN warning of a humanitarian disaster, thousands of people continued to try to flee the country overland.

Elsewhere, signs of international engagement gathered pace, with the United Nations restarting humanitarian flights to parts of the country, linking the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, with Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and Kandahar in the south.

Afghanistan’s largest carrier, Ariana Afghan Airlines, also said it would resume domestic flights, beginning with a plane from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul, later on Friday after getting a “green light” from the Taliban and aviation authorities.

Qatar’s foreign minister said the Gulf state was working with the Taliban to reopen Kabul’s airport for international traffic as soon as possible, while Turkey said it was also evaluating proposals from the Taliban and others for a role in running the airport.

Western Union and Moneygram both said they were resuming money transfers, which many Afghans rely on from relatives abroad to survive.

Italy’s foreign minister was due to visit Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Qatar and Pakistan from Friday to assist Afghan refugees, while his British counterpart was to head to the region next week, the Italian and UK governments said.

Meanwhile the Taliban, who seized Kabul on 15 August after sweeping across most of the country, have continued to face stiff resistance in the Panjshir valley north of the capital, where there have been confused and often contradictory reports of heavy fighting and casualties.

Several thousand fighters from regional militias and remnants of the government’s armed and special forces have massed in the rugged valley under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, the son of the legendary former Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Efforts to negotiate a settlement appear to have broken down, with each side blaming the other for the failure and claiming to have inflicted heavy losses. Panjshir valley was a resistance stronghold for decades, first against the Soviets in the 1980s, then against the Taliban in the 1990s. Neither succeeded in breaching its natural defences of gorges and high ridges.

However circumstances are very different today, and the forces of Massoud lack international support or allies elsewhere in Afghanistan, while the Taliban are now a battle-hardened force with vast reserves of arms, equipment and ammunition.

“The Taliban have a tremendous advantage,” said Nishank Motwani, an Afghan analyst based in Australia, adding that recent wins had emboldened the movement.

“They are well-armed, and they have the psychological advantage of having provoked the government’s downfall so quickly.”

The new rulers of Afghanistan are likely to face an economic crisis, caused by the sudden rupture of trade and financial links, a cash shortage, drought and the ravages of a 20-year conflict that killed about 240,000 Afghans before US forces completed their rapid and chaotic pullout.

With Reuters and AFP

The Guardian