The Taliban’s Hidden Moderate
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s central to any potential Afghan peace deal.
On Feb. 29, 2020, the U.S. signed a historic peace deal with the Taliban calling for a full withdrawal of American troops. This story was first published in September 2019.
Outside Moscow’s President Hotel in February 2019, the deputy political head of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi Ali Mardan Qul, voiced his grievances with a tilt in his eyebrows.
“Earlier, the Americans had told us only the Taliban wants withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. But today, all Afghans have only one thing to say: We don’t need the existence of foreign forces in our country. The U.S. must leave,” the lean and long-faced Uzbek leader said deliberately, in broken but fluent English.
He was not loud or demonstrative. And yet the formal, bearded and bespectacled man radiated intensity.
Currently, around 14,000 U.S. troops and 17,000 troops from 39 NATO allies are in Afghanistan in non-combat roles. And the Taliban, which was overthrown by a U.S.-led military coalition in 2001, has been demanding the U.S. “end the occupation” for a long time now.
That meeting in Moscow — hosted by the Russians in an apparent attempt to reassert themselves as a player in the region 30 years after Soviet troops retreated — looked like it would expedite America’s exit from Afghanistan. But a peace deal appeared to dissolve in September 2019, when President Donald Trump said talks were “dead” and called off a surprise summit at Camp David, after the Taliban killed a U.S. soldier in Kabul. Now, a year after Hanafi’s comments in Moscow, the Taliban and the U.S. have finally signed an agreement laying out a roadmap for America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Hanafi has been key to the negotiations — headed by Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-U.S. diplomat on behalf of Washington and Taliban political chief Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai — that have led to this moment. The Taliban leader with kohl-lined eyes could be seen entering and exiting most meetings with a determined face and a calm demeanor.
Now the educated man with his moderate worldview can turn things around for Afghanistan.
Afghan political and military analyst Jawed Kohistani
Believed to be 51 years old, Hanafi, who was in charge of Jowzjan province during the Taliban era, remains under United Nations sanctions for drug trafficking. Still, he has been central to the group’s negotiations with Russia, China and others since 2015 — when he was appointed deputy political head of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — jetting to Moscow, Beijing and Doha, where he has become a fairly regular visitor.
“Hanafi has always been the sort of person who has ensured not much about his personal life is out there in the public domain,” says Kabir Taneja, an associate researcher with the Strategic Studies team at the Observer Research Foundation and author of ISIS Phenomenon: South Asia and Beyond. “However, he has been a prominent figure — ensuring the Taliban viewpoint is followed thoroughly, especially on societal and cultural issues.”
That meant people like Homeira Qaderi didn’t get to go to school.
Now the editor of Afghan newspaper Rah-e-Madanyat, Qaderi was a teenager in Herat when the Taliban came to town. She recently told The Guardian that she was ironing her headscarf for school the next morning when her father told her she wouldn’t need it anymore. “The Taliban had captured our village, he told me.” Over the next five years, Qaderi says, she hardly left home — a deep scar that haunts her even now.
At the time, Hanafi was Afghanistan’s deputy education minister — ensuring women were denied the right to study, destroying libraries and making it a point that only those books that subscribed to the group’s philosophy were available. During his tenure, he had gone back to his village to set up a madrassa, albeit only for boys, say analysts who have followed Afghanistan politics.
Afghan political and military analyst Jawed Kohistani, however, believes Hanafi has always been a “moderate man.” “There is a lot of internal politics attached to the Taliban rule. Hanafi is Uzbek — not Pashtun. So in the 1990s, he was just a deputy who had no powers; he had to only follow orders. But now, he has the power to turn things around. He has the vision.”
Born in the Daryab district of Faryab province in North Afghanistan, Hanafi was a determined child. As an orphan teenager, he crossed the border to Pakistan to study in the country’s Haqqania Darul-Ulom seminary, according to Pajhwok. He wanted to be in the religious ranks — and hence, after thorough training, attained the title of Maulavi or Mullah. He can speak Uzbek, Pashto, Dari, English and perhaps many more languages, analysts claim.
However, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan made him — like most other learned college-goers of that era — take a detour and join the Taliban under Mullah Omar, the one-eyed emir of the militia who believed God had selected him to prepare pious Muslims for afterlife glory. Through the years, he climbed the political ranks.
Many observers say they are wary of what will happen to women’s rights and the education system if the Taliban returns to power. In a statement in February 2019, the Taliban maintained it was committed to guaranteeing women their rights under Islam “in a way that neither their legitimate rights are violated nor their human dignity and Afghan values are threatened.”
However, the same statement also suggested the Taliban wants to curtail the fragile freedoms women have gained since the U.S.-led invasion. Much has changed in the past 18 years, and over the last few months, Afghan women have started a campaign called #AfghanWomenWillNotGoBack — in defiance of what Taliban rule might mean.
Taneja, meanwhile, doesn’t expect the Taliban to stop fighting. “The Taliban were deeply humiliated by the U.S. invasion of the country. They will, over the years to come, make what they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan a Sharia-dominated country,” Taneja says.
And those leaders sitting at the negotiation table right now will likely be the ones wielding power. Hanafi, analysts say, could even rise to political chief.
But that, Kohistani says, is not something to worry about.
“Hanafi is a reasonable man,” Kohistani says. “He wants women to progress. He has good geopolitical relations with Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other parts of the world, and he sees the world with an open mind. In fact, he had no part in issuing the rule about women not going to school. He just had no power back then. But now the educated man with his moderate worldview can turn things around for Afghanistan,” he maintains.
The Taliban leadership, however, clearly states that one should not pay heed to rumors about which leader will take charge. “For now, we just want foreign troops to leave our country,” says the Taliban spokesperson in Doha, Suhail Shaheen. “Nothing has been decided on the roles that our leaders, including Mullah Hanafi, will take in the years to come.”