The very public cutting of a red ribbon marking the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar and the videoed raising of their flag allowed the world to see, for the first time in many years, a public face for the clandestine insurgent group. It has also allowed an initial assessment of who is in the Taleban’s Qatar office and what their credentials as negotiators on behalf of the movement might be. One of the new spokesmen, Dr Muhammad Naeem, said there were 6 major figures in the office; AAN counted 13 Afghans at the flag raising ceremony. Senior Analyst, Kate Clark, with input from Claudio Franco, Gran Hewad, Borhan Osman and guest blogger, Anand Gopal, has put together biographies of the men who may be about to be starting talks with the Americans and the Afghan government.
The debacle which marked the opening of the Taleban Qatar office on 18 June 2013 (see AAN reporting here), has not yet resolved itself into actual talks, although discussions between the Afghan government and the US and the US and the Taleban appear to be happening. (1) On the Taleban side, a closer look at those in the Qatar Office reveals a slew of former diplomats, men who worked at embassies in the three countries which recognised the Taleban’s Islamic Emirate: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. There are a fair number of former deputy ministers and two former ministers, one of whom, Mullah Abbas Akhund (Public Health), looks to be the only member of the team who fought during the 1994-2001 period, a time when senior Taleban regularly mixed frontline duties with running the state.
The Taleban in Qatar, then, are, with this one exception, not former commanders – the latter have always wielded the most influence within the movement. Rather, most of the men in the Qatar Office have experience in diplomacy and were trusted, pre-2001, by Mullah Omar enough to be the Emirate’s face on the world. What weight they carry with the current insurgency is simply not yet known: do they have the clout, for example, to be able to guarantee and hold a ceasefire in the field?
There appears to have been an attempt to include a mix of men, in terms of ethnicity and region, with Pashtuns from different areas of the country represented (although there is a weight of men from the south-east – Loya Paktia and especially Logar) and also – and this may be a token gesture – an Uzbek and a Tajik. Most are still under UN Sanctions.
More work will be done on who these men might ‘represent’: their networks back to the Quetta Shura, the military commission, the Haqqani network and Pakistan. As a first stage of analysis, however, AAN has sought to provide biographical details of the men involved.
The List of the Taleban in Qatar
The newly appointed spokesman, Dr Mohammad Naeem, asked in an interview with the BBC Pashto Service on 18 June 2013 who the senior officials in the office were, named the following:
1 Muhammad Tayyeb Agha, Head of Office
2 Qari Din Muhammad Hanif
3 Haji Muhammad Zahid Ahmadzai
4 Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai
5 Mawlawi Nik Muhammad
Mullah Naeem (6) himself (Pashto, Arabic), along with Sohail Shaheen (7) (English) – as far as we know, we have not heard them speak Dari yet, although their statement was published in both national languages on the main Taleban website – are now acting as the official spokesmen for the group. This establishes a communication channel that is a de facto alternative to the one manned by those who take the names Qari Yousuf Muhammad and Zabihullah Mujahed, which is directly linked to the IEA website. Naeem has already been interviewed on the Taleban’s Voice of Jihad website which suggests buy-in at least from the Culture Commission (believed to be headed by former Information Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi).
However, other men also appear in the photos of the opening:
8 Shahabuddin Dilawar
9 Mawlawi/Sheikh ul-Hadith Sayed Rasul Nangarhari
10 Mawlawi Jan Muhammad Madani, who cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.
Mullah Abbas Akhund (11) was, like Tayyeb Agha, not present at the ceremony, but multiple sources place him at the office.
There are also those which AAN has at least two sources placing as having been involved in the Qatar office, albeit possibly only in a marginal role or in previous years:
12 Aziz Rahman
13 Abdul Salam Hanafi
14 Sayed Muhammad Haqqani
15 Muslim Haqqani
(Haqqani here refers their alma mater, Dar ul Ulum Haqqania , rather than them belonging to the family of Jalaluddin Haqqani.)
1 Sayed Tayyeb Agha
The best known among the Doha-based officials and a key negotiator since the first days of Taleban/German/US talks in March 2010. Tayyeb Agha did not attend the June 18 opening. One long-established source explained his absence by saying it was a reaction to the Qatari government only fielding the deputy foreign minister. However, it has also been rumoured that he has been sidelined and his place (so far unofficially) taken by Mullah Abbas or Madani (see reporting here)
Madrassa-educated and the scion of an important jihadi family, Tayyeb Agha’s stint as the Taliban’s spokesman during the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s (IEA) last days remains his primary claim to fame. Less visible but crucial to his credibility was his proximity to Mullah Omar himself, first as press secretary during the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan tenure and then, post-2001, as his personal secretary while the Taliban supreme leader was on the run.
Tayyeb Agha’s close relationship to Mullah Omar seems to be the factor that matters in Doha. However, expecting him still to be acting directly on Omar’s behalf is far-fetched. Rather, it is his personal relationship to ‘Amir ul Mu’mineen’ which has been useful leverage for building the credibility of starting negotiation and of opening the Doha office.
Anand Gopal has written a detailed profile of Tayyeb Agha which can be read here.
2 Qari Din Muhammad Hanif (UN Sanctions List ID: TI.H.43.01)
The Taliban’s Minister of Planning and, later, of Higher Education, Qari Din Mohammed is from Badakhshan (from the same district, Yaftal, which produced former president and leader of Jamiat-e Islami, Burhanuddin Rabbani). He always looked like he was in the Taleban cabinet as a nod towards ethnic ‘balance’, as one western official who negotiated with him on aid during the Emirate said: ‘He was clearly a token Badakhshi within the IEA. No one, least of all his fellow-Talibs, seemed to take him very seriously and he had limited authority.’ However, the head of an international NGO remembers him as ‘a relatively reasonable person with whom to deal’ and said that as minister of planning in 1998, with no discussion, permitted a programme distributing food to widows to continue while forcing most international NGOs to close their operations in Kabul. He was also a member of the Joint Consultative Committee (a forum where UN, NGOs and donors and Taliban government representatives met in Islamabad to discuss aid).
Din Mohammed recently surfaced in Kyoto on 27 June 2012, talking on behalf of the Taleban at an academic conference which was seen by many as a significant step on the road to Doha.
3 Haji Muhammad Zahid Ahmadzai (UN Sanctions List ID: TI.Z.127.01)
Haji Zahid, who is from Logar (born in 1971, according to the UN Sanctions Committee) worked as the Taliban’s third secretary in Islamabad. Sources place him as having been in Dubai for a long time as a businessman.
4 Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai (UN Sanctions List ID : TI.S.67.01)
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai’s background is atypical for a Taleb. Educated at India’s military academy in Dehradun, which in the 1970s was involved in training Afghan army officials, Abbas Stanakzai is a Pashtun from Logar’s now restive Baraki Barak district. He joined the anti-Soviet jihad, first with Nabi Mohammadi’s Harakat-e-Inqilab-e-Islami, then with Abd ul Rasul Sayaf’s Ittehad-e-Islami, as commander of its south-western front. (Harakat is the mujahidin faction considered closest to the Taliban both in terms of worldview and personnel and included Mullah Omar in its ranks).
During the IEA, Stanakzai served as deputy minister of foreign affairs and later deputy minister of Public Health. The Western official who negotiated with the IEA on aid described Stanakzai as, ‘a bit of an outsider, not fully trusted by [foreign minister]Muttawakil and hence often in need to assert his position within the MoFA’. Unquestionably, though, Stanakzai is also remembered as an official deemed ‘presentable’ enough by Kandahar to be often assigned to entertain foreign visitors and occasionally give media interviews in English. He was Kate Clark’s next-door neighbor in Wazir Akbar Khan during that period.
5 Mawlawi Nik Muhammad
AAN only has single sourcing on Mawlawi Nik Muhammad’s background, but one former Taleban mid-ranking official said he is from Nawa district of Helmand. He said he was briefly appointed as a deputy minister in Kabul, but left the job to lead the education department in Kandahar where he remained until the Taleban’s collapse. He said he wanted to remain near to Amir ul Mu’mineen. Then his name appeared in September 2011 when he was reported as having participated to the ‘Islamic Awakening’ conference in Tehran and to have met former president Rabbani (this was just before Rabbani was murdered on his return to Kabul). The late Arsala Rahmani, who also attended the conference as a member of the High Peace Council told the Washington Post he was startled when he saw Nik Mohammad, a former colleague from their days together as Taliban government officials. He said they shook hands but exchanged nothing beyond pleasantries.
6 Dr Muhammad Naeem Wardak, Spokesman in Qatar
According to a former classmate, Muhammad Naeem is in his late 30s and from Chak district of Wardak, the son of Agha Jan. He went to school in Wardak before getting his BA in Islamic Studies (Arabic) in Peshawar. He then enrolled in the International slamic University in Islamabad for a Masters and subsequently PhD, graduating in 2010. He is also reported to have studied Hadith briefly in the famous Dar ul Ulum Haqqania madrassa in Akora Khattak. He was reportedly detained by the Afghan government for six months in Kabul while visiting relatives in 2011. He is fluent in Arabic and also speaks a little English.
He was first noticed at a conference held in Chantilly, France on 20 and 21 December 2012, which was organised by a French think tank with the support of the French government and brought together a wide range of Afghans, including representatives from the government and senior figures from the High Peace Council, the ‘political opposition’ and Hezb-e Islami, as well as some MPs and a former Afghan Independent Human Rights Commissioner (see AAN analysis here). Three participants told AAN that Shahabuddin Dilawar, who also came, read out a statement at the meeting, but all got the impression it was Naeem Wardak who was actually in charge. They said, he appeared to email questions raised in the meeting to someone outside and, in two instances, said one fellow participant, answers were printed out and brought back to the meeting.
7 Sohail Shaheen, Qatar Office Spokesman (de-listed, formerly TI.S.125.01)
Sohail Shaheen is a Totakhel from Paktia. He was educated in Pakistan, in the International Islamic University in Islamabad and is known as a fluent English speaker and prolific writer. He edited the English-language, state-owned Kabul Times during the IEA, before being appointed to the Afghan Embassy in Pakistan as deputy ambassador. A story published about him in October 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks provides some human details about the man.
After 2001, sources place him as living in the (Hezb-e Islami controlled) Shamshatu refugee camp in Peshawar where he wrote for a Hezbi newspaper and as having later worked for the United Nations in Pakistan.
8 Shahabuddin Dilawar (UN Sanctions List ID: TI.D.113.01)
According to one of his former comrades in Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami, with whom Dilawar fought during the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, he is the son of Mawlawi Sayed Akbar, a monarchy-era MP from Logar. Dilawar served as the Taleban representative in the Peshawar consulate, Ambassador to Pakistan, chargé d’affaires in Saudi Arabia, Deputy Chief Justice of the Appeal Court of Kandahar and head of the religious board of the Supreme Court which dealt with the international backlash over the Taleban’s destruction of the colossal Buddha statues in Bamyian in 2001. He also attended the Chantilly conference in December 2012 (see 6 for details).
9 Mawlawi/Sheikh (ul Hadith) Sayed Rasul Nangarhari
He had no official position during the Emirate, but was a teacher in a madrassa and in his home in Kachagarai in Nangarhar. He is known as a religious scholar.
10 Mawlawi Jan Muhammad Madani (UN Sanctions List ID: TI.M.119.01)
Mawlawi Jan Muhammad Madani cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony for the Qatar Office and indeed, earlier on, had been talked about as its possible head. His takhalus, Madani, refers to his having studied in Medina in Saudi Arabia. He is from Kandahar, according to the UN an Alizai from Panjwayi district. During the Emirate, he was head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kandahar and later the chargé d’affaires in the Taleban Embassy to the UAE. After 2001, he is believed to have moved to Quetta and subsequently to be dividing his time between Dubai and Doha. One source said that his background had made him useful for introducing the Taleban to Qatari diplomats.
11 Mullah Abbas Akhund (UN Sanctions List ID: TI.A.66.01)
Achakzai by tribe, he was born in Khas Uruzgan district of Uruzgan, but hailing originally from Kandahar province. He studied in a madrassa and fought as a Harakat commander during the 1980s (one former comrade said he was with the Harakat intelligence). He was the minister of public health during the Emirate and was one of the many Taleban commanders/ministers who regularly took time off to go and fight on the front. An international worker who negotiated with him at the time said:
He was much more of an insider than [deputy minister]Stanekzai and, by all accounts, had close links to the leadership in Kandahar in those days. Others in the cabinet seemed to defer to him as an ideologue, and he was clearly assigned to the Ministry of Public Health for a purpose – his main role was political. Interestingly, he never engaged directly in negotiations during the late 1990s, but was evidently pulling strings from behind the scenes. He was a tough negotiator.
Anand Gopal writes that he ensured the recruitment of women to be midwives (from Khas Uruzgan, particularly) during the IEA and ‘looked the other way’ at women’s training centres during the IEA. He also says that in January 2002, he was part of a group of Taleban, (along with Tayyeb Agha and Agha Jan Mutassim) who tried to cut a deal with the Afghan government in Khas Uruzgan in January 2002. He is now believed to be in charge of the Taleban’s Health Commission and there are reports that he has taken over as head of the Qatar office from Tayyeb Agha.
Mullah Abbas is clearly the heavy weight on the teams in terms of someone who was and is senior politically and was an active frontline commander pre-2001.
12 Sayed Muhammad Haqqani (UN Sanctions List ID: TI.H.6.01)
He was director of administrative affairs during the Taleban (a key post) and then ambassador in Islamabad and is believed to be from the Arghandab district of Kandahar (the UN sanctions committee lists him as Barakzai). The Haqqani takhalus refers to him having graduated from the Haqqania madrasa in Akora Khattak, in Pakistan. He appears to be part of the constellation of former Taleban possibly involved indirectly in the Qatar office.
13 Muslim Haqqani (UN Sanctions List ID: TI.H.73.01)
Formerly, Taleban Deputy Minister of Haj and Religious Affairs and Deputy Minister of Higher Education, he is an ethnic Pashtun from Baghlan Province. Again, sources put him as possibly having been involved in the Qatar track.
14 Azizurahman Abdul Ahad (UN Sanctions List ID: TI.A.121.01)
Formerly secretary to the Taleban Embassy in the UAE and, according to the UN Sanctions Committee, a Hotak from Shega area, Kandahar Province. Sources place him as a businessman based in Qatar and possibly involved in fundraising for the Taleban.
15 Abdul Salam Hanafi (UN Sanctions List ID: TI.H.27.01)
Former Taleban Deputy Minister of Education, he is from Faryab Province and is an Uzbek. He is a possible visitor to Qatar.
(1) MP Helay Irshad told Azadi Radio on 23 June 2013 that a visit to Qatar by the High Peace Council was ‘imminent’, between Monday and Wednesday, while the HPC Deputy, Ataullah Ludin, told the BBC today 24 June that the time had not been decided yet. The US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan flies in from Qatar to Afghanistan today to brief the government.