Asia

Faced with staffing issues, the Taliban look for help in Pakistan


KARACHI, PAKISTAN (NYTIMES) – It was 20 years ago when a militant – a defence ministry official in the Taliban’s first government – fled Afghanistan as US troops swept into the country. He settled in southwestern Pakistan with other Afghans, bought a house and became a baker.

Then, after Kabul fell to the Taliban in August last year, Mr Khyal Mohammad Ghayoor received a call from a stranger who identified himself only by the dual honorifics, Hajji Sahib, which roughly translates to a distinguished man who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca. The man told Mr Ghayoor he was needed back in Afghanistan, not as a baker but as a police chief.

Now, Mr Ghayoor oversees 1,450 people as the head of Kabul’s traffic police. “I am very excited to be back in a free and liberated Afghanistan,” he said.

Five months after their takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban are grappling with the challenges of governance.

Leaders promised to retain civil servants and prioritise ethnic diversity for top government roles, but instead have filled positions at all management levels with soldiers and theologians. Other government employees have fled or refused to work, leaving widespread vacancies in the fragile state.

To help fill the gaps, Taliban officials are reaching into Pakistan.

For years, Pakistan officially denied the existence of Mr Ghayoor and thousands of other ex-Taliban fighters quietly living within its borders. Now, the Taliban are privately recruiting them to return and work in the new government.

It is unclear how many former fighters have returned from Pakistan, but there have already been several high-profile appointments, including Mr Ghayoor.

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Mr Arsala Kharoti, who had been working as a community organiser at a refugee camp in Pakistan, is now the deputy minister of refugees. Mr Mawlawi Saeedullah, a preacher at a mosque in a Karachi slum, was appointed to a district judge position in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Paktika, resuming a job he gave up in 2001.

The new hires are walking into a mounting catastrophe. Hunger is rampant. Many teachers and other public sector employees have not been paid in months. The millions of dollars in aid that helped prop up the previous government have vanished, billions in state assets are frozen and economic sanctions have led to a near collapse of the country’s banking system.

“Running insurgency and state are two different things,” said Mr Noor Khan, 40, an accountant who fled Kabul for Islamabad in early September, among hundreds of other Afghan professionals hoping for asylum in Europe.

In the first weeks of the Taliban’s takeover, roughly 120,000 people, including civil servants, bankers, academics and doctors, fled through airlifts organised by the United States and other foreign countries.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, recognising the personnel challenges the new government would face, tried to convince the US to suspend its evacuation process in August.

“Afghanistan needs the expertise of its skilled people,” he said. “They should not be taken to other countries.”

A similar mass exodus of Afghanistan’s professional class occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Soviets withdrew and the Taliban wrested control from the warlords who filled the leadership vacuum.

Then as now, the Taliban preferred filling the government ranks with militants and loyalists. But this time, some civil servants have also stopped showing up for work, several of them said in interviews, either because they are not being paid, or because they do not want to taint their pending asylum cases in the US or Europe by working for the Taliban.

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Gaps in governance have started to show, including at Salaam, a state-run telecommunications company that, before the takeover, the Taliban routinely threatened and accused of providing intelligence about them to the former government.

“They have no experience to run the departments,” said Mr Basir Jan, a company employee. “They sit in the offices with guns and abuse the employees in the departments by calling them ‘corrupt’ and ‘facilitators of the invaders’.”

Mr Enayat Alokozai, a spokesman for the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, denied these accusation and said Salaam’s service had improved under the Taliban. “All technical staff are in place and they do their routine duties,” he said.

Taliban leaders blame the US for the collapsing economy. But some analysts say that even if the US unfreezes Afghanistan’s state assets and lifts sanctions, the Finance Ministry does not have the technical know-how to revive the country’s broken banking system.

“Their response to the catastrophic economic situation is, ‘it’s not our fault, the internationals are holding the money back’. But the reality is that they don’t have the capacity for this kind of day-to-day technical operation,” said Dr Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“One motivation to bring the people back from Pakistan is to offset the image of a brain drain,” she said.

Mr Wahidullah Hashimi, a senior member of the Taliban’s council for training and educating soldiers, said that staffing problems stemmed from corruption within the last administration, and a foreign conspiracy to starve Afghanistan of talent – rather than the Taliban’s own dearth of it.

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“Foreigners intentionally evacuated Afghans, most importantly, the educated and professional ones, to weaken the Islamic Emirates and undermine our administration,” Mr Hashimi said.

“We are in touch with some Afghans in different parts of the world and are encouraging them to return to Afghanistan because we desperately need their help and expertise to help their people and government,” he said.

Former government employees say they worry that conditions in Afghanistan, already dire, could become catastrophic. Some of the Taliban returnees share this concern: As many as several dozen new government officials are keeping their families and properties in Karachi, according to Afghan refugee community leaders in the city.

Journalist and author Abubakar Siddique said the Taliban remain dependent on Pakistan, despite their new grip on power in Afghanistan.

“They still consider it a safe haven to retreat to if things go sour in Afghanistan,” Mr Siddique said. “Obviously, the Taliban leaders and mid-ranking functionaries do not want to risk all by bringing their families into a country that many Afghans are eager to leave.”



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