The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Taliban shows what it means by ‘inclusive.’ The time for American wishful thinking is over.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid speaks during a news conference in Kabul on Sept. 7. The Taliban on Tuesday announced a caretaker cabinet stacked with veterans of its harsh rule in the late 1990s. (Muhammad Farooq/AP)

Taliban leaders have unveiled Afghanistan’s new cabinet, and the Islamic Emirate they have anointed is far from the “inclusive” government that the radical insurgents promised. Rather, it consists almost entirely of hard-line ethnic Pashtun men from the Taliban’s long-standing inner circle. Key figures include prime minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund, a former official of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime who is under sanctions by the United Nations, and interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the violent Haqqani network, who is sought by the FBI for his role in bloody terrorist attacks. Sidelined completely: the women of Afghanistan, as well as such figures from the deposed U.S.-backed republic as former president Hamid Karzai and former chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah. The Taliban had held showy but, evidently, insubstantial talks with them after taking power.

In one sense, however, the Taliban has kept its promises: The new powers-that-be in Kabul enjoy not even the pretense of popular election, exactly as a spokesman, Waheedullah Hashimi, foreshadowed in August when he told Reuters: “There will be no democratic system at all because it does not have any base in our country." The transparency and accountability of the new political process are epitomized by the man widely believed to wield real power in the Taliban, religious leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, who has not been seen in public for years, though a statement was issued in his name to the effect that the new cabinet is an apparently interim “acting” body. How and when a transition to permanent status would occur were left unclear.

Such are the political fruits of American withdrawal and Taliban military conquest. The question for the United States and the rest of the world is how to react to a new and illegitimate but for the moment entrenched dictatorship that has, for all intents and purposes, taken Afghanistan itself hostage and awaits negotiations. The specifics of policy — when and whether to resume humanitarian aid; the timing and extent of sanctions relief, if any — matter greatly. What’s perhaps most important at the outset, though, is to establish a guiding principle.

We suggest realism. By this we do not mean a shallow “realpolitik” that says the United States and other nations can afford to cut deals with the Taliban in return for cooperation on our “interests,” such as containing the Islamic State-Khorasan and other terrorist groups (that is, those which, unlike the Haqqani network, are not already incorporated into the regime itself). We have in mind the kind of realism that understands clearly two things: First, the Taliban 2.0 so far has provided no evidence that it has changed in any fundamental way from the extreme, lawless and tribally based group that ran Afghanistan so disastrously between 1996 and 2001. And second, such an organization cannot claim to represent the Afghan people and is unlikely to establish a stable political system — let alone a decent one. Courageous demonstrations by women in Herat and Kabul serve as reminders that Afghans did not choose this regime and in many cases find its values abhorrent. .

On that basis, and that basis alone, the United States should pursue its remaining goals in Afghanistan, which must include advocating the human rights of its people. There has been too much wishful thinking already.