Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will lead a new Afghan government set to be announced soon, sources in the group said on Friday, as its fighters battled forces loyal to the vanquished republic in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul.
But the new government's most immediate priority would be to avert the collapse of an economy grappling with drought and the ravages of a 20-year conflict that killed around 240,000 Afghans before U.S. forces completed a tumultuous pullout on Aug. 30.
At stake is whether the Taliban can govern a country facing economic meltdown, a humanitarian disaster and threats to security and stability from rival jihadist groups, including a local offshoot of Islamic State.
Baradar, who heads the Taliban's political office, will be joined by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban co-founder 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," a Taliban official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban's supreme religious leader, will focus on religious matters and governance within the framework of Islam, another Taliban source said.
The Taliban, which seized Kabul on August 15 after sweeping across most of the country, have faced resistance in the Panjshir Valley, where there have been reports of heavy fighting and casualties.
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Several thousand fighters of regional militias and remnants of the government's armed forces have massed in the rugged valley under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, the son of 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.
While the Taliban have spoken of their desire to form a consensus government, a source close to the Islamist militant movement said the interim government now being formed would consist solely of Taliban members.
It would comprise 25 ministries, with a consultative council, or shura, of 12 Muslim scholars, the source added.
Also being planned within six to eight months is a loya jirga, or grand assembly, bringing together elders and representatives across Afghan society to discuss a constitution and the structure of the future government, the source said.
All the sources expected the interim government's cabinet to be finalized soon but differed over exactly when, with some saying it would be settled later on Friday while others felt it would take until the middle of next week.
The government's legitimacy in the eyes of international donors and investors will be crucial. Humanitarian groups have warned of impending catastrophe and the economy, reliant for years on millions of dollars of foreign aid, is near collapse.
But Kabul airport, the key to any aid lifeline, has been closed since the Taliban takeover due to a lack of air traffic control. The Taliban are still talking to foreign countries about technical assistance needed to reopen it.
Well before the Taliban took power, many Afghans were struggling to feed their families amid severe drought and millions could now face starvation, aid agencies say.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has no plans to release billions in Afghan gold, investments and foreign currency reserves parked in the United States that it froze after the Taliban's takeover.
In a positive development, a senior executive of Western Union Co said the remittance firm was resuming money-transfer services to Afghanistan in line with a U.S. push to keep up humanitarian work.
The Taliban enforced a radical form of sharia, or Islamic law, in particular oppressing women, when it ruled in 1996-2001.
This time around, the movement has tried to present a more conciliatory face to the world, promising to protect human rights and refrain from reprisals against old enemies.
The United States, European Union and others have cast doubt on such assurances, and many Afghans, especially women and those with education or links to the former government or Western coalition forces, now fear for their lives.
They include Afghanistan's 250 women judges, with men they once jailed now freed by the Taliban to hunt them down. While some women judges were able to flee in recent weeks, most were left behind and are still trying to get out, said judges and activists working around the clock to help them escape.
In another sign of shock and panic, members of Afghanistan's renowned all-female orchestra fled abroad or into hiding, smashing instruments and burning documents to avoid retribution by the Taliban, which banned music during its previous rule.
Western powers and others say formal recognition of the Taliban government, and a resulting flow of economic aid, will depend on action to safeguard human rights, the rule of law and the media, not just words.
"In order to support the Afghan population, we will have to engage with the new government in Afghanistan, which doesn't mean recognition. It's an operational engagement," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a news conference on Friday.
The Taliban have promised safe passage for any foreigners or Afghans left behind by the huge airlift that ended when U.S. troops withdrew ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline. But, with Kabul airport still closed, many were seeking to flee over land.
Thousands of Afghans also wait in "transit hubs" in third countries.