Taliban say peace in Afghanistan the objective

NGOs react with mix of scepticism, defiance and hope to pledge to respect women’s rights under Islamic law

US president Joe Biden has defended his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan blaming the deposed government and its security forces for the swift collapse and ensuing chaos in the country. Video: Reuters

 

The Taliban held their first official news conference in Kabul on Tuesday since the shock seizure of the city.

The victorious Islamists said they wanted peaceful relations with other countries and would respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law.

“We don’t want any internal or external enemies,” said the movement’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

Mr Mujahid said women would be allowed to work and study and “will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam”.

The Taliban would not seek retribution against former soldiers and members of the western-backed government, he said. And he added that the movement was granting an amnesty for former Afghan government soldiers as well as contractors and translators who worked for international forces.

“Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors,” he said.

He said private media could continue to be free and independent in Afghanistan, adding the Taliban was committed to the media within its cultural framework.

Mr Mujahid’s conciliatory tone contrasted sharply with comments by Afghan first vice-president Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the “legitimate caretaker president” and vowed that he would not bow to Kabul’s new rulers.

Among the NGOs working in the country, there is sceptism regarding the Taliban’s intentions but also some “cautious optimism” that a measure of normality can be retained.

Pashtana Durrani, who runs an NGO for girls’ education in Kandahar, said they would were willing to fight the Taliban for women’s rights if they are not forthcoming.

Speaking to RTE’s Drivetime programme, a suspicious Ms Durrani said that what the Taliban were saying to the international media and what they do on the ground remain two different things.

“I’ll believe them when they put [women’s education] in practice. I don’t believe them now. Not with their press conference but when they actually put [out] a statement asking their foot soldiers” not to infringe women’s rights, she said.

Defiant tone

Striking a defiant tone, Ms Durrani said both education and employment opportunities could be moved online if women are prevented from physical attendance.

“They are not supposed to decide for me, not anymore,” she said of the resumption of Taliban rule. “They decided in the past and it was chaotic and it backfired. Not anymore. We are educated, we know what our rights are.”

On the same programme, Sam Mort, head of communications, advocacy and civic engagement at Unicef Afghanistan, said her charity was “cautiously optimistic” about their work under the incoming Islamic government.

“There is definitely fear. The Taliban has a fearsome reputation and there’s a high degree of anxiety especially among women and girls,” she said of life in Kabul on Tuesday.

However, noting some “positive signs of progress, of perhaps a different kind of Taliban” following their public pronouncements on women being allowed attend all levels of education, Ms Mort held out some hope for the future.

“When I woke up this morning the first thing I saw was a female TV Afghan anchor interviewing a Talib leader and for me that set the tone for the day,” she said adding that Unicef had been encouraged by its dealings with the Taliban on recent education and vaccination programmes in areas under its control.

“We don’t want to be naïve but the mood at Unicef Afghanistan is cautiously optimistic,” she said.

The Taliban news conference came as the United States and western allies evacuated diplomats and civilians the day after scenes of chaos at Kabul airport as Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban thronged to the terminal.

As they rush to evacuate diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan, foreign powers are assessing how to respond to changed situation on the ground.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said the Taliban should allow all those who wanted to leave the country to depart, adding that Nato’s aim was to help build a viable state in Afghanistan.

There has been widespread criticism of the US withdrawal amid the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport. German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “the images of despair at Kabul airport shame the political West”.

Under a US troops withdrawal pact struck last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.

Flights resume

US military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan restarted on Tuesday after the runway at Kabul airport was cleared of thousands desperate to flee. US forces took charge of the airport – their only way to fly out of Afghanistan – on Sunday, as the militants wound up a week of rapid advances by taking over Kabul without a fight, 20 years after they were ousted by a US-led invasion.

The number of civilians had thinned out, said a western security official at the airport. On Monday US troops had fired warning shots to disperse crowds and people clung to a US military transport plane as it taxied for take-off.

At least 12 military flights had taken off, said a diplomat at the airport. Planes were due to arrive from countries including Australia and Poland to pick up their nationals and Afghan colleagues.

US president Joe Biden said he had to decide between asking US forces to fight endlessly or follow through on a withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” said Mr Biden. “After 20 years I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”

Facing criticism from even his own diplomats, he blamed the Taliban’s takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled and its army’s unwillingness to fight.

Earlier on Tuesday senior Taliban leader Amir Khan Muttaqi was said to be in Afghanistan’s capital negotiating with Kabul’s political leadership. Those involved in the talks included Mr Abdullah, who once headed the country’s negotiating council and former president Hamid Karzai.

Mr Muttaqi was a higher education minister when the Taliban last ruled and he began making contacts with Afghan political leaders even before former president Ashraf Ghani secretly slipped away from the presidential palace last weekend. His departure left a devastating vacuum that the Taliban, who were surrounding the city, strode in to fill.

It is understood the talks are aimed at bringing other non-Taliban leaders into the government that Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has said will be an “inclusive Afghan government”.

The UN Security Council called for talks to create a new government in Afghanistan after Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of “chilling” curbs on human rights and violations against women and girls.

Many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

Mr Shaheen told Dunya News the Taliban would improve the security of Kabul and “respect the rights of women and minorities as per Afghan norms and Islamic values”.

He added the new regime would ensure representation of all ethnicities and that the Taliban were keen to work with the international community to rebuild the country.

Terrorism

The Taliban began their push in the spring with attacks on government positions in the countryside and targeted killings in cities. The International Committee of the Red Cross said more than 40,000 people with wounds caused by weapons had been treated at facilities it supports in June, July and August, 7,600 of them since August 1st.

US forces are due to complete their withdrawal by the end of this month under the deal with the Taliban that hinged on their promise not to let Afghanistan be used for international terrorism.

British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said Afghanistan must never be used to launch attacks, but the west would have to be pragmatic in relations with the Taliban.

European Union foreign ministers will meet in emergency session on Tuesday via teleconference to discuss the unfolding crisis.

Irish and EU efforts in the coming days are expected to focus on the extraction of their citizens from Afghanistan, said officials. However, EU ministers are likely to signal that any aid to the next government in Kabul will be conditional on human rights being respected by the new regime.

Irish officials stressed the importance of protecting the rights of women and girls, a core element of Irish foreign policy. – Reuters/AP