(KABUL, Afghanistan) — Sitting in a Taliban press conference Tuesday was a thoroughly surreal moment to cap seven long days of almost unimaginable firsts.
This time two weeks ago, I was reporting from London on the Taliban assaulting three major cities. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was saying that while the Taliban seemed to have the “strategic momentum,” their victory wasn’t certain.
This time a week ago, still marooned in London, I foolishly told Amy Robach on “Good Morning America” that it was hard to imagine a worse picture in Afghanistan as the Taliban seized their ninth provincial capital.
On Tuesday, I joined hundreds of local journalists packed into the hall of the Afghan media center in Kabul as the enigmatic Zabihullah Mujahid descended the stairs in hushed silence to hold the Taliban’s first public press conference in almost 20 years.
Anyone who’s been following events in Afghanistan will know of him. He has over 300,000 followers on Twitter. Anyone who has reported on the country has probably spoken to him on the phone. Yet, every call seemed to be with a different sounding Mujahid to the point where many wondered if he really existed or whether it was just a pseudonym for any Taliban spokesman.
But Tuesday, the somber-looking, black-turbaned voice of the militants had his coming out presser.
There are many known unknowns here, to borrow a phrase from the recently departed U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who famously turned down a Taliban offer to surrender in December 2001.
The first and most-pressing question went to a female journalist from Al Jazeera English. Mujahid clearly understands the optics, even if someone had to nudge him to receive her question first. Most women and girls are in effect confined to their homes right now — at least half the population too afraid to go out. Just let that sink in.
“What assurances can you give to women and girls that their rights will be protected?” the reporter asked.
“Women will be afforded all their rights,” Mujahid said. “Whether it is at work or other activities, because women are a key part of society, and we are guaranteeing all their rights.”
And then came the all important caveat, “Within the limits of Islam.”
He was asked more than once about this key issue, and for good reason given the militants’ appalling track record on blocking girls from schools, women from the workplace and even dictating that they can only leave home with a male family member and must be fully clad in the oppressive, all-encompassing burqa.
He was never more specific about what he is promising other than vague assurances that fail to inspire confidence. But the militants know they have a small window to prove to the country and the world that they have changed.
I was speaking Tuesday evening to a diplomat from a Middle Eastern nation with some influence here. He said they have been trying to impress on the Taliban that you can be a good Muslim country and women can enjoy full rights. He said they had been told that if you just say “haram, haram, haram” (meaning “forbidden”) all the time to people, then you will drive them away from Islam. But he also conceded the Taliban mindset will take a lot of adjusting.
Mujahid said clearly, “The ideology is the same,” but added they have learned from experience. The militants have been in public relations overdrive since taking power over the weekend. They have said they will protect all minorities. They have met with the country’s small Sikh community and reached out to the Shia Hazara community with guarantees they won’t interfere with them.
They issued a general amnesty on Tuesday, inviting women to take part in public life. A spokesman said he doesn’t want women to be victims and instructed fighters not to enter people’s homes. Foreigners are welcome to stay; they want good relations with the outside world.
In summary, the Taliban is giving every impression they have changed without giving meaningful specifics on how. To be fair, they seized power even faster than they expected but they have also had years to formulate a meaningful posture on key issues. The political leadership that has been in exile for years and now moved back to Afghanistan has certainly given lip service to lessons learned. But its fighters often have an unreconstructed view and areas they have controlled for some time suggests there are many reasons to worry.
I asked about the Afghan special immigrant visa applicants, the people who risked their lives to help the U.S.-led mission here. Thousands of them have been promised flights out but many of them are also trapped at home in fear with no means to get to the airport, even if there were flights ready for them. Some Taliban checkpoints are only allowing foreigners through and these men and women rightly fear for their lives.
“We are assuring the safety of all those who have worked with the United States and allied forces whether as interpreters or any other field that they have worked with them,” he told me. Again, no specifics on how they would be allowed to get to the airport.
No discussion on burqas for women or beards for men. We were told that this will be resolved by the new government (or emirate).
The first time I came to Kabul was on foot and bicycle in November 2001. It still stands as a journalistic high witnessing the liberation of an entire city. Women threw back the veil for the camera proclaiming their freedom, men shaved their beards, music was played and the capital celebrated.
In the 20 years since then, the city has been transformed and around half the population has never known life under the Taliban. But today there is a darkness and a sadness that has descended. The young women on the hotel reception have disappeared. The music has stopped playing and Afghans now wait with more sadness than hope to see whether the future is going to be as awful as the past.
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