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Story Publication logo August 17, 2021

Taliban Leaders Promise Softer Rule, But Their Actions Send A Different Message


photo of Kabul

Several young Afghans are fighting for their own survival and that of their country as the Americans...

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As the Taliban cemented their hold on Afghanistan Tuesday and spoke in detail about plans for the country, evacuations resumed. The top American general in the Middle East visited the Kabul airport to observe U.S. operations, now with nearly 4000 troops on the ground. But there is still fear about what the future may bring. With support from the Pulitzer Center, Jane Ferguson reports from Kabul.

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Judy Woodruff: The Taliban cemented their hold on power in Afghanistan today. And they began to speak in detail about their plans for the country. Evacuations of civilians also resumed, and the top American general in the Middle East visited the Kabul Airport to observe American military operations, now with nearly 4,000 troops on the ground. Still, inside Kabul, there is fear and even panic over what the future may bring. Again with the support of the Pulitzer Center, our Jane Ferguson is in Kabul.

Jane Ferguson: Relative calm prevailed over Kabul this morning, a day after chaos gripped the Afghan capital's international airport.

In the Taliban's first news conference since they overran the country, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who has never shown his face publicly until today, sat down with Afghan and international journalists. The messaging was clear: A second Taliban government would be a softer, more globally acceptable one. This was the friendly face of the movement. With an interpreter translating the spokesman's words into English, he announced a pardon for those they once called traitors.

Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban Spokesman (through translator): 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 worked with them.

Jane Ferguson: He promised the Taliban would respect women's rights under Islamic law.

Zabihullah Mujahid (through translator): Women will be afforded all their rights, whether it is at work or other activities, because women are a key part of society. And we are guaranteeing all their rights within the limits of Islam.

Jane Ferguson: But when the Taliban last ruled, and in areas under their control over the last 20 years, women have had their rights severely restricted. They could not take most jobs or go to school. While the Taliban have pushed to consolidate their control here of the capital, today, in a dramatic twist, we also heard from the former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, releasing a statement via Twitter, saying that he considers himself to now be the president of Afghanistan because the former president has stepped down and left the country, that he is still in Afghanistan and plans to oppose the Taliban rule.

Amrullah Saleh, Afghani Vice President: I am standing for my country, and the war is not over.

Jane Ferguson: In January, Saleh told the "NewsHour" he'd rather die than submit to the Taliban. He and the son of famed militia leader Ahmad Shah Massoud are apparently trying to organize armed resistance in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul. In Washington, U.S. military officials say order at the airport has been restored, at least for the moment.

Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, Vice Director For Logistics, The Joint Staff: We are confident we have taken the right steps to resume safe and orderly operations at the airport.

Jane Ferguson: At the White House this afternoon, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan again defended the president's withdrawal decision. He also said a deal was struck with the Taliban to ensure safe passage to the airport, but he expressed fear for the future of the country's women.

Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Adviser: Truly, deeply, my heart goes out to Afghan women and girls in the country today under the Taliban. We have seen what they have done before. And that's a very hard thing for any of us to face. But this wasn't a choice just between saving those women and girls and not saving those women and girls. The alternative choice had its own set of human costs and consequences, as I said. And those human costs and consequences would have involved a substantial ramp-up of American participation in a civil war with more loss of life and more bloodshed.

Question: Will the U.S. government commit to ensuring that any Americans that are currently on the ground in Afghanistan get out?

Jake Sullivan: That's what we're doing right now. We have asked them all to come to the airport to get on flights and take them home. That's what we intend to do.

Jane Ferguson: As the U.S. defends its withdrawal and tries to manage the disaster on the ground, reaction came in from allies and adversaries across the globe. In Brussels, NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said evacuating personnel is the top priority right now. But, like President Biden, he blamed the Afghan government for the rapid collapse of the country.

Jens Stoltenberg: Why didn't the forces we trained and equipped and supported over so many years, why were they not able to stand up against the Taliban in a stronger and better way than they did?

Jane Ferguson: China blamed the U.S. for the bedlam it says was caused by a hasty pullout of American military forces. In Greece, where many Afghan refugees currently live, the government has warned it cannot take in a new wave of migrants. Afghan refugees on the island of Lesbos today protested against the Taliban. Afghans who choose not to stay under Taliban rule now face the painful question of where to next.

Judy Woodruff: And Jane Ferguson joins us now from Kabul, where, again, it is very late at night. So, Jane, what did you make of this Taliban news conference?

Jane Ferguson: We really need to look, Judy, at this press conference from a wider perspective. The whole atmospherics, the very fact that it took place sends a message. We had, as you saw there, an English translator. The first question was taken from a female journalist. They were even simply acknowledging the press and the international press. The messaging here was very much so: We are here to engage the international community, you know, and we could even surprise you. We have to remember that the Taliban now find themselves with a country to govern. And they have said that they wanted the international community, the aid agencies, the diplomats to stay. And they are, of course, going to be reliant on a huge amount of international aid. And the messaging coming from this event and the atmospherics around it, just the very fact that they're having a press conference, acknowledging the press, and the international press, really sends that strong message that this branding that they wanted — that they want to show is that they are somehow changed, that they're softer, that they are a much more internationally acceptable version of the Taliban.

Judy Woodruff: So, tell us a little — excuse me — a little more about some of the specifics that they spoke of, and in particular with regard to women and women's rights.

Jane Ferguson: Well, they weren't as specific as I think many of the journalists in the room would have liked to have — hear. They have been saying for some time — and we have put these questions to the Taliban several times as well — how do they view women's rights going forward? They wouldn't get into specifics of legalities and on what rights specifically women would have or be allowed to keep, because women here do have a legal framework of rights as it stands in Afghanistan. But they did — so, instead, they gave their usual answer, which is that women would have rights within an Islamic framework. Now, that is, of course, an incredibly vague phrase and could mean many different things to many different people. They did use a few buzzwords, though, Judy. They used — they specifically addressed some of the jobs that they thought women should have, such as working in the judiciary or working in government ministries. I think that was very much so sort of a pushback against criticism of them where people have said, well, if you're separating women, if you're not really encouraging them to work, what about all of these influential positions that they should and could have in Afghanistan? Significantly, there was other specific language that was used. They said, we will not allow Afghanistan to host any international groups or fighters that could launch attacks on other countries. That's very important that they brought this up, because that's very much so a message for the international community, and probably a message for America, because those words are taken almost verbatim from the deal that President Trump, that President Trump's White House signed with the — or his government signed with the Taliban ... . So, basically, they're saying that — they're messaging the Americans, saying, we're not going to allow al-Qaida to launch attacks abroad again. And that's a very significant sort of specific that they did bring up.

Judy Woodruff: Which raises the question, Jane, of their credibility. Do Afghan citizens believe the Taliban when they speak?

Jane Ferguson: Well, the difficulty here, Judy, is whenever you hear words vs. actions. There is a major divergence. In fact, almost every subject that the Taliban brought up, every point that they made that was designed to sort of try to put the international community's worries at rest, is not really seen in their actions. It's very much so divergent from the reality on the ground. They can talk about women's rights, about how they want women to go to school and have jobs. But if we look at the areas of Afghanistan that they have controlled over the last 20 years during the war, that's simply not happening. Women are not going to school. Girls are not going to school, and women do not have influential jobs. Take, for instance, they have said, we will not enact retribution, there will be no revenge against anybody who fought within the Afghan security services. We know that there have been assassination campaigns specifically against those such as helicopter pilots and fighter pilots. So there is a divergence between what they're saying. They even said Afghanistan — that they're opposed to narcotics and that drugs are bad, and that they shouldn't be produced or sold or grown in the country, whenever we, of course, know that, as a group, they're heavily involved in the heroin trade. So it's — many people here don't take them at their word. They believe that much of this is branding, that it's designed to try to sort of rebrand the group as a group that can not only run a country, but be internationally engaged. And I think that fear that people can't trust them is why we see scenes of thousands rushing the airport trying to get out of the country.

Judy Woodruff: And very quickly, Jane, you mentioned the former Vice President Saleh mounting of force to oppose the Taliban. Is that a real resistance?

Jane Ferguson: At this stage, it's not clear. We know that, in the Panjshir Valley, which has traditionally been a spot of resistance against the Taliban, the only holdout during the Taliban's last government — so it resonates certainly in history in Afghanistan. It's not really clear. It's unlikely people are going to take him seriously as an acting president of the entire country. But that doesn't mean that it couldn't be the beginning of at least some form of insurgency here and a small holdout against the Taliban.

Judy Woodruff: Jane Ferguson reporting for us once again from Kabul. Jane, please stay safe.

Jane Ferguson: Thank you, Judy.


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