The Taliban, which have taken over Kabul, the Afghan capital, say they have changed. They are promising amnesty for their enemies and to let people leave the country — a departure from the mass executions and repression when the armed group ruled most of Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Qatar, talks with NPR’s Steve Inskeep about what he says is the group’s commitments of safety to people in Kabul.
Steve Inskeep: What is your group’s attitude toward the U.S. evacuation of U.S. citizens and those who supported them right now?
Suhail Shaheen: You mean why we are supporting?
No, I mean, does your group intend to allow American citizens and Afghans who wish to leave to leave peacefully?
Yes, on the basis of the Doha agreement, the Americans should leave peacefully and they withdraw from Afghanistan peacefully. So during their withdrawal from Afghanistan, we will not attack them. That was written in the Doha agreement. But as you see, the Americans violated that agreement. It was until the 1st of May that they should have withdrawn all their forces and then President Biden said that we will withdraw until Sept.11. But still, we restrained our forces not to attack American troops because they are withdrawing from our country. And so we expect them that they withdraw until Sept. 11. And if they continue to station, furthermore, in the country, that could be considered, of course, occupation, continuation of the occupation.
What kinds of contacts do your leaders have with the United States military or U.S. diplomats at this point?
You know, you may have seen reports that [U.S. special envoy] Dr. [Zalmay] Khalilzad, along with a delegation and other U.S. delegation, they come to Doha time and again. They have speak about peace and reconciliation and try to help in the peace process in one way or the other. So we have contacts, yes.
I am asking about the last couple of days. Has the United States military been regularly communicating with the Taliban in Kabul in the last couple of days as the United States has been evacuating its citizens and supportive Afghans?
Yes, of course, there is a kind of understanding between the two sides — so that confrontation do not occur. Of course there is coordination.
Was the Taliban offered or promised anything not to interfere with the evacuation?
Yes, yes, when the American are evacuating from Afghanistan, we will not attack them.
No, that’s what the Taliban has committed to. But is the Taliban receiving anything in return?
No, no, we are not receiving anything in return, but that we want our country to be free and the occupation to come to an end. That is why we want them to evacuate from Afghanistan peacefully.
So I understand, Mr. Shaheen, as you know, there are many people who seem desperate to get out of Kabul. And the reason they are desperate to get out of Kabul is that they believe that the Taliban will be going door to door and punishing or even killing people who are believed to have supported the United States. Should people be afraid of those kinds of reprisals from the Taliban?
No, there is not any kind of reprisal nor any revenge under those people who are working with the foreign troops. And so we have announced a general amnesty, they can lead their normal life and they also contribute to the reconstruction of the country, to people’s economic prosperity, to their own prosperity. And they can use their talents, capacities, in the service of the country and people.
Does that amnesty and that promise of security apply only to Kabul or to the entire country?
That applies to the entire country, it is not limited to the Kabul city. Of course, it applies to all the country, to the 34 provinces of Afghanistan.
We are hearing reports from Kabul of people being searched for, of Taliban fighters going door to door searching for individuals. Are you saying that such activity is not authorized by your leadership?
Yeah, not authorized, not authorized at all. Because if such a person are seen, they will be detained because it is against the announced statement, official statement of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. And more, our security forces are coming to Kabul in order to maintain order, and to prevent any such incidents taking place in the city. And we have announced also telephone numbers by their complaint commission. If there is any such incidents and complaints, they can call the complaint commission and to address their grievances.
There are news reports describing people who would be unable to complain because they have been killed. This is outside of Kabul, I should say. There was a CNN report in recent days of Taliban fighters executing 22 Afghan commandos as they attempted to surrender. And there was video of this. Tolo News had a report of 43 people killed in Ghazni. Al Jazeera reported on dozens of civilians killed in Spin Boldak some days ago. Do you deny these reports?
Some of these videos you mentioned, they are fake videos. For example, in Spin Boldak we called on journalists to come to Spin Boldak and investigate for themselves whether any incident of killing or taking people from their houses and killing them has happened. They came, the journalists came, they investigated and they didn’t find. When they returned to Kandahar, they were detained by the National Security Department of the former Kabul administration. And also about those commandos, it was a fake because there was two videos and they were spliced to each other and made as one, because one part was that the commandos who were sent by the Kabul administration against our forces in Farah province. There were of course fighting between the two sides and they launched a massive offensive against us. And the other was of people surrendering, so they had to splice the two different locations in different incidents. So they are, you know, spreading such fake videos against us.
I would not say it’s impossible that a video is faked, but these stories arrive to us amid some well-documented history of the Taliban when they were last in charge of Afghanistan. When the Taliban took over in 1996, there was a former president who was dragged out of a diplomatic compound and left hanging from a light pole. There were public executions of civilians at a soccer field, a football field in Kandahar. I stood on that football field afterward and talked with people who had seen those executions. I do not doubt that they happened. Is your group any different today than it was?
Today, we have announced a general amnesty. You may have seen our statements not once, two or three times, we announce that they not in one language, Pashto and Persian, many other languages, in English and Arabic and also other languages. We announced this. So it is our commitment. And also we announce that we will provide protection for the smooth functioning of the embassies and diplomats. So this is what we want and this is our policy. But of course, if there is any incident by unscrupulous armed men, which is not affiliated to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and then that is fully investigated by our commission, like the military commission, like the complaints commission. So and the people, those who are behind those incidents, that they are detained and brought to courts to be punished.
Are you saying then that your group is different than the 1990s? And if so, what has changed?
In the 1990s at that time, the media was against us, there was biased reporting against us.
I stood on the football field and I talked with people who had seen the executions. I do not doubt they happened, sir. Are you saying that your group has changed from what it was then?
Oh, yeah. About the execution, I don’t say it was if someone has killed a person, the heirs and relatives of that person has the right to kill him as a retaliation according to the law. So that is another story. But if someone comes to a house and gatecrash into the house and steal equipment or utensil of the house and kill the family — so that is not tolerated and the culprits are detained and punished in the quarter.
So, this is very useful because now we’re turning to the question of how a country, how Afghanistan should be governed. In the 1990s, when the Taliban were last in power, it was said that people’s hands were cut off when they were accused of stealing and that the hands were held up for display. Is that something the Taliban intends to do again?
So I’m not religious scholars, but I can say the Islamic rules that is interpreted by the judges. It is referred to the judges. Of course, there will be three courts: the primary court, the high court and a court of [inaudible]. So everyone has the right of self defense. So then they can issue their ruling as per the law, the Islamic law.
And the law would allow that?
Yes, it is up to the judges. I have no comment on that.
This leads to another question, then, in the country where the Taliban have just taken power, numerous women are in elected positions in the government serving in various roles in the government. Will they be allowed to remain there?
Yes, the women, they have a right to education and to work so they can hold different positions and jobs right now. The doctors who have started serving. The teachers have started teaching. And also in other fields, the women are working. The journalist women, they have started working, by observing hijab. So, yes, women can do their job — only they should observe hijab.
By observing hijab, you’re saying that unlike the last time the Taliban were in power, women can move about without male escorts, but they must cover themselves completely?
Of course, when a woman goes to the site for her job, she can go and then return to her home. Yes, that’s clear.
Will women have any ability to dress as they want? What if a woman wasn’t doesn’t want to wear hijab or your idea of what is proper hijab?
The main thing is hijab. So every hijab, if it is hijab, it is a proper hijab. So if it is not a hijab, so you can’t call it a hijab, but of course, it is one not only limited to one type, maybe different types.
We spoke earlier with an analyst, Asfandyar Mir, who had recently been in Afghanistan and who said that al-Qaida remains present, some members of al-Qaida remain present at present in Afghanistan. A Taliban spokesman has said in the last day no one will be harmed from Afghan soil. It will not be used as a place to attack other countries. How do you intend to keep that promise?
You know, what he says they are present, I don’t believe that. If it said that they are present, and they can show it to the Islamic they are present there, so that we will take action. But it is our commitment that we will not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against any other country, including the United States. And we consider this as a part of our national interest because we are going to have a country with peace that we want to pave the way for reconstruction of Afghanistan. That could not be achieved without a commitment not to allow anyone to use the soil of our country against other countries.
It’s my understanding that Pakistani officials in recent days have been speaking with Taliban leaders and have warned your group no Taliban government is going to be recognized by the world if it takes Kabul by force. And also that there cannot be an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. There must be something more inclusive of different points of view. What do you say to that?
There are many reports which are not based on realities. We want an Afghan inclusive government, it is our statement. Not today, it is from the beginning that is our stance, our policy, and so that we announced a general amnesty. It is our policy from the past year. You see, we have been saying that we are protecting the national projects. That is our policy. And we helped TAPI [Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India] pipeline project because it will go — at that time, 650 kilometers in areas under our control. Now they will go all in our control areas because we have control all over Afghanistan. And at that time, we were helping that. So we have our own policy. So of course we have good relations with other countries, many countries, but that is political relations. And because we need those countries in future to have trade with them and they have on the basis of mutual respect and interest, but that they impose up on us anything and to have dictate to us that is not true.
You said that you do favor an inclusive government. Let’s talk about some things that that means. There are ethnic and religious minorities in Pakistan, such as the Hazaras, who were not at all accepted during the last Taliban regime and were even persecuted. Do you promise religious freedom as part of that inclusive government?
Yeah, we have commitment —
Oh, I should correct myself. I think I said Pakistan. Of course I meant Afghanistan. There are religious minorities in Afghanistan, such as Hazaras, who were persecuted during the past regime. Do you promise them religious freedom this time?
Yeah, we promised just freedom to them and as a basis of our Islamic rules, because they are also Muslims, but maybe some differences in the jurisprudence, of religious jurisprudence. But they are Muslims and we have no discrimination against other ethnicities, all ethnicities living in Afghanistan, they are brothers to each other. So they are like all ethnicities, like different flowers in a garden. So we want a national unity of the country. At that time, there were commanders, our military commander was among the Shia people, very famous commanders we had in that war, and [Ustad] Akbari, the leader of Shia, he had joined our forces. He was with us. Now we have a policy that we do not have any kind of discrimination against the Shia people. They are Afghans. They can live in this country peacefully and they can contribute to the reconstruction, prosperity and development of the country.
Do you promise to allow free elections and free media?
Now the media is free, but they should also observe certain laws that they should not be against the Islamic rules and also the national interest. So this is the main thing. Otherwise, they can criticize the government officials, the people, and also to show the best way forward, how the government can go forward, which is best for the people in order to take to the society forward economically and how to advance, be prosperous and how Afghanistan be developed, so they can play the role.
I want to make sure if I didn’t follow — you said “can” or “can’t”? Did you say they can criticize the government or can’t?
They may criticize the government?
They may, yes.
In the last months of the old government, when the Taliban were attacking across the country, numerous journalists were assassinated. Will that continue?
No, those assassinated, they were not assassinated by us. There was a dictatorship sitting in Kabul. So this question should be asked from them because we know there were many journalists criticizing the government and they were killed.
Can I mention — when you said earlier that they cannot write against the national interest — depending on how you define that, that’s not really press freedom at all. That’s a way to imprison journalists.
No, the national interest will be well known, so that means that in future it will be very clear these are the national interests. Others are not. So everyone will know. It will not be ambiguous. There will not be ambiguity — it should be clear.
And I also had asked about elections. Will your group allow free elections with multiparty participation?
So now we have consultation and to have an Afghan inclusive government in a few days. So right now, no topic of election is discussed right now. It is not the time for that.
But do you mean to say that in the short term you intend to include other parties in the government?
We are talking to other politicians about plans and of course, we are talking with others how it can be possible that they can work and be part of the government.
Mr. Shaheen, I have one final question. The world was stunned in many cases that your group captured control of the country so quickly. It was, of course, a 20-year war, but the end came very quickly. How do you feel that you succeeded in that way?
Well, I think it was — it showed the support of the people. It showed our movement for liberation of the country was a popular uprising. And it showed that those who were working for the Kabul administration, they were bigger and stronger and sustaining themselves only because of the bombardment and cruise missiles and air strikes, drone attacks of the pilots. Otherwise, when they started withdrawing from the country, the people rejected them and they had no support of the security forces.
I do have a question from a colleague who wants to follow up, regarding groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida. If groups such as ISIS or al-Qaida are identified again on Afghan soil, will your government move to eradicate them?
Of course, when we say that we do not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan, that means we will not allow them, that if they are intending to use this soil for their activities outside the country, so that we will not allow them to, we will not tolerate that.
Suhail Shaheen, thank you very much for the time.
Thank you. Thank you.