They assembled at Bagram airbase, the last military outpost of the 20-year American occupation. Flags were hoisted, leftover US military equipment was displayed, and Taliban soldiers wore uniforms shed by fleeing forces loyal to the former government. Speeches were made, and the Quran was recited.
But not much was said about the continued suppression of women, the escalating violence, or the near-universal poverty Afghans find themselves in today.
So, where does the regime stand, and why should the international community trust the Taliban despite this dismal record? We interviewed Suhail Shaheen, the group's international spokesperson and head of its political office in Qatar. (He’s technically also the UN ambassador, but the world body doesn't recognize the Taliban as the legitimate Afghan government.)
Our conversation — edited for clarity and length — was published on the day that ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at the Russian embassy in Kabul that killed at least six people, including a top diplomat, the first such attack on a diplomatic mission since the Taliban swept back to power.
Khan: One year after taking over, what are the Taliban’s greatest achievements and biggest failures so far?
Shaheen: Our achievements in the past one year are restoring peace and security; ending corruption in government departments; presenting a budget based on internal revenues with [the] allocation of a portion of it for development; initiating big agricultural projects [...] that’ll irrigate millions of acres of land; converting deserts into farmlands and gardens of fruit-bearing trees; and launching a consortium of Afghan businessmen to invest in key economic projects.
As far as our failures are concerned, we can say we have not been able to totally eliminate poverty and create job opportunities for qualified Afghans. The reason is we have inherited an empty treasury.
It’s true that Afghanistan’s war-dependent economy was essentially broke when the Taliban took over. In response, the group started pushing for getting access to the over $7 billion of Afghan government funds frozen by the US. That didn’t go anywhere — though the UN did appeal to finance the humanitarian crisis triggered by drought and displacement during the last winter.
Khan: Afghanistan’s funds remain frozen and the country remains cut off from the international finance system because it is run by a government nobody recognizes. What does this mean to the Taliban?
Shaheen: These are more political decisions in nature rather than legal ones. Legally, we have all the requirements needed for recognition of a country like having control over the country, being able to defend borders, and having the support of the people. It is a fact that some tools are used against us as pressure; this also includes the matter of not recognizing the current government. However, the present government in Afghanistan is an objective reality, and should be treated as such.
Khan: Claiming the support of the people is a stretch. In August, women marching for their rights in Kabul were dispersed by automatic gunfire. This followed a rollback of the announced policy of allowing girls to attend schools, which was vetoed by Mullah Haibatullah, the Taliban’s supreme leader. Doesn’t this reveal divides within the Taliban regime?
Shaheen: We all agree that access to education is the basic right of the Afghan people, but how to implement this in the light of the Islamic rules and norms of the Afghan society is a matter of deliberation. Now, the issue of opening secondary schools for girls is pending until a new order from the supreme leader.
Khan: But it’s not just about women, some of whom are allowed to work in essential services and humanitarian relief. The Taliban are also criticized for not being inclusive of Afghanistan’s complex ethnic makeup. In the north, the pro-democracy National Resistance Front continues to put up a fight. The problem is that countries won’t work with the Taliban because the Taliban won’t work with all Afghans.
Shaheen: We have representatives of all Afghan ethnicities in the government. For us, it is an inclusive government. However, their definition of inclusive government is different. This is the crux of the matter. They want some high-profile officials of the past government installed in the current one, while we have a different view.
Khan: The Taliban promised peace, but the security situation is still worrisome. Even top Taliban clerics have been killed in a spate of attacks across the country. The International Crisis Group says that the Taliban now face not just one front, but two, ISIS-K in the east and the NRF in the north.
Shaheen: Security is prevalent all over the country. Our opponent's forces do not have a physical presence in any area of the country. Our opponents are in hiding mode. Similarly, they are not able to launch massive attacks against our security forces.
However, they launch individual attacks here and there on soft targets like mosques or schools. This further marginalizes them in the society and reveals their brutal nature to people. Also, security in Afghanistan is in the interest of the international community, while lack of it harms us all.
Khan: But if the Taliban really were concerned about the safety of the international community, why would they allow terror outfits like the Pakistani Taliban to still operate from Afghanistan, as alleged by Pakistan, the US, and even the UN? And what about the presence of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a Kabul residence linked to the Haqqanis, the clan of the Taliban’s interior minister?
Shaheen: The Pakistani Taliban do not operate in Afghanistan, but Pakistani authorities requested us to host talks between the two sides, which we did because we want peace and stability in the region. Each time they would come to Kabul from across the border, take part in negotiations, and return back to their places. This we did in order to play a positive role for the cause of peace.
[Al-Zawahiri] is a US claim. We have launched a comprehensive investigation to find out the veracity of the claim. However, one thing is clear: our leadership was unaware of his presence.
Khan: From having reneged on their agreement to upkeep citizens’ rights to the al-Zawahiri killing, do the Taliban have a message for a skeptical international community that doubts the regime’s intentions because of growing evidence that the Taliban cannot divorce themselves from their jihadist roots?
Shaheen: My message to the international community is that the current government is a reality. The Afghan people have suffered a lot during the past four decades. The current sanctions add more suffering. These should come to an end. The approach of marginalization and confrontation is a vicious circle, we should come out of it. Instead, we should have engagement which, I think, will hopefully resolve outstanding issues.