KABUL — The Taliban on Tuesday sought to calm fears in the West, particularly in the United States, that their return to power would provide a safe harbor for terrorists and backsliding on women’s rights.
“I would like to assure the international community, including the U.S., that nobody will be harmed in Afghanistan,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a news conference in Kabul, according to an Al Jazeera translation. “You will not be harmed from our soil.”
While the Taliban has made similar promises in the past, Mujahid’s remarks were a clear indication of the movement’s efforts to reach out to the international community and encourage international engagement with the group. The Taliban are trying to consolidate their control over the country following the movement’s lightning-fast takeover as U.S. troops withdrew, while conveying to the world that they have moderated some of their ultraconservative Islamic views.
“We don’t have any grudges,” Mujahid said, adding that the Taliban said they will ensure the security of foreign embassies, international organizations and aid agencies operating in Afghanistan.
He offered the international community and Afghans some of the first glimpses of what a Taliban government might look like, saying the group was committed to the rights of women within the framework of Shariah law and would allow them to work and study.
Mujahid reassured those who had fought against the Taliban, as well as all interpreters and contractors, that they had been “pardoned.” He said he did not want Afghani youth to leave describing them as the country’s “assets.”
He also insisted that the Taliban welcome free and independent media, adding that journalists will be allowed to critique their work.
“Our nation is a Muslim nation, whether 20 years ago or now,” he said. “But when it comes to experience, maturity, vision, there is a huge difference between us in comparison to 20 years ago.”
The statements will be greeted with skepticism by some Afghans, who have come to expect that the militants will bar women from public activities and have already cracked down brutally in some communities and cities they have conquered.
While Mujahid’s tone was conciliatory, he also congratulated the nation for “emancipating” Afghanistan and expelling “foreigners” after a 20-year struggle.
Kept out in the wilderness for two decades after being toppled by a U.S.-led invasion, the Taliban have swept back into cities and villages across Afghanistan to take power less than two weeks after escalating their insurgent military campaign as American troops withdrew.
The U.S. invaded in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, overthrowing the hardline Taliban regime that had sheltered 9/11 architect and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Two decades on, the militants are back in control and the U.S. is scrambling for the exits.
Despite bipartisan criticism of the U.S. withdrawal at home, a resolute U.S. President Joe Biden stated in an address on Monday that he stood “squarely behind” his decision to pull out American forces.
While the militants may be declaring victory, it remains unclear how many countries would recognize a Taliban government. U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said last week that a government imposed by force will be a “pariah state.” But China and Russia said Monday that they are willing to engage with the Taliban.
A Taliban official earlier Tuesday announced a general “amnesty” for all in Afghanistan and urged women to join the government. Enamullah Samangani made the comments on Afghan state television, which the militants appeared to now control, referring to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate — their name for the country.
Another possible indication of the Taliban’s intentions and sensitives about their public image came when a spokesman for the group was interviewed by a female reporter on Afghanistan’s largest private broadcaster, TOLO TV — something that wouldn’t have been possible during the previous Taliban regime.
The militants were clearly intent on taking control of the capital Tuesday and checkpoints dotted Kabul’s streets. Some markets, shops and offices also opened and there were no reports of violence or fighting in the city of some 5 million people. The Taliban had ordered its fighters against entering houses without permission in Kabul to protect “life, property and honor.”
In the city of Herat, some 400 miles west of Kabul, a resident told NBC News the number of people going to the mosque had jumped since the Taliban’s arrival on Friday.
“There are more people in the mosque than in the streets these days,” he said on condition of anonymity because he was afraid of retribution from the Taliban. “People are afraid.”
The Taliban had also announced that girls would have to wear hijabs to attend school, he added.
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The developments followed chaos in the country’s capital after the swift departure of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban takeover of Kabul over the weekend.
Panicked Afghans mobbed the airport Monday in an attempt to get flights out of the country as the United States and other governments rushed to evacuate their citizens.
Meanwhile, Afghan women have been raising concerns about their future under a Taliban government, which had previously stripped them of almost all their rights.
On Tuesday, a small group of women took to the streets for a peaceful gathering in Kabul. Wearing hijabs, they held up signs that demanded work, education and political participation for women.
When the group ruled Afghanistan between 1996 to 2001, they enacted laws that made women and girls almost invisible in public life. They could not appear on television and were not heard on the radio, their rights all but eliminated in most areas of life, including attending school.
“We hope that the Taliban will focus on improving the security situation in Afghanistan and that there will be a change from the Taliban who did not allow girls to go to school in the past,” Kabul resident Aminura told The Associated Press.
Gabe Joselow reported from Kabul. Zeerak Khurram from Hong Kong. Saphora Smith and Yuliya Talmazan from London.