Middle East Online

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Taliban 2.0, a new version polished in Qatar

The Taliban said on Tuesday they wanted peaceful relations with other countries and would respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law, as they held their first official news briefing since their lightning seizure of Kabul.

The Taliban’s announcements were short on details but suggesting a softer line than during their rule 20 years ago, a line that has been polished to please the West and reassure them that what happened more than two decades ago will not be repeated, heralding a softer Islamist version of Taliban.

The chaotic scenes at Kabul airport following the unexpectedly fast return of the Taliban to power and shocking video of Afghans desperately clinging onto the US Air Force cargo plane leaving the capital were the sheer proof of their fear of being ruled by an extremist regime that has long supported terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.

As the group consolidated power, the Taliban said one of its leaders and co-founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had returned to Afghanistan for the first time in more than 10 years. Baradar was arrested in 2010, but released from prison in 2018 at the request of former US President Donald Trump’s administration so he could participate in peace talks.

“We don’t want any internal or external enemies,” the movement’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said.

Women would be allowed to work and study and “will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam,” he added.

Mujahid’s statements contradicted with the Taliban’s dark past when they ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 with an iron fist under the Islamic sharia law, oppressing women’s rights.

As they rushed to evacuate, foreign powers assessed how to respond to the transformed situation on the ground after Afghan forces melted away in just days, with what many had predicted as the likely fast unraveling of women’s rights.

Analysts say that The Taliban’s new tone and Baradar’s return to Afghanistan from Doha carry a newer version of Salafism that has been polished in Qatar.

Baradar met with Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani on Tuesday.

A statement said the two “reviewed the latest security and political developments in Afghanistan, stressing the need for the protection of civilians, intensifying necessary efforts to achieve national reconciliation, working for a comprehensive political settlement and a peaceful transfer of power.”

Experts say that the Taliban leaders, led by Baradar, the candidate to be the next president of Afghanistan during the Taliban era, spent a long time in Qatar, during which they met leaders and representatives of other Islamic movements of various orientations, such as the Palestinian militant group of Hamas and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Taliban leaders acquired expertise from those Islamist groups to negotiate with Americans and the policy of letting Western powers hear what they want. Indeed, the expertise bore its fruits as Mujahid’s statements focused on the idea that the West will judge the Taliban “based on their actions” rather than their ideology which feeds extremism.

Respecting Afghan women’s rights within the “Islamic law” and not wanting international enemies sounded music to the West’s ears, which implied that the Taliban opened the door to international dialogue, even with the most sceptical countries such as the US and Britain.

US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they had agreed to hold a virtual meeting of Group of Seven leaders next week to discuss a common strategy and approach to Afghanistan.

During their rule, the Taliban stopped women from working. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burqas to go out and then only when accompanied by a male relative.

The UN Human Rights Council will hold a special session in Geneva next week to address “serious human rights concerns” after the Taliban takeover, a UN statement said.

Ramiz Alakbarov, UN humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, told Reuters in an interview the Taliban had assured the United Nations it can pursue humanitarian work in Afghanistan, which is suffering from a drought.

‘Walk the talk’

The European Union said it would only cooperate with the Afghan government following the Taliban’s return to power if they respected fundamental rights, including those of women.

Within Afghanistan, women expressed skepticism.

Afghan girls’ education activist Pashtana Durrani, 23, was wary of Taliban promises. “They have to walk the talk. Right now they are not doing that,” she told Reuters.

Several women were ordered to leave their jobs during the Taliban’s rapid advance across Afghanistan.

Mujahid said the Taliban would not seek retribution against former soldiers and government officials, and were granting an amnesty for former soldiers as well as contractors and translators who worked for international forces.

“Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors,” he said, adding that there was a “huge difference” between the Taliban now and 20 years ago.

He also said families trying to flee the country at the airport should return home and nothing would happen to them.

Resistance and criticism

Mujahid’s conciliatory tone contrasted with comments by Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the “legitimate caretaker president” and vowed not to bow to Kabul’s new rulers.

It was not immediately clear how much support Saleh enjoys in a country wearied by decades of conflict.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Taliban should allow the departure of all those who want to leave Afghanistan, adding that NATO’s aim was to help build a viable state and warning that the alliance could strike if the country again becomes a breeding ground for terrorism.

The decision by Biden, a Democrat, to stick to the withdrawal deal struck last year by his Republican predecessor Trump has stirred widespread criticism at home and among US allies.

Biden’s approval rating dropped by 7 percentage points to 46%, the lowest level of his seven-month-long presidency, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted on Monday. It also found that less than half of Americans liked how he has handled Afghanistan.

US forces took charge of the airport – the only way to fly out of Afghanistan – on Sunday as the militants wound up a week of rapid advances by taking over Kabul without a fight.

US General Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, was at Kabul’s airport on Tuesday to evaluate security.

The State Department said Washington had completed a drawdown of embassy personnel from Kabul and remaining diplomats were assisting in the evacuation.

US military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians restarted after having been suspended on Monday due to chaos at Kabul airport.

Asked how Washington would hold the Taliban to their pledge to respect women’s rights, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, signalled that options included sanctions and marshaling international condemnation and isolation.

Washington was blocking the Taliban from accessing any Afghan government funds held in the United States, including about $1.3 billion of gold reserves at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a Biden administration official said.

Biden said he had had to decide between asking US forces to fight endlessly or follow through on Trump’s withdrawal deal. He blamed the Taliban takeover on Afghan leaders who fled and the army’s unwillingness to fight.