Taleban pledges peace, women's rights within Islamic law in first media conference after seizing Kabul

Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid addresses reporters in Kabul on Aug 17, 2021, at the militant group's first news conference since it took control of Kabul.
Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid addresses reporters in Kabul on Aug 17, 2021, at the militant group's first news conference since it took control of Kabul.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (centre) gestures as he addresses the group's first press conference on Aug 17 since it took control of Kabul.
Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (centre) gestures as he addresses the group's first press conference on Aug 17 since it took control of Kabul. PHOTO: AFP

KABUL (REUTERS) - The Afghan Taleban said on Tuesday (Aug 17) it wanted peaceful relations with other countries and would respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law, as it held its first official news briefing since its shock seizure of Kabul.

The Taleban announcements, short on details but suggesting a softer line than during its rule 20 years ago, came as the United States and Western allies resumed evacuating diplomats and civilians a day after scenes of chaos at Kabul airport with Afghans thronging the runway.

As they rush to evacuate, foreign powers are assessing how to respond to the transformed situation on the ground after Afghan forces melted away in just days, with what many had seen as the likely fast unravelling of women's rights.

During its rule from 1996 to 2001, also guided by syariah (Islamic) law, the Taleban stopped women from working and meted out punishments that included public stoning. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burqas to go out.

"We don't want any internal or external enemies," Taleban 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.

In response, United Nations (UN) spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York: "We will need to see what actually happens and I think we will need to see acts on the ground in terms of promises kept."

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

The European Union (EU) said it would cooperate only with the Afghan government following the Taleban's return to power if it respected fundamental rights, including those of women.

"The EU calls on the Taleban to respect its obligations under international humanitarian law in all circumstances," said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Several women were ordered to leave their jobs during the Taleban's rapid advance across Afghanistan. Some are fearful that, whatever the militants say, the reality may be different, but others are defiant.

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

Taleban spokesman Mujahid said the group would not seek retribution against former soldiers and members of the Western-backed government, and was granting amnesty to former Afghan government 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 Taleban now and 20 years ago.

Mr Mujahid said private media could continue to be free and independent in Afghanistan and that the Taleban was committed to the media within its cultural framework.

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

Resistance

Mr Mujahid's conciliatory tone contrasted with comments by Afghan First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the "legitimate caretaker president" and vowed that he would not bow to Kabul's new rulers.

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

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the Taleban should allow all those who wanted to leave the country to depart, adding that Nato's aim was to help build a viable state in Afghanistan.

The alliance also said the Taleban must not let Afghanistan become a breeding ground for terrorism again, warning that it retained the military power to strike any terrorist group from a distance.

Under a US troop withdrawal pact struck last year, the Taleban agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.

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

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said "the images of despair at Kabul airport shame the political West", referring to the anarchic scenes on the runway on Monday.

Flights resume

US forces took charge of the airport - their 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.

The US State Department said later on Tuesday that Washington had completed a draw-down of embassy personnel from Kabul and those diplomatic personnel remaining were assisting the evacuation of American citizens and Afghan allies.

US military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians restarted earlier in the day after they had been suspended on Monday due to chaos at the Kabul airport.

US troops had fired warning shots to disperse crowds and people clung to a US military transport plane as it taxied for take-off.

The US Air Force said on Tuesday it was investigating the circumstances surrounding human remains that were found in the wheel well of one of its C-17s that flew out of Kabul.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Taleban had told the US it would provide safe passage for civilians to reach the airport.

Asked how Washington would hold the Taleban to its pledge to respect women's rights, Mr Sullivan signalled that options included sanctions and marshalling international condemnation and isolation.

Mr Biden said he had had to decide between asking US forces to fight endlessly, and following through on the withdrawal deal.

He blamed the Taleban takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled and its army's unwillingness to fight.

In Singapore, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman on Wednesday said Singapore urges relevant parties to protect the safety and security of all civilians and to facilitate the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals who wish to leave the country. 

Singapore is closely monitoring the developments in Afghanistan and strongly advised Singaporeans against travelling to or remaining in Afghanistan given the volatile security situation there, the spokesman said. Singapore has no diplomatic representation in Afghanistan.

Singaporeans who are still in Afghanistan should eRegister with the foreign ministry immediately at https://eregister.mfa.gov.sg. Those who need consular assistance can contact its 24-hour duty office at +65 6379 8800/8855 or email mfa_duty_officer@mfa.gov.sg