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What the Taliban really want from the world, in their own words

Taliban political office spokesman Muhammad Naeem Wardak spoke with NPR in Doha, Qatar, on Dec. 11.
Fatma Tanis
Taliban political office spokesman Muhammad Naeem Wardak spoke with NPR in Doha, Qatar, on Dec. 11.

DOHA, Qatar — Afghanistan's Taliban rulers believe that women "must have the right to education and to work," the spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha tells NPR. "Our endeavors are underway now to solve this problem," Muhammad Naeem Wardak says.

Speaking in Arabic in a wide-ranging, 40-minute interview on Dec. 11, Wardak, 47, also discussed efforts to resume operations at Kabul's international airport, expressed support for protection of Afghanistan's cultural heritage and emphasized the Taliban's commitment to continuing talks with the U.S. and international community, which has not formally recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan's government.

"We want to deal positively with the whole world and all countries," Wardak said. "We do not want any problems."

When asked about what the Taliban are doing to address the many problems facing Afghanistan, he deflected responsibility, saying, "In reality, we did not create these problems. These problems came from the outside."

Interview Highlights

On the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan

At the moment, the biggest challenge facing the people of Afghanistan and the government of Afghanistan is the economic siege, and the freezing of funds by the United States, and other problems in the banks as well. And as you know, this isn't a problem that was born today, the previous [Afghan] administration unfortunately emptied out the funds in the banks. At the same time, the failure to acknowledge the government of Afghanistan that represents the Afghan people and has provided safety and security to them and has ended the wars that have been going on for over 40 years.

On what the Taliban are doing to address crucial problems

In reality, we did not create these problems. These problems came from the outside. We have completed our responsibilities where it concerns us. We are trying, as you know, we are in constant communication with various governments and international groups, the U.S., European countries and so on. So there are ongoing conversations and ties and relations and we are trying to convince these groups to recognize the Afghan people, and the rights of the Afghan people, and to end this siege and these problems.

For over 40 years, the Afghan people have been living in war, and all thanks to God, the war is now over, so we are trying to convince them [the international community] when we sit with them, we ask them why all these problems, they can't come up with convincing reasons. So that is what we have.

Of course, we don't give in, and we continue to work on it. And as you know, the Afghan people have suffered for years and are resilient, and if anyone wants to pressure the Afghan people by these issues, it is a futile effort because the Afghan people have been under pressure for the past 40 years, and especially, the last 20, they have been attacked and killed and displaced and what's been done to them has not been done to any other people.

But the reality is that the Afghan people do not give in to these pressures, so we say that these efforts are pointless and to the international community, and specifically the United States, we say that if they recognized these realities as well as the Afghan government, then we think these problems will end.

On Afghan girls' right to education

This issue is truly a thorny one and there are some problems. As you know, everyone has their own principles, traditions and customs, and there are some customs that are wrong, but some societies live under these customs, and this is present all over the world among many peoples and especially in the Afghan people. That is the first point.

The second point unfortunately came through the occupation of Afghanistan. When [Western forces] came to Afghanistan, they carried out some actions that distorted the image of women's education among the Afghan people — for example, girls' dancing on television; for example, women and girls abandoning some of the cultural norms of society. So all of this creates a distorted picture of girls' education for most of Afghan society.

And as you know the Afghan people are not only in Kabul. Kabul is a city. And the Afghan population is around 40 million people. And all of these 40 million do not live in Kabul. In Kabul there are maybe 5 or 6 million, and all of them do not think the same, if they are not all of the same idea, and this is another point.

Unfortunately, as I said, some societies have incorrect traditions and customs. This exists in our country as well, unfortunately. For example, girls and women in general in most regions of Afghanistan are not given the right to inherit, for example, they are not entitled to choose a husband, for example, or at least consent. Or for a girl to consent for her father or others to arrange a marriage for her. It is in our Hanafi jurisprudence that the girl consent to such things. And also, if a woman's husband dies, it's in the traditions of some tribes that she becomes the property of the patriarch of the house, her husband's brother or others. They are the ones who marry her as they want and she is not allowed to choose by herself.

There are some decrees from the Commander of the Faithful [Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada], may God Almighty preserve him. One of the first of these decrees is that a woman is a free human being, and that no one has the right to think that a woman is his slave or that she does not have her choice.

The situation isn't entirely as it's being described [in some international media] that girls are not allowed to go to schools. You know that private universities in Afghanistan are open to girls and older girls who go to universities. ... There are also high schools open to girls from governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Private secondary schools are open in all the country, while public secondary schools are very open in these eight or nine and 10 governorates.

Our endeavors are underway now to solve this problem, but this problem and all the problems cannot be solved at once.

On Afghan women's right to work

We believe that our religion commands us that women have the right to work. Now, women work for us in a handful of ministries, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Education, and in some other sectors, as well as the media in general. You know that young girls, they graduate and they work in news or they manage meetings and are on radio and television news. And all of this is not hidden from anyone watching.

So, we are not against women's work and we are not against women's education, but the work and education must be arranged and organized to be in accordance with the traditions of our people. And women also must have the right to education and to work.

In general, you know that there is a great transformation happening in Afghanistan, we are now building a new system. And you know that the United States of America and other countries have now evacuated [thousands of] people. These women and men — they were scientists, technicians, professionals. And they worked in various sectors, and this is another problem that we face in the scientific cadres, this is another problem point.

And we have before that, more than once, we have told the United States of America in private meetings "do not do this" ... because we need to create a system for the future. So this is another unfortunate issue.

On the other hand, not all problems are solved only in a matter of months. ... If there are elections and a new government comes in, it at least has the opportunity, sometimes for six or three months, for example, to discover itself and put things in order.

This was present in the agreement that we want to enter Kabul through dialogue and understanding, but unfortunately they [the previous government] fled Kabul and left Kabul, and there we faced a problem, not just us, but the international community and the United States of America itself says that we faced this unexpected problem.

So now we are trying, but we cannot precisely specify, for example, a month or three or four, but we have a chance now that the holidays have started, we are taking advantage of the schools being out. Winter has come and we have about about two or three months [before school starts again].

So we are trying, but what the deadline will be? It's hard to say.

On Taliban talks with the U.S.

The first topic is the recognition of the Afghan government — and before that, the release of financial assets in Afghanistan, because this returns first and foremost its benefits for the people. For the healing of women, children, the elderly.

Now there are calls for human rights and women's rights, but on the other hand, there are women, children and the elderly who suffer from this problem. This was our goal, and before this, there were some issues of human rights or women's rights or women's education, and such things ... and [whether] the government is inclusive of all parts of society.

We discussed these topics in detail [with the U.S.]. We presented them with evidence and explained the situation to them that there is this comprehensive government in which all minorities are represented to the strength and the tribes present in Afghanistan and also for women, and we said all these things in the beginning.

We are now seeing and we have seen that women work in various fields and they are learning, but we are trying, God willing, in the future time to solve this problem as well. These in general are the matters that we discussed in the negotiations, and in general the negotiations are in a good atmosphere, and there was also a desire on their part, and ours and all the parties, that these negotiations continue and that problems are resolved through dialogue and, God willing, possibly next month there will also be another round of negotiations.

In the end, we are optimistic and expect that these negotiations will bring the desired result.

On efforts to resume operations at the Kabul airport

As you know, unfortunately when the United States and other foreign forces left the airport, they very sadly and unfortunately destroyed everything. Even the computers and the toilets, and the closets and rooms. They destroyed everything. Unfortunately. They even cut off the electric wires. But with the help of Qatar — and we thank them — they helped with organizing some things. And even now there are ongoing discussions with Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, but at the moment, there's no agreement with any of those parties. We are working toward resolving this issue and that one of these nations will take over the management of the airport.

At the moment, the airport is usable for flights and international flights to places like the UAE and today I heard a flight to India. Whoever reaches an agreement with us, they will be the ones to tidy things up more and more.

As you know, the airport plays an essential role in communications with foreign communities, neighboring countries and countries in the region and countries all over the world in general.

The aid needs a way to get in. If the airport functions, that will make it so much easier for the humanitarian aid to reach the Afghan people. As you know, at the moment, winter has arrived in Afghanistan, and the cold is bitter there and particularly harsh on children and women. So for that, we can call the airport a gate to connect with the world.

On protection of Afghan cultural heritage

As you know, this responsibility was given to the ministry of information. The minister of education and the acting minister of information were present with us in the negotiations. They have begun their research in different provinces. For example, they went to Kandahar, Herat and other provinces, they want to preserve those ancient monuments found in museums and other places, so we want to preserve all of this.

They are part of our history and part of the identity of the Afghan people, and you know the Afghan people have a long history dating back to about 5,000 years. So we will preserve this, and we have no problem with heritage and historical monuments.

On the Taliban's aspirations for international relations

We in general — and as you know, this is our position from the beginning, and this came up after we took control of Kabul — a letter from the Commander of the Faithful, may God protect him, and one of the first points he referred to was that we want to deal positively with the whole world and all countries. We do not want any problems.

So, we are not with one country against another. We do not want to be a victim of regional and international conflicts. No, we want to deal with everyone. China is our neighbor and Russia is also close to us. We want relations with everyone, our relations with one country will not come at the expense of another or with an official body. We are open to everyone and this is our position, even with our neighbors, with the countries of the region and with the countries of the world.

On the Taliban's readiness for dialogue

We want to convey this message to everyone, especially to the American people, that we do not want problems, and this was our position in 2001. And in the future, we want positive relations with the United States of America and with Western countries. The problem is not on our end, and in 2001, when this problem [al-Qaida's terrorist attacks on the U.S.] happened, we have said and sympathized with this incident at that time, we are not murderers and we are against the killing of civilians and the killing of innocents, and this is of course our position from the beginning.

And now we also want to have relations with the international community, with Western countries, to benefit from each other, to benefit from the developments and advancements that come from the West. But we must also not forget to respect and treat every society with its principles and traditions and mores, knowing that nothing can be imposed, especially on the Afghan people, and this is proven in history.

So these pressures [such as freezing of assets] do not help. We want understanding. We want dialogue. If there are problems, we want to solve these problems through dialogue, through understanding, and we are ready for any problem.

We want to prove to everyone forever that we respect humanity. So the person who lives in Afghanistan is a human being and the person who lives in America is also a human, and the one who lives in the West is also a human being, and who lives in the East is also a human being. There is no such thing that a person who lives in the West is human and the person who lives in Afghanistan is not.

And here there is something that we marvel at: On the one hand, [foreigners] say that the woman has the right to education and a right to work, and why does the woman not have a right to work or to learn? Then on the other hand, they froze financial assets for that very woman.

This woman is a part of the Afghan people, and she is starving to death. Her child starves to death, dies of starvation. They cannot find a morsel to stay alive. Is this not a human right?

So of course, this kind of double standard adds tension to the situation and lack of confidence. We want all of us to be human and to live together. And to truly give rights to everyone who lives. There shouldn't be a difference in human blood, whether one person's blood is expensive, and another person's blood is cheap. No. They are human beings.

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