Kinder, gentler Taliban now giving interviews to Associated Press

AP Photo/Zabi Karimi

It’s almost certainly a sign of how desperate things have become in Afghanistan when some of the highest-ranking members of the Taliban are giving interviews to western press outlets. Yet that’s precisely what happened this weekend, when the new Afghan Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, sat down with the Associated Press to answer questions about human rights abuses under the new government. Speaking through a translator, Muttaqi told reporters that the Taliban is ready to lead in a responsible fashion and Afghanistan is in desperate need of aid and relief from sanctions if they are to feed their people. He also claimed that they were making serious progress in advancing the rights of women and girls in their country. Of course, if you look back at Muttaqi’s history, you’ll probably have more than a few questions about his sincerity.

Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers are committed in principle to education and jobs for girls and women, a marked departure from their previous time in power, and seek the world’s “mercy and compassion” to help millions of Afghans in desperate need, a top Taliban leader said in a rare interview.

Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi also told The Associated Press that the Taliban government wants good relations with all countries and has no issue with the United States. He urged Washington and other nations to release upward of $10 billion in funds that were frozen when the Taliban took power Aug. 15, following a rapid military sweep across Afghanistan and the sudden, secret flight of U.S.-backed President Ashraf Ghani.

“Sanctions against Afghanistan would … not have any benefit,” Muttaqi said Sunday, speaking in his native Pashto during the interview in the sprawling pale brick Foreign Ministry building in the heart of the Afghan capital of Kabul.

The AP is reporting that Muttaqi “acknowledged the world’s outrage” at limitations put on girls’ education and women’s participation in the workforce. But he insisted that they are making progress. He claims that girls are being allowed to go to school through age 12 and in ten of the country’s 34 provinces they can complete high school and graduate. While admitting that most women are still stuck at home rather than being allowed to go to work, all of the women who work in healthcare have been allowed to return to their jobs in Kabul. What he really wants in exchange for all of this “progress” is to have $10 billion in frozen Afghan assets freed up for their use.

Before anyone gets too enthusiastic about these claims, let’s keep in mind that Muttaqi has been with the Taliban for a long time, rather than being some reform-minded newcomer. He was the Taliban’s Minister of Information and Culture when they were last in charge from 1996 through 2001. And during that time he clearly had no problem with women being barred from schools, from jobs, and pretty much every other aspect of public life. While they were out of power he was associated with various radical Islamic groups. He really doesn’t have a track record as a champion of women’s rights.

While negotiations with the west were ongoing this year, Muttaqi was part of the Taliban’s “political office.” In other words, he was one of the ones who was constantly telling the Biden Administration and the UN that everything was going to be different this time and that the Taliban had no interest in completely taking over the government. They also claimed that they wanted to be more “modernized” in many ways. They said all of that in an effort to get relief from sanctions and more foreign aid (just as he is doing now) while in reality, the Taliban’s fighters were rampaging through the country precisely as they had done in the past. In other words, he was lying through his teeth.

Even if we were to believe everything Muttaqi is telling the press this week (which would be a massive stretch), the progress he is claiming to have made isn’t much to write home about. When girls in 24 out of 34 of the country’s provinces aren’t being allowed to stay in school past the sixth grade, that’s not something you should be bragging about. It’s possible that most of the female healthcare workers in Kabul are back on the job, but that’s only because the country is still dealing with the COVID pandemic and now has to treat a lot of starving people on top of it. They probably didn’t have much choice in bringing the women back to the hospitals. But the rest of the formerly employed women are back to being locked down at home.

It’s clear to me that the Taliban are reaching a point of desperation and now want the rest of the world to forget about their terrorist roots and start showering them with cash, food, and recognition as the rightful leaders of a “normal” nation. But they’re offering pretty much nothing in return. There still hasn’t been a peep out of them about scheduling elections and allowing western election monitors to set up and oversee them. And if you think they’re going to let the women vote, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn that you might be interested in purchasing.