Taliban leader reaches out to West, promises rights for women

KABUL, Afghanistan — The political leader of the Taliban has outlined his vision for Afghanistan, one in which women and religious minorities will be given rights in accordance with the movement’s interpretation of Islamic law, and where terror groups will not be given safe haven to carry out attacks abroad.

In a rare interview, Abdul Ghani Baradar on Wednesday described the withdrawal of the U.S. and its allies as being "in the best interests of the American people."

Washington's "longest and most useless war will end, American troops will return home after 20 years, and Afghanistan will get rid of the presence of foreign forces," he said in response to written questions.

Image: Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar speaks at a signing ceremony of the U.S.-Taliban agreement in Qatar's capital Doha on Feb. 29, 2020. (Karim Jaafar / AFP - Getty Images file)
Image: Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar speaks at a signing ceremony of the U.S.-Taliban agreement in Qatar's capital Doha on Feb. 29, 2020. (Karim Jaafar / AFP - Getty Images file)

The comments come amid the withdrawal of American and allied troops and fears the reinstated Taliban will continue the oppressive, theocratic regime that ended 20 years ago.

Baradar’s insistence that Afghanistan will not become a springboard for terrorist attacks was tested on Thursday when two explosions rocked Kabul airport following warnings by the U.S. and others of an imminent attack.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Twitter that an unspecified number of U.S. service members, as well as a number of Afghans, were killed in what he described as a "complex attack."

Two U.S. intelligence officials said the assumption is that an IED attack was carried out by the Islamic State group's Afghan affiliate, ISIS-K. The Taliban is an enemy of the ISIS offshoot.

The Taliban's attempts to present a less extreme image to the world have been met with skepticism from Kabul to Washington. And early reports of repression — as well as violence and chaos at Kabul airport — have further undermined its PR offensive.

"Religious minorities, like other Afghans, will have rights, their religious ceremonies will be free and supported," Baradar said. "Women will be given rights in accordance with Sharia," he added, referring to Islamic law but not elaborating exactly what that would entail.

When the group last ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it imposed an austere interpretation of Sunni Islam onto the population, and barred women from attending school, holding jobs and leaving home without male chaperones. Women also had to wear burqas covering the face.

Its government was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, which were orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader, who was being harbored by the Taliban.

Though the Taliban denies bin Laden was behind the attacks, claiming it has never been presented with evidence, it is now seeking to reassure the U.S. and others that it will not let militant groups use Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks on the West.

"No one is allowed to use our territory to pose a threat to other countries," Baradar said. "No one should feel threatened by Afghanistan."

The explosion outside Kabul airport Thursday came after warnings from U.S. officials about possible attempts by ISIS-K to attack people attempting to board flights and flee the country.

Baradar said the Taliban has "very good ground for domestic security, stability and unity" and that its domestic policy was for Afghans to have a "comfortable and prosperous life."

Earlier Thursday, NBC News interviewed another of the Taliban's senior figures, Zabihullah Mujahid, who has acted as its leading spokesman and is likely in line for a top role in its new government.

He, too, said women would be allowed education and careers — but only within the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law. A day earlier, he warned in a news conference that working women should stay at home until Taliban fighters had been "trained" how to approach and speak with them.

He told NBC News that reports that its militants have already taken women as forced brides were "propaganda from the old regime."

If Afghans want to leave on flights currently shuttling out of Kabul's airport, he said, "it is their choice." But he said that "we don't want our countrymen to go to America. Whatever they have done in the past, we have given them amnesty. They should stay. We need young, educated professionals for our nation."

While President Joe Biden says he is withdrawing in order to "end America's longest war," Mujahid said that "without a doubt the Taliban are victors" of the two-decade conflict.

"There was no justification for this war. It was an excuse for war," he said.

Richard Engel, Gabe Joselow and Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul, and Alexander Smith from London.