Taliban militants now controlling Afghanistan claim Tuesday that they will not seek reprisal attacks for now and would honor women’s rights, as long as those rights fit within the group’s definition of Islamic law — an assurance that fell largely on deaf ears Tuesday as thousands of men, women and children continued to scramble for the exits in Kabul.
The U.S. and other governments reached out to Afghanistan‘s new rulers Tuesday, but fears remain high that the Taliban fighters who swept into the Afghan capital Sunday are no different from the forces that held power there two decades ago, when the militants’ gave safe haven to al Qaeda and imposed a harsh brand of sharia law that was famous for its public displays of brutality, including the regular stoning to death of young women accused of adultery.
But Taliban representatives are on a publicity blitz and their goal is to convince Afghans and the global media that the hardline Islamist group has changed.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who prior to Tuesday had been regarded by Western media as a shadowy militant figure, told a Kabul briefing Tuesday morning that the Taliban will now honor women’s rights, albeit within the norms of Islamic law.
At a press conference in Kabul on Tuesday, Mr. Mujahid provided few specific details, although he also said the Taliban also hopes to allow private media to “remain independent” as long as they don’t “work against national values.”
He also promised that the Taliban will seek no revenge against those who worked with the former U.S.-backed government in Kabul or with foreign governments or forces. “We assure you that nobody will go to their doors to ask why they helped,” he said.
The messaging stood in sharp contrast to the scene that’s been unfolding at Kabul‘s international airport, where U.S. troops managed to restore order on Tuesday after days of chaos that had enveloped the runways as throngs of fearful Afghans and foreigners scrambled to try and board flights and flee the Taliban takeover.
The exodus from Kabul stems from what older generations of Afghans remember of the Taliban‘s ultraconservative Islamist views, which included severe restrictions on women as well as public amputations as punishments for alleged crimes during the years prior to the ousting of the Taliban by a U.S-led invasion following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Many fear the Taliban will soon be carrying out abuses and targeting anyone who does not conform to its hard-line demands.
Afghanistan‘s United Nations ambassador — a man appointed by the former U.S.-backed government and whose own status is now uncertain — has warned the Taliban cannot be trusted and that action must be taken to “prevent Afghanistan descending into a civil war and becoming a pariah state.”
Ghulam Isaczai told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Monday that he was “speaking on behalf of millions of people in Afghanistan, whose fate hangs in the balance and are faced with an extremely uncertain future,” including “millions of Afghan girls and women who are about to lose their freedom to go to school, to work and to participate in the political, economic and social life of the country.”
“We have [already] seen gruesome images of Taliban’s mass executions of military personnel and target killing of civilians in Kandahar and other big cities,” Mr. Isaczai said. “Kabul residents are reporting the Taliban have already started house-to-house searches in some neighborhoods, registering names and looking for people in their target list. There are already reports of target killings and looting in the city.
“Kabul residents are living in absolute fear right now,” he said.
Taliban representatives sought to present an entirely different message on Tuesday.
The Associated Press cited Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban‘s cultural commission as saying the group would extend an “amnesty” without giving details and encouraging women to join the government.
Some in Kabul allege the fighters have lists of people who cooperated with the government and are seeking them out.
A female broadcaster in Afghanistan said she was hiding at a relative’s house, too frightened to return home much less return to work following reports that the insurgents are also looking for journalists. She said she and other women didn’t believe the Taliban had changed their ways. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety.
The Associated Press cited Mr. Samangani as saying the Taliban is ready to “provide women with [an] environment to work and study, and the presence of women in different [government] structures according to Islamic law and in accordance with our cultural values.”
That would be a marked departure from the last time the Taliban were in power, when women were largely confined to their homes.
In another sign of the Taliban‘s efforts to portray a new image, a female television anchor on the private broadcaster Tolo interviewed a Taliban official on camera Tuesday in a studio — an interaction that once would have been unthinkable. Meanwhile, women in hijabs demonstrated briefly in Kabul, holding signs demanding the Taliban not “eliminate women” from public life.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, noted both the Taliban‘s vows and the fears of everyday Afghans.
“Such promises will need to be honored, and for the time being — again understandably, given past history — these declarations have been greeted with some skepticism,” he said in a statement. “There have been many hard-won advances in human rights over the past two decades. The rights of all Afghans must be defended.”
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.
• Guy Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.
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