Paul Workman: Interview with the Taliban's spokesperson
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- It’s the Canadians, he said, who should be sorry for coming to Afghanistan as an occupying force.
During two decades of war in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters were mysterious, stealthy and deadly. They thought in lifetimes, not years, driven by a severe interpretation of Islam to accept death as a reward, and victory as certain.
One of the most mysterious of Taliban leaders had a name— Zabihullah Mujahid—but nobody was sure if it was real, or if he was real. He was the man whom journalists learned to call whenever they needed a comment from the Taliban.
The Americans were convinced there was more than one Zabihullah, that it was a made-up name used by multiple Taliban spokesmen.
And that’s the way it went for a decade until August 2021 when the Taliban rode into Kabul and the one and only Zabihullah Mujahid showed his face in public.
He kept his name but swapped titles—from the voice of the Taliban insurgency—to official spokesman for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
I met him in a freezing room at the Ministry of Information as he sat down for his fourth interview of the day. He was elegantly dressed and media savvy, no doubt from watching plenty of western television.
He was also the first person I’ve interviewed who said a short prayer before starting to talk. “In the name of God most gracious most merciful.”
Yes, he answered, running a country is difficult, though I asked him if it was more difficult than fighting a war. The Afghan economy has collapsed under economic sanctions, countless millions depend on the UN for food handouts to avoid starvation.
“It’s not an easy task. We are trying, and putting all our strength in action to keep running every sector of the government. Until now it’s going well. We are trying to make it better.”
Except it’s not going well if you talk to ordinary Afghans who are jobless, who stand in long lines to get visas to Iran and Pakistan. Or speak to women who are banned from working and going to university.
In fact by most measures, it seems to be going quite badly. Almost every person I met wants to leave the country and they all say the same thing: There’s no future in Afghanistan.
And what of the Canadian soldiers killed in Kandahar. How does the Taliban spokesman feel about that now.
“I am sorry that Canadians came to our country to fight. They shouldn’t have come.”
“Anyone who tries to invade Afghanistan will face similar consequences,” he added. “So I am not apologizing.”
It’s the Canadians, he said, who should be sorry for coming to Afghanistan as an occupying force.
He appeared to confirm that girls and young women will be allowed to go to school, answered however, with a fog of complicated explanations, uncertain timelines, and “economic” difficulties.
“We are trying in this regards,” he told me. “We need it for our own children’s future. It’s important.”
That sounds like a very explicit and positive answer, from the man who early on urged women to stay at home as protection against untrained militants who might hurt them.
What then of the millions of Afghans who depend on sacks of UN-provided rice for survival. And the young children at risk of starving to death over the winter. Not true, says the Taliban spokesman.
“Whoever created or circulated these rumours, it’s false. In Afghanistan people have mercy on each other. They won’t let others to die.”
The World Food Program says it needs to feed 23 million Afghans to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. That’s half the country’s population.
Mujahid smiled in disbelief when he heard such an astonishing number.
“Yes they are helping,” he said, “but it’s not for 20 million. It’s less than that.” He did use the word crisis, and he did admit that Afghanistan needs the help of other countries.
Even as he offered a questionable view of the life and death challenges his country faces this winter.
“No one will die of hunger. We will address this issue. It’s the responsibility of the government.”