The Taliban’s top spokesman has said that Afghan women will be allowed education and careers under the militant group, seeking to allay fears of a return to hard-line rule in spite of early reports of repression.
In an interview with NBC News on Wednesday, Zabihullah Mujahid also repeated longstanding claims that there was “no proof” Al Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan — the premise of the 2001 invasion led by the United States that toppled the militant group’s previous regime.
Since seizing control of the country in a rapid blitz amid the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban have vowed to respect women’s rights and ensure the West will not be harmed from Afghan soil.
These claims 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 the group’s efforts to present a softer image to the world as it moves to form a new government.
Speaking in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Mujahid said that the Taliban would give women “all the rights that Islam promises” and that “they can be doctors, teachers, be educated and can work to benefit society.”
“They are sisters, we must show them respect. They should not be frightened,” Mujahid added. “The Taliban are humans and from this country. They fought for our country. Women should be proud of us, not scared.”
Yet many are, with thousands desperately seeking to flee the country in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover.
When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, they practiced an austere interpretation of Sunni Islam that involved barring women from attending school, holding jobs and leaving home without male chaperones.
Women also had to wear burqas covering the face.
In a news conference on Tuesday, Mujahid warned working women to stay at home until the Taliban’s fighters had been “trained” how to approach and speak with them.
In the interview with NBC News, he said reports that Taliban fighters have already taken women as forced brides were “propaganda from the old regime.”
He said that if Afghans want to leave on flights currently shuttling out of Kabul’s airport, “it is their choice.” But “we don’t want our countrymen to go to America,” he added.
“Whatever they have done in the past, we have given them amnesty. They should stay. We need young, educated professionals for our nation.”
His comments come days before the Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. forces to withdraw their troops. Some 4,500 Americans have been evacuated from Afghanistan in the past 10 days and another 1,500 remain, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday.
While President Joe Biden says he is withdrawing in order to “end America’s longest war,” the Taliban spokesman said that “without a doubt the Taliban are victors” of the two-decade conflict.
Mujahid added that the new Taliban government wanted “a normal legitimate diplomatic relationship” with Washington.
He also said there was “no evidence” that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden orchestrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which is the consensus view of Western intelligence agencies.
“There was no justification for this war. It was an excuse for war,” he said of the ensuing U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, which had been harboring bin Laden.
“When Osama bin Laden became an issue for the Americans, he was in Afghanistan,” he said. “Although there was no proof he was involved, now we have given promises that Afghan soil won’t be used against anyone.”
The denial that bin Laden orchestrated 9/11 raises questions about the Taliban’s repeated assurances that it will not allow terrorist groups to operate on its soil and attack the West.
The militants’ takeover of the country has fueled concerns that Afghanistan might once again provide a breeding ground for terrorism, and an Al Qaeda resurgence in particular.
On Thursday, the U.S. and its allies warned people to avoid traveling to Kabul’s airport because of a potential terrorist attack.
U.S. defense officials have warned about tracking threats from ISIS, and Biden has also warned about the risk of attack from the group’s Afghan affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan, which is an enemy of the Taliban.
A senior Taliban commander told NBC News on Thursday that they had issued an alert to their top leadership on the threat posed by ISIS-K.
Ahmed Mengli, Gabe Joselow and Richard Engel contributed.