The militant group’s spokesman vows to “continue our war” until Afghanistan has an Islamic government.
Postwar Afghanistan, in the eyes of the Taliban, will be a law-abiding country, a member of the community of nations, open for business, and at peace with itself, its neighbors, and the rest of the world. But the sexes will be strictly segregated, women will be forced to wear hijabs, and freedom of speech and expression will become memories. This is the Taliban’s vision for a post-conflict Afghanistan, as explained by the group’s spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid. In the meantime, he said in an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, the insurgents will continue to fight to establish what he calls an “Islamic government.”
As the United States packs up its military presence in Afghanistan, planning to end its involvement on the 20th anniversary of the event that started it, the 9/11 attacks, the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is locked in a fierce war with the Taliban militants. While both sides continue to engage in a peace process, previously brokered by former U.S. President Donald Trump, in the Qatari capital of Doha, little progress has been made. The Taliban, who have gained legitimacy as a political player with a big voice in the future of the country, don’t recognize the Afghan government as legitimate, referring to it only as the “Kabul administration” and blaming it for lack of progress in peace negotiations.
We spoke with Mujahid about what’s going on in the peace process, the Taliban’s vision for Afghanistan’s future, and whether they’ll again turn the clock back on women’s rights.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Foreign Policy: What is your assessment of the peace process so far? Why do the Taliban refuse to agree to a permanent cease-fire?
Zabiullah Mujahid: We are committed to peace, and that is why we are working in Doha, Qatar, but unfortunately the other side is sabotaging and killing time. After the Doha agreement was signed, it was agreed that after 15 days all prisoners from both sides would be freed, and talks between Afghans would begin. What the Afghan government did was wait for six months, during which time they didn’t fulfill any of the commitments they had made. When the talks started in Doha, the Kabul administration ordered their negotiators to kill time, as Trump would lose the election in the United States and the successor to the presidency would change policy on Afghanistan in the interests of the Kabul administration.
We can think about a cease-fire when we see that the other side is committed to the peace process and to peace negotiations, and that they believe things will be achieved by peace instead of war. But trust of both sides for one another is close to zero. Foreign forces committed to leaving Afghanistan by May 1, but they are still in the country. The talks and negotiations between Afghans should have begun 15 days after the signing of the Doha agreement on Feb. 29, 2020, which didn’t happen. So how can we stop the war? There is no trust that there could be an alternative to the war.
FP: Does that mean you will stop the war on Sept. 11?
ZM: We will see if our goals have been met by Sept. 11. We have two main goals. The first is that all foreign troops must leave Afghanistan. The second, which is very important, is that we need to create an Islamic government which includes all Afghans. So, if foreign forces leave, then our second goal remains in place, and we want to achieve that. We want this goal to be reached by talking and negotiating, while conducting the peace process in Afghanistan. If this second goal is not reached, we will be compelled to continue our war to achieve our goal.
FP: What does peace in Afghanistan look like to you?
ZM: What we think about peace is that the Doha agreement should and must be followed. Those foreigners who have already sat with us and discussed the agreement need to take responsibility for their agreements. They should leave Afghanistan, they should eliminate the blacklists with our leaders’ names on them. Negotiations among Afghans should be started honestly and free of time-killing and sabotage. We should discuss on the table all those issues that we have differences on. And the result would be that we will reach peace, a cease-fire, and the war will end in Afghanistan. This is a solution, we are committed to it, and we want the other side to take the Doha document and agreement seriously, and don’t solicit any other solution or way.
Regarding power sharing and the future political system for the country, everything should be decided at the negotiations. Whatever is decided—who should be in government, what system is adopted, how all Afghans can participate in governing the country—will be decided.
The Afghan people want peace. This is obvious for us, for everyone. In the future we should conduct another strategy to forget our past and talk about the future of Afghanistan. We hope that in two or three years it may happen that we begin to talk about our future, and peace, and move toward stability and come together as Afghans.
FP: Is two to three years the Taliban’s timeline?
ZM: I cannot say for certain, but this is what we want and what we have planned.
FP: So there is a plan?
ZM: There is a plan. We have a plan. But our plan will only be discussed at the peace table. Until then, until we have made these decisions, it is not to talk to the media about this.
FP: What is the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan?
ZM: We want to have a productive relationship with all countries, including regional countries. Pakistan is a neighboring country, and around 3 million Afghan refugees live there. Pakistan shares mutual cultural, historical, and religious ties. We have a long border with Pakistan. We also want to have good relations with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, China, and Iran. The way the government has disseminated propaganda for the past 20 years is to say that we are closely tied with [the Pakistani intelligence agency] ISI, and that we take orders from the ISI. None of this is true. We don’t have a special relationship with Pakistan that has been closely identified. Our leadership is in our own hands. Our leadership is in Afghanistan, not in Quetta.
FP: Where is the supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada? He has not been seen or heard in public for some time. Is he alive?
ZM: Due to the security situation, we cannot say where our leader is, and we cannot bring him online to talk to [the] media or journalists because of the security problem. But I can confirm our emir is alive and is inside the country. Five days ago, I talked to him, took advice and orders from him. Regularly, our commanders and people around the country report to him. He is alive and leading the operations of the Taliban in the country.
FP: What do human rights and women’s rights mean to the Taliban? Will you support girls going to school, women to universities, working, starting businesses? Will you support freedom of speech, open as it is now, or as it is in China and Iran, closed and controlled?
ZM: Foreigners brought rules and laws that do not suit our culture, lifestyle, [or] religion, and are not related to our local cultures. We want all women to have their rights, in the cities and in the villages. Right now, we see a small percentage of women in the cities using their rights; they work in media, but we want all women in cities and villages to have their own rights.
We want two solutions. First, separation between girls and boys, women and men, in universities, schools or madrasas. Or complete hijab for women. Whatever we will make in the future, laws and regulations are according to Islam, we will follow all orders of Islam.
Freedom of speech: We want an Islamic and Afghan formula for freedom of speech. What prevails now is a lot of character assassination, abuse, insults among people, of leaders, they try to undermine people’s reputation, for instance with the use of terms like “terrorists.” This needs reform, and this is why we want rules, regulations, so that all this propaganda and character assassination doesn’t happen in the media under our government. We support freedom of press and media, but we do not believe that people should be insulted through the media.
Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist, author, and analyst. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.