The New York Times got an exclusive intweview with one of the most important and essential figures of the Taliban regime: Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman who, according to the Times, “is likely to be the future minister of information and culture”.
The brief interview, published in written form, revealed some details about the policies that the Taliban will impose in Afghanistan after conquering the capital Kabul and taking control of practically all Afghan territory.
“In his first sit-down interview with a Western media outlet since the Taliban took full control of Afghanistan, one of the group’s leaders on Wednesday offered a portrait of a group intent on rebuilding a country shattered by decades of war,” The New York Times reported.
Zabihullah Mujahid, 43, “rejected widespread fears that the Taliban are already exacting vengeance on those who opposed them and want to reimpose the harsh controls on women that made them notorious when they ruled the country 20 years ago,” the newspaper added.
Predictably, Afghan society today is very different from what it was twenty years ago when the Taliban took power in a very violent manner, being accused of systematically violating human rights against the population in general, but especially against women and children. Therefore, it is still difficult to predict whether this new regime will be the same, a little more condescending or even worse than the one of two decades ago.
Amid these doubts, Mujahid has been the main face of the regime, trying to show a “moderate side” of the Taliban. The spokesman told the newspaper that Western press reports are exaggerated and that, in the “long run, women would be free to resume their daily routines.”
Likewise, the senior Taliban regime official also said it is “untrue” that women have to routinely leave the house with an escort, as that is only for when they are out for more than three days.
“If they go to school, office, university or hospital, they don’t need a mahram,” Mujahid said. Mahram is the term used for the companion who should accompany women when they are away from home for a few days.
The New York media also reviewed that Zabihullah Mujahid “offered assurances to Afghans trying to leave the country, saying —contrary to news reports based on his news conference on Tuesday, including in The Times— that those with valid travel documents would not be prevented from entering the airport.”
“We said that people who don’t have proper documents aren’t allowed to go,” the spokesman said. “They need passports and visas for the countries they’re going to, and then they can leave by air. If their documents are valid, then we’re not going to ask what they were doing before.”
Finally, Mujahid confirmed reports that music would be canceled or banned in Afghanistan by the Taliban. “Music is forbidden in Islam,” he commented, “but we’re hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring them.”
In the end, the moderate image that the senior Taliban official and spokesman is trying to convey is rather limited, as the Taliban’s guidelines and impositions go hand in hand with fundamentalism and the very strict sharia law.
Who is Zabihullah Mujahid and why is his testimony important?
There are very few Taliban officials with the ability to speak to Western media with relative ease, which is why Zabihullah Mujahid is a key player within the regime.
The New York Times describes him as the “key link between the militants and the news media,” a man who, for a decade or so, answered questions from the media, but without showing his face until the last press conference on August 17.
The BBC devoted a brief profile to him, reflecting the surprise of many journalists who were finally able to see Zabihullah Mujahid face to face.
Some of the journalists who spoke through letters with Mujahid, such as the BBC’s Yalda Hakim, said she was taken by surprise by the spokesman’s conciliatory tone, as in his writings and responses he used to be much more forceful and seemingly aggressive against his enemies.
“Some of these texts were hard-line Islamist texts. Some of them made you think, ‘This guy is thirsty for American blood, he’s thirsty for the blood of anybody in the Afghan government.’ And today he sits there and says there will be no retaliation,” Hakim said. “For years he’s been sending out these brutal statements and now all of a sudden he loves peace? It’s hard to reconcile.”
Hakim also told the BBC that the moderate and conciliatory tone is a Taliban strategy and that the apparent good intentions the regime wants to extrapolate should not be trusted.
Journalist John Simpson also wrote his opinion about the Taliban spokesman on his Twitter account: “I’ve known the Taliban spokesman at today’s press conference in Kabul for many years. Zabihullah Mujahid is a relatively moderate, pleasant man. But he’s seeking to calm the world’s fears, and he only speaks for one part of the Taliban movement.”