The Taliban pledged Tuesday to respect women’s rights, forgive those who fought against them and pledge that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for terrorists in a propaganda campaign aimed at reassuring the world’s nations and frightened populations.
In a blitzkrieg offensive across Afghanistan that has seen many towns fall without a fight, the Taliban have tried to portray themselves as more moderate than they were when they established a strict form of Islamic rule in the late 1990s. But many Afghans remain skeptical – thousands rushed to airports, eager to flee the country.
Older generations remember the Taliban’s previous rule, when they largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, and carried out public executions. The U.S.-led invasion stripped them of power months after the 9/11 attacks, which Al Qaeda orchestrated from Afghanistan under the cover of the Taliban.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a longtime Taliban spokesman, came out of the shadows Tuesday to make his first public appearance, discussing the concerns at a news conference.
He promised that the Taliban would respect women’s rights under Islamic law, but did not elaborate. The Taliban have encouraged women to go back to work and allowed girls to return to school by handing out Islamic headscarves at their gates. A female television host interviewed a Taliban official in a television studio Monday.
Attitudes toward women vary widely across the Muslim world and sometimes within the same country, with attitudes in rural areas often much more conservative. Some Muslim countries, including neighboring Pakistan, already have female prime ministers, while ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has only recently allowed women to drive.
Mujahid also said the Taliban would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacks on other countries, as it was in the years before 9/11. The pledge is part of a 2020 peace deal between the Taliban and the Trump administration that paves the way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The Pentagon said U.S. commanders communicated with the Taliban as they worked to evacuate thousands of people through Kabul International Airport. It said the Taliban did not take any hostile action.
Mujahid reiterated that the Taliban had offered full amnesty to Afghans who had worked for the U.S. and Western-backed government, saying “no one is going to ask them why they are helping.” He said private media should “remain independent” but that journalists “should not go against national values.”
The capital, Kabul, remained calm as the Taliban patrolled its streets. But many people remain in fear after prisons and weapons depots were emptied during the insurgents’ sweep of the country.
Residents of Kabul say hordes of armed men have gone door-to-door looking for people to cooperate with the ousted government and security forces, but it is unclear whether the fighters are Taliban or criminals posing as militants. Mujahid blamed the former government for the security breach, saying the Taliban entered Kabul only to restore law and order after the police meltdown.
An Afghan television channel said she was hiding in a relative’s house, afraid to go home, let alone to work. She said she and other women do not believe the Taliban have changed their views. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety.
A group of women wearing Islamic headscarves briefly displayed posters in Kabul asking the Taliban “not to exclude women from public life.”
U.S. National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan said the U.S. and other governments will not just take the Taliban’s word for it when it comes to women’s rights.
“As I said before, it’s not about trust. It’s about testing,” Sullivan said at a White House briefing.” And we’ll see what the Taliban ends up doing in the coming days and weeks, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean the entire international community.”
Whatever their true intentions, the Taliban are intentionally showing moderation in order to prevent the international community from isolating their government as it did in the 1990s.
The EU says it will suspend development assistance to Afghanistan until the political situation is clarified, but it will consider increasing humanitarian aid.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the Taliban must respect U.N. Security Council resolutions and human rights to receive the roughly 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in development funds allocated through 2024.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Britain could provide 10 percent more in humanitarian aid, but the Taliban would not receive any of the funds previously earmarked for security.
Evacuation flights resumed Monday after being suspended as thousands stormed the airport. In shocking scenes captured on video, some people cling to the plane as it takes off and then fall to their deaths. U.S. officials say at least seven people died in the chaos at the airport.
The Taliban entered the civilian part of the airport on Tuesday and fired into the air, driving out about 500 people there, said an Afghan official, who declined to be named because he was not allowed to speak to reporters.
The Taliban appeared to be trying to control the crowd rather than prevent people from leaving. A video circulating on the Internet shows the Taliban watching dozens of foreigners leave in an orderly fashion.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which now operates on the military side of the airport, urged Americans to register online for evacuation but not to arrive at the airport until they are contacted.
The German Foreign Ministry said the first German military transport plane landed in Kabul, but took off with seven people on board because of the confusion. Another later left with 125 people.
U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision to end the longest U.S. war by blaming the Taliban’s rapid takeover on the Western-backed Afghan government and security forces. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg backed that assessment, saying NATO should investigate shortcomings in its efforts to train Afghan forces.
Talks continued Tuesday between the Taliban and several Afghan politicians, including former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who once led the country’s negotiating committee. The Taliban have said they want to form an “inclusive Islamic government.”
Officials briefed on the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the talks focused on how a Taliban-led government would function given the changes in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, rather than simply dividing up ministries.
Senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Kandahar from Qatar on Tuesday night, a possible sign that a deal is imminent.
Meanwhile, the vice president of the ousted government tweeted that he was the country’s “legitimate” interim president. Amrullah Saleh said he should be held accountable under the constitution because President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.