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“People Are Thirsty for Peace”: Afghans Wary of Taliban as Group Vows to Uphold Rights

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We go to Kabul for an update as the Taliban moves to secure control of Afghanistan. The group said Tuesday former government officials will not face retribution and that the rights of women and journalists will be upheld. The Taliban’s rhetoric and the relatively restrained behavior of its fighters in Kabul are starkly different from how the group governed Afghanistan after seizing power in 1996, when it imposed draconian restrictions on everyday life. Despite the Taliban’s pledges, many women across Afghanistan have not left their homes since the Taliban seized control over the weekend and as thousands of people attempt to catch flights out of the country. “The Afghan people would like to know where this road now leads,” says Bilal Sarwary, an Afghan journalist based in Kabul. “People are thirsty for a political settlement. People are thirsty for peace.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Several of the Taliban’s top political leaders have returned to Afghanistan after years of living in exile. The Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is expected to become Afghanistan’s next president, arrived in Kandahar today. Baradar was released from a Pakistani prison at the request of the Trump administration three years ago. He was deeply involved in the U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha. Meanwhile, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai held talks today with the head of the Haqqani network, a powerful faction of the Taliban. This all comes as the Taliban moves to secure its control of Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, the Taliban held a news conference where they promised amnesty for former government officials and pledged to eradicate opium production. The Taliban also made promises to protect some rights of journalists and women.

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: [translated] Government offices will be activated soon. And all employees, including women, will return to work and work in areas permitted by Sharia law. We and you see that in the field of medicine, education, police and other sectors of society, we need women because it is a necessity of society.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite the Taliban’s pledges, many women across Afghanistan have not left their homes since the Taliban seized control.

Earlier today, the Taliban opened fire on hundreds of protesters in the northeastern Jalalabad, who marched through the streets holding the black, red and green Afghan flag. Al Jazeera reports two protesters were shot dead and 12 were wounded. The Taliban also reportedly beat journalists covering the protest.

In Kabul, the capital, the Taliban has used live ammunition at checkpoints outside the international airport, where the U.S. and other foreign governments are evacuating its citizens and allies. The U.S. has also used live ammunition at the airport, killing two. The U.S. has so far evacuated 1,100 people, but as many as 15,000 U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force revealed it had found human remains inside the wheel of one of its C-17 planes that flew out of Kabul on Monday. At least two people died Monday after falling to their death after trying to cling on to a departing U.S. plane.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced that it would freeze nearly nine-and-a-half billion dollars held by the Afghan government in U.S. banks, blocking the Taliban from accessing the money.

We begin today’s show in Kabul, where we’re joined by Bilal Sarwary. He is an Afghan journalist based in Kabul who’s been reporting on Afghanistan for 20 years.

Bilal, since we’re first speaking to you since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, your response? Were you surprised? The significance of the president, Ashraf Ghani, fleeing the country? And what’s happening now in the streets around you?

BILAL SARWARY: Actually, I was trying to get a marriage certificate for me and my wife, and we were trying to get a passport for our newly born daughter, so I had spoken to government officials a day before. Some of them are my friends. The next morning, I was heading towards those offices when I heard that the presidential palace employees were told to leave. And the Presidential Protection Service, which is Afghanistan’s equivalent of Secret Service, at the time were taking up positions. So there was a lot of confusion.

And then, in a matter of basically 30 minutes or so, we found out that the then-President Ashraf Ghani was supposed to go to the Ministry of Defense to have a meeting at the national command center, which is a walking distance or a short drive, but instead Mr. Ghani had told his secret service detail that he would want to fly there. So, the minister of defense was waiting. The army chief of staff was waiting. The helicopters changed directions, and they were heading towards the Hamid Karzai International Airport.

I think once that fact was revealed, the entire government in Kabul crumbled in no time, just like it had crumbled across many of Afghanistan’s provinces, where mass surrenders were negotiated between important provincial officials and the Taliban. I think it’s a Taliban strategy, as well as fighting on the battlefield over the last many months, at least, that they offered this insurance, that they offered this surrender deal. And I think this was the work of months, if not years.

So, it was surreal, in many ways, because I had started my career in 2001, when the Americans were bombing the Taliban. I was a fixer translator. I crossed from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, and then I saw the fall of Taliban. And it was unbelievable to see how the tables turned, how there was panic and fear. My family this time was here. This time I was — I am a father to a new baby girl. And I was not exempted from the panic and fear. Will there be fighting? Will there be bloodshed? What will the Taliban do? But, thanks God, Kabul fell to the Taliban without bloodshed, without fighting, although a vacuum created did result in some looting and some harassment and irregularities of the citizens of Afghanistan. So, I would say, for me, it was almost like, you know, in no time, this happened. I just couldn’t believe it, like many other Afghans.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to that Taliban news conference in Kabul, had all the trappings of, you know, a government press conference. This is Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid.

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: [translated] The enmity with parties to the conflict are over, and we do not want to live in enmity. No nation wants to face off internal and external enemies. Without a doubt, we are at a historical juncture where the political system fits in, and we want — let’s form an inclusive government. At that moment, there are discussions that an inclusive government should be formed, and all parties and Afghans should participate in it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bilal, if you could respond to what the Taliban said yesterday? I mean, clearly, there is enormous international pressure, but the U.S. has been negotiating with the Taliban for months, excluding the Afghan government, in Doha, talking about women’s rights, talking about protecting journalists — that’s people like you, I presume — talking about respecting the opposition and granting immunity.

BILAL SARWARY: Well, it was interesting to see this elusive spokesperson — perhaps it was just a name, and there were many people operating under the name of Zabihullah Mujahid over the last 20 years — face Afghanistan’s vibrant media, that is the gains of the last 20 years. So there were some very difficult questions. For example, a reporter asked Mr. Zabihullah Mujahid why he had claimed responsibility for the assassination of Menapal, who was sitting in the same chair less than 10 days ago, you know, for which Mr. Mujahid claimed responsibility. And then there was a question of what happens to the victims of truck bombs and suicide attacks and roadside bombs caused by the Taliban.

You know, so there were some questions to which the spokesperson did respond, but what was very interesting, that he insisted, very publicly, on the idea of the amnesty offered to everyone, that people do not have to fear the Taliban, that they will honor that. But there was, you know, also revelations that the future government would be Islamic, although we were not told what that could mean, because Afghanistan already has an Islamic system. There was talk of media freedoms. And the spokesperson said that, “Yes, we would like criticism from the media so that we can do better, but the media should operate in a sense where it’s in accordance with the Afghan culture and with the Islamic values.” See, we will have to see what that exactly means. These statements are open to many interpretations. And the Afghan people would like to know, you know, where this road now leads, because people are thirsty for a political settlement. People are thirsty for peace.

And since the Taliban have taken over, at least here in Kabul, where we are, we are beginning to see that life is picking up. Slowly and surely, people are coming out, including some women. But it’s not the same city, you know, that it used to be — the hustle and bustle, the traffic jams, you know, the business, the shops. For example, this morning I went to withdraw some cash. The ATM machines have been empty. So this is not the same Kabul that the Taliban left, for example, 20 years ago. This is a Kabul where there are shopping malls, there are ATM machines. There is an entire generation of citizen journalism. People have access to Facebook, to Twitter.

And I think the Taliban political leadership knows that reality, and they are also wondering how that transition from fighting into governance might take place. We also know that in places like Doha, the Taliban political leadership got exposed to the highest echelons of other governments, including the U.S. government. So they understand how, for example, legitimacy works on the international stage and how they will need funding now that the Afghan National Security Forces are dismantled. That was like almost hundreds and thousands of people, perhaps, you know, if you count their families. So they will know that if international funding does not come soon, if they don’t have the legitimacy, how will they run the country? How will they keep Afghanistan functional?

We have to really remember, the Taliban are not the shadow government anymore. They have the total control of the country. They are in control of ports, border crossings, airports, military helicopters, hardware. This is something that the Taliban would have not believed when I covered their fall, when they had some anti-aircraft weapons, when they had rocket-propelled grenades on the back of a pickup truck. Today they have night vision goggles. They have thermal. They have sophisticated listening devices, for example, and many other equipments that any government in this part of the world might have.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, they have millions and millions, billions of dollars’ worth of equipment from the United States now — right? — that gave it to the Afghan government, and they are now the Afghan government.

BILAL SARWARY: Yes, you know, especially when you talk about Black Hawk helicopters, especially when you talk about armored Humvees and MRAPs and when you talk about American rifles, like M4. The Taliban managed to break the backbone of of the Afghan National Security Forces with the help of M16. They would basically place, you know, these night vision goggles on the top of it, or thermals, and in the dark of the night, they just literally murdered Afghan soldiers as they moved their heads out of their checkpoints or they came out to get water or they were using, for example, bathroom. So we know that.

We also know that the Red Units of the Taliban, their version of the special forces, which was the single lethal force that they had, that started to break the strength of the Afghan National Security Forces, is now deployed inside the city of Kabul. So, this is the Taliban bringing the cream of their crop, before their senior leaders might be coming, slowly and surely, into the city.

And we have to really remember, like the rest of the world, the Afghan people have not seen or heard from these elusive figures. They’ve only heard their names. So, it will be interesting to see how they appear in public, you know, how their personalities are, what is their vision, because so far the Taliban were not discussing such things. This was all about fighting. Now the time for talking, now the time for governance starts.

And as we see, like today, they have been clashing with residents who were not protesting. They simply brought back the national flag, that it was until last week, and said, “This is the flag. We have an emotional attachment to this.” And they brought down the Taliban white flag. So, there are issues that they would have not been dealing with. People would have not been able to protest when they were in power. And that reality has changed today.

AMY GOODMAN: Bilal Sarwary, how do you compare what the Taliban said at their news conference yesterday with what’s happening, for example, in Jalalabad?

BILAL SARWARY: It is, I think, a surprise. This is the first demonstration of a type taking place under the Taliban government, so they probably are surprised by this. But there’s some thoughts within some members of the Taliban that, actually, you know, everyone is attached to their own flag; we should let those issues set aside for now. I saw, you know, Mr. Mutmaeen, who is a member of the Taliban — he’s very influential — writing on his Twitter page a post in Pashtun saying that “This is not the time to discuss these things. Let’s discuss this later on. Let’s not create more had headaches for Afghanistan.” But I also know that some women yesterday, for example, came out and said, “Well, actually, we want our own rights that Islam has given to us.” And these women were literally confronting Taliban fighters on the streets.

So, you have, you know, smartphones, you have internet, you have social media — things that they were not there 20 years ago. And again, it will be very interesting to see how the Taliban make the transition. I always tell people, “Let’s see.” I think that “Let’s see” category in Afghanistan these days is a must, because every other hour, every other evening, every other morning, things change at such a rapid pace that it just leaves you even more confused and lost.

AMY GOODMAN: For the first time since the Taliban takeover, one of Afghanistan’s major media outlets, TOLOnews, who we’ve turned to a number of times, featured female anchors on screen Tuesday. One of its anchors, Beheshta Arghand, interviewed a spokesman of the Taliban. Meanwhile, CNN reporter Clarissa Ward spoke to Taliban fighters in Kabul Monday and asked them about Afghan women’s rights. This is what they said.

CLARISSA WARD: How will you protect women? Because many women are afraid they will not be allowed to go to school, they will not be allowed to work.

ASSAD MASSOUD KHISTANI: The female, the women can continue their lives, and we will not say anything for them. They can go to the school. They can continue their education, with Islamic hijab.

CLARISSA WARD: And so, like I’m wearing?

ASSAD MASSOUD KHISTANI: Not like you, but covering their faces, as well.

CLARISSA WARD: Cover the face?


CLARISSA WARD: So, you mean niqab?


CLARISSA WARD: Why do they have to cover their face?

ASSAD MASSOUD KHISTANI: Because it is in our Islam.

CLARISSA WARD: Is it in Islam, though, that you have to wear a niqab?

ASSAD MASSOUD KHISTANI: Of course. Of course.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Clarissa Ward of CNN interviewing one of the Taliban in the street. Bilal Sarwary, your response? And also, the significance of the female anchor? Her face also was not covered — her hair was — when she was talking to the Taliban leader.

BILAL SARWARY: Well, it is extraordinary to see that Afghanistan’s biggest TV station TOLOnews has a female presenter interviewing a senior member of the Taliban, you know, publicly asking questions. This would have not been possible during the Taliban, because, A, the Taliban did not allow the women to operate, be it in the media or public life or civil service and other stuff. But Afghanistan also back then did not have this vibrant media. Afghanistan did not have TOLO TV, which is, you know, a matter of national pride for Afghans. It has done so much for the country. It has trained generations of younger Afghans.

But this is also the same television station that was targeted in a suicide attack by the Taliban. A van transporting their employees was hit. So, I say, you know, it must have been an emotional moment for the anchor, for the presenter and for the editorial team, because these emotions are very raw. The heartbreaks are there, the pains inflicted on Afghans on all side. And let’s also, you know, look into the Afghan culture. These things are never processed. People don’t talk about it. So, as an Afghan, I look at it in that context.

But, yes, will we have such freedoms in the months and years ahead? I don’t know. Will the Taliban recognize that this is a changed Afghanistan in the long run? I don’t know. But it will depend how they want to conduct themselves with the Afghan people, with the neighborhood and with the world, because the Taliban would know that, in 2021, Afghanistan is connected to the rest of the world and region. They cannot just operate on their own.

And now they are basically the government, so there’s the issues of trade, there’s the issues of human rights. Education, for example, for girls is something that a lot of European countries, including the United States, will be thinking very hard. If the Taliban tomorrow says, “OK, girls cannot, like, study. You know, female education is banned,” where will that leave them in terms of funding? So, we will have to see. And we will have to also see how they deal with their thousands of fighters, foot-level soldiers, who have been fighting in the mountains and rural areas, and a lot of them have lost their family members. How can they, like, you know, bring them under control into this new chapter, now that the fighting, at least for now, is over?

AMY GOODMAN: Bilal, as we begin to wrap up, you wrote a piece for The Telegraph. You said, “'It has broken me from within': Afghan journalist reveals heavy toll of covering his country’s collapse.” That was the header. You write, “I became a father recently. Because my own family and relatives saw so much heartbreak these past few years, I prayed that if God gave me a baby girl, I would name her Sola, which means peace. I did that thinking that at least my daughter might grow up in a normal country.” So, you are trying to leave right now. How do you go about that? Have you thought about staying? Do you think you could possibly be safe in Kabul, in Afghanistan?

BILAL SARWARY: Well, my, you know, like, honest opinion here is that I would love to tell the story of the people of Afghanistan. I think everything that has happened, including the loss of friends, both within the government, outside of the government — and, you know, I have friendships within the Taliban; I have a classmate from my days in Peshawar as a refugee, and we went different ways — has left me thinking, “What is it that I can do that will comfort me, you know, that would make me think that I’m doing something better?” And over the years, I’ve been having this conversation with myself, and then I committed myself to telling the story of this country to the world, not only the news side of it. I created a hashtag, #AfghanistanUniversity, many years ago and where I basically showed the world the other side — the beautiful valleys, the natural beauty, the lakes — you know, what Afghanistan could potentially offer in the future, if tourism was to come back here.

And to be honest with you, I would love to be here like the rest of my colleagues and be able to tell the world our stories, because 20 years ago this country did not have this generation of reporters. And we owe this, in large part, to our international colleagues, where we started working as fixers and translators 20 years ago, and they helped us get where we are.

So I think it’s very important for the world, as well, to have a credible and vibrant Afghan media, where different voices can be heard, because we live in a world where we are interconnected. You know, there’s no more any country in the rest of the world that will not matter for anyone else. You know, humanity is something that gives me hope. People care these days about any country and anyone, especially like when you look at the activists on social media and such platforms.

So I hope that I’m able. And I hope that my daughter is able to basically one day go to school here. But there are things that are beyond my control. There are things that people like myself and my colleagues and other Afghans simply are powerless; we can’t do that. I hope that this generation of leaders, both the Taliban and former officials and politicians, can leave a legacy where we walk away from our painful historical, political past, where governments came with coups and tanks and with bullets.

And for this, I think the people of Afghanistan, over the last 20 years, have paid like a massive price, you know, a lot of sacrifices. I will not go into the mistakes, into the failures, into the issue of corruption. I think I will let history judge that. But the people in this country, the lives, when I look back, you know, there’s a river of blood like literally flowing. People gave their lives in districts for education, for health — you know, ordinary people. A tribal elder in Paktika, like, dedicated his own land, making sure that his daughter could go to school like the rest of his district. I think those are the type of things that I hope one day will give us peace, you know, that has remained extremely elusive in our lives, in the lives of generations in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Bilal Sarwary, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Afghan journalist based in Kabul who’s reported on Afghanistan for 20 years. All the best to you.

Next up, we’ll speak to the former marine and State Department official Matthew Hoh, who became the first U.S. official to publicly resign in protest over the Afghan War. That was 2009. Stay with us.

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