KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The man in charge of the country’s defense sat down for an interview on the day a US drone strike killed the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
When we met Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, many Afghans knew there had been an explosion in Kabul but not what it was. If Yaqoob knew more, he didn’t say it. He acknowledged “an incident today” but said it wasn’t serious. 24 hours later, the Taliban said their preliminary investigation had confirmed an attack by “American drones.”
Our conversation with Yaqoob clarified what is required of the Taliban now that they have risen from an insurgent movement to become the de facto power of Afghanistan. Their role changed abruptly on August 15, 2021 when they invaded the capital following the collapse of the government. Instead of disrupting security, they are expected to provide it. Rather than undermining government, they are expected to govern.
As the anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover approached, I asked to speak to Yaqoob, who said his group wanted better relations with the United States. Any chance of that depends on how the Taliban rule.
Yaqoob belongs to the second generation of the Taliban leadership. He is a son of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the cleric who led the Taliban during their first term from 1996 to 2001.
To meet him on July 31, we took a plane from Kabul — where some members of our NPR team heard the drone strike that morning — to Kandahar, the traditional Taliban powerhouse. We were not told the exact time or place of the meeting in advance. Instead, a car came to take us there, so we didn’t know the place until we arrived. It was an old insurgent security technique.
We drove into the grounds from which his father once ruled – a tree-lined area in the shadow of two craggy mountains. Yaqoob, in his early 30s, told us he remembered running around this compound as a kid in the 1990s. Those were the years when his father headed an emirate that enforced a very specific vision of Islam. The Taliban hanged a former president. They carried out public executions in stadiums, destroyed a historic site, ordered burqas for women and denied most of them the opportunity to work or go to school.
Omar also offered protection to Osama bin Laden and refused to extradite the al Qaeda leader when the United States demanded him after 9/11.
Yaqoob followed his father into hiding when the US attack began in October 2001. Omar’s compound later became a base for the United States and its Afghan allies, eventually surrounded by blast walls and checkpoints littered with debris from military vehicles and physical training equipment. One of its buildings was renamed “Kentucky Wildcuts Barber Shop”. Omar died in 2013, but the son rose through the Taliban leadership and has now reclaimed his childhood home.
We asked if he would show us around but Yaqoob refused. “The CIA has videos if you want to see them,” he said. Still, he sat with us for more than an hour, pausing once to say his evening prayers before we continued. He said he was pleased to see us because he wanted to “clarify the truth to the world and especially to the American nation.”
Yaqoob is being referred to as the interim defense minister — “interim” because the Taliban called their government a provisional government last year. So far it is not recognized by any other government in the world. They run the bureaucratic machinery of the old Islamic republic, at least the non-democratic parts that they ended. They haven’t said what form of government they want to replace.
“No decision has been made on this yet,” Yaqoob said. “I think it will continue for a while as the incumbent government and depending on the state of Afghanistan we will take the next step.”
We knew that Taliban and other religious leaders had held a mass rally on the west side of Kabul earlier this summer. The group’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, gave a speech in which he said he had no regard for Western demands that not even nuclear bombs could weaken their resistance. But after saying what he wanted Not do, Akhundzada left the stage without saying anything want do.
A year after the takeover, many questions remain unanswered. Some Afghan girls go to school, others are banned from the house. Some women still work, others cannot. Even leading ulema, or groups of religious scholars have said it is appropriate for middle and high school-aged girls to return to the classroom.
“This is a serious problem for us,” Yaqoob said. “Hopefully there’s more to come.”
Other Taliban officials we met during our trip said they had to go slow and prepare the political ground. They fear that some ideologically trained Taliban fighters may turn against their own leaders. As the leadership debates, current policies have prompted widespread calls for change even in very conservative Taliban-dominated valleys.
Strictly speaking, there is no rule of law at all. The republican constitution of Afghanistan is not considered in force and nothing has replaced it. Some of the old laws are being enforced – especially tax laws; It is commonly said here that the Taliban were effective tax collectors – while others are presumed dead. The Taliban have allowed the free media to continue covering the news, but have also been accused of beating journalists or demanding a change in their reporting. The disappearance of a media law leaves journalists in the dark about their rights. Creating a constitutional law is a “necessity,” Yaqoob acknowledged.
There are also no transparent means to investigate numerous allegations of human rights abuses by Taliban forces across the country; A recent United Nations report alleged hundreds of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and torture in the first 10 months of Taliban rule. Yaqoob denied the report but claimed that military courts exist to try those who committed human rights abuses.
Yaqoob’s primary role is security, which he described as “100% OK,” although the later revelation that the al-Qaeda leader lived in central Kabul put the statement in a different light. The Taliban have waged a brutal war against Islamic State, but have historically been more tolerant of al-Qaeda, dating back to the time Yaqoob’s father gave sanctuary to bin Laden.
When asked if he wanted better relations with the United States, Yaqoob laughed.
“It’s obvious,” he said, adding that recognizing the current regime is in the United States’ own interest because the US has no other regime to contend with. “There are many countries that are more anti-America than we are, but they officially recognize her,” he said. “There are more countries in the world that pose a greater threat to America than Afghanistan, but America has officially recognized them anyway. I think this recognition is a positive step towards greater change.”
Yaqoob said he’s heard US officials say recognition is politically impossible because the American people oppose it. “If that’s true, I ask the American nation to put pressure on the government,” he said. And if not, then “the claim of friendship with the Afghan people is more false than honest.”
Other Taliban leaders compare their country to the communist government of Vietnam, which fought the United States in America’s longest war but later became a trading partner and, in some ways, even a friend.
A difference became clear, however, when President Joe Biden announced that a US drone had killed the al-Qaeda leader, who lived just blocks from the Taliban’s intelligence ministry. US officials consider extremist groups in Afghanistan to be an ongoing threat, although it has diminished sharply in recent years.
Securing Afghanistan against such threats used to be the problem of the US and its Afghan allies. It’s the Taliban’s problem now, with the United States and their drones overhead, watching.