The Taliban spokesman says the United States will not be harmed by Afghan soil

KABUL, Afghanistan – The Taliban on Tuesday sought to allay fears in the West, particularly in the United States, that their return to power would provide a safe haven for terrorists and lead to setbacks in women’s rights.

“I would like to assure the international community, including the United States, that no one will be harmed in Afghanistan,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference in Kabul, according to an Al Jazeera translation. “You will not harm our land.”

While the Taliban have made similar promises in the past, Mujahid’s remarks were a clear indication of the movement’s efforts to reach out to the international community and encourage international engagement with the group.

The Taliban are trying to consolidate their control of the country after their lightning-fast seizure of power, as US troops withdrew while conveying to the world that they have moderated some of their ultra-conservative Islamic views.

“We have no grudge,” Mujahid said, adding that the Taliban said they would ensure the security of foreign embassies, international organizations and aid organizations operating in Afghanistan.

He gave the international community and Afghans some of the first glimpses of what a Taliban government could look like, saying the group was committed to women’s rights under sharia law and would allow them to work and study.

Mujahid assured those who had fought against the Taliban, as well as all interpreters and contractors, that they had been “pardoned”. He said he did not want Afghan youth to leave, describing them as the country’s “assets”.

He also insisted that the Taliban welcome free and independent media, adding that journalists would be allowed to criticize their work.

“Our nation is a Muslim nation, whether it is 20 years ago or now,” he said. “But when it comes to experience, maturity, vision, there is a huge difference between us compared to 20 years ago.”

The statements will be met with skepticism by some Afghans, who have come to expect that the militants will exclude women from public activities. They have already brutally cracked down on some communities and cities they have conquered.

While Mujahid’s tone was conciliatory, he also congratulated the nation for “liberating” Afghanistan and expelling “foreigners” after a 20-year struggle.

Held out in the desert for two decades after being overthrown by a US-led invasion, the Taliban are swept back to towns and villages across Afghanistan to seize power less than two weeks after escalating their rebel military campaign as US troops withdrew back.

The United States invaded in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, overthrowing the harsh Taliban regime that had protected Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the architect behind the 9/11 attacks. Two decades later, the militants are back in control and the United States is fighting for the exits.

Despite bipartisan criticism of the U.S. withdrawal at home, a resolute President Joe Biden said in a speech Monday that he stood “squarely behind” his decision to withdraw U.S. forces.

Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell on Tuesday that there was no doubt that the Taliban would provide a refuge for Al Qaeda, Islamic State or ISIS and other terrorist groups.

“This is a national security threat,” Panetta said.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that it was “too early” to say whether the Biden administration recognizes the Taliban as a legitimate government.

“Ultimately, it will be up to the Taliban to show the rest of the world who they are and how they intend to proceed,” Sullivan said. “The long record has not been good.”

He said the administration has been working with the group and believes the Taliban’s assurance of protecting the civilian population’s passage to the airport could extend until the end of the month. However, Sullivan would not answer whether the United States is ready to stay by August 31 to ensure all Americans are out of the country.

“I’m not going to comment on hypothetical issues. What I want to do is keep the focus on the current task, which is to get as many people out as quickly as possible. We will take it day by day,” Sullivan said. .

State Department Press Secretary Ned Price advised Americans in Afghanistan to “be in place” unless otherwise communicated by the US Embassy.

“We do everything we possibly can in a very fluid environment,” Price said.

Officials have not said how many Americans are left throughout Afghanistan while evacuation efforts continue. The Ministry of Defense hopes to increase efforts until at least one aircraft per hour flies out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, said Army Major General Hank Taylor, the deputy chief of staff for regional operations.

Navy General Frank McKenzie, chief of the U.S. Central Command, visited the airport on Tuesday and described it in a statement as safe and “open to civilian air traffic.”

“In meetings with senior Taliban leaders in Doha on Sunday, I warned them against interfering in our evacuation and made it clear to them that any attack would be met with overwhelming force in the defense of our forces,” McKenzie said.

Although the militants can declare victory, it is still unclear how many countries will recognize a Taliban government. The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said last week that a government imposed by force would be a “pariah state.” But China and Russia said on Monday they were willing to engage with the Taliban.

A Taliban official announced a general “amnesty” for everyone in Afghanistan earlier Tuesday, urging women to join the government. The official, Enamullah Samangani, made the comments on Afghan state television, which the militants appear to be controlling, and referred to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate – their name for the country.

A female news host talks to a Taliban member on the Afghan news channel TOLO News.TOLO News

Another possible indication of the Taliban’s intentions and sensitivity to their public image came when a spokesman for the group was interviewed by a female reporter on Afghanistan’s largest private television company, TOLO TV – which would not have been possible under the former Taliban regime. .

The militants were clearly keen to take control of the capital on Tuesday, and checkpoints spread across the streets of Kabul. Some markets, shops and offices also opened and there were no reports of violence or fighting in the city with 5 million people. The Taliban had ordered their fighters not to enter houses without permission in Kabul to protect “life, property and honor.”

In Herat, about 400 miles west of Kabul, a resident said the number of people going to the mosque had increased since the Taliban arrived on Friday.

“There are more people in the mosque than in the streets these days,” he said on condition of anonymity because he was afraid of retaliation from the Taliban. “People are scared.”

The Taliban had also announced that girls would have to wear the hijab to go to school, he said.

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Developments followed chaos in the capital following the swift departure of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul over the weekend.

Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace in Kabul after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.Zabi Karimi / AP

Panicked Afghans bullied the airport on Monday in an attempt to get planes out of the country as the United States and other governments rushed to evacuate their citizens. Videos showed dozens of Afghans running alongside a C-17 and others actually holding onto the vessel while it was taxiing.

The crew decided to leave in the middle of the chaos as it faced a “rapidly deteriorating security situation” and a corpse has since been spotted on the plane, the air force said in a statement Tuesday.

“In addition to videos viewed online and in press reports, human remains were discovered in the wheel well of the C-17 after it landed at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar,” the statement said. “The aircraft is currently seized to allow time to collect the debris and inspect the aircraft before returning to flying status.”

Meanwhile, Afghan women have raised concerns about their future under a Taliban government that had previously deprived them of almost all of their rights.

A small group of women took to the streets on Tuesday for a peaceful gathering in Kabul. Wearing the hijab, they held up signs demanding work, education and political participation for women.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, it passed laws that made women and girls virtually invisible in public life. They could not appear on television and were not heard on the radio as their rights had been virtually eliminated in most areas of life, including schooling.

“We hope that the Taliban will focus on improving the security situation in Afghanistan and that there will be a change compared to the Taliban, which did not allow girls to go to school in the past,” Aminura, who lives in Kabul, told The Associated Press. .

Gabe Joselow reported from Kabul, Zeerak Khurram from Hong Kong and Saphora Smith and Yuliya Talmazan from London.

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