Taliban pledge 'totally different' moderate face as West continues evacuations

US and UK agree to hold online meeting of G7 leaders next week to discuss common strategy

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The Taliban introduced on Tuesday a “new face” to the world, saying they wanted peaceful relations with other countries and would respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law, as they held their first official news briefing since their lightning seizure of Kabul.

The Taliban announcements, short on details but suggesting a softer line than during their rule 20 years ago, came as the US and its western allies resumed operations to fly diplomats and civilians out of Afghanistan the day after scenes of chaos at Kabul airport as Afghans thronged the runway.

A White House official said about 1,100 Americans left Kabul on military aircraft on Tuesday.

As they consolidated power, the Taliban said one of their leaders and co-founders, Abdul Ghani Baradar, had returned to Afghanistan for the first time in 20 years.

Baradar was arrested in 2010, but released from prison in 2018 at the request of former US president Donald Trump's administration so he could participate in peace talks.

“We don't want any internal or external enemies,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

Women will be allowed to work and study and “will be very active in society, but within the framework of Islam".

Afghan security forces melted away in a matter of days and many have predicted that gains made in women's rights would unravel in a similar fashion.

“If [the Taliban] want any respect, if they want any recognition by the international community, they have to be very conscious of the fact we will be watching how women and girls and, more broadly, the civilian community is treated by them as they try to form a government,” US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told MSNBC on Tuesday.

US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they agreed to hold an online meeting of Group of Seven leaders next week to discuss a common strategy and approach to Afghanistan.

During the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule, also guided by Sharia, the Taliban stopped women from working.

Girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burqas when they went outside, and even then they had to be accompanied by a male relative.

The UN Human Rights Council will hold a special session in Geneva next week to address “serious human rights concerns” after the Taliban takeover, the UN said.

Ramiz Alakbarov, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Afghanistan, told Reuters the Taliban assured the UN it can pursue humanitarian work in the country, which is suffering from drought.

'Walk the talk'

The EU said it would only co-operate with the Afghan government following the Taliban's return to power if they respected fundamental rights, including those of women.

Within Afghanistan, women have expressed scepticism.

Afghan girls' education activist Pashtana Durrani, 23, sais she was wary of promises made by the Taliban.

“They have to walk the talk. Right now they are not doing that,” she told Reuters.

Several women were ordered to leave their jobs during the Taliban's rapid advance across Afghanistan.

Mujahid said the Taliban would not seek retribution against former soldiers and government officials, and were granting an amnesty for former soldiers, as well as contractors and translators who worked for international forces.

“Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors,” he said.

There is a “huge difference” between the Taliban now and 20 years ago, he said.

He also said families trying to flee the country at the airport should return home and nothing would happen to them.

Resistance and criticism

Mujahid's conciliatory tone contrasted with comments by Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself the “legitimate caretaker president” and vowed not to bow to Kabul's new rulers.

It was not immediately clear how much support Mr Saleh enjoys in a country wearied by decades of conflict.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Taliban should allow the departure of all those who want to leave Afghanistan.

He said Nato's aim was to help build a viable state and the alliance could strike if the country again becomes a breeding ground for terrorism.

The decision by Mr Biden, a Democrat, to stick to the withdrawal deal struck last year by his Republican predecessor Mr Trump has drawn widespread criticism at home and among US allies.

Mr Biden's approval rating dropped by 7 percentage points to 46 per cent, the lowest level of his seven-month presidency, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found on Monday.

It also showed that less than half of Americans liked how he has handled Afghanistan.

Mr Biden said he had to decide between asking US forces to fight endlessly or follow through on Mr Trump's withdrawal deal.

He blamed the Taliban takeover on Afghan leaders who fled and the army's unwillingness to fight.

Washington was blocking the Taliban from accessing any Afghan government funds held in the US, including about $1.3 billion of gold reserves at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a Biden administration official said.

Updated: August 18th 2021, 8:42 AM
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