Mullah Zaeef on the Taliban: "They are going to be part of the government"
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, talked with me today about a range of topics: Recent peace talks in the Maldives, the Taliban's desired role in a future Afghan government, and women's rights.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan (his autobiography was released earlier this year), talked with me today about a range of topics: Recent peace talks in the Maldives, the Taliban's desired role in a future Afghan government, women's rights, and other issues.
We've posted a video of part of our conversation, and a longer transcript of the chat follows below.
Let me ask you first, very generally, what is it the Taliban want in Afghanistan?
The people everywhere, not just the Taliban, they are continuing their struggle for something, for some purpose. And I think now the priority for the Taliban is the freedom of the country. They are continuing their struggle against the occupation of Afghanistan, and it's not just a struggle, it's an obligation, to bring freedom to Afghanistan and to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban.
There are talks going on in the Maldives between Afghan officials and members of Hizb-e-Islami. Will those talks lead to anything? Will they help bring about any kind of reconciliation?
What we have heard is that the Afghan government has rejected all of the proposals presented in the Maldives. And one of the reps of the Hekmatyar side [Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who heads a faction of Hezb-e-Islami] said, we didn't send any officials to the Maldives. I think this is not a real negotiation there. And i think that most afghans there in the Maldives are discussing the issue of Afghanistan, the problems of Afghanistan, the future of Afghanistan -- but this is not a real negotiation between two opposing sides.
Is there agreement between the different Taliban groups?
After the collapse of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban, they are fighting, they have one leader, they have one commander, they have one ideology, which is to obey the emir. I think this status continues. The purpose, as you know, is freedom, and to have Islamic principles there [in Afghanistan]. And the leader is known: He is Mullah Mohammed Omar, and they are listening to him and they are obeying him, and fighting under his command.
They are united. There is no contrast between the groups. The issue is the occupation.
Polls and surveys consistently show that the Taliban are unpopular in Afghanistan. Why do they deserve to have a role in the government?
If you understand the history of Afghanistan, the Taliban, they are part of Afghanistan. These are our Islamic scholars, our Islamic educated people, they brought Islam to Afghanistan. They are the most pious of anyone there, they brought Islam, they showed Islam to the people. They are teachers.
In the government this was another issue, because the Taliban, they were not looking necessarily to be in the government... but when the occupation came to Afghanistan, the Taliban resisted against the occupation. Look at the Russians; before the Russians, at the English or British people. They came twice to Afghanistan... other occupations have come, including Americans, with the same result.
The Taliban exist, and they are fighting for our freedom.
Would the Taliban be prepared to act like a political party in a democratic Afghan government?
I told you, I think the Taliban are not fighting for power, or for the government.
If you look to the history of Afghanistan, they arise in Afghanistan, and they didn't arise to take power. They arose against the corruption in Afghanistan, and the stability of Afghanistan. And they arise to depose the people who were abusing the people, the property of the people. And they were successful.
Now the situation has changed, and the Taliban, I told you, they are believing that our country is occupied, and they are struggling against occupation.
They are not thinking about the government. But they want to inform the government... we want to withdraw the foreigners from Afghanistan, and to bring freedom to the country. But the recent government, we don't want to collapse it.
If some Taliban, after peace or stability, they are going to be part of the government - this will happen, because the Taliban, they are from Afghanistan, and this is their country, and they have to figure in the country, they have to rule something.
But the recent struggle is not about taking power.
President Karzai has talked about wanting a peace jirga, wanting talks with the Taliban; do you think he's willing to accept some role for the Taliban in the Afghan government?
Karzai, he has promised to end the problem in Afghanistan. But the Taliban, they are always declaring that the prob is not with Karzai. Karzai is Afghan, and we have no problem with Afghanistan run by Afghan people. But the Americans came to Afghanistan, invaded, occupied... if there are Americans in Afghanistan, we should continue our struggle.
Women are half of the population of Afghanistan. They have somewhat more freedoms now than they did under the Taliban, to go to school, to work; would the Taliban be willing to compromise on women's rights if they became part of the government?
There is changing of world, changing of people, changing of policies, changing of strategies... I think the Taliban, they would not be against the woman. The Taliban, they were looking at the time [during their rule] for the priority, and the priority was the security and stability of the country to become united.
The Taliban had, just for one year's budget, they had $80 million for the government. I think this was not enough for the education... when I was the ambassador in Pakistan, we had a meeting with another ambassador, and we told him, if you want to do something for women in Afghanistan, you are welcome to do it. But the conditions were poor.
If you opened a school and prepared a situation for women to do to school, we were not against women, against education. We were not against the working of women.
But the priority is men; men are more responsible than women in Afghan society, because the men is responsible to provide shelter for the woman, to provide a house for the woman, to provide food for the woman, clothes for the woman.
Right now we are not able to provide jobs for men, let alone jobs for women. This was not some kind of thing to be against the women... but the priority was to provide something for men.
So you think, if the Taliban had a role in the Afghan government, they would seek to - at least temporarily - prevent women from going to school, from working?
No, they are not against school, against education, but they will go to the women to do something according to the principles of Islam.
This kind of situation today in Afghanistan is not acceptable to the Taliban. But this is not only unacceptable to the Taliban, but to other people in Afghanistan. They are looking at this as some kind of corruption that came to Afghanistan; they [the Americans] want to change, want to change our customs, some kind of thing. And that is the reason most people joined with the Taliban, and continue to struggle against foreigners.
Can Afghanistan's neighbors, Pakistan, Iran, play a role in these reconciliation talks?
Yeah. The problem is not between Pakistan and Afghanistan, not between Iran and Afghanistan. The problem is between Afghanistan and America. They came to Afghanistan, and they murdered. Pakistan, Iran and other neighboring countries are able to provide the situation for reconciliation, but they will not be involved in that... neighbors are important for the future of Afghanistan.
Do you think America is planning to stay for a long time?
Looking to their building, their work in Afghanistan, this is not for [just] 10 years. They are building houses, they are building airfields there, other construction, it's not for 10 years. They want to stay for a long time, I think. But it will be not possible.