Taliban Says Women Can Be ‘Very Active in Society’ But a Watching World Is Skeptical

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Seeking to reassure a frightened Afghan public and woo foreign governments whose aid money has long kept the country afloat, the Taliban movement pledged Tuesday to restore calm, eschew revenge and respect women’s rights — up to a point.

Two days after its fighters swept triumphantly into the capital, Kabul, the militant group issued a series of declarations and statements, even holding a first-ever news conference by its main spokesman. But the Taliban’s seemingly conciliatory stance drew a skeptical reaction from many inside and outside the country, mindful of the medieval cruelty and subjugation of women that marked its previous reign nearly a generation ago.

Still, there were signs that the United States — which led a vast two-decade military mission that propped up successive pro-Western governments after the Taliban was toppled in 2001 — was willing to deal with the group on at least a limited practical level.

The Pentagon said U.S. military officials at the Kabul airport, the last patch of American-held territory in the country, were in communication with local Taliban commanders in the capital, as arriving U.S. forces worked to speed up the airlift of American nationals and Afghan allies.

A day earlier, that evacuation was suspended for hours after Afghans thronged the tarmac, with some clinging to the fuselage of a U.S. transport plane as it took flight — indelible images of desperation and chaos that were beamed around the world.

At the Pentagon, Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor said the airlift resumed overnight, with nine Air Force C-17 transport planes arriving with about 1,000 U.S. troops aboard. Seven C-17s left with between 700 and 800 civilians, 165 of them Americans and the rest Afghans and third-party nationals, he said.

Taylor said that by Wednesday, the military hoped to be flying out one plane an hour, with the eventual aim of getting up to 9,000 people per day onto departing flights. But the formally planned end of the U.S. military presence is just two weeks away, and the Biden administration has not signaled any change in the timetable.

Meanwhile, the Taliban, which routed government forces in a lightning offensive that culminated in its seizure Sunday of Kabul, sought to shape perceptions of what lay ahead for the country’s 38 million people.

In the capital, the group’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid — long the voice of the Taliban on social media, often thought to be a composite rather than an individual — told a news conference that women’s rights would be respected, but within the parameters of Shariah, or Islamic law.

Women, he said, would be able to work and pursue their education and “be very active in society, but within the framework of Islam.”

That echoed a statement earlier on state television by an official in the Taliban’s cultural commission, Enamullah Samangani, who declared that the Islamic Emirate — the Taliban’s name for Afghanistan — “doesn’t want women to be victims.”

The promise to allow women to participate in society was already being put to the test Tuesday as women journalists with the Afghan TOLO news network continued to appear on television. One female presenter even engaged in a debate with a Taliban official — a scene that would have been unfathomable in the previous era of Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001.

In their appearances Tuesday, both Samangani and Mujahid also promised that former government officials, as well as people who worked with foreign militaries and nongovernmental organizations, would not be harmed. “We don’t want any internal or external enemies,” Mujahid said.

International officials said it remained to be seen whether the Taliban was really prepared to move away from the harsh practices for which it was notorious during its prior incarnation as Afghanistan’s ruling power.

“Understandably, given their past history, these declarations have been greeted with some skepticism,” U.N. human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said in Geneva. “Nevertheless, the promises have been made, and whether or not they are honored or broken will be closely scrutinized.”

So far, the Taliban’s leaders have leaned heavily on a message that public order would be maintained. Mullah Yaqoob, son of the group’s late co-founder, Mullah Omar, and head of the Taliban’s military commission, issued a statement barring fighters from entering houses or confiscating weapons or vehicles belonging to former officials.

His declaration came after reports that men identifying themselves as Taliban members had looted residences and made off with cars. The Taliban provided phone numbers for Kabul residents to report instances of harassment by anyone claiming to be a member of the group.

The official statements were a clear attempt by the Taliban to reassure a jittery populace unsure what to make of their new overseers. How successful that attempt will be — and how long any softer touch will last — remains to be seen.

Many Afghans, fearing the worst, are still intent on trying to exit the country. On the road to Kabul’s international airport, more than 1,000 people lined the pavement, crowding into shady areas while they waited to enter the heavily guarded facility.

At the corner near the airport entrance, hundreds of men, women and children were packed in a penned area lined with barbed wire, while Taliban guards roamed the street outside the gate, using whips, rifle butts, sticks and other makeshift weapons to chase people away. Others fired their machine guns in the air to disperse crowds.

Inside the airport, a semblance of order had been restored, with troops from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne deployed to clear the tarmac of people. Commercial flights to and from Kabul remained suspended until further notice, even though military flights were arriving and departing.

In the capital’s Shar-e-naw district, shops, bakeries and a few restaurants were open, though more upscale establishments and a shoe store remained closed. Although foot traffic was lighter than usual, with many Afghans hunkering down in their homes to gauge the new situation, women were still out in the streets, only some of them wearing the full-body burqa the Taliban had made compulsory for women during its previous reign.

In another sign of at least temporary continuity, some officials, including Kabul’s mayor and the acting national health minister, remained in their posts and resumed work Tuesday.

The Taliban “are not in a hurry to replace everybody,” said one adviser to former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who asked not to be identified to avoid any reprisals. “Once you get into these technical matters — projects, construction, dams, roads, the civil service — it’s a more complicated system and operation than they have ever been involved in, and they’ll be held accountable and will have scrutiny.”

There were reports that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s lead negotiator, had left the Qatari capital of Doha on Tuesday and would be landing in Kabul along with other members of the group’s political leadership. Baradar had been in Doha for talks with the U.S. and former Afghan officials.