By Ayesha Tanzeem
China wants to invest billions of dollars in Afghanistan if the Taliban guarantee security for their workers and their assets. This, according to the Taliban’s acting Deputy Minister of Information and Culture Zabihullah Mujahid, who also said his government is ready to deliver.
In a television interview with VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem in Kabul, Mujahid responded to questions about the Taliban’s negotiations with the United States and others, Afghanistan’s faltering economy, women’s rights, and the threat to Afghanistan’s security after multiple high-profile attacks by the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
The international community has strongly criticized the Taliban for not fulfilling pledges to respect women’s rights and the rights of minorities, and for not including enough members from other ethnic groups in the Cabinet.
The Taliban continues to ban girls in grades 6-11 from attending school, while boys are being allowed to continue their education.
The Taliban Cabinet is all-male and its members are drawn mainly from Afghanistan’s dominant Pashtun ethnic group.
And while the Taliban have announced amnesty for everyone from the previous government, including those in the security forces or intelligence agencies, a recent Amnesty report says Taliban forces unlawfully killed 13 ethnic Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl. The report said most of those killed included Afghan security forces who had surrendered to the Taliban.
Below is a transcript of Ayesha Tanzeem’s interview with Mujahid. It has been edited for accuracy and brevity.
AYESHA TANZEEM: “Let me start with security. Daesh (Islamic State) has managed two big attacks in Kabul and numerous small attacks in other provinces. How and why is it managing to do that?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “Daesh is not a major problem for us. It doesn’t have a significant presence in Afghanistan and needs to hide itself. Still, it manages to carry out some activities like the explosion in Kunduz. But the Islamic Emirate (Taliban name for its own government) are after them.Our forces are trying to find the group’s roots. In the last week and a half, we have arrested several people belonging to IS, and have destroyed several of their safe houses. We have neutralized several of their attacks. The reason why Daesh has gained momentum is that when the Taliban broke open many of the jails during the takeover, the IS facilitators in those jails also escaped. That has helped them, but we have vowed to eliminate their presence from Afghanistan.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “The suicide attacker in Kunduz was Uyghur. Has China expressed concern to you about that? What has China said to you since the attack?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “We have not talked to any country about this issue. All Daesh operatives are Afghans. There is no foreigner among them.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “Let me now turn to economy. Afghanistan’s economy is not doing well. What is your plan to save the economy?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “The economic situation is returning to normalcy. We have collected and are still collecting national resources. Our traders are ready for investment. Work on major projects, including road construction, is going on. We are close to signing agreements of exploration (of minerals) with some countries.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “In your negotiations with the U.S., what are you hoping for? How soon do you hope the U.S. can unfreeze your money, and what are you willing to offer them in return?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “Freezing Afghanistan’s assets is an injustice toward the people of Afghanistan. We are negotiating with the Americans. We are also negotiating with other countries and the international banks to release this money because it belongs to the Afghan people. This is the Afghan people’s bread and butter and releasing this money is crucial to solving the economic problems of the Afghan population.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “One of the things the U.S. has asked for publicly is for you to open secondary schools for girls, and the Taliban also promised education for women. These schools are already segregated. What are you waiting for? Why are you not opening these schools?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “So far, America has not put any demands clearly on the table. They only express concern about women’s rights and human rights. And we assure them that we will respect these rights but as per Islamic rules and law. So far, we are formulating that policy. We don’t say girls should not go to school. We are consulting to formulate a plan and hope to resolve this issue shortly.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “So can you explain this plan to me? The plan for girls’ education? How will it be different from what’s happening now?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “There will only be a procedural change. A plan is being worked out on how to keep women safe, including during travel to schools and work, and providing them a responsible environment in the schools so that they are physically safe and mentally satisfied.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “The Taliban have said they will allow women to work in Afghanistan but under Islamic law. But there’s a lot of confusion among Afghan women on what is Islamic in your definition. So, for example, me sitting here interviewing you, do you think it’s Islamic?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “It is for the Islamic scholars to decide the rules for women and teach them how to work or continue their education. We are waiting for the scholars to gather and consult on this issue and then inform the government of their decision.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “A lot of educated Afghans have left the country. Some people say that Afghanistan does not have enough skilled people left behind to run a country. How will you manage?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “We are trying to place skilled personnel in departments that need specialized expertise. For example, in health, we would like a minister who is also a doctor. In trade, we would want a minister who is a trader. In banking we want a minister who has a doctorate in banking. We are paying similar attention to other departments. And most of the people working in these departments are the same who were working there previously.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “You have expressed interest in China coming to Afghanistan and investing money. What is it that the Taliban want China to do?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “China is a neighbor and has a strong economy. We are trying to develop trade and economic relations with them. However, although we want China to have trade and investment with us, we will not tolerate any interference in our internal affairs.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “When you talk to Chinese diplomats, what is it that they want in Afghanistan? What is it that they want from you? And what is it that they want to do in Afghanistan?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “They want security for their workers and those who invest here (Afghanistan). They are interested in investment in some sectors in Afghanistan and want to negotiate the details. One of the projects is Mes Aynak (the site of one of Afghanistan’s largest copper mines which also holds ancient Buddhist ruins), which is one of the important areas where they want to invest billions of dollars and Afghanistan also needs this. We have promised them security for their investment and assets.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “Why has Sheikh Hibatullah (Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada) not appeared in public? Especially since given the Taliban’s history of hiding its founder Mullah Omar’s death for 2-3 years, Hibatullah’s absence is giving rise to rumors he may not be alive.”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “He will appear. So far, our government is in its infancy. From a security point of view as well, his guards do not allow him to be too public. He is alive, active, and giving orders to his followers and in the coming days he will appear in public.”
AYESHA TANZEEM: “The Taliban promised an inclusive government. The world is saying your Cabinet is not inclusive. So, what is your definition of inclusivity and when will the Taliban Cabinet be inclusive?”
ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: “All Afghans from any ethnicity should participate in the government. For this, we have a proposal. We have people of various ethnicities in our Cabinet. They are participating in the governance of the country. The government is still in the process of formation. All these issues will be resolved.”