After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States government, led by President George W. Bush, ordered the Taliban—then the rulers of Afghanistan—to give up Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The refusal of then-Taliban Emir Mullah Muhammad Omar to accept the Bush administration’s demands precipitated the beginning of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. The 20-year conflict, which claimed approximately 200,000 lives, came to an end in the summer of 2021. After President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of American troops, the Taliban managed to recapture most of the country and announced the restoration of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
Since regaining control of Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership has placed what it maintains is a temporary ban on female education. Most foreign aid groups and international donors have suspended operations, with the result that much of the country is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. After more than 20 years of the War on Terror, Afghanistan remains volatile, and far from being vanquished, the Taliban remain a relevant force in global politics. Even for those vehemently opposed to their ideology, the task of understanding their influence—along with their underlying beliefs—is ongoing.
Mufti Abdul Matin Qani is a Taliban spokesman and a policy adviser at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Culture and Information. Based in Kabul, he is responsible for briefing the local press on government policy and matters of public interest. I contacted him through the ministry, and, after verifying his credentials, identified him as a prospective subject for an interview because of his fluency in Urdu.
To make this conversation happen, I was asked to agree to certain terms. At first, Qani was only willing to answer my questions if I sent them by e-mail or WhatsApp and allowed him to respond in writing. This was a condition I could not accept, and I explained to him that I was not interested in publishing what would almost certainly amount to a carefully worded press release. After some back and forth, Qani asked me to lay out the subject matter of my questions in advance. I declined to do so, as I was only willing to conduct the interview if no subject was off the table. Eventually, my terms were accepted with the caveat that his answers to my questions would be published in full.
The interview took place in late January. It was a civil 40-minute conversation that focused on America’s failure in Afghanistan, the status of women in Islam, the ban on female education, and the governing structure of the Taliban movement. The answers, which appear in my own translation, have not been edited, with the exception of minor adjustments for clarity.
In a speech shortly after 9/11, President Bush posed a question about Muslim extremist groups, including the Taliban, that has been subject to much hand-wringing ever since: “Why do they hate us?” He had his own answers, ones which seemed oriented toward justifying a declaration of war. But if understanding these groups and their motivations is of relevance to US policy, not to mention a comprehension of global politics, it is in our interest to hear from the source. It may not be possible for readers to take Qani’s answers at face value, but as information about the region, and about wider tendencies in the world’s political climate, they are nevertheless presented for consideration.
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Hasan Ali: Why did the US mission in Afghanistan fail?
Mufti Abdul Matin Qani: It’s pretty obvious. If you create turmoil in a country, trample the freedoms of the people of that country, disregard their national interest and their religious beliefs—that is an act of cruelty that cannot succeed. To date, the Americans have not been able to convince even their own people of who was actually behind the attacks on 9/11.
America, being a superpower, makes long-term policies to advance its national interests and tries to impose them on other countries. In Asia, to keep an eye on their opponents like Russia and China, they wanted to keep a base in Afghanistan.
On the subject of Osama bin Laden, we wanted to solve this problem through dialogue in the spirit of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. For 10 or 15 days after 9/11, we consulted various religious leaders from our own country, from Pakistan and from other Islamic nations. None of these religious leaders suggested that we hand over Osama bin Laden to the US directly. It was suggested instead that he be delivered to a Muslim country where he could be tried in a court and given due process in accordance with Islamic principles of justice. Our Islamic faith did not allow us to simply hand him over to the United States where he may or may not have received a fair trial.
Because of this, the United States violated our sovereignty. They did not respect our national interest, our religious beliefs or our values, and the whole world knows that it was a cruel act of aggression against our people.
If you look at the history of our country, ever since we embraced Islam, we have successfully repelled anyone who has tried to invade us. From Genghis Khan to the Mughals to the British Empire to the Soviets, everyone was humiliated and defeated when they invaded us. Similarly, the United States, in order to get a foothold in Asia to counter its rivals Russia and China, invaded us and was defeated.
Our people were fighting against the United States to preserve their freedom. If you look at American history, it was once a British colony and had to fight for its freedom in the same way. Our rights as human beings and our religious faith permit us to put up an armed resistance in order to safeguard our freedoms by whatever means necessary. America wanted to impose its will upon us and give it the name of democracy. This is a travesty of democratic principles. If it was a democratic system and the Afghan people were aligned with it, then why would America have failed with all its technology, power and resources?
The United States brought NATO along, which is the biggest military alliance in the world. We have 34 provinces and various provinces were given to various NATO countries for military occupation. In spite of this, the project failed, and it failed because it was both inhumane and un-Islamic.
HA: In America, after the Afghan campaign failed, analysts were quick to blame Pakistan for having played a treacherous double game in Afghanistan. Do you think Pakistan helped the Afghan Taliban in defeating the United States and its allies?
MAMQ: This is completely untrue. During the Soviet occupation, Pakistan and other countries including the United States helped us wage a national and holy war against our occupiers. But in this most recent Afghan jihad against the United States and NATO forces, we were basically paupers and conducted our struggle without anyone’s help. No Muslim country helped us, and you mention Pakistan, even they didn’t help us because they didn’t think they could stand up to America. You know what Pervez Musharraf did when he was in power. He allowed Pakistan’s airspace and even their air bases to be used by the US against us. Our comrades who were in Pakistan were rounded up and handed over to the Americans. You all know about what happened to Mullah Baradar. So the fight against the United States and NATO was indigenous and waged by an impoverished people who sacrificed their homes, lives, and children to defeat this hubristic and unjust war.
HA: In your opinion, what is the proper place and role for women in Afghan society?
MAMQ: Look, our government and movement is built on Islamic principles, and I can say with confidence that within the parameters of Islamic values and Afghan culture, we stand by all the rights given to women in our religion.
HA: Women have been banned from attending secondary school and university. Can you explain the reasoning and logic behind this decision?
MAMQ: Over the last 20 years, America has spent billions and billions of dollars to suppress Islamic values, culture, and traditions in our country. Nongovernmental organizations were working toward that goal. That is the context in which we came into power. Believe me, none of our leaders or elders thought that women should be denied education or stopped from working.
You see, in our religion, all family matters were explained to the faithful by A’ishah bint Abu Bakr (R) [one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives], so we are not against giving women the rights that have been prescribed for them in Islam.
This is a very delicate point, but do you know that in Afghanistan, teachers were rewarding girls not for their performance in examinations but for rendering sexual favors? This is incompatible with Islamic values.
All of our policy-makers are deliberating on this question of how to create an Islamic environment so that girls and women can continue their education. This must involve the segregation of sexes in the classroom—both in terms of students and faculty. As a first measure, we gave educational institutions ample time to adapt. We gave one year to secondary schools and two years to colleges to come up with appropriate measures themselves. But under the influence of secular thought and their own prejudices, and to comply with the wishes of their donors, these institutions failed to do so. They wanted to give a bad name to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan by showing us up as opponents of human rights and female education. It is for this reason that we instituted a temporary ban—and you will see that as soon we have made appropriate arrangements to ensure that women can be educated in an Islamic environment, these institutions will be reopened.
HA: I’m still not entirely clear why you had to stop girls and women from attending educational institutions because of what some NGOs may or may not have been doing.
MAMQ: Look, I’ve already explained to you that in the last 20 years, America has not only tried to advance its strategic and geopolitical interests in Afghanistan; it has also tried to damage the culture and traditions of the Afghan people. One of the things they promoted was immodest dress and behavior. We will not allow women without hijab in public places. If they wear a hijab, we are happy to provide all facilities for their education, but we will not educate women who do not wear the hijab. Likewise, with students who were living in college, an altogether different lifestyle based on vulgarity and immodesty was being promoted, which we again cannot accept. These are the reasons we had to take this action, and I assure you that we will create the right sort of environment consistent with our culture and Islamic values and very soon allow women to continue their education.
HA: And what exactly is the “right” environment?
MAMQ: Look, men and women will have different premises and they will be segregated in transport facilities as well. All girls will wear hijab and if they are taught by male teachers, they will remain in hijab during instruction.
HA: What do you mean by “hijab” exactly? Will it be a burqa or face covering?
MAMQ: No, we will not impose a specific uniform—that is for the colleges to do. It could be burqa if they please, or a Saudi style dress (abaya) or a Pakistani style hijab (head and chest covering). By hijab we mean the concealment of those parts of a woman’s body that Islam does not permit others to see.
HA: Once these conditions are met, will girls and women be allowed to pursue their education?
MAMQ: Yes, Inshallah.
HA: To any level? If they want to go to university for example.
MAMQ: Yes, everything.
HA: And will they be allowed to work?
MAMQ: Yes, why not? There are many walks of life where women can play a role. These include the health sector and many other professions where we can benefit from their expertise. Within the framework of Islamic teachings, they may also be permitted to work in other institutions.
HA: Are there any areas or professions in which women will not be allowed to participate?
MAMQ: This has not been decided by our policy-makers yet, and I am not in a position to elaborate at present.
HA: There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world—a quarter of the world’s population—and many countries where Muslims are in a majority. When you look for instance at the Islamic Republic of Pakistan next door, or at Turkey a little further afield where male and female students can study together and there is no requirement for women to wear the hijab, do you think their practices are un-Islamic?
MAMQ: I would not like to pass judgment on other countries, but the Islamic position is quite clear, and the scholars will agree that the Quran enjoins Muslims to follow the life and practices of the holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
On this issue, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad are clear. Let me relate to you a clear precedent. A blind companion of the prophet—Ibn-Maktum—was allowed to enter the prophet’s dwelling where two of the prophet’s wives were present. The prophet advised them to observe the hijab [in this context, by retiring behind the curtain], to which they remarked that the visitor was completely blind and could not see them. The prophet responded by saying, “And are you also blind that you cannot see him?”
This is the principle of hijab given by the prophet and that is what we follow. We are not concerned with the practices of other countries. There are many areas such as technology in which we can learn from other Muslim countries but in matters of faith, we take our instruction from the example and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
HA: With respect, if you are saying on the one hand that you are following the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad, does it not therefore follow that other Muslim countries that are not doing the same as you are showing disobedience?
MAMQ: Yes of course, I can say that with clarity. It’s obviously disobedience. Once again, it is not our policy to comment on the norms and practices of other countries, but since you specifically ask, yes, the example that has been set by the Prophet Muhammad is what we are following in Afghanistan.
HA: Some journalists and commentators have said that on the issue of female education, there is a divergence of opinion within the Taliban. It is also said that the government in Kabul is a puppet being controlled from Kandahar by the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Akhunzada. Is this true?
MAMQ: This is completely wrong. Our ministers are nobody’s puppets. We have a consultative system in which our supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada takes decisions after conferring with the shura (council). Once the decision has been taken it becomes the official policy of the state. We have adopted this model from the early caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar ibn Khattab, who both had the same sort of consultative system. In fact, this is one of the reasons we were successful in our struggle against the occupation.
HA: So you completely deny the charge that your supreme leader in Kandahar is dictating to the government?
MAMQ: Yes—whoever is saying this is not telling the truth. Our supreme leader obviously has the authority to issue an edict, but he is also bound to discuss with the consultative council before making a decision.
There is no disagreement on the issue of female education. We all believe that women have the right to be educated, and it is only for the reasons I have already specified that we were unable to permit it. For two years we tolerated the status quo, but when it failed to reform in accordance with Islamic and Afghan values, the council decided to place a moratorium until an appropriate environment could be created in the education system. This is our unanimous position.
HA: When do you expect to have this environment in place? Do you have a timeframe for the restoration of female education?
MAMQ: I don’t have a timetable, but I can tell you that we are working on it, and you’ll hear something very soon.
HA: Are you not afraid that the $7 billion of foreign reserves that have been held back and are said to have been placed in a Swiss bank will not be disbursed if you don’t restore female education?
MAMQ: This decision of the United States and its allies to hold back our money is a cruel one. You ought to know that people in Afghanistan are starving to death. The economic situation is so dire that our people are having to really struggle to cover the basic necessities of life. America and those of its allies that have supported this decision should know that this will be counted among their sins.
As far as your question about the disbursement of these funds being conditional on female education is concerned, let me reiterate that we are not against women being educated per se, we just need to ensure that the right environment is in place according to our principles.
At the same time, let me also make it clear that we are not afraid of anyone. We want a foreign policy based upon the principle of engagement, and our government is working to achieve this objective. We want good relations with the rest of the world be that with the United States or NATO or Europe or anyone else. In spite of this, the cruel decision to freeze our money is having a catastrophic effect on our economy. Our traders cannot do business because the banking system is completely paralyzed, and we have been forced to confront a lot of difficulties. Allah willing, we will come out of these problems as well.
HA: You talk about having good relations with other countries. In Pakistan, there is a view that fighters from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) conduct terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil and then retreat into Afghanistan where the Pakistani state cannot apprehend them. Is this a fair assessment?
MAMQ: This is completely wrong. Our land and borders are secure. The idea that we would help the TTP or give them any sort of assistance is nothing more than propaganda. It is our policy to have good relations with all our neighbors and we will not allow our soil to be used as a base of operations to cause harm to any other country be it Pakistan, India, Tajikistan, or anyone else.
HA: So you’re saying that the terrorist attacks that have been taking place on Pakistani soil have nothing to do with you?
MAMQ: Absolutely nothing. We also have a responsibility to play our role in safeguarding international security. I have already told you that our policy is to have good relations with the international community. Within the parameters of Islam, we want to conduct our relations with other countries in accordance with the rules and regulations of the United Nations.
HA: What is your relationship with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)?
MAMQ: We have no relationship with them.
HA: So is the TTP purely a Pakistani group?
MAMQ: That is something Pakistan would know better. Afghanistan will not allow anyone to harm or create national security problems for Pakistan. It is our policy that we will not allow anyone to use our territory to endanger other countries.
HA: A few days ago, there was a suicide bombing on the Afghan foreign ministry. Last month there was an attack on a hotel in Kabul. We have also seen attacks on the Pakistani ambassador’s residence and on the Russian embassy. Who is behind these attacks and why are they doing it?
MAMQ: Look, Afghanistan had become an orphan state, a free-for-all where a lot of different countries and their intelligence agencies were operating to further their strategic interests. Even now—without being specific—I can tell you that some countries are operating here. It is our policy to fight against all terrorist organizations. The attacks you mention were carried out either by Daesh or by other groups—whether that’s America, Russia or even Pakistan—who are masquerading as Daesh to advance their own interests.
We have evidence that at one stage the United States was supporting Daesh. In Sari-Pol province a couple of years, when we had their fighters surrounded, Afghan National Army forces aided by the United States came to their rescue, evacuated them, and relocated them elsewhere. This is just one of many examples and is well known in Afghanistan. You can ask anyone in the area, and they will tell you the same thing.
HA: To conclude, what is your message for readers of The Nation, many of whom live in the United States?
MAMQ: My message to neighboring countries and to global powers like the United States of America, China, and Russia—not only to their governments but also to their people—is that for the last 50 years the Afghan people have faced many difficulties. We have been used as proxies for other nations to achieve their objectives. When the United States and the Soviet Union were at war, they used Afghanistan as the place to settle their score. Because we are a poor and oppressed people, I appeal to the international community and to the people living in other countries to start a campaign that powerful nations should not interfere in the affairs of Afghanistan.
For our part, we will do what we can to ensure that our territory is not used to harm any other nation. We will also work to ensure we have good relations with other countries. To place restrictions on our banking system, to withhold our money, and to spoil our relations with other countries is in nobody’s interest. Help the government to overcome our difficulties. Now after we have spent 50 years in a state of homelessness and destitution, we ask you to let us live our lives according to our culture and traditions. Whatever you did to promote your interests, now let bygones be bygones and let us live in peace.