KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — On the day a U.S. drone strike killed the leader of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the man in charge of the country’s defense sat down for an interview.
At the time we met Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, many Afghans knew there had been an explosion in Kabul, but not what it was. If Yaqoob knew more, he wasn’t saying. He acknowledged “an incident today” but said it wasn’t serious. It was 24 hours later when the Taliban said their preliminary investigation confirmed a strike by “American drones.”
Our talk with Yaqoob illustrated the demands facing the Taliban now that they have gone from an insurgent movement to Afghanistan’s de facto power. Their role changed abruptly on Aug. 15, 2021, when they swept into the capital after the government collapsed. Rather than disrupt security, they are expected to provide it. Rather than undermine the government, they are expected to govern.
As the anniversary neared of the Taliban’s time in power, I asked to speak with Yaqoob, who said his group wanted better relations with the United States. Any prospect of that depends on how the Taliban rule.
Yaqoob is part of the second generation of Taliban leadership. He is a son of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the cleric who led the Taliban during their first time in power from 1996-2001.
To meet him on July 31 we caught a plane from Kabul — where some members of our NPR team heard the drone attack that morning — to Kandahar, the Taliban’s traditional power center. We weren’t told the exact time or place of the meeting in advance. Instead a car came to guide us there, so we only learned the location as we arrived. It was an old insurgent’s security technique.
We drove onto the compound from which his father once ruled — a tree-lined area in the shadow of two craggy mountains. Yaqoob, in his early 30s, told us he remembered running around that compound as a child in the 1990s. Those were the years when his father presided over an emirate that enforced a very specific idea of Islam. The Taliban hanged a former president. They held public executions in stadiums, destroyed a historic site, mandated burqas for women and denied most of them a chance to work or go to school.
Omar also sheltered Osama bin Laden, and refused to turn over the al-Qaida leader when the United States demanded him after 9/11.
Yaqoob followed his father into hiding when the U.S. attack began in Oct. 2001. Omar’s compound later became a base for the United States and its Afghan allies, eventually surrounded by blast walls and checkpoints, dotted with the wreckage of military vehicles and physical training equipment. One of its buildings was renamed the “Kentucky Wildcuts Barber Shop.” Omar died in 2013, but the son rose in the Taliban leadership and now has reclaimed his childhood home.
We asked if he would show us around, but Yaqoob demurred. “The CIA has videos if you want to see them,” he said. He nonetheless sat with us for more than an hour, pausing once to give his evening prayer before we resumed. He said he was happy for our visit because he wanted to explain “the truth to the world and especially the American nation.”
Yaqoob is styled the interim defense minister — “interim” because for the past year the Taliban have called their administration a provisional government. So far it’s recognized by no other government in the world. They are running the bureaucratic machinery of the old Islamic republic, at least the parts that have nothing to do with democracy, which they have ended. They haven’t said what form of government should replace it.
“So far, there is no decision made about it,” Yaqoob said. “I think for a while it will go on as an acting government, and depending on Afghanistan’s condition, we will take the next step.”
We knew that Taliban and other religious leaders had held a mass meeting earlier this summer on the west side of Kabul. The group’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, gave a speech in which he said he took no account of demands by the West, that not even atomic bombs could weaken their resistance. But having said what he would not do, Akhundzada left the stage without saying what he would do.
This leaves many questions unanswered one year after the takeover. Some Afghan girls are in school while others are barred. Some women are still working while others cannot. Even leading ulema, or groups of religious scholars, have said it is appropriate for middle school and high school-age girls to return to class.
“This is a serious issue for us,” Yaqoob said. “Hopefully there will be more about it.”
Other Taliban officials we met during our journey said they must move slowly and prepare the political ground. They’re concerned that some Taliban fighters, ideologically trained as they are, may turn against their own leaders. While the leadership debates, the current policy has led to widespread calls for change, even in very conservative, Taliban-dominated valleys.
Strictly speaking, there is no rule of law at all. Afghanistan’s republican constitution is not considered in effect, and nothing has replaced it. Some of the old laws are enforced — particularly tax laws; it’s widely said here that the Taliban have been effective tax collectors — while others are considered defunct. The Taliban have allowed the free media to continue reporting the news, but also have been accused of beating journalists or demanding that they change their coverage. The disappearance of a media law leaves journalists uncertain of their rights. Establishing constitutional law is a “necessity,” Yaqoob acknowledged.
There also is no transparent means to investigate numerous allegations of human rights violations by Taliban forces across the country; a United Nations report recently alleged hundreds of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and instances of torture in the first 10 months of Taliban rule. Yaqoob rejected the report but asserted that military courts were in place to prosecute those who committed abuses.
Yaqoob’s primary responsibility is security, which he described as “100% OK,” though the later revelation that al-Qaida’s leader was living in the center of Kabul cast the statement in a different light. The Taliban have waged brutal war against the Islamic State but historically have been more tolerant toward al-Qaida, dating back to the time when Yaqoob’s father sheltered bin Laden.
Asked if he wanted better relations with the United States, Yaqoob laughed.
“This is obvious,” he said, adding that recognition of the current regime was in the United States’ own interest because the U.S. had no other regime to deal with. “There are many countries that are more against America than us, but they recognize them officially,” he said. “There are more countries in the world that pose more danger than Afghanistan to America, but still America recognized them officially. I think that recognition is a positive step toward a bigger change.”
Yaqoob said he had heard that U.S. officials consider recognition politically impossible because the American people would be against it. “If that is true, I ask from the nation of America to put pressure on the government,” he said. And if they don’t, then “the claim of friendship with the Afghan people is more fake than honest.”
Other Taliban leaders compare their country to Vietnam’s communist government, which fought the United States in what had previously been America’s longest war, but later became a trading partner and even in some ways a friend.
One difference, however, was demonstrated when President Joe Biden announced that a U.S. drone had killed the al-Qaida leader living just a few blocks from the Taliban’s ministry of intelligence. U.S. officials regard extremist groups in Afghanistan as an ongoing threat, even if it is much diminished from years past.
Securing Afghanistan against such threats used to be the United States’ problem, along with their Afghan allies. It’s the Taliban’s problem now, with the United States and its drones overhead and watching.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On the morning the United States killed the leader of al-Qaida, an NPR team was a short distance away in Afghanistan. People heard the explosion but did not know at first what had happened. That same day, we met a top official of Afghanistan’s Taliban government. Mohammad Yaqoob is interim defense minister. If he knew about the U.S. strike at that point, he wasn’t ready to say.
MOHAMMAD YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) There was incident today. In every country, it’s possible that something happened like this. And we don’t have any serious problem there.
INSKEEP: Only later did the Taliban and the U.S. confirm a drone strike. The incident shows what has changed since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan one year ago this month. The force that disrupted security is now expected to keep it. We’ve been asking who’s included in this new version of Afghanistan, and in a moment, we will question the defense minister. But to understand the discussion, it helps first to get some context from other Afghans. So let’s take a moment to look around the country the Taliban now rule.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SHOUTING)
INSKEEP: We talked with shopkeepers on a retail street in Kabul. In a used furniture store, Abdul Qahar said he’s not selling much because nobody has the money to buy.
Are people bringing you more furniture to sell so that they can have money?
ABDUL QAHAR: (Non-English language spoken).
INSKEEP: Yes, he says. Some sell furniture to buy food. Some sell because they’re leaving the country. Ten days ago, one family sold their furniture and only afterward learned of problems with their visas to Europe. Abdul Qahar studied political science and law in college. But selling furniture is the only job he can find. His business partner is Wahid Kashafi.
How much longer can you go on?
WAHID KASHAFI: (Through interpreter) I don’t know – maybe a year or two. Finally, I will escape.
INSKEEP: He says he’d prefer a more inclusive country where girls as well as boys can study and where there’s democracy. Afghanistan used to have a parliament, and we met one of its former members. Gulaliai Mohammadi is one of the women who seized the opportunities under the previous government. She started her working life as a midwife.
Do you sometimes see a little girl or a little boy and say, I delivered them?
GULALIAI MOHAMMADI: Of course. I see four child in my home that I delivered.
INSKEEP: Children of her relatives. She later found a job in flight safety at an airport, and then she went into politics.
MOHAMMADI: I was the youngest member of parliament.
INSKEEP: For which she paid a price as the Taliban advanced.
MOHAMMADI: In 2020, the Taliban killed my brother.
MOHAMMADI: Yeah, my youngest brother because of me. He was newly married. So they killed him in Kandahar province.
INSKEEP: You think that he was killed because of his relation to you?
MOHAMMADI: Of course. They told me. They told me that – now we killed your brother. The second is your number. Be ready.
INSKEEP: What was lost, that there was a parliament before, and now there’s nothing?
MOHAMMADI: See, today, I’m at home. I cannot do anything for women. From this, we know that we lost everything, especially women.
INSKEEP: Other Afghans we met said they are satisfied with the change in power, but they face the challenge of living in a country devastated by war.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)
INSKEEP: Consider a rural village south of Kabul. Our producer, Fazel Qazizai, pointed out that village along Highway One.
FAZEL QAZIZAI, BYLINE: This is one of the main village which is entirely destroyed. You can see.
INSKEEP: The highway is cratered and blackened from years of Taliban bombs. The village is ruined because the U.S.-backed Afghan government bulldozed many of the mud-walled homes. As we stood there, a young man emerged from one of the houses still standing.
Is life better now than it was before the collapse?
MOHAMED YOSAD: (Through interpreter) Yes, it’s much better, the security, that space. There’s no robbery, no thieving. We are very happy.
INSKEEP: Mohamad Yosad was holding a math book and said he’s preparing to graduate from high school. So if you’re 18, for Afghanistan, the median age is 18. How do you feel about your future?
YOSAD: (Through interpreter) I’m hopeful. I want to be a very big man in the future.
INSKEEP: His future opportunities depend on how the Taliban govern. So we asked to meet Mohammad Yaqoob, the interim defense minister. His job title only captures part of his significance. He is considered the group’s No. 3 leader and also is the son of the Taliban’s former emir. He said we’d find him outside the capital in the southern city of Kandahar.
This city is a bit smaller, a bit shabbier than Kabul, and yet somehow livelier. It is not the official center of power, but it is the center of power for the Taliban.
The defense minister didn’t tell us in advance where we would be meeting.
OK, so we’ve just left the hotel, and we’ve been told in our vehicle to follow this black car that came to guide us to wherever the defense minister may be here in Kandahar.
It’s an old insurgents’ security technique. We found out his location only when we arrived. Our producer, Fazel, was the first one to realize where we were going.
QAZIZAI: To the old house of Mullah Omar.
INSKEEP: We’re going to the old house of Mullah Omar?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Just here.
INSKEEP: Mullah Mohammad Omar, the defense minister’s father. Omar was the leader of the Taliban the last time they ruled Afghanistan. He was the leader who refused to turn over Osama bin Laden in 2001, a refusal that led to the U.S. attack. His tree-lined compound became a base for the CIA and its Afghan allies. Now, Omar’s son has reclaimed his childhood home.
Bullet-riddled old walls.
The black car guided us to a gravel parking lot.
And Mohammad Yaqoob met us in a simple yellow room inside one of the buildings.
YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) By the name of God, thank you very much for coming here.
INSKEEP: He’s in his early 30s, with a full, black beard. He said he agreed to this meeting because he wants Americans to know the truth. And the truth is, the Taliban have not decided some of the key questions facing them. They have not agreed, for example, on what to do about girls in school. Some have been allowed to study, but many have not.
Many Afghans have told us they are concerned about girls not being in school. They would like all girls to attend school. Do you believe that that should happen?
YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) This is a serious issue for us. There are some development, and hopefully there will be more about it. We have a discussion about these issues, and we are hoping that soon the ground will be prepared for that.
INSKEEP: What makes it difficult simply to allow them to return to school?
YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) The conditions are not ready. We need some basic conditions for this issue.
INSKEEP: Other Taliban officials told us they face a political problem. If they move too quickly in favor of girls in school, they might alienate some of their own ideologically trained gunmen. Yaqoob’s main job is defense, and the most serious threat comes from a branch of the Islamic State, or Daesh. They oppose the Taliban for dealing with the United States.
Does the United States offer or ask to cooperate with you against Daesh, and have you cooperated?
YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) There was no help done by America and what else against Daesh. And the only big help that the American can do with us against Daesh is that they should stop giving them more attention.
INSKEEP: He did not address al-Qaida, whose leader the United States had killed that day in Kabul. Yaqoob did address a United Nations reports accusing Taliban forces of killings and other human rights abuses.
YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) Yes, a man among the men will commit violent, but immediately we are after them, arresting them and leading them to the court and punishing them for that.
INSKEEP: What do you say to Afghans who are still afraid, who worked for the previous government or who are women who lost their jobs or who are members of minority sects and feel insecure, feel that they could be attacked at any time? What do you say to that?
YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) Repeatedly, we give them confidence that we will not work out of violence. We will not work out of revenge. This is our policy. Afghanistan is the home for all Afghans.
INSKEEP: Would you welcome back anyone who fled?
YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) I say welcome to all, to everyone.
INSKEEP: Do you want the United States to recognize Afghanistan’s new government as legitimate and establish normal relations?
YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) Openly. Of course, this is an obvious thing. There are many countries that America is more against than us, but they acknowledge them officially. I think that recognition is a positive step toward a bigger change.
INSKEEP: U.S. diplomats have been meeting with the Taliban. The U.S. has released some economic aid to the devastated country and has talked of more. But the U.S. also wants to see proof that this regime governs differently than the Taliban of the past.
How, if at all, is your vision for Afghanistan different than your father’s vision in the 1990s?
YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) I haven’t felt any changes in our thought with my father. I am following his spirit. But there is differences of situation. There is differences of condition.
INSKEEP: That’s Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of onetime Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and now the interim defense minister. Thank you for your time.
YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) Thank you very much that you came here.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
That was the first in a series of reports from our co-host Steve Inskeep, asking who’s included in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan? So, Steve, we just heard all of these voices from Afghans figuring out life under Taliban rule. What did you find about who is included in Taliban rule there?
INSKEEP: I found that it’s an ongoing struggle, Leila. The Taliban have said they’re not going to have democracy anymore. And yet millions of individuals are making what choices they can, trying to find places for themselves, trying to find a new way of living and trying to make space for themselves as well. And we’ll hear more of their struggles in the coming days on NPR News. We just heard some voices, but over recent days, we’ve spoken with more than 40 people in three different provinces across Afghanistan, and we have many stories to share.
FADEL: Our co-host Steve Inskeep has been traveling and reporting in Afghanistan, and he’ll be bringing you more of that work on NPR. Thank you so much, Steve.
INSKEEP: You’re welcome, Leila. Looking forward to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.