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We visited a Taliban leader’s compound to examine his vision for Afghanistan: NPR

Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, a Taliban leader, is the acting Afghan defense minister.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Claire Harbage/NPR


Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, a Taliban leader, is the acting Afghan defense minister.

Claire Harbage/NPR

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The day a US drone killed the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the man in charge of the country’s defense sat down for an interview.

When 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 said nothing. He acknowledged “an incident today” but said it was not serious. It was 24 hours later when the Taliban said their preliminary investigation had confirmed a strike by “American drones”.

Our interview with Yaqoob illustrated the demands facing the Taliban now that they have moved from an insurgent movement to the de facto power of Afghanistan. Their role changed abruptly on August 15, 2021, when they invaded the capital after the fall of the government. Rather than disrupting security, they are expected to provide it. Rather than undermining the government, they are expected to govern.

As the anniversary of the Taliban’s rise to power approached, I asked to speak to Yaqoob, who said his group wanted better relations with the United States. Any prospect of that depends on how the Taliban governs.

Yaqoob is part of the second generation of Taliban leaders. He is the son of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the cleric who led the Taliban during their first term in power from 1996 to 2001.

To meet him on July 31, we flew from Kabul — where some members of our NPR team heard the drone attack that morning — to Kandahar, the Taliban’s traditional center of power. We were not informed in advance of the exact time or place of the meeting. Instead, a car came to guide us there, so we didn’t learn the location until we arrived. It was an old insurgent security technique.

We drove to the compound from which his father once ruled – a tree-lined area in the shadow of two steep mountains. Yaqoob, in his early 30s, told us he remembers racing at this compound in the 1990s as a child. These were the years when his father presided over an emirate that applied a very specific idea of ​​Islam. The Taliban hanged a former president. They staged public executions in stadiums, destroyed a historic site, imposed the burqa on women and denied most of them the opportunity to work or go to school.

Omar also harbored Osama bin Laden and refused to hand over the al-Qaeda leader when the United States claimed him after 9/11.

Yaqoob followed his father into hiding when the US attack began in October 2001. Omar’s compound later became a base for the US and its Afghan allies, eventually surrounded by blast walls and points checkpoints, strewn with wreckage of military vehicles and physical training equipment. . One of its buildings has been renamed “Kentucky Wildcuts Barber Shop”. Omar died in 2013, but the son rose to lead the Taliban and has now reclaimed his childhood home.

A mountain overlooks the compound from which Yaqoob’s father, Mullah Muhammad Omar, once ruled. Omar was the cleric who led the Taliban during their first term in power from 1996 to 2001. The compound later became a base for the United States and its Afghan allies, but is now back in the hands of Yaqoob .

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Claire Harbage/NPR


A mountain overlooks the compound from which Yaqoob’s father, Mullah Muhammad Omar, once ruled. Omar was the cleric who led the Taliban during their first term in power from 1996 to 2001. The compound later became a base for the United States and its Afghan allies, but is now back in the hands of Yaqoob .

Claire Harbage/NPR

We asked if he would show us around, but Yaqoob objected. “The CIA has videos if you want to see them,” he said. He nevertheless sat with us for over an hour, pausing once to say 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 to the American nation”.

Yaqoob is dubbed the interim defense minister – “interim” because for the past year the Taliban have called their administration a caretaker government. So far, it is not recognized by any other government in the world. They run the bureaucratic apparatus of the former Islamic republic, at least the parts that have nothing to do with democracy, which they put an end to. They did not say what form of government should replace it.

“So far, no decision has been made on this,” Yaqoob said. “I think for a while it will continue as an interim government, and depending on the state of Afghanistan, we will take the next step.”

We knew that the Taliban and other religious leaders held a mass rally earlier this summer in the western part of Kabul. The group’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, gave a speech in which he said he disregarded the claims of the West that even atomic bombs could not weaken their resistance. But having said what he wanted not do, Akhundzada left the stage without saying what he would have do.

Yaqoob rose to the leadership of the Taliban and now, in his early thirties, has reclaimed his childhood home.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Claire Harbage/NPR


Yaqoob rose to the leadership of the Taliban and now, in his early thirties, has reclaimed his childhood home.

Claire Harbage/NPR

This leaves many questions unanswered a year after the recovery. Some Afghan girls are in school while others are excluded. Some women are still working while others cannot. Even in the lead ulama, or groups of religious scholars, said it was appropriate for middle and high school girls to return to class.

“It’s a serious problem for us,” Yaqoob said. “I hope there will be more on this.”

Other Taliban leaders we met on our trip said they needed to move slowly and prepare the political ground. They fear that some Taliban fighters, ideologically trained as they are, will turn against their own leaders. As leaders debate, current politics have led to many calls for change, even in the very conservative Taliban-dominated valleys.

Strictly speaking, there is no rule of law at all. The republican constitution of Afghanistan is not considered in force and nothing has replaced it. Some of the old laws are enforced – especially the tax laws; it is widely said here that the Taliban have been effective tax collectors – while others are considered defunct. The Taliban have allowed free media to continue reporting the news, but they have also been accused of beating journalists or demanding that they change their coverage. The disappearance of a media law leaves journalists uncertain about their rights. Establishing a constitutional law is a “necessity”, acknowledged Yaqoob.

There is also no transparent way to investigate the numerous allegations of human rights abuses by Taliban forces across the country; a United Nations report recently documented hundreds of extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and cases of torture during the first 10 months of the Taliban regime. Yaqoob rejected the report but said military tribunals were in place to prosecute those who committed abuses.

A destroyed helicopter sits in a corner of the Yaqoob compound.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Claire Harbage/NPR


A destroyed helicopter sits in a corner of the Yaqoob compound.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Yaqoob’s main responsibility is security, which he described as “100% OK”, although the later revelation that the al-Qaeda leader was living in central Kabul cast the statement in a different light. The Taliban waged a brutal war against the Islamic State, but have always been more tolerant of al-Qaeda, dating back to when Yaqoob’s father harbored bin Laden.

When asked if he wanted better relations with the United States, Yaqoob laughed.

“It’s obvious,” he said, adding that recognizing the current regime was in the interests of the United States because the United States had no other regime to deal with. “There are a lot of countries that are more against America than us, but they officially recognize them,” he said. “There are more countries in the world that pose more danger to America than Afghanistan, but America has still officially recognized them. I think this recognition is a positive step towards greater change. “

Yaqoob said he heard that US officials considered recognition politically impossible because the American people would be against it. “If this is true, I ask the American nation to put pressure on the government,” he said. And if they don’t, then “the claim of friendship with the Afghan people is more false than honest.”

Other Taliban leaders compare their country to the communist government of Vietnam, which fought the United States in what was previously America’s longest war but later became a trading partner and in some ways even a friend. .

A difference, however, was demonstrated when President Joe Biden announced that an American drone had killed the leader of al-Qaeda living a few blocks from the Taliban’s intelligence ministry. US officials view extremist groups in Afghanistan as a continuing threat, though it has diminished significantly from years past.

Securing Afghanistan against such threats was once the problem of the United States, as well as its Afghan allies. That’s the Taliban’s problem now, with the United States and its drones watching and watching.