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Geopolitics

"We Can't Rule Alone" - New Taliban Leaders Speak

Reporter Daniel-Dylan Böhmer of Die Welt gained exclusive access to key Taliban officials in Kabul, and visited the heavily armed security forces at the airport, to get a sense of what Afghanistan's future may hold.

"We Can't Rule Alone" - New Taliban Leaders Speak

A Taliban fighter in front of the Norwegian Embassy in Kabul

Daniel-Dylan Böhmer

KABUL — At the gates of Kabul Airport, piles of clothing lie in the dusty wind. People fleeing the Taliban were forced to leave them behind. On the runway stands Qari Farhad Fateh, 30. He has the beard and long hair of a Taliban fighter, and is wearing a pillaged American uniform.

The heavy military jeeps lined up on the asphalt are also from U.S. stock. When asked how important this equipment is for his unit, the commander says not what they will be used for, but what they have cost: "Yes, the Humvees are important for our operations. They were won with the blood of our brothers."

The commander took his third name from that of his unit — Fateh, the conqueror. In the decades-long war against the Afghan government and NATO troops, the Fateh unit carried out suicide attacks. What about the innocent civilians who were killed in such attacks?

"I am not authorized to speak about that," he says. In welcoming 70 new recruits to secure the airport, he is pushing a different message: "The fighting is over. Now the important thing is to secure peace."

No one knows what will become of Afghanistan. The radical Islamist Taliban have driven out the most powerful nations in the world and for the second time in three decades they have the opportunity to establish a new state. But what kind of state will that be?

In the former Ministry of Interior Affairs, now renamed the Ministry for Peace, Ahmadullah Ahmadzai, 38, directs a somewhat embarrassed smile at the calendar on his table. It's from the now defeated republic, and the photo for this week shows, among others, former vice president of the Afghan National Assembly Fawzia Koofi, one of the most prominent women's rights campaigners in the country.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid announcing Afghanistan's new government — Photo: Saifurahman Safi/Xinhua via ZUMA Press

"When we moved in here, we were given instructions not to destroy anything or move anything," says Ahmadzai. "We stuck by that."

A legacy of brutality

The Ministry's declared aim is reconciliation within Afghan society. Ahmadzai says they are contacting ministers and generals from the former regime and calling on them to make peace with the Taliban emirate. A few have accepted their overtures of friendship.

"We tell them very openly that we can't rule Afghanistan alone," he says. "We want all sectors of society to be involved — except for politicians who were corrupt or have blood on their hands."

Ahmadzai insists that the call for reconciliation is sincere. There is no other way to solve the country's problems: unemployment, supply issues, lack of money. Afghanistan needs some success stories now.

But are the Taliban capable of reconciliation? In the 90s, their regime was infamous for its draconian punishments — cutting off hands and heads, public executions in football stadiums; for excluding women and children from the workplace, the public sphere and education; and for their ruthless suppression of critics.

But the Taliban have also suffered. If you talk to their members, you hear stories of families who have lost six, seven, eight sons in the fighting, and of mothers, sisters and children who were killed by American drone strikes. Is it possible to issue a decree calling for peace after decades of brutality on both sides?

The Taliban's greatest enemy is distrust — that of the international community and the Afghan population.

"That is a good question," says Ahmadzai. "When we fighters talk amongst ourselves, those who are religious scholars often cite an example from the life of the prophet. Mohammed was driven out of Mecca and pursued by troops from the city for a long time. When he eventually returned to the city victorious, he treated his former enemies as brothers."

Ahmadzai says the Taliban has no plans to reintroduce hudud, the Koranic punishments that include mutilation and execution.

So far none of the nightmare scenarios that some feared when the Taliban regained power have come to pass. There have been a few scattered reports of arbitrary attacks on the population, forced marriages and abductions. But the militia's advance was not accompanied by mass shootings, at least according to independent Afghan investigators who have looked into these isolated reports.

There are also no signs that hudud is being reintroduced. Shortly after taking Kabul, the Taliban announced that women and children would be allowed to continue to work and attend school in the future, within the context of Islamic sharia law. But there are many possible interpretations of what this will mean.

'The people's choice'

Even staunchly secular Afghan experts recognize in the Taliban's current leadership a younger generation that is more modern in its thinking and behavior, a generation that wants to give the movement a new image. Perhaps the most important representative of this generation is Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.

Before the interview begins, Mujahid says his evening prayer in one of the hotel's rooms. "According to sharia, men and women have equal rights," says Mujahid. "But women also have the right to be protected from harassment and psychological or physical pressure in the workplace. And that means that men's and women's spheres should be separated. It means that we should create a context in which women can work without being put at risk."

He says that under the previous government there were many complaints of harassment in the workplace. But if women have equal rights, shouldn't they be allowed to decide for themselves how they would like to be protected?

"It is the government's responsibility to protect women," he answers. Mujahid claims it was the people's choice to introduce sharia law, and that Afghans support the Taliban. "How else would we have managed to take back the country in 10 days?"

The Taliban spokesman says the most important thing for Afghanistan now is reconciliation and wellbeing, and that the government wants to boost the economy and create more jobs. To achieve this it will need help from the international community, including Germany.

"We want to have strong, official diplomatic relations with Germany," says Mujahid. "The Germans have always been welcome in Afghanistan. They did a lot of good in the country, in the time of the Shah. Unfortunately they then joined the Americans, but that's forgiven now."

Qari Fasihuddin, Chief of Army Staff of Taliban government — Photo: Salampix/Abaca via ZUMA Press

He says the new Taliban government will look to Germany and other countries for financial support, humanitarian aid and cooperation in health, agriculture and training.

Mujahid knows that the international community will make respecting human rights a condition of any aid. That is why many onlookers suspect the Taliban is merely pretending to have changed its ways. Experts say that alongside the more moderate members, there are still of course hardliners in the movement, whose influence is particularly strong on young, less educated fighters in the provinces.

The moderate approach, if it's sincere, will be judged by the changes on the ground. The Taliban's greatest enemy is distrust — that of the international community and the Afghan population. Many women we spoke to in Afghanistan fear renewed discrimination, and despite the Taliban's assurances that freedom of speech will be protected, none of the Afghan women's rights activists we contacted were prepared to go on record.

Afghans who are critical of the Taliban are reluctant to speak to foreign media. At the same time, many others welcome the Taliban's promise to restore order and stability. On Saturday, a demonstration of around a dozen women near the presidential palace was quickly shut down by Taliban security forces.

Evening in Kabul. The shops are open. In the city center there are women out and about, most wearing headscarves rather than the full burka. A group of Taliban members walk down one of the main streets, leading two men whose hands are tied together. They keep their heads down, ashamed. One is accused of stealing a car, the other of selling drugs.

"They will now be tried in an Islamic court!" calls out the young Taliban member walking behind them. Passers-by film the scene on their phones. We could ask them what they make of it, but would we really get an honest answer with Taliban members holding Kalashnikovs hovering nearby?

The Taliban have promised true security, but that doesn't exist without basic freedoms. Whether the Taliban will accept that remains to be seen.

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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