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In the days leading up to a recent grand assembly held by the Taliban government here in Kabul, crisp white flags emblazoned with the Islamic profession of faith began to appear in the main square of my neighborhood and the streets were cleaned for this special event. Few of us knew exactly why the assembly, or jirga, was being convened, but we knew that it was symbolically important.
Every so often throughout Afghanistan’s history, governments have called these meetings to discuss issues of national significance. We trace our founding as a country back to the jirgas in 1709 and 1747. In 1941, a jirga convened by the king decreed that Afghanistan would remain neutral in the Second World War. More recently, Hamid Karzai was appointed as president of a transitional government at a jirga in 2002, before a similar assembly a year later approved a new constitution.
This latest meeting, though, was the first of its kind under the Taliban and suggested greater efforts were being made toward some kind of political normalization after what has been a historic, tumultuous 11 months since the U.S. withdrawal. It was notable, however, that the Taliban — who call their government the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — chose not to describe their meeting as a traditional loya jirga, or grand assembly, as former administrations have done and as is our national habit. Instead, it was described as a meeting of religious scholars. Islam, they seemed to be trying to say, is more important than nationhood.
It was made clear early on that the jirga would not be open to most of us in the media. Nor would it be screened live on television, like previous events of this kind. We would have to make do with listening to the delegates’ speeches on the radio or tracking them down on the internet. Given that jirgas are meant to reflect and debate the interests of the whole country, this was hardly an ideal arrangement. There is, however, an uneasy relationship between the Taliban and much of the media, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The three-day jirga was held in its traditional location: a large tent in the west of the city. Some 3,500 scholars from across Afghanistan were asked to attend; no women delegates were invited. It began on June 30, and that first afternoon I heard some gunshots coming from the direction of the meeting. From the roof of my house I could see helicopters flying over the tent. It was clear that there was some kind of security problem. But the commotion soon died down and, as far as I’m aware, there were no civilian casualties. News reports later said the Taliban’s security forces had been engaged in a firefight with members of the Islamic State group; social media posts claimed remnants of the old Northern Alliance had carried out an attack.
For most Afghans on that first day, the jirga was of little interest. Even before the gunfire, much of the city had shut down so the assembly could run smoothly, and I heard a lot of complaints about the economic impact from street vendors and shopkeepers who were already struggling to make ends meet. Money is tight for these people in the best of times, but the past 11 months have hollowed out the middle class. As I have written about before, Western sanctions imposed on the Taliban government are pushing ordinary Afghans further into poverty.
On the second day, Friday, July 1, interest in the jirga picked up when news spread that the Taliban’s supreme leader, Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada, had come to Kabul to speak at the event. Even people who don’t like the Taliban were intrigued to hear what he might have to say. Since coming to power last August, he had addressed gatherings in mosques in Kandahar and released occasional written statements, but this promised to be something different. Just the fact that he was in Kabul generated a sense of excitement and anticipation. No Taliban leader, including the movement’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had ever spoken at a large public meeting in the capital before.
Sounding elderly but eloquent, Akhundzada spoke in Pashto for over 50 minutes. His speech was notable for what it included and what it did not. He made no mention of the continued closure of girls’ schools and said nothing about Afghanistan’s economic problems or the drought that has devastated large parts of the country. He briefly addressed the recent earthquake in eastern Afghanistan that killed more than 1,000 people. The subject of greatest interest to him, though, was ideology.
Akhundzada said the Taliban government would not compromise on its strict interpretation of Islamic law. “Twenty years ago, if anyone spoke a word of Islam or Sharia, they would get imprisoned or beaten and tortured,” he said in reference to the impact of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. America and its allies had occupied Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s beliefs, he added. “Their fight was against our creed and worldview. They fought us so they could silence us and the voice of jihad and sharia. That fight still has not ended. It continues until this day, and it will continue until the Day of Judgment.” Throughout the speech, Akhundzada emphasized that ideology, rather than pragmatism, would guide the Taliban’s approach to government. Addressing foreign powers who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of his Islamic emirate, he said: “Why do you interfere? I am not subject to your orders, nor will I accept them.” Akhundzada offered some hope for reconciliation on the domestic front, assuring political opponents and any Afghans who worked for the U.S.-backed governments or the foreign troops that the Taliban’s amnesty would hold. However, he stressed that this did not mean there was a chance for an inclusive, cross-party administration to be formed under his leadership. People had suffered too much during the war for that to happen, he said.
What, then, does all this mean for our future? Akhundzada’s speech was aimed at two different audiences: the international and the domestic. His stance toward the world was clear, but his stance toward his fellow Afghans was more nuanced. It seemed to me that he was trying to address the concerns of scholars and members of the Taliban who might question the direction the government is heading, but he was also trying to allay some of the fears of people outside the Taliban’s traditional support base. That must be regarded as a positive albeit small step. The issue underlying all of this, of course, is whether any government — no matter its ideology — can succeed in isolation in the 21st century. One way or another, we may be about to find out.
A second attack on the jirga came on the day Akhundzada spoke, this time around 5 p.m., when four rockets were fired toward the tent. Soon afterward, I heard the sound of individual gunshots, police sirens and car horns. But the jirga continued as scheduled for one more day before the delegates returned to their provinces. Now we are all waiting to see what effect it will have. Despite Akhundzada’s appearance, we have still not seen any new photographs or video footage of him since the Taliban’s victory last summer. It is clear, though, that he is intent on showing he is very much in charge.