A 24-year-old roving ambassador of the Taliban, making his rounds of the US, has made quite a stir among Muslims even if his pleas have fallen on deaf ears in the US government. Seyyed Rehmatullah Hashemi addressed audiences across the country, gave interviews to the New York Times and other newspapers, and was interviewed live on National Public Radio on March 21.
At all his functions, he explained the Taliban’s position over the Buddha statues, the rights of women and the overall situation in Afghanistan. He explained that their proposed destruction was on the basis of an edict issued by the People’s Council, endorsed by the scholars and the country’s supreme court. He was at pains to distance the country’s leadership, especially Mullah Omar, from direct responsibility for the act, which has aroused worldwide concern and condemnation (the statues have since been destroyed).
Explaining the context of the decision, Hashemi said that the Afghan leadership became angry when a delegation of European envoys and UNESCO officials arrived in Kabul with offers of money to save the statues but not the starving children in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership pointed out that there were hundreds of thousands of Afghans suffering from starvation and that the money could be better spent saving human lives. A few days before the group’s arrival, more than 700 Afghan children had starved to death in and around Herat. The response of the European envoys and UNESCO officials annoyed the Afghans so much that they decided to destroy the statues to make a point.
While admitting that the statues’ destruction could not feed the children, Hashemi said, “When your children are dying before your eyes, you can hardly worry about statues.” This may sound illogical to western ears, but to the Afghans it makes perfect sense. They have been subjected to nearly three decades of warfare that has left 1.5 million dead and another six to eight million people refugees. There are also a million maimed Afghans as a result of the war, as well as the estimated 10 million unexploded mines left by the departing Russians in exchange for their defeat.
Hashemi also condemned the US-led UN sanctions, which have exacerbated an already critical situation in Afghanistan, hit by a three-year drought that has afflicted a wide swathe of the region from Syria to Pakistan. Thanks to help from Pakistan, Afghanistan has about two million tons of food grain, but it needs at least twice that amount to feed its people. In the last three months, an estimated one million Afghans have flooded into Pakistan, adding to the two million already there from the war against Russia. Unable to cope with the latest influx, Pakistan has been forced to close its borders, yet infiltration continues unabated.
Hashemi also mentioned the drug situation in Afghanistan, which used to produce about 75 percent of the world’s opium. He said that the Taliban have eliminated poppy cultivation completely. The Afghan ambassador in Pakistan revealed in a recent interview that three years ago Karl Inderfurth, then US under-secretary at the state department, promised US$3 billion in aid if the Taliban eliminated poppy cultivation. Not a penny has been delivered to Afghanistan; instead punitive sanctions have been imposed for all kinds of alleged misdeeds, including sheltering Osama bin Laden and refusing to hand him over to western ‘justice’.
This new American bogeyman has been accused of almost every conceivable crime under the sun. Repeated attempts by the Taliban to resolve the issue by discussions have been rebuffed. Hashemi revealed that the Taliban had made at least three different proposals; the US spurned all three. The Taliban’s latest proposal, contained in a letter delivered to state department officials, was similarly dismissed on the grounds that there was no specific proposal and that it did not meet US requirements.
In explaining the situation of women, Hashemi said that when the Taliban first took control of Kabul in September 1996, there was complete lawlessness, and weapons and ammunition were everywhere. The Taliban could not protect women, who were being kidnapped and raped by warlords and their minions, hence the decree for women to stay indoors. It took more than three years to disarm the population and to restore law and order. According to eye-witness reports from Afghanistan, the law and order situation has been restored in and around Kabul at least, even if ‘human rights’ are not always respected.
Hashemi insists: “After we disarmed the people, and after we brought law and order, now women are working. [They] are not working in the ministry of defence, like here. We don’t want our women to be fighter pilot[s], or to be used as objects of decoration for advertisements. But they do work. They work in the Ministry of Health, Interior, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Social Affairs, and so on. And we don’t have any problem with women’s education.” He also revealed that there were more girl students in the faculty of medical sciences than boys. He said this was confirmed by the United Nations as well. He appealed to his audience to help set up schools, especially for girls, in Afghanistan, instead of criticising from a distance sitting in California or New York.
He admitted that the Taliban are not perfect: “I don’t say we are 100 percent perfect, and nobody will say that they are 100 percent perfect. We do have shortcomings, and we do need to amend our policies. But we can’t do everything overnight.”
Few would be surprised to hear that the Taliban have flaws. But Hashemi’s tour certainly gave a lot of people – Muslim and non-Muslim – an alternative view of them to consider.