Articulate and media-savvy, Abdul Qahar Balkhi is part of the new image that the Taliban is trying to cultivate – at least for now. One of the youngest members of the new leadership, he was relatively unknown when he appeared at the Taliban’s first press conference after the fall of Kabul, sitting quietly beside the official spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid.
Now serving as spokesman on foreign affairs, Balkhi’s public profile has grown since he delivered the first televised Taliban interview at the end of August. In his interview with Al-Jazeera, the spokesman emphasised, in fluent English, that the Taliban wants “positive relations with every single country around the world”.
Outside of foreign trips and diplomatic meetings in Kabul, he’s been overseeing press accreditation and delivering briefings in his other role as head of public information. He works from an office at the Institute of Diplomacy, in a building inaugurated just eight months ago by President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country in August as the Taliban circled Kabul.
Balkhi held a meeting with a small group of foreign press at his office earlier this week. The Taliban spokesman quizzed and joked with the reporters, wryly saying he likes the New York Times – “They’re pretty objective, or at least became more objective when they realised America was going to lose the war.”
After introductions, Balkhi moved quickly to the Taliban’s priority: lifting sanctions and reinstating international aid to Afghanistan. Most western countries responded to the takeover in August by cutting aid and imposing sanctions. The measures have triggered a liquidity crunch which is crippling the already-weak Afghan economy.
Tapping into the ongoing debate about whether economic sanctions are effective for penalising unsavoury regimes in fragile states, Balkhi says: “Sanctions are not going to hurt the Taliban leadership . . . The Taliban does not keep its money in American or Irish banks . . . We can generate enough money for the Taliban leadership . . . It’s ordinary Afghans who are [sic] and will suffer.”
Afghanistan remained one of the poorest countries in the world under the first Taliban regime, but Balkhi is eager to demonstrate the Islamic fundamentalist group’s commitment to governance. “The economy didn’t collapse because of us; there was no economy to begin with,” he says. “We are doing the best we can, given the situation we inherited from the thieves in government before.”
A Taliban fighter walks by women waiting in line for food on the outskirts of Kabul. Photograph: Hector Retamal/AFP
So far, Taliban appointees have not suggested policy is the priority – the new governor of the central bank, for example, has no formal financial training. But the Taliban has improved the energy supply by concluding deals to import fuel from neighbouring Iran. The group has also negotiated with energy suppliers in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan over a $90 million bill which it inherited from the previous government.
While courting the international community (and their funding), the Taliban leadership has also been keen to present themselves as newly tolerant.
“It doesn’t matter to me what your values are,” says Balkhi. “I don’t believe in your values, and I don’t expect you to appreciate my values.” For added effect, he points at a brave female Afghan translator accompanying a reporter and says: “I don’t know if she likes me but she’s outside; she’s working.” (Taliban directives have prohibited or placed onerous restrictions on women working in most sectors, except for healthcare.)
“Some journalists are coming and just looking for sensationalist stories that are fake,” he says. (In October, several international news outlets quoted a fake Twitter account for the Taliban’s new head of Kabul University). “I know bad news is good news for journalists, but you should be objective,” he says, before advising the reporters present against following “the protests and the hot news”.
Masroor Lutfi from the Afghan National Journalists Union later told The Irish Times that the union has documented more than 30 cases of violence committed against journalists by the Taliban since the group came to power.
“The reality in Afghanistan is that there are serious restrictions on access to information,” says Lufti. “In the provinces of the country, it is not up to the journalist to determine the subject of their article but to the Taliban’s intelligence chief . . . If the situation continues like this, the country’s media community will be destroyed.”
And while the Taliban leadership is keen to present a unified, cleaned-up image, the decision to impose a less punishing Islamic regime than expected has not been universally accepted by Taliban fighters across the country.
Last month, three people were shot dead and 10 injured at a wedding in Nangarhar when local Taliban fighters demanded that the party stop playing music (based on a strict interpretation of Islam followed by the previous Taliban regime which banned music). The killings triggered a minor schism, as various representatives of the Taliban denied or confirmed that its members had been involved or that music was banned.
In a cafe in Kabul, a young Afghan woman predicts: “Once the Taliban get money, they’re going to become much more extreme; they’ve changed their policies but not their minds.”