Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, perhaps the most isolated government in the world, is routinely accused of repression at home and support for terrorism abroad. In a rare show of openness, two of the Taliban's leading figures agreed to meet with New Delhi bureau chief Michael Fathers in Kandahar. The result: a fresh insight into this little-understood regime. Here, Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmad Motawwakil speaks of the international sanctions on his country, its links with terrorist Osama bin Laden and the U.S. "need for an enemy." Excerpts from the interview:
TIME: Have United Nations sanctions had an impact on your country?
Wakil: Sanctions have mostly affected the common people. Afghanistan has suffered a prolonged war and these sanctions are totally uncalled-for. In reality, there are other political motives behind sanctions and the demand that we hand over Osama bin Laden [the Saudi terrorist Washington alleges was responsible for the bombing of its embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998]. The United States just cannot tolerate an independent and Islamic Afghanistan. Washington needs an enemy; it is a requirement of American foreign policy, and we have been chosen as the enemy. Furthermore, the United States always chooses weak and small countries to impose sanctions against. Afghanistan has been attacked with American missiles so that American injustice can be hidden.
TIME: Are you prepared to give up Osama bin Laden in exchange for an end to international sanctions?
Wakil: We do not believe he is capable of doing all the things he is blamed for by the Americans. He is just an ordinary man who has been turned into an ogre by them. He has denied his involvement in the bombing of the U.S. embassies and we believe him. We are against terrorism but we do support all liberation and freedom movements. We have strongly condemned the embassy bombings: this is terrorism and we believe Osama did not do it.
TIME: Is the Taliban concerned about Afghanistan's international isolation and the fact that only a tiny handful of countries recognize your government?
Wakil: I'm hopeful that we will overcome our isolation. Many countries do not know about us and, as a consequence, fall for the propaganda that is spread against us. We don't call these countries our enemies. We try to make contact with them and explain to them the real situation. Once they know more about us I am confident they will change their point of view.
TIME: What about international concern for human rights and the treatment of women?
Wakil: We do not believe we have denied anyone their rights. We are willing to give women all rights according to our religion and culture; they can work, establish businesses and travel. If there are some restrictions it is because of our culture. People accept this. It is not a Taliban issue, but something which people have always followed. The allegations against us--that we are abusing human-rights--are mostly politically motivated and are an attack on the Afghan people. Those countries that criticize us hide behind their own weaknesses. For example, how can we justify to our people the rights given to homosexuals in the West? We could not even describe this to them.
TIME: India has accused your government of supporting the hijackers of the Indian Airlines airbus when it was in Kandahar in December?
Wakil: India needs to check its facts. They originally praised us for the help we gave them in bringing the crisis to a peaceful end. All these allegations (of supporting the hijackers) are baseless.
TIME: Is your government allowing Kashmiris to receive military training in Afghanistan?
TIME: How close is the Taliban to Pakistan?
Wakil: Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan go back to the jihad [holy war, against the Soviet Union]. Pakistan helped us, and many Afghans took refuge in Pakistan, so we became very close. But it does not mean that Pakistan's enemies and Pakistan's friends are our enemies and our friends. We try to pursue an independent foreign policy. It is in Pakistan's interest to have a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. Today, Pakistan is facing economic problems so their support is meager. However we are grateful to the Pakistani people for what they have done to help and support us.
TIME: Since the military took over power in Pakistan last October, has Islamabad's relations with the Taliban changed?
Wakil: We have had high-level meetings with the Pakistanis and have not found any change. There is a continuity in Pakistan's policies towards Afghanistan and in our relations with the government in Islamabad.
TIME: Afghans welcomed the peace and security that your victory brought to most parts of the country but are beginning to criticize the Taliban for failing to establish any meaningful government.
Wakil: We are still in a warlike situation in Afghanistan--there are no resources. Our training is done on the job and I agree that, at the beginning, we had no idea what was involved. But now the administration is working.
TIME: Are you looking for help from the international community?
Wakil: A number of foreign countries and international organizations have tried to help. We are a needy people and a needy country. We need aid but there should be no conditions. We cannot accept conditions which deal with our government's policies. For example, if aid funds are made available for education the donor must not insist on a particular syllabus. That we cannot accept.
TIME: Afghanistan is one of the world's largest producers of opium. Are you taking any steps to control production?
Wakil: Opium poppies were being grown long before the Taliban. We are not responsible for this development. But if production is to be curtailed, we will need a crop substitution program. We need help if we are to ask our farmers to change. We cannot ask them to destroy their livelihood.
TIME: Can we expect a new military offensive against the (rival) Northern Alliance forces this summer?
Wakil: We will first try to settle this problem by peaceful means. But if we need to fight we will.