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A more moderate Taliban? An Afghan journalist says nothing has changed

Najibullah Quraishi has won numerous awards for his reporting, including three Emmy awards, a Peabody award, an Overseas Press Club award and a DuPont award. He's currently in Kabul, where he's waiting to hear when he can get a flight out of Afghanistan.
Najibullah Quraishi has won numerous awards for his reporting, including three Emmy awards, a Peabody award, an Overseas Press Club award and a DuPont award. He's currently in Kabul, where he's waiting to hear when he can get a flight out of Afghanistan.

Afghan British journalist Najibullah Quraishi has had trouble sleeping for more than two hours a stretch ever since the U.S. withdrew troops from Afghanistan in August and the Taliban came back into power.

Quraishi grew up in Afghanistan under Soviet and Taliban rule, and began reporting on the Taliban before the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks and the onset of the U.S. Afghan war. He's currently in Kabul reporting for his upcoming PBS Frontline documentary, Taliban Takeover, (airing Oct. 12) which details life in Afghanistan now — and the infighting between the Taliban and the Haqqani network, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that is affiliated with the Taliban, and whose members are part of the new Taliban government.

Quraishi says the Taliban of today are as oppressive as the group he encountered years ago.

"I don't know why they promised ... that they're going to be moderate, but I don't think so," Quraishi says. "According to what I'm noticing, what I'm witnessing here in Afghanistan, they are the Taliban. There is nothing changed between the Taliban in the '90s and between the Taliban in 2021."

Quraishi says the Taliban have reinstated harsh punishments, including whipping, chopping off hands and even hanging people from cranes. But, he says, the Taliban's "vice and virtue" squads try to operate "away from the eyes of the media, especially Western media."

Meanwhile, Afghan women are experiencing what Quraishi calls "a life in hell," in which they are prohibited from working, running businesses or in some cases even going outside without being accompanied by a male family member.

Quraishi believes a war could begin any day between the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which has been fighting for greater power. Whatever happens, he finds himself extremely pessimistic: "I really feel sorry for the future of Afghanistan. And I cannot see any future. I cannot see [light]. For me, it's always dark. I can see the future darker than today."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview highlights

On his belief that civil war may be imminent

They have a big problem between the Taliban and the Haqqani network — the Haqqani network asking for more power and the Taliban thinking they're left behind. So Mullah [Abdul Ghani] Baradar, the main representative of the Taliban, he's gone back to Kandahar, his homeland, his city, and what I hear from some sources is he's trying to make another group. So the situation is really uncertain and really bad and really tricky at the moment. [At] any time, war could begin between Haqqani and the Taliban — any moment, any time.

On the collapse of the Afghan economy and health care system

There is no medicine. I visited a clinic today. I wanted to meet a friend of mine. There are lots of issues. First, lots of their doctors have fled the country, so there was a shortage of doctors and nurses, plus medicine, accessories, like those things. Plus the economy has completely collapsed. The banks are open, but if you have, for instance, $20,000 in the bank, you're allowed to withdraw only $200 a week. The queue behind the banks is like hundreds of people. ... So all of the roads and the streets are blocked wherever the banks are. ... Even during the night, if you go there, the people are literally sleeping there.

On women's rights activist Mahbouba Seraj, who is risking her life by staying in Afghanistan
[Seraj] used to help every single woman, whatever issue they have, she was so powerful, and now she's so vulnerable, and she's so brave, and she doesn't want to leave Afghanistan. Although she has spent 26 years in the United States, she's an American citizen, but she still wants to stay in Afghanistan and help women, but she doesn't know how. ...

[I saw a woman] telling [Seraj] how the Taliban took her granddaughter away. It had been two days since she had been taken, and she didn't know what to do, where to go. And there was only one hope — it was this woman, Mahbouba Seraj, and she came to her and she was hopeless. [Seraj] said, "I can't do anything." ... I asked, "Would you be able to do anything in the past regime?" She said, "Yes, I could have called this minister, that minister, this commander, that commander." She could have gathered 100 soldiers in a minute in the past regime. But now she was trapped inside her home and couldn't do anything.

That was, for me — as a human, as an Afghan, as a person, to be there and to be witnessing that moment — was really hard for me. I keep remembering those moments and I feel so sorry for all the women in Afghanistan, especially Mahbouba Seraj. She's so brave, and she doesn't care about her life. For her, everything is about other women, [all] women in Afghanistan. ... She gets lots of calls from women around the country. They're seeking help, but she's literally helpless. She cannot do anything for anyone.

A Taliban military unit stands outside the Kabul airport following the departure of the last U.S. plane from Afghanistan on Aug. 31, 2021.
/ Courtesy of PBS Frontline
A Taliban military unit stands outside the Kabul airport following the departure of the last U.S. plane from Afghanistan on Aug. 31, 2021.

On filming in the past at an ISIS-run school in Afghanistan

It was more frightening to be with ISIS because they are the most extremist group I've ever seen. The most shocking was when they invited me to film their school. At that time, I thought maybe they were just learning some books ... It was shocking when the teacher began with, "What does 'jihad' mean?" For the children who are aged 5 or 6, or maybe 8 or 10, they were teaching jihad, how to use grenades, how to use a pistol, how to use Kalashnikov [rifle]. ... And so from that age, basically, they are brainwashing them.

Plus, after that, they were watching some videos, the videos which they were receiving from Syria and Iraq, where they were beheading some people. ... [So] when they grow up, for them, it's nothing. They are already used to it. So this was their aim, actually. For me, it was shocking, because I was seeing the children of Afghanistan — instead of learning some physics, mathematics or other subjects, they were learning jihad and how to use weapons.

On establishing trust with the ISIS fighters whom he filmed

You have to attend prayer five times a day, and I'm sure they check [to see if you're] proper or not. So I was doing proper [prayer] and they were always checking, and after prayer ... they were more open with me, because then they were convinced that I'm a proper Muslim and they were more open. And this is something most of the journalists in the past 20 years, either they have been killed or they were kidnapped or whatever, they probably didn't know [these things]. But it is a big issue for them and they really want you to be a proper Muslim, and then they have to be satisfied that you are a proper journalist and you are not a spy. Once they are satisfied, once you spend time, a day or two, then they will be more open with you.

On how he stays safe while reporting on the Taliban

I wear the same clothing as them, so I look similar. ... I've been covering the war in Afghanistan, and I was embedded with the Taliban so many times in the last 20 years. I know their men and official spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, so I've got kind of permission from him. He gave me an official letter, issued from the cultural and information ministry, which is the Taliban, and the spokesman is the head. So wherever I go, if somebody stops me, I just show that document and I'm free to go wherever I go. So this is how I live. So literally I'm carrying this document 24/7 with me.

Amy Salit and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.