Flashback: What a Taliban Co-Founder Told FRONTLINE in 2020 About How the Group Would Wield Power in Afghanistan if the U.S Left

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Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, pictured during a January 2020 interview with Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi that appeared in the documentary "Taliban Country."

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, pictured during a January 2020 interview with Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi that appeared in the documentary "Taliban Country."

August 19, 2021

In January 2020, as part of a FRONTLINE report called Taliban Country that documented the group’s sweeping resurgence within Afghanistan, Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi sat down with a Taliban co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and pressed him on how the group would exercise its power if the U.S. left Afghanistan.

Now, following the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban amid the U.S.’s chaotic withdrawal under President Joe Biden and the apparent collapse of much of the Afghan government and military, Baradar has returned to Afghanistan, is being described as the Taliban’s “de facto leader” — and his earlier comments to FRONTLINE have taken on a new relevance.

“[T]he Americans made a huge mistake by coming to Afghanistan and starting this war in Afghanistan,” Baradar told FRONTLINE in the January 2020 conversation, which was his first-ever media interview. “Because their main goal was just one person — Osama bin Laden — and he is now gone. …We are obliged, as it is our country, to defend it with our lives.”

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan was begun by the Bush administration in October 2001, in a bid to destroy Al Qaeda — the terrorist organization behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — and oust its ruling ally, the Taliban, which had rejected U.S. demands to hand over Al Qaeda leader bin Laden.

For years, U.S. officials privately acknowledged that the war was becoming unwinnable, but continued to tout their progress in public, according to The Afghanistan Papers, The Washington Post’s 2019 reporting based on a trove of confidential interviews with those involved in the war effort.

In 2020, after more than 18 years, a civilian death toll reportedly in the tens of thousands, and the deaths of more than 2,000 U.S. troops, the Trump administration arrived at a deal with the resurgent Taliban — with Baradar as lead negotiator. (After eight years in prison in Pakistan, Baradar had been released in 2018 at the urging of the Trump administration.) The agreement set a May 1, 2021, date for a withdrawal of U.S. forces and required the Taliban to take steps to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for attacks on the U.S. and its allies.

President Biden said earlier this year that the U.S.’s “final withdrawal” would begin on May 1 and the U.S. would pull out fully before the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Biden later moved up the date to August 31.

Twenty years after being driven from power, the Taliban entered Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and swept back into control on August 15, with the Western-backed Afghan government largely collapsing as the country’s president fled. On August 16, Biden said the takeover “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” but defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops. He laid the blame on Afghan politicians who “gave up,” and on the Afghan military, which he said “collapsed.”

Dire scenes from Afghanistan have emerged in recent days, including pleas from women and girls fearful of what they might lose amid the Taliban’s return to power. Before the U.S. invasion, the Taliban imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Girls were not allowed to attend school, women were extremely limited in their ability to work, and their movements and appearance were strictly policed. When Quraishi pressed Baradar in 2020 on how the Taliban would wield its power should the U.S. leave Afghanistan and whether the Taliban had changed since 2001, Baradar’s answer was ambiguous — women would have rights, he said, but only according to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.

“There has been no change in the Taliban in this regard,” he said. “We accept all the rights that God has granted to women…. Under Islamic law, if they want to live and work, of course we will allow it.”

A Taliban spokesman made a similar comment on Tuesday, saying, “We assure the international community that there will be no discrimination against women, but, of course, within the frameworks we have” — part of what the Washington Post described as the group’s attempt to “strike a more conciliatory tone” with the international community upon its return to power. That attempt is being met with widespread skepticism.

When Quraishi spoke with Baradar in 2020, Baradar said the Taliban would be able to take care of its remaining problems once the U.S. left. Baradar claimed the Taliban had the ability to defeat ISIS militants — and that the Taliban would reach an agreement with the Afghan government.

“If there’s no U.S., we [will] for sure reach an agreement between ourselves, because they are Afghans and we are Afghans,” Baradar told Quraishi.

Taliban forces reportedly met with little resistance from the Afghan military as they swept the country and then its capital. Some Afghans have taken to the streets in protests against the Taliban since the takeover. First Vice President Amrullah Saleh — who says that according to the country’s constitution, he is the acting president of Afghanistan following Ashraf Ghani’s departure as the Taliban advanced — is “trying to rally opposition to the Taliban,” per Reuters.

The Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan comes amid renewed fears of civil war — fears Quraishi and FRONTLINE reported on in last month’s documentary, Leaving Afghanistan.

According to a report released in July by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, civilian casualties in Afghanistan reached record levels in the first half of the year, particularly since May when America’s withdrawal began — putting 2021 on track to be the deadliest on record.

Among those severely impacted were women and children.

“It is sickening to report that more women and more children were killed and injured than ever before recorded by UNAMA for the first half of any calendar year,” the agency’s announcement of the report said.

Watch 2020’s Taliban Country below:

And watch last month’s FRONTLINE documentary Leaving Afghanistan, on the rise of the Taliban and the evolving consequences of the U.S. withdrawal:


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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