Following Taliban Victory in Afghanistan, FRONTLINE Presses Officials About Conditions in the Country
Two days into the Taliban’s new rule of Afghanistan that began on Aug. 15, 2021, the hardline group held a press conference that seemed aimed at convincing the world that this time around, things would be different.
They said that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, to whom they had once given sanctuary, would not be allowed to operate from Afghanistan. They discussed revitalizing the country’s economy. And as the above excerpt from the April 2023 FRONTLINE documentary series America and the Taliban recounts, they made new promises to Afghanistan’s women, who had lived under especially harsh restrictions when the Taliban ruled the country in the years prior to the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Correspondent Martin Smith, who has been covering Afghanistan and the Middle East for FRONTLINE for two decades, had questions when he sat down for an interview with the Taliban’s chief government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in December 2021.
“Why should the United States trust you?” Smith asks Mujahid in the above excerpt from America and the Taliban.
“We have fought against the United States for 20 years and have proved that what we say is what we do,” Mujahid says.
Yet, as America and the Taliban goes on to report in harrowing detail, today’s Taliban rule Afghanistan much like they did in the nineties.
“For all the lives and money spent, over two trillion dollars, Afghanistan has regressed to what it was before America invaded, a country where women are denied an education, music is banned, beards for men are mandatory and homosexuality is punishable by death,” Smith says, speaking about what he found while making the documentary. “Our new series traces the mistakes, miscalculations and hubris that allowed this to happen.”
America and the Taliban, which has three parts premiering on April 4, 11 and 25 on PBS stations and streaming platforms, draws on 20 years of on-the-ground reporting and revealing new interviews with both Taliban and U.S. officials. Award-winning producers Smith and Marcela Gaviria chronicle how an effort to eliminate Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, and oust its ruling ally, the Taliban, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks became America’s longest war, and how it ended in Taliban victory.
The series also explores what life is like now for ordinary Afghan people, following decades of war — and finds serious gaps between Taliban promises about a post-war Afghanistan and the reality on the ground. In the above excerpt from the beginning of Part One, Smith describes seeing widowed women begging in the middle of traffic with children on their laps, visits an overcrowded childhood malnutrition clinic and meets people angry about a lack of economic opportunity.
“There are no salaries or jobs,” a man in a Kabul market says. “They’re asking people to work for free.”
In the excerpt, Smith goes on to press the Taliban governor of Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, about current conditions in the country: “Most people we speak to on the streets don’t have jobs. The healthcare is weak. You have social problems with women not agreeing with Taliban restrictions,” Smith says. “How do you answer all this?”
“We are not concerned with those issues,” Maulvi Abdul Ahad Talib responds.
Not only did the Taliban show little concern; they were busy cracking down on their enemies. As Smith met and interviewed numerous Taliban officials during his 18-month investigation of how the U.S. lost the war, he found that in many cases, what’s past is present — including the Taliban’s justifications for meting out severe punishments to those who disobey its rules.
Case in point: Later in Part One of America and the Taliban, Smith speaks with a Taliban official in Kandahar, asking him about the rationale for the Taliban’s strict moral code, based on its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
“We all remember in the 1990s, stonings of women for adultery,” Smith says. “There were people whose hands were cut off because of stealing.”
“The Holy Quran has wisdom in this,” Abdul Rahman Tayebi, the Taliban official, tells Smith. “If one thief’s hand is cut off, the entire society will be reformed, and nobody else will steal. If a man or woman is arrested and stoned or whipped [for adultery], it does not damage society. It is for reform, and it protects other people’s lives from moral corruption.”
The interview with Tayebi took place at what used to be the Kandahar office of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
It is now the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
For the full story on how the Taliban came to once again rule Afghanistan and the missteps by U.S. leaders that enabled it to happen, watch America and the Taliban. Part One, which premiered April 4, is available to stream now:
Parts Two and Three air Tuesdays, April 11 and 25, 2023, at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings) and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel. Each episode will also be available to stream starting at 7/6c the night of its release at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App. America and the Taliban is a FRONTLINE production with RAIN Media, Inc. The producers are Brian Funck, Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith. The writers and directors are Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith. The correspondent is Martin Smith. The co-producer is Scott Anger. The executive producer and editor-in-chief for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.
This story has been updated.