Afghanistan’s Taliban Monday strongly defended their government against fresh criticism by the United States that the male-only leadership in Kabul is "dominated by one ethnicity" and lacks inclusivity.
"This is invalid and we reject it," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA when asked for his reaction to the critical remarks made by the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Tom West.
"In our government, all the requirements within the framework of our society and values have been taken into consideration," Mujahid insisted.
West said Saturday, while speaking at an international security conference in Germany, that his meetings with Taliban leaders on respecting women’s rights to education and work have been productive, but he found them "rigid" on the question of a representative government.
"There is not one woman in a position of leadership in this government. Overwhelmingly it is dominated by one ethnicity. I think there is a dearth of professionals at the senior most levels of this government who are exceedingly well-educated," West said.
The Taliban are ethnic Pashtun, the majority group in Afghanistan, and their interim Cabinet mostly consists of senior leaders of the group, including those who are under longstanding terrorism-related U.S. and United Nations sanctions.
The Islamist group regained power from the now-deposed Western-backed government in August and the U.S. along with its NATO allies withdrew all troops from the war-torn country after 20 years.
The Taliban quickly installed an interim government, known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, but the international community has not yet recognized them as the legitimate rulers of the country.
Before considering the legitimacy issue, foreign governments want the hardline group to govern the country through a broad-based ruling system that represents all Afghan ethnicities, respects human rights, including women’s rights to education and work, and disallows terrorists from using the country for cross-border attacks.
Restrictions on women
The Taliban had banned females from education and work in their previous government from 1996 to 2001. Since returning to power six months ago, the hardline group has placed restrictions on women such as requiring them to wear hijab and undertake long road trips only if accompanied by a close male relative.
Most public sector women employees, except for those in the health and education departments, have not been allowed to resume their duties.
Monday, the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention Vice, responsible for administering the group’s strict interpretation of Islam, announced that female government employees will be dismissed from jobs if they do not wear all-covering hijabs or veils while at work.
However, the Taliban have opened private and public universities to female students and have pledged to allow all school-age girls back to school in late March. They have blamed delays on financial constraints and the time it takes to ensure that female students resume classes in accordance with Islamic Sharia law.
West stressed on Saturday that Washington is not alone in urging the Taliban to meet the international expectations, saying that Afghanistan’s neighbors along with regional countries, including China, Iran and Russia, are also backing the call.
Taliban leaders traveled to Qatar last week for the latest round of meetings with foreign government representatives, including diplomats from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), on a range of issues, including diplomatic recognition for their government and economic as well as humanitarian aid for Afghanistan.
In its post-meeting statement, the GCC stressed the need for the Taliban to devise a national reconciliation plan that "respects basic freedoms and rights, including women’s right to work and education."
Pakistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan and is known for traditionally maintaining close ties with the Taliban, has also been urging them to ensure political inclusivity and respect human rights if they want "mainstreaming" of their country in the community of nations.
However, Pakistan’s national security advisor, Moeed Yusuf, while speaking alongside West at the conference in Germany, said that abandoning Afghanistan would worsen humanitarian conditions in a country ravaged by years of war and natural calamities.
"We cannot punish 35 million Afghans for 30 Taliban that some may not like. At the same time, Pakistan stands for inclusivity, for human rights and for ensuring that there is no terrorism from Afghan soil," Yusuf said.
Yusuf defended Islamabad’s engagement with Kabul since the return of the Taliban to power, saying decades of conflicts in Afghanistan have undermined Pakistan’s national security and economic interests, including hosting of millions of Afghans.
"For others, it may be a luxury to decide when and how the engagement (with the Taliban) will happen. Pakistan cannot afford instability in Afghanistan," he said. "We don’t have an option but to engage and we are counseling the world to be pragmatic. Let’s find a way to move forward, incentivize (the Taliban) and get the results all of us want," Yusuf argued.