The supreme leader of the reclusive Afghan Taliban movement hailed the Islamists’ takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 during a meeting on Friday that called for national unity and was attended by religious leaders from across the country.
Taliban spokesmen confirmed that Haibatullah Akhundzadeh, who is based in the southern city of Kandahar, had come to the capital, Kabul, for the gathering of about 3,000 participants.
After receiving pledges of allegiance from the participants raising their hands, Akhundzadeh hailed the Taliban’s victory last August, which marked the end of a 20-year struggle to overthrow a Western-backed government and expel US-led forces from the country.
According to the state-run Bakhtar news agency, he said, “The success of the Afghan jihad is not only a source of pride for Afghans, but also for Muslims around the world,” using the Arabic word for spiritual struggle.
When the Islamist movement announced its interim government in September, Akhundzadeh retained the role he has held since 2016 as supreme leader, the group’s ultimate authority, but is rarely seen in public.
His address to the crowd comes a week after the devastating earthquake in eastern Afghanistan, exposing the lack of support the Taliban can count on from the international community.
The Afghan economy entered a crisis as Western governments withdrew funding and imposed severe sanctions, saying the Taliban government needed to change course on human rights, especially women’s rights.
In Thursday’s speech, Akhundzada asked traders to return and invest in the country, saying that foreign aid cannot build the economy and will make Afghans more dependent on foreign money.
“Thank God, we are now an independent country. According to Bakhtar, (foreigners) should not give us their orders, this is our system and we have our own decisions,” he said.
He said, “We have a relationship of devotion to one God, we cannot accept the orders of others who are not loved by God.”
He said the group wanted peace and security and that neighboring countries had nothing to fear.
The gathering in Kabul began on Thursday under tight security.
Taliban spokesmen told a news conference that the participants had split into committees to discuss their views and would share their demands with the administration on Saturday. He did not clarify what issues the committees are discussing.
At least one participant called for girls’ secondary schools to be opened, but it was not clear how widespread support this proposal was.
Taliban Vice President and Acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani addressed the meeting on Friday, saying that the world is demanding inclusive government and inclusive education, and that issues need time.
“This gathering is about trust and interaction, we are here to create our future according to Islam and national interests,” he said.
The Taliban went back to announcing that all schools would open in March, leaving many girls who attended their secondary schools in tears, drawing criticism from Western governments.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said they would respect the decisions of those who attended the meeting, but the final say on girls’ education rests with the Supreme Leader.
Akhundzada, a hardline cleric whose son was a suicide bomber, spent most of his leadership in the shadows, allowing others to take the lead in negotiations that eventually saw the United States and its allies leave Afghanistan last August after 20 years of grinding counter-insurgency warfare.