"We want to prove to everyone forever that we respect humanity," Taliban spokesman Muhammad Naeem Wardak told NPR in Doha, Qatar. He also said women "must have the right to education and to work."



How's this for a litany of challenges? In Afghanistan, the economy is in freefall, many people face mass starvation and a potentially brutal winter awaits them. Meanwhile, talks between the U.S. and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, are at a standstill. And one of the main sticking points? The nearly $10 billion of Afghan reserves currently held by the United States.

NPR's Fatma Tanis was just in Doha, where she sat down with a spokesperson for the Taliban. She joins us now from Islamabad in Pakistan. Hey, Fatma.


KELLY: So before we get to the substance of your interview, may I ask you - just take us inside this meeting with the Taliban official. Who was he, and where did y'all meet?

TANIS: Sure. So his name is Naeem Wardak. He is the spokesperson for the Taliban political office. And we met at a hotel in Doha. He was very courteous. We made small talk about the weather and traffic. We sat around a large conference table for the interview. My colleague, Hannah Bloch, was also there, and both she and I did not cover our hair for the interview.

We spoke with Wardak for over 40 minutes. The interview was entirely in Arabic. He answered all of our questions in detail. And while he mostly looked down as he was speaking, he did also make the occasional eye contact.

KELLY: OK, I can picture it. I feel like I'm there with you. Now, you will have asked him about these talks with the U.S. What was his view of how they are going, not going? What was his take?

TANIS: You know, it was interesting. He had very positive things to say about the talks. He said the atmosphere was really good. And here, the Taliban mainly want two things, as Wardak reiterated several times in the interview. They want those $10 billion released. The U.S. says it's holding them as leverage for the Taliban to build inclusive government and protect the rights of minorities and women. Wardak described this as an economic siege. And the Taliban also want to be recognized by the international community as the government of Afghanistan.

Now, they insist that they've done everything the West wants of them in these talks; that their government is inclusive, that it represents Afghan society and that it protects human rights and women's rights. Of course, there's a lot of skepticism from the international community on that. In fact, just yesterday, the United Nations said they're receiving dozens of credible reports of extrajudicial killings by the Taliban.

KELLY: On that point about women, girls, their education in Afghanistan, were you able to push Wardak on that?

TANIS: Yes, and he himself actually called this a thorny issue. Right now, there are inconsistencies across Afghanistan around girls' access to education. Girls are able to attend private schools and universities, but not public ones. And a decision is yet to be made on that.

Wardak says the main issue here is disagreements within Afghan society around women's education and work. But overall, he says the Taliban are in support of girls' education and women being in the workforce. He also did not miss an opportunity here to take a dig at the West for what he called their, quote, "double standard." Here's what he said.

MOHAMMAD NAEEM WARDAK: (Through interpreter) On the one hand, they say that the woman has a right to education and a right to work. Then on the other hand, they froze our financial assets. This woman is a part of the Afghan people, and she is starving to death. Her child starves to death, dies of starvation. They cannot find a morsel to stay alive. Is this not a human right?

KELLY: Speaking to just how very grim things are in Afghanistan right now. Fatma, how are the Taliban who have been fighters for these last two decades, not governing - how are they managing all of this?

TANIS: Well, they're blaming quite a lot on the previous government and its corruption. They're blaming the West for withholding money. They're also focused on getting the Kabul airport back to full operation, which would allow aid to come in more easily into the country. They also really want investment into the country. They do not care from whom. They'll take it all. And they also want the return of hundreds of thousands of Afghans evacuated by the U.S. and other countries back in August. The Taliban want to rebuild Afghanistan, and they say they can't do it without their best and brightest.

KELLY: Anything else that stood out to you from your interview?

TANIS: Yes. At the end of the interview, Wardak said that he wanted to convey a specific message to the American people. Let's listen to some of that.

WARDAK: (Through interpreter) We want positive dealings, good dealings, and good ties with the United States of America and with the American people, as well as with other countries and Western countries. We want to prove to everyone, forever, that we respect humanity.

TANIS: Here, he added that the West also must respect Afghans and Afghan traditions and principles. And he said so far that history has proved that nothing can be imposed on the Afghan people.

KELLY: Fascinating. NPR's Fatma Tanis, reporting on her interview with a Taliban official in Doha. She's reporting this month in Islamabad. Thanks, Fatma.

TANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: Doha  Qatar  Taliban  Afghanistan