We visited a Taliban leader's compound to examine his vision for Afghanistan On the day a U.S. drone strike killed the leader of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, NPR sat down for an interview with the man in charge of the country's defense.

We visited a Taliban leader's compound to examine his vision for Afghanistan

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On the morning the United States killed the leader of al-Qaida, an NPR team was a short distance away in Afghanistan. People heard the explosion but did not know at first what had happened. That same day, we met a top official of Afghanistan's Taliban government. Mohammad Yaqoob is interim defense minister. If he knew about the U.S. strike at that point, he wasn't ready to say.

MOHAMMAD YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) There was incident today. In every country, it's possible that something happened like this. And we don't have any serious problem there.

INSKEEP: Only later did the Taliban and the U.S. confirm a drone strike. The incident shows what has changed since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan one year ago this month. The force that disrupted security is now expected to keep it. We've been asking who's included in this new version of Afghanistan, and in a moment, we will question the defense minister. But to understand the discussion, it helps first to get some context from other Afghans. So let's take a moment to look around the country the Taliban now rule.


INSKEEP: We talked with shopkeepers on a retail street in Kabul. In a used furniture store, Abdul Qahar said he's not selling much because nobody has the money to buy.

Are people bringing you more furniture to sell so that they can have money?

ABDUL QAHAR: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: Yes, he says. Some sell furniture to buy food. Some sell because they're leaving the country. Ten days ago, one family sold their furniture and only afterward learned of problems with their visas to Europe. Abdul Qahar studied political science and law in college. But selling furniture is the only job he can find. His business partner is Wahid Kashafi.

How much longer can you go on?

WAHID KASHAFI: (Through interpreter) I don't know - maybe a year or two. Finally, I will escape.

INSKEEP: He says he'd prefer a more inclusive country where girls as well as boys can study and where there's democracy. Afghanistan used to have a parliament, and we met one of its former members. Gulaliai Mohammadi is one of the women who seized the opportunities under the previous government. She started her working life as a midwife.

Do you sometimes see a little girl or a little boy and say, I delivered them?

GULALIAI MOHAMMADI: Of course. I see four child in my home that I delivered.

INSKEEP: Children of her relatives. She later found a job in flight safety at an airport, and then she went into politics.

MOHAMMADI: I was the youngest member of parliament.

INSKEEP: For which she paid a price as the Taliban advanced.

MOHAMMADI: In 2020, the Taliban killed my brother.


MOHAMMADI: Yeah, my youngest brother because of me. He was newly married. So they killed him in Kandahar province.

INSKEEP: You think that he was killed because of his relation to you?

MOHAMMADI: Of course. They told me. They told me that - now we killed your brother. The second is your number. Be ready.

INSKEEP: What was lost, that there was a parliament before, and now there's nothing?

MOHAMMADI: See, today, I'm at home. I cannot do anything for women. From this, we know that we lost everything, especially women.

INSKEEP: Other Afghans we met said they are satisfied with the change in power, but they face the challenge of living in a country devastated by war.


INSKEEP: Consider a rural village south of Kabul. Our producer, Fazel Qazizai, pointed out that village along Highway One.

FAZEL QAZIZAI, BYLINE: This is one of the main village which is entirely destroyed. You can see.

INSKEEP: The highway is cratered and blackened from years of Taliban bombs. The village is ruined because the U.S.-backed Afghan government bulldozed many of the mud-walled homes. As we stood there, a young man emerged from one of the houses still standing.

Is life better now than it was before the collapse?

MOHAMED YOSAD: (Through interpreter) Yes, it's much better, the security, that space. There's no robbery, no thieving. We are very happy.

INSKEEP: Mohamad Yosad was holding a math book and said he's preparing to graduate from high school. So if you're 18, for Afghanistan, the median age is 18. How do you feel about your future?

YOSAD: (Through interpreter) I'm hopeful. I want to be a very big man in the future.

INSKEEP: His future opportunities depend on how the Taliban govern. So we asked to meet Mohammad Yaqoob, the interim defense minister. His job title only captures part of his significance. He is considered the group's No. 3 leader and also is the son of the Taliban's former emir. He said we'd find him outside the capital in the southern city of Kandahar.

This city is a bit smaller, a bit shabbier than Kabul, and yet somehow livelier. It is not the official center of power, but it is the center of power for the Taliban.

The defense minister didn't tell us in advance where we would be meeting.

OK, so we've just left the hotel, and we've been told in our vehicle to follow this black car that came to guide us to wherever the defense minister may be here in Kandahar.

It's an old insurgents' security technique. We found out his location only when we arrived. Our producer, Fazel, was the first one to realize where we were going.

QAZIZAI: To the old house of Mullah Omar.

INSKEEP: We're going to the old house of Mullah Omar?


INSKEEP: Mullah Mohammad Omar, the defense minister's father. Omar was the leader of the Taliban the last time they ruled Afghanistan. He was the leader who refused to turn over Osama bin Laden in 2001, a refusal that led to the U.S. attack. His tree-lined compound became a base for the CIA and its Afghan allies. Now, Omar's son has reclaimed his childhood home.

Bullet-riddled old walls.

The black car guided us to a gravel parking lot.

We're here.

And Mohammad Yaqoob met us in a simple yellow room inside one of the buildings.

YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) By the name of God, thank you very much for coming here.

INSKEEP: He's in his early 30s, with a full, black beard. He said he agreed to this meeting because he wants Americans to know the truth. And the truth is, the Taliban have not decided some of the key questions facing them. They have not agreed, for example, on what to do about girls in school. Some have been allowed to study, but many have not.

Many Afghans have told us they are concerned about girls not being in school. They would like all girls to attend school. Do you believe that that should happen?

YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) This is a serious issue for us. There are some development, and hopefully there will be more about it. We have a discussion about these issues, and we are hoping that soon the ground will be prepared for that.

INSKEEP: What makes it difficult simply to allow them to return to school?

YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) The conditions are not ready. We need some basic conditions for this issue.

INSKEEP: Other Taliban officials told us they face a political problem. If they move too quickly in favor of girls in school, they might alienate some of their own ideologically trained gunmen. Yaqoob's main job is defense, and the most serious threat comes from a branch of the Islamic State, or Daesh. They oppose the Taliban for dealing with the United States.

Does the United States offer or ask to cooperate with you against Daesh, and have you cooperated?

YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) There was no help done by America and what else against Daesh. And the only big help that the American can do with us against Daesh is that they should stop giving them more attention.

INSKEEP: He did not address al-Qaida, whose leader the United States had killed that day in Kabul. Yaqoob did address a United Nations reports accusing Taliban forces of killings and other human rights abuses.

YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) Yes, a man among the men will commit violent, but immediately we are after them, arresting them and leading them to the court and punishing them for that.

INSKEEP: What do you say to Afghans who are still afraid, who worked for the previous government or who are women who lost their jobs or who are members of minority sects and feel insecure, feel that they could be attacked at any time? What do you say to that?

YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) Repeatedly, we give them confidence that we will not work out of violence. We will not work out of revenge. This is our policy. Afghanistan is the home for all Afghans.

INSKEEP: Would you welcome back anyone who fled?

YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) I say welcome to all, to everyone.

INSKEEP: Do you want the United States to recognize Afghanistan's new government as legitimate and establish normal relations?

YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) Openly. Of course, this is an obvious thing. There are many countries that America is more against than us, but they acknowledge them officially. I think that recognition is a positive step toward a bigger change.

INSKEEP: U.S. diplomats have been meeting with the Taliban. The U.S. has released some economic aid to the devastated country and has talked of more. But the U.S. also wants to see proof that this regime governs differently than the Taliban of the past.

How, if at all, is your vision for Afghanistan different than your father's vision in the 1990s?

YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) I haven't felt any changes in our thought with my father. I am following his spirit. But there is differences of situation. There is differences of condition.

INSKEEP: That's Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of onetime Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and now the interim defense minister. Thank you for your time.

YAQOOB: (Through interpreter) Thank you very much that you came here.


That was the first in a series of reports from our co-host Steve Inskeep, asking who's included in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan? So, Steve, we just heard all of these voices from Afghans figuring out life under Taliban rule. What did you find about who is included in Taliban rule there?

INSKEEP: I found that it's an ongoing struggle, Leila. The Taliban have said they're not going to have democracy anymore. And yet millions of individuals are making what choices they can, trying to find places for themselves, trying to find a new way of living and trying to make space for themselves as well. And we'll hear more of their struggles in the coming days on NPR News. We just heard some voices, but over recent days, we've spoken with more than 40 people in three different provinces across Afghanistan, and we have many stories to share.

FADEL: Our co-host Steve Inskeep has been traveling and reporting in Afghanistan, and he'll be bringing you more of that work on NPR. Thank you so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're welcome, Leila. Looking forward to it.


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