Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers held a gathering Thursday of some 3,000 Islamic clerics and tribal elders for the first time since seizing power in August, urging those at the meeting to advise them on running the country. Women were not allowed to attend.
The Taliban, who have kept a complete lock on decision-making since taking over the country, touted the gathering in the capital of Kabul as a forum to hear a range of voices on issues facing Afghanistan.
But all those who addressed the assembly — and, it appeared, the overwhelming majority of attendees — were Taliban officials and supporters, mostly Islamic clerics.
The United States and most of the international community have shunned the Taliban government, demanding it be more inclusive and respect women’s rights.
However, the conference seemed less a nod to that pressure than an attempt by the Taliban to bolster their legitimacy as rulers, at a time when the former insurgents are struggling to deal with Afghanistan’s humanitarian catastrophe and are cut off from international financing.
A powerful earthquake earlier this month that killed more than 1,000 people in eastern Afghanistan only further underscored the Taliban’s limited capabilities and isolation. Overstretched aid groups already keeping millions of Afghans alive rushed supplies to the quake victims, but most countries responded tepidly to Taliban calls for international help.
“The ulema (Islamic clerics) and tribal elders have responsibility to advise and guide their Islamic system, because we can make progress based on your advice,” the Taliban defense minister, Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, told the assembly.
“We need the advice of ulema, and any opinion and advice by them will be respected,” he said.
Women were not allowed to attend, although media reports suggested that the reopening of the girls’ schools would be discussed. The Taliban’s supreme leader earlier this year banned girls after sixth grade from attending school and issued a decree requiring women in public to cover themselves completely, except for their eyes.
The Taliban’s Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi told state broadcaster RTA on Wednesday that male delegates would represent women. “When their sons are in the gathering it means that they are also involved,” he said.
At one point, gunfire was heard near the heavily guarded assembly venue. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid later told reporters that security forces fired on someone suspected to have a hand grenade, but that “there is nothing of concern.”
A full list of attendees was not announced publicly, nor was the agenda for the gathering. Muhajid said two clerics and a tribal elder from each district in Afghanistan were in attendance. It was not known how the attendees were chosen.
Hanafi touted the event as a forum for different views, and “a positive step for stability and strengthening national unity across the country.”
The gathering was held in the Loya Jirga Hall of Kabul’s Polytechnic University. A Loya Jirga is a gathering of tribal leaders and prominent figures, a traditional Afghan way for local leaders to have their grievances heard by rulers. However, the Taliban notably did not call the gathering a Loya Jirga, instead titling it “the Great Conference of Ulema,” the term in Islam for religious scholars and clerics.
Multiple clerics took the podium, urging support of the Taliban rule.
“The establishment of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan is the result of the blood of thousands of martyrs,” said Mawlavi Subhanullah Farooqi, an Islamic scholar from Takhar province, referring to the Taliban’s 20-year war against U.S. forces and the now-ousted U.S.-backed Afghan government.
“So we all must respect the blood of our mujahedeen and support the government,” he said.
The international cut-off of Afghanistan’s financing has deepened the country’s economic collapse and fueled its humanitarian crises. Millions in the country rely on international aid to have enough food to live.
The meeting comes as finance and central bank officials from the Taliban-led government are meeting with U.S. officials in Qatar to discuss economic and aid issues following last week’s earthquake.
The Washington Post first reported Tuesday that senior Biden administration officials are working with the Taliban leadership on a mechanism to allow Afghanistan’s government to use its central bank reserves to deal with the country’s severe hunger and poverty crises while erecting safeguards to ensure the funds are not misused.