Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, the reclusive supreme leader of the Taliban, has attended a major gathering of religious leaders and elders in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.
More than 3,000 men were expected to attend the three-day gathering that started on Thursday in Kabul’s Polytechnic University and is expected to rubber-stamp the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan.
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The arrival on Friday of Akhunzada, who had not been filmed or photographed in public since the group returned to power in August last year, was broadcast on state radio. Cheers and chants, including “Long live the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, the Taliban’s name for the country, were heard.
“The success of the Afghan jihad is not only a source of pride for Afghans but also for Muslims all over the world,” Akhunzada said in a speech, according to state-run Bakhtar News Agency, using the Arabic word signifying a spiritual struggle.
He also reportedly said the world should stop telling the Taliban how to run the country.
“Why is the world interfering in our affairs?” he was quoted as saying. “They say ‘why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that?’ Why does the world interfere in our work?”
Akhunzada also offered prayers for the victims of a powerful earthquake last month that killed more than 1,000 people in the country’s east.
The appearance of Akhunzada had been rumoured for days – although media were barred from covering the event.
Akhunzada, who is believed to be in his 70s and bears the title “Commander of the Faithful,” rarely leaves Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace and spiritual heartland. Apart from one undated photograph and several audio recordings of speeches, he has almost no digital footprint.
The leader’s presence raised the security alert. On Thursday, two gunmen were shot dead near the venue. Officials said the two started firing from a rooftop but were “quickly eliminated by mujahideen with the help of Allah the almighty”.
Women were not allowed to take part in the meeting, although media reports suggest the reopening of girls’ schools will be discussed.
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.
Habiba Sarabi, who in 2005 became the first woman to become a governor of an Afghan province, told Al Jazeera the Taliban’s “mindset is that women should stay at home.”
“They don’t believe in human rights and that’s why no woman was invited inside the Loya Jirga,” the former governor said.
Political analyst Lutfullah Lutf said the gathering failed to represent diverse political opinions and that the decision for women to be excluded “speaks for the ideology of the Taliban.”
The fact that the group is excluding them from the political sphere is “saddening in a nation where 50 percent of the population are women,” Lutf told Al Jazeera.
The Taliban has kept a complete lock on decision-making since taking over the country and touted the gathering as a forum to hear a range of voices on issues facing Afghanistan.
Deputy Taliban chief and acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani also addressed the meeting on Friday, saying the world was demanding inclusive government and education, and the issues needed time.
“This gathering is about trust, interaction, we are here to make our future according to Islam and to national interests,” he said.
The Taliban notably did not call the gathering a Loya Jirga – a traditional Afghan way for local leaders to have their grievances heard by rulers – instead titling it “the Great Conference of Ulema”, the term in Islam for religious scholars and clerics.
The meeting comes as finance and central bank officials from the Taliban-led government are meeting US officials in Qatar to discuss economic and aid issues following the June 22 earthquake.
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 international cut-off of Afghanistan’s financing has deepened the country’s economic collapse and fuelled its humanitarian crises. Millions in the country rely on international aid to have enough food to live.
Who is Haibatullah Akhunzada?
Akhunzada rose from a low profile to leader of the Taliban in a swift transition of power after a 2016 US drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
As the Taliban movement unveiled its interim government in September, after US-led foreign forces withdrew and a US-backed government collapsed, Akhunzada retained the role he has held since 2016 of supreme leader, the group’s ultimate authority.
Earlier this year, the Taliban’s supreme leader banned girls after sixth grade from attending school and issued a decree requiring women in public to cover themselves completely, except for their eyes.