For fifteen years, Zabihullah Mujahid was the Tokyo Rose of the Taliban: a clandestine operative who called reporters to claim responsibility for his fighters’ attacks and to exult in their victories. Sometimes the victims were American soldiers or their coalition allies. Sometimes they were Afghan government troops. Often, civilians were killed. For reporters, Mujahid was a kind of phantom, a disembodied voice on the phone. No one ever saw his face, and, when one journalist claimed to have encountered him, Mujahid fiercely denied it. But he seemed to talk to everyone, all the time, and a rumor spread to explain his output: Zabihullah Mujahid was a composite identity, assumed by a rotating group of Talibs, who perhaps weren’t even living in Afghanistan. He denied this, too.
Last summer, Mujahid appeared in public for the first time. After years of steady gains in the countryside, the Taliban had swarmed into Kabul, as President Ashraf Ghani fled to Abu Dhabi. While the Taliban asserted their authority, Mujahid held a press conference to announce that he was the new government’s acting Deputy Minister of Information and Culture. With the fall of Kabul, he had been transformed from the covert spokesman of a long-running insurgency to the face of a national administration. He was, it turned out, a lean, sharp-featured man in middle age.
In September, after the U.S. military’s last humanitarian-evacuation flight left the Kabul airport, Mujahid introduced the interim government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This was the same name that the Taliban had adopted during their previous stint in power, a brutal period that extended from 1996 to 2001. But Mujahid offered a vision of a more ecumenical Afghanistan, with an “inclusive” government that protected the rights of women and ethnic minorities. He maintained that the Taliban weren’t after revenge, and would offer amnesty to their former enemies. This was hard to believe. A few weeks earlier, Mujahid had issued a press release rejoicing in the assassination of the previous government’s spokesman, a man named Dawa Khan Menapal. He didn’t say what his predecessor’s offense was, only that he had been “punished for his misdeeds, killed in a special operation carried out by the mujahideen.” [Continue reading…]