Supreme Taliban leader prays for Afghanistan earthquake victims

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Taliban’s supreme leader prayed for the victims of the earthquake in Afghanistan on Friday during a speech to Islamic clerics in Kabul.

The quake in June killed more than 1,000 people in the east of the country. State radio broadcast Haibatullah Akhundzada’s speech live Friday from the gathering in Kabul, where thousands of Muslim clerics and tribal elders gather for the first time since taking power in Afghanistan in August. Women were not allowed to attend.

Akhundzada’s appearance gave symbolic weight to the meeting and the decisions the group is considering about the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban are under international pressure to be more inclusive as they grapple with Afghanistan’s humanitarian crises.

The powerful earthquake killed more than 1,000 people in eastern Afghanistan, sparking another crisis for the struggling country and underlining the Taliban’s limited capabilities and isolation. Overburdened aid organizations that already keep millions of Afghans alive rushed supplies to earthquake victims, but most countries have been lukewarm to calls from the Taliban for international aid.

In his hour-long speech, Akhundzada called the Taliban takeover a “victory for the Muslim world.”

He added: “Afghan businessmen must return and invest in the country.”

Achundzada has been the spiritual leader of the Islamist movement, but has remained a reclusive figure.

He grew from stealthy to Taliban leader in a swift transfer of power after a US drone strike in 2016 killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour.

After he was named leader, Akhundzada gained the support of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who bestowed praise on the cleric, calling him “the emir of the faithful.”

The endorsement by Osama bin Laden’s heir helped seal his jihadist credentials with the Taliban’s longtime allies.

Akhundzada told the assembled clergy and leaders that during the bloody takeover, the Taliban “had no intention of fighting the Afghans,” allied with the US-led force. “We fought them because they became the shield of the invaders,” he said.

The Taliban, who have kept decision-making in full swing since taking over the country, hailed the meeting in the capital of Kabul as a forum to hear a range of voices on issues facing Afghanistan.

But all those addressing the assembly — and it seemed that the overwhelming majority of those in attendance were — were Taliban officials and supporters, mostly Muslim clerics.

Women were not allowed to attend, although media reports suggested reopening girls’ schools would be discussed. Earlier this year, the Taliban’s top leader banned girls from school after the sixth grade and issued a decree requiring women in public to cover themselves completely except for their eyes.

Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi told state broadcaster RTA on Wednesday that male deputies would represent women. “If their sons are at the meeting, it means they are involved too,” he said.

The meeting was held in the Loya Jirga Hall of the Kabul Polytechnic University. A Loya Jirga is a gathering of tribal leaders and prominent figures, a traditional Afghan way for local leaders to voice their grievances to rulers. However, the Taliban did not call the meeting Loya Jirga, instead calling it “the Great Conference of Ulema,” the term in Islam for religious scholars and clerics.

Afghanistan’s international cut-off in funding has exacerbated the country’s economic collapse and fueled humanitarian crises. Millions in the country depend on international aid to have enough food to live on.

The meeting comes as finance and central bank officials of the Taliban-led government meet with US officials in Qatar to discuss economic and aid issues following last week’s earthquake.

The Washington Post first reported on Tuesday that senior officials of the Biden government are working with Taliban leaders to establish a mechanism to allow the Afghan government to use its central bank reserves to cope with the country’s severe hunger and poverty crises. while creating safeguards to ensure that the funds are not misused .

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