Breakfast with the Taliban
Journalist gives 1st-hand account of interview with Afghan agent

Editor's note: Aaron Klein, the former editor of the Commentator, the undergraduate newspaper of Yeshiva University in New York, made international headlines last May by traveling overseas to spend time with and interview members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. He wrote a personal account of the interview experience, "My Weekend with the Enemy," which was published in major-city newspapers in four countries. Klein also conducted exclusive interviews with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, former Israeli prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak and controversial Princeton ethicist Dr. Peter Singer.

Last January, Klein sat down with Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, the representative designate of Afghanistan to the U.S. A few days later, Mujahid and his assistant were sent back to Afghanistan following a run-in with American officials at a U.N. conference in Manhattan. The interview that follows is the last given by the Taliban agent in America.

By Aaron Klein

A photographer and I arrived at the Flushing, Queens, address I was given. I double checked that I had the correct information. The red-bricked building we found, located in a middle-class Taiwanese neighborhood, hardly seemed an appropriate headquarters for one of the world's most feared organizations. The apartment complex was converted into several doctors' offices. We walked up the narrow stairs, passing several signs: "Proctology," "Gastroenterology," "Endoscopy," and finally, "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."

"Welcome," said Mujahid, barefoot and clad in tan stockings and a dark blazer. The rooms were elegantly decorated, richly carpeted. A map of Afghanistan covered an entire wall. A radio linkup with the capital, Kabul, sounded in the background.

With his assistant preparing breakfast, Mujahid explained that he came to America to "make American people understand the situation in Afghanistan," and to petition the United Nations for official recognition.


Aaron Klein met with Abdul Hakeem Mujahid last January

At that time, even though the Taliban controlled 95 percent of Afghanistan, the international community instead recognized the displaced government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, which was holed up in the country's northernmost province.

I had not eaten anything that day and was quite hungry.

When I imagine breakfast, I usually think bagels and cream cheese, fruit, cereal, coffee and orange juice. I could see from a distance Mujahid's assistant bringing over several trays, and my mouth began to water.

Then I discovered what was in them: Nuts. Every kind imaginable hazelnuts, chestnuts, cashews, macadamia, walnuts, pistachios, pecans. Mujahid's eyes widened as he shoved a handful of pistachios in his mouth, and offered me some green tea. My hunger subsided. Nuts aren't really my thing, I guess.

"Let's talk about some of the media claims," I said, trying to refocus attention on the interview. "Why aren't women allowed to work?"

"We are not against female workers," he responded. "Just that at this time, women are needed to support the homes. I must say it's strange that you care. During the Russian invasion, the U.S. supported us, but not a single woman was working at that time. Why didn't America raise the question then?"

"Are women being educated?"

"Also very strange," he said. "The Koran makes it an obligation to be educated for both men and women. How can you tell us we are against female education?"

"So women are in schools?"

"Not yet. We are still developing our country. Unfortunately, we do not have the resources now to educate everyone, but this is something we are working on. We are not against female education. In fact, some other factions wouldn't support us because they didn't want women to be in schools. Not us. We will implement schooling for women and girls as soon as we can."

I was expecting him to also deny reports of people being stoned in front of spectators. But he surprised me.

"Yes, it's the law of the country," he explained, "For example, if a man or a woman commits adultery and there are four witnesses, they will be stoned. Any punishment given to our people is carried out in public; this way other people don't do the crime. In America, you are executing people in hiding places, and the same crime is repeating and repeating."

I asked Mujahid what he recommended for America.

"Bush should fry them in stadiums," he said, and I nearly choked on my green tea.

He attributed the "false media claims" of human-rights abuses to the West's reluctance to "accept a government it doesn't completely control." He is convinced the media is being used as a propaganda device to legitimize the international community's failure to recognize the Taliban's authority.

And the whole bin Laden thing?

"Oh. He's a problem for us. We reached the eastern parts of the country in 1996, and we just found Osama living there. We allowed him to stay in our country because of how he helped us with the Soviets. He's under control, though. We told him he can't use our land to go after any governments, or to wage attacks. And he hasn't."

"But he clearly has. Do you honestly believe bin Laden wasn't involved in the attack on the World Trade Center in '93, or the embassy bombings in East Africa? Attacks on troops in Somalia? The USS Cole in Yemen?"

"You know, Osama is the kind of person who is not hiding anything. He has courage. If he attacked something, he would be proud. About the Africa embassies, he declared he was not involved. Also the World Trade Center, he said [he was] not involved. Therefore, we cannot see that he was involved in any of this. But what we can see is that according to the declaration of human rights and the constitutions of the West, all men are innocent until proven guilty. So far, no court has proved him guilty. We ask and we ask for evidence, but you people haven't provided us with anything concrete."

Osama seemed to be an issue that brightened Mujahid.

"I have to say, you have a $5 million bounty on him. You try to bomb him. He's on the F.B.I.'s Most Wanted List. You are the most powerful government. And you still can't get to him?" he continued, giggling.

One of the other points of contention the West had with the Taliban was its poppy production. Afghanistan supplies the world with about 75 percent of its illicit opium. I asked Mujahid how his strict government could allow its citizens to produce opium, which clearly violates the Code of Shariah.

"We are absolutely against drug production, consumption and trafficking. We had a problem of poppy cultivation, so last year [Taliban ruler Mullah Muhammad] Omar declared that farmers must reduce one-third of their poppy production. And it worked."

I challenged him on that: The United Nations attributes this recent 28 percent reduction to drought in the region, as well as to a U.N. "Crop Substitution Program."

But Mujahid insisted that U.N. assistance never arrived and that Omar's declaration was responsible for the poppy decline. "Ask your government why they don't appreciate this kind of action, why they are still using the old propaganda."

For the most part, Mujahid had no problem speaking on the record. The only time he really clammed up was when I asked about Israel. I guess he figured that no matter what he said, he'd get in trouble.

He told me that his children, who lived with him in New York, attended private Muslim schools. They tasted pizza last year for the first time and really liked it. They are not allowed to watch television except for the news, but he admits they've seen a few Disney movies, although "not in my house. They know their time is best spent studying the Koran."

I asked Mujahid whether there were other issues he would like to address.

"Just that I am not so concerned with the West. We are proud to be recognized by the people of Afghanistan and supported by them, to be partners among the happy people."

On that note, I left the Taliban's office.

Now, as I follow the latest developments in America's war on terrorism and our daily advances in Afghanistan, I wonder where Mujahid is, how he is doing. If by some chance he reads this Mujahid, please tell Osama I said, "Hi."