Reuters
Women with their children try to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021, after Taliban forces reclaimed the capital city.

Under Taliban rule, Afghans warn of going ‘back to the darkness’

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Flames rose from the girls high school. Villagers who tried to put it out were shot.

This wasn’t a scene from 1996, when the Taliban first took control of Afghanistan. Rather, the events in the northwest province of Faryab happened a few weeks ago. 

Why We Wrote This

Taliban political leaders said they had reformed and moderated while out of power in Afghanistan. But local fighters, in areas they’ve seized, have burned schools and imposed severe limits on women as part of a feared regression on civil rights.

“In the morning, when I went to school, everything was burned and destroyed, even the school gates,” says Khalida, one of the students.

Despite promises of reform and moderation by top Taliban officials and negotiators, those on the ground have been carrying out harsh, repressive governance based on their strict interpretation of Islamic law in the areas they’ve captured from the Afghan government. Now that Kabul has fallen, the rest of the country likely faces a similar fate.

“Taliban actions are as different from their [leaders’] speeches as the ground is different from the sky,” says Sayed Hassan Hashemi, a civil society activist in Faryab, of the Taliban chiefs who have negotiated from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. “The Taliban leaders in Qatar live in luxury homes. They and their families enjoy life, but they don’t know what injustices their fighters do on local people.”

“I am not afraid. I will fight,” he says. “If we do not sacrifice, our future generation will be sacrificed by this bloodthirsty group. So I will fight to the last drop of blood.”

The Afghan student says she will never forget one of the Taliban’s first acts after seizing control of her district weeks ago. Late at night, Khalida was awakened by a deafening explosion.

From her roof, the 18-year-old saw flames rising from her girls high school. The school was her pride and joy, with a new library full of books painstakingly collected by teachers who traveled to gather them.

“I cried a lot. The villagers tried to put out the fire, but the Taliban shot at them and no one saved our school,” says Khalida of the facility built by Norway and the United States in northwestern Faryab province. “In the morning, when I went to school, everything was burned and destroyed, even the school gates.” 

Why We Wrote This

Taliban political leaders said they had reformed and moderated while out of power in Afghanistan. But local fighters, in areas they’ve seized, have burned schools and imposed severe limits on women as part of a feared regression on civil rights.

“When I saw the Taliban up close, I was very scared,” says the student, who gave only her first name and who wants to become a doctor. “They are wild people, and they don’t respect women.” 

As the Taliban finalize their control over Afghanistan – having seized the capital city of Kabul in a lightning-quick takeover on Sunday – a central question looms: How will the Islamic militants now rule the country? 

Top Taliban political leaders have been proclaiming a pragmatic, moderate evolution in their thinking since the late 1990s, when their version of Islamist rule was marked by violence and strict enforcement of bans on girls’ education, women working outside the home, and even men shaving their beards. They reiterated this more restrained approach while negotiating a withdrawal deal directly with the U.S. in 2019 and 2020, and later after joining intra-Afghan peace talks last September.

Reuters
A Taliban fighter runs toward a crowd outside Kabul airport in Afghanistan Aug. 16, 2021, in this still image taken from a video.

Yet today, as they consolidate final power, residents of areas that have fallen under Taliban control report little sign of change, reform, or inclusive accommodation by the jihadis of a society molded by 20 years of a Western presence and tens of billions spent on rebuilding. Those investments raised many Afghans’ expectations of a freer future. 

Instead, in the weeks leading up to the Taliban capturing Kabul, these residents confirmed it is the “old” Taliban – every bit as brutal, zealous, and vengeful as they were two decades ago – that are again taking control. Their oppressive actions provide a glimpse of what the country might look like under the Taliban’s archconservative sway.

“Unfortunately, the current situation in the country is we are going back to the 1990s,” says a women’s rights activist in Faryab province, whose district of Shirin Tagab fell to the Taliban in June. “It means we go back to the darkness.” 

“All Afghans, especially women, are suffocated by the recent actions of the U.S. government,” she says. “The U.S. should have defeated this ominous phenomenon on the ground, or forced them to make peace. But they introduced the Taliban as a power to the world [through direct negotiations], and did not realize the Taliban are the savage Taliban, who know nothing but terror.”

She saw signs of Taliban intolerance last October, as she prepared for World Teachers’ Day at a local girls school. Money had been raised for a party, but a new computer lab at the school prompted local “radicals” to start a rumor that immoral films were being shown, and that “days of infidelity” were to be celebrated, she says. The night before the event, Taliban fighters crept past guards and burned down the school.

“We wrote a letter to the Taliban and asked them to work together to build a peaceful Afghanistan, to provide education for the future ... to teach the young generation the lesson of self-confidence, mutual acceptance, and national unity,” says the activist. “But the Taliban threatened to kill me and my father in response.”

From their first days of control in each district they captured, the Taliban have enforced strict Islamic rules, often announcing them using mosque loudspeakers, printed instructions, and megaphones in marketplaces. 

Some Taliban insist on payments of food or cash, or that each village produce 20 fighters for their cause. Others ordered that girls over 15 years old be provided as wives for Taliban fighters, or forbid men from shaving their beards and force them to attend mosque prayers five times a day. Still other Taliban rules prohibit watching television, or using mobile phones, which can provide a record of their deeds. 

Footage of the Taliban fighters gunning down Afghan commandos in Faryab, for example, made its way onto social media, undermining the official Taliban narrative of a largely peaceful, popular acquisition of territory. Human Rights Watch in July documented mass forced expulsions and the burning of homes by Taliban fighters in northern Kunduz province, after they accused locals of helping government forces. And everywhere, girls’ education and women’s rights are being rolled back.

Rahmat Gul/AP
Internally displaced Afghan women from northern provinces, who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, receive medical care in a public park in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 10, 2021.

“They swear to the people that all their restrictions and laws are in accordance with Islam, that whoever violates them is an infidel and their death is permissible,” says Sayed Hassan Hashemi, a civil society activist in Faryab, who has seen the aftermath of five Taliban school burnings. He speaks in detail about the acrid scent of the burnt buildings, their twisted wreckage, and his feeling of sorrow, as a former boys school teacher, to see books turned to ash.

“People do not agree with Taliban laws at all because they are outside the realm of Islam,” says Mr. Hashemi, whose district is now under Taliban control. “Books taught in their schools are the Quran ... and books on jihad. Their plan is to brainwash the youth, and this is the biggest danger to the younger generation; it destroys their future.”

The result is that Taliban behavior during the offensive has turned many Afghans even more stridently against the Taliban – even if they feel there is little they can do.

“Taliban actions are as different from their [leaders’] speeches as the ground is different from the sky,” says Mr. Hashemi, of the Taliban chiefs who have negotiated from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar for years. “The Taliban leaders in Qatar live in luxury homes. They and their families enjoy life, but they don’t know what injustices their fighters do on local people.”

Those injustices are sowing divisions within families that can be lethal and include beheadings, says Mr. Hashemi. In his own village, he recounts how a man who supported the Taliban killed his brother while he farmed, because he expressed support for Afghan security forces. Mr. Hashemi says he receives Taliban death threats daily and was once wounded in a Taliban attack that targeted him. “I am not afraid. I will fight,” says the activist. “If we do not sacrifice, our future generation will be sacrificed by this bloodthirsty group. So I will fight to the last drop of blood.”

The Taliban, for their part, deny any claims of oppression. An official Taliban statement July 12 by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called the reports of abuse “enemy fabrications.” He said statements attributed to the Taliban “that impose restrictions on locals, threatens them, specifies gender laws, regulates lives, beards, movements and even contains baseless claims about marriage of daughters” are not real. Labeling such charges “conjured” propaganda, he claimed the Taliban “does not allow anyone to transgress against people anywhere.”

That is news to one local female radio journalist, who received a death threat the third day after the Taliban seized her Balkh district in northern Mazar-e-Sharif province. Immediately after assuming control, the Taliban posted notices proclaiming that women should wear burqas and not leave the house without a male guardian. 

When the radio journalist tried to take her child to a doctor, close to the local hospital, she was confronted by a car full of Taliban fighters. “I thought the Taliban had changed ... but when they saw me, and saw that I did not have a hijab, they threatened me and told me to return home, otherwise they would break my legs,” she says. “My child was very scared.”

The journalist had often been warned by the Taliban to quit her job, prior to the Taliban offensive. But when they arrived, she was eventually forced to flee to the provincial capital, where she now lives in hiding.

“I don’t work now, because my life is in danger, and the Taliban do not allow me to work,” she says. Her husband was a shopkeeper who was beaten by the Taliban for not giving money to the fighters. Indeed, despite official Taliban assurances of a new, soft-touch takeover, those on the ground are not shy about their aims.

“When we take a village, we sleep in the mosque, we don’t bother people in their homes,” a Taliban commander identified as Mollah Majid told France 24 in July, near the northwestern city of Herat. “But the first thing we do is close down the government-run schools. We destroy them [and] put in place our own religious schools, which follow our own curriculum, in order to train future Taliban.”

That is the concern of one teacher in Mazar-e-Sharif, whose district recently fell to the Taliban, and who asked not to be named. “In the beginning, when we saw the Taliban interviews on TV, we hoped for peace, as if the Taliban had changed,” says the teacher, who experienced their rule in the 1990s. “But when I saw the Taliban up close, the Taliban did not change at all.”

She was a teenager when the Taliban last controlled the country, and recalls it as a “very dark period,” especially for women, because girls schools were banned, and it was a time of war. Back then, the Taliban prohibited images of people and music. Highway checkpoints were festooned with billowing black clouds of magnetic tape, pulled from confiscated video and music cassettes.

Today such abstruse rules have been updated, she says. The Taliban informed citizens in local mosques that smartphones were banned. Anyone caught watching television at home would be fined, their TV smashed.

The new rules “are not tolerable, because women get used to a free life for 20 years, so it is very difficult for them to live under the restrictions,” says the schoolteacher. “When I see the Taliban, I feel that I see the enemy of my religion, culture, and traditions,” she says. “If we surrender to the Taliban, the future ... will also be dark. So my message to the whole new generation is to fight until the last moment and not surrender to the enemy.”

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