For five years in power until 2001, they banned women from their homes, banned music and most sports, and imposed brutal punishments on offenders. Adulterers were stoned in public; thieves had their hands amputated. Criminals were hanged for all to see.
Anything that didn’t fit their strict interpretation of Sharia was targeted. They blew up the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan because they saw art depicting the human form as an insult to God.
The Taliban came from a rural, very conservative environment – where their perception of religious purity and pious cultural traditions outweighed anything the modern world had to offer: education, technology, discourse, the whole idea of choice.
They believe their success was God-given. Anas Haqqani, a member of Afghanistan’s most powerful family, told CNN that the Taliban “succeeded against 52 [countries]. It is not due to the worldly plan; it is because of the blessing of faith.”
It followed that governing the country would have only one source of inspiration. Khalil Haqqani, Anas’s uncle and minister in the interim government, said at a tribal summit in Kabul: “The goal was to create a pure Islamic government in Afghanistan, a government that is focused on justice and whose laws are divine. will be based on one book, that of God and his prophet. That book is the Holy Quran.”
The Taliban also see themselves as the vanguard of a national uprising in which Afghans reject a foreign culture imposed by foreigners. Anas Haqqani told CNN that the West “shouldn’t try to impose its culture and thoughts/beliefs on Afghans”. A chilling message for the many Afghans who valued the freedoms of the past 20 years.
The Taliban really believe they’ve defeated America — and that gives their ideology a huge boost. Haqqani compared the Taliban to George Washington, telling CNN he was “liberated”[d] his homeland; he had defeated the British; he had become independent of them. Here are our elderly heroes for their nation… they have liberated their land; they have defended their religion and honor.”
Claiming Popular Roots
The Taliban spokesman said on August 15, when the group moved into Kabul, they may have surprised the world, but not themselves “because we have roots among the people.”
In their southern core countries and among smallholder farmers this is true. In the cities, and especially Kabul, less. Despite all the corruption and favoritism of US-backed governments in Afghanistan, Afghans’ health, wealth and education have improved by almost every measure in the 20 years since the Taliban last came to power. A vibrant independent media expressed a wide range of views; private universities flourished. An entire generation of Afghans tasted freedom.
As they moved from one province to another, the Taliban suggested the possibility of a more tolerant reincarnation. The word “inclusive” dripped from the lips of their spokesmen; they let most of the soldiers go home instead of killing them. They promised amnesty for all opponents.
The day the Taliban invaded Kabul, Suhail Shaheen, now the Taliban’s proposed envoy to the United Nations, assured CNN that girls would be educated up to college age.
And in the days after they expel the previous one government, there was a big show of talking with former President Hamid Karzai and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. There were tribal gatherings in Kabul.
The reality has been very different. Talks with Karzai and Abdullah evaporated. Their personal security remains weak. The interim government was filled with experienced hardliners. There were no women in government or in any public office; the Ministry for Women became the Ministry for the Protection of Virtue.
Protests were quickly suppressed — and banned unless the Department of the Interior gave permission. Afghan sportswomen went to the exits by the dozen.
The Taliban instead offered the promise of security—in response to the uncertainty they themselves had created. Their latest publication is titled, “Security and Stability Prevail Across Afghanistan.”
As Anas Haqqani rhetorically asked about the civil war years, “Was it better that 200 people were killed every day?”
Murders — and kidnappings
This is justified in the name of social peace. “Now there is peace – what the people of the world wanted,” Haqqani said. “There is 100% peace, there is security, thieves gone, no ceasefire, but the war ended.”
The thieves may be disappearing, but ISIS is clearly not. IS Khorasan – which sees the Taliban as a renegade regime – has carried out attacks in Jalalabad, Kabul and Kunduz since the Taliban came to power – with the aim of demonstrating that the Taliban cannot provide security and are ‘soft’ towards minorities such as like the Shiites. IS Khorasan has no problem with that, as evidenced by last Friday’s attack on a Shiite mosque in Kunduz. The Taliban’s reputation for bringing peace and security will depend on their ability to cripple IS-Khorasan, a group that has braved intense efforts over the past five years to destroy it.
They also pledged to end corruption, claiming that the US had “left the reins of power to the great thieves and corruptors, who bully sellers and farmers and levy royalties.”
As for the bright promises of August, there has been some “recalibration”. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told CNN in August? September?: “We haven’t made a decision on women’s issues or rights yet, but we’re in discussions.” Several transportation and education arrangements were needed, he said.
Simply put, their worldview is diametrically opposed to that of Western democracies.
Anas Haqqani argued that the freedom women have elsewhere is not real freedom, telling CNN, “Women are our mother, our sister and our daughter. The respect this country has for women — nobody in the world has that. Look — in the West you forced them to be servants.”
The Taliban’s military victory was so complete that they have little reason to compromise or negotiate with the Afghan warlords. They have taken swift action to quell dissent, be it social activists, rebels in the Panjshir Valley or Salafists who practice Islam differently from the Taliban.
But the group is not a monolith. The protracted internal debate over the formation of a government has revealed disagreements, as lingering tensions between pragmatic political leaders and doctrinal military commanders are won over by hard-line militarists.
That in itself could limit the room for maneuver of the leaders on women’s rights, elections and media freedom, even if they wanted to make a moderate gesture. In the past, some Taliban have defected to even more militant groups — and in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, ISIS waits for the chance to recruit the malcontents as the Taliban weaken their fundamentalism.
There is a good chance that the Taliban elite in Kabul will make soothing noises when challenged on these issues by foreign media and governments, while the reality for the Afghan people – far from the gaze of the international community – will be much harsher.
Two months after they entered the presidential palace, the evidence suggests that it is not so much a Taliban 2.0 controlling Afghanistan, but a Taliban 1.1.