Taliban Fateh fighters, a ‘special forces’ unit, stand guard on a street in Kabul  (Photo: AFP)
राजनीति

Taliban’s promises of tolerance in Afghanistan often don’t match reality


Afghan television anchor Mirwais Haqdost appeared steady, even with seven armed Taliban fighters behind him, as he read out a statement prepared by the group.

“The mujahedeen of the Islamic Emirate are trying to establish peace and stability in Afghanistan,” he said, using the Taliban’s preferred name, as two fighters watched him intently. “Their sole request is for people to support them and cooperate with them, and not be afraid of anything.”

This scene, broadcast last week on Afghanistan TV, a private channel, revealed the contrast between what the country’s new rulers say, and what they increasingly do.

“Our TV station was besieged,” Mr. Haqdost later said in a video posted on social media, adding that he had complained to the Taliban’s media office, but to no avail. “We conducted our programs, and the Taliban were inside the studio with us,” he said.

After seizing Kabul on Aug. 15, the Taliban made initial displays of tolerance, pledging that Afghans, even those who worked with the former government and foreign forces, have nothing to fear from the country’s new rulers.

But, around the country, the Taliban already are showing signs that they are unwilling to tolerate cultural or political expressions that conflict with their fundamentalist beliefs. Many Afghans, conscious of the violent regime the Taliban operated in the late 1990s, fear the worst has yet to come.

In Daykundi province west of Kabul, shortly after their arrival two weeks ago, the Taliban banned girls from school beyond sixth grade, resulting in the closure of all girls’ schools, said Hamza Ulfat, an activist from the area.

The Taliban there also banned women from leaving home without a male relative, even forbidding them from washing clothes in the river, Mr. Ulfat said. The new restrictions, along with new taxes, have led to deadly clashes between a local militia and the Taliban, according to several residents.

In the absence of a government or formally announced rules under the new regime in Kabul, Taliban fighters in the provinces appear to be acting largely based on their own personal interpretation of what constitutes appropriate behavior.

Last Friday, popular singer Fawad Andarabi invited a dozen Taliban fighters from his village in northern Baghlan province to lunch at his house as a sign of respect, his son Jawad Muradi said.

In the afternoon, after the fighters left, another group of Taliban arrived at the house, took Mr. Andarabi to the nearby village of Qala Kafir and shot him in the head, his son said. The Taliban have said they would ban most music as un-Islamic.

“This is the work of the Taliban, and no one else was involved in it. The Taliban are responsible for it,” Mr. Muradi said. The culprit was later detained by the Taliban, but it was unclear whether he would be punished, given that he had about 100 armed men under his command, according to a local cleric.

The Taliban didn’t reply to requests for comment.

There are signs of divisions within the Taliban, with some commanders seemingly trying to control fighters from rural areas who they say are less accustomed to life in more liberal cities that until recently were held by the U.S.-backed government.

A coffee-shop owner in Kabul said Taliban officials apologized to restaurant owners after their fighters were deemed to have behaved rudely and accused some restaurants of doubling as brothels.

In a speech to Taliban fighters at Kabul airport, which was circulated online, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed Tuesday asked fighters to be gentle in their interactions with the people.

“Show compassion,” he said. “This nation deserves calm, it deserves to breathe,” he said. “We are servants of the nation, not masters of the nation.”

Yet, there are mounting signs of a centralized clampdown.

The Taliban’s acting minister of education last week said the movement would ban male and female students from studying together at universities, leading many Afghans to doubt whether women would be allowed to study at all.

Women who used to work in the Afghan police or government ministries say they receive frequent threats by the Taliban, who they say have seized databases with employee information.

“They call me from my former office and say, We know where you live,’” said a female employee of the ministry of interior who is in hiding.

Zala Zazai—a female police second lieutenant who became publicly known for serving in the conservative eastern province of Khost, despite numerous threats to her life—said she knew of hundreds of female police officers who had received menacing calls from the Taliban.

Ms. Zazai fled to Tajikistan two months ago, but her mother and sister remained in Kabul. The biggest threat to her family, she said, was her own father, who used to work as an engineer for American forces in Bagram before joining the Taliban. He swore to kill his daughters for working for the police.

Ms. Zazai said Taliban promises of amnesty for people affiliated with the former government meant nothing.

“He doesn’t respect their speeches,” she said of her father, who continued to call her mother. “He says, ‘When I find you, I will kill you all.’”

In several large gatherings organized by the Taliban over the past week to discuss future policies, there wasn’t a woman in sight.

“As we had foreseen, we see restrictions of individual rights and we see restrictions of collective rights like women, as a whole,” said Shaharzad Akbar, chairwoman for the toppled Afghan republic’s Independent Human Rights Commission. “It’s not just about girls going to school, it’s about being involved in decision making.”

“I worry about what’s to come in terms of, for instance, criminal procedures and reinstitution of torture as a form of official punishment,” Ms. Akbar said.

Journalists tell stories of being beaten while reporting in Kabul, including reporters from Tolo, Afghanistan’s largest private television channel, and a photographer from the Los Angeles Times. German broadcaster Deutsche Welle has said Taliban fighters hunting for one of its journalists shot dead a member of the reporter’s family and seriously injured another.

In Kandahar, the Taliban’s culture and information department on Sunday prohibited female presenters from the airwaves and television, and banned music from the radio.

Nearly all female journalists have fled Kandahar, said Nagina Anwari, an anchor at Hewad TV, a private channel, who is currently in Qatar.

During the former government, she and her colleagues were constantly threatened by the Taliban who followed her car and once tried to kidnap her sister, a fellow anchor, she said.

“But we continued to do our job,” Ms. Anwari said. “If we were to give up, who would tell the stories of the women of Kandahar.”

Ms. Anwari fled Kandahar two months ago. Since the Taliban took the city, they have come to her mother’s house three times, kicking the front gate and firing into the air, she said, apparently looking for her.

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