As the U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban is inching towards key cities across the country, staking its claim to power. However, even as it does so, the group has unleashed a reign of terror in some of the districts they have captured. Internationally, the Taliban is eager to show an image of a reformed movement and a change of heart in its extremist views. However, stories of untold savagery and barbarity emerging from across Afghanistan showcase that remaining out of power for two decades has not altered the Taliban’s fundamentalist beliefs.
The targets of the Taliban’s wrath are all those which it perceives inimical to its beliefs and interests: women and girls, the civilians who helped the U.S. and Western forces, religious minorities, and Afghan government officials and security forces.
After seizing key border crossings with Iran and Turkmenistan, the Taliban now controls substantial swathes of the country, seizing several key northern and western districts. According to multiple media reports, the Taliban has reintroduced sweeping restrictions on women’s education and freedom in these territories. These restrictions mean that girls can no longer go to school, women have to wear hijab and that they cannot go to the market unless accompanied by a male relative.
This is a return to the pre-2001 times when the Taliban mandated Afghans to follow a strict interpretation of Sharia law, forcing women to cover themselves from head to foot and imposing several restrictions on their movement. According to the Afghan government, about 30% of the civil servants are now women who were not allowed to work outside their homes during the Taliban’s rule. Several reports have emerged from these regions, showing women being punished for breaking the ‘modesty’ laws.
These retrograde rules apply to men, too, asking them to grow beards. Several residents of Balkh province have highlighted that the Taliban have distributed leaflets, ordering locals to follow these strict rules and, in one case, even ordering hair salons “not to shave or trim beards”. Similar reports of restrictions on men and women have emerged from Takhar, Badakhshan, and Kunduz province, which fell recently to the Taliban.
Moreover, the Taliban has also extended its restrictions to the press and media. According to local journalists, the Taliban forced Nawbahar, the only FM radio station in Balkh district, to broadcast Islamic prayers, pro-Taliban slogans and anti-government propaganda instead of music when the militants entered the district last month. This hasn’t augured well for the booming Afghan media.
According to Nai, a local media watchdog, nearly 20 radio stations have ceased broadcasting in northern provinces due to the Taliban’s restrictions and using them as propaganda sources. This also means that at a time when access of foreign media is getting restricted to the Taliban captured areas, the local media, which could have acted as the ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground for the international community, is unable to work, thereby cutting off the rest of the world. This makes it even more challenging to keep a tab on the Taliban’s human rights violations and atrocities.
In several captured territories, the Taliban has also turned its ire towards the civilians, whom it perceives as collaborating with the Western and Afghan security forces. It has forcibly displaced residents and burned homes in apparent retaliation for cooperating with the Afghan government. According to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban ordered residents of Bagh-e Sherkat in Kunduz province to leave and threatened those who had provided past support to the Afghan government. Taliban fighters also looted and burned down homes.[vi] This is a complete disregard of international humanitarian law that prohibits attacks on civilians and civilian property, including looting and burning. UN figures indicate that over 270,000 families have been displaced in recent months following the rise in violence, especially in the north.
Moreover, emboldened by the withdrawal of the U.S. troops, the Taliban has targeted Hazara Shias in Herat province. Taliban has had a history of persecuting the Hazaras as the latter holds liberal values and promote education. Moreover, the community’s educational and cultural success since 2001 has been an eyesore for the Taliban.
But the worse of Taliban is reserved for the government officials and security forces.
Just recently, on July 16, Afghanistan’s embassy in Australia released a series of videos that appeared to show terrifying atrocities against the provincial government officials.[ix] In some videos, Taliban fighters are seen beheading a group of government officials. Earlier, CNN had obtained a video from Dawlat Abad town in Faryab province showing the Taliban executing 22 Afghan commandos – some of them trained in the U.S. – as they tried to surrender. These are war crimes, and human rights groups have already documented surging Taliban violence against government officials as the group projects its dominance in the captured districts. The United Nations, too, has taken a note by expressing concern over the Taliban’s human rights violations and specifically targeting women and girls.
The deliberate targeting of women, religious minorities, government officials and security forces illustrates the truly diabolical nature of the Taliban. It shows that its claims of having reformed and becoming open-minded are a lie, whatever its propaganda machinery may say otherwise. The reports of violence and atrocities instead reveal the Taliban’s true intent, behaviour and, more importantly, its world view, which is unlikely to change. Taliban is hell-bent on undoing Afghanistan’s gains over the last two decades and taking it back to the stone age.