“We have begun an attack on Afghanistan, against military and strategic targets of the Taliban. An attack conducted to defeat the terrorists.” And then: “Today we have started from Afghanistan, but we will not stop here. Nations are faced with a choice, they can decide whether to side with Good or with Evil. We want to bring peace, and to do so we must annihilate terrorists and the states protecting them.” With these words in October 2001 the then President of the United States of America George W. Bush, following Al Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers, announced the start of the war in Afghanistan. Two decades have gone by since this speech was delivered with the weight of a stumbling block in the course of history, and nothing that was predicted or feared at the time has come to pass. The war in Afghanistan has ended with Western forces abandoning the country and the Taliban returning to power. The Islamist fighters, the personification of Evil, have returned victorious to the helm of the “Graveyard of empires,” the flag of the targeted Emirate has been hoisted and flies over Kabul, and today, just like twenty years ago, the world again has to reckon with the Taliban.
But despite twenty years of war in Afghanistan that cost Washington alone $2261 billion and caused the deaths of 240,000 people, do we really know who the Taliban are today? Their supreme leader is the Amir al Mu’minin, the commander of the faithful, Haibatullah Akhunzada. The nation is ruled by a non-homogeneous executive that has already shown various internal rifts in the first year of power. The Taliban government is divided into two major political forces: the Haqqani network, headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, Minister of the Interior and close to Al Qaeda, wanted by the FBI and with a bounty of 10 million dollars on his head. And the more pragmatic and traditionalist wing that sees Malawi Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar and Minister of Defence, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, deputy prime minister, as its leading exponents. And then there are the 100,000 fighters who govern a nation of almost 40 million inhabitants. Instilled with stubborn dogmas, suffocated by simple propaganda, infected with chimeras of revanchism, they fervently apply an Islam that rejects all concessions to the present.
“I joined the Taliban when I was 16 and now that I’m 20 and I’m a commander. We made this choice because our country was invaded by foreign forces that bombed, tortured, killed families, trampled on our religion and besmirched our faith. I have fought and will continue to do so for my people, for Sharia, so that Afghanistan can grow and prosper in the path traced by the Prophet. Because the Qur’an tells us that we have to engage in jihad, for Islam and for Allah.” Shiraaha Intezar’s face preserves the memory of the boy he was. The gaze is sincere, enthusiastic. His cheeks are covered with scraggly adolescent fuzz, in imitation of the thick Assyrian beards of his superiors, and every statement is a tribute to the inexhaustible legalistic zeal and splendour of the Emirate.
“Since we have taken over Afghanistan, crime is disappearing. The corruption that used to infest the country is no longer common. We’re fighting against drug trafficking, and we’ve banned the cultivation of opium poppies.” Shiraaha is in charge of distributing humanitarian aid in one of Kabul’s central neighbourhoods. While hundreds of women covered in burkas and men leaning against wheelbarrows and carts wait their turn to receive their rations, Shiraaha checks that no one steals the food and there are no incidents. He flaunts the Kalashnikov he carries over his shoulder proudly, because it is his automatic rifle that has given him the right to live regressively, in a glorious past which someone taught him about and that he imagines was heavenly. “I went to school in a madrasa. I studied the Qur’an and I fought and I’m a great mujahideen.” This is the gist of the story of the young Taliban commander, who spent his life first enduring war and then waging it in the name of an absolute and uncompromising providentialism that drives him beyond the limits of fear and criticism.
Shiraaha is a young Afghan who has seen nothing but weapons, only heard explosions. He learned to recite the Qur’an even before he knew how to read and has only known injustices, to the point where he is unable to harbour doubts. He has become an armed executor, who in the irrationality of fanaticism has found a viaticum to settle the accounts pending with the wrongs of the past. “You keep saying that we’re terrorists and that’s why you don’t recognise our state. But it was you who killed more than 50,000 Afghan citizens and bombed this country. And now we just want to govern in keeping with the laws of the Qur’an, helping people, respecting everyone’s rights, including those of women, which you say we violate but which we protect, because we show them the path they need to follow to live by the rules given us by the Prophet.” Shared with thousands of other mujaheddin patrolling the streets of the capital in shalwar khameez, wearing sandals and toting AK-47s, Shiraah’s is a tautological creed that admits of no questions and accepts no arguments.
The heat is melting the asphalt in Kabul’s streets. In Massoud Square, as if to disfigure the memory of the Lion of Panjshir, a gigantic flag of the Emirate has been painted on it and a child is selling stickers and pennants of the new government amid congested traffic. Women wear the burqa, though it’s not compulsory but strongly recommended, and in public taxis they are forced to travel in the boot if a man who is not their husband is in the vehicle.
On the walls of what were once the headquarters of the Western forces and which today house the ministries of the new government, there are murals celebrating the Taliban victory. While the army stands guard at checkpoints, the religious police, dressed in white and wielding M16s, work zealously to enforce the dictates of the Holy Book. The guardians of morals patrol all the city streets. On public transport they make sure that women travel covered by hijabs. They smear paint on the windows of barbers and fashion shops wherever there are portraits of female faces. They check public places making sure no alcohol is served. They listen to and arbitrate on family disputes. They have eyes and ears everywhere. They are the armed wing of one of the most widely feared and controversial organs of the new Afghan executive: the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
“Our task is extremely important because it was entrusted to us directly by the Prophet.” This is how the spokesman of the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice Hakif Mohaj Mohajir explains the importance of his position in the new government. The flag of the Emirate covers the whole wall behind him. The new leaflets reminding women to wear the full veil on public transport, fresh off the press, can be seen on his desk, and the Taliban leader decides to begin the interview with the question of women. “I’m sure there’s no country in the world where women’s rights are respected and defended as they are in Afghanistan. All over the world you hear of rapes and violence committed against women. Here in Afghanistan, since we’ve been in power, none of this happens anymore.” The ministry spokesman adds, “The police in this ministry are good and kind to the population. They counsel people not to do what is not accepted by Islam and instead to do what is right by Islam. We do not punish people who fail to respect the law of the Qur’an with corporal punishment. We have a protocol that we follow. The first time a person is caught breaking the rules, we explain why what they are doing is wrong. The second time, again, we explain why it’s not correct. The third time we issue threats. The fourth time they get a warning, and the fifth time they are taken to court.”
We ask what the biggest differences from the first Emirate are and whether violence is still considered a legitimate instrument for enforcing the law and punishing transgressors. At that point the reply comes caustic and accusatory: “The United States and the West think that we’re villains and terrorists. It couldn’t be less true. We represent the Afghan people, and it was the USA that froze our country’s funds causing an economic crisis that is currently suffocating Afghan families. Isn’t that a violent act?”
Evening is about to fall and Shahid Dan Square, Kandahar’s Martyrs’ Square, is crowded with people and vendors’ stalls selling fruit and sweets for the “Feast of the Sacrifice”. Streams of blood flow from the halal butchers’ shops where lambs are being slaughtered, while dozens of children play in the street. They all wear the traditional shalwar kameez and run around in sandals. Some have their eyes made up with kajal. All hold toy Kalashnikovs. They pretend to shoot, running, jumping and playing war, imitating their fathers and older brothers. “When I grow up I’ll be a mujahideen,” shouts a boy to amused laughter from the adults. They invite him to pose for the camera, with his toy rifle and index finger raised. And this remains the snapshot that captures the essence of Afghanistan.