A Taliban claim that it has moved away from its strict restrictions on the local Afghan population has been received with skepticism, with some observers warning that the militants continue to violate fundamental human rights in remote Afghan districts they control.
Before their ouster by the U.S. in 2001, the Taliban imposed very repressive rules in Afghanistan, particularly on women.
The militant group that entered into a peace deal with the U.S. in recent months has portrayed itself as reforming its views.
However, some experts charge the group’s pledges to modernize can be a tactical move to gain international recognition.
Andrew Watkins, a senior Afghanistan analyst at the International Crisis Group, told VOA the militants are trying to adapt to their exposure to the outside world, with their representatives learning the “language of international diplomacy.”
Watkins warned that the Taliban throughout 19 years of war with the U.S. have protected “much of their ideology” by which they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. He said the change in tone showed “a bit of tactical or strategic move to begin speaking all of the right terms.”
Human Rights Watch, in a report last month, said that the Taliban continue with their extreme restrictions in the areas they control. It said that despite the Taliban officially claiming it no longer objected to girls’ education, some Taliban would not allow girls’ schools at all and only a few of them would allow girls to go to school after puberty.
“What the Taliban say at the leadership level ...does not mean that is what happens on the ground,” John Sifton, the Asia Advocacy Director at HRW told VOA.
Sifton said the Taliban’s local commanders “interpret things their own way.”
The watchdog group accused the Taliban of restrictions on media and freedom of expression in the areas they controlled. It said the group’s public punishment measures were “infrequent” compared to the 1990s but its “vice and virtue” police continued imprisonment and corporal punishment, such as beating.
The Taliban have rejected the HRW’s accusations as propaganda, calling them “spiteful and politically motivated.”
Stressing a shift in the militants’ direction, Mawlai Qalamuddin, a former deputy head of the Taliban’s Promotion of Virtue and Elimination of Vice, told VOA the Taliban were committed to protecting basic rights of civilians, including the rights of women and girls to education.
Qalamuddin said the Taliban restrictions on women’s education in the past had to do with lack of infrastructure.
“At that time, there were no places for education, no transportation, or designated institutions for women’s education. But now we have [facilities]. If there is security and a stable state, then women would be given full rights based on Islamic law,” he said.
The Taliban leadership is mainly based outside of Afghanistan, though it maintains control over the group inside the country through a shadow government.
According to Long War Journal (LWJ), the Taliban control 20 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts and contest about 50 percent of the districts. There are 4.5 million people living in the areas controlled by the Taliban, and 12 million Afghans are living in the contested areas.
Shinkai Karokhail, a member of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament, told VOA that there was a major disparity between what the Taliban do on the ground and what their political mouthpieces say.
The “Taliban’s political office issues statements but they do not take responsibility for the violations that take place in the areas the Taliban control,” said Karokhail.
According to Qamar Niazi, an advisor to Helmand’s governor and a women rights activist, gender norms hindered girls’ education in her province. She said that the Taliban has allowed boys to go to school “which is a positive change.” But the militants’ extremist view on girls’ education has seen “no major change.”
Niazi added that she and other activists in Helmand could only work with women from four districts that are under full government control. The activists are blocked from accessing another nine districts of the province where the Taliban has influence.
Sifton of HRW told VOA that the Taliban in areas such as Kunduz province maintained an inconsistent approach towards female education, allowing girls to go to school in some areas, while providing no female schools or only allowing girls education until puberty in other areas.
“They say that there is right to education, but then they say: If a local community does not want education to be there for girls,then there won’t be,” said Sifton, calling it a “violation of those girls’ rights.”
After the Taliban were removed from power in late 2001, the new Afghan government and the international community pledged to get all girls to school.
Nevertheless, data from the U.N.’s children’s agency UNICEF shows that only 50 percent of girls, of the official primary school age, attended primary or secondary education in 2015. Rights organizations say the number of girls going to school has been dropping in recent years due to insecurity, poverty, and displacement.
Some activists and observers say monitoring rights violations in Taliban-controlled areas could be a life-threatening task. The militants have imposed strict regulations on media, requiring journalists to obtain permission before any reporting.
“One cannot go on his own,” said Sami Serat, a journalist working with a local radio station in Helmand.
“It is dangerous to go to those areas, you can get killed,” he told VOA.
The 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Afghanistan 122nd out of 180 nations for violations against journalists. The organization said press freedom in Afghanistan faced a “permanent threat” from the Taliban, the Islamic State, warlords, and corrupt political officials.
Given the Taliban’s unwillingness to change, a possible return of the extremist group to power in Afghanistan would be a ‘tragedy’, warned Scott Smith, a senior expert for Afghanistan peace processes at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP).
“I think the international community will look very carefully at the kind of government that it will be funding and would want to see (that) some of these basic rights are reflected in the agreement so that it can justify ...that it is not funding the Taliban’s government like the 1990s,” said Smith, adding that the Taliban have to understand that any future government in Afghanistan would depend on international funding.