Defending his decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan President Joe Biden said Tuesday he was making good on his election campaign promise to end America’s long-running war in the central Asian country. Afghans — and the world — are now watching nervously to see if the Taliban will keep their word and tread a more moderate path than they did the last time they held power from 1996 to 2001.
Or will they return to imposing their harsh interpretation of sharia law on a country that’s changed in the past two decades, forcing women to cover themselves from head to foot and preventing them from venturing outside unless accompanied by a male relative?
Will they prohibit teenage girls from attending schools? Will they shutter cinemas and ban music and TV? Will there be public lashings and executions again for those who offend the Taliban’s sharia?
During diplomatic talks in Qatar this year and last, Taliban leaders gave assurances that women would enjoy equal rights in accordance with what was granted by Islam, including being able to work and receive education. They also gave the impression they have become more moderate and that they are ready to be more inclusive and to protect minority rights.
But the thousands mobbing Kabul airport hoping to gain a place on evacuation flights, clearly aren’t persuaded by Taliban assurances — and neither are many Afghan exiles, who remain skeptical and deeply alarmed by what Taliban rule will mean in practice, especially for women and girls. They say that victory after 20 years of fighting will be seen by the Taliban as vindication of their austere cause.
They include Khaled Hosseini, author of the international bestseller Kite Runner, who remains deeply skeptical. On Sunday, he retweeted some images of the Taliban parading alleged thieves with their faces blackened: “Some say the Taliban have changed. This is Herat, yesterday. These images might as well have been taken in 1997,” he wrote.
So far, the picture that’s emerging is mixed. In Kabul, newly arrived Kalashnikov-wielding Taliban fighters are seemingly friendly, some nervous locals say, and are contenting themselves with parading city streets in beaten-up trucks. They have been taking selfies and refraining from firing their AK47s in the air, known as ‘happy fire,’ to celebrate their victory. The Taliban have urged Afghans to remain and not to leave the country out of fear, saying in a statement, “No one's life, property and dignity will be harmed and the lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be at risk.”
A Taliban spokesperson has said the group has no intention of engaging in revenge killings and has said Afghan government officials and the Afghan military have nothing to fear as they will be forgiven. Government workers have been urged to go to do work. “A general amnesty has been declared for all. . . so, you should start your routine life with full confidence,” the Taliban said.
Tolo News, the country’s leading news channel, has resumed broadcasting including with women newsreaders.
But Western diplomats based in Kabul contacted by VOA say they remain anxious and fear this is the lull before the storm. With the makeup of the new Taliban administration unclear, they say, it is difficult to gauge how the Taliban will govern. They say, however, Taliban fighters are much more aggressive around Kabul airport and have been tearing up the Afghan passports of some people they stop. They also noted that battle-hardened, harder-line Taliban fighters from the regions had started to pour into the capital.
Some diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they fear the Taliban will switch once they have consolidated their power. Others worry that more hardline elements of the movement will push more moderate figures aside, especially if resistance emerges in the mountainous Panjshir region, where Ahmad Massoud, son of a charismatic warlord assassinated by al-Qaida, is reportedly forming a nascent anti-Taliban movement.
Civilians in Kabul are guarded, saying until the Taliban announce the rules they will impose, it is impossible to know what life will be like — restricted, at best, or harsh, at worst. Store-owners who sell items the Taliban might disapprove have not reopened.
But elsewhere there are alarming signs. In Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace, the group’s leaders there announced they have taken over the city’s main radio broadcaster, renaming it the Voice of Sharia. The station is no longer playing music.
The killing this week by Taliban fighters of a well-known comic, Nazar Mohammad, whose stage-name was Khasha Zwan, has raised fears of revenge killings. He was slapped, punched and abused before being shot. A video of the incident went viral. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has acknowledged that the men attacking him were Taliban, but said they would go on trial.
The massacre in June of 22 members of an Afghan Special Forces unit who surrendered in the town of Dawlat Abad, near the border with Turkmenistan, might be a sign of things to come, despite the announcement of a general amnesty, fear some locals. And local reports are emerging from different parts of the country of abuse and women being ordered to cover up and stop going to work.
But it isn’t just the promises the Taliban have made to Afghans that will be closely scrutinized. Western powers — as well as Russia — are waiting to see if the group abides by assurances it gave during the Qatar talks that it will not become a safe haven once again for al-Qaida and other international jihadists. Some Western intelligence officials have told VOA there are already signs of some jihadist factions returning to Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, Raffaello Pantucci, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense think tank, says he draws some comfort from the pragmatism seen recently from the Taliban. "There is little evidence to suggest the insurgents have changed their hardline views in their 20 years of opposition,” he wrote in a commentary Monday. “Yet at the same time, the Taliban has developed some pragmatism during their time in the wilderness,” he adds.
He notes that the Taliban are going to need foreign aid and that most of that will have to come from the West. And other analysts say Afghanistan’s near neighbors and regional powers, including Russia and China, have no interest in seeing instability in the country and also fear the export of terrorism and terrorists as much as the West.
Jihadist clerics and al-Qaida supporters have been celebrating on social media accounts the recent events in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is Conquered and Islam has Won,” said one posting translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist media. And pro-Qaida accounts have been mocking Afghans who contracted with the U.S. government and are seeking to leave the country. Alberto Fernandez, vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, another monitor of jihadist social media, dubbed the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan: “al-Qaida's biggest victory in a generation.
Former British foreign minister Philip Hammond isn’t convinced. He warned this week of “not just a humanitarian crisis but no doubt in time a counter-terrorism crisis for the West.” Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defense select committee in the House of Commons, agrees with that dark assessment. “We’re actually seeing terrorist organizations now regroup and return back to their havens,” he told a British broadcaster.