South Asia

Killings and Mounting Cruelty Burst PR Efforts of an Unrepentant Taliban

No ordinary civilian, police, or military carries whips. Only a sadist, barbaric group like the Taliban could brandish whips at the drop of a hat.

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Antony: And let us presently go sit in council
How covert matters may be best disclosed,
And open perils surest answered. 

Octavius: Let us do so. For we are at the stake
And bayed about with many enemies.
And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs.

– William Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar

 After completing a whirlwind military victory over Afghanistan, the Taliban is back in Kabul.

Having captured the land, the Taliban wants to get legitimacy at home and recognition internationally. The jihadist group has used every terrorist tactic and brutality along the way but now wishes to be acknowledged and accepted as an ostensibly new and improved outfit that respects life and liberty.

While the Taliban’s sweep across the country consisted of both battlefield victories and negotiated surrenders of the government forces and people’s resistance, obtained through monetary and tribal arrangements, it was also strewn with atrocities against the vanquished.

But once inside the capital, the Taliban has spoken and acted with a cautious restraint, as if putting its best foot and face forward. And the maiden press conference by the Taliban’s spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, who had only been heard but never seen in the 20 years prior, made it clear that the group has certainly become much more media-savvy over two decades.

Zabiullah Mujahid was speaking at the state media and information centre. He first delivered prepared remarks and then took questions, which he answered in Pashto, Dari, and through an English interpreter.

Mujahid chose each word carefully and meticulously laid out the Taliban’s immediate post-conquest agenda, directed clearly at both the domestic and international audiences. He spoke about the end of hostilities and a general amnesty for all pledged national reconciliation and no revenge or retribution, an outreach to former adversaries and a government inclusive of non-Taliban groups, assured of media freedoms and the rights of women within the confines of Shariah laws, and that the Taliban won’t allow the Afghan soil to be used by foreign transnational jihadists.

So, if the Taliban is saying nearly all the right things, what is the problem then?

Did everyone not want it to change and say that it has changed? Well, the Taliban has a very long history of brutality, treachery, and reneging on its words. It is, therefore, its actions – and not the ones in the remote past, but those leading up to and after seizing Kabul – that one has to look closely at to vet its words.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan August 17, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

For example, the very chair Zabiullah Mujahid sat in and spoke about reform and respect, which was previously occupied by the media centre’s civilian director, Dawa Khan Menapal. The Taliban assassinated Menapal just days prior to the presser and Mujahid had himself claimed the killing on behalf of the terror group.

When asked about the assassination during the press conference, Mujahid deflected by saying that the previous government had started the fighting. He glossed over the fact that Menapal was not a military man but a civilian, whose targeted killing might even constitute a war crime.

Mujahid’s reassurance to the journalists also sounded hollow. The Taliban had captured, tortured, and killed the Reuters’ photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, and then mutilated his body during their first major battlefield victory.

After taking Kabul, the Taliban has raided the homes of several journalists and activists and killed a relative of a Deutsche Welle journalist. This forced others to go into hiding and erase their digital and cyber presence. The Taliban spokesman’s pledge to let women have the right to education and work was also contradicted by the fact his men had turned away a female broadcaster Khadija Amin when she showed up for work that day at the same building. The next day the Taliban fired Shabnam Dawran, another female presenter at the state-owned television.

Also read: ‘Ominous Sign,’ Says CPJ as Taliban Remove Women News Anchors, Beat up Reporters

Outside the swamped Kabul airport, the Taliban whipped women and children trying to get in. That an armed insurgent untrained in policing can use harsh tactics could potentially be rationalised but why were they carrying medieval short snake whips begs the question of whether they planned to become moderate only after entering Kabul.

No ordinary civilian, police, or military carries whips. Only a sadist, barbaric group like the Taliban could brandish whips at the drop of a hat.

The Taliban’s claim of a general amnesty, including for the government forces, couldn’t be farther from the truth. The terrorist group is hunting for the members of the Afghan military and intelligence service, as well as for their relatives. The Taliban operatives are reportedly sifting through government databases to compile lists of servicemen and others, especially those who worked with the US and coalition forces.

Fearing reprisals, scores of Afghan servicemen fled to the neighbouring countries, after the government’s collapse in Kabul, but the Taliban threatens to arrest or kill their relatives if they don’t turn themselves in. But that’s not it. The Taliban shot and killed common citizens who had come out to protest the militant group’s act of removing the tricolour Afghan national flag from the border crossings and the presidential palace and planting its emirate banner, as an anti-Afghan action.

In cities across Afghanistan, including Kabul, men and women, who carried and planted the Afghan republic’s standard, had demonstrated against the Taliban and were beaten up or shot at and killed. 

The Taliban has assured religious freedom to the minorities, including the country’s sizeable Shia population. The group sent a delegation to Kabul’s Hazara Shia community, which attended a Muharram commemoration and subsequently provided security for the subdued Ashura processions. But in the Hazara heartland, the Bamiyan province, the Taliban blew up a statue of Abdul-Ali Mazari, a Hazara Shia leader who had led the resistance against its emirate in the 1990s.

 Mazari had been captured, killed, and possibly thrown out from a helicopter by the Taliban when he came to negotiate peace with them. But more importantly, Amnesty International has confirmed that the Taliban brutally tortured and massacred nine Hazara Shia men, after capturing the Ghazni province.

A Human Rights Watch investigation had found that the Taliban had executed 44 detainees including civilians, after running over Kandahar. But Zabiullah Mujahid had blatantly lied and vehemently denied such a thing when the massacres were reported earlier.

Like Zabiullah Mujahid’s every other claim, his assertion that the Taliban would not allow foreign fighters to operate from Afghan soil, is also a pack of lies. The slick, repackaged Taliban managed to assuage the west by executing Abu Omar Khorasani the leader of the Islamic State in Khorasan (ISIK), after taking him out of Kabul prison. While the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and most of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) remain joined at the hip, they view and treat ISIS, especially the ISIK, as ideological and battlefield rivals.

It was a no-brainer for an ascendant Taliban to eliminate a fierce competitor. But it’s another story when it comes to its affiliates. Reports had already emerged of foreign fighters pouring into Kabul and manning checkpoints under the aegis of the Taliban’s lethal terrorist wing, the Haqqani Network (HQN). Now, the Taliban has put the HQN in charge of security in Kabul as well as one of its primary negotiators with the former Afghan officials and leaders.

As a UN report had also noted recently, the head of the HQN, Sirajuddin Haqqani is not only a deputy emir of the Taliban but also a member of al-Qaeda’s wider leadership. The Taliban has also freed thousands of al-Qaeda fighters from the Afghan government’s prisons it captured. The group has also sprung from prison Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, the deputy leader of its TTP cohort.

Jubilant TTP cadres took out a cavalcade in Afghanistan, to celebrate his release, and both Faqir Muhammad and their emir Noor Wali Mehsud renewed their pledge of allegiance to the Taliban emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada.

The Taliban’s actions clearly belie its claims of change, moderation, and tolerance. But why is it engaging in talks with the Afghan political, ethno-national, and religious leadership, when it has prevailed militarily? The answers are complex, but it seems that primarily, the Taliban and its chief patron, Pakistan, do not wish to repeat the experiences of 1992 and 1996 when war preceded any arrangement to govern and consolidate power.

When the Mujahideen, backed by Pakistan, the US, and Saudi Arabia, toppled the communist government of Dr. Mohammad Najibullah in April 1992, they lunged at each other with a vengeance – a situation that Pakistan found impossible to manage.

While Pakistan and Saudi Arabia managed to induce the Mujahideen into a coalition government then, the turf battles morphed into a fully-fledged civil war in which no side could prevail. Smarting from the mayhem, Pakistan subsequently sired and enabled the Taliban to get rid of the unruly Mujahideen, some of whom by then were being backed by India, Iran, and Central Asian Republics, and frustrating its desire to have a pliant Islamist regime in Kabul that toed its diktat.

But the Taliban emirate faced continued armed resistance, from what became known in common parlance as the Northern Alliance, even after a bloody takeover of and planting its dreary banner in Kabul. International recognition, and therefore support, too remained elusive.

Simply put, the plan this time around is for the Taliban to avoid a large-scale armed confrontation with the remnants of the republic and other ethno-national forces able or willing to resist, gain international recognition along with monetary and material support, and consolidate its rule. In essence, it is a continuation of the Taliban strategy vis-à-vis the US to continue preparing for war, while talking peace.

The Taliban and its backers in the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan wish for the emirate to be eased in rather than appear to have been thrust upon Kabul. That the war-weary, defeated and demoralised Afghan people and leaders, have no appetite for another round of armed conflict, makes the Taliban’s job easier.

Afghan security forces stand guard at the entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 15, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

The Taliban’s co-founder and deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the HQN’s Khalil Haqqani and Anas Haqqani are in talks with the former president Hamid Karzai, Chairman of the now-defunct High Council for National Reconciliation Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, leader of the Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and former parliamentarians.

With Joe Biden telling them “drop dead”, the Afghan state and army collapsed, and the Taliban fully in control militarily, there’s not much leverage that any of these interlocutors carry. Another group of Afghans, largely from the northern provinces, held talks with Pakistani officials in Islamabad and conceded that “peace in the region does not seem possible without an alliance with Pakistan.”

For Afghans, there are bad options and worse options, it seems.  

The Taliban, for its part, is likely to keep the Afghan rivals engaged but not compromise on its core tenets, including establishing an emirate. The so-called Shura or consultative democracy is the most it would allow while keeping tight control over who gets to be part of it. Chances are slim to none that it would agree to any form of representative democracy.

The scenes at the Kabul airport show that when the Taliban is an “option”, the Afghan people vote with their feet. The Taliban’s talk of inclusive government is essentially a ruse to keep its enemies closer, till it consolidates a ruthless control over the country. It also needs to keep up the façade to get its leadership off the sanctions lists, get international recognition, and have the Afghan state’s assets unfrozen and released along with other aid.

A member of Taliban forces keeps watch at a checkpost in Kabul, Afghanistan August 17, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

In an extremely unlikely event – and in the face of all the evidence to the contrary – that the Taliban leaders actually mean what they say, they will have an internal crisis at their hand. They could not run an armed terrorist insurgency for two decades in the name of an extreme version of Shariah, only to tell the cadres that after prevailing they are supposed to act moderately.

Even if seen to be lenient, the Taliban would have an internal rebellion from the hardliners, at its hands and risk defections and disarray. The Taliban cannot and will not risk alienating its own cadres and constituents who do expect the austere emirate that they have been promised, to take effect now.

On the other hand, the overwhelming Afghan population, not just the urban centres and Kabul, have become accustomed to civil liberties over the last two decades. Most Afghans have experienced the freedoms of expression, organising, protesting, and voting even if in flawed elections. Girls going to school and women to the workplace have been the norm for post-2001 Afghanistan.

A vibrant media with dozens of television outlets, including entertainment channels, have been part of Afghan life. Above all, Afghanistan is a very young and new country compared to the one at the height of the Taliban’s previous emirate.

As the founder of the country’s largest media group, Saad Mohseni said, “Sixty-five percent of the population is under the age of 20, the median age is 18 … the younger generation of Afghans have never lived under the Taliban rule and that they’re used to media, they’re used to being able to freely express themselves. They’re used to social media.”

A cameraman films a news anchor at Tolo News studio, in Kabul, Afghanistan October 18, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

The Taliban, its ruse notwithstanding, will have to contend with the new realities of the country it seeks to control and rule. The Taliban is in essence an anti-Afghan enterprise set in motion by its Pakistan army patrons, to deface and obliterate the Afghan national identity.

It remains incompatible with the Afghan people and society and is bound to see resistance to its rule, as the Afghans recover from the shock and trauma of betrayalsurrender, and defeat.

Whether the small pocket of armed opposition launched by the former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who has declared himself the president and Ahmad Massoud, a son of the legendary anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, gains traction or makes peace, remains to be seen.

The potential transitional or ostensibly inclusive permanent Taliban government would delay a more formidable challenge to the jihadist rule but not eliminate it permanently. The Taliban has a million mischiefs in its heart, no matter what face it puts on. But the pretence won’t last long and would inevitably entail confrontation and resistance. Afghanistan has a long and perilous road ahead.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.