Monday, September 20

Gyms, Ice Cream, and Bumper Cars: Have the Taliban Really Changed in 20 Years?

Taliban in the gym. Taliban in bumper cars. Taliban eating ice cream. Taliban interviewed by women. Taliban wanting to convey an image of change to a skeptical international community that seeks how to relate to the new regime while simply asking that they keep their promises.

They are gestures that dissolve like sugar as the tragedy for the Afghan people unfolds. Following the capture of Kabul by Islamic insurgents, the first protests against the Taliban have been put down by fire in cities such as Jalalabal, where several civilians have died defending the country’s flag over that of the Islamists. In Kabul, female students cannot go to university and schools are closed. From the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, it warns of “chilling reports of human rights abuses, and restrictions on the rights of people, especially women and girls, in some parts of the country “in recent weeks.

The facts do not seem to show any will for change with respect to the Taliban regime that between 1996 and 2001 imposed an ultra-orthodox vision of Islamic law that prevented women from studying or working, leaving home if they were not accompanied by a man from their family and it required a burqa to cover themselves completely. Men were forced to grow beards, cinemas were closed, and music, chess and games of chance were banned.

The regime also established the stoning of adulterers, the amputation of robbers’ hands, the flogging of homosexuals and the death penalty for Afghan Muslims who convert to another religion or invite conversion.

Are today’s Taliban different from those who were defeated in 2001? When the Taliban regime fell after the US invasion, the leaders of the movement fled, but the group did not dissolve, they were always there. As Jesús Núñez, co-director of the Institute for Conflict Studies and Humanitarian Action (IECAH), the Taliban “never disappeared from the scene.” Thus, he recalls how, on the one hand, some “spread out on the ground, which they knew better than the invader, and if for this they had to put on a burqa and pretend to be a woman, they did it.” “Others moved to Pakistan and continued to live among Pashtun communities, which are basically the fundamental base of the Taliban movement,” continues the expert, who points out that while some stayed within the territory to fight the new authorities and the United States, others went in looking for “other scenarios”, also from a political point of view, which led them to open their own office of the insurgents in Qatar and have their own interlocutors, something key for the Islamists to have regained power.

Since then, they have held talks with the United States, the Afghan government and the Gulf states, have discussed humanitarian solutions with the United Nations and NGOs, have been active on social media and have organized civil committees.

Old acquaintances

The new Taliban leaders are old acquaintances. Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban leader who was released from a Pakistani prison at the request of the United States less than three years ago, now emerges as the undisputed military victor of a 20-year war. Baradar held various military and administrative positions in the five years of the Taliban regime. When the Taliban were ousted from power by the United States and its Afghan allies, he was the deputy defense minister.

Despite these new appearances and the addition of waves of young fighters to the movement, the objective remains the same as that defended by the former Taliban leaders, explains Núñez: “To govern Afghanistan according to their own strict views of Islam.” Another thing, adds the expert, is that so that they can now consolidate their power they need “arms to do the task and time to consolidate.”

Within this need would be explained the attempt to give that “moderate” image from which they have promised a “general amnesty” for Afghan citizens. Núñez warns that it is a matter of rhythm and that need for “time to consolidate their power”, but that when it is consolidated, “they will obviously carry out the corresponding purges.”

At the moment, it seems that the Taliban discourse is not convincing the Afghan population either, and thousands of citizens are still desperately trying to leave the country. Governments such as the German have denounced that they fear they will not be able to evacuate those citizens who collaborated with their diplomacy, since the Taliban block access to the airport to anyone who is not a foreigner.

Another issue on which the new Taliban regime tries to project restraint is the treatment of women. Since they took full control of Afghanistan on Sunday with the capture of Kabul, hitherto unpublished images have followed, such as seeing female journalists interviewing Taliban leaders.

“We are going to allow women to work and study (…) women are going to be a very active part of society, but within the framework of Islam,” the main Taliban spokesman, Zabihulla Mujahid, said at a press conference. “There will be no discrimination against women, but always within the margins that we have. Our women are Muslim and they are also happy to live under the sharia,” the spokesman insisted.

For Núñez, the translation of these words is clear: “There will be no rights for women, it is as simple as that.”

UN skepticism

For now, the UN mistrustfully welcomes the promises of the Taliban leaders and warns that it will follow “very closely” the fulfillment of these promises. “They have promised to be inclusive. They have said that women can work and girls can go to school. These promises will have to be kept, but for now, due to recent history, these statements have been met with some skepticism. However, promises have been made, and whether they are kept or broken will be the subject of close scrutiny, “said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Jesús Núñez is blunt about whether changes can be expected in the new Taliban regime. “No, we cannot deceive ourselves in any way. No matter what they say, they are who they are, they want what they want,” he assured. The expert adds that they know that to achieve their objectives – “arms and time” – they must not cross any “red line that forces the great powers to intervene”.

These red lines would be attacks on western territories or become a refuge for Al Qaeda or Daesh. Concerned about the terrorist threat has been the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, who warned that Western nations must unite to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for international terrorist groups again. For his part, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, asked the UN Security Council on Monday to “use all the tools at its disposal to suppress the global terrorist threat in Afghanistan.” French President Emmanuel Macron has also appealed to the international community to prevent the country from becoming, once again, “an oasis for terrorists.”

Jesús Núñez analyzes with skepticism the concern of the international community: “The fate of Afghans, women or not, does not matter exactly the same. As long as they do not cross those red lines, there will be many declarations of condemnation and concern, but no one is going to move a hair for Afghans. The objective of the invasion and occupation for 20 years has never been the welfare or safety of the Afghans, or human rights. The main victims, the Afghans, are left once again to their fate “, denounces the expert.

For the IECAH co-director, “there is nothing that suggests that this discourse that appears moderation is sincere. They have a very specific mission and on top of that they have won. Why are they going to change?” High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, Josep Borrell, asked if he thinks the current Taliban are different from those who ruled Afghanistan in 2001: “Apparently they seem the same, but they speak better English.”