Despite soothing words, the Taliban are much as they were

Updated: October 14th, 2021 06:50 PM IST

Despite soothing words, the Taliban are much as they were. | Analysis by @NicRobertsonCNN & @TimListerCNN

Despite soothing words, the Taliban are much as they were

During five years in power until 2001, they banished women to their homes, banned music and most sport and imposed pitiless punishments on offenders. Adulterers were stoned in public; thieves had their hands amputated. Criminals were hanged for all to see.

Anything that didn’t fit their austere interpretation of Sharia was a target. They blew up the centuries-old Buddhas of Bamiyan, because they saw art that depicted the human form as an affront to God.

The Taliban came from a rural, deeply conservative setting — where their perception of religious purity and pious cultural traditions outweighed anything the modern world could offer: education, technology, discourse, the very idea of choice.

They believe their success was God-given. Anas Haqqani, a member of Afghanistan’s most powerful family, told CNN that the Taliban “succeeded against 52 [countries]. It is not due to the worldly plan; it is because of the blessing of the faith.”

It followed that running the country would have but one inspiration. Khalil Haqqani — Anas’ uncle and a minister in the interim government — told a tribal summit in Kabul: “The aim was to create a pure Islamic government in Afghanistan, a government which is centered on justice and whose laws are divine. It will be based on one book, that of God and his prophet. That book is the holy Quran.”

The Taliban also see themselves as the vanguard of a national uprising in which Afghans threw off an alien culture imposed by foreigners. Anas Haqqani told CNN that the West “must not try to impose its culture and thoughts/beliefs on Afghans.” A chilling message for the many Afghans who valued the freedoms of the last 20 years.

The Taliban truly believe they defeated America — and that’s enormously empowering for their ideology. Haqqani compared the Taliban to George Washington, telling CNN he had “liberate[d] his homeland; he had defeated the British; he had gained independence from them. Here our elders are heroes for their nation … they have liberated their land; they have defended their religion and honor.”

The Taliban’s spokesman said on August 15 as the group moved into Kabul that they might have surprised the world but not themselves “because we have roots among the people.”

In their southern heartlands and among small farmers, this is true. In the cities, and especially Kabul, less so. For all the corruption and nepotism of US-backed governments in Afghanistan, the health, wealth and education of Afghans improved by almost every metric in the 20 years since the Taliban were last in power. A vibrant independent media expressed a wide range of views; private universities flourished. A whole generation of Afghans tasted freedom.

As they surged from one province to another, the Taliban floated the possibility of a more tolerant reincarnation. The word “inclusive” tripped from their spokesmen’s lips; they let most soldiers go home rather than kill them. They promised amnesty for all adversaries.

The day the Taliban swept into Kabul, Suhail Shaheen, now the Taliban’s proposed envoy to the United Nations, assured CNN that girls would be educated up to university age.

And in the days after they ousted the previous government, there was a big show of talking to former President Hamid Karzai and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. There were tribal gatherings in Kabul.

The reality has looked very different. The talks with Karzai and Abdullah evaporated. Their personal security remains tenuous. The caretaker government was stocked with veteran hardliners. There were no women in the government, nor in any public position; the Ministry for Women became the Ministry for the Protection of Virtue.

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