Taliban are at it again: Dragging Afghanistan back to dark ages

In an age when political honeymoons are becoming shorter and shorter, ten months is a long time. Almost an age. It was exactly ten months ag...

In an age when political honeymoons are becoming shorter and shorter, ten months is a long time. Almost an age. It was exactly ten months ago that thanks to the abrupt withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan the Taliban dramatically rode back to power — making a very public not to repeat the abuses that had marred their previous five-year rule in the 1990s.

“Relax! We will behave ourselves this time,” they repeatedly told the world haunted by memories of their vandalism and assault on civil liberties, especially women and minorities’ rights.

So, how does the balance sheet look like as we approach the first anniversary of Taliban rule? What’s the state of play in relation to the promises they made amid such fanfare? And where is Afghanistan headed?

Last week, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval joined his counterparts from Russia, China, Iran and a group of Central Asian countries in Dushanbe (26-27 May) to find out. And the unambiguous message, for all the diplomatic sugar-coating, was that under the Taliban’s chaotic rule Afghanistan is hurtling towards an abyss of religious extremism, economic collapse, and terrorism. In other words, a far cry from the pledges of good behaviour we heard from the Taliban leadership last August.

AJit Doval

Take any parameter — economy, governance, militancy — and you find that not only have they failed to deliver but are determinedly driving things in the opposite direction. It’s almost like watching a slow-motion replay of their 1990s agenda.

The headline news out of Dushanbe was a rare show of unity as India and China signed off on a joint statement — along with Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan — warning the Taliban against allowing Afghanistan to become a breeding ground for terrorism again after 20 years of relative peace. They wanted the regime to take “more realistic” and visible measures to “eradicate” all forms of terrorist activity.

As I write this, the UN monitoring team on Afghanistan has expressed concern that Pakistan-based terror groups Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) are present in Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan where they run training camps and have deep links with the ruling regime, including meetings at the top level. It also found a significant presence of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in Afghanistan, mostly in Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Paktika and Zabul provinces.

To be honest, nobody seriously believed that Afghanistan would suddenly become a peace haven, but there was an expectation that in their new “reformed” avatar Taliban would at least make some effort to rein in violent extremist groups — only if to gain international legitimacy. But clearly old habits die hard. And the same goes for the Taliban’s antediluvian attitude towards human rights, particularly in relation to women.

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Doval’s forceful intervention over the issue represented a refreshing break from India’s diplomatic silence until now. So far, India had carefully avoided commenting on Afghanistan's domestic policies — focusing, instead, on humanitarian and development assistance. But obviously, its patience has finally snapped as the prospects of inclusive governance (promised by the Taliban when they assumed power) has progressively receded hardliners have consolidated their control over the organisation.

The past ten months have seen a systematic undermining of individual rights, especially relentless attacks on women’s independence — the latest being their edict ordering women TV presenters and reporters to cover their faces in addition to wearing hijab they had already been required to do. In other words, you can barely see their eyes and make sense of what they are saying in their muffled voice.

“We are wearing hijab, we hide our hair, but it's very difficult for a presenter to cover their face for two or three hours consecutively and talk like that,” said one presenter.

To its credit, the Danube conference didn’t pull its punches in criticising it. In his address, Doval while acknowledging the “historic” ties between India and Afghanistan and reiterating Delhi’s continued commitment to nation-building efforts, forcefully articulated India’s concern over the steady erosion of women’s hard-won freedoms.

Underlining the need for “inclusive governance” and “representation of all sections of Afghan society including women and minorities”, he called for “foremost priority” to protection of human rights.

“Provision of education to girls and employment to women and youth will ensure productivity and spur growth. It will also have a positive social impact including discouraging radical ideologies among youth,” he said.

In a sense, he was simply reminding the Taliban of their promises. Weeks after assuming power, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the head of the Taliban’s political office, told Al Jazeera that they were in the process of forming an inclusive government. This is what he said: “I assure the people that we strive to improve their living conditions, and that the government will be responsible to everyone and will provide security because it is necessary for economic development, not just in Afghanistan but in the whole world.”

Members of the Taliban. AP

That was then. Today, women are struggling to be seen and heard. The absence of any woman representative in the government despite repeated assurances to the contrary speaks for itself amid a concerted attempt to strip women of their identity. Looking back, it’s obvious all that Taliban talk about change was for the birds — a sham.

By all accounts, the old Taliban are back. And with bells on. Forcing women TV journalists to mask their faces is part of the drip-drip Talibanisation — rather re-Talibanisation — of Afghanistan and comes in the wake of a series of other restrictions imposed on women such as assigning separate days for them to visit public parks and barring them from travelling without a male guardian.

Even in a country used to arbitrary and cruel diktats the crackdown on female broadcasters has sent shockwaves.

In extraordinary scenes, dubbed #FreeHerFace, their men colleagues turned up in black face masks in solidarity at the risk of inviting disciplinary action. This was unprecedented in a deeply patriarchal society where it is often said that scratch even the most liberal man and you will find misogyny bubbling under the surface.

“We are in deep grief today,” wrote Khpolwak Sapai, the male boss of one leading channel, on Facebook.

Many female presenters broke down after being told by their bosses that any attempt to defy the orders could cost them their jobs. After some women initially refused to comply, Taliban officials threatened to talk to their managers and guardians of the presenters to make sure they fell in line.

Women fear that with the Taliban's return to power they will lose the rights they fought for in the last two decades. The last time the Taliban was in power, from 1996 to 2001, girls were not allowed to attend school. The Taliban also forbade women from attending university or going to work. However, this time it has permitted women to be educated, though it said that they would have be segregated. AFP

“They want to erase women from social and political life,” TOLOnews presenter Farida Sial told the BBC.

Amid fears that the Taliban are setting the clock back on women’s rights, the United Nations Security Council has called on the Taliban to “swiftly reverse” such policies. In an unanimously adopted statement the council’s 15 member states said they were particularly concerned with the Taliban’s “imposition of restrictions that limit access to education, employment, freedom of movement, and women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in public life”.

But the Taliban’s moral police, the so-called Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which issued the orders, has made clear that the decision is final and there is no room for any discussion let alone concessions. Their conduct has confirmed people's worst fears, and a quiet resistance is building up, especially among the young.

A whole new generation of Afghan men and women has come of age over the past two decades and its values are very different from those the Taliban are trying to ram down its throat. These young men and women see individual freedoms as their legitimate democratic right and are unlikely to give them up without a fight as we have seen in recent weeks. If any evidence of the changed national mood was needed, the sight of women TV presenters’ male colleagues publicly standing up with them in solidarity provided it. And the Taliban would be foolish to ignore it. Hubris never pays.

The author is an independent commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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