As Taliban intensify campaign to defeat the Afghanistan forces — gaining territories and strength — fears of a return to the repressive Taliban rule loom large. On Friday, the Taliban captured their first provincial capital, the city of Zaranj, killing the head of government’s Media and Information Centre. The Taliban victories have also led to concerns about widespread human rights violations including revenge killings.
Senior reporter Azaz Syed, who recently went to Afghanistan to cover the emerging situation, told Naya Daur Media that the Taliban have upper hand in terms of land they have captured, but the Afghan government has an edge when it comes to public support.
“The areas in which the Afghan forces surrendered to the Taliban had supply blockade issues. But the Afghan soldiers are valiantly battling it out in urban areas where such issues do not exist,” he says, adding that the Afghans fighting the Taliban are well-motivated to free their land of the insurgents.
Azaz said there were instances of brothers of the fallen Afghan soldiers coming forward to join the fight despite being generally untrained.
An Afghan journalist and analyst who wished not to be named tells Naya Daur that the Afghan government has successfully used Taliban’s violent actions to question their legitimacy and sincerity in the eyes of the public. “The Afghan citizens are largely buying into the government narrative,” he says.
Have the Taliban reformed?
Following the Doha accord, the Taliban leadership softened its tone and was said to have ‘reformed’ themselves. Pakistani officials have also suggested on more than one occasion that the Taliban would now prefer dialogues to violence. The situation on the ground in Afghanistan, however, tells a different tale altogether.
In a recent statement condemning the murder of popular Afghan comedian, Nazar Mohammed, Human Rights Watch (HRW) representative Patricia Gossman said, “Advancing Taliban forces have no blank check to brutally target their critics. The Taliban leadership usually denies the abuses, but it’s their fighters carrying out these attacks and their responsibility to stop the killings.”
A spate of targeted killings in Afghanistan has ensued as Taliban advance. On Wednesday, an Afghan poet and historian, Omar Shirzad, was reportedly tortured and gunned down by Taliban in the country’s south. Several other incidents of targeted attacks have taken place over the past few weeks. The Afghan analyst thinks the Taliban are targeting the population in areas that had resisted them in the past. “Reprisal killings are the hallmark of Taliban,” he says.
Afghanistan’s civil society and media have particularly been hit by the Taliban onslaught. The Afghan journalist further said that one of the biggest achievements of the country in the last 20 years of unrest was a freer press and a vibrant civil society, which is now under attack by the Taliban.
“For the past year, Taliban have been issuing blatant threats to journalists, accusing them of maligning the insurgents. They call you an American agent if you report anything they don’t like,” he said.
At least 12 journalists and media workers were killed in Afghanistan this year, with many of the murders blamed on the Taliban. In May, the Taliban alleged that independent media outlets engaged in ‘one-sided propaganda’, saying that there would be ‘consequences’ for journalists.
As independent journalists face threats, Taliban are said to be carrying out their own propaganda, giving the impression that the public is welcoming them as they advance.
Media reports indicate that the Taliban have blocked access to information in areas they have captured by banning smart phones and social media. Reports also quote some Afghans as saying that they were beaten by the Taliban for criticising them on Facebook.
Afghan activist Maryam Baryalay, head of Kabul-based Organisation for Social Research and Analysis (OSRA), says the Afghan political elite did initially think that the Taliban had changed due to their toned-down statements and how they presented themselves to the world before the fight intensified.
“The general public also believed that the Taliban are not the Taliban of the 90s anymore. “But their true face is revealed now that they have captured districts and are aiming for cities. It is clear that the Taliban will continue their old style of governance,” she tells Naya Daur.
Restrictions imposed in Taliban-controlled areas
In the regions they have captured, the Taliban have barred women from studying and even stepping out of the house without a mehram (male relative). Pamphlets ordering locals to follow strict rules have been distributed. Afghan activists believe the new rules are similar to the ones imposed by the Taliban when they last held power in 2001.
Maryam confirms the reports of Taliban imposing restrictions in the areas they have gained, adding that she has spoken to those who have been conveyed these new rules. “The Taliban have closed girls’ schools. Women’s mobility has been restricted and medical facilities for them have been shut down. Even judicial system and banks are not facilitating women. Their lives, the way they dress – everything has been restricted in various ways,” she says.
When Taliban spokesmen are asked about their position on women rights, they say that women can exercise their rights as long as they operate in accordance to Islamic principles. “But if the Taliban are left to interpret these Islamic principles on their own and decide themselves the extent of limitations they would impose, how can we expect a fair treatment,” Maryam asks.
‘Doha accord undermined the Afghan govt’
Politician and former Senator Afrasiab Khattak is of the opinion that the Afghan government faces a military assault as well as a propaganda onslaught. “Through the Doha accord, the Taliban were legitimised and gained international credibility. Their prisoners were freed and the Taliban leadership was allowed international travel after removal of sanctions. All these developments served to undermine the Afghan government and whitewash Taliban’s crimes,” he said.
Afrasiab added that the United States initially wanted to build an Afghan republic that would compete with the authoritarian countries neighbouring it. “But the Americans lost interest in Afghanistan after the Great Recession of 2018 in which China emerged as the island of stability in a socioeconomically chaotic world,” he says.
The Americans, Afrasiab says, reconsidered their approach towards Afghanistan after witnessing how China laid the foundation of a new world order by launching the One Belt One Road initiative. “The US now wants to somehow inject the Taliban in the Afghan system, leaving Afghanistan to handle the conflict on its own.”
With the world now looking the other way as violence escalates in Afghanistan, peace in the region seems to be a far-fetched dream.
However, despite the deteriorating situation in the country, resistance against the Taliban (in some form at least) remains alive. On Monday evening, several Afghans chanted Allah ho Akbar from their rooftops as a show of defiance against the Taliban. The slogan that began from Herat, where the battle continues, spread across Afghanistan in no time. Videos of the cries went viral on social media and citizens marched on the streets chanting Allah ho Akbar.
The next morning, President Ashraf Ghani extended support to the protestors and said, “The people of Herat showed exactly who represents the chants of Allah ho Akbar.”
Is Pakistan ready to handle the blowback?
Meanwhile, Pakistani officials appear to be rooting for a Taliban rule in Afghanistan — ignoring the violent blowback that may result from Taliban’s victories — which some observers fear has already begun with the increase in Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacks in the country.
On Thursday, the TTP claimed responsibility for five attacks in Pakistan. These include attack on the Frontier Constabulary (FC) in South Waziristan injuring five people and a separate attack on the FC in Khyber that claimed two lives. Moreover, two sniper attacks targeted soldiers in Bajaur.
Earlier, pro-Taliban rallies were taken out in various parts of the country. Taliban Commander Habibur Rehman held an open court in Gilgit-Baltistan last month, videos of which had gone viral on social media. The authorities have been either denying or downplaying this re-emergence of Taliban in Pakistan.
In their statements to foreign media, Pakistan officials call for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but some federal ministers have issued pro-Taliban statements in their interactions with local media.
Afrasiab Khattak says Taliban’s gains in Afghanistan will have dangerous consequences for Pakistan, but the officials are not wary of the threat.
“Pakistan has fully embraced the Taliban amid their gains in Afghanistan and considers them its most allied ally,” he says, adding that Pakistan is on the wrong side of Afghan nationals and it is a zero-sum game.
When the fight in Afghanistan intensified after the US troops’ withdrawal, social media campaigns glorifying the Afghan Taliban and terming them ‘guardians’ of the Muslim world began in Pakistan. Hashtags expressing support to the Taliban fighters have been trending with many users celebrating what they termed a defeat of the US. The hashtag #WeStandWithTaliban was the number 1 trending topic on Pakistan Twitter Saturday morning.
“These online campaigns were clearly orchestrated by the powers-that-be. The Pakistani people have no love lost for the Taliban because they have experienced first-hand their barbarity,” says Afrasiab.
The Afghan journalist says the TTP and the Afghan Taliban share a common aim: imposing Shariah. The Pakistan Taliban, he says, consider themselves subservient to the Afghan Taliban and the links between them are strong. “These factors indicate that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan will destabilise Pakistan by empowering the TTP.”
In his column for the Foreign Policy last month, former Pakistan ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani warned of the consequences for Pakistan in case Kabul falls to the Taliban. “A Taliban takeover will leave Pakistan more vulnerable to extremism at home and potentially more isolated on the world stage. The end of the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan also promises to mark a turning point in its relationship with Islamabad. Pakistan has long veiled its ambitions in Afghanistan to maintain relations with Washington, but that balancing act—seen in Washington as a double game—will prove impossible in the event that a reconstituted Islamic emirate is established in Kabul,” he wrote.
Wave of resentment against Pakistan
The Afghan journalist says Pakistan’s position on Afghanistan’s victories so far has stirred resentment among the Afghan people. “It is a fundamental principle of international relations that countries stay out of one another’s internal issues particularly in case of nations they have complicated relations with,” he says.
Azaz Syed agrees that Pakistan’s veiled support to the Afghan Taliban has been met with indignation in Afghanistan. “The Afghan government and opposition agree that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban fighters. Some are vocal about their feelings towards Pakistan, while others want to engage with Pakistan officials and raise the matter diplomatically,” he says.
Afrasiab Khattak says Afghans are resentful towards Pakistan because it had been trying to further the narrative that the Taliban, who are currently committing atrocities in Afghanistan, have ‘improved’. “They may have improved in brutality and their ability to carry out massacres, but not in policies. An anti-state group that uses force to gain legitimacy can never give up its violent ways.”