The Taliban Confront the Realities of Power

In Kabul, I spoke with Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef about the difficulty of reconciling these disparate visions of Islamic governance. A legendary figure, Zaeef is a big, broad-faced Pashtun in his mid-fifties. He grew up in Kandahar, went to a Pakistani madrassa, joined the war against the Soviets, and helped create the Taliban. A close friend of Mullah Omar, he served for a time as the Taliban’s defense minister and, after their fall, spent four years at Guantánamo.

Zaeef, dressed in a white shalwar kameez, told me that he was still a Talib but had not joined the government because he wanted to “be free.” (An Afghan who knows him well told me that his real motivation was concern about the Haqqanis, though Zaeef denies this.) In the meantime, he had an N.G.O., which helped war orphans, and ran a radio station, with broadcasts to “explain Islam to people” in the countryside; he also had a madrassa, with fifteen hundred students. Zaeef seemed most enthusiastic about farmland he owned in Kandahar, where he grew pistachios, pomegranates, and grapes. “They are good for the birds, and nature,” he said.

The Taliban’s laws are being applied inconsistently across the country, and some abuses are clearly occurring. During my visit, reports circulated of Hazara farmers being forced from their land by ethnic Pashtuns, of raids on activists’ homes, and of extrajudicial executions of former government soldiers and intelligence agents. Zaeef acknowledged that the criminal-justice system remained slow and uneven, because the new authorities were not up to speed on the laws; it would take time. “Afghanistan will not be a democracy,” he said. “But it won’t be a complete dictatorship, either. For at least fifteen years, we need a system that will not allow the people to do wrong.”

His dream was for sharia to be implemented in a way that benefitted all Afghans. He conceded that the Taliban, like the Americans, had made mistakes, but he hoped they would get it right this time. “Islamic law should not be hard. For the Muslim, it is a good life,” he said. “The problem is that there is not a model for Islamic law in the world today. Even I cannot explain it. It is like an ocean when you enter. But a way must be found.”

Ibrahim Haqqani, the uncle of the Taliban’s interior minister, met me in his fortified residence in Kabul. Armed men guarded the approaches; at the end of a long driveway lined with blast walls, more gathered outside. Haqqani received me in a room with long yellow curtains, drawn against the sunlight. Apparently in his sixties, he had a long dyed-black beard and a turban flamboyant enough for a villain in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Haqqani told me that he had spent most of his life fighting for two goals: to free Afghanistan of foreign intervention, and to implement sharia law. The first had been achieved. The second had yet to be. “We speak of the sharia that has been brought to us from God by its messenger,” he explained. “That is the sharia we want.”

I told Haqqani that there was confusion about what kind of sharia the Taliban wished to implement. “There is one sharia,” he replied. “Within sharia, there is behavior that is neither sinful nor makes one an infidel, and that brings about attitudes of mercy and compassion. We are inching toward that, in order to bring ease to people and yet protect ourselves from infidel behavior. ”

I asked if the Taliban intended to revive the strict form of sharia that they had imposed in the nineties. Haqqani told me that, to explain, it would be necessary to counter the negative impressions that had been spread by infidel propaganda. “I will give you one example,” he said. “In the past government, did we allow people to take photos? No. But now have we prevented anyone from taking photos? No, we have not. In the previous government, we prevented women from going to the marketplace on their own. What was the reason? The reason was the depravity that existed here, from the Russian era. There was no trust, and we were not confident in the women. That is why we were trying to limit women until we insured their proper security. Nowadays, though, there are not restrictions on women. They roam freely, they go to work, they are doctors, they are sitting in offices.”

Haqqani begged my forgiveness; he had to attend the sunset prayer. While he was out of the room, I thought about the dissonance between the new government’s professions of softness and its lingering ferocity. Just weeks earlier, Haqqani’s nephew Sirajuddin had held a celebration for the families of suicide bombers. The commander Mokhbit had told me that the men he sent to their deaths were “closer to God than you or I.”

After a few minutes, Haqqani returned and continued his thought. “We still have some concerns about the effects of American influence,” he said. But, he added, “there is a trust that Afghans will not repeat the actions of the past, and that the actions of the foreigners, and the services that were provided to them, will not be repeated. We try to take a softer approach in all aspects of sharia, where it does not contradict God’s orders.” He spoke with the assurance of an all-knowing parent: “Severity is a global principle. Whenever there is chaos in a country, strict measures are put in place, and when things become normal again the strict measures can be relaxed.” He went on, “God is patient. If a tribe takes the right path, God will give them ease and comfort, but if the tribe takes the wrong path, denying the Quran and such things, then God gives them severe punishment. This is God’s way and the world’s way.”

On December 3rd, the Taliban issued a decree, in the name of the Supreme Leader, which held that women should have some inheritance rights and should not be forced into marriage. But it did not address their rights to work and to pursue secondary education.

The next day, I met with a group of former senior employees of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. They ranged in age from thirty-two to forty-six, and most had been the primary breadwinner in their family. Although female activists in Afghanistan risked violence and censure, all of them were willing to show their face and to use their real name.

Nazifa Azimi, who had been the Ministry’s I.T. director, explained that when the Taliban swept into Kabul she and her colleagues went home, unsure what was going to happen. Quickly, though, they decided to stand their ground, and began showing up at the Ministry every morning. They found the building cordoned off by guards. “At the beginning, the Taliban guards at the door were polite and would come outside and speak to us,” Azimi said. But, after two weeks went by and nothing changed, the women decided to protest.

Shahlla Arifi, who had been in charge of education and culture at the Ministry, led the protests. Ever since then, she said, she had been receiving threats, including texts warning her that her husband, a teacher at a school for boys, would be “taken down.” Arifi and her husband have five children, between three and fifteen years old. They had considered joining the crowds trying to evacuate from the Kabul airport, but were deterred by the chaos.

Since then, the risks for female protesters have only increased. According to reports, several women in Kabul have vanished after attending anti-Taliban rallies in recent months. All the women I spoke to wanted to leave Afghanistan, convinced that they had no future there. Indeed, virtually every Afghan I met who was not a Talib intended to flee. Many asked for my help. In the end, they believed that what the resurgent Taliban were offering was not a “soft revolution” but, rather, an update of their previous rule. The degree of severity they apply in governing Afghanistan will depend on the circumstances they face. But people who have experienced freedom don’t like having it taken away, and many more Afghans will likely seek a way out of the country. Some may fight. The majority, however, especially the poor, will have no choice but to adapt in order to survive.

When I asked Arifi about the Supreme Leader’s decree, she laughed and shook her head. “Their ideology hasn’t changed,” she said. “There I was in the street, asking for my rights, but they were not ready to give them to me. They pointed a gun at my head, and they shouted obscenities at me. They will do anything to convince the international community to give them financing, but eventually I’ll be forced to wear the burqa again. They are just waiting.” ♦

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