Taliban raised on war bring a heavy hand to security role

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Driving home from a wedding that evening, everyone in the car fell silent as they approached the checkpoint in Kabul, manned by two Taliban with automatic rifles.

One of the fighters shone a light into the car. Fatima Abdullahi sat in the back seat, her two children on her lap, wedged between her younger sister Zainab and a colleague at work. The hunter waved them through.

Seconds later, two shots were heard. Zainab slumped against her sister. Abdullahi screamed and begged her to wake up. Zainab, 25, was dead.

“I took her face in my hands, but she didn’t move. Then I saw blood behind her and she was shot,” Abdullahi told The Associated Press.

Taliban officials say the Jan. 13 shooting was a mistake, with one guard not realizing the other had authorized the car to leave. Both guards have been arrested and the Taliban government apologized for the killings, went to the home of Zainab’s parents, promised them justice and gave them 600,000 Afghans ($5,825).

But Zainab’s death highlights a dilemma facing Afghanistan’s new rulers as they move from insurgent to ruling. The Taliban are trying to discipline the thousands of young fighters who use heavy-handed methods of war in their new role as security forces. Those young men only know war, most of them have no education and cannot read or write. Their only skill is fighting; their weapons are as familiar to them as their cell phones.

In the urbanized capital Kabul, many people are afraid of them. Five months after coming to power, the Taliban can still be seen in the back of pickup trucks, their weapons pointing to the sky, roaming the streets of Kabul. The numbers are less than when they first took the city, but they are still highly visible.

Demobilizing the fighters is difficult because they have few alternatives. “Too many fighters lack the education and training to participate in civilian life, and even those who do have the skills are unable to find jobs due to the economic crisis,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the US-based Wilson Center.

At the family’s home in Shia-dominated West Kabul, Zainab’s mother Mariam says she cries most days and finds herself staring at the door, expecting Zainab to return.

Zainab was to be married in two months. Even when the Taliban employed women, she continued to work as an auditor for a local charity, where her sister Fatima also worked.

“She was my last child, cute. They could have killed me, not my Zainab,’ Mariam said, warming by a charcoal burner in the winter cold of Kabul. “If I was in the car and they were shooting, I would have covered her so the bullet would have hit me.” Zainab’s father Nadir Ali sat nearby, wrapped in a woolen blanket, his legs weak. Mariam says he can no longer work, and Zainab provided the only income.

It is not just individual Taliban fighters who are cracking down, as their leadership is concerned with dissent. The Taliban dispersed female protesters by using pepper spray or firing into the air. They beat and arrested journalists. Particularly frightening in recent weeks has been nighttime raids by intelligence officials on protesters’ homes to arrest them.

Obaidullah Baheer, a social activist and lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan, expressed concern that the Taliban were adopting the tactics of former Afghan intelligence agencies.

The agencies have a history of brutality dating back to the pro-communist government of the 1980s, when hundreds were rounded up and murdered, many dumped in mass graves. After the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, the intelligence agency known as the National Directorate of Security – which received US support – has detained thousands of Afghans alleged to be the Taliban. Hundreds disappeared in so-called black sites where torture was carried out, human rights groups said.

The Taliban have formed their own General Directorate of Intelligence.

“We often expect the victim to be the first to sympathize with pain and it occurs when they’re in power, but often they take it up a notch,” Baheer said. “The Taliban need to realize that this behavior by the Deep State will further alienate the population in the long run.”

Skeptical world leaders have watched the Taliban move to rule at a time when Afghanistan faces a collapsing economy and widespread hunger. So far, the Taliban have resolutely done this on their own terms — trying to adapt to the realities that prevented them from governing as they did in the past, but also by refusing to give others a role in governing.

There are signs that the interim Taliban cabinet is trying to bring some order to their ranks.

Many fighters now wear the camouflage uniforms of the previous Afghan Defense and Security Forces. Latfullah Hakimi, head of the so-called Taliban Purge Commission charged with investigating complaints about its fighters, told The Associated Press that thousands of former Taliban have been jailed or fired for a variety of offenses ranging from corruption to harassment.

The leadership has sought to limit the brutal punishments the Taliban were notorious for when they first ruled the country more than 20 years ago, such as public executions of murderers and hand amputations for thieves.

In their first months in power, this time low-ranking commanders often carried out improvised sentences for alleged crimes, such as publicly humiliating thieves. Now more suspects are being brought before the courts where judges make decisions. The judges are Taliban-approved figures with religious training, who operate with little transparency, but their rulings curb the vigilantes of individual fighters to some extent.

The Taliban have been less successful in persuading former military personnel to re-enlist. Few have heeded the call, too afraid to concede their previous military positions amid some revenge killings of former officers.

Taliban leaders have publicly banned acts of revenge, and with few exceptions have been relatively successful in curbing them, “remarkably enough, not just by historical standards in Afghanistan, but most of the civil wars,” said Anatol Lieven, a senior researcher fellow. at the Quincy Institute of Responsible Statecraft.

“I expected a lot more revenge killings,” said Lieven, who has followed Afghanistan through its four decades of war.

For many Afghans, the Taliban remain a terrifying sight in the cities. Social media is ablaze with videos and photos of alleged Taliban excesses, such as threatening people or detaining people from homes.

However, some have been manipulated, such as a video showing a Taliban fighter cutting a man’s hair and saying he is enforcing a new rule requiring all young men to keep their hair short. The original of the video, which the AP saw, was of a Taliban fighter who caught a thief in the act and punished him with public humiliation by cutting his hair. The Taliban, many of whom have shoulder-length hair of their own, have not launched a campaign to cut hair.

As the world watches the Taliban deal with the ruling, Lieven warned that given his track record in Afghanistan, the West may not have the answers.

“After the experience of West-led state-building in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, is the West in a position to say the right direction for Afghanistan?” said Lieven.


Gannon can be followed at https://twitter.com/Kathygannon

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