A Different Side of the Taliban?

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Make no mistake about it, the Taliban* are thugs, and their rule in Afghanistan 20 years ago was marked by brutal revenge and an unattractive and cruel interpretation of Islamic law. Despite protestations that the new Afghan government will not seek reprisals and that it will treat women with dignity, ultimately Taliban rule may well turn out to be as murderous today as it was before the United States invaded Afghanistan. 

But, for now, the Taliban are making nice, for the most part, and promising to provide safe passage for American civilians trying to leave Afghanistan.

There are several reasons for this unexpected “charm offensive.” For one thing, running a country is much more difficult than taking it over. Services like water, electricity, and trash removal have been weakened as the former U.S.-backed government collapsed. Now, many people who worked for that government are hiding at home out of fear of retribution from the Taliban. Government ministries have to be staffed so that diplomacy can resume and public health and safety maintained in a poor country wracked by decades of civil war. The Taliban, no doubt, find it imperative to lure government workers and others with special talents back to work. Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman in Qatar, told NPR: “There is not any kind of reprisal nor any revenge under those people who are working with the foreign troops. And so we have announced a general amnesty, they can lead their normal life and they also contribute to the reconstruction of the country, to people’s economic prosperity, to their own prosperity. And they can use their talents, capacities, in the service of the country and people.” Whether the Taliban live up to their word remains to be seen.

Perhaps even more important is the problem of money. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked in one tabulation 173rd out of 190 countries in 2020. Ninety percent of the population lives below the poverty line — defined as getting by on $2 a day. No matter how brutal and authoritarian a regime is, grinding poverty such as in Afghanistan can be a source of discontent with any government.

The Taliban need money. The United States has frozen billions of dollars in Afghan government money held in U.S. banks. The European Union and individual European governments have suspended financial support to Kabul, and the International Monetary Fund has blocked the Taliban’s access to $460 million in emergency currency reserves. 

Fear of Taliban retribution is sparking a mass exodus of Afghans to surrounding countries, threatening to inundate impoverished neighboring lands with thousands of Afghan refugees. Worries over Taliban cruelty combined with Afghanistan’s poverty are sparking a humanitarian crisis that, in turn, may create a refugee crisis in central Asia. The fighting in Afghanistan so far this year has displaced more than 500,000 Afghans. Europeans who remember the refugee crisis of 2015 are wary of allowing a new round of Muslim refugees into their countries. And, in the United States, which has a moral obligation to protect Afghans who worked for the Americans, there is already a split among Republicans over permitting thousands of Afghans to enter, with anti-Muslim immigration restrictionists opposed to those who believe Washington has a responsibility to many Afghans.

The Taliban, too, have an interest in discouraging a mass flight of Afghans. Thousands of fleeing Afghans is a foreign relations fiasco for the Taliban as they try to portray a kinder image to the world. Moreover, those leaving are the people most likely to possess the skills the Taliban need to help govern the country. On the other hand, the Taliban cannot afford to be seen as brutally closing the door to all Afghans leaving because that would antagonize the international community, which now is withholding financial aid and access to Afghan currency reserves. This dilemma may explain why Taliban fighters are harassing Afghans trying to flee while Taliban leaders are saying they will permit some Afghans to evacuate and why anecdotal reports indicate women are being repressed again while Taliban authorities promise to respect the rights of women. 

During their first foray in power, the Taliban enjoyed some popular support, especially at first. They had a reputation for stamping out corruption and curbing lawlessness, both problems in a country that lacked a strong central authority and where the hinterlands were controlled by local warlords. But, their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Sharia law — public executions for adulterers, amputations for thieves —  quickly soured most Afghans. The Taliban required women to don the all-covering, from head to foot, burqa and men to grow beards. The Taliban banned television and movies and often forbade girls from going to school. The list of Taliban human rights abuses is long.

The past may, indeed, be prologue, and there is plenty of reason to fear the worst for benighted Afghanistan. But, for now, at least, the wish to keep open the possibility of desperately needed international aid is moderating Taliban extremism. Whatever the future, there is reason to believe the Taliban will allow a total evacuation of Americans from Afghanistan. 

Posted August 20, 2021

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* Normally, I am a stickler for treating collective nouns as singular, “the Taliban is” rather than “the Taliban are,” but, in this case, I have decided on “the Taliban are.” Normal American usage (as opposed to British English) dictates collective nouns as singular, but most sources, as near as I can tell, use the plural. Besides, Taliban is a plural noun in Pashto and Persian. The singular is Talib, meaning student or seeker. 

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