On August 17, national-security adviser Jake Sullivan was asked by a reporter, “Do you think the Taliban of 2021 is different than 2001?” His answer:
On what we expect from the Taliban going forward, that is something that will have to be watched and observed over time. Whether in fact they are prepared to meet their obligations to the basic human rights and human dignity of people, to the safe passage of people to the airport, to the fair and — fair and just treatment of civilians, that is something they’re going to have to show.
I come at this with no expectations, but only a sense that they will have to prove to the international community who they ultimately are going to end up being.
After a few months of observation, the similarities between the Taliban of 2001 and the Taliban of today are hard to mistake. Yesterday, Radio Azadi, part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported:
When the Taliban seized power in August, the militant group vowed it would not resurrect the violent religious policing it enforced during its first stint in power. The hard-liners claimed they would limit themselves to preaching Islamic values of modesty and dignity.
But nearly five months after regaining power, the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has reclaimed its role as the enforcer of the group’s radical interpretation of Islamic law.
In a spate of decrees issued in recent weeks, the ministry has imposed restrictions on the behavior, movement, and appearances of residents, particularly those of women and girls.
During the Taliban’s first reign from 1996 to 2001, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice established one of the most brutal reputations of any organization in world history. Its enforcers are the ones who carried out the horrific human-rights abuses that characterized the Taliban regime before the U.S. invasion. From a Washington Post report on the ministry in September:
Accounts from the time detail forces patrolling the streets, shutting down shops and markets at prayer time. They beat people caught listening to music and frowned upon dancing, kite-flying and American-style haircuts.
Squads of the ministry’s morality police punished those who disobeyed modesty codes, with beards too thin or ankles that showed. They banished girls from school and women from the workplace and the public eye. A woman could not venture outside without a male guardian.
Radio Azadi reports that this time around, the ministry has ordered shopkeepers to behead mannequins in stores because they consider them idols, and Islam strictly forbids idolatry. (The report also quotes a more mainstream Muslim scholar who says this interpretation is incorrect because mannequins are not idols at all.)
The ministry in December said women who want to travel more than 72 kilometers should not be allowed to do so unaccompanied. It “also directed all vehicle drivers to refrain from playing music in their cars and not to pick up female passengers who did not wear an Islamic hijab covering their hair,” the report says. This order is being enforced by checkpoints all around Kabul.
Men have been ordered to grow beards, and prayers are mandatory. The Taliban “had ordered clerics at mosques in the capital to take a roll call and report those who failed to turn up,” the report says.
This part of the Radio Azadi story sticks out:
Rabia, a woman in Mazar-e Sharif who did not reveal her real name, said the Taliban was directing all its resources into controlling the lives of citizens rather than addressing the myriad of problems facing the country, including a freefalling economy and a devastating humanitarian crisis.
The Taliban “needs to pay attention to many more important issues we are grappling with,” she said.
Back in August, Andrew Stuttaford wrote, “No government — particularly one with only a shaky claim to legitimacy, none of it democratic — will ever enjoy a sudden drop in its country’s standard of living. That is something the Taliban may shortly discover as they try to consolidate their hold over a society famously fragmented along ethnic lines.” It seems that Rabia has put her finger on that exact issue now that the economic collapse is well underway.
On August 11, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “The international community is going to watch closely how the Taliban behaves. They have a range of tools in their arsenal, as well, to take steps should they choose.”
Will Sullivan and Psaki revisit their comments in the face of the evidence? Have the Taliban not demonstrated clearly, in Sullivan’s words, “who they ultimately are going to end up being”? What were those tools in the arsenal that Psaki mentioned?
Are they even paying attention?
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