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The return of the Taliban puritans?

LAIZA—Baptist Rev. Ja Gun is one of the most prominent historians and linguists in Kachin State. Educated at the University of Rangoon during the 1960-70s, a period of great student activism in which he took part, he now tutors Kachin Independent Organization (KIO) soldiers about local political history and endeavors to change “their worldview, which in the past has been limited by the Burmese curriculum.” Speaking to The Irrawaddy in late June, Ja Gun discussed the historical roots of the present conflict between the KIO and Burmese government as well as the main stumbling blocks towards attaining peace and reconciliation from a Kachin perspective.

Late on 21 June, the night before Afghanistan’s traditional Friday weekend, a group of armed men stormed the Spozhmai (’Moon’) Hotel on Qargha Lake, a recreational spot only a short drive from Kabul’s northwestern limits. They killed a still unknown number of people, taking others hostage and continuing the slaughter until they were all themselves killed many hours later by ISAF commandos.

At Qargha, Ikea furbished wooden chalets have been built on the lakeside by a mujahideen commander turned businessman who controls the property that is notionally owned by the government. They were constructed during the political honeymoon that followed the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001, in the hope of welcoming more well-off customers from the nearby capital. While Qargha has been off-limits to most foreigners for quite a while now for security reasons, Afghans of all walks of life used to gather there to enjoy the ice-cream parlours, french fries stalls and pedaloes, particularly on weekends. This idyll has ended in a blood spill.

Then, in early-July, a video turned up in some media showing a scene that looked like pre-intervention Afghanistan: a group of bearded men jeered when a young woman, later identified as Najiba, was shot dead after a roving Taliban court had condemned her to death for ‘infidelity’. After an unhappy marriage she had escaped to the house of a Taliban commander who, after a conflict, was not able to protect her any longer. So she ended up with her relatives who reported her to the self-proclaimed guardians of public morals in another local Taliban faction.

That the Taliban tried to justify their Qargha attack by claiming that it was a venue of ‘anti-Islamic’ behaviour – the attackers asked personnel ‘where the prostitutes’ were – shows that the old puritanical tendency in their movement is far from being dead, despite attempts from the Taliban leadership to correct their international image. To the Taliban puritans, any kind of temporal amusement is anathema, especially if men and women are attending without being strictly separated. During their Emirate (1996-2001), for the so-called ‘religious police’ (the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) the length of beards (for men) and the completeness of veil (for women) were more important than feeding the population. It caused their regime’s international isolation, very much to the consternation of those Taliban who were more pragmatic, understood how the outside world (and other Afghans, for that matter) would react to it and who also wanted to see their daughters educated.

The post-intervention Taliban have drawn conclusions from their earlier failure and their leadership has tried hard to shed its identification with that kind of anti-modernist and puritanical behaviour. In 2010, their leaders published an updated version of their ‘layha’ (its first version was from 2006), a code of conduct that now urges their field commanders and foot soldiers to protect the lives and property of Afghan civilians and to concentrate on military targets, and threatens to discipline those who fail to heed these orders. The pocket-sized brochure was re-published this year and distributed across the country. Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar repeated its main messages in all his latest major statements. When, in July, a member of the Taliban leadership and former minister in their Emirate surprisingly turned up at an academic conference at a Japanese university, he reiterated the same points. He continued to suggest that a ‘tripartite commission’ look into who really caused the most civilian casualties. The Taliban feel unfairly treated by the UN.

Though the latest UN reports shows that the Taliban and other insurgents have killed fewer civilians in the first half of the year than they did during the comparable period last year, they are still held responsible for 80% of the civilian casualties. One pertinent factor is that while their attacks indeed seem to prioritise military targets, they are ready to put up with any number of civilian casualties as ‘collateral damage’ while using Improvised Explosive Devices that, on the whole, function indiscriminately. Another factor, certainly, is the issue of who the Taliban perceive to be a civilian. In their view, the list of legitimate targets includes government officials and workers, local community, tribal and religious leaders who are perceived as pro-government as well as off-duty security personnel. This is where the Taliban’s view differs from what the international law stipulates: the protection of all civilians not directly participating in hostilities – which is often enough violated during US drone strikes and kill-and-capture missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well.

Apart from the layha, the Taliban have softened their stance on key issues. They allow schools, even for girls, to operate in regions they control – although this is handled differently in different areasfor two reasons: First, local commanders still enjoy a relatively large degree of autonomy, and secondly this kind of ‘school policy’ is not universal. It does not apply to areas that are contested or under government control. There, schools are seen as a battlefield and the extended arms of Kabul which need to be cut. In some areas that are only nominally under government control, the Taliban have put forward conditions for allowing schools to continue. These include a say in who the teachers will be and control over the curriculum.

On the other side

The Qargha attack and the Parwan killing are definitely backward steps on the Taliban’s efforts to become more acceptable to the Afghan population and to the US which is desperate to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. But it would be too easy to reduce the Taliban to this regressive and violent tendency. Its leadership definitely bit the bullet by sanctioning a liaison office in Qatar and attending talks with the Americans last year. But times of tough political decisions – like the one between talking to your enemies or continuing shooting at them – are bound to bring spoilers to the scene, particularly in an armed insurgent movement where a culture of violence is deeply enshrined. These spoilers are supported by vested outside interests – by Pakistan – according to some. If one wants to look at it optimistically, Qargha was a signal that the spoilers are really unsettled about Mullah Omar’s receptiveness to talks.

The Parwan killing, though, also points to another aspect: that it is not only the Taliban who are a source of danger for the rights and freedoms, and often lives, of ordinary Afghans. The government in Kabul is more often than not part of the problem. Shah Jahan Yazdanparast, the local representative of Kabul’s Ministry of Women Affairs in that province, pointed to this after the incident. She said there were dozens of such cases as Najiba’s in Parwan alone in recent times, which include kidnappings, executions and murders – but they took place both in Taliban- as well as in government-controlled areas. The same could be said about the repeated burning of schools or the assassinations of influential people across the country: they often are too easily attributed to the Taliban, as an available scapegoat, without much investigation. There is also much intra-factional violence in the unlikely coalition that is in power in Kabul, and some elements find it easy to kill rivals and stick a Taliban label on them.

Indeed politically, there are a lot of people in the Afghan government at all levels whose thinking is not too far from that of the Taliban, particularly when it comes to women’s rights or the freedom of media. One example was the statement from Habibullah Ghaleb, the Afghan Minister of Justice, who in mid-June accused shelters for women, who are victims of violence, of promoting ‘prostitution’.

Also remarkable was the immediate strong reaction from Afghan civil society. Women’s organisation condemned the statement in the strongest form and, possibly for the first time in post-Taliban Afghanistan, publicly demanded a minister step down. The minister – learning from Western practice – apologised if he had hurt his "sisters’ feelings”, though not for what he actually said. This and the incidents in Qargha and Parwan province have shocked young Afghans prompting action.

Exactly one week after the Qargha attack, young Kabulis, mobilised by a social media campaign, gathered at the venue of the slaughter to commemorate the victims in a rare sign of defiance to the Taliban. After the killing of Najiba, women activists and their male supporters went into the streets in Kabul and even in Parwan. Demonstrations followed in late-July in the central province of Bamiyan because, half a year into the case, the authorities had done nothing about a member of the elected Provincial Council who had raped and killed a 16 year-old girl.

This created hope among participants that a pro-peace movement might finally emerge. However some groups involved in these protests are seen by others as being too close to non-Taliban factions of the past civil wars, who have not shown much remorse for their own human rights abuses. This makes cooperation difficult. Also, the government has realised that the emerging forces might, in the future, challenge it from a rights angle. So it is already implementing lessons from Putin in Russia and Mubarak in Egypt, trying to woo and co-opt parts of civil society that are susceptible to ethnic slogans and, in general, feeling financially vulnerable now that Western troops – and with them the majority of the funds – are leaving Afghanistan.

The opinions expressed and the arguments employed in this document are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily express the views of the CETRI.

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