I saw Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Women who have good reasons to prepare for the worst now

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has been reborn, leading the country back in time to the Taliban era.

It’s the only Afghanistan I know.

I was not in the country for the American invasion, nor the foreign flood that followed – with its legions of soldiers and scribes, diplomats and donors. My missions to Afghanistan came before that time, under Taliban rule, so I can not join post-9/11 memories and accusations of missed opportunities and endless interventions.

All I know is that all the powerful Westerners could not stay forever while the Taliban had all the endurance in the world. Today, more than 7,000 days after US troops went in and out without any lasting strategy, the Taliban are swept back to power with eternal endurance.

It is worth reiterating how cruel and ignorant the Taliban were two decades ago when they were married to the most extreme and discredited interpretations of Islam – banning women and girls from school, stoning adulterers, parting thieves and hosting terrorists, who planned 9/11. It’s the Islamic emirate I know well.

What we do not know is whether it is the Taliban today. We can only hope that they are better at learning the lessons of history than we are.

My introduction to the regime came from its master indoctrination, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the powerful minister who had long been the Taliban’s public face as its official mouthpiece. From his new seat in the palatial State Department – crumbling and unheated in the winter cold – he held me forward while I shook my seat, still wearing my coat.

Then as now, people were preoccupied with the fate of Afghanistan’s women and girls, sentenced to burkas, banished from schools, plagued by sharia austerity – Islamic law as interpreted by Taliban mullahs. When an aide put biscuits and sweets on the table between us, Muttawakil rejected the foreign critics and defended the indefensible.

“Instead of criticizing us, they should help us,” the turbaned and bearded foreign minister told me, bundled in a woolen jacket over his traditional shalwar kameez. “Our point is that we are against the co-education system in Afghanistan, and women should only go to school and pursue an education in the Islamic way.”

On two trips across the Taliban to Afghanistan – from Herat to Jalalabad and from Kabul to Kandahar – it was impossible to ignore the deprivation and humiliation of women. One day, a woman in a burqa whispered that she should follow her down an alley of a cab and waved us behind the rusty metal door to a home where a dozen girls sat cross-legged on the mud floor, secretly attending an interim classroom.

Their teachers were female medical students expelled from Kabul University, with no alternative but to share their knowledge of writing and mathematics with the next generation. A 25-year-old woman wiped the chalk off her hands and told me she had broken up her closet boards to turn them into boards for her students.

Quite apart from the powerful symbolism of denying an education to women and girls, Muttawakil’s government sharply destroyed the symbols of another religion as it targeted the 1,500-year-old towering Buddha statues in Bamiyan, deep inside Afghanistan. I was in the country when Taliban infantry destroyed Buddha’s limbs with bullets and wrote about the curtain of darkness that stood in contrast to the minister’s relentless rhetoric.

“Statues and things that represent living things, they are definitely forbidden in Islam and they will be destroyed,” Muttawakil insisted at the time.

The foreign minister never wavered from his diplomatic manuscript and Taliban rhetoric while in power. But when the regime was overthrown years later, he changed tune – and changed sides.

Muttawakil was considered moderate by Taliban standards and surrendered to the authorities and was detained and investigated by the Americans. After his release, he not only gave up his old ways, but rebuilt the education system he had helped to dismantle in his time.

In recent years, Muttawakil set up a school in Kabul where his daughter could attend classes – not in secret, as in the past, but in public. The old Taliban mouthpiece was condemned by his former comrades, but he hoped they would modernize their way of thinking, as he did.

Today, Muttawakil’s successors in the Taliban are embarking on a similar story, professing a newfound tolerance of women’s education within an Islamic context that is strictly gender-segregated. No one knows if they will be true to their word, or if they are just playing puns that outline a fundamentalist misreading of the written word in Islam’s holy book, the Koran.

If the new Islamic emirate is making all the right noises today – offering public amnesties and speaking out for women’s rights – it may be because they know there is no need to make a single threat, so scared are people from the Taliban’s past history . cruel misrule and corruption. The public hangings and stoning of the past are still fresh in people’s memory (my own memories of handling the Taliban’s checkpoints are not forgotten).

Many in the West (I was among them) hoped that an invasion provoked by 9/11 would stabilize and then modernize Afghanistan – if not through nation-building then through gender-bending (so to speak) – in a country where male rulers did not banish females, but let them flourish instead. Now that experiment is past and the country has come full circle.

Will Afghanistan’s women stand up and fight for their rights, after seeing their male brothers in the US-trained armed forces cut and run? The only certainty is that they are equipped for the worst, even though the Taliban promise to be in their best behavior.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist focusing on Ontario politics and international affairs for Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn

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