The Taliban swept across Afghanistan, claiming to be the honest and legitimate voice of the people, presenting itself as a change of clothes and offering amnesty to opponents and vague promises of inclusivity and a commitment to allow women to study and work.
And in an effort to gain international legitimacy, the hard-line Islamic movement this week nominated a new permanent representative to the UN.
But in the weeks since the Taliban regained control, growing evidence points to a broad and at times brutal crackdown as they rule out old parties, exterminate opposition and try to force many Afghans to abide by their strict interpretation of Islam.
In a report released on Monday, Amnesty International warned that although the Taliban “have tried to make it clear to the world that they will respect human rights … the reality is far from that.”
“The current situation in Afghanistan is a moment of reckoning – a moment in which the human rights gains that the Afghan people have built up over two decades are in danger of collapsing,” the report said.
The slings on journalist Taqi Daryabi’s skin tell the story of this war for Afghanistan’s soul.
Daryabi, 22, says he covered a women’s rights protest in Kabul this month when he was taken to a police station by Taliban fighters and beaten severely.
“They hit me with the whip, the electric pole and whatever they now had in hand,” he said via Twitter message, adding that he thinks he was targeted because he is a journalist and a member of Afghanistan’s ethnic minority Hazara. communities that were persecuted under the former Taliban government.
“They beat me [for] about 10 minutes until I lost my energy and I fainted[ed]he said, describing how he lost consciousness.
Daryabi is one in a growing list of people who somehow threaten the Taliban’s vision for the future – having felt the wrath of the militants since taking control.
‘Did I kill anyone?’
Pictures of Taliban fighters beating Afghans rushing to Kabul airport in the weeks before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan shone a light on the new government’s approach to crowd control.
They also revealed the public mood: Many people will have been afraid to live under a Taliban government again. From 1996 to 2001, when the government was overthrown by US-backed forces, the Taliban enforced a brutal regime, targeting minorities and depriving women of almost all their rights.
Alongside images of bloody Afghans came reports that the militants have cracked down on incipient protests across the country. An intelligence report submitted to the UN showed that the Taliban went door to door in search of people working with US-led forces or the government of former President Ashraf Ghani.
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The reports stand in stark contrast to the image that the Taliban has sought to present to the world – while never supporting democracy and elections, the group has cultivated an image as an enforcer of justice and security. And besides, says the Taliban, they have learned and changed since they last came to power 20 years ago.
“When it comes to experience and maturity and vision, of course, there is a huge difference between us compared to 20 years ago,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at his first press conference after the militants took over the capital, according to a translation by Al Jazeera Media Network. Earlier, a Taliban official had announced a general “amnesty” for everyone in Afghanistan.
Former officials who served under Ghani, who fled the country on August 15, tell a different story. They say they were chased by the Taliban despite promises of amnesty.
Shukria Barakzai, a former Afghan ambassador to Norway, said she had been told that militants were searching her house in Kabul. Unable to leave the country the day the city fell, she spent a white-knuckle week hiding from the Taliban as she tried to find a way out, she said. Now in Britain, she described the Taliban’s claim of a general amnesty as “lip service”.
“What did I do wrong to seek their amnesty?” she asked. “Did I kill anyone?”
The role of women
While the Taliban have repeatedly proclaimed that women and girls would be treated fairly under sharia or Islamic law, it is a different story on the ground where many of the gains made over the last 20 years are threatened , Afghans and international rights groups say.
The Taliban has run wards of women’s affairs across Afghanistan and has accused women’s civil society groups of adultery and spreading anti-Islamic ideas, according to UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
While the militant group have said it will establish a strong and effective administration for women under sharia, it is still not clear what exactly it will look like.
But in some cases, women have already been instructed to stay at home because Taliban forces “were not trained to deal with women,” Bachelet said.
One such order was issued in Kabul over the weekend, with interim mayor Hamdullah Namony telling the city council’s female staff not to return to work.
Only those whose jobs cannot be replaced by men can remain in their jobs, he said on Sunday as he set out the Taliban’s latest restrictions on women.
Waheedullah Hashimi, a senior Taliban leader, said the group had been fighting for 40 years to introduce sharia in Afghanistan and that Islamic law does not allow women to work with men. Women will be able to work in sectors where they are needed, but they cannot be ministers, he said.
“If there is no need for women to work, we will not let them,” he added.
Last week, the Taliban provoked even more skepticism about their promises to respect women’s and girls’ rights when they said they would open schools for boys of high school age, but not girls.
In recent weeks, women have staged protests demanding equal rights under the Taliban, with some beaten in the process. So last week, the group announced that protests were banned unless they were approved in advance.
Afghans who have taken to the streets, including women rights protesters, have been met with an “increasingly violent reaction” from the Taliban authorities in recent weeks, the UN human rights office said in a statement this month.
‘Settlement of scores’
Then there are those whom the Taliban have considered not eligible for amnesty.
Human Rights Watch reported last month that Taliban forces advancing in Ghazni, Kandahar and other provinces had summarily executed detained soldiers, police and civilians allegedly linked to the previous government. NBC News has not independently verified the results.
Daniel Balson, Amnesty International’s U.S. advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, said the “broad, comprehensive” range of people who have been attacked is striking.
“This is not just some kind of narrow settlement of parties with political or armed enemies,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “This is pretty broad. Anyone who is considered to be potentially not entirely in line with this new order has a goal on their back.”
Hashimi from the Taliban withdrew, claiming that after the general pardon, the group has only killed people in “very few” cases. The targets were Pashtuns and Hazaras, and they were involved in unforgivable crimes, he added without elaborating. The Taliban are overwhelmingly Pashtun.
Separately, Taliban commanders in Kandahar and Helmand said no clear government reached the provinces, meaning fighters could easily settle accounts with former Afghan security forces on the ground.
In the Taliban ranks, there are people who clearly wanted revenge, and the management allows it because they need these people and because they want to send a clear message to anyone who might defy them, said Patricia Gossman, a Associate Director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
“These were not junk elements that did these things outside of their superiors’ knowledge,” she said. “I would say that these were essentially tolerated from the top.”