The Observer view on the Taliban and how they underestimate ordinary Afghans

Show caption Kabul: ‘Afghans, especially the youthful majority, know their rights now. They know what freedom feels and sounds like.’ Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Opinion The Observer view on the Taliban and how they underestimate ordinary Afghans The Islamists haven’t mended their ways but the population they wish to subjugate won’t submit without a struggle Observer editorial Sun 12 Sep 2021 06.05 BST Share on Facebook

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The fall of Kabul in November 2001 was celebrated by rightwing British newspapers and commentators as something akin to Victorian imperial payback. Northern Alliance forces, backed by US and UK air strikes, swept the Taliban from power two months after al-Qaida’s 11 September terror attacks.

Now, 20 years on, Kabul has fallen again, and that silly, jingoistic triumphalism is placed in perspective. The west’s victory was, at best, temporary and at worst, illusory. Despite its well-meant, ill-considered, vainglorious attempts to transform Afghanistan in its own image, the Taliban are back in charge. By some measures the situation is worse than in 2001.

The question – have the Taliban changed? – is on everyone’s lips. In part, it’s wishful thinking. If the Islamists have mended their ways and found wisdom in the wilderness, the sting of defeat may be mitigated for the humiliated allies. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite is true. Taliban leaders still cling to old, oppressive ideas, they just have better PR. Reports, including from our correspondent in Kandahar today, are deeply troubling. House searches, arbitrary arrests, vengeance killings, beatings, property confiscations, intimidation, sexual harassment, and theft by Taliban foot soldiers are tokens of the new dispensation. Commanders cannot or will not rein them in.

The caretaker “government” announced last week is a men-only affair, comprising Pashtun hardliners linked to the 1996-2001 regime’s old guard. Many are under UN sanction. Sirajuddin Haqqani, interior minister and notorious terrorist, has a $5m (£3.6m) FBI bounty on his head. The son of the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is defence minister. Women, along with Hazara, Tajik and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups, are out in the cold. The ministry of women’s affairs has been abolished. The former “ministry for the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice” has been re-established. Female civil servants are losing their jobs, single mothers their children. Women may not walk the streets alone or play sport. Meanwhile, respect for free speech and free media, one of the great achievements of the past two decades, is being throttled. Reporters have been severely beaten for trying to do their jobs. Musicians may not be allowed to do theirs at all.

The answer to the question – have the Taliban changed? – seems obvious. But perhaps it’s the wrong question. As the Islamists drag the country down, a more important question is: has Afghanistan changed? Individual acts of courage and public demonstrations speak to a mood of defiance among ordinary people that was less evident before 2001. They indicate a will to resist. Afghans, especially the youthful majority, know their rights. They know what freedom feels and sounds like. They have expectations about education, careers, healthcare, travel, and a modern, connected economy in which banks function efficiently, the currency has value and there is food in the shops. They expect state help with Covid and a national drought.

All these rights, all these expectations are cruelly imperilled by bigoted, incompetent, corrupt Taliban rule, cynically propped up by China. How long can the Islamists ride roughshod with whips and guns before their control begins to slip? Many thousands of protesters rallied last week in Kabul and other cities after a call for a national uprising by anti-Taliban forces based in the northern Panjshir valley.

It’s early days. The National Resistance Front, successor to the Northern Alliance, and its leader, Ahmad Massoud, is under fierce pressure. But despite regime claims, it has not been defeated and can expect growing public support. If history is a guide, Afghanistan may see another unstoppable insurgency but this time the Taliban will be on the receiving end.