Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail’s Africa bureau chief. He reported extensively from Afghanistan between 2001 and 2006.
In the fifth year of Taliban rule over Afghanistan’s capital city, I persuaded their Culture Ministry to unlock the doors of the National Museum for me. Inside its dimly lit rooms, I found a horrifying sight.
The museum on the outskirts of Kabul had once been home to one of the world’s richest collections of Central Asian art. Now it was a gutted shell.
For weeks, Taliban officials had been systematically smashing thousands of Persian and Buddhist artifacts with axes. Any sculptures in human form had been destroyed. As I wandered in shock through the museum, I could see that even the statues of animals were desecrated and decapitated. A sculpture of a lion, now headless, had been toppled onto its side.
It was the spring of 2001: a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center, before the beginning of the “war on terror” and the two-decade-long U.S. military entanglement in Afghanistan, an entanglement that eventually drew Canada in too. The Taliban – the “students,” as they styled themselves – were remorselessly imposing their vision of a theocratic utopia. Buddhist and Persian “idols” were on the long list of banned items and so the cultural treasures were decreed for destruction.
Back then, the world knew little about the Taliban. Two decades later, ignorance cannot be an excuse for global indifference. The militant Islamist movement, with its harsh interpretation of sharia codes, has swept across the country as the U.S. military withdraws. On Sunday, it captured Kabul and won effective control of the country again.
These days, the Taliban claim to have changed. Some of their leaders offer a milder and more moderate image of themselves on women’s rights and other issues. But to understand the future of Afghanistan’s newly captured cities, there are lessons to be drawn from the strongest evidence we have from history: how the Taliban exercised power in Kabul during those years when they last governed the country.
The stories from 1996 to 2001 are disturbing, but Canadians should not avert their eyes from the country where 158 Canadian soldiers gave their lives in the fight against the Taliban. While the military phase of the struggle has collapsed, countries such as Canada could still find diplomatic or financial leverage to prevent the most disastrous of outcomes. Cynicism and apathy are not the way for us to honour the Afghans who have resisted the Taliban for a quarter of a century.
After witnessing the devastation in Afghanistan’s national museum in early 2001, I wanted an explanation for the edict that had doomed its collection. I sought an audience with a top official of the Taliban’s moral arbiters: the much-feared Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Its deputy minister, 32-year-old Maulvi Mohammad Saleem Haqqani, was an austere man in a white turban. Like many other Taliban leaders, his world view was shaped by his years at an Islamic school in Pakistan. I asked him about the gutted museum in Kabul and the similar destruction of the famed Buddhas of Bamiyan, the colossal statues carved in a cliff side in the sixth century. “We are simply implementing the law of Allah,” he told me. “Idols are forbidden by Islam. We believe in Islam, and so we destroyed the statues.”
The Virtue and Vice Department kept a stern watch over every aspect of Afghan life. At its headquarters, there were glass cases on each of its four floors, displaying row upon row of moral and religious decrees.
The building was spartan and joyless. The walls featured no paintings or decorations of any kind, except perhaps an Islamic calendar or a Quran quotation. Afghan men queued up in its offices to plead for temporary exemptions from the decree governing the length of their beards.
Even the most mundane activities of daily life were zealously controlled by the Taliban bureaucrats. I talked to a university professor who played chess secretly, behind closed doors, because the Taliban had banned chess. Restaurants shut their doors at prayer times and their staff and customers trooped dutifully to the mosques for their government-mandated prayers.
I met a bookseller in Kabul who told me his story. The Taliban had raided his shop, seized a stack of books and postcards and furiously burned them in a public square. One of the seized postcards was a photo of an Islamic site – but they had noticed pigeons in the photo.
Even after that, the Taliban were constantly barging into his shops with markers and pens to deface any human or animal images they could find on his book covers. In one incident, the Taliban arrested his brother for selling forbidden books. To keep his business afloat, he kept some of his books hidden behind the counter and taped business cards over the covers of other books to conceal their images.
While the cultural destruction and censorship were relentless, the harshest Taliban restrictions were reserved for Afghan women. Girls and women were prohibited from school and required to cover themselves from head to ankle. Women were banned from almost all jobs and businesses. They were beaten for offences as trivial as incorrect attire or speaking to a male friend in the street.
The Taliban ordered journalists never to speak to Afghan women, but I managed to speak to some – and their stories were depressing. “Women in Afghanistan are like dead people walking,” a nurse told me. “I’m very lucky that I’m allowed to work. For most women, the house is like a jail. Some of them stay at home for weeks or months at a time. They’re even afraid to go to the bazaar because one of the Taliban could see them and ask why they are wearing certain shoes or clothing.”
A doctor told me that she detected deep trauma among Afghan women. “For our young people, the future is very dark. We’ve gone back to the Stone Age. A country without education is nothing. I feel a lot of pain for my nieces and the neighbourhood girls. There is no music, no television, no entertainment at all. They play with stones because they don’t even have proper toys.”
At the Virtue and Vice Department, the officials were unsympathetic. “It is in our Quran and in our traditional culture that women should wear the veil and stay at home,” Mr. Haqqani told me sternly. “It is safer for them to be at home.”
Two decades later, have the Taliban changed? These days, their officials sometimes claim they don’t want a return to the brutal treatment of women for which the Taliban became notorious during the period from 1996 to 2001. Some even hint that women could hold certain lesser cabinet posts under a Taliban government. But they continue to insist that women will be “protected” under sharia. In effect, this will still mean enforced codes of clothing and behaviour for women.
The U.S. National Intelligence Council, in a report in April, noted that the Taliban enforce “strict social constraints” in the areas that they govern today. Even after the beginning of peace negotiations in 2019, the Taliban continued to criticize women who wear “alien-culture clothes” and have accused women’s rights advocates of “promoting immorality, indecency and non-Islamic culture,” the council said.
“The Taliban remains broadly consistent in its restrictive approach to women’s rights and would roll back much of the past two decades’ progress if the group regained national power,” it said.
In a study last year, based on interviews with Taliban officials and others, Brookings Institution researchers predicted that the Taliban are likely to “weaken women’s rights, further tighten cultural restrictions on women and shrink socio-economic opportunities for them.”
They noted that the Taliban are deliberately remaining vague about how they would treat women in the territories that they conquer. In a few areas, they have allowed primary schools to accept girls – although they strictly censor the subjects that can be taught. In other areas, the researchers found, the Taliban still impose “the same old brutalities, such as whipping women for sex outside marriage, stoning them to death for certain offences, and punishment for not wearing a burqa.”
There is already evidence of these rules in areas that the Taliban have recently captured. “Women should not get out of the house without a male guardian, or without sharia justification,” said a Taliban decree in an region seized last month. “They are not to ride a taxi. They must be covered. Producing and distributing music or any audio-visual entertainment are banned.”
In the cities of Herat and Kandahar, women were turned away from offices and a university when the Taliban took control of the cities this month. In some areas, Taliban officials reportedly ordered that all girls over the age of 15 and widows younger than 40 must be married to insurgent fighters – a form of sexual slavery worse than Taliban practices of the 1990s.
For Western governments, the great hope was a negotiated settlement with the radical Islamists: a power-sharing agreement that would force the Taliban to compromise and abandon the worst excesses of their policies on women. But as the Taliban swept rapidly across the country, capturing city after city, this scenario vanished. Now the world is faced with a total victory for the theocratic movement.
Why should Canadians care? After spending billions of dollars on foreign aid and a military intervention that seemed to achieve little in the long run, some Canadians might see this as a time to walk away and leave the Afghans to their own fate. But even from a self-interested viewpoint, this would be a mistake.
Nobody would benefit from a complete disengagement from Afghanistan. It would only heighten the risk that the country will become a fount of chaos: a potential breeding ground for terrorists, a source of never-ending refugees and a place where human-rights abuses can never be deterred.
Some U.S. observers insist that the Pentagon could have prevented a Taliban victory by keeping its warplanes in Afghan skies. Those warplanes may have helped to keep the Taliban out of Kabul for 20 years, but they also made it easier for the Taliban to recruit new members.
Twice – in 2001 and again in 2006 – I covered the bloody aftermath of U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan that went badly astray, killing innocent civilians. These deadly blunders played straight into the Taliban’s hands, making it harder for the West to win the hearts and minds of the people.
“Why has America done this to us?” an elderly man asked me in October, 2001, after a U.S. airstrike killed a woman and injured nine other civilians in a village near Kabul, several kilometres from Taliban positions. “Tell them to stop bombing us,” the man pleaded.
A few years later, I walked into a hospital in Kandahar where the victims of another U.S. airstrike were being bandaged and treated. At least 17 civilians had been killed in the missile attack on a nearby village during a battle against the Taliban. “I lost my family,” whispered a 12-year-old whose parents and six sisters and brothers had all perished in the airstrike. “Now I am all alone.”
A military-dominated strategy was never going to solve the Afghanistan conundrum. But there are other options, even now. Pressure can be applied with diplomacy, with sanctions or travel bans. Incentives can be offered. In a country impoverished by war, the Taliban will need humanitarian and development aid. (The latest United Nations humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan is only 30-per-cent funded.) And Canada is traditionally one of the leading sources of such funding.
“That money becomes one of the few remaining sources of leverage for the international community,” says Graeme Smith, a former Globe and Mail journalist, now a researcher and consultant for the London-based Overseas Development Institute who has spent nine years in Afghanistan in his career.
“Canada needs to be an active part of those conversations,” he says. “We left behind a big mess in this country and we have an obligation to help clean it up. It’s clear that sending Canadian troops was not successful – it was a disaster. We left a lot of blood on the ground, and maybe something good can still come of it. It’s still possible that patient engagement on humanitarian and development issues could help to mitigate the mess.”
Since 2001, Canada has been one of the top 10 donors to Afghanistan, providing a total of more than $3.6-billion in development and humanitarian funding, including $270-million pledged last November. How Canada deploys this aid, and the influence it provides, will be a key strategic decision.
If Western countries halt all of their support for Afghanistan and its people, the Taliban will simply turn elsewhere. China and Russia are already circling, openly courting the new regime. Unlike the Western governments, they have kept their embassies in Kabul open.