I got my first close-up look at a Taliban fighter from the new regime at a roadblock near our safe house. He had a blanket over his head because of the cold, his hair and beard were long and lank, and he was wearing eye make-up. Twenty years ago this was commonplace, if a bit unnerving – especially since many of the Taliban who came from the Kandahar area also used to wear red nail polish and high-heeled gold sandals. That fashion seems to have died out, but the eyeliner remains. It was like seeing an old friend.
The Taliban regime was toppled by US-led forces in November 2001. In the two decades since, when the Taliban returned to guerrilla warfare, I would occasionally slip out of Kabul for a clandestine meeting with one of their leaders, but I did not come across the rank and file. As I encounter them now, they seem unchanged: the same backwoodsmen they always were, and – though it is hard to persuade people in the outside world of this – just as friendly.
Taliban fighters may have attacked Western soldiers with bullets and IEDs; they may have tortured or murdered anyone who contravened their ferocious social code; they may have banned the images of any living creature, and handed out savage beatings to anyone, man or woman, who inadvertently showed a flash of ankle in the streets – but Islamic State they are not. The Taliban doesn’t regard Westerners as devils incarnate, and its members don’t saw off their heads in snuff videos. Their ranks don’t contain discontented recruits from Western universities, and never have. Essentially, they’re unreconstructed small-town boys, determined to impose their own rebarbative cultural norms on everyone else.
When the Taliban took control of Kabul on 15 August 2021, the group didn’t behave like the Khmer Rouge capturing Phnom Penh; it was more like the National Liberation Front arriving in Saigon. The Westerners who remained behind instead of fleeing to the airport are mostly glad they did.
I talked to the country head of one of the big international aid agencies, who was one of the few to stay. She finds the Taliban reasonably good to deal with, keen to get women to return to work in the healthcare system, anxious to encourage foreign aid agencies to continue with their efforts and aware of how terrifying the task of governing this country is going to be. According to her, the health ministry is surprisingly helpful. I told her of my experiences with one of the health ministers from the 1996 to 2001 Taliban government, Mullah Balouch, who decided to do an interview with me to make an appeal for help from abroad. He had asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), he said then, to send trained surgeons to Afghanistan to cut off the hands and feet of convicted criminals, and the ICRC had refused. “This means I have to do the job myself,” he told me, looking angrily into the camera, “and it really gets in the way of my other work.”
There was a lunacy about the old Taliban that seems mercifully to be absent this time. Certainly, this aid agency boss hasn’t come across anyone remotely like Balouch.
Nevertheless there is plenty of old Taliban behaviour around. Here in Kabul I have been sent videos of whippings and stonings, ugly stuff that can’t be verified and couldn’t be broadcast even if it were. The well-known women’s activist Frozan Safi, a 29-year-old economics lecturer, disappeared in the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif on 20 October, and her body was recently discovered, riddled with bullets. That’s the kind of thing the Taliban has been doing ever since it was founded in the mid-1990s, so it may well have been the group’s work. If the Taliban has indeed changed, the message doesn’t seem to have got through to the grass-roots.
The picture is confused. What everyone the world over knows about the Taliban is that the group bans the education of girls and young women. Except that this doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case. In the surroundings of Bamyan, in central Afghanistan, overshadowed by the cliffs where the gigantic statues of the Buddhas once stood (the Taliban destroyed them with explosives in 2001), my television team and I dropped in without warning on a local school: Taiboti High, which over the years has received aid from Save the Children, as well as a Japanese aid agency. Taiboti is, like many schools in developing countries, poorly equipped, but clean, cheerful and somewhere that children can receive a reasonably good schooling.
It is segregated: girls attend in the morning, boys in the afternoon. But girls do attend. They do not come in large numbers – the teachers told me the classes of older girls are only half full. That’s presumably because the Taliban has decreed they can’t be educated, I said. No, the teachers replied, they haven’t heard from the Taliban, one way or the other. There’s official silence. The reason half the older girls don’t come to school is either that they’re scared the Taliban will punish them for it later, or their own families won’t let them. And, indeed, we had already come across a 16-year-old girl living on the outskirts of the town who very badly wanted to attend class, but who was prevented from doing so by her brothers. They, like the Taliban, believe women should stay at home.
Sitting in on a physics class at Taiboti High was a moving experience for me. These girls wanted an education so much they were prepared to risk everything for it. Some were reluctant to talk to us, but one in particular was determinedly outspoken. In any Western school she would have been the class rebel, but here she was a rebel in the cause of tuition, demanding to continue her school career in the face of anyone’s objections – particularly those of the Taliban. “Nothing is going to stop me getting my education,” she said defiantly. The physics teacher, a gentle, rather sad woman in her late twenties who had recently lost her husband and had two children to bring up alone, was less confrontational than her star pupil. But she said she felt it was her duty to turn up every day to teach the girls, because that was what they wanted.
The new Taliban leadership is sophisticated enough to understand that the education of girls is a key issue for much of the outside world, and as a result it has almost certainly been holding this back as a future concession. Yet any relaxation of the rules about the position of women brings big problems with it. The Taliban, like any other movement, is a coalition. The more worldly-wise leaders know there is a deeply traditionalist wing that regards any concession on women’s education as outright heresy. There have been reports of two Taliban units fighting each other over precisely this kind of issue, and if the leadership goes too far in the concessions it makes to foreign powers it will push the ultra-traditionalists into the arms of Islamic State Khorasan, the latest manifestation in Afghanistan of Bin Laden-ism.
So should we regard Taliban members as the primitive bandits they have always seemed, or should we accept them as semi-legitimate rulers with whom, in the absence of anyone better, we have to do business?
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have suspended payments for a large range of projects to Afghanistan, and some Western countries have frozen the country’s assets. Given the outrage with which the return of the Taliban has been received, these are popular moves domestically. But what do they mean for the Afghan people, who face a ferocious combination of drought, the approach of a severe winter, starvation that will affect millions, an economy that is collapsing and levels of poverty that are forecast to engulf more than 90 per cent of the country? Is blocking off Afghanistan from international aid the best way to help its inhabitants, or does it just make us feel better?
The Taliban leadership won’t be hurt by the sanctions imposed by the IMF, the World Bank and Western countries. The millions of people here who are now looking starvation in the face undoubtedly will be.
In Kabul I’ve been talking to stallholders, cooks, small businessmen, even the women who sell second-hand clothes in the marketplaces. Every single one of them is fully aware that they are standing on the edge of an abyss. The problem isn’t necessarily food supplies; there has been drought in large parts of Afghanistan, but if conditions were normal the population would probably get by. It was far easier in the past because outside governments and aid agencies made up the shortfall. Now, there is no one to help. I have seen plenty of humanitarian catastrophes over the years, but never, I think, one where so few outside entities were prepared to assist. Nor one where so many were faced with disaster because they lacked money.
Everyone is expecting a bad winter, but the larger problem is the collapsing economy. No civil servant, teacher, policeman or woman, soldier or lawyer has been paid since the Taliban took over. In Kabul a friend of mine showed me the street corner where his uncle, a senior judge, now waits every morning in the hope of getting manual labour. Unlike most judges, my friend said, his uncle didn’t take bribes and had no money put by.
Western governments and institutions such as the IMF want to nudge the Taliban into behaving in more civilised ways. But this process needs time, and time is what Afghanistan doesn’t have. Malnourished children are already arriving in hospitals and clinics in Kabul and elsewhere, and some are dying.
The view of aid organisations is that action – lifting the sanctions, bringing in food, allowing money to flow back into the country – needs to be taken immediately. Punishing the Taliban is one thing; allowing millions of ordinary, decent Afghans to die of hunger and disease is altogether different. If we fail to help, the Taliban will not be solely to blame for the crisis in Afghanistan. It will be a disaster of our own making.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor
This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand