ISLAMABAD – When Afghanistan’s former vice-president Amrullah Saleh broke the silence about Western hostages being held by the Taliban, his tweet unleashed a storm of outrage. Global media exploded with calls for the release of the two British men he named, both former BBC journalists.
One, Andrew North, who was in Afghanistan working for the United Nations, was soon freed. Peter Jouvenal, a businessman who used to be a war cameraman and whose life is deeply embedded in Afghanistan, remains incarcerated, his health causing concern for family and friends.
Kidnapping Westerners has long been a tactic of the Taliban – for political expediency; to spread terror; and to exchange for their own people, as they did in June 2014 with the former US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was swapped for five prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay.
Largely missing from the coverage, however, was the much more sinister detail that in the six months since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan, huge numbers of Afghans have been disappearing into detention, without charge, without trial and, too often, without release.
According to a source close to the Taliban leadership in Kabul, there are currently two Americans and eight Britons, including Jouvenal, being held hostage. They include Mark Frerichs, a 59-year-old American engineer and Navy veteran held since January 2020.
The Taliban signalled the revival of their hostage diplomacy in a meeting with the US special representative for Afghanistan, Tom West, in November, when they offered to swap Frerichs for a drug trafficker currently serving a life sentence in a US prison. The identity of the other American said to be held hostage has not been made public.
The foreigners serve another chilling use for the Taliban: to track down Afghan people who associate with them.
An Afghan source, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said that a close relative was kidnapped after going to a meeting he thought had been arranged by Jouvenal via text message. The source said that his relative’s wife had been told her husband’s freedom could be secured for $200,000.
There is no way of knowing exactly how many people have been arbitrarily rounded up by Taliban squads, but it is likely to be many thousands. There is no accountability for their disappearance, and no recourse for their release. There is no rule of law in the Taliban’s Afghanistan; there is no police force, no army, no judicial system, no security.
There is only anarchy, grafted on to grave humanitarian catastrophe caused by the collapse of the state and the freezing of financial assets – which means people cannot access their own money in their own bank accounts – to keep cash out of the hands of the Taliban. Many members of the “interim cabinet” are sanctioned as terrorists by the United States and the UN Security Council.
The Taliban have effectively closed down what had been, for the 20 years of the Western-backed republic, a free and feisty news sector that revelled in holding power to account. As local media outlets have been strangled since 15 August last year, social media platforms have become the main sources of news from Afghanistan.
Disappearances and atrocities are widely shared, often with photos and video, contradicting denials from an impervious Taliban that they do not detain or hold people, especially women.
The true Orwellian nature of Afghanistan’s new rulers became clear when, in the middle of the crescendo of calls for the release of North and Jouvenal, they released women they had earlier denied holding. One of the women, Tamana Paryani, had filmed a terrified plea for help as armed men broke into her home on the night of 19 January and posted it on social media before she and three of her sisters were detained.
Sources inside and outside Afghanistan say that abductees are held at secret prisons scattered across the country. Among the disappeared are women, such as Paryani, who have demonstrated for the restoration of their rights, and others who were formerly police officers and soldiers.
“Many women never disclose that they have been detained after their release because of the questions that would inevitably be raised about whether they had been raped,” a shame that would stain their reputations rather than their rapists, said a former security official of the previous government.
Men who served as special forces and commandos in the former republic’s armed forces are disappearing in large numbers as they are easy to identify from their physiques, the source said, speaking on condition that he not be named. Journalists, of course, are among the disappeared, as are civil society activists, human rights advocates, poets, writers and professors.
Also disappearing into the maw of the extremist Sunni Taliban terror machine are people of the Hazara minority ethnicity, who are largely Shia and therefore considered apostates. People of other minority ethnicities, such as Uzbeks and Tajiks, are also being targeted.
Naweed Kawusi, a colonel in the republic police force who left Afghanistan after being threatened by the Taliban, said gunmen who came looking for him in the weeks after the government’s collapse terrorised his neighbours when they couldn’t find him. “First they came and beat up the neighbours, then when I left they emptied a couple of magazines [of bullets] into my door and windows,” Kawusi said.
Since he left Afghanistan with his family, the Taliban have repeatedly turned up at his parents’ home demanding to know where he is. “They go to my father’s house, ask where I am, threaten to arrest everyone in the house and take them to prison, torture them,” Kawusi said. “They are still coming for me, and they are still doing this across the country, looking for anyone they can find who used to work for the security forces. Those they do find, they kill, often after torturing them first.”
Alarmingly, sources inside and outside Afghanistan say that people from the Panjshir Valley are being targeted simply for being Panjshiris; they are detained in their homes, in the streets, sometimes beaten and shot dead in public so that the atrocities can be filmed and the horror shared.
Panjshir is an hour’s drive from Kabul and has a fierce tradition of resistance, having never fallen to the Taliban during their previous term in control of the country, from 1996 to 2001. After 15 August 2021, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, Panjshir became a base for the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front (NRF), of which the former vice-president Saleh is a leader. After a rapid defeat, the NRF leadership moved to neighbouring Tajikistan. Armed resistance in the valley, funded largely by wealthy Panjshiris, continues.
Last month, it emerged that the Taliban had begun house-to-house searches in a number of Afghan cities. The reason for the searches was not immediately clear, though the targets appeared to be former police and military personnel, people who had worked for the failed republic government, people of ethnic minorities and Shias, and women who had demonstrated against the cancellation of their rights.
The Taliban have also closed down international news agencies, including the BBC and Voice of America, ordered local television stations to cease broadcasting foreign programmes, and tightened their hold on news outlets. As the Taliban consolidate their power, they are snuffing out the organisations that would reveal their excesses and hold them to account.
While mobile phone networks still function, some people are able to use social media to tell the outside world about their own mistreatment and the disappearance and torture of relatives and friends. But the light that lets them do that is quickly going out.
[See also: How refugees strengthen democracy and solidarity]