Taliban cracks down on more rights while demanding Western aid

Even as they appeal to the world to release frozen humanitarian aid funds and bank accounts, Taliban officials are taking new actions to restrict women’s freedoms and dismantle democratic institutions — defying the top two international concerns that have kept most foreign aid at bay as a cold winter looms for millions of destitute Afghans.

Over the past week, the powerful ministry for Islamic guidance has issued rules requiring women to fully cover their heads if they ride in a public taxi and to be accompanied by a male relative if they travel more than 45 miles. The instructions also require cabdrivers to refuse to carry female passengers who do not comply and to stop playing music while driving because it is “un-Islamic.”

In the western city of Herat, officials at the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice ordered all clothing shops to remove the heads of display mannequins, or face punishment. The officials said they are defined as “statues,” which must not be worshipped under Islam. During the previous era of Taliban rule, animal and human heads were obliterated from images.

In the political arena, Taliban spokesmen announced the shutdown of two national election oversight commissions and two cabinet ministries. One longtime ministry dealt with parliamentary issues; the second was formed in 2019 to promote peace during lengthy — and ultimately futile — negotiations to end the 20-year conflict between the Islamist insurgents and Western-backed government forces.

These moves follow others including the armed occupation and shutdown of the national independent bar association in November. Rights groups and analysts see the flurry of actions as signals that the new, deeply conservative Islamist rulers are both tightening and widening their grip across Afghan society — despite initial promises of leniency after they took power in mid-August.

“The Taliban are reverting to their repressive policies of the past, shattering the myth of a kinder and more moderate Taliban 2.0,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington. Even if their leaders carry cellphones and laptops now, he added, “they feel emboldened, and they are not about to change the ideology that defined them” when they held power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001.

Kugelman and others said Taliban authorities do not appear to be overly concerned about the looming humanitarian crisis that international aid agencies predict could engulf the poor, drought-plagued nation of 39 million this winter. They suggest that Taliban demands for the release of foreign funds are more a contest of wills — a game of chicken with the West — than a sign of real urgency over the collapsing economy and worsening levels of hunger and cold.

In an interview this week, the Taliban’s deputy spokesman, Bilal Karimi, said that his government “appreciates” international assistance but that it is working to “manage” the current humanitarian crisis through its own resources and charities. “We want to solve problems through negotiations, and we want to have good relations with the world, but the world must also want good relations with us,” he said.

Asked about the new restrictions on women, he said that his government is “even more committed to women’s rights than others” and that there are “no obstacles” to women working or studying as long as they can be can be physically separated from men.

“We fought for 20 years for an Islamic system,” he said. “We are still working on putting the mechanisms in place, but we need more time.”

Karimi said he had “no information” about the new travel rules prescribed for women in a handwritten order by the Virtue and Vice Department. “This is an Islamic society, and it is natural for women to wear hijab anyway,” he said, adding that the ministry’s pronouncements are “recommendations, not compulsory.”

Human rights groups, however, called the new rules a chilling echo of the draconian strictures that were placed on women’s activities during the first Taliban era, when those who ventured outdoors without a male relative, or who did not cover their faces and bodies with voluminous burqas, risked being punished with lashings by vigilantes from the same agency.

“This will have a huge impact on women and girls. It will make it difficult for those who want to study at universities away from home, and it will stop those fleeing to escape domestic violence,” said Heather Barr, an official of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch in New York. “This is another move toward making girls and women prisoners in their own homes, and a signal that more such violations may be coming.”

In Kabul this week, lines of male taxi drivers waited at busy outdoor bazaars, calling out their destinations, and groups of women crammed inside them with their purchases. One young woman in a fashionable outfit and makeup, sorting through a sidewalk table of secondhand sweaters, said she was very upset about the new travel rules.

“The situation is getting more and more difficult for us,” said Shaqaf Salah, who said she was forced to quit pre-med studies. “I am married and educated, and still I have no rights. I was a very good student, and now I am sitting at home. My husband is with me today, but what if he wasn’t? How would I get out of the house?”

On Wednesday, a group of about 50 women held a brief protest in downtown Kabul, calling for the United States and foreign agencies to release funds to the Afghan government. They said women are bearing the brunt of hardship and demand the right to work, but their blame was pointed mostly at the West, and they carried banners that read, “Joe Biden, my children have nothing to eat.” The Biden administration is withholding more than $8 billion in Afghan government assets, although it has begun channeling funds to humanitarian aid efforts.

The official crackdown on democratic institutions has drawn less public opposition, in part because electoral politics and civilian governance were discredited during two decades of fraud-marred elections and official corruption. But among Afghan lawyers and other advocacy groups, those Taliban actions are seen as having an even greater chilling effect on individual rights and freedoms.

Last month, after shutting down the bar association, the government required all lawyers to be approved by the Taliban Justice Ministry, raising concerns that criminal defendants will not be able to get fair treatment and that sharia law courts will dominate the system. During the first period of Taliban rule, such courts ordered stonings, amputations and executions.

Karimi said the government is taking such steps largely to meet its “administrative needs” and priorities during the economic crisis. The Peace Ministry, he said, “is not needed any more because there is no fighting, and security is being enforced.” The election commissions “have only been closed temporarily, and if we need them in the future, we can rebuild them,” he said.

Some observers say the mixed signals from Taliban leaders, with vague explanations for some new policies and others backpedaled as “temporary,” reflect a larger problem facing the new rulers: persistent internal divisions that have undercut decision-making and pitted religious imperatives against public and operational necessity.

“The Taliban are facing multiple challenges, including the need to consolidate power and unify a group with internal divides,” Kugelman said. The new rash of restrictive orders, he said, “smacks of a plan to project strength and defiance at a moment when they are in over their heads.” While millions of Afghans may face a life-threatening winter, he added, “they are tending to internal politics, and fiddling while Rome burns.”

Analysts described a state of competing priorities among Taliban officials — including senior religious leaders who insist on applying sharia law to every issue, younger administrators who are more educated but wield little power, and moderate figures who have traveled abroad to negotiations and conferences and are the most open to modernization and reform.

Some civilian activists here, including those who organized the women’s march, assert that there is still hope for Taliban governance if the more moderate among them can find room to maneuver and gradually gain influence. Others fear that the die is cast and that the recent crackdowns are a harbinger of more to come, with or without international aid.

“We need to work with the Taliban for change, lower our expectations and give them time,” said Faiz Zaland, a public policy professor at Kabul University who has built relations with numerous Taliban figures and has often been criticized for it. “It is a last chance to save Afghanistan for the next generation. If everything collapses and they become a rogue state, the country will be lost.”