Back to the stone age

There was a television set in the bare room where Mullah Qalamuddin received me. We were at his home in the heights of Kabul. There was hardly any furniture in the overheated room; during the interview we sat on carpets and pillows.

Posted August 14, 2021 at 5:00 am

But there was this television in one corner. A humble device, the presence of which was no less unsettling.

Maulvi Qalamuddin, former head of the Taliban’s huge religious police, wasn’t he the one who personally banned television in all homes in Afghanistan in 1998?

You have to believe that he changed his mind.

It was September 2011. I was reporting in Afghanistan on the ten-year attacks on the World Trade Center. Ten years after the US-led coalition ousted the Taliban.

Driven by power without ever disappearing.

Throughout these years they have been there, lurking in the shadows, healing their wounds, leading bloody attacks against foreign troops, Afghan soldiers and populations, and gradually regaining ground, power and influence.

In 2011, Mullah Qalamuddin was rehabilitated by the Afghan government, which commissioned him to negotiate with the Taliban insurgents.

Ten years later they are back at the gates of Kabul.

Back to first place. Back to the stone age.

***

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. They banned music, theater and cinema. It banned women from working and girls from secondary school.

They forced the women to wear the burqas and prevented them from leaving their homes unaccompanied. They have increased the number of floggings and public executions.

Mullah Qalamuddin oversaw the “Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice”. He had banned makeup and high heels.

When I met him, the mullah did not regret what his regime had done to the Afghans during those years of leadership. In an interview he quietly explained to me the punishments prescribed by Islam for adultery (whipping or stoning) and theft (severed hand).

It was like an episode of The Scarlet Handmaid, that dark dystopia inspired by Margaret Atwood’s novel.

Except that this story was all too real. And the most terrifying thing is that the Taliban are now promising us a whole series of new episodes.

***

The Taliban’s advance is meteoric. The provincial capitals fall one by one. On Friday, the Taliban recaptured Kandahar, their former stronghold. Today they control two thirds of the country.

PHOTO RAHMAT GUL, RELATED PRESS

Afghans who fled northern provinces sought refuge in a public park in Kabul on Friday

The capital Kabul is surrounded. Government forces on the verge of collapse. Washington, like London and Ottawa, sends troops to carry out the emergency evacuation of their embassies.

The rush is total, panicked, as humiliating to Americans as the one that marked the fall of Saigon in 1975 rises against Joe Biden’s critics.

You accuse the President of poorly planning the withdrawal of the last American soldiers on Afghan soil. Biden reportedly lacked prudence, strategy, and empathy.

These critics may be right. But in this terribly desperate story it is necessary to make this brutal observation: after 20 years of war, US $ 1,000 billion spent and 2,500 American soldiers killed, the United States has never succeeded in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Despite all the money, despite all the bloodshed, this country is sinking into civil war. Quiet.

Human disaster is inevitable. Thousands of Afghans fleeing the Taliban’s advance are already populating the streets of Kabul. You left everything behind. Your house, your farm, your village.

From there, where can they flee to?

***

A public flogging was filmed in western Afghanistan in April. The video went viral and rocked Afghans across the country. We see men take turns whipping a woman convicted of adultery. The woman screams in pain under the blows.

It was a mistake, a local Taliban judge admitted.

The mistake was the video, not the eyelashes, he told UK weekly The Observer. “She committed adultery, I would have ordered the same. But the commanders said we shouldn’t have made it public. ”

Read the report from The Observer

***

The Taliban say they have changed. You speak of peace and reconciliation. Last year they even published an opinion article in the New York Times claiming they respect women’s rights, at least the rights they attribute to women in Islam.

Read the Taliban’s letter to the New York Times

Nobody is fooled. Women no longer work in areas that have come under Taliban control. They disappear again under sky-blue burqas. You go out with a man, even a teenager, but never alone, and risk being beaten.

Just like in the 1990s.

Like in the stone age.

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