Editor’s note: America’s departure from Afghanistan marks another major turning point for the Taliban, a terrorist group with a long history in Afghanistan and a complicated relationship with Pakistan. VOA journalists are looking at the Taliban’s rise to power and the group’s past tenures as rulers of Afghanistan.
In late September 1996, after four years of civil war in Afghanistan, the Taliban succeeded in capturing Kabul and then tortured and killed former President Mohammad Najibullah before hanging his body from a traffic post.
The shocking images of the slain president sent a signal to the Afghans and the world that the Taliban had taken over and what they would call a “full Islamic system” for Afghanistan. Taliban flags began flying over government offices in Kabul and their military rivals fled to their strongholds in the north.
I arrived in Kabul on 29 October, the beginning of the Taliban’s second month in power in the war-torn city. The so-called “moral police” of a Taliban government agency known as the Propagation of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice were the most feared squad in the capital. In the same month, armed guards in traditional Afghan dress forced a quick change on urban Afghan women and men. Every man had to wear a cap or turban and have a beard long enough to be grasped by a fist. At the time of prayer, it was necessary to close all businesses.
The old-fashioned burqa, mostly in the shape of a blue shuttlecock, was worn on women. Sometimes for unknown reasons they were publicly thrashed with sticks by the Virtue and Vice squads. He later learned that his ankles were visible to men, or that he had been seen talking to a stranger. The Taliban would kill a woman if she was not accompanied by a mahram, a male member of the family with whom marital relations were considered haram (forbidden). Seeing the Taliban beating up women on the streets of Kabul became the new normal.
Schools were closed, televisions were broken, ancient remains of the Kabul Museum disappeared, portraits and drawings of humans and animals in official buildings were torn to pieces.
Music was banned, so the chirping of birds replaced the traditional instrumental music of Afghan drums and rabab (a local version of the guitar). The local music was replaced by the Taliban’s jihadist tarana (anthem) and sermons, which were heard on Radio Sharia, the new name for Afghanistan’s national radio and television.
The Taliban intensified public fears by appointing radical seminary graduate Mullah Kalamuddin as deputy minister of virtue and vice minister. A graduate of the Darul Uloom Haqqaniya Madrasa in Akora Khatak, Pakistan, where many Taliban leaders studied, Mullah Kalamuddin was an influential official who had a reputation for personally leading the group’s fear campaign. He was over 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, and when I met him in his ministry building, he used a love seat as his office chair when directing his subordinates. He only expressed contempt for those who expressed concern over women’s rights, saying that a woman has two places of residence: a house and a grave.
At that time there were signs of the Taliban’s harsh views in the sights of Kabul. At the city’s multi-storey InterContinental Hotel, employees told reporters about Mulla Kalamuddin being angry after seeing a small statue of Buddha in one of the hotel’s halls. He broke it into pieces using an axe.
In the Afghan National Bank building in Kabul city, where many women worked, the top floor was converted into a child care facility. But the bank was now closed, and after the Taliban came to power all the women were deported, a floor littered with empty cradles, pacifiers, and children’s toys. The bank’s civilian guardians said during a visit to the building with the Taliban that they had no plans to reopen it. Many other businesses and non-governmental organizations lost all their female employees, who were banned from working under the Taliban’s purist sharia.
At the time, the founding leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was driving Kabul away from his southern stronghold, Kandahar, which was an 18-hour drive away at the time. There was not much administrative state. His six-member High Council, led by Mullah Mohamed Rabbani, a former leader of Kandahar, did little to make decisions.
For locals trying to understand the rapid change of their new leaders, the international Pashto-language broadcaster VOA and the BBC and the Taliban’s Radio Sharia were the main sources of information.
Radio Sharia taught them to prepare themselves under the new Islamic laws of the Taliban. Mullah, a graduate of Pakistani madrasas, was presenting a menu of punishments in his sermons during a primetime evening broadcast.
Some messages warned people about the new social restrictions: “The devil urinates on the head of a woman who does not cover her head.” “God will put a hot lead in the ears of those who listen to music.” “It is un-Islamic to walk or drive on the left side of the road.” “A man looking at a woman or vice versa is adultery of the eyes.”
Tension was high in Kabul during the night. In the evening, new warnings were broadcast via radio sharia, and Taliban fighters patrolled the streets in pickup trucks, imposing a daily evening-to-morning curfew. These night patrols gave rise to rumors of mass arrests or movements of Taliban forces to the northern battle lines. Some locals in Kabul thought that the Taliban were bringing in Pakistani fighters under the cover of night. At the beginning of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, people in Kabul were already angry with Islamabad, believing that Pakistan’s support for the Taliban was weakening the Afghans.
Pakistani officials at the time encouraged this notion. In Pakistan, the then Interior Minister and former Army General Nasirullah Babar had no shame in being called the “architect of the Taliban” in Afghanistan. He will take credit for helping build the Afghan Taliban in his retired life.
Pakistan’s alleged role
I left Kabul for Kandahar on November 5, 1996 with a Western journalist. At the time, the drive was rough and about 480 kilometers long, and the needle on the speedometer rarely crossed 30 kilometers per hour. Along the way, a radio bulletin brought news from Pakistan, which stated that the president had dismissed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and dissolved his elected government over corruption charges. This is the second time that his government has been dismissed by a sitting president in Pakistan.
Bhutto’s first term in Afghanistan ended on a costly military conjecture. In early 1989, his government directed pro-Pakistan Afghan fighters to attempt to seize the eastern city of Jalalabad from the country’s Soviet-backed government. The operation was a debacle, and the conspiracy was exposed, becoming a political liability for his government and contributing to the perception that Pakistan supported terrorists in Afghanistan as part of its foreign policy strategy.
Pakistan’s next government, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, reinforced that notion in 1997 by becoming the first government to officially recognize the Afghan Taliban government. Twenty-four years later, most Afghans still see the Taliban as an offshoot of the Pakistani state, despite years of denial from Islamabad.