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Expect the unexpected in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

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The Taliban’s surprising return to power may not be what no one expected at the start of the year, except the militants themselves. But when it comes to Afghanistan, 2021 was a year to expect the unexpected.

Plans for an orderly final withdrawal of foreign troops failed as the West-backed Afghan government and its security forces collapsed in the face of a fierce Taliban onslaught.

The Taliban’s military takeover of Kabul on August 15 marked the end of nearly 20 years of foreign intervention in Afghanistan during which efforts were made to cultivate women’s rights, inclusive democracy and stability in Afghanistan. this war-torn country.

Rushed out, quick rewind

Chaos ensued as US and NATO forces retreated across the country, leaving the Afghan National Army (ANA) trained abroad to repel a staggering Taliban advance.

The ANA has proven to be second to none. The Taliban captured their first provincial capital on August 6. Two weeks later, Taliban fighters reached the gates of Kabul.

As militants surrounded the capital, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Hours later, the triumphant militants held court at the presidential palace.

Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace after taking control of Kabul on August 15.

Hold on to hope

Thousands of foreigners and Afghan civilians have headed to Kabul airport, the last stronghold controlled by foreign forces, in the hope of being evacuated from the country.

Many were thwarted by the Taliban’s efforts to block their escape, and scenes of desperation unfolded among the crowds of people who reached the tarmac, including some who clung to a departing US cargo plane and eventually plunged into death.

Afghans run alongside a US transport plane as it attempts to exit Kabul International Airport on August 16.

Afghans run alongside a US transport plane as it attempts to exit Kabul International Airport on August 16.

The winner goes to the loot

After two weeks of chaos punctuated by a deadly suicide bombing by the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), the last American soldier was evacuated by plane on August 30, narrowly passing the withdrawal deadline.

With foreign forces out of the way, the Taliban won a victory lap in US and ANA military vehicles its fighters captured along the way.

Celebrating Taliban troops aboard a convoy of captured Humvees in Kandahar on September 1.

Celebrating Taliban troops aboard a convoy of captured Humvees in Kandahar on September 1.

Parade time

The supply of military equipment acquired by the Taliban included American-made armored personnel carriers and Russian-made helicopters that marched through the capital.

A military parade in Kabul in November featured US M1117 armored vehicles and Russian Mi-17 helicopters.

A military parade in Kabul in November featured US M1117 armored vehicles and Russian Mi-17 helicopters.

Locked and loaded

Many Taliban fighters took to wearing the uniforms and wielding modern equipment of their defeated enemies, including night vision goggles, communication instruments and assault rifles.

Special forces members of the elite Taliban 313 Badri Battalion after the US withdrawal.

Special forces members of the elite Taliban 313 Badri Battalion after the US withdrawal.

Fly in style

The Taliban leadership, meanwhile, has tried to portray itself as a more moderate version of the regime that was known for its brutality and strict interpretation of Sharia law when it last ruled from 1996 until the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

As Washington sought assurances that the Taliban would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists and uphold the rights of women and girls as well as religious and ethnic minorities, Taliban negotiators seemed more at ease. in their role.

Taliban delegates pictured en route for face-to-face talks with US officials in Doha in October.

Taliban delegates pictured en route for face-to-face talks with US officials in Doha in October.

Blurred lines of authority

Since the announcement of their interim government in late August, the Taliban have been less than transparent about the inclusion of some powerful figures, including spiritual leader Haibatullah Akhundzada.

While the Taliban claimed Akhundzada made a public appearance in October, no videos or photographs of the event have been released, fueling reports that he may have died a year ago.

And the militant group has taken steps to obscure images of other government figures, including acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.

Acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani was reportedly seen greeting families of suicide bombers during an event in Kabul in October 2021.

Acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani was reportedly seen greeting families of suicide bombers during an event in Kabul in October 2021.

Monumental tasks

With the return of the militants came the irony that they would be the guardians of the cultural history they had tried to erase during their last stint in power.

In December, the Taliban announced that the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, where its fighters once destroyed irreplaceable historical treasures, would be open to visitors.

Taliban fighters guard the former site of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Taliban fighters guard the former site of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

But despite assurances that its fighters would guard the site of the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, videos quickly emerged of the remains of the statues being used again for shooting exercises.

Taming the zoo

The Taliban have also started to portray themselves as the keeper of the Kabul zoo, the former home of Marjan, the lion of Kabul. The animal, which has only one eye after a Taliban fighter’s brother threw a grenade into his enclosure in 1995, lived to become a symbol of survival for the Afghan people until she got old in 2002.

While animal rights watchdogs such as UK-based Wild Welfare have expressed concerns over the fate of the facility under the Taliban, zoo officials assured RFE / RL’s Radio Azadi that the animals were healthy and there were plans for expansion.

A Taliban fighter takes money by the horns in September 2021.

A Taliban fighter takes money by the horns in September 2021.

Sporting luck?

Under the previous Taliban regime, women were not allowed to play sports at all, and men’s participation was tightly controlled.

Popular sports such as cricket, football, and buzkhashi had been banned on the grounds that they were “un-Islamic”, and playing fields were often used to stage public executions.

As athletes rushed to leave the country after the Taliban returned to power, the new leadership maintained that while it was “not necessary” for women to participate in sports, they were ready to make concessions to women. men.

A Taliban fighter watches spectators at a Twenty20 cricket match between two Afghan teams in Kabul in September.

A Taliban fighter watches spectators at a Twenty20 cricket match between two Afghan teams in Kabul in September.

Veiled events

Fears that the Taliban would reverse the gains made by women over the past 20 years sparked daily protests immediately after the militant group’s takeover.

Public protests for women’s rights to education, employment and political representation have since continued despite the Taliban’s ban on unauthorized gatherings.

But events have shrunk in number and scale, and many women have protested indoors and online amid the threat of retaliation.

Pro-Taliban protesters also took to the streets. Many of them were draped in conservative clothing, including foreign clothing like the black niqab.

Afghan women participate in an anti-Pakistani rally in Kabul in September.

Afghan women participate in an anti-Pakistani rally in Kabul in September.

The day the music died, once again

The previous Taliban regime also banned music, prompting many musicians to flee the country for fear of reverting to the old policy.

While officials have remained largely silent on the subject, it has been reported that musicians have been harassed and their instruments destroyed. The drivers, too, cut their radios within earshot of Taliban checkpoints.

Amid the uncertainty, the national anthem adopted in 2006 appears to have been replaced by instrumentless religious hymns popular among the Taliban.

Students from the Afghan National Institute of Music who fled the country by train for a concert in Qatar in October.

Students from the Afghan National Institute of Music who fled the country by train for a concert in Qatar in October.

All work and no play

As the Taliban tightened their control across the country, its fighters provided entertainment.

Photos showed activists paddling in swan boats, riding rides and roller coasters, and making time to stop for bumper cars.