New look Taliban have a job on hand to win public confidence

Waqar Mustafa

In Kabul, it’s fear that’s taking time to dissipate. At the capital’s international airport, it’s frenzy for flying out of Afghanistan that is failing to go away. The reason lies more in the Taliban’s brutal past than it does in their present, background interviews with the country’s journalists and women rights activists show.

The Taliban during their 1996-2001 reign would issue regressive diktats against journalists and bar women from taking up most jobs and girls from even going to school.

But now an image showing girls going to their school is doing rounds. And so do a female TV presenter interviewing a Taliban official on screen and a couple of other journalists — one local and the other foreign — reporting from the street. Non-Afghan reporters are still on the ground in Kabul. Ali M Latifi, a journalist for a foreign news organisation, walks on a Kabul road to his office on Wednesday — day three of the Taliban rule — and witnesses stores and restaurants reopen with crowds, cars and generators back. “Only a few dozen women, though,” he says. Fewer Taliban as well than they were on the day they captured Kabul after their blitz across the country.

All this is heartening for women journalists. However, certain people and journalists complain of Taliban conducting house-to-house searches and interrogation. Kabul residents are seen tearing down advertisements showing women without headscarves. And this is what is causing trust deficit.

Women journalist and rights activists in Kabul are staying at home watching and waiting in awe for the situation to unfold. Some of them are trying to leave the country but still stuck in visas and ticket issues. At the moment, no one’s life is safe. If the Taliban do not form an inclusive government involving all ethnic groups, they will continue their oppression and repeat history. More evidence is needed to prove that the Taliban are not feigning inclusivity, they say.

Some journalists, women included, and interpreters for the US and allied forces in Afghanistan are seeking help from the world community as they fear for their lives under the Taliban rule. TV screens and social media showed wrenching scenes at Kabul’s airport as thousands of Afghans tried to flee. Their clamber over barriers, thronging the tarmac and even clinging to the side of a US military transport plane before falling off showed their desperation for leaving the country. Pakistan’s Federal Union of Journalists and South Asian Free Media Association, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and several other organisations and countries are working to help hundreds of endangered Afghan journalists seeking relocation. CPJ has registered and vetted the cases of nearly 300 journalists attempting to reach safety, and there are hundreds more whose cases are under review. Only a handful have been able to board a flight to the US or a third country where their visa requests can begin being processed. The vast majority of threatened journalists remain in hiding. To date, CPJ has registered and vetted 45 high priority cases of Afghan journalists. Many are female journalists whose record of reporting on women’s rights has exacerbated the risk.

On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the Taliban have agreed to allow “safe passage” from Afghanistan for civilians struggling to join a US-directed airlift from the capital, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser said, although a timetable for completing the evacuation of Americans, Afghan allies and others has yet to be worked out with the country’s new rulers.

On their part, the Taliban have promised to protect women’s rights and press freedom in the group’s first news conference following their stunning takeover of Afghanistan. Asked how the new Taliban government will differ from the previous one, a Taliban spokesman said that the group has evolved and will not take the same actions they did in the past.

He also said the group has no plans to enter the homes of people or carry out retaliatory attacks on anyone who served in the previous governments, worked with foreigners or were part of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Those entering the homes of Kabul residents, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, said were impostors who should be turned over to the Taliban and face appropriate punishment.