A heavily armed member of the Taliban inspects passing cars at a checkpoint.

A heavily armed member of the Taliban inspects passing cars at a checkpoint.

Foto:

Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

Tough Questions for the West Should We Work with the Taliban or Allow People To Starve?

The Taliban are ruling ever more harshly, oppressing women and running moral police patrols in Kabul. Now they are appealing to the world to help the country in one of its worst-ever hunger crises. Should the West work with the Islamists?
By Susanne Koelbl und Christian Werner (Photos)

It's shortly after 9 a.m. when Nakibullah Khaksar stops the first minibus of the day. The yellow bus is packed with passengers, who lurch forward as the bus comes to a rapid halt, brakes squealing, at a traffic circle in Kabul. Khaksar calls through the driver's open window that he needs to ensure the moral probity of the women travelers. Just a routine check. Please open the doors.

DER SPIEGEL 23/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 23/2022 (June 4th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Khaksar works for the religious police. He is wearing a light-colored turban and a white smock, looking not unlike a doctor who has lost his way. The agency he works for carries the rather unwieldy title of Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. It was reinstalled last autumn after a 20-year hiatus following the withdrawal of Western troops. On this morning, Khaksar is working the Deh Mazang traffic circle in the west of the Afghan capital together with three colleagues to enforce a new decree: Since May, women in the emirate have been required to completely hide their faces in addition to wearing a full body veil. Even the few female anchors and newscasters still present on television have been ordered to cover up, with only their eyes visible. Khaksar's job is now that of protecting the city's virtue, one of hundreds of such enforcers deployed by the Taliban in Kabul to enforce discipline and the fear of God.

"On my bus, all the women wear the hijab as required," says the driver, a slender man with a well-worn wool jacket. He seems a bit unsettled. His passengers remain silent. One woman in a black, floor-length cloak quickly pulls her veil down even further over her face. Khaksar commands the male travelers to stand up to make sure that all the women have seats. Then he calls out to the passengers: "In the name of God, keep your distance from each other!" He then allows the bus to resume its journey.

Virtues guardian Nakhubillah Khaksar (left) of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice during his patrol at the Deh Mazang traffic circle in Kabul:

Virtues guardian Nakhubillah Khaksar (left) of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice during his patrol at the Deh Mazang traffic circle in Kabul:

Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

Khaksar is essentially a representative of the Afghan state here at the traffic circle. Demure, strict, and with a dash of male condescension when needed. This is how the new rulers envision their tightening grip on power, and this is how they intervene in people's daily lives at many of Kabul's intersections and neighborhoods.

Nine months after the Taliban takeover, though, there is a second, more dramatic reality: The state is virtually bankrupt, and the central bank is largely insolvent and can do nothing, partially a product of the bank's new head, a Talib who is thought to have little knowledge of numbers and balance sheets. Hunger is rampant in many parts of the country, particularly in the northeast, where the United Nations reports that the situation is catastrophic. There are reports of fathers offering their sons as slave laborers and their young daughters as child brides to keep the rest of the family fed. Only a few kilometers away from Khaksar's traffic circle, in the Indira Gandhi Hospital, babies with bellies distended by hunger are being treated. The Taliban have yet to find a remedy for the misery and the lack of food.

Thousands of Afghans are making the deadly journey  to escape the country each day, starting off in cars or minibuses and ultimately crossing the southwest border by foot into Iran, hoping to somehow make it to Europe, Germany if possible. The West has tried many things in Afghanistan, but in the end, nothing worked. The question now, more pressing than ever, is whether the international community should continue to ignore the plight of the people in the country, or whether it should cooperate with the unpopular rulers to save lives. What can the Taliban be trusted with, and who is actually in power right now?

A malnourished child at the Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul: The Taliban have yet to find a remedy for the misery and the lack of food.

A malnourished child at the Indira Gandhi Hospital in Kabul: The Taliban have yet to find a remedy for the misery and the lack of food.

Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL
A severely malnourished boy at a Kabul hospital: babies with bellies distended by hunger

A severely malnourished boy at a Kabul hospital: babies with bellies distended by hunger

Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

Initially, during years of negotiations with the United States in Doha, the Islamists were careful to put on a surprisingly moderate face. Western negotiators gained the impression that the new Taliban were more open than their narrow-minded predecessors, less ideological. In February 2020, a year and a half before they seized power, deputy Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani was still promising the world  a "new, inclusive political system" in which "the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded."

But there has been no talk of that nature for quite some time. The leadership ranks of many ministries are staffed almost exclusively by Taliban. One senior official reports being treated like "a servant" by the new rulers and insulted as a "lackey of the infidels." Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs no longer exists. Instead, the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue now resides there, along with the new religious police.

The Taliban surely know that such an approach will not deliver what they are dependent on: foreign investment and the recognition of their state by the international community. To prevent losing its last vestige of credibility, the Taliban leadership must come across as moderate to the outside world; but inside, it must govern more authoritatively to ensure it doesn't lose power. It's possible the emirate will soon become a pariah again, just as was the case during the first Taliban tenure in the 1990s.

Officially, the Taliban are beholden to a single man, the enigmatic Emir Haibatullah Akhundzada, who seldom shows his face and is almost never seen in public. Only one known photo exists of him, and only a small circle of confidants claims to have met him.

In reality, though, power within the Taliban is divided into two major groups. First, there are the so-called Kandaharis, followers of the religious leader and Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar from the south, who are considered conservative traditionalists. A subgroup is formed by the disciples of Mullah Yaqoob, the son of the late Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban movement. The second, the members of the Haqqani network, are considered to be by far the dominant force. The network, a highly organized guerrilla group, was founded in the early 1970s and remains closely linked to Pakistani intelligence, which has always viewed the Taliban in Afghanistan as a kind of fifth column.

Anas Haqqani, one of group's leaders, agrees to meet in the basement of a guesthouse in the old government district, across the street from one of the many intelligence service offices in the city. "We don't have a perfect government," he says, everything is still "in the beginning stages." He smiles gently. "But at least Kabul is liberated, and there's peace here."

Haqqani is 28 years old. He wears a turban and large glasses that make him look a bit like a professor. He majored in Islamic Studies for eight years at university and hasn't seen too much of the rest of the world, yet he is still regarded as the network's diplomat. He represented the Haqqani faction in talks with the United States in Qatar. He loves soccer and is a fan of FC Bayern Munich, especially of the team's now retired star Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Taliban leader Anas Haqqani (pictured here during his interview with DER SPIEGEL): "We took it all from the Americans."

Taliban leader Anas Haqqani (pictured here during his interview with DER SPIEGEL): "We took it all from the Americans."

Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

His brother Sirajuddin Haqqani is in charge of the intelligence services and the police. Indeed, one could say that Kabul is firmly in the hands of the Haqqanis. The room Haqqani is sitting in is furnished with armchairs upholstered in shimmering gold. "These are remnants of the Americans. We have taken them over from them," he says. The Humvees at the checkpoints and the assault rifles of the many guards: most of them from U.S. stocks, kindly left behind when the former occupiers hastily fled.

The well-armed fighters of the Haqqani network patrol the streets outside. They are easily recognizable from afar, with their embroidered small caps or puffy turbans, from which pitch-black hair often spills out. They outline their eyes with black kajal eyeliner, thus evoking the Prophet's appearance, they say.

The extent of the Haqqanis' role in the Taliban's triumph is best evidenced by U.S. intelligence findings: Ten years ago, the U.S. classified the group as a terrorist organization, accusing it, among other things, of collaborating with extremists such as al-Qaida. The FBI is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the direct arrest of Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.

"You're asking questions like an investigator."

Anas Haqqani

The network is blamed for devastating attacks that killed thousands in total, including the bombing of the German Embassy in Kabul in May 2017. More than 100 people died in the attack, and hundreds were wounded.

Does Anas Haqqani feel complicit in the deaths of civilian victims? He sighs. "You're asking questions like an investigator." The war was "imposed" on the Taliban by the U.S. and its partners, he says, "both sides attacked each other." He describes himself as a student of religion, a poet who likes to write verse. "I'm not a fighter."

Haqqani was seven years old on Sept. 11, 2001. The Haqqani network provided safe harbor for al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and his followers in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and when the U.S. bombed Afghanistan in response, Haqqani's family fled into exile in Pakistan. Most of his relatives remained there until last August, but Anas was arrested in 2014 during a stopover after a trip to Qatar and was extradited to Kabul, where he was sentenced to death by two judicial bodies for alleged involvement in various attack plots. He denies the allegations. Ultimately, though, the sentence was never carried out, which was more a product of excellent connections rather than luck.

A hill above the capital city of Kabul: The Taliban now relax where families used to meet over the weekend.

A hill above the capital city of Kabul: The Taliban now relax where families used to meet over the weekend.

Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

The Haqqanis' war strongly overlaps with the history of the Western war in Afghanistan. For years, the network was on the losing side, but today the Haqqanis are the winners. And Kabul has indeed seemed more peaceful since their return, at least on the surface. But as the Taliban enjoy their power, others in the capital have lost any security they had, especially not those belonging to the Pashtun ethnic group – or those who happen to be women, like Aziza Hamidi, a political scientist who had been in charge of gender equality issues in a government ministry until last year.

Hamidi, 32 and unmarried, is sitting in a garden restaurant in Kabul. She explains how she had invested all her money and time in her career, in a self-determined life. She asks that her real name not be printed out of fear of possible reprisals. She was the sole breadwinner in her family of four, had hired staff at the ministry, controlled her own budget and supervised projects independently. "I was listened to,” she says.

Then the Taliban came. "They eliminated my position.” Her salary was also cut by three-quarters. She now enters the ministry once a month and signs a document confirming her presence so that the Taliban can prove there is participation by women. She has wrapped her body in a black abaja that conceals any contours of the person hiding underneath. Only a small part of her glasses protrudes from the veil. She feels like she has been "erased,” says Hamisi. "If I didn’t have a family, I would set myself on fire.” She then sobs.

Many women in Kabul are in the same situation as Hamidi. They became more self-confident during the 20 years under Western control. A door is now closing for them, and Hamidi isn’t the only one who fears that it will stay that way for a long time to come. Many women have gone silent after being tear-gassed, beaten with batons and humiliated during protests against the Taliban. Few continue to fight, but there is one student who roams the streets of Kabul at night, slipping letters under the doors of universities and hospitals. "We’re fighting. Death to the Taliban," the letters read.

A grieving Afghan woman in Kabul whose son and son-in-law were killed by the Taliban: Soldiers and police from the former government disappear or they are tortured and murdered.

A grieving Afghan woman in Kabul whose son and son-in-law were killed by the Taliban: Soldiers and police from the former government disappear or they are tortured and murdered.

Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

Once again, many in Afghanistan, have placed their hopes in the West. The attitude of many in Kabul is that the U.S. and Germany can exert pressure on the rulers in Kabul through financial and reconstruction aid. Particularly now, in the hour of need, they argues, circumstances could be influenced by placing stipulations on offers of help. Development aid funds have dried up since the Taliban seized power, including the money that flowed from Berlin. Until that point, the country had been one of the primary recipients of German development aid.

In the meantime, 95 percent of the people in Afghanistan don’t have enough to eat. At the end of March, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on the world to provide funds totaling $4.4 billion. Germany pledged 200 million euros, and on May 31, a tranche of $32 million in humanitarian aid reached Kabul in cash. The struggle for influence in the capital continues, and the Haqqanis are certainly among the West’s most dubious partners. At the same time, they have enough influence to get things moving, to approve education for girls, and to at least give women the chance of participating in everyday life.

Heroin and meth addicts along the Kabul River under the Pule Sukhta Bridge: Hundreds of drug users languish here. Virtually no one manages to break their addiction and return to normal life.

Heroin and meth addicts along the Kabul River under the Pule Sukhta Bridge: Hundreds of drug users languish here. Virtually no one manages to break their addiction and return to normal life.

Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

Berlin has played a "very active role" in his country's peace process, says Anas Haqqani, the network's diplomat. "We now expect the Germans to overlook the small problems here and be courageous in reviving our bilateral relations." In other words: Trust us, give us money, and then we can talk about everything.

But even that wouldn't transform Afghanistan into a peaceful place anytime soon. Resistance has long been forming and, ironically, the Taliban are being challenged by an even more brutal competitor, who views the current rulers as not being religious enough: the Islamic State Khorasan, a militia that has been fighting the Taliban since 2015 and has repeatedly carried out brutal attacks. One of those was the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport on Aug. 26 of last year, a few days after the Taliban seized power, killing more than 180 people, including U.S. soldiers.

Under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, former government soldiers and politicians have formed another resistance front not far from Kabul. Massoud is the son of a legendary mujahedeen commander who fought against the Taliban in the 1990s. So far, Massoud and his supporters have been operating out of the Punjshir Valley northeast of Kabul. But while his father may have been known as the "Lion of Punjshir," it is questionable whether Ahmad Massoud has the weapons, fighters and support that he would need to challenge the Taliban.

Observers expect that the country will remain under the control of the Taliban, terrorist groups, clans and militias that are fighting each other and contesting territory. It isn’t clear how long the Taliban will continue to hold on to power. In Kabul, at least, their rule is unchallenged, and as long as it remains so, their supporters will view themselves as the august victors.

This includes virtues guardian Nakibullah Khaksar, who proudly talks about the good fortune of having a job after 20 years "resisting the occupiers." He says he feels "fulfillment" in propagating Allah's laws. His salary of 10,000 afghani, the equivalent of around 100 euros, is also welcome. Khaksar is among the modest beneficiaries of the Taliban's return. One of the very few winners.

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