I saw Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Women there have good reasons to brace for the worst now


Advertise with us

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has been reborn, taking the country back in time to Taliban times.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe:

Monthly Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/08/2021 (653 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has been reborn, taking the country back in time to Taliban times.

It is the only Afghanistan I know.

I wasn’t in the country for the American invasion, nor the foreign inundation that followed — with its legions of soldiers and scribes, diplomats and donors. My assignments to Afghanistan came before that time, during Taliban rule, so I cannot join in the post-9/11 reminiscences and recriminations about missed opportunities and interventions without end.

Karen Mazurkewich - for the Toronto Star Martin Regg Cohn, left, speaks with Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil at the Afghanistan foreign ministry in Kabul in February 2000.

All I know is that all those powerful Westerners couldn’t stay forever, while the Taliban had all the staying power in the world. Today, more than 7,000 days after American troops entered and exited without any enduring strategy, the Taliban have swept back to power with everlasting stamina.

It is worth revisiting just how cruel and ignorant the Taliban were two decades ago, when they were wedded to the most extreme and discredited interpretations of Islam — banning women and girls from school, stoning adulterers, dismembering thieves and hosting the terrorists who plotted 9/11. That is the Islamic Emirate I know well.

What we cannot know is whether that is the Taliban of today. We can only hope that they are better at learning the lessons of history than we are.

My introduction to the regime came from its master of indoctrination, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the powerful cabinet minister who had long been the public face of the Taliban as its official mouthpiece. From his new perch in the palatial ministry of foreign affairs — crumbling and unheated in the winter chill — he held forth as I shivered in my seat, still wearing my coat.

Then as now, people were preoccupied by the fate of Afghanistan’s women and girls, condemned to burqas, banished from schools, tormented by the strictures of sharia — Islamic law as interpreted by Taliban mullahs. As an aide placed biscuits and sweets on the table between us, Muttawakil dismissed the foreign critics and defended the indefensible.

“Instead of criticizing us, they should help us,” the turbaned and bearded foreign minister told me, bundled in a wool jacket over his traditional shalwar kameez. “Our point is that we are against the co-educational system in Afghanistan, and women should go to school and follow an education only according to the Islamic way.”

On two trips across Taliban Afghanistan — from Herat to Jalalabad, and from Kabul to Kandahar — it was impossible to ignore the deprivation and debasement of women. One day, a woman in a burqa whispered to follow her down a warren of Kabul’s alleys, beckoning us behind the rusting metal door of a home where a dozen girls sat cross-legged on the mud floor attending a makeshift classroom in secret.

Their teachers were female medical students expelled from Kabul’s university, with no alternative but to share their knowledge of writing and math with the next generation. Wiping the chalk from her hands, a 25-year-old woman told me she’d broken up her closet boards to convert them into blackboards for her pupils.

Quite apart from the powerful symbolism of denying an education to women and girls, Muttawakil’s government pointedly destroyed the symbols of another religion when it took aim at the 1,500-year-old towering statues of Buddha at Bamiyan, deep inside Afghanistan. I was in the country when Taliban foot soldiers destroyed the limbs of Buddha with bullets, and wrote about the curtain of gloom that contrasted with the minister’s relentless rhetoric.

“Statues and things that represent living things, they are surely forbidden in Islam, and they will be destroyed,” Muttawakil insisted at the time.

The foreign minister never wavered from his diplomatic script and Taliban talking points while in power. But when the regime was toppled years later, he changed his tune — and changed sides.

Considered a moderate by Taliban standards, Muttawakil surrendered to the authorities and was detained and debriefed by the Americans. Upon his release, he not only renounced his old ways but rebuilt the education system he had helped to dismantle in his day.

In recent years, Muttawakil set up a school in Kabul where his daughter could attend classes — not secretly, as in the past, but publicly. The old Taliban mouthpiece was denounced by his former comrades, but he held out hope that they would modernize their mindset as he did.

Today, Muttawakil’s successors in the Taliban are spinning a similar story, professing a new-found tolerance of female education within an Islamic context that is strictly segregated by sex. No one knows if they will be true to their word, or are merely playing word games that hew to a fundamentalist misreading of the written word in Islam’s holy book, the Quran.

If the new Islamic Emirate is making all the right noises today — proffering public amnesties and paying lip service to women’s rights — it is perhaps because they know there is no need to utter a single threat, so terrified are people of the Taliban’s past record of cruel misrule and corruption. The public hangings and stonings of the past are still fresh in people’s minds (my own memories of dealing with Taliban checkpoints are not forgotten).

Many in the West (I was among them) hoped that an invasion provoked by 9/11 would stabilize and then modernize Afghanistan — if not through nation building then through gender bending (so to speak) — in a country where male rulers did not banish females but instead let them flourish. Now, that experiment is in the past, and the country has come full circle.

Will Afghanistan’s women stand and fight for their rights, after watching their male brethren in the U.S.-trained armed forces cut and run? The only certainty is that they are braced for the worst even as the Taliban promise to be on their best behaviour.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist focusing on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us

The Star