MAZAR-I-SHARIF — Under the full tilt of the afternoon sunshine, two Taliban commanders with weathered, expressionless faces beckoned me into their tiny car – their eyes dropping to the floor so as not to make contact with a woman.
Before we had even begun to weave through the city of Mazar-i-Sharif – once an ultimate bulwark of resistance against the insurgent group and now under Taliban control – the region’s security chief, who can only be identified as Malawi, wants it to be known that the Taliban of 2021 is far different to the Taliban of 2001.
“All the things the media says about us are not true. They are saying that we don’t know the international rules and laws,” he says. “But we respect rights. We respect all rules and human rights.”
But as it unravels, the laws in which Malawi endorses are a stringent interpretation of Islamic Law.
“We are not the Taliban of twenty years ago when the Taliban entered the city and destroyed everything,” he presses on.
Malawi refers to the bloodbath that descended upon Mazar in August 1998 when the Taliban seized the city and set up massacring the Shia population.
Indeed, it is a charm offensive that is hard to believe. Their takeover of the city might have been bloodless this time around, but if history is anything to go by, the Taliban rules with an iron fist.
“Before, people didn’t understand the Islamic Rules; we want people to understand them,” he continued, as if to simply justify their thoughts and actions.
Fellow Taliban member Hafizullah — who swerves the car through blockades and flies by open-air stands stuffed with spices, fruit and swinging meat on hooks at the transformed city slowly comes back to life — offers up some examples.
“I was nine years inside Bagram prison, and there were lots of people there with me,” he continues. “They killed people, they made rape with the females, and all they were was arrested.”
From Hafizullah’s purview, banishment behind bars was far from acceptable punishment.
“If you rape, you be killed. If you murder, you must be killed,” he says. “And if you have stolen something, they must cut off your hand.”
Nonetheless, the Taliban leadership in Kabul has taken great pains to soften their public persona this week, ensuring all Afghans will be treated well. Leaders have also vowed to protect women and women’s rights, although very little detail on such a topic has been offered and much of the international community — and people in the country — remain skeptical.
The uncertainty is compounded by anecdotes of the Taliban members going door-to-door targeting those who worked for US interests or taking names of teens to be married off to ISIS fighters.
When pressed a little further, Hafizullah says simply that there are “lots of rules for women.” But the first and foremost? She must disappear behind the sea blue veil of silk.
“The women, if they step outside, they must wear the burka. Their face and arms must be covered. Nobody can see them,” he says breezily while never addressing me directly.
I tug on my hijab, which — along with my black face mask — conceals only part of my face. Still, the hosts don’t seem to be bothered by my exposed face. They have made it clear that foreigners won’t be targeted explicitly for infractions — for now.
It remains to be seen if such amnesty is extended even after the US makes its final departure by the end of the month. And it remains to be seen if women will be whipped and punished for not fully covering, reminiscent of the old Taliban reign.
But for now, the Taliban’s top brass are undoubtedly on a public relations blitz to reform their grim image across much of the world’s media landscape.
Malawi repeatedly explains that as Taliban representatives, they are here to help and serve their guests and provide safe passage through the snaking streets.
The men are softly spoken but gain momentum as they talk about when they pontificate on why the Taliban was able to swell so quickly in its ranks and take over entire cities and provinces across almost all of the war-torn country.
“Corruption. We got rid of the corrupted people,” Hafizullah insists. “We, Taliban, are here to rid corruption and get rid of the corrupt people in Afghanistan. They are gone; they have fled to rich countries with their money.”
Oftentimes, even before their regions had collapsed, cash-swathed leaders were escaping with their gold and goods and leaving the ordinary Afghans open to slaughter. This concept has become the Taliban’s propaganda talking point.
All the Taliban members we question – from the older to the young – say they were born and bred in Mazar-e-Sharif and were thus fighting to win back their homeland. A cluster of fighters with kohl-rimmed eyes, long beards and bright clothes linger together with confused faces, like outsiders who appeared far from home.
And when I talk to business owners steadily reopening in the days after the city’s fall from the dissipated government’s control, almost all say that they long had communications with both sides and nearly all have a Taliban leader on speed-dial to call for assistance.
Messages frequently shrill out of the town’s loudspeakers, informing vendors and shopkeepers to notify the Taliban representatives should any of their members give the small business owners a difficult time. Furthermore, Talibs often patrol the narrow streets throughout the day and during the especially dark nights.
I can’t help but think of the distressing images of innocent Afghans whipped and beaten by Taliban members as they rush desperately to the Kabul airport, 250 miles away. I can’t help but think of all the bomb blasts and battles and bloodletting, wondering how those things can just be erased from the history books because the victor says so.
The young subset of the Taliban also pass the time armed stuffed into the back of small trucks; their rifles pointed out into the populace. But despite the jarring visual, the men mostly seem to want to spend their spare moments on social media, taking selfies, sipping tea and chatting.
They too speak only Pashto and say they are from Mazar. Yet in the distance sits another quitter string of Taliban fighters set against the fast-fading remnants of daylight. They are much more mellow and look confused as if to be far from home.
And dotted along the roadside sits several abandoned U.S-issued tanks, a chilling reminder of the battle lost and what many soldiers were forced to leave as they fled for their lives. Many ditched their Afghanistan National Army uniforms along the arid landscape.
Either stripped of insignia and retrieved, or evidence of an inside mole or defector, scores of Taliban can now be seen donning the very uniforms issued with U.S. taxpayer dollars. They don’t mention burkas or entire coverings. Instead, they’re more concerned about Instagram and selfies.
Still, the power that the young fighters now possess cruising through the edges of the ancient city with high-powered guns and at top speed is not lost on them.
Families and shopkeepers congregate on the roadside at one stopping point in an almost obedient act of defiance. The young gunner points his long arm directly toward their pinched and confused faces in the apparent hopes of eliciting some frightened reaction.
The young fighter shrugs and smiles.
“Can we take a photo?” another asks, exemplifying the utterly peculiar moment that is gripping Afghanistan as we all scramble to understand exactly who and what the Taliban will do, and just how far Afghanistan will be plunged into a chapter of the past.
Almost every Afghan I know has fled, or at minimum is desperate to leave. But only time will tell what will become of this beautiful, bleeding country.