Afghan Taleban attempts to soften stance

LASHKAR GAH (Afghanistan) • As they have captured more territory in Afghanistan this year, the Taleban have twinned their military offensive with a publicity push. Their pitch goes something like this: We've learnt the lessons from our time in power, and we're ready to moderate a bit.

At international conferences, delegates from the Taleban - infamous for outlawing girls' schools during their 1994 to 2001 rule - have made a point of being willing to meet and talk with female officials. Old hardline stances against music and photography have been softening.

But for insight into how the Taleban might rule if they succeed in holding large stretches of Afghanistan, consider Baghran district, in the southern province of Helmand, where the group is not an insurgent force but the government.

There, where the Taleban were scarcely ever out of power, the harsh old policies of the 1990s are still in full swing. Men are hauled into jail if they shave beards, and spot turban checks are still in place to expose any fancy haircuts. There is still no freedom for women to travel or learn. And there is no cellphone service, reflecting the Taleban's wishes.

"You have to live the way Taleban want you to live," said Mr Omar Khan, a shopkeeper . "You have to wear the proper clothing and a turban, and grow your beard, and offer your prayers in a mosque five times a day, avoid listening to music, and avoid unnecessary chats with people. You can't meet friends at night for card games."

Although the harsher ways have prevailed, residents' complaints often had less to do with the Taleban's treatment of them than the deprivations that have taken hold: the lack of good doctors and the need to travel to other districts to buy staples, such as cooking oil. Some are saddened by the lack of opportunities for their children, many of whom tend to work in the opium fields with their fathers.

But the Taleban's rule has still proved attractive, or at least tolerable, to many rural Afghans who have endured decades of war. Residents of other parts of Helmand, who find themselves caught in the crosshairs of the war, have sought out Baghran's relative security, migrating away from the front lines.

"People are suffering under constant war, but we don't suffer those kinds of problems," said Baghran farmer Hasti Khan.

Many residents who were interviewed said they were mostly satisfied with the Taleban's rule. Others have come to accept it. "I think I like the way of the Taleban," shopkeeper Esmatullah Baghrani, 45, said. "You live simply, the way you have been created."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'Afghan Taleban attempts to soften stance'. Print Edition | Subscribe