Hope that a new, softer Taliban would emerge in Afghanistan faded fast Sunday as the U.S. awoke to images of bloody bodies hanging from cranes in the Afghan city of Herat in what Taliban leaders say is a warning to lawbreakers.
The gruesome footage, regional analysts say, should finally put to rest the Biden administration‘s expectation that the Taliban would take more moderate stances during its second reign over Afghanistan and perhaps distance itself from the strict version of Islamic law that defined its rule in the late 1990s.
Over just the past several days, human rights watchdogs have warned that the Taliban already has begun a major rollback of women’s rights, while Taliban leaders themselves have publicly acknowledged that they will resume executions and amputations for criminals.
Those punishments were hallmarks of the Afghan justice system when the Taliban was in control two decades ago.
While U.S. officials and foreign policy specialists feared the Taliban may eventually reinstate such harsh policies, most observers believed the insurgent group would move slowly and present a gentler public image after retaking control of the country late last month following the full withdrawal of American troops.
But those hopes were shattered late Saturday when witnesses in Herat reported that the Taliban had publicly displayed four bodies of alleged kidnappers, with one of them hung from a crane in the city square. Footage of the scene spread across social media Saturday and Sunday.
Taliban officials did not deny responsibility for the shocking display and said the four men had been caught in a kidnapping scheme. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the men had, in fact, been involved in a kidnapping.
Regardless, some specialists say the grim incident should confirm the worst fears about the latest version of the Taliban.
“Taliban killed 4 alleged kidnappers in #Herat today and hanged their bodies using cranes [in] different crowded areas of the city. For those who were claiming T has changed, doesn’t this remind you of Taliban atrocities between 1996-2001? What has changed?” Abdul Ghafoor, director of the Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organization, tweeted late Saturday.
Another Twitter account claiming to represent the fledgling Afghan resistance movement headquartered in the Panjshir valley said that the punishment was unique only in that it was carried out in public.
“What you see in social media is 20% of #Taliban crime, they do it in public & it is part of their program to make people afraid of them. Another 80% of killing [Afghan government] officials & anti Taliban, Panjshiris happens during the night,” reads a Twitter post from the Panjshir account.
For the Biden administration, the developments over the past several days all but eliminate any hope that the Taliban planned to evolve into a more modern, accommodating government. As President Biden’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan unfolded last month, top White House officials routinely made the case that it wasn’t yet clear what this new version of the Taliban might look like.
“The Taliban also has to make an assessment about what they want their role to be in the international community,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in August.
During negotiations with the U.S. over the past two years, Taliban leaders had insisted that should they regain full power in Afghanistan, the regime would not resemble the brutal Islamist government seen in the 1990s. That government was toppled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda, which had been granted safe haven by the ruling Taliban.
Among other things, Taliban leaders vowed that during a second reign, women would retain their rights and would be able to attend school.
That promise already has been broken. Late last week, the Human Rights Watch and San Jose State University’s Human Rights Institute released a joint statement condemning the Taliban‘s treatment of women across the country and specifically in the city of Herat.
“Since taking over the city on Aug. 12, 2021, the Taliban have instilled fear among women and girls by searching out high-profile women, denying women freedom of movement outside their homes, imposing compulsory dress codes, severely curtailing access to employment and education, and restricting the right to peaceful assembly,” the watchdog groups said. “Women in Herat told the two organizations that their lives had been completely upended the day the Taliban took control of the city.”
Honoring women’s rights has been a key factor for the U.S. and other governments mulling whether to offer some sort of formal diplomatic recognition to the Taliban. Incidents such as the one in Herat over the weekend make such recognition far less likely.
Meanwhile, Taliban officials have proudly declared that they will resume executions and the amputation of hands of criminals. The group’s leaders suggested they may avoid such punishments in public areas like soccer stadiums but will instead carry them out behind closed doors.
“Everyone criticized us for the punishments in the stadium, but we have never said anything about their laws and their punishments,” top Taliban official Mullah Nooruddin Turabi told The Associated Press last week. “No one will tell us what our laws should be. We will follow Islam and we will make our laws on the Quran.”
The Biden administration slammed the announcement.
“We condemn in the strongest terms reports of reinstating amputations and executions of Afghans,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters last Friday. “The acts the Taliban are talking about here would constitute clear gross abuses of human rights, and we stand firm with the international community to hold perpetrators of these, of any such abuses, accountable.”