The Dichotomy of the Taliban: Student Murderers


Taliban fighter – photographer unknown

There are two items in the news today about the Taliban: one is the horrific attack on Bacha Khan University in Pakistan and the other is a story about an Afghan man who cut off his wife’s nose and is now being sought by the Taliban. What is interesting to me about these is how they highlight the dichotomy of the Taliban. On the one hand, they are infamous for massacres such as the latest on Bacha Khan university. Yet on the other, they are known for bringing justice and order to the areas under their control — as they are doing with the fugitive husband.

Recently I spoke with an Afghan vendor at Bagram Airfield who also brought attention to this dichotomy. Mohammed, a furs and pottery vendor from the nearby village of Isatalif, spoke of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. As we discussed Afghan/American cultural differences and eventually the Taliban, he seemed to have some respect for the Taliban’s ability to arbitrate justice.

Having moments ago praised them, Mohammed now observed the irony of the Taliban, noting that Taliban means students, yet they attract uneducated thugs.

With what seemed like the tiniest hint of nostalgia, he described how adultery was not tolerated in villages under Taliban control — both offending men and women would be whipped. He mentioned the Taliban’s enforcement of an infamous punishment for thieves in the Quran: the cutting off of one’s hand. As a shop owner, he seemed to specifically like this aspect of Taliban rule.

But later as the topic shifted to his village, his tone changed. He spoke of the Taliban massacre of Istalif after the withdrawal of the Northern Alliance during the Afghan Civil War where the city of 45,000 was razed. Having moments ago praised them, Mohammed now observed the irony of the Taliban, noting that Taliban means students, yet they attract uneducated thugs.


The partially rebuilt village of Istalif – Wikimedia Commons photo

He went on to describe one of his 12 mile trips home from the American airfield to Istalif in 2012 where a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest detonated himself (possibly this attack) outside of the base close enough to him and his family and coworkers that their truck was damaged.

There is potential that the Taliban will return to power in Afghanistan eventually. The US withdrawal has been delayed, but the Taliban now control more territory in the country than they have since 2001. What does this mean for Afghanistan? Many Afghans seem willing to live under Taliban rule provided they do not have to worry about being blown up on their way home from work. Under Taliban authority, crimes are investigated and punished. Even so, in other areas these “students” murder students.

As for Mohammed, if the Taliban come back to power in Afghanistan he has a conditional plan that he shared with a smile:

“If my business is doing the same as now, I will go somewhere like Tajikistan or Iran. But if I am rich, I will get a visa to the USA.”

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