Afghan Taliban deny reports of harsh comeback in seized districts

KABUL: The Taliban on Sunday rejected reports of reimposing harsh restrictions, such as forcing men to grow a beard or barring women from traveling without a male guardian, in seized areas of northeastern Afghanistan.

“No one has been ordered to enforce this, and no one has done so,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Arab News on Sunday.

“This propaganda is circulated by the Kabul administration to create worry, to frighten the people and draw the world’s attention while it is on the verge of collapse. This news is not true at all,” he said.

It follows reports of the group’s new rules in Takhar, one of several areas seized from the Afghan government since US-led foreign troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan on May 1.

On Sunday, officials told Arab News that the latest limitations had been imposed in 15 out of 16 districts in northeastern Takhar in recent weeks.

“The Taliban, through loudspeakers of mosques, announced that men should not shave their beard and women are not allowed to go out without a mahram (close male family member),” Mohammad Ishaq, a government-appointed district chief for Rustaq, one of the 15 seized districts, said.

Hamid Mubarez, a spokesman for Takhar’s governor, added that the “curbs had been implemented in a number of villages where the Taliban have consolidated their rule.”

The restrictions are reminiscent of the general and harsh policies enforced by the Taliban during their five-year rule from 1996 until their ousting in a US-led invasion in 2001.

The laws at the time barred women from seeking an education and most outdoor work, while fornicators were stoned to death and thieves had their hands chopped off as part of enforcement measures.

It led to a significant improvement in security while drawing stern global criticism for the group.

Due to their policies, except for Pakistan, UAE and Saudi Arabia, other countries refrained from recognizing the Taliban administration.

After Washington overthrew the Taliban, Afghan women regained the right to education, to vote and to work outside their homes.

Still, it is not an easy place to be a woman, where forced marriages, domestic violence and maternal mortality continue to be prevalent across the country, particularly in rural areas.

However, access to public life has improved, especially in Kabul, where thousands of women work, while more than a quarter of Parliament is female.

The steady gains by the Taliban in recent months, however, have reignited fears among locals and foreign allies that the Taliban will try to regain power by military means and enforce harsh policies as they did in the past.

Interior ministry spokesman Tariq Arian told Arab News on Sunday that “the latest restrictions were part of the psychological pressure (being applied) by the Taliban to tame people.”

The remaining foreign troops are set to leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11 while Washington handed over the critical Bagram base, the hub of its military and intelligence operations during its nearly 20 years of occupation, to Kabul on Thursday.

The Taliban have gained ground in various regions, mainly through the surrender of government forces, and are consolidating their positions near provincial capitals, including Kabul.

Arab News reported on how the embattled Afghan government has begun arming and providing cash to local communities to stop the Taliban’s advances in their villages in recent weeks.

Last week, the US’ outgoing top commander for Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, warned that Afghanistan might slide into civil war again and “the world needs to worry about it.”

The Taliban have overrun several areas in northern and northeastern Afghanistan, which used to be the bastion of the anti-Taliban alliance in the late 1990s, where the militants could not stretch their control during their rule.

Hundreds of families have been forced to leave their homes amid an escalation in violence in the captured areas, while a few government institutions and infrastructure have been heavily damaged.

Abdul Mujib Khelwatgar, head of NAI, a media watchdog in Kabul, told reporters that nearly 20 news organizations had halted their activities “due to violence and several media organizations have been operating under the Taliban’s pressure.”

Ismail Sadaat, head of Semaye Solh TV in northern Samangan province, told reporters in Kabul that he had to close his station “because both the government and the Taliban wanted the media to work for their favor.”

Meanwhile, in a series of Twitter posts on Saturday, US Charge d’Affaires in Kabul, Ross Wilson, said that he was “disturbed by the reports that the Taliban is shutting down media organizations in the districts they assault, attempting to conceal their violence in a press blackout.”

“Violence and terror cannot create peace,” he said.

Taliban spokesman Mujahid rejected Wilson’s accusations as “untrue,” adding that the group had asked the media in the region to report “facts as they see them.”

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