Winner of the 2006 Canon Female Photojournalist Award
The Taliban are back in Afghanistan. They control most of the south and are gradually forming a substitute regime, a strategy they used before coming to power in 1996. In early summer, British forces had embarked on a Taliban hunt in the region of Helmand, but when they saw the extent of the resistance, had to withdraw from certain districts and leave them in the hands of insurgents. In these areas beyond the reach of the law, the people are tired of chaos and disappointed with the government which has still not fulfilled its promises, so they are backing the fighters. Citizens in southern Afghanistan could choose between what has so far been an ineffective democracy, imposed by the West, and a Taliban regime offering security and concepts easier to understand than the Western model; and they did not hesitate. What’s more, coalition forces, endeavoring to see their dream of democracy come true, have been excessive in their air attacks, killing hundreds of innocent civilian victims and leaving thousands of displaced persons in makeshift camps. A sense of injustice together with a life of poverty have urged many to join the ranks of god’s army.
Nothing stays the same with the Taliban: precepts change, as does the image of these newfound servants of Allah. There are still the same thinking heads based in Pakistan where Mullah Omar sends out his orders, but fighters now are young men from poor rural areas, often illiterate and convinced that they are serving a just cause by fighting against the American Satan. They are part of the fabric of Afghan society and operate like a reserve army, working out in the fields during the day, then ready to respond to a call that comes in on the cell phones supplied by the Taliban. This is what makes it so difficult for foreign forces to locate and neutralize them, and also to distinguish the Taliban from ordinary civilians.
The main victims of these “new wave Taliban” are women: there is the revival of the burqa, attacks on girls’ schools which have been systematically burnt and their directors targeted; and now a merciless hunt for rebels has begun. This year, more than 20 teachers have been savagely murdered, 198 schools have been burnt down, dozens of women working for international NGOs have been hanged, and any who have escaped receive regular death threats. The Taliban even have a constitution, drawn up by Mullah Omar, comprised of 30 points and including bans on public schooling, the accusation being that the government is spreading the values of the “western infidels”. Another point in the constitution is the refusal to accept aid from NGOs, stating that social workers will be killed.
Despite this reign of terror, a number of defiant women are still putting up a fight; for example Faouzia who, disregarding threats, continues to look after the women in the region of Helmand, and Malalai Kakar and her 17 policewomen who work in Kandahar, tracking down criminals and protecting their sisters. Confronted with such opposition, the Taliban have launched a large-scale attack, including systematic guerilla warfare targeting foreign forces, and have set their sights on the legislative elections to be held in two years time. We can only hope that the general discontent and mounting xenophobia do not bring the Taliban back to power, as this second generation, if endorsed by the ballot box, would become utterly uncontrollable and have enormous potential for harm.
Véronique de Viguerie