Dispatch

12 Million Angry Men

The Taliban promised justice. They are hard-pressed to provide it.

A Taliban police officer prepares to transport a handcuffed heroin addict by motorbike to a small police station in Wardak province’s remote Chak district on Sept. 17.
A Taliban police officer prepares to transport a handcuffed heroin addict by motorbike to a small police station in Wardak province’s remote Chak district on Sept. 17. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

Leaving Afghanistan

WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan—The police brought the heroin addict in handcuffs to a small police station in Wardak province’s remote Chak district on the back of a motorbike. He’d been picked up in the town center moments earlier by the Taliban and was on his way to a makeshift prison those same young Taliban fighters—most in their 20s—had set up previously. Justice, rough if not ready, was about to be served: He would be held in jail until clean.

One of the police officers, Hekmat Hewad, said they were “acting according to sharia.” A 24-year-old who grew up in Chak and joined the Taliban about seven years ago, Hewad was part of the squad that initially helped capture the district center several months ago during the Taliban onslaught. Now, he is one of the rules-enforcing officers, even if his knowledge of what constitutes sharia—a set of Islamic laws and guidelines based on the Quran and interpretations—is limited at best. 

Still, he said, people are seeking justice and are calling on the Taliban—their only option these days—to settle their disputes.

WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan—The police brought the heroin addict in handcuffs to a small police station in Wardak province’s remote Chak district on the back of a motorbike. He’d been picked up in the town center moments earlier by the Taliban and was on his way to a makeshift prison those same young Taliban fighters—most in their 20s—had set up previously. Justice, rough if not ready, was about to be served: He would be held in jail until clean.

One of the police officers, Hekmat Hewad, said they were “acting according to sharia.” A 24-year-old who grew up in Chak and joined the Taliban about seven years ago, Hewad was part of the squad that initially helped capture the district center several months ago during the Taliban onslaught. Now, he is one of the rules-enforcing officers, even if his knowledge of what constitutes sharia—a set of Islamic laws and guidelines based on the Quran and interpretations—is limited at best. 

Still, he said, people are seeking justice and are calling on the Taliban—their only option these days—to settle their disputes.

“I’m one of 30 policemen responsible for about 50 small communities in the area. A judge in the sharia court helps people solve their problems. We get calls from the community every day,” he said. Bigger disputes are taken to the provincial court in the capital, Maidan Shar.

Members of the Taliban guard an arrested heroin addict at a makeshift prison in the Chak district on Sept. 17.

Police officers, including Hekmat Hewad (third from left), guard an arrested heroin addict at a makeshift prison in Chak district on Sept. 17. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

In Afghanistan, 20 years after the downfall of the first Taliban regime and two months after the fall of the last republican government, there’s clearly a need for justice. Under the former Afghan government, also nominally run on sharia, seeking justice was cumbersome, costly, and riven with corruption. That drove some people, whether living in areas controlled by the government or by the Taliban, to seek justice in the quicker, cheaper, and less corrupt Taliban courts—even before the insurgents took power.

The problem is that the Taliban, then and now, aren’t great jurists. Sharia doesn’t explain everything and leaves much open to interpretation and scholarship; the Taliban view everything through their own clouded lens.

“For the past 20 years, they had a shadow government, but based on which laws?” said Mahmood Mahroon, a professor at Kabul University, who is currently outside Afghanistan. “Everyone was doing what they wanted to do—it was completely arbitrary.”

Abdul Shukkur Rashad, a 40-year-old judge, was one of those charged with running a shadow court in Ghazni province’s Qarabagh district, southwest of Kabul, for years. It was always busy, he said. Today, he sits in the main court of Ghazni city, alongside four muftis. All were educated in religious institutions, rather than in law schools; the judge’s desk is full of religious books, and the room is decked with flags of the so-called Islamic Emirate. 

At the high court in Ghazni on Sept. 23, now a Taliban sharia court, Abdul Shukkur Rashad (center) said he received his education in a madrassa in Ghazni. He now works with a team of four muftis.

At the high court in Ghazni on Sept. 23, now a Taliban sharia court, Abdul Shukkur Rashad (center) said he received his education in a madrassa in Ghazni. He now works with a team of four muftis. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

“We continue what we were previously doing in the districts,” Rashad explained. Some of the laws the Taliban previously implemented wouldn’t change this time either, he said. Two women are needed to equal the testimony of one man; stonings and executions could happen again, though such decisions would require a lengthy decision-making process.

A return of the 1990s is precisely what many Afghans fear from Taliban justice. There are already plenty of similarities. The Taliban have resuscitated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which furiously implemented a strict set of rules, many of which can’t be found in the Quran. They have effectively banned girls from attending school after the sixth grade. Last month, in the western city of Herat, the Taliban publicly hanged the bodies of alleged kidnappers—a lesson, the group said.

Hosna Jalil, a former deputy minister for women’s affairs, said she was struggling to keep up hope that the Taliban’s new sharia would be moderate, especially toward women. “Their 2021 legislation and policies will be an updated version of their pre-2001 legislation, with slight modifications only,” she said. Jalil has left Afghanistan; her previous office now houses the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Sharia itself is inchoate. “Within it, you have values and norms, and to achieve these, jurists developed methods of jurisprudence, but these depend on the implementation style and interpretation, and that’s exactly what could go wrong,” said Rana Osman, a doctoral researcher in the School of Law at SOAS University of London. “The justice system could easily become an extension of the arm of power of an authoritative state.”

Still, there are plenty of takers. Outside Rashad’s court in Ghazni, a small group of men sat waiting. 

“There is no corruption in sharia, and we don’t pay to come here,” said Haji Faiz Mohammedi, a 63-year-old living in Ghazni’s provincial capital. He was hoping to resolve a land dispute that hadn’t seen a solution during the previous government.

“The government has changed. Previously, high-ranking people could pay off judges to get whatever they wanted, including land. We’re hoping that’s not possible anymore,” added Alaauddin Jalali, 44, sitting next to Mohammedi.

Not everyone’s on board, though.

People wait outside a court to see a Taliban judge in Herat, northwestern Afghanistan, on Sept. 29.

People wait outside a court to see a Taliban judge in Herat, northwestern Afghanistan, on Sept. 29. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

“The Taliban have imprisoned my stepbrother for the last month. He owes several people money, and that’s why they won’t let him go,” said Nazanine Abdul Ghafoor, 25, outside a court in Herat. Ghafoor, who previously worked for a local women’s rights organization, said she was scared of the new rulers and left her job and fled her home, fearing retribution.

Facing an economic meltdown, a humanitarian catastrophe, and vicious infighting, the Taliban have little time to focus on one of the concrete needs of the people. That bodes poorly for any semblance of justice in the new Afghanistan.

“There is neither an official constitution nor laws, so they won’t be able to run their justice system either,” Mahroon said. “They don’t even have enough qualified people, so they will eventually fail. They are not going to last.”

“Right now, the justice system is not a priority,” Mahroon added. “They are not focused on the courts but instead worry about their leadership, about finances. They can’t solve their own internal issues, so how can they solve those of others?”

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist and photographer who reports on conflict and humanitarian crisis. Twitter: @stephglinski

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