Kinder, gentler Taliban's push for women's rights going about as well as you'd expect

AP Photo/Mohammad Asif Khan

Just yesterday, while discussing the European Union’s moves to “normalize” relations with the Taliban, I posed a question regarding the difference between the Taliban’s words and their actions. Could it be possible that they actually intend to ensure women’s rights, at least to some degree, rather than conforming to their previous standards of oppression under Sharia law? Might they at least pretend to be somewhat civilized and promote gender equality in the interest of gaining foreign aid and some measure of acceptance as a legitimate government entity? Well, it seems that it took less than 24 hours to get the answer to that mystery. A group of women decided to take them up on their offer and stage another protest in front of the presidential palace in Kabul. But the kinder, gentler Taliban soldiers “greeted” them by firing rifles into the air and chasing them away from the property. (Associated Press)

Taliban special forces in camouflage fired their weapons into the air Saturday, bringing an abrupt and frightening end to the latest protest march in the capital by Afghan women demanding equal rights from the new rulers.

Also on Saturday, the chief of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, which has an outsized influence on the Taliban, made a surprise visit to Kabul…

As the demonstrators reached the presidential palace, a dozen Taliban special forces ran into the crowd, firing in the air and sending demonstrators fleeing. Kabiri, who spoke to The Associated Press, said they also fired tear gas.

The women’s protest that took place on Friday actually went fairly well. The participants were allowed to march for quite a while and display signs, all while a number of Taliban fighters looked on. They didn’t actually get a meeting with the Taliban leadership, but it was still better than nothing. But it seems as if we all knew that wasn’t going to hold for very long. The march the following day ended with gunfire and tear gas, as many of the women participating in the protest told reporters they thought it would. I suppose they might count themselves lucky that the Taliban rifles were pointed into the air and not directly at the crowd of women.

What we are seeing here appears to be another example of the frequent disconnect – be it intentional or otherwise – between the Taliban’s new “political wing” that’s engaging with the media and other world leaders and the actual leadership and fighting forces on the ground. In many cases, particularly in the outer provinces, the fighters have either not heard of these promises that are being made or apparently just don’t care about them.

In Kabul, the memo seems to have made it around to at least some of the fighters. They’ve been showing some levels of restraint and repeating some of the promises that their office in Qatar has made. They’ve even tried to assure some of the female protesters that their rights will be honored. But as yesterday’s demonstrations revealed, those promises only stretch just so far and the same old Taliban is lurking under the surface. It’s hard to avoid the sense that they are just waiting for the world’s attention to drift elsewhere and most of the media cameras to go away. (Keep in mind that freedom of the press was one of the EU’s demands from the Taliban in exchange for recognizing them and providing foreign aid.) Of course, if the cameras don’t shut down quickly enough, the Taliban will eventually find a way to shut them down, violently if need be.

The other curious development this weekend was the arrival of Pakistan’s intelligence chief, Gen. Faiez Hameed in Kabul. The purpose of his visit was not announced but he was meeting with Taliban leadership. Pakistan’s intelligence agency has long, deeply established ties to the Taliban, despite their nation supposedly still being one of our allies. Of course, is it really all that surprising? The Taliban were shielding Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan when the war started, but he wound up in a very comfortable compound in Pakistan later… somehow. And it’s been widely suspected that Pakistan’s intelligence agency at least knew about it, if not being actively engaged in shielding him.

Now the two groups are having public meetings in Kabul. Isn’t that convenient? I’m not going out on a limb very much here by predicting that it will be a long time before we learn the full extent of just how badly this situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has devolved in a relatively short period of time.