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Taliban have their work cut out to win hearts and minds in Kabul

KABUL (REUTERS) – After 20 years of fighting, the Taliban have tried to present a conciliatory face to the world.

Afghanistan’s new rulers have a problem closer to home: Winning the hearts and minds of their own people, starting in the capital.

Since the group entered Kabul on Aug 15, armed members have roamed the streets in battlefield dress, often with no obvious chain of command. Many city dwellers are not used to the sight, and heavy-handed security tactics have not helped.

Mr Ahmad, a Kabul teacher who was a small child when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan 20 years ago, has adjusted to the shock of seeing their fighters on the streets. But weeks after the city fell, he feels no more reconciled to their presence.

“People in Kabul hate them,” he said, with a city dweller’s distaste for rough fighters who have descended from the countryside. Mr Ahmad declined to give his surname for fear of retribution.

“You should see them, they are wild-looking people, dirty, uneducated, with long hair and dirty clothes. They have no manners at all.”

After 20 years of Western presence, Kabul is no longer the bombed-out shell the Taliban took over in 1996.

While it remains scruffy and traffic-snarled, with overflowing drains, patchy electricity and no running water in many areas, it has a lively urban culture far removed from the austere rural background of most Taliban fighters.

A fan of Barcelona’s football team with a taste for Bollywood, Mr Ahmad reluctantly let his beard grow and exchanged the Western-style clothes he used to wear for a traditional perahan tunban to avoid standing out when he runs into a Taliban checkpoint.

Instead of Dari, the language mainly spoken in Kabul, he is careful to address any Taliban he meets in Pashto, the language of the south and east where most of the fighters come from.

“They have never been in a city and many of them don’t speak Dari – as well as Pashto you hear Arabic or Urdu and other languages,” he said. “They beat people in the street with their weapons. People are very afraid of them.”

Reassurance

Taliban leaders say they want Kabul residents to feel secure, but they acknowledge they were surprised by the swift collapse of the Western-backed government, leaving next to no time to plan the running of a city of more than five million people.

They also admit that their fighters, most of whom have known little but years of war, are not trained police used to dealing with the public.

The group says its government is different from the hardline Islamist administration that ruled from 1996 to 2001, and it has promised there would be no arbitrary punishments and that patrols had been ordered to treat people with respect.

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“If there is a problem in any area, whether it is a thief or an oppressor or a gunman or a tyrant, let the people know that we have shared our contact numbers everywhere,” said Mr Seyed Rahman Heydari, a Taliban patrol commander in Kabul’s police district six. “Just let us know when facing such issues; we will follow up seriously and arrest the criminals.”

When they were last in power, Taliban religious police would beat people breaking the rules, and the group became notorious internationally for its public amputations and executions.

This time, several street protests have been broken up by gunmen firing warning shots into the air. People have been detained and beaten with rifle butts and rods and pipes.

Taliban leaders have vowed to investigate any instances of abuse, but have ordered demonstrators to seek permission before holding protests.

For some Afghans, the reputation for swift and harsh justice has provided reassurance in a city which, alongside regular Taliban suicide attacks, has seen kidnappings, murders and violent robberies increase in recent years.

“I can see that the security conditions have changed since the coming of the Islamic Emirate government,” said driver Abdul Sattar, who drives passengers around the Darul Aman Square area.

“Previously, there were lots of mobile phone thieves in the area, but now there’s less of that.”

With no corrupt local police to bribe, he said he had even been able to drop prices to 10 afghanis (16 Singapore cents) per passenger, from 20 to 30 previously.

Beatings

However, demonstrations in Kabul and the Taliban’s sometimes-violent response to protesters and journalists covering them have undermined confidence in the group’s promises to treat the public with respect.

“Obviously, when children and women see them, they would be afraid of them, because their previous government was terrible,” said Kabul resident Rahmatullah Khan.

The new government, made up mainly of southern and eastern ethnic Pashtun men who joined the Taliban in the 1990s, also tempered hopes of an inclusive administration that reflects the concerns of people who grew up in the post-2001 era.

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While Afghan society remains profoundly conservative with regard to women’s rights, even outside the Taliban’s ranks, protests by women in Kabul and other cities have underlined how determined some are to preserve the gains of the past 20 years.

On Wednesday (Sept 8), women in Kabul carrying signs reading “A Cabinet without women is a failure” underlined scepticism of the Taliban’s assurances of the value of women in society and the respect due to them.

Mr Heydari, the Taliban commander, said people “should not have any fear in their hearts. We are at their service day and night”. It is a message some are unwilling to believe.

Ms Ayesha, a 22-year-old who worked for a media group before Kabul fell, said she had seen women beaten several times by Taliban, and would go out of her house only when absolutely necessary.

“These are very dangerous people, they will beat women and insult them. I don’t care what their leaders say, they are completely wild.”

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