As Taliban fighters cradling trophy assault rifles crowded a police headquarters base here, the new boss explained the new rules.
Former policemen and other government servants of the fallen Afghan republic have been pardoned by the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, and should return to their jobs, said Mohammad Asif Zakir, a long-haired Taliban commander who has now become the Ghazni provincial head of criminal police.
“It doesn’t matter how much revenge we hold in our hearts, they have been granted an amnesty and that is what we will all observe,” Mr. Zakir said. “We can see the enemy, but we won’t do anything with them. Observing the rules of the Islamic Emirate is the most important thing. Otherwise, the entire system will be destroyed.”
Among the dozens of Taliban-turned-cops in the audience at the base, there were a handful of policemen of the former U.S.-backed Afghan government who answered the Taliban administration’s call to return to their jobs. Shunning their old uniforms, they were also dressed in traditional Afghan clothes, with Pashtun caps. Unlike their new masters, however, they carried no weapons, and their beards hadn’t yet had time to grow.
“The Taliban were not the way we had heard about them. It was said there will be barbarism,” said one of these men. “But we saw that all the employees of the former government were walking freely. That’s when we decided to come back to our job, since this is where we belong. We are treated well, at the moment.”
The man, in a pale blue shalwar kameez, agreed to be interviewed only after a new, armed Taliban colleague urged him to speak.
The August blitzkrieg turned the Taliban in the space of just over a week from an insurgent group that controlled no cities into a government that is now responsible for the fate of 40 million Afghans. In proclaiming their new administration on Sept. 7, the Taliban refused to reach out to other political forces or technocrats, giving all ministerial positions to the hardened leaders of the 20-year insurgency.
Yet the Taliban also say they need the skills of former government employees, from policing to education to tax collection, and want them to return to their jobs. “The Islamic Emirate has permitted them to come back so that serving the people doesn’t cease, and so that half-finished projects get completed,” Mr. Zakir said in Ghazni. “We don’t know what is the future plan for them, but for now they are allowed in their jobs.”
All in all, six former officers of the Ghazni province criminal-investigations department have resumed their duties, out of some 20 on the books, Mr. Zakir said, as did other officials in government departments throughout the southeastern province.
Many more former officials, however, distrust the Taliban’s new promises, and are hiding or trying to flee the country. Revenge killings of former Afghan officials have been the exception rather than the rule, so far. But there have been enough of these—numbering several dozen, particularly in the southern province of Kandahar—to create a sense of dread, particularly among former members of the Afghan military and police.
Reached by phone this week, one police officer from Ghazni pressed to quickly end the conversation. “I am hiding in a relative’s home in a faraway district,” he said on a crackling line. “Don’t call me again.”
Another former Afghan policeman said he was told by the Taliban to surrender his weapon three days after the takeover. “We are afraid. We stay indoors and don’t go out at all,” he said. “The Taliban announced an amnesty, but many police and others are being killed by unknown people.”
The bloody legacy of the conflict, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the epicenter of the insurgency, means that many Taliban fighters have lost close members of their families to American forces and to the men they see as the foreign occupiers’ Afghan collaborators. Now that the Taliban are in charge, forgiveness requires a self-restraint that not all the fighters possess.
“There is a general amnesty for everyone, but if people have personal grievances, then it is their personal affair,” said Khadem, a fighter who uses only one name and who oversaw the squad of about a dozen Taliban men guarding the entrance to the Ghazni governor’s compound. His face hardened. “I’ve lost my mother, my brother and my cousins in this war,” he recounted. “So many.”
Another fighter, Hafiz, originally from Kandahar, said six members of his family had been killed in airstrikes and fighting. “We’re happy about giving martyrs. We have personally expected to be martyred too, but we didn’t—it’s God that decides such things,” he said. “Now we have forgiven and we don’t even know who our enemies are,” he added. Inside the governor’s compound, he said, the old regime’s public servants have resumed their duties.
The Taliban leadership says that anyone who commits revenge killings of the former government’s officials will be punished by the new authorities. “There is no doubt that it happens. It is a big country and our numbers are not in thousands but in the hundreds of thousands,” Roohullah Umar, a Taliban political analyst who was injured by U.S.-led forces in 2009, said in an interview in the new government’s information ministry in Kabul. “But if someone takes revenge individually, they will be handed over to justice, and this is already happening.”
Human-rights groups that investigated recent killings say that the reality is more complex, with the Taliban’s statements not always matching their actions. “I don’t think people take things into their own hands without someone at the top at least condoning it, if not more,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Obaidullah Baheer, a Kabul-based academic who used to teach transitional justice at the now-closed American University of Afghanistan, added that the Taliban have a record of committing abuses but then claiming that these were unauthorized, individual acts. That is a tactic that has allowed the Islamist movement to deny responsibility while still intimidating their potential opponents.
Mr. Baheer pointed to the history of Iraq, where members of the former regime’s army and police, disbanded by the U.S. after the 2003 invasion, later became the backbone of a renewed insurgency. “The Taliban are sending an intentional message of fear to members of the previous security apparatus,” he said. “These people are trained, most of them are armed, and the Taliban think they really need to break their back with regard to any possible thought of an uprising.”
For now, there are no signs that such a resistance is emerging anywhere in Afghanistan except for the remote areas of Panjshir province, the last holdout of anti-Taliban forces until the Taliban took most of that province last week. Selab, one of the fighters under Mr. Zakir’s command in Ghazni, said he was happy to work side by side with members of the former police now that they have embraced the Islamic Emirate’s cause.
“The employees of the previous government had been tricked, and didn’t fulfill their duties according to the Islamic sharia,” he said. “We’ve told them to drop their weapons and join us. And now, they are working with us for an Islamic government.”