On February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement outlining a phased withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban commitments not to allow attacks on the US or its allies from Afghan territory. The troop withdrawal is expected to take place in parallel with negotiations between representatives from the Afghan government and other Afghan political groups and Taliban leaders aimed at achieving a political settlement after decades of armed conflict.
As negotiations advance, they will need to address concerns about protections of fundamental human rights, including the rights of women and girls; education; freedom of expression and the media; due process guarantees; as well as ending attacks on civilians and accountability for serious human rights abuses and war crimes.
For this to happen, representatives from human rights and other civil society organizations, including women’s groups and victims’ representatives, should participate in the full range of discussions surrounding the intra-Afghan talks, including in plans for implementation following any agreement. Although the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the laws enacted in the years since 2002 include many human rights protections, implementation has been poor, including in areas under government control.
While in power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban’s rights record was characterized by systematic violations against women and girls; cruel corporal punishments, including executions; and extreme suppression of freedom of religion, expression, and education. Since the US-led military defeat of the government in late 2001, the Taliban insurgency has not recognized the legitimacy of the Afghan government or the 2004 constitution.
As of mid-2020, Taliban forces controlled or had significant influence in many provinces and districts of Afghanistan. In these areas, residents abide by a parallel set of government laws and Taliban-imposed regulations. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) funded by international donors and working with the Afghan government provide social services, including education and health care, in Taliban-held areas. Taliban leaders have assumed some oversight of these services and have issued regulations concerning their operations. Taliban officials liaise directly with NGOs and with local Afghan government officials through mediation by elders in the communities and community councils.
This divided state and the prospect of a peace agreement have raised a number of critical questions: What is life currently like under Taliban rule? And what does that say about the protection of fundamental human rights after a peace deal is signed?
This report is based on a total of 138 interviews, including 120 in-person interviews with Taliban officials, commanders, and fighters, who in their own words talk about their policies and their reasons for imposing restrictions on communities under their control. Others interviewed included teachers, doctors, elders, students, and other local residents in Helmand, Kunduz, and Wardak provinces—three of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces in the north, south and center of the country—between January 2019 and April 2020.
The report focuses on the everyday experiences of people living in Taliban-held districts and the impact Taliban policies have had on their rights and freedoms, including education; information and media; and movement. It looks at local people’s efforts to bring complaints against Taliban officials and fighters. Since US-Taliban negotiations began in early 2019, women’s rights activists and other Afghans in government-held areas have raised concerns about Taliban restrictions in their areas of control and the effect a settlement with the Taliban would have on these rights. We also document abuses by Taliban courts and prisons, including prolonged arbitrary detention and summary punishments, including executions. We do not document here the Taliban’s many and widespread violations of the methods and means of warfare, including deliberate attacks on civilians, which we investigated in the 2018 Human Rights Watch report, No Safe Place: Insurgent Attacks on Civilians in Afghanistan, and which continue to cause civilian harm.
Non-state armed groups are bound by Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and customary international humanitarian law. This requires that the Taliban respect fundamental guarantees in areas that they occupy, including: non-discrimination on the basis of sex and other grounds; freedom of religion; respect for family life; humane treatment of prisoners; prohibitions on torture and corporal punishment; collective punishment; and rights to a fair trial. Individuals who violate some of these guarantees, such as by committing torture, are responsible for war crimes. In areas they effectively control, the Taliban should also respect and protect the fundamental human rights of individuals, including the rights to education, freedom of expression and assembly.
Education for Girls and Women
Since 2002, in cities under Afghan government control, millions of Afghan girls have gone to school and Afghan women have participated in public life, including holding political office, in greater numbers than ever before in Afghanistan’s history.
Yet these gains are partial and fragile even in government-controlled areas. While government efforts and donor-funded programs led to a dramatic rise in the numbers of girls in school, with millions enrolled in the initial years after 2002, the number of girls in school nationwide began to drop after 2014, due to factors including rising insecurity, discrimination, corruption, and diminished funding.
Research by Human Rights Watch and others demonstrates a rising demand for education in Afghanistan, including a growing acceptance in many parts of the country that girls should study. NGOs that support “community-based education”—schools located in homes in students’ communities—have often been more successful in enabling girls to go to school in areas where they would not have been able to attend government schools because of insecurity, family resistance, and community restrictions. But the government’s failure to integrate these schools into the state education system, combined with inconsistent funding for these schools, has deprived many girls of education.
Although the Taliban officially state that they no longer oppose girls’ education, very few Taliban officials actually permit girls to attend school past puberty. Others do not permit girls’ schools at all. The inconsistencies have left residents wary. As one teacher in Wardak province in central Afghanistan said, “Today, [a Taliban official] tells you that they allow girls up to sixth grade, but tomorrow, when someone else comes instead, he might not like girls’ education.” Taliban officials in several Kunduz districts have permitted girls’ primary schools to operate and in some cases allowed girls and young women to travel to government-held areas to attend high schools and university. By contrast, in some Taliban-controlled districts in Helmand province, there are no functioning primary schools for girls, let alone secondary schools—some of these rural districts had no functioning girls’ schools even when under government control. In Taliban-held districts, NGOs running community-based education programs have been able to provide education where no other schools are accessible.
In some districts, the Taliban have imposed “taxes” on teacher salaries and threatened teachers and residents whose relatives teach in schools in nearby government-controlled areas.
Taliban officials claim that the differences in access to education between districts and provinces are due to security issues and varying levels of acceptance of girls’ education within the communities themselves. There is resistance to girls’ education in many rural communities in Afghanistan. However, Taliban district and provincial officials also determine implementation of policies in the areas they control. Their inconsistent approach to girls’ schools reflects the differing views of provincial Taliban commanders, their standing in the Taliban military command hierarchy, and their relationship with local communities. In some districts, local demand for education has convinced or compelled Taliban authorities to take a more flexible approach.
Freedom of Expression and Social Restrictions
In government-controlled areas, Afghan media play an active role in public life and participate in public issues. Yet journalists critical of the authorities risk threats and violence from officials, security forces, and government-backed militias. They face government restrictions on access to information.
By contrast, Afghan media usually may only enter Taliban-held areas with explicit Taliban permission. Taliban officials in their political office in Doha, Qatar, have said that they only require that journalists respect Islamic values. But Taliban commanders have threatened and attacked journalists for critical reporting. Taliban officials prohibit watching television in some districts and residents who watch TV do so in secret. Similarly, some Taliban officials impose restrictions on smartphones or ban them outright, limiting residents’ access to information and their ability to communicate, study, or work using the internet.
Social controls embodied in “morality” officials—known as “vice and virtue” police when the Taliban were in power in the 1990s—continue to operate in districts under Taliban control. These officials patrol communities to monitor residents’ adherence to Taliban-prescribed social codes regarding dress and public deportment, beard length, men’s attendance at Friday prayers, and use of smartphones or other technological devices. The rigidity or flexibility with which the Taliban impose these rules varies by province and district, with Kunduz among the most flexible and Helmand among the least. Violating the rules can result in a warning for a first-time or relatively minor offense. While public punishment for infractions is infrequent compared to the 1990s, for offenses deemed more serious, Taliban officials have imprisoned residents and inflicted corporal punishments such as beatings.
Taliban officials have told Human Rights Watch that they have not imposed the social restrictions that exist in the areas they control and that these reflect local community norms. At the same time, they have encouraged residents and imams of the local mosques to report on community members who skip prayers or engage in prohibited behavior.
Strict social norms regarding dress—especially for women—and women’s movements are common among communities in much of rural Afghanistan, including in conservative government-held areas. However, in both government-held and Taliban-held areas where such restrictions exist, some residents, particularly younger Afghans, have resisted these constraints in seeking more freedom. Moreover, in more diverse or urbanized areas, Taliban officials have sanctioned and reinforced rigid social controls in communities that had previously not observed such practices.
Detention and Punishment for Government Contacts, Criticism of the Taliban
A major restriction the Taliban imposes is to prohibit any contact with the Afghan government, either civilians or the military, except in some cases to obtain identity cards (taskeras) that are needed for government services. Taliban commanders and officials have threatened residents whose relatives work in the government or security forces. They have even threatened people for being stopped at government checkpoints. A resident of Wardak who the Taliban accused of providing food to government soldiers was threatened with severe punishment if he did it again, and was told, “you do not have the right to complain.”
Criticizing Taliban military activities is strictly forbidden; fear of retaliation keeps residents from advocating for their own protection. Although deploying forces in populated villages without taking all feasible precautions to protect civilians from attack is a violation of the laws of war, the Taliban have sometimes punished residents who have complained about Taliban forces entering their homes and firing on government troops.
The Taliban have also punished family members or other relatives as a form of collective punishment in violation of international law. A Helmand man whose relatives worked for the police told Human Rights Watch the Taliban accused him of being “a police spy.”
Those accused of being government spies, abducted government officials, and others detained for any contact with the government may be imprisoned indefinitely or summarily executed. Local Taliban commanders have considerable autonomy to carry out punishments, particularly in frontline areas. While credited for offering swift justice, Taliban civil courts have overridden or co-opted local dispute mechanisms and offer few due process protections.
Women have sought out Taliban courts to settle inheritance and property disputes. However, for women and girls who are victims of domestic violence, registering complaints through the Taliban courts does not offer even the limited possibility for justice that exists in government courts, while mirroring the same deficiencies by requiring women to pursue mediation within the family. Taliban courts have imposed brutal punishments such as lashing on men and women for so-called moral crimes. These punishments deter women from fleeing abusive situations in the home.
Impunity for grave abuses has long been a problem in Afghanistan, where the current and previous governments have largely failed to hold officials accountable for rights violations or prosecuted pro-government warlords and militias for serious abuses. The Taliban claim that they hold members of their ranks, including commanders, accountable for abuses, but this has meant little in practice since Taliban officials have seldom considered many human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law as wrongful acts.
Since 2015, the Taliban have made public statements about their intention to ensure internal accountability. In some cases, they have put measures in place to respond to complaints about abuse at the local level. However, these measures are very limited in scope, and rarely affect senior officials or address serious abuses. In most cases, communities fear retaliation if they report abuse. Residents who have criticized Taliban actions have been accused of spying and beaten.
As the Taliban have consolidated control over areas that were previously contested, their restrictions have tightened, not eased. This raises serious concerns that as government influence wanes, the Taliban will be less willing to heed community demands about the protection of rights, as well as in any peace negotiations. The gap between official Taliban statements on rights and the restrictive positions adopted by Taliban officials on the ground indicates that the Taliban are far from an internal consensus on their own policies, and that reaching agreement on human rights provisions in a peace agreement will not necessarily result in their being implemented at the local level.
On other fundamental issues of governance, the Taliban have not developed consistent policies but rather a set of reflexive and reactive practices. While they have rolled back some harsh measures from the past, and communities have managed to push back against some restrictions, what has not changed is that in most areas there are few ways for communities to engage with Taliban officials to register complaints.
Afghans in Taliban-held districts have told Human Rights Watch that Taliban officials do not recognize any need to listen to them or allow them to air grievances or make recommendations. Instead Taliban officials generally see the communities as either with them or against them, and view criticism only as a challenge to their authority and evidence of affiliation with the enemy. Most importantly, in not permitting criticism, the Taliban have signaled that they do not see themselves as accountable to the people they govern.
In any settlement that emerges, it will be critical for the Taliban to demonstrate that they are willing to accommodate diverse communities, tolerate dissent, and meet the demands of the communities they govern, including of women and girls, for the protection of fundamental rights.
To the Taliban Leadership:
- Uphold the right of girls and boys to education in all areas, including through secondary level and above, and issue clear orders to all commanders not to obstruct the functioning of schools.
- Work with donors and community-based education providers to expand community-based schools in all areas and promote these schools in communities where families resist sending children, especially girls, to school.
- Take all necessary measures to protect civilians under Taliban control from the harmful effects of attacks. Avoid deploying, to the extent feasible, within densely populated areas.
- Cease all acts of intimidation, harassment, and summary punishment of residents who have criticized Taliban policies.
To the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban Regarding Peace Negotiations:
- Preserve all rights protections enumerated in the Afghan Constitution.
- Agree to the participation of women, rights activists, civil society representatives, media associations, and constitutional law experts in the thematic working groups at the negotiations.
- Agree to a meaningful role in the negotiations for victims and for victims’ representatives to address the negotiators.
To the UN and Governments Supporting the Intra-Afghan Talks:
- Advocate forcefully that all parties preserve rights protections as provided for in the constitution and laws of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Human Rights Watch carried out research for this report between January 2019 and April 2020. The report is based on a total of 138 interviews, including 120 in-person interviews conducted in Helmand, Kunduz, and Wardak provinces between January 2019 and October 2019.
The interviewees were selected through the snowball sampling method to ensure introduction to a range of interlocutors with knowledge about various Taliban policies and practices. Some of the interlocutors were interviewed twice during the research process in order to triangulate information shared by others.
The range of individuals interviewed included Taliban commanders, current and former Taliban judges, current Taliban fighters, members of the Taliban provincial and district commissions, and former Taliban foot soldiers. Other interviewees included tribal elders, school and university students and other young people, truck and taxi drivers, former detainees in Taliban prisons, shopkeepers, business owners, doctors, teachers, religious scholars and imams of local mosques, farmers, former civilian government officials, other local residents and witnesses to abuse in areas under Taliban control or those affected by Taliban policies and their implementation. We also interviewed officials with NGOs working in these provinces. Most interviews were conducted in Dari or Pashto.
All interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interview, the ways in which the information would be used, and offered anonymity in our reporting. This report withholds identifying information for most interviewees to protect their privacy and security. None of the interviewees received financial or other incentives for speaking with us.
Statistics of any kind—even basic population data—are often difficult to obtain in Afghanistan and of questionable accuracy. School enrollment figures are inflated by the government’s practice of counting a child as attending school until they have not attended any classes for up to three years.
In April 2019, Human Rights Watch met with Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, to ask about their policies on access to education, women’s rights, and other restrictions on communities under their control. In April 2020, we sent a letter asking for further clarifications and comments based on the findings in this report. Their response is included as an appendix.
Education in Taliban-Held Areas
Education as a Battleground
Education as a public service has long been a battleground in Afghanistan. From the early 20th century, a number of Afghan political leaders promoted educational reform as necessary for modernization and equality, while others saw it as an unwelcome imposition by foreign powers. Reforms in the 1930s expanded access to primary and secondary schools, including for girls, in cities and provincial centers.
In 1950, Kabul University opened its doors to women in separate single-sex faculties for medicine, science, and the humanities. However, the reforms met strong resistance in the countryside, where they were seen as an encroachment on the power of local authorities and traditional values. There were few opportunities in rural areas to attend schools other than madrassas and mosques. For girls, there were almost no opportunities.
The April 1978 coup brought to power the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and plunged the country into civil war. In its drive to transform Afghanistan into a modern socialist state, the PDPA leadership decreed radical land redistribution measures, new marriage laws, and literacy programs, including for girls and women, that threatened traditional power structures. To implement its policies, the PDPA employed repression and violence, including mass killings and enforced disappearances, and the brutality sparked widespread protests from rural communities.
The December 1979 Soviet invasion enflamed a widening conflict. With Soviet funding, schools expanded student enrollment in the cities. Women outnumbered men at Kabul University for the first time in the mid-1980s (1,030 to 753) because men could only enroll after completing mandatory military service. The PDPA government revised textbooks and other materials to promote support for the Soviet Union and Afghan government. Hundreds of students participated in educational programs in Soviet-bloc countries, further fueling allegations of foreign control of education.
The mujahidin resistance forces, backed by the US to fight the Soviet and PDPA forces, assassinated government officials, including teachers, and burned schools. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in refugee communities in Pakistan provided educational services, but some mujahidin groups based there attacked programs promoting girls’ education and women’s literacy and employment. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the collapse of the Afghan government, fighting among the former mujahidin destroyed large parts of Kabul and other cities, forcing many schools to close. Throughout much of the country, schools largely ceased to function, although a few remained open in some cities.
The Taliban, headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar and other former mujahidin fighters, emerged out of the factional fighting of the 1992-95 period. As they gained power, the Taliban imposed bans on girls’ and women’s education in the areas that came under their control. When Herat, in western Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban in September 1995, commanders ordered all girls’ schools closed.
In 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul and proclaimed the establishment of an Islamic Emirate, Taliban leader Mullah Omar decreed that provision of education for girls was “temporarily suspended.” The decree also applied to the 4,000 women then studying at Kabul University. The enforcement of the decree was widespread but not absolute; NGOs negotiated with the Taliban to operate primary schools for both boys and girls, usually outside major urban areas, and urban activists ran small secret schools. The suspension of girls’ education was not lifted until the US invasion ousted the Taliban government in late 2001.
Education Administration and Funding
Although primary education is compulsory by law in Afghanistan through class nine, the government has neither the capacity to provide this level of education to all children nor a system to ensure that all children attend school.
Overcrowding, lack of infrastructure and supplies, and weak oversight mean that children who do go to school may study in a tent with no textbook for only three hours a day. There is a shortage of teachers overall, and the government’s failure to provide teachers, especially female teachers, in rural areas has undermined efforts to expand access to school in rural areas, especially for girls.
Corruption and politically driven efforts to inflate the numbers of students have plagued efforts to expand education since 2001. A 2016 report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that teacher absenteeism ranged from 20 to 38 percent, and that a significant number of schools and teachers were so-called ghosts, meaning they were registered and funded, but did not actually exist.
Afghanistan’s primary and secondary education system consists of four main types of schools. Government schools operate under the Ministry of Education, which is dependent on donor funding. Private schools in urban areas provide an option for families who can afford fees. Madrassas, schools devoted primarily to religious instruction, teach many children in both government-held and Taliban-held areas. Most operate outside the government education system and often exclude core subjects in the government’s curriculum or teach only religious subjects. Finally, community-based education (CBE) is a model that has been used to successfully reach many Afghan children who would otherwise be denied education, particularly girls; it remains entirely outside the government education system and is wholly dependent on donor funding.
Schools throughout Afghanistan, whether government-run, community-based, or private, generally segregate students by gender from about age 8. Some teachers in girls’ schools are men. Public universities are coeducational, while many private universities and colleges are not.
Attacks on Schools After 2001
The US-led invasion and defeat of the Taliban government in 2001 created a power vacuum that fueled conflicts among various armed groups at the local level. Through 2002-2003, militia forces and other armed groups—some linked to local strongmen—attacked school buildings and other institutions. Some of these attacks targeted girls’ schools.
After 2004, the Taliban began to regain influence, primarily in the south and southeast of Afghanistan. They targeted schools as physical symbols of the central government’s presence, particularly in rural districts. They also threatened and attacked teachers, administrators and students. Attacking schools was a way to fuel instability, undermine support for the government, and essentially “scare people into obeying them.” Between January 1, 2005, and mid-2006, hundreds of schools closed across the country after a spate of Taliban arson and grenade attacks. Militias and other armed groups were also responsible for some attacks, often arising out of disputes over the government’s disbursement of funds as schools had become a lucrative resource and magnet for corruption after 2002.
Attacks gradually declined from 2007 to 2010 as the Taliban faced a backlash from local communities. In 2011, the Taliban leadership issued new statements on protecting education; attacks on education declined but did not cease. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 18 incidents in 2019 in which Taliban forces targeted education facilities or personnel, many of which were apparently linked to the use of the schools by the government as polling places.
Taliban Policy on Education since 2011
The Taliban’s policy on education has evolved from outright opposition to state-run schools to efforts since 2011 to assume an oversight role over educational services in some provinces. The Taliban’s 2010 code of conduct (layha) established a commission on education, but it was not until after 2014 that an articulated written policy and administrative structure, including offices at the provincial and district level, emerged. The policy outlines the Islamic basis for government support to education and regulations governing the curriculum and hiring of teachers.
The emergence of the Taliban’s written education policy coincided with their co-optation of the state education system in areas under their control, so that funding from the Afghan government’s Education Ministry—much of it provided by international donors—continued, even as Taliban officials began overseeing the running of schools. In this way the Taliban leadership has not needed “to find funding or resources for schools because the government, and indirectly the international community, continued to pay for them.”
According to a 2016 report, local Taliban officials in the provinces where they have significant influence gained control of Ministry of Education funds as the result of negotiations between them and district-level officials. In managing schools, Taliban officials monitor attendance, particularly of teachers, recruit teachers, and punish absentee teachers with beatings or dismissal.
The Taliban have also implemented changes to the curriculum, giving priority to religious studies and in some cases removing classes on culture (including music) and “terrorism,” and modifying history lessons. Taliban officials have in some cases threatened teachers for not paying part of their salaries to the Taliban as a “tax.” It remains unclear how much Education Ministry officials and the Taliban cooperate on the ground. By working with community elders, NGOs have succeeded in gaining support from Taliban officials for community-based education in many districts.
The Taliban’s policy on education, however, remains a work in progress. The provincial education department and the Taliban education commission agreed to a memorandum of understanding in Helmand province that includes the following provisions:
- Schools, learning centers, [and] education buildings … are national assets. It is the duty of the Emirate to protect them. The Islamic Emirate will work day and night to spread knowledge.… It will compel imams of [mosques] to address people that education is an obligation.
- The central and provincial employees of the [government Ministry of Education] and its provincial directorates can travel and inspect in Emirate-controlled territories, on the condition that the Emirate education department be informed in advance.
- The education authorities are responsible for establishing community-based outreach classes or community-based education for the areas with no accessibility to schools and education centers.
- Both parties [government and Taliban] will continue having coordination meetings to remove problems and barriers.
The Taliban’s policy asserts that “education is essential for the benefit of society, and it is the responsibility of government to provide education for all.” No specific mention is made of formal girls’ schools, but officials have stated that girls may study in mosques, madrassas, or private homes, and that women’s education must be in line with Islamic values. Despite the fact that the Quran promotes education for girls and women, the Taliban have largely opposed a blanket endorsement of girls’ education, “in particular … girls going to university, because they say the conditions on the ground are not good for girls' education." The conditions they refer to include continuing conflict and insecurity, and local resistance to girls and women traveling outside their homes.
During meetings with US officials on the terms for an agreement on a US troop withdrawal in 2019-2020, Taliban negotiators stated that they were open to education for women and girls at all levels, including university. In meetings with Human Rights Watch in April 2019, Taliban officials reiterated that this was their official policy, but added that they would not impose it on communities that did not accept it:
We have to take into account local norms. In Kunduz, Samangan, Logar, people are more open-minded about girls’ education. In Uruzgan, Helmand—the people are not open to this. We cannot impose from the top. We are working to change peoples’ minds.… The Kunduz conflict is different from Helmand—we cannot establish the same rules and guidelines for all of Afghanistan. It has to be done in a case-by-case manner until the whole country is under our control.
Individual Taliban commanders, shadow provincial governors, and district officials, many of whom have their own views on education, largely determine education policies in the areas under their control. In general, in southern Afghanistan there has been less demand from local communities for schools, particularly girls’ schools, since there have never been many girls’ schools in operation, except in a few district centers. In some parts of the southeast, Taliban officials have agreed to allow girls’ schools, but only up to the sixth grade (around the age of 12) in districts where communities have advocated for them. In other areas, pressure from communities has persuaded commanders to allow greater access to education for girls. In Taliban-controlled areas of the north, girls’ schools are also generally open up to the sixth grade and, in some cases, beyond.
While there is longstanding resistance to girls attending school after sixth grade in some communities, especially in rural areas, including in parts of the country under government control, some of that resistance has eroded because of social changes that have taken place since 2002.
The accounts below provide examples of Taliban restrictions on the right to education in Taliban-held areas. Residents of these communities also describe their fear that local Taliban officials might retaliate against those who demand access to education.
Taliban Education Policies in Kunduz
The Taliban did not regain a foothold in Kunduz province until after 2009 as part of their broader resurgence in northern Afghanistan. In the areas they controlled and influenced, they established a shadow administration that included courts, taxation, education, and other services. For security reasons, most government officials, including the district education heads, have been based in the Kunduz provincial capital rather than district centers since 2015, and this has strengthened Taliban control over these services.
Factors explaining the greater flexibility the Taliban have adopted regarding girls’ education in Kunduz province include: the fact that their resurgence came later in districts in Kunduz compared to provinces in other parts of the country, such as Helmand; stronger pre-existing community support for education; and the ethnically diverse population of the province. However, even within Kunduz, Taliban policies are inconsistent across different districts and generally reflect the views of individual commanders, officials, and other authorities, both within their ranks and in the larger community. Resistance to girls’ education is also common in government-controlled areas, such as Kunduz city. One city resident said, “We hear the imams of the mosques during Friday prayers preaching against girls’ education.”
As of May 2020, there were several primary schools functioning in the Taliban-held districts of Dasht-e Archi and Chahar Dara, the districts where we conducted research. There was one girls’ high school in the district center of Chahar Dara, which is officially under government control. In addition, international NGOs working with local partners provide community-based education programs for thousands of boys and girls in Taliban-held districts. Managing the schools and monitoring teachers’ attendance is divided between Taliban forces and the government based on who controls the area.
According to a 2019 assessment of humanitarian needs in Kunduz province:
Boys have no problem in accessing schools except during [the] fighting period. However, girls can go to the school up to sixth grade. Girls’ mobility is restricted to … the village and thus they can’t access higher grade schooling located at the district centers. This is due to a lack of female teachers but more of social norms. In the [district] center[s]… which are controlled by government there are no barriers and girls attend up to twelfth grade. Most important…[is] the lack of female teachers because the [Taliban] have put condition[s], and without female teachers the girls cannot attend higher grades, like in the case of [Dasht-e] Archi district.
Variations in Taliban Policy on Girls’ Education in Kunduz
Throughout Kunduz in districts under the control of, or substantially influenced by, the Taliban, primary schools for girls have generally remained open, allowing girls to study through at least sixth grade. The restrictions are tied both to security and to the age of the students, with some officials banning girls over 8 years old, and others over 10 or 12. One religious scholar in Aliabad district told Human Rights Watch:
The Ahmad Shah Baba elementary school has many girls who go to this school for studying. Yet the Taliban are less than 500 meters away. The Taliban every day see the girls going to this school but never attack them.
A Taliban education official who visited Kunduz in early 2019 said that “girls can go to schools as long as all the staff are female, including guards and cleaners. This would apply for all girls’ schools up to tenth grade.” However, this did not correspond to the situation in most Taliban-held areas of Kunduz where girls seldom study beyond primary school. Moreover, while only 30 percent of teachers in Kunduz province are female, there are none at all in some districts, including Dasht-e Archi.
Residents have complained that the Taliban’s practices sometimes contradict their public statements. One teacher told Human Rights Watch:
If the Taliban are not against education, why have they closed some girls' schools? [Three local girls] had literacy classes in Dasht-e Archi district in the government-controlled area.…[Since] the Taliban captured the entire Dasht-e Archi district and since then even the all-girls literacy classes have been shut down.
Some Taliban officials claim that their restrictions on education reflect communities’ not supporting education for girls above sixth grade. A religious scholar echoed this view, saying that although the “Taliban allow girls' education until twelfth grade, girls do not go after sixth grade in Taliban-controlled areas,” supposedly because of the community’s self-imposed restrictions. However, community representatives counter that families do not send their girls to schools after sixth grade because in the past the Taliban harshly punished people for challenging their restrictions, and they fear they would do so again.
At the same time, some Taliban commanders feel pressure from communities to allow girls to attend high school. U.R., a resident of Chahar Dara, said that “girls from Taliban-controlled villages come and study in Chahar Dara’s main girls’ high school [in the government-controlled district center].” An elder of Chahar Dara said that, “If the Taliban were really against girls’ education after sixth grade, they could have closed down Jamiat Girls’ High School in Chahar Dara district already.” However, the number of girls attending the school from these areas is small, and they are likely to be under Taliban surveillance. Some residents have also expressed concerns about threats by the Taliban over members of their household attending a girls’ school.
In some areas local Taliban officials allow girls from their districts to attend Kunduz University, which is in a government-controlled area. A resident of Mama Khel, a suburb of Kunduz city, said:
The Taliban knows every girl who goes to university, their families, and the exact houses where they live. Every day these girls go to university in Kunduz city and come back. Still, the Taliban have not stopped them yet.
Expanding Madrassas for Girls
Since 2015, the Taliban in Kunduz province have promoted girls’ madrassas as an alternative to government schools in Kunduz. In 2018, the Taliban worked with local religious scholars to open girls’ madrassas in the Nawabad area of Chahar Dara district. In Taliban-held areas, girls often go to both a school and a madrassa, each for a part of the day, which is not uncommon for boys in many areas of Afghanistan.
Residents of Taliban-controlled districts in Kunduz describe the expansion of madrassas as a deliberate attempt by the Taliban to encourage communities who want girls’ education to accept them instead of government schools. Both government schools and government-run madrassas primarily teach religious studies, as well as some reading and writing, but private madrassas frequently do not teach mathematics, science, art, or other subjects offered at government schools.
Taliban Education Policies in Helmand Province
The Taliban resurgence in Helmand province gained strength in 2004-5 when local Taliban commanders who had largely returned to their communities after 2001 took up arms again as fighting broke out among local strongmen and mujahidin militias who had returned to power with US support. Other tribally-based forces, some of whom had initially supported the US and NATO but who lost power during internecine fighting over the opium trade, joined them.
The Helmand conflict intensified through 2006-2010, fueled by rivalries over international patronage and the internationally driven effort to eradicate opium that drove many poorer farmers to seek support from local Taliban. After the withdrawal of most international forces in 2014, the Taliban expanded their control. By July 2017, the Taliban had either taken over or were strongly contesting 12 of the province’s 14 districts.
The largely rural province of Helmand has historically had low numbers for school enrollment, and few rural areas had girls’ schools. As the conflict in Helmand intensified after 2005, districts changed hands multiple times and the fighting led to repeated school closings. Since 2014 the district capital, Lashkargah, has seen an influx of people from the rest of the province, with more schools enrolling girls, although their numbers have remained low compared to boys. A number of international and national NGOs have run community-based education programs enrolling approximately 7,000 girls throughout the province, some in Taliban-held areas.
The Taliban’s position on girls’ education in Helmand is more rigid than in Kunduz and Wardak and reflects community attitudes particularly prevalent in rural areas of Afghanistan where traditionally girls seldom appear outside the home once they near puberty. Such views are common in some government-held areas as well, especially in rural districts where there is often community pressure against girls traveling outside their homes to go to schools.
In most Taliban-held areas of Helmand, including Gereshk, Musa Qala, and Kajaki, we found that despite official Taliban statements allowing girls’ education, local Taliban officials maintain that girls’ attendance—at least in formal schools—is prohibited. In Gereshk, a Taliban commander told Human Rights Watch that, “In our district, the Taliban do not allow women to get education.” A university student said:
When the Taliban came, there had been a school where both boys and girls studied together. The girls were in the first and second grade classes—small girls. The Taliban told the headmaster that boys can come to schools, [but that] the girls should not come anymore.
For some, even the subject is taboo: one elder in Musa Qala said that “Only boys’ schools are operating, but due to Taliban fear, no one talks about girls’ schools.”
These strictures apply only in Taliban-held areas. A Taliban commander in Gereshk said:
In the past, our leaders said girls’ schools are banned, even if that is in the [district center] or city. But now [we] do not attack schools in city or [district center] bazaar, and it is only in those areas which are rural and where Taliban has control that girls’ schools are not allowed.
Unlike Kunduz, in northern districts of Helmand, including Musa Qala, Baghran, and Kajaki, girls are also not allowed to go to mosque schools or madrassas. A former Taliban fighter from Musa Qala told Human Rights Watch:
Girls cannot go to the mosque, forget about [girls] studying in a madrassa and school. The Taliban have said this. The Taliban do not allow even small girls to go mosque to study, even though [they would do so for studying] the Quran and other religious [subjects].
A teacher from Kajaki confirmed this: “I have two daughters and one son. My son goes to madrassa, and I teach the Quran to [my daughters] in the morning and evening.”
Taliban Arguments against Girls’ Education in Helmand
Some local Taliban commanders, particularly in the south, adhere to a local tribal social code, from which many of the restrictions on women’s movement and education in Afghanistan originate.
Interviews by Human Rights Watch and others suggest that Taliban officials and commanders in Helmand, most of whom are from villages in rural areas of the province, oppose girls’ schools, as do ordinary Taliban members. Most come from parts of Helmand, where because of local social norms, there had never been girls’ schools. However, some Taliban commanders in Helmand see themselves as entitled to make their own decisions based on their interpretation of Islam rather than to listen to the pronouncements of others. As one Taliban commander said:
We [the Taliban] obey those orders that are based on Islam and Sharia [Islamic law], and if it is against Islam and Sharia, we do not obey the orders. If our leaders allow girls’ education, we disagree, and we would not accept their orders.
Another commander told us that the current ban on girls’ education in Helmand is justified because the “leaders ordered us to open [schools] but only boys’ schools. There is no mention or even discussion of girls’ schools in Musa Qala because we do not need girls’ education right now.” At the same time, as one fighter said, “If our leaders and commanders allow girls’ schools, we would not say anything because we obey the orders of our leaders.”
Even if the leadership wanted to implement a uniform approach to girls’ education, it likely would not want to confront powerful provincial commanders on this issue, at least so long as the war is ongoing.
A local university student said that when he raised the question of girls’ education with the Taliban in Sangin:
I thought that they would beat me up. They said whoever sends their women to school and education actually do not care about their women’s honor and is [an] apostate. They said that schools should be targeted.
Taliban officials and fighters in Helmand have offered a variety of explanations for girls not being allowed to attend school, many of which are at odds with official statements made by the Taliban leadership.
Conditions “Are Not Right”
In interviews with Human Rights Watch, Taliban commanders said that current war conditions did not allow for girls’ education. One Taliban member said the issue was not a priority because “right now, the situation is dominated by fighting.… [We] should do jihad.” A Taliban commander from Gereshk said:
Women going to school in the current time has no justification from an Islamic point of view, because this is not the time that our women should go to schools; [as] the present condition is war. These kinds of [activities], like women’s education, have no importance right now. Infidels invaded our country, so we should do jihad against them. When Afghanistan is liberated, we will make a plan for girls’ schools if people want our girls to go to school.
A member of the Taliban education commission in Helmand maintained that when the “right time” comes and the Taliban can implement strict regulations governing schools, then girls’ schools will be possible. Local residents have also heard these arguments from the Taliban.
Local Taliban officials in Helmand have claimed that local communities have not asked for girls’ schools and that in the future they would accommodate girls’ education if there is demand. A senior Taliban education official explained the official position this way to Human Rights Watch:
At the time when Taliban captures the entire Afghanistan then it is possible to create a system in which women in hijab go back and forth to study [school]. Their honor will be preserved [by going in hijab].
In the 1990s, Taliban officials also said that their prohibition on education for women and girls was temporary, pending the establishment of a Taliban government throughout Afghanistan—a view that leaves little room for negotiation with the Afghan government and other actors.
“Foreigners’ Influence” on Education
Some Taliban officials in Helmand portray the approach taken by international donors and the Afghan government as being out of line with Islamic norms and Afghan culture, by which they seem to mean the culture of rural areas of Helmand. They imply that it is not girls’ education itself that they find objectionable, but the way it has been promoted and implemented by the Afghan government. A Taliban commander from Gereshk told Human Rights Watch: “Foreigners and the [Afghan] state have been trying to open girls’ schools so that they can [create] a similar mentality [in women] like theirs.”
Another Taliban commander in Gereshk said that, “Women’s education is to be banned until the time that Americans are no longer here [in Afghanistan] because we do not have control of our country and our country is occupied.” A Taliban fighter claimed:
Women getting an education in the current conditions is narawa [not allowed], because we saw that Americans would go to our girls' schools. There they would talk to our girls, and they would give schools' bags and games, and also took pictures with them. They would sit with our female teachers in one office and would talk to them.
School and Work for Women
Some Taliban commanders try to justify the ban by saying that allowing girls to attend school could lead to other unwanted demands from women, such as getting jobs and working alongside men. One told Human Rights Watch:
In the end when they finish school, they [women] work with men at the same place, and even for outsiders they [women] do not cover their faces and sit at the same office.
In Helmand, where most non-agricultural jobs are in the civil service, work would also mean working for the government or NGOs. A fighter said:
As we do not allow our women to work, then what is the benefit of studying?.... [Women] who go to school in order to work tomorrow in government or NGOs, we would not let them [women] do that. Therefore, it is not good to allow girls to study at schools.
A Taliban commander speculated that:
Maybe in the future, some people might want their daughter and sister to become a doctor or a teacher but not in the current conditions. Those conditions require that girls’ schoolteachers are only female and likewise at the university where all the teachers for girls are female. Males and females should not study together.
Lack of Women Teachers and Threats
In explaining their resistance to girls’ schools, some Taliban mix ideological reasons with practical ones, especially the lack of female teachers. In government-held areas, government officials have acknowledged that female teachers are critical in encouraging families to send girls to school. Afghanistan has long suffered from a lack of teachers, and female teachers in particular, especially in rural areas.
The number of female teachers is at or above 40 percent of the total only in a few large cities. In Helmand, only 19 percent of teachers in government schools are women. According to Daud Shah Safari, the head of the Department of Education in Helmand province, as of early 2019, 11,135 boys and 1,424 girls attended school in Taliban-held Nad-e Ali district, taught by 153 male and 4 female teachers. After the district fell to the Taliban, the ministry shifted its female teacher positions to other provinces.
Local officials’ resistance to outsiders, and social norms that prevent women from traveling outside their homes or communities or from living alone, also keep women from other areas from being employed as teachers.
In some cases, Taliban officials have pressured teachers to leave the area apparently because they have taught English classes and are seen as government supporters. S.A. was a teacher at a school in Gereshk district in Helmand province. In October 2019, Taliban officials stopped him from going to school and accused him of meeting with government officials. According to a relative of S.A.:
The local Taliban officials were already suspicious of [S.A.] because he shaved his beard and in late 2019, he added afterschool English lessons for his students. The Taliban arrested him. They beat him and released him in the Nahr-e Seraj desert. They told him if he returns to the school, they will kill him. They also told the headmaster of the school that if the English language course continued, they would burn the school.
S.A. left the school and moved to Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
In 2019, M.W. began teaching Pashto, English, and mathematics to girls in her home-based classes in a village in Gereshk. She also asked the government to build a school in the village. After some villagers reported her, the local Taliban officials took M.W.’s husband, A.W., into custody and told him to stop the classes. He ignored the threat and M.W. continued to teach. After that, the Taliban warned A.W.’s father to tell A.W. to move away from the village. The family decided to move to a government-held district center, where M.W. now teaches.
Taliban Education Policy in Wardak Province
The capital of Wardak province lies along a strategic highway linking Kabul (40 kilometers to the east) with Kandahar (450 kilometers to the south). The Taliban gained influence in Wardak province from 2007 amid power struggles among rival militias.
By 2009, the Taliban had considerable control over much of the Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern districts of the province, and threatened the highway to Bamiyan to the north where they attacked civilian and commercial transport. The Taliban also reportedly exploited local land disputes between ethnic Hazaras and Kuchis to gain the latter’s support. Disillusionment with government corruption and electoral fraud, and abuses by US forces—including a series of killings of civilians in 2012—fueled Taliban recruitment.
Wardak has few urban areas. After 2002, schools opened in many districts. By 2003, primary school enrollment was 75 percent for boys and 25 percent for girls. As elsewhere in Afghanistan, there has been resistance in many rural communities to girls’ schools. One tribal elder told Human Rights Watch:
We did not have a girls’ schools before ... During President [Hamid] Karzai’s time, schools were slowly established. These schools were in local mosques. There is a mosque in Akhundkhail where girls studied until ninth grade.When the Taliban came to power [in the area], the Taliban allowed girls’ schools [only] up to sixth grade.
As the Taliban re-emerged in Wardak province in 2006-2007 and gained control of districts, they closed down most schools—including boys’ schools. Since then their position on girls’ schools has varied from district to district, depending on when they took power and on the views of individual commanders. Another tribal elder said that:
In Shneez Dara village, during the first four years of President Karzai’s term, girls were able to go to school. After that, the schools were closed down. Since then, there is no school. For example, the Ansarullah elementary has been closed since the fourth year of President Karzai’s first term.
Some districts, such as Chak and Sayedabad, went back and forth between government and Taliban control. Each time the Afghan government reassumed control the schools opened and then closed when the Taliban returned. A teacher from Chak district described his two daughters’ access to education in that period:
My two daughters, their school was open from 2003 to 2005 or 2006. They received an education and now they can read and write. But since the closure of the girls’ school for the last 13 or 14 years, the girls have not gone to school in our area.
Another teacher said that his daughters had intermittent access to schools:
In our area, the Taliban closed down the girls’ school. After five or six years the army came and set up check-posts around our villages. Then the girls’ schools reopened. My daughters were in school. They studied until third grade, then the school was closed down by Taliban again. [Since then] they have been left out of education.
A teacher in Chak district said that a girls’ primary school has been transformed into a boys’ school due to pressure from community elders and the Taliban:
At the beginning of the Karzai government  … the Naswan Goda primary school [was founded]. The Taliban came in around 2007 or 2008. [They] burned down the tents of this school. Despite [this], the teachers continued to take salaries and claimed that they taught the students [girls] in their homes. In 2015, elders told the teachers and people from the Education Ministry that the Taliban would not allow girls to come to school.… The elders suggested that they recruit boys for this girls’ school. That is what the officials did. So, for the last five years, this school is functioning but only boys’ study there. The name, however, is still Naswan Goda, which means ‘Goda’s Girls’ Primary School,’ but actually only boys attend it.
While Taliban officials often refer to a grade limit for girls in school, a girl’s physical age and appearance often play a more important role. Within conservative communities, families are more likely to stop girls who look older or are taller than their peers from attending school. An elder from Sayedabad district said:
Due to these limitations [age and appearance], people fast-track girls to finish as many classes as they can before they reach—or appear to reach—the age that they would be forbidden not only from going to school but also from going outside.
In rare cases, girls are allowed to study up to seventh and even eighth grades. This appears to be either because the Taliban do not know, or the girls have not yet reached an age where they look too old to go to school.A resident of Chak district said:
Girls who reach puberty when they are older than 10 years are told not to come to school. It is not about the grade, but about the girl’s age. If the girl looks older—too old to come out of the house—she is not allowed to come for education.
Individual Taliban commanders play a crucial role in any Taliban policy. For example, schools have opened in some areas because the Taliban commanders of the area allow it. An elder in Sayedabad said:
Some Taliban are not against girls’ education. For example, N.A., who is a key Taliban commander, went to university, studied English language, and is not against education irrespective of whether it is boys’ or girls’ education. He is also from [here] and he cares about his area.
In areas where the local commander is against education, schools have closed. The teacher in Chak said:
Until early 2019, the Taliban did not allow female education in … Wardak province. However, there were girls’ schools … mainly run by NGOs. However, some of these NGO-run girls’ [schools] were also closed because the [commanders] did not allow girls’ education or teachers to get salaries from NGOs.
Some Taliban tolerate programs run by NGOs, even though they do not allow those run by the Afghan government. An elder in Sayedabad said:
The Taliban allow the [NGO] literacy learning programs, but so far, they have not allowed girls’ schools funded by the Afghan government. Although there were some problems with NGO-run literacy programs, the Taliban still prefers them.
In some districts, the presence of these NGO programs seems to have led to a shift in policy. Since early 2019, some Taliban officials have said that girls can go to school up to sixth grade. One teacher said that although Taliban officials first stipulated that only women could teach girls, because there were very few female teachers, men began teaching in girls’ schools.
The Taliban district official responsible for education in Chak district has openly discussed supporting girls’ education up to sixth grade and vowed to get funding and support to open girls’ primary schools. The teacher in Chak said:
[The official] told me, ‘You are an elder so I will appoint you as the girls’ teacher.’ I told him that … I could teach the girls from my village–I would not go to another village because of fuel expenses.… So, he asked one, two, or even three teachers from boys’ schools, saying he wanted to open girls’ schools … I can assure you that girls’ elementary schools are allowed since early 2019, be it in Siyaoo or Arabon or Chak. [But] only primary school exists for girls; no girls’ schools above sixth grade. In fact, the Taliban say that if a girl is older [i.e., puberty], we do not allow her in girls’ schools even if she studies in the first grade.
Schools and literacy programs run by NGOs often remain open even when other girls’ schools are closed. The tribal elder said that, “Only the [accelerated] literacy program run by [an international NGO] exists. For example, in Lar and Bar [village], there is one class in each area. Girls come to these classes, only first or second grade.”
The apparently arbitrary implementation of policies based on individual commanders’ views has left residents wary. One teacher said: “Today, [a Taliban commander] tells you that they allow girls up to sixth grade, but tomorrow, when someone else comes instead, he might not like girls’ education.” Residents also fear retaliation if they allow girls to go to school: “Right now, we heard the Taliban said small girls can go to school until sixth grade. But people still do not have the courage to open the girls’ school yet.”
In some districts Taliban authorities have threatened teachers and principals for working in girls’ schools where they have banned them, particularly when the teachers come from areas under government control. A teacher described what happened when the Taliban captured most of the area around a school in Wardak that had been in a government-held area: “The principal, A.M., was taken by the Taliban after they closed down his school. He was held for 10 to 15 days because he was running a girls’ school in late 2019.”
“Vice and Virtue” and Other Restrictions
When the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s, the Ministry of Enforcement of Virtue and Suppression of Vice (al-Amr bi al-Ma'ruf wa al-Nahi `an al-Munkir) was arguably the most powerful agency in the government and was responsible for the enforcement of all Taliban decrees regarding moral behavior. The ministry banned playing music and watching television. Outside their homes, women and teenaged girls were required to be covered entirely by a burqa and accompanied by a mahram—a male member of their family. Men were required to have beards. The Taliban police frequently beat those who failed to comply.
The Taliban also banned most women’s employment outside the home. Before the Taliban took control of Kabul, women accounted for 70 percent of all teachers, about 50 percent of civil servants, and an estimated 40 percent of medical workers. Because female health professionals were exempted from the ban, many NGOs and UN agencies reclassified their female employees as health workers to get around restrictions. Even with the exemption, travel restrictions, such as the burqa and mahram requirements, deterred 150 female staff in Kabul's women’s hospital from working; only 50 remained there under the Taliban. Before June 1998, women were treated in women-only wards of public hospitals.
As the Taliban has gained control of districts across Afghanistan, “vice and virtue” officials again have a role in enforcing social norms. While implementation is inconsistent and communities have managed to push back against some restrictions, what has not changed is that in most areas there are few ways for communities to challenge Taliban policies, air grievances, or seek redress.
The Taliban’s experience in provinces like Helmand, where the rural population generally wears traditional dress, has influenced their approach to local variations in dress and appearance elsewhere in Afghanistan. In Kunduz province, particularly in more urban areas, and to some extent in Wardak, men (but very seldom women) sometimes wear more Western clothes. As the Taliban has gained control of districts in these provinces, some residents have switched back to more traditional clothes to avoid facing threats or punishment by the Taliban.
Vice and Virtue and Other Restrictions in Helmand
As they have gained control of more areas of Afghanistan since 2016, the Taliban have again created structures to oversee community behavior, using a mixture of enforcement and outreach to try to justify the measures and ensure community compliance.
Enforcement varies among communities. Enforcement is more lenient in areas where the Taliban’s control is not absolute and where the population is ethnically mixed. In Helmand, enforcement became gradually stricter as the Taliban consolidated control and punishments for infractions grew more severe.
Within a few months of taking control of a district In Helmand, the Taliban designated a local commission to enforce the social code. In Musa Qala they did not establish such a commission until 2019, and then expanded to Gereshk, Sangin, and Kajaki districts. The commission functions to “ensure that people are not shaving or trimming their beards, listening to music, [carrying out] bacha bazi, and other actions that are against Sharia.” Its members patrol communities; they usually give a warning, but in some cases detain people for offenses. The level of authority the commission wields depends on the extent of control the Taliban has in the area.
When local “Vice and Virtue” commissions were first established, local military commanders controlled them. But since 2019, Taliban authorities have introduced civilian members to police community behavior, while still granting military commanders the powers to stop and beat anyone for offenses, like shaved beards or listening to music. In general there is close collaboration between a district’s military commanders and the local “Vice and Virtue” staff to carry out inspections and enforce regulations.
The Taliban appoint local imams to monitor people and report infractions. A former Taliban fighter said:
If someone is not offering prayer, does not come to mosque, shaves his beard, [gets involved with] dog-fighting … or playing music, then it is the job of the imam of this area to tell [the Vice and Virtue department]. He [the imam of the mosque] is then responsible for reporting on the offenders.
By connecting the imams with the civilian and military staff of the Vice and Virtue commission, the Taliban have established a broader base of informants and those authorized to carry out punishments. According to another former Taliban fighter:
In Musa Qala, in early 2019 the Taliban summoned all mullahs and told them that if in your mosques there is a person that does something which is against Sharia, you [the imams] are responsible. You need to tell us about this person.
Restrictions on Women’s Dress and Movement
The Taliban leadership is largely from areas of rural Afghanistan where women seldom leave the home. If they need to see a doctor or visit family, they would be accompanied by a male member of the family.
Taliban authorities in Helmand have pressured minority communities that do not normally observe these customs to prevent women from moving outside their homes. A Taliban commander told Human Rights Watch:
[In Nad-e Ali] there is a village populated by [a certain] tribe. Women in this village do not cover their faces. When the Taliban captured that area, the women still came out of their home and walked around without covering the faces. At that time, a key Taliban commander warned the tribe it would not be allowed for the local women to go outside of the houses, especially not without covering their faces, [and if they did] then [the Taliban] would take action. [So] the women stopped going outside.
Some local religious leaders have promoted the restriction against women’s freedom of movement, saying that women “going out of the house without extreme necessity is narawa [forbidden].” In Helmand the Taliban apply these restrictions on women in all areas under their control, including female teachers, NGOs, or medical staff who come from outside these districts to work. A local resident who is close to the Taliban said that “female doctors who work in clinics in Taliban-controlled areas are not allowed to move around [outside the clinic].” With these restrictions imposed on all women it has become difficult for clinics in Taliban-controlled areas to recruit qualified staff, thereby depriving local women of access to medical services.
Restrictions on Smartphones, Memory Cards, and Music
In Helmand, the Taliban have prohibited smartphones, they insist, to prevent residents from listening to music and watching videos. A tribal elder described an incident he witnessed in March 2019:
The Taliban were standing on the main road, conducting searches. M.E., a local resident, was stopped at this search point by the Taliban. He had a smartphone with him and also a WhatsApp application that was active on it. The Taliban not only broke his phone, but also beat him for having a smartphone.
Residents of Taliban-held districts in Helmand have said that the Taliban have increasingly been on the lookout for people listening to music and other prohibited things. In early 2019, a Taliban patrol raided a shop in a mobile bazaar in Gereshk district. A young resident said: “They destroyed three computers because of music and movies inside them.… A lot of people no longer bring their computers there fearing the Taliban would destroy them.”
Similarly, cellphone memory cards are also no longer allowed in Helmand province. A resident of Gereshk said that the “Taliban openly announced in mosques that memory cards are banned in their control area [because] the youth listen to music, watch movies and video clips on memory cards in their phones and Mp3 players.
The ban on memory cards and music is not limited to public use. A businessman from Sangin said that in March 2019 he had guests from Kandahar in his home. “The guests played music on their Mp3 and also smoked hashish. Suddenly, the Taliban showed up; they destroyed our Mp3 and also beat the guests.” A Gereshk resident said the restrictions had become harsher:
Four years ago, the Taliban did not get upset about listening to music in a room or somewhere far away, but for the last three years, Taliban had become more restrictive on this issue as well as regarding shaving beards, having long hair, playing cards, dogfighting, and having smartphones.
In many parts of northern Helmand, the Taliban prohibit possession of televisions. In some cases, the Taliban have made punishments very public, apparently as a way to reinforce their authority, even for relatively minor infractions. A youth from Helmand described an incident he witnessed:
The Taliban get very upset if they find a TV in your house. One hundred percent they would beat someone if they caught that person with a television and dish.… One of our neighbors had a TV along with a dish antenna.…The Taliban then took our neighbor to the side of the river, where the Taliban severely beat him.
However, in some areas people still secretly watch TV and listen to the radio. For example, because Nad-e Ali district is not far from the provincial capital, Lashkargah, residents are within range of the signal.
Restrictions Related to Men’s Dress Code and Appearance
In Helmand, the Taliban’s enforcement of a dress code has reportedly also become stricter in northern districts as their control over the area has expanded. A resident in Gereshk described restrictions on any clothing that resembled clothes worn by government security forces:
Last Eid, the Taliban announced that people should not wear clothes that have embroidery on sleeves and should not wear red hats. During Eid, the Taliban were searching along the main roads looking for violations of these new restrictions. In the Spin Masjid area, the Taliban then started cutting up people’s brand-new clothes they had received for Eid, just because of the embroidery on sleeves. The Taliban enforced the ban on red hats because local ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] and militia used to wear such red hats.
The Taliban also monitor men’s beards and have imposed harsh punishments in some cases for violators. A tribal elder from Gereshk described their enforcement of this rule:
Every Wednesday, there is a mobile bazaar by the name of Shana Jama [in Gereshk district]. People from across Helmand come to this bazaar for shopping. This area is under the Taliban control; therefore, most of the time, they put up check post for controlling all the vehicles coming to the mobile bazaar. The Taliban are also looking out for people who have [trimmed or] shaved beards. During last week's mobile bazaar, the Taliban found three people with shaved beards from Lashkargah. The Taliban beat them severely in front of the entire crowd.
Another local resident said that the Taliban had stopped him in the Gereshk district.
They asked me in front of everyone to come to them—they called me ‘sister’ because I did not have a beard. They beat me a little and then let me leave. But they warned me to not shave my bread again in order to not get beaten again. They said there would be no excuse or clemency anymore.
Punishing Family Members
As part of their stricter approach to enforcing restrictions in Helmand, the Taliban have also punished family members or other relatives in order to demonstrate their power. This abuse is a form of collective punishment in violation of international law.
Throughout Helmand it is common for extended families to have some relatives working for both the Taliban and the ANSF or other government offices. The Taliban have reportedly become more emboldened in their use of relatives to put pressure on families to leave the ANSF, to stop work for the government or NGOs and even for women to give up their jobs as teachers or healthcare workers. The Taliban often pressure or punish a relative or fellow tribesman if they cannot reach the offender directly. Infractions include having a relative working for the Afghan government who is beyond the reach of the Taliban, but whose relatives are not. One elder gave an example:
In Deh Adam Khan [Gereshk district], there was a man, M.S., whose sister was living in Gereshk [center]. The sister’s sons were with the police. The Taliban found out about and forced M.S. to leave Deh Adam Khan within three days. They said, ‘You are police’s spy.’
M.S. has not been able to return. Another resident said:
Those who are in Taliban-controlled areas cannot openly say that their friends and relatives are in the government [or working] as [Afghan army] soldiers or police. Nor can [someone] whose relatives are in the police go to see them … they would have to come secretly to meet their relatives. If the Taliban finds out that someone went … and had baa-n-daar [meeting or hanging out] with soldiers or went there to check on them, then that person is in trouble and the Taliban would not let go of this person.
Relations with Aid Organizations
As the Taliban have increasingly sought to present themselves as a government, they have increasingly overseen education, health, and other services and interact with aid organizations. However, residents in Helmand describe continuing threats by the Taliban against NGOs, particularly if they receive foreign aid or are involved in government contracts in other parts of the country. The Taliban sometimes block organizations from operating by claiming they are gathering intelligence to be used against them. In addition, when the Taliban request humanitarian aid to be delivered to areas under their control, they place restrictions on the organizations in order to monitor and control their activities.
Demining organizations have been a particular target of threats because the work involves removing Taliban-planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs). A former Taliban commander provided an example:
[Two men] were working for a mining clearing organization [in Gereshk district]. The Taliban sent them a warning to leave the job, or else their safety could not be guaranteed. They both moved their house from Malgir [which is under the Taliban control] to Lashkar Gha and rented a house there. They live there now and continue to work in the mine clearing organization … but the Taliban have warned them they if they are caught, they will ‘deal with them’ [punish them].
The Taliban have also carried out abductions of humanitarian workers, deminers, and healthcare workers. For example, on September 14, 2019, in Samangan province, a group of armed Taliban fighters abducted five local staff members of an international demining agency. They released them on September 30. In another incident on October 16, 2019, in Daikundi province, the Taliban abducted two male polio vaccinators and then released them three days later following the mediation of community elders.
Vice and Virtue and Other Restrictions in Kunduz
When the Taliban first re-emerged as a significant force in Kunduz province around 2008, they promulgated a number of wide-ranging restrictions in areas under their control. These included prohibiting any cooperation with Afghan government officials, international forces, and even development organizations. At the same time, they were more lenient on social restrictions, such as listening to music, having a television and smartphones, and shaving beards. If these behaviors were done quietly and out of sight, the Taliban would often ignore them. That has changed as the Taliban’s control over Kunduz has grown.
The Taliban in Kunduz have gradually implemented successive waves of restrictions on local communities in proportion to their level of control and the community’s capacity to resist. After 2015, when the Taliban gained substantial control in many Kunduz districts, the Taliban expanded these restrictions. Some were aimed at gaining community support by targeting criminal behavior such as bacha bazi and thereby providing justice for victims, which the government had largely failed to do, while also inspiring fear, since punishments were often brutal and swift. They increased the number of restrictions and created a more systematic way to define policies and punishments, and police the community. This effort was aimed at reducing differences between districts and commanders, as well as delineating responsibilities. According to a Chara Dara resident:
If the [Taliban] military comes across a place where they see something against Sharia, they can stop it but they cannot beat [or punish] people, because that is the job of the vice and virtue [department]. The military personal can let the shadow Taliban governor or their line of command know about any situation they encounter and then implement whatever instruction they receive.
The Taliban officially established a vice and virtue department in Kunduz province in late 2017, although before that Taliban members were responsible for enforcing restrictions and punishments. A former member of the Vice and Virtue department in Kunduz explained that the job entailed:
Going to mosques to talk to imams and to also preach to locals about offering prayer on time and not do things that are against Sharia…. the Taliban will beat people if they would find them doing things against Sharia…. no permission from top officials is needed because this is our job—to preach Sharia and bring people to Sharia and punish those who do not obey Sharia.
According to an elder from Dasht-e Archi, there was no negotiating over punishments: “If one argued with Taliban over something they had banned and one was guilty of breaking the rules then they would beat the person very badly.”
The most common restrictions include a curfew starting at 9 p.m.; no smoking of cigarettes; no use of Salaam sim-cards (a government-owned small radius telecommunication network); no shaving of beards or having long hair for men; and a ban on television. A local elder added that neglecting mandatory attendance at prayer, playing of music, and anything “prohibited by Sharia” was banned.
There is also no possibility of negotiating over “tax” increases. As of 2019, the Taliban had also increased their collection of taxes in Kunduz, taking roughly 10 percent of farmers’ harvests. An elder from Chahar Dara said:
In the past, they would only take one or two bags … and leave the rest, but now they take 10 percent of everything now. It was only wheat [before] but now they levy tax on watermelon, tomatoes, and everything else that people grow in the district. The Taliban have told the elders not to complain. They say, ‘If you do it again, we will put you in a container and teach you a lesson.’
The ban on relations between residents and the Afghan government and most foreigners is at the core of the Taliban’s restrictions on communities. After the Taliban re-emerged in Kunduz they banned all relations, especially employment, with the Afghan government. A former civil servant described a threat he had received:
A Taliban member knocked on my door. As I came out, he beat with me the butt of his AK-47 [assault rifle]. He asked me why am I serving the infidels. I said that I distribute tazkiras [national identity documents] to everyone including the Taliban. He continued to beat me until another Taliban fighter saved me. He said being a tazkira distributor was okay with them. After a while I left the job because the Taliban became stricter and also prohibited tazkira distributors.
Dress Code, Appearance, and Attendance at Mosques
Kunduz residents expressed concern to Human Rights Watch about the presence of the Vice and Virtue department, fearing more restrictions on communities, including a stricter dress code. Virtually all women in Kunduz wear the hijab (generally a head scarf) in Taliban-controlled areas of Kunduz, and it is common in government-held areas of Kunduz as well. Local social norms do not keep women from leaving their homes. Unlike Helmand, in Kunduz the Taliban have not consistently monitored men’s beards and hair, with some commanders taking a stance on these issues while others do not. Many Taliban officials have largely acceded to local customs in Kunduz. However, a Taliban judge told Human Rights Watch that: “The Vice and Virtue department representatives come to the Turkman bazaar … where they stop and detain people who have shaved their beards.…The Taliban detain any violators for an hour or two.”
The Taliban have also become stricter about attendance in mosques at prayer times in some areas, tracking down and questioning those who do not show up. Local mullahs keep attendance sheets, according to an imam: “Now the majority of the community attend [for morning and evening prayer] because people are afraid of the Taliban.”
Television, Smartphones, Sim Cards, and Music
Starting in early 2016, the Taliban in Kunduz began restricting television and in 2017 they announced a complete ban in areas under their control. Despite the ban, local residents have continued to watch televisions in secret. Taliban officials have also searched people at checkpoints and beaten those in possession of Salaam SIM cards (a government-run telecommunications network). The Taliban have also banned playing music, but as with television, enforcement has been gradual. Warnings are issued but then escalate into punishment, which in some cases have included severe beatings.
Vice and Virtue and Other Restrictions in Wardak
In Wardak province, both military and civilian Taliban officials play a role in vice and virtue policing, including questioning, beating and even detaining people for offenses like haircuts deemed unacceptable and shaving beards off. Wardak’s Vice and Virtue police are less visible than in Helmand and Kunduz and implementation of restrictions is more uneven, possibly because the Taliban’s control over the province is less secure.
Restrictions for Women
In Wardak, unlike Helmand, women in rural areas generally travel outside their homes to work in the fields, fetch water, and wash clothes. However, in some villages, where there is a kariz (a traditional underground water system, well, or hand pump), the Taliban have told local elders to build walls around them. Said a local businessman:
In the Shash Kala, people do not have wells by their homes, so the women get water from the nearby kariz and also wash clothes there. The Taliban said that no one should see these women and therefore ordered the community to build walls and made it clear that men are not allowed around those places.
Although the Taliban have not explicitly prohibited women’s movement outside the home, residents have said that the general understanding is that some activities are restricted. Women now fear going to the bazaar without a male relative to accompany them. For visits to clinics the Taliban have said that women “should not come alone, they should have a man accompanying them.”
Some districts have also seen new restrictions. In Nerkh, Taliban officials stipulated that women must wear burqas, not just the black hijab customarily worn in the district. In Jalrez district, the Taliban first prohibited girls’ classes after sixth grade, then imposed other restrictions. In August-September 2019, the Taliban announced in local mosques that local women should wear blue burqas instead of hijabs and not wear sandals that expose the feet. Enforcement has been weak, however. One Jalrez resident said:
When my mother heard in August she should wear the burqa she said, ‘I have eye problems and with a burqa I cannot wear glasses.’ So far the Taliban has not come to us to tell us that my mother cannot wear a hijab.
Other Restrictions on Dress Code, Beards, Music, and Television
Restrictions on beards vary considerably by districts and even among Taliban officials.
A Wardak resident described an incident he witnessed:
The Taliban from the other side of the province stop and ask you, ‘Why have you shaved your beard? Why do you have this kind of haircut?’ The Taliban from our side just tell you to correct it but in those areas, where the Taliban are strong, they beat people for shaving their beards or having an unapproved haircut. They beat my two friends during the last Eid ul Adha [August 2019]. He told them having this haircut is not a sin, but the Taliban slapped him and said [the haircut] is copying those of the infidels.
By contrast, in Jalrez district the Taliban have taken a tougher position on beards and other aspects of appearance. In August 2019, residents said the Taliban had stopped them at check posts and warned them about “foreign-looking” haircuts and beards that were too short.
The Taliban appear to be particularly strict with teachers, warning them to “fix your character [according to Sharia] and appearance [beard, hair, and dress].” The restriction against wearing Western-style attire in public appears to be directed primarily against men. Prohibitions on other clothes, including caps and hats, are related to those associated with particular mujahidin factions. Displaying the Afghan flag, including clothing resembling the flag, is strictly banned and punished in Taliban-controlled areas.
In Wardak the Taliban have generally not restricted watching television. One resident said, everyone “can see dish antennas on rooftops, but the Taliban do not say anything.”
Although the Taliban attempted to ban smartphones after gaining significant territory in Wardak in 2016, they were unable to implement a ban and focused instead on memory cards. According to local residents, they stop people at check posts and search their phones for music. Over the past couple of years, the Taliban have been checking people’s phones at check posts. According to a tribal elder in Jalrez district, the local Taliban have taken a strict approach against music:
The Taliban don’t allow you to listen to music. They check your phones and even memory cards. They ask for passwords for the phone. If they find any songs, they break the phone and beat the owner. For example, my cousin had his headphones on. From behind a Taliban fighter tapped him on the shoulder and asked him about what he was listening to. My cousin said there is nothing. The Taliban fighter then took the headphones and heard the music. The Taliban fighter did not break his phone, but only broke his memory card, because the Taliban fighter knew his [my cousin’s] father.
When I was going to Jaghatu district [of Wardak] [in March-April 2019] the Taliban stopped us and took my phone. They checked the memory where they found a couple of songs. The Taliban told me, ‘Look at your beard and look these songs.’ They broke the memory card because of the songs.
A businessman in Sayedabad district explained that the Taliban also prohibit live traditional music at weddings, engagement parties, and other celebrations: “Music is not allowed, not even at wedding parties. Women play dayereh [a small frame drum] inside, so that people outside cannot hear it, [thus] the Taliban have not said anything [about this] yet.”
The Taliban in most districts of Wardak have also imposed restrictions on gatherings, notably majlas (nighttime social gatherings), ostensibly to prevent card-playing and other banned games, but also to exert control. Those who disobey risk “getting beaten for ignoring this restriction.”
In Wardak, the Taliban have established a system to regulate and collect “taxes” – the Islamic taxes of both zakat and usher, even in government-held areas. But, as in Kunduz, there is no possibility of negotiating over Taliban-imposed taxes. A local Taliban official said:
The Taliban appointed a responsible person for each area to collect usher and zakat, with one person being responsible for the whole district. No other person has the right or power to come and collect it. The person who collects issues a small note that certifies that one has paid usher to the Taliban.
The Taliban “have lists for each village and go from village to village, asking everyone how many apples they are harvesting. The Taliban would warn the farmers not to lie because they ask from other people as well, such as the merchant who buys the apples.” The Taliban also collect taxes from shops, charging 1,000–5,000 afghani [US$13-$65] per year for each shop.
Accountability: Addressing Community Grievances and Complaints
While the Taliban claim to hold their fighters and senior officials accountable for abuses, officials generally rebuff any criticism of their actions. Residents have expressed fear of retaliation if they complain about the way the Taliban carry out military operations or enforce restrictions. As a result, there are few ways for communities to engage with Taliban officials to register complaints. Taliban officials tend to view criticism as a challenge to their authority and evidence of affiliation with the government. The Taliban also strictly prohibit contacts between residents and Afghan government security forces and officials.
The Taliban system of accountability depends largely on the status and power of the commander in question, with senior leaders determining whether anyone among their ranks will be held accountable, and how. In some cases, residents have raised concerns directly with the Taliban provincial commission or district governor, and in some cases this has led the commission to disarm commanders because of complaints of abusive behavior, or overturn decisions by local commanders who have imposed arbitrary restrictions.
However, pressure from communities often plays little part in determining the outcome of a complaint against frontline commanders. The senior leadership is highly unlikely to do anything that would antagonize Taliban commanders and fighters deemed essential for the war effort.
Because criticizing the Taliban about military operations that harm communities is risky, residents typically refrain from advocating for their own protection. For example, the Taliban have punished residents who have complained about their forces entering civilians’ homes and firing on Afghan government troops from inside. Deploying forces in populated villages without taking all feasible precautions to protect civilians from attack is a violation of the laws of war. A Taliban judge in Helmand told Human Rights Watch that residents could not register complaints about this:
In areas of fighting, the [Taliban forces] shoot from people’s houses on enemy positions.… No one can complain because no one would listen. Neither the commanders nor the judges would listen.
In Wardak, Taliban commanders have punished people who have complained about Taliban fighters entering houses:
In late 2018, my cousin U.G. and M.H. were talking about Taliban fighting from their houses. They said this in front of a mosque with people around. Someone told the Taliban. Soon, a group of Talibs came and took them to a remote area with an empty house. All of the Taliban had covered their faces and then beat my cousin and M.H. badly.
When villagers complain about the Taliban putting them at risk, the Taliban commanders on the ground often tell them to make their complaints to the leaders. An elder in Musa Qala said:
If you ask me, the leaders would also side with [the field commanders]. They will tell you that since the Taliban are willing to sacrifice themselves, why can’t you leave one house?
Taliban commanders have not been reprimanded for causing civilian harm from IEDs. At most, local communities may receive a warning to avoid a certain area. According to residents in Gereshk, Helmand, the Taliban have reportedly increased efforts to let local residents know which roads they can safely use. However, a local businessman complained that “when [the Taliban] hide IEDs, they tell you not to go there, but when we plead with them not to place IEDs because we use the road, they do not listen to us.”
In April 2019, Taliban officials told Human Rights Watch that they had appointed representatives in each province to investigate allegations of civilian casualties and other complaints by civilians. They said they had installed “complaint boxes” in every district for people to use anonymously and had acted on complaints that roadside IEDs were impeding travel and hurting farmers and local businesses from reaching markets. They claimed they had removed more than 90 IEDs in Kandahar in response to such complaints.
The proximity of Afghan security forces to Taliban forces in frontline areas can heighten the risk to civilians. An elder in Wardak described an encounter that illustrates how local residents get caught between the Taliban and government forces:
In a nearby village, there are [Afghan army] check posts. The Taliban accused me of providing food and water to them … I was afraid. I contacted a friend who is a Taliban commander and he told me to go and tell them very emotionally that I cannot stop giving food and water because I am afraid of [the Afghan security forces]. Despite my explanation, the Taliban commander told me: ‘In the future you must think before providing food, tea and water. You do not have the right to complain—if you do this again you will be punished.’
The Taliban threatens local residents who provide any type of support to the Afghan government. At the same time, the Taliban use threats and force to demand food from local residents. A teacher in Chak district said that in some areas the Taliban’s provincial and district commissions have established a system:
Each house is forced to provide food when it is their turn. You cannot complain to anyone. The commission, which is the oversight body for any complaints against local commanders, says we must [do it]. We are compelled to, or they would beat us.
While providing food to strangers and guests is an essential part of local culture, community members say the Taliban has abused this hospitality because, “By force they ask for tea.” An elder said that refusing to give food was dangerous: “If you do not provide food … they would accuse you of something, then arrest you.”
The Taliban also punish residents for expressing criticism. A university student in Chak district said:
If you say the Taliban are not good people, they [Taliban] will beat you [and] accuse [you] of being government spy. They will detain you until community members and elders come and guarantee that you would not say that again.
Another resident described the arrest of a local man for criticizing the Taliban:
First, we heard the Taliban had arrested him for being a spy…. But that the actual reason was he had said critical things about the Taliban.
And a shopkeeper said: “If you want to talk about the Taliban’s deficiencies, you can do it in Kabul, but no one can [criticize] the Taliban, even in front of his own brother. The Taliban … will find out.”
Civil and Criminal Justice
Since 2008, the Taliban have established courts in Kandahar, Helmand, Herat, and other provinces, often overtaking or co-opting customary dispute-resolution mechanisms. The Taliban still allow traditional dispute resolution, so long as the elders in the community support them.
The Taliban’s judicial system has relied largely on local religious scholars to adjudicate civil cases, such as land disputes. As Taliban courts emerged in contested areas, they gained a reputation for swift decisions and incorruptibility compared to the Afghan government’s judiciary, where corruption is rife and cases have often languished for years.
Residents in Taliban-held areas do not have a choice between Taliban and government courts. According to a Taliban judge, as the Taliban have consolidated control they have also prohibited residents from using government courts:
All the disputes go to the Taliban. People do not have other options. Either solve your problem [yourself] or go to the Taliban. People cannot go to government or even elders for dispute resolution because the Taliban do not allow them to.
There are several levels of Taliban courts, from the district-level to provincial, as well as a tamiz court, an appeals court roughly equivalent to a constitutional court that does not re-examine the facts of a case but only interprets the relevant law. The tamiz court is located in Baluchistan, Pakistan. Local communities were already familiar with the Taliban court system; the Taliban judge said that between 2006 and 2012, residents of Taliban-controlled Helmand communities traveled to Pakistan for adjudication of serious disputes, mainly over land.
The Taliban provincial court in Helmand reportedly handles thousands of cases, both civil and criminal, per month. Local Taliban commanders carry out arrests on the orders of the Taliban shadow district governor, provincial governor, district military commission, or the head of the Taliban provincial commission. In frontline areas, commanders have more autonomy to order arrests. Arrests are generally based on complaints from the community or from Taliban commanders identifying misconduct, including infractions like listening to music.
The Taliban justice system is focused on punishment and largely relies on confessions, often obtained by beatings and other forms of torture. The swift administration of punishment for major crimes is a way for the Taliban to demonstrate their control and instill fear. Authorities sometimes execute those found guilty of murder within days. Corporal punishment for hudud crimes, serious offenses under Sharia, appears to be less frequent.
In a case documented by the UN, on January 19, 2019, Taliban officials in Adraskan district, Herat province, executed a man by hanging after a Taliban shadow court sentenced him to death. He had been convicted of murdering a man to steal his motorbike. The man had been in Taliban custody since early 2018 while his case proceeded through three Taliban courts.
Under Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, courts created by a party to the conflict, even if they are not recognized as legitimate by the state, are subject to the requirements for a fair trial. Such courts should offer “the essential guarantees of independence and impartiality.” These include: notifying the accused of the charges against them; having rights and means of defense; presumption of innocence; and no compelled self-incrimination. No trial should be held if these guarantees cannot be provided.
The Taliban court system deals with local disputes but not with the adjudication of political cases or disputes between commanders. For political cases, such as alleged spying, there are no official courts. Taliban military commanders are authorized to arrest anyone they deem suspicious, in particular persons who are believed to have ties with the Afghan government or are suspected of spying. Close to the front line, in particular areas under threat of airstrikes, commanders are more likely to carry out summary punishments, including executions.
Elders in Musa Qala told Human Rights Watch that Taliban commanders have detained “dozens of people” from the area they accuse of having ties with the government. One elder said that in some cases the bodies of people the Taliban detained have been found, but the fate of others remains unknown:
In a nearby village, there was a farmer living. After local people rumored that he was Daesh [Islamic State] in early 2016 the Taliban arrested him. Since then we do not know where he is. Normally when the Taliban kill someone, they put their bodies close to a road so that their families can come and collect it for burial, but we have not seen his body yet.
A shopkeeper in Gereshk said, “In areas where fighting was going on, from time to time we would find dead bodies of local people we recognized but also of outsiders. We could not say anything against this because the Taliban would kill us too.”
Among those the Taliban have targeted have been members of government-backed militias like the Sangoryan. Local residents referred to the Taliban units who carry out these operations as “KhAD,” a reference to the secret police responsible for arrests and torture during the Soviet occupation.
One incident involved Abdul, who had served as a police officer in another province but had returned to his home village in Gereshk during the Eid ceasefire of [June] 2018. Local residents in the village immediately reported his presence to the Taliban, who captured him and took him [to a village in the district]. A witness described what happened:
Abdul was brought by four or five Taliban members to a village, where his hands were tied and he was forced to the ground. One Taliban fighter sat on his head and the other one sat on his legs, and they beat him with cables. His screams could be heard all over the village. They beat him to the point where he lost consciousness twice—dunking him in a water bucket in between. During the beating Abdul shouted, ‘I have left the police, and I will not associate with the police again.’ During the beating, a Taliban member grabbed an AK-47, loaded it, and told Abdul, ‘I will kill you if you do not give a proper confession and now is the time that you pray for yourself.’ Abdul started begging for his life, ‘Do not kill me, I am separated from my father, and I have a wife and child, and there is no one else to take care of them.’ The Taliban laughed at him and through a walkie-talkie a Taliban commander gave the order to kill Abdul.
Abdul begged the witness to release him, but he told him, “The Taliban will not listen to me.” The Taliban then beat Abdul with an AK-47, took him out of the room, and transported him on a motorcycle a little farther to the local hillside. The witness said, “I heard Abdul’s screams, and after some time shots were fired [we knew] Abdul had been killed.”
The Taliban had three accusations against Abdul: spying for Sangoryan, working with the police in an ambush against the Taliban, and collaborating with other informants against the Taliban. Only the Taliban commander who gave the order and the men who captured him were involved in deciding what to do with Abdul; such a case would not go before a Taliban judge.
In another case of alleged spying, Mir, a resident of Gereshk, was killed because of his family’s association with the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a government-backed militia. Through the first months of 2018, the Taliban had planted roadside IEDs targeting the ALP. As they were from the area, Mir’s relatives frequently discovered the IED locations and would inform their superiors. Because of this, the Taliban suspected Mir of being a government spy. When he learned of this, Mir left the Taliban-controlled area for four months. At the end of Ramadan [mid-June 2018], he decided that it was safe to return to his home village for a few days. The Taliban found out that he had returned and took him into custody. According to a former Taliban fighter who was a witness:
Mir was taken to the Shurakai area north of Gereshk, where he was restrained and beaten for three hours but did not confess. We made him sit in the car and took him to Qala-e-Yagz, a Taliban prison. He was killed during the night and later on his dead body was disposed of in a nearby wheat field. The Taliban told people that Mir had been shot when he tried to escape while being taken to the doctor.
Although the Taliban apparently accused Mir of being an informant, he appears to have been summarily executed because of his family affiliation.
The Taliban’s district governor is the focal point for local communities to register civil complaints and criminal charges. After accepting a complaint, the district governor has the authority to order an arrest and refer the case to a judge. However, some district governors act as judges themselves, giving them more authority in the disposition of cases.
While the Taliban justice system is reputed to be less corrupt than the government system, many commanders continue to play a role in influencing non-political and civil cases. Residents in Kajaki said that commanders sometimes apply pressure on judges for a favorable decision and that “some cases come quickly before the judge because one of the Taliban commanders asked him to look into them,” and that “judges address the commander’s or their relatives’ cases before others.”
Besides asking for preferential treatment, some commanders have pushed to get cases moved from one judge or court to another to get a more favorable outcome; moving a case to a different judge or court is almost impossible for civilians. One local elder cited as an example the case of Taliban commander T.L., who reportedly received a bribe in exchange for interceding with the judge to get a suspect released. “T.L. used to have nothing,” the elder said. “Now he owns motorbikes and cars.”
The Taliban run dozens of unacknowledged prisons for people detained as spies and for abducted government officials in areas under their control. Prisoners may be held for extended periods of time, which are not disclosed at the time of sentencing. Residents and former prisoners said that uncertainty about the length of the sentence is part of the punishment. One former prisoner said:
The judge did not tell me how along I would be in prison. I spent six months in their prison in Helmand province. I saw people in the prison who had spent far more time there and still did not know when they would be released.
In May 2019, the UN expressed concern about ill-treatment of detainees in Taliban prisons, saying that prisoners who had been freed during government security force operations gave “credible accounts of Taliban subjecting detainees to ill-treatment and actions that may amount to torture, as well as serious allegations that some detainees were killed. Reports also indicate that detainees were held in poor conditions and made to do forced labour.”
The Taliban maintain a women’s prison in Kajaki district in Helmand. However, when the courts convict women they often return them to the custody of their families rather than sentence them to prison.
Women and the Judicial System
Women have access to Taliban courts, and either represent themselves or have male family members represent them. In Helmand, for example, some women have appeared in Taliban courts, while others do not do so because of family pressure not to be seen outside the home. Women who approach the courts are most often older women who have achieved a certain status within the family and community that allows them to leave their home without fear of disapproval, or women who have nobody to represent them. In some frontline areas, the Taliban have specified that women should send male representatives instead of appearing in court themselves.
The most frequent disputes women bring to the courts are related to property, inheritance rights, and divorce. In a 2019 study of Taliban courts, women who were interviewed in Herat and Faryab (and who said they had achieved a satisfactory outcome) said that they believed they would not have achieved justice from state or customary mechanisms.
Taliban courts also hear a small number of domestic violence cases, but generally defer to local customs and pressure the parties to resolve such disputes at home. This approach mirrors the deficiencies of government courts that press women to pursue mediation within the family rather than prosecution, an approach that leaves women and girls with no recourse but to “forgive” their abusers and continue to live in the same household and, often, continue suffering violence. As a Helmand resident observed, it is unlikely that “the Taliban would arrest someone who has beaten his wife or any other female member of the house.” In such cases, the Taliban district governor would normally press the relatives to resolve the problem in the home, and for the woman to drop any complaint.
Taliban courts have also imposed harsh punishments for “moral crimes,” including zina, the offense of sexual intercourse by two individuals who are not married to each other. The vagueness inherent in allegations of zina makes it easy for a husband or father angered by a woman or girl fleeing from home to allege that she has committed or intended to commit zina, especially if she was in the presence of a man who is not a relative. In such cases, the Taliban have sentenced the accused to cruel punishments that include lashing and, in some cases, execution.
The UN documented three cases in which Taliban courts sentenced women to lashing for committing adultery or having “immoral relationships” with men. In a November 2019 case in Kohistan, Faryab, Taliban officials charged a man and woman with “elopement” after the woman fled from an abusive situation in her home. According to the UN, the woman’s husband had forced her out of their home after he married a second wife. A Pajhwok media report claimed she was fleeing domestic violence and had sought the assistance of another man to appeal to the Taliban district authorities. The Taliban arrested the man and women and the court sentenced her to death. According to one villager, her father and brother, who were Taliban members, carried out the sentence, fatally shooting her. The involvement of the woman’s family members in the killing makes it likely this was a so-called honor killing—murder of women by their own families—sanctioned by the Taliban. The Taliban sentenced the man whom she had asked for help to 40 lashes.
To the Taliban Leadership:
- Uphold the right of girls and boys to education in all areas through secondary level and higher education, including college or university, and issue clear orders to all commanders not to obstruct the functioning of schools.
- Issue orders that fighters are to avoid occupying or otherwise using schools for military purposes.
- Prohibit all attacks on schools unless they are currently being used for military purposes. Teachers are civilians not subject to attacks, threats, or detention.
- Work with donors and community-based education providers to expand community-based schools in all areas and promote these schools in communities where families resist sending children, especially girls, to school.
On Protecting Civilians
- Take all necessary measures to protect civilians under Taliban control from the effects of attacks. Avoid deploying, to the extent feasible, within densely populated areas.
- Establish comprehensive measures for residents to register complaints (beyond complaint boxes) and widely publicize these. Ensure that complainants can use them without fear of punishment.
On Social Restrictions
- Issue clear orders that women may travel without a male family member and ensure protection for female health workers to travel outside clinics to visit women who may be unwilling to leave their homes.
- Cease all threats and attacks on the media.
- Abolish restrictions on smartphone use and access to the internet and television.
- Cease all acts of intimidation, harassment, and summary punishment of residents who have criticized Taliban policies.
- End all summary punishments for people who have violated local regulations regarding dress and appearance, playing of music, and other behavior that is protected by international human rights standards.
- Respect the rights of communities to observe diverse practices with respect to attire, music, and other social activities.
On Detentions and Summary Punishments
- Release all prisoners held for the peaceful exercise of their basic rights, including the rights to expression and assembly.
- Ensure that all detainees and prisoners are treated humanely and provided adequate food and medical care.
- Halt the use of beating and other forms of torture or ill-treatment to extract confessions or inflict punishment.
- End the use of indefinite imprisonment.
To the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Taliban Regarding Peace Talks:
- Preserve all rights protections enumerated in the Afghan Constitution, including but not limited to the provisions of article 22, which states that men and women “have equal rights and duties before the law,” article 44 on women’s right to education, and article 48 on the right of all citizens to work.
- Agree to the participation of women, rights activists, civil society representatives, media associations, and constitutional law experts in the thematic working groups at the negotiations.
- Agree to a meaningful role in the negotiations for victims and for victims’ representatives to address the negotiators.
To the UN and Governments Supporting the Intra-Afghan Talks:
- Advocate forcefully that all parties preserve rights protections as provided for in the constitution and laws of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
- Do not endorse any agreement that would undermine fundamental rights under international law.
- Ensure that the negotiating process and structure of the talks allows for ample time and space to discuss rights issues and involves consultations with a broad range of Afghans, including victims and civil society representatives.
- Encourage and support the participation of rights activists, civil society representatives, media associations, and constitutional law experts in the thematic working groups at the negotiations.
- Encourage and provide necessary financial support for victims to play a meaningful role in the negotiations and for victims’ representatives to address the negotiators.
- Urge negotiators to avoid postponing critical decisions on protecting human rights for the sake of expediency in reaching a hasty settlement.
- Draw on civil society representatives and local expertise to inform thematic structures and working groups on key constitutional issues.
This report was written by a consultant to Human Rights Watch. Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, and Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division, edited the report. James Ross, legal and policy director, provided legal review, and Danielle Haas, senior editor, provided program review. Heather Barr, acting co-director of the Women’s Rights Division, Zama Neff, director of the Children’s Rights Division, and Letta Tayler, senior researcher in the Crisis and Conflict Division, provided additional reviews. Seashia Vang, senior associate for the Asia Division, provided editorial and production assistance. The report was prepared for publication by Jose Martinez, senior coordinator, and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.
Human Rights Watch wishes to thank those who agreed to be interviewed in Afghanistan. In deference to their concerns, we have honored their requests for anonymity.