As they headed home at night from a wedding, everyone in the car went quiet when they approached the checkpoint in Kabul manned by two Taliban with automatic rifles.
One of the fighters shone a light into the car. Fatima Abdullahi was in the backseat, her two children perched on her lap, squeezed between her younger sister Zainab and a work colleague. The fighter waved them through.
Seconds later, two shots rang out. Zainab slumped against her sister. Abdullahi screamed, pleading with her to wake up. Zainab, 25, was dead.
“I took her face in my hands but she didn’t move. Then I saw behind her there was blood, and she had been shot,” Abdullahi recounted to The Associated Press.
Taliban officials say the January 13 shooting was a mix-up, with one guard not realizing the other had given the car the go ahead to leave. Both guards have been arrested, and the Taliban administration apologized for the killings, going to the home of Zainab’s parents, promising them justice and giving them 600,000 afghanis ($5,825).
But Zainab’s death highlights one dilemma facing Afghanistan’s new rulers as they move from waging an insurgency to governing. The Taliban are trying to keep discipline over thousands of young fighters who are bringing heavy-handed methods of war into their new roles as security forces. Those young men know only war, most have no schooling and cannot read or write. Their only skill is fighting; their weapons are as familiar to them as their mobile telephones.
In the urbanized capital of Kabul, many people are afraid of them. Five months after sweeping to power, Taliban can still be seen packed into the back of pickup trucks, their weapons protruding skyward, roaming the Kabul streets. The numbers are fewer than when they first took the city, but they are still highly visible.
Demobilizing the fighters is difficult since they have few alternatives. “Too many fighters lack the education and training to join civilian life, and even those that do have the skills can’t find jobs, due to the economic crisis,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center.
At the family’s home in the minority Shiite-dominated west Kabul, Zainab’s mother Mariam says she cries most days and finds herself staring at the door, expecting Zainab to return.
Zainab was to be married in two months. Even as the Taliban restricted women working, she continued working as an auditor for a local charity, where her sister Fatima also worked.
“She was my last child, adorable. They could have killed me, not my Zainab,” said Mariam, keeping warm by a coal burner in Kabul’s winter cold. “If I was in the car and they fired, I would have covered her so that the bullet would have hit me.” Zainab’s father Nadir Ali sat nearby wrapped in a woolen blanket, his legs weak. Mariam says he can no longer work, and Zainab provided the only income.
It is not just individual Taliban fighters with a heavy hand, as their leadership deals with dissent. The Taliban have dispersed women protesters using pepper spray or firing in the air. They have beaten and arrested journalists. Particularly frightening in recent weeks have been night raids by intelligence officials on the homes of protesters to arrest them.
Obaidullah Baheer, a social activist and lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan, expressed fears the Taliban were adopting the tactics of past Afghan intelligence agencies.
The agencies have a history of brutality dating back to the 1980s’ pro-communist government, when hundreds were rounded up and killed, many dumped in mass graves. After the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, the intelligence agency known as the National Directorate of Security — which received U.S. support — detained thousands of Afghans alleged to be Taliban. Hundreds disappeared in so-called black sites where torture was carried out, according to rights groups.
The Taliban have formed their own General Directorate of Intelligence.
“We often times expect the victim to be the first to sympathize with pain and prevent it when in power, but often times they end up pushing it one notch further,” said Baheer. “The Taliban must realize that this Deep State behavior will further alienate the population in the long run.”
Skeptical world leaders have been watching how the Taliban transition to governing at a time when Afghanistan is facing a collapsing economy and widespread hunger. So far, the Taliban have been doing so firmly on their own terms — trying to adjust to realities that prevent them from ruling as they did in the past but also refusing to give others a role in governing.
There are signs that the interim Taliban Cabinet is trying to inject some order into their ranks.
Many fighters now wear the camouflage uniforms of the previous Afghan Defense and Security Forces. Latfullah Hakimi, head of the Taliban’s so-called Purification Commission tasked with investigating complaints about its fighters, told The Associated Press that thousands of former Taliban have been jailed or dismissed for a variety of offenses ranging from corruption to intimidation.
The leadership has sought to limit the harshest punishments for which the Taliban were notorious when they first ruled the country, over 20 years ago — such as public executions of murderers and hand amputations for thieves.
In their first months in power this time, low-level commanders often implemented impromptu punishments for alleged crimes, such as publicly humiliating thieves. Now, more suspects are brought to courts where judges make decisions. The judges are Taliban-approved figures with religious training, operating with little transparency, but their rulings do to some extent rein in vigilante acts by individual fighters.
The Taliban have been less successful in convincing former members of the military to return to service. Few have heeded the call, too afraid to admit their previous military positions amid some revenge killings of former officers.
Taliban leaders have publicly forbidden revenge attacks, and — with some exceptions — have been relatively successful in curbing them, “remarkably so, by the historical standards not only of Afghanistan, but of most civil wars,” said Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute of Responsible Statecraft.
“I expected far more revenge killings,” said Lieven, who has followed Afghanistan through its four decades of war.
For many Afghans, the Taliban remain a frightening sight in the cities. Social media are ablaze with videos and photos of alleged Taliban excesses such as threatening people or detaining people from homes.
Some, however, are doctored, like a video that showed a Taliban fighter cutting a man’s hair and saying he was enforcing a new rule requiring all young men to keep their hair short. The original of the video, which the AP saw, was of a Taliban fighter catching a thief in the act and punishing him with public humiliation by cutting his hair. The Taliban, many of whom have shoulder length hair themselves, have not launched a campaign of cutting hair.
As the world watches the Taliban deal with ruling, Lieven cautioned that given its record in Afghanistan, the West may not have the answers.
“After the experience of Western-directed state-building in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, is the West in any position to say what the right direction for Afghanistan is?” Lieven said.