In Afghanistan, Vice and Virtue Are Front and Center

After 20 years of war, the Taliban’s social policies are causing divisions even within their own ranks

In Afghanistan, Vice and Virtue Are Front and Center
A man wears a flag at the venue for a flag hoisting ceremony of the Taliban flag on the Wazir Akbar Khan hill in Kabul on March 31, 2022 / Ahmad Sahel Arman / AFP via Getty Images

Muhammad Sadiq Akif was not in Kabul as the city fell to the Taliban last August. An insurgent propagandist who had been chronicling the frantic last days of the war on Twitter, he was over 60 miles to the southeast, in Loya Paktia. Taliban control there was tenuous and the surrender of a regional CIA-created militia, the notorious Khost Protection Force, was still being negotiated. Akif arrived in Kabul days later. Across the city, fluttering in the summer wind, was the Taliban’s white flag. His prayers had been answered.

“I cannot explain how I felt,” Akif told me recently. “The first thing we did was step out of the car, walk through the city and perform ‘sajdat ash-shukr’ [the Islamic prostration of thankfulness] at every turn.”

For rural Afghans who make up the majority of the population and from whom the Taliban draw their strongest support, the Afghan capital has historically been a remote entity. Not for Akif. Disguised as a student, he had often infiltrated Kabul during the war. This time, however, with the promise of peace on the horizon, he was openly entering the capital as a Talib. Used to a life of secrecy, waging jihad over a smartphone and via the occasional foray into combat, he would soon find himself devoid of cover and with a highly public profile as the spokesperson for the government’s most controversial department: the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — Amr-bil-Ma’roof.

Rifts at the top of the Taliban’s emirate have emerged in recent weeks as the new government struggles to reconcile the parameters of classical Islamic governance with the twin challenges posed by modernity and running a country that has undergone immense social, cultural and political change in the past 20 years. Men and women, courtesy of Akif’s ministry, are now forbidden from mixing in Kabul’s parks. Meanwhile, girls’ schools are still closed despite a promise they would open on March 23, causing disquiet even among some senior Taliban figures. This has come as the assets of the Afghan Central Bank remain frozen by the U.S. and the country remains in the throes of international isolation, undoubtedly exacerbated by the erratic turn recently taken by its government.

The stakes are high. We owe it to ourselves, therefore, to listen to men like Akif, and that is what I set out to do via a series of WhatsApp interviews earlier this year. One need not agree with the Taliban in order to understand them. I wanted to find out if the background and opinions of a skilled propagandist within the movement could help us explain what has been happening in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s victory.

Akif’s story might not provide us with the answers to the dilemmas facing the Taliban and Afghanistan at large. It may, however, equip us with knowledge to ask the right questions. Dismissing him as a mouthpiece for the most problematic ministry of an increasingly authoritarian government may be tempting, but that instinct would be counterproductive given the seriousness of the situation facing Afghanistan. Learning from his experiences, insights and contradictions is a more constructive approach.

Akif is not a leader of the Taliban and was not among the movement’s prominent battlefield commanders. In his own way, though, he symbolizes one of the most important aspects of a movement that is still poorly understood by Afghans and Westerners alike: the rank and file who were once insurgents and are now government officials. Age 33 and tasked with working in a ministry that represents many of the Islamic emirate’s most austere beliefs, Akif is ideally placed to offer insight into what can loosely be described as the old and the new Taliban.

His is a world in which the rights and wrongs of strict social codes are debated furiously online even as they are supposed to be enforced on the streets of Kabul; it is a world of Twitter, Facebook and Telegram, as well as madrassas (religious schools), “nasheeds” (religious acapella) and “hudud” (capital and corporal punishments). As we shall see, it is also a world of the Quran, Aristotle and Plato. All of these religious and cultural elements coexist within the Taliban in 2022, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in acrimony. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

When the Taliban took control of Kabul without widespread violence last summer, there was relief mixed with uncertainty among the city’s inhabitants. As he entered the capital soon after its fall, Akif was focused on people’s hope that the war was over, rather than their fear that it might just be entering another phase. “People were delighted,” he told me. “To them, it appeared that the angels of salvation had finally arrived.”

The reestablishment of Amr-bil-Ma’roof soon afterward was a clear statement of intent by the new government, not only because of what it suggested about the Taliban’s future plans but also because of what it said about their views of the recent past. The ministry is not a Taliban creation; its place in Afghanistan has been almost as turbulent as the rest of the country’s politics over the past 40 years: instituted, abolished and reinstated as power lurched between secular elites and religious conservatives. When it was scrapped under the guise of building a democratic new government after the U.S.-led 2001 invasion, few expected its return. The Taliban, however, had other ideas.

Last September, news emerged that Amr-bil-Ma’roof would reopen in the building that had previously housed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. The symbolism was stark, yet Akif insisted, somewhat incongruously, that the building was chosen only for convenience. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs had not been abolished, he claimed, but temporarily merged with Amr-bil-Ma’roof. He said female civil servants would still be paid and would return to work once separate workspaces were available — a step that has still not taken place. It’s these sorts of unfulfilled promises, particularly with respect to women, that are testing the patience even of those Afghans who want the new government to succeed. Indeed, they feed into a narrative that I have always regarded as deeply problematic.

In the eight months since the Taliban’s victory, interaction with their emirate has settled into a modus vivendi. Journalists tend to ask tired questions tailored to the sensitivities of their generally Western audiences, to which the Taliban respond defensively to soothe the aggrieved sentiments of their own core base. The media’s coverage is often accompanied by ominous music and unfavorable camera angles. Yet amid all this, an essential truth remains unspoken: The Taliban’s ideas on the role of government differ fundamentally from our own in the liberal West.

This is undoubtedly and understandably an uncomfortable reality for many. For me, a British-born liberal arts graduate but descendant of an Afghan dynasty of politically active Islamic scholars and mujahedeen, it is a reality I cannot ignore. There may, perhaps, never be a “right” way to have this conversation, but if there is, its prerequisites would be understanding its emotive nature and its role in the interplay between conflicting philosophies: modern versus classical, secular versus religious. I kept that in the forefront of my mind during my conversations with Akif.

While lacking seniority, it would be wrong to dismiss him purely as an ex-insurgent or a cog in the Taliban’s war machine. He is the spokesperson of a ministry whose role and applicability occupy center stage in discussions on reconciling classical Islamic governance with the administrative nation state. Discussing whether such a ministry should even exist is now redundant; the Taliban have, for better or worse, decided that it should. A few conversations with Akif will not reveal all we need to know about an organization that has been molded by the bloody tapestry of religion, history and war. It can, however, lead us in the right direction.

Life for most Afghans did not start in Kabul or any city. In Akif’s case, the slip of the tongue in his Pashto betrays his roots in the heartlands immediately to Kabul’s south; he said “shka” (from), as opposed to my southern “tsakha” or the simple “na” used elsewhere. Akif is from Dadukhel in Logar province, just south of Kabul. Like former President Ashraf Ghani, another Logari, he hails from Logar’s predominant Pashtun tribe, the historically nomadic Ahmadzai. Realizing that Akif fought against a clansman from the same province is key to understanding how Akif and the Taliban see themselves. They deny, as alleged by their opponents, that they are motivated by ethno-tribalism. “People label us Pashtuns, but before [Pashtun] provinces it was the northern [non-Pashtun] provinces that fell,” he told me. Akif is fluent in Pashto, Dari and Urdu, and understands Arabic and English. Being multilingual is not the same as being politically or socially progressive, but it does suggest an appreciation of the wider world and a certain degree of erudition that is not often associated with the Taliban. Whether or not we agree with them, perhaps it is time we recognize that their views are steeped in knowledge rather than ignorance — even as the knowledge is based on presumptions or draws conclusions that we may have good cause to criticize.

Like many Afghans, Akif selected the nickname that also doubles as his surname: Muhajir, meaning migrant. A muhajir, he explained, was one who left behind major sins and referred to the migration of the Prophet Muhammad. “At the time,” Akif said, “I was also actually a muhajir.”

Like many Afghans, Akif inherited his jihad. Members of his family fought in the war against Soviets as part of Harakat-e-Inqilabi Islami, the Islamic Revolutionary Movement, a mujahedeen party led by another Logari, Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi. When the communist regime collapsed in 1992 and civil war broke out among the mujahedeen, Muhammadi refused to get involved. Instead, he chose to endorse a new movement that emerged from the country’s south in 1994. That movement was the Taliban.

Harakat was a rurally based, traditionalist party; thus the Taliban, with their vow to eliminate lawlessness and end the civil war, appealed to many within its ranks. Afghanistan’s current foreign minister, Amir Khan Mottaqi, was another Harakati who switched allegiances, following Muhammadi’s example.

In many ways, it was only natural that Akif should take up arms after the U.S. invaded less than a decade later. One of his uncles died fighting the Soviets, and he, too, was prepared to sacrifice his life for the sake of his religion and country. Akif was 13 and studying at a local madrassa when he decided to join the fight against the U.S.-led invasion. He had friends on both sides of the war; some of them had already been maimed or killed. Yet he regarded Afghanistan as occupied and believed jihad was “fard ‘ayn,” a religious obligation of every adult Muslim. In 2004, Akif swore allegiance to the Taliban. He was 15 years old.

In our conversations over WhatsApp, Akif pointed out that jihad is not simply about fighting but also about seeking knowledge. He continued his studies after joining the Taliban and graduated from the Darul Uloom Haqqania in Pakistan, a notorious madrassa with a long list of formidable insurgent alumni. The madrassa teaches a traditionalist syllabus, synthesizing the Islamic sciences of “tafsir” (explanation), “hadith” (the Prophet’s words and work) and “fiqh” (Islaimic jurisprudence), with grammar, rhetoric and logic. Akif studied logic and hikma, or Islamic philosophy. Lessons were based on the 12th-century texts of Kabuli jurist Mir Zahid, the study of Avicenna and al-Ghazali and commentaries of Aristotle and Plato, among other influences. Akif graduated 2009 and returned to Afghanistan to continue his jihad.

Like many veteran soldiers, he talks about war with a mixture of wistfulness and excitement; but unlike a lot of them, he seems to harbor few regrets. He told me about an attempt to ambush an American patrol in 2010 using three roadside bombs — only for the enemy troops to notice the mines and safely detonate them. “That demoralized us a lot,” he said.

His unit then watched as the Americans stopped and searched a car carrying women from a nearby village. The women were not abused, but the act still violated cultural norms and Akif was incensed. Targeting women in any aspect of war, however mundane, violates Afghan honor, he told me. He and the other Talibs climbed a nearby hill and, after waiting for the right moment to strike, opened fire on the departing convoy as it kicked up dirt along the typically rocky road. “The Americans became ashes,” he told me. Akif claimed to have been involved in over 30 firefights during the war’s entirety. Dozens of his comrades were killed. That, however, is not why he chose to become a propagandist.

The Taliban had always struggled to promote its cause on social media. By 2016, the movement’s leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was painfully aware that this needed to change. Success on the battlefield only counted for so much, and the Taliban were now competing with the Afghan government and the Islamic State group for the attention of young, media savvy Afghans domestically and within the international diaspora. Akif agreed to help, even as his armed jihad continued. “We were fighting a cultural struggle,” he told me.

By 2018, Akif had demonstrated his prowess with the keyboard and worked solely in propaganda as the Taliban’s progress continued under Mansour’s successor, the incumbent leader Hibatullah Akhundzada. As a long process of direct negotiations between the insurgents’ political office in Qatar and the Trump administration started, the Taliban’s need to position themselves within the Afghan and global mainstream only grew more urgent. Akif was at the vanguard of portraying what was supposed to be the newer, friendlier Taliban.

He confirmed to me what was clearly apparent in the run-up to Kabul’s fall: The Taliban were all over social media. His team, he said, were individually tweeting over 40 times a day in Pashto, Dari and sometimes, rather ambitiously and surprisingly, in somewhat coherent English. “We focused on posting videos, showing our advances and surrenders of regime soldiers,” he recalled. This served two purposes. First, it confirmed to the Taliban’s own ranks that the insurgency was succeeding at a time when some of them were in disbelief at the speed of their success. It also encouraged members of the Afghan security forces to surrender. The strategy was successful. Provincial capitals fell one after another last summer, and when Kandahar and Herat collapsed, it was clear that the U.S. and its Afghan allies had lost the war. Even in Kabul soldiers began to desert their posts. As Ghani fled, apparently fearing for his life, the Taliban entered the capital victoriously on Aug. 15.

The Taliban soon announced their cabinet. Shaykh Muhammad Khalid Hanafi was appointed to head the reinstituted Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Aware of its controversial history he consulted officials including the Taliban’s former spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, before appointing Akif to his new job at the ministry.

The role of Amr-bil-Ma’roof and its pre-modern predecessors has evolved throughout history across different Islamic polities. On a theoretical basis, “hisbah,” best understood as public morality, incorporates the Quranic injunction of “amr-bil-ma’roof wa nahy an-il-munkar,” or enjoining good and forbidding evil. Deeply intertwined with classical understandings of Islamic governance, hisbah concerns itself not with micromanaging private religious practice but preventing the public normalization of sin in avowedly Islamic polities. A consensus on the regulation of religious propriety permeates discussions among jurists.

Classical jurists who deliberated on the topic include the 11th-century Persian polymath Ghazali. Known as “Hujjat ul-Islam” (proof of Islam) for his pedigree as a scholar, Ghazali enshrined two principal conditions for hisbah. These were that people were not spied upon and that hisbah was enforced only on matters of consensus. Contemporary scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whose advocacy for democracy places him in stark contrast to the Taliban, accepts Ghazali’s conditions but adds two more: The state must be capable of effecting proper change, and the consequences of preventing evil must not perpetuate it. Contemporary Deobandi scholar Mufti Taqi Usmani, who comfortably belongs to the same legal tradition as the Taliban and recently wrote a letter to them urging the reopening of girls’ schools, quotes the landmark 17th-century text Fatawa-e-Alamgiri, a series of rulings compiled by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The rulings deduce that preventing evil physically is the duty of the ruler, discouraging evil verbally is the duty of the scholars, and harboring disdain toward evil is the duty of the general masses.

It is also true that consensus on hisbah was forged within radically different circumstances. What was sinful but once private can now permeate the public sphere through technology. Technology also inversely empowers the state to consider public what was historically beyond its reach and resultantly private. The augmented state confronts modern movements with a challenge: defining a more “sinful,” expansive public domain against a shrinking private sphere, in which the state cannot intervene. The Taliban are not the first, nor will they be the last, to grapple with the paradox. They were also not the first modern Afghan faction to institutionalize hisbah.

In 1930, Gen. Nader Khan seized Kabul amid national upheavals triggered by the secular reforms of the ousted King Amanullah. To legitimize his kingship, Nader, a royal Muhammadzai clansman, allied with the clergy. Girls’ schools were closed then too, and an “ihtisab” (accountability) department and religious police, also called Amr-bil-Ma’roof, were established under a Ministry of Justice now headed by Nur al-Mashayekh, head of the Mujaddidi clan whose elders traditionally acted as spiritual heads of the Sufi Naqshbandi order. Ihtisab existed far into the reign of Nader’s son, Zaher, and was ultimately phased out but reestablished after the Mujahedeen takeover in 1992. The Taliban inherited Amr-bil-Ma’roof after 1996, escalating its activities to levels that make the group infamous to the present day. These include reports of public beatings of insufficiently bearded men or immodestly clothed women and even, bizarrely, the banning of kites. The ministry was then dissolved after 2001 by those who had revived it in 1992, only to rebrand themselves as suit-wearing liberal democrats when the U.S. and its allies invaded.

Even on its own terms, the ministry’s task of navigating centuries of religious rulings across legal traditions, a tumultuous national history and the sensitivities of the international community is formidable. Amr-bil-Ma’roof’s duty was, Akif said, “the reform of society,” and a proper Islamic society encouraged good and prevented evil. Akif defined evil as that which is condemned unanimously by jurists, delineating mobile phones, houses, shops and private property as being beyond the ministry’s remit. Nevertheless, reports of mobile phone searches by other government organs have been widespread.

Akif told me that “Afghan society is different [and] traditional,” without expanding on what exactly he meant. He said only that this perceived traditionalism distinguished it from the rest of the world. Afghans, according to Akif, had fought for four decades for an “Islamic system,” the implication being that this had been achieved with the reinstitution of the Taliban’s government. This framing is noteworthy. For Akif, the Taliban have established a political system based on the unrivaled piety and military prowess of Afghans. This light form of nationalism was also evident when he alluded to the common criticism that the numerous Taliban graduates from Pakistan’s Darul Uloom Haqqania made the movement less Afghan, a criticism to which he had an “allergy.” “Whichever pride or achievement we attained should not be attributed to others,” he said.

Akif denied that his ministry had committed any abuses since the Taliban’s victory but was acutely aware of its dire reputation internationally and the increasing perception among some Afghans that it exists only to micromanage their lives. “The sharia does not permit us to … coerce or commit excesses,” he told me, insisting that the Taliban’s leadership had given explicit instructions on this. “Our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, implemented the shariah’s edicts in such a way that they were welcomed,” he said. “We … have chosen the same [path].”

There are, however, widespread concerns among urban Afghans in particular that the ministry is intent on targeting any social and cultural freedoms that do not align with the Taliban’s vision for an ideal Islamic society — a vision that is not unanimously shared in diverse cities like Kabul.

On Jan. 26, the Afghan women’s rights activist Mahbouba Seraj warned the U.N. Security Council in a briefing that women were “literally being erased from public life” by the Taliban. But if this is indeed happening, it is not being done in quite the same way as when the Taliban were last in power. Seraj and another Afghan woman I spoke to who works in the Central Bank told me they had not seen women being openly beaten by Amr-bil-Ma’roof patrols — a sight that was all too common in the late 1990s. They also said that dress codes are not yet being as rigidly enforced as they once were, with women still allowed to wear makeup and not required by law to wear a burqa or niqab.

The ministry’s effect has, however, been highly visible in other aspects of Kabul life. Drug addicts have been forcibly rounded up and taken off the streets. Drug dealers have been physically assaulted. Taxi drivers, one friend told me, now avoid carrying female passengers in case patrols from the ministry accuse them of facilitating prostitution.

Confusion surrounding the ministry has also become a reality of life. Until recently, the ministry’s personnel were non-uniformed, making it near impossible to know which part of the government local Taliban units belonged to. Amid instances of journalists and protesters being assaulted, the confusion was further compounded. Recently, civil servants at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were stopped outside their offices for not having proper beards. This, Akif said, was “not in line with policy” and “guidance had been given” to prevent such occurrences in future. Some civil servants, however, continue to fear they will lose their jobs if their beards aren’t long enough. Then there were reports from Badakhshan, where units from the Ministry of Interior reportedly claimed they were Amr-bil-Ma’roof and harassed locals, inevitably drawing the ire of an already under fire Amr-bil-Ma’roof.

Akif provided a description of how the ministry is organized that suggests it has a clear chain of command. It is divided into three directorates, with a separate department within Kabul. The first directorate is of the muhtasibeen, those effecting hisbah. Ten muhtasibeen operate in each police district, encouraging righteous behavior and advising against sin. Akif emphasized that their role was advisory and not coercive. The criteria for recruits to the muhtasibeen is simple: madrassa graduates who possess skill in proselytization so that “we don’t, God forbid, violate the sharia.”

The second directorate reassures the Taliban’s former opponents of their security through the provision of cards that claim to certify their immunity from punishment. The third directorate manages complaints regarding the alleged misconduct of personnel, though Akif gave scarce detail on this. The involvement of multiple bodies to ensure former officials’ security and proper conduct suggests that the new government is aware that it needs to stamp out potential abuses of power. To what extent these bodies are genuinely willing or able to enforce discipline, though, remains to be seen.

The ministry is also divided into civilian and military sections, the latter dealing with misconduct by military personnel. Akif confirmed that there had been some “transgressors” and that “they have been dealt with according to law.” They were, he said, put on trial in military courts, inadvertently revealing that a clear code for punishing misconduct had not yet been formalized.

Akif denied the Taliban had carried out extrajudicial killings of former regime officials, despite numerous reports to the contrary. Last November an investigation by Human Rights Watch detailed the executions or disappearances of 47 former members of the Afghan security forces since the Taliban retook power. Akif denied that any such killings had taken place and claimed the Taliban’s rank and file were “unparalleled” in their obedience to the law. In his view, Taliban soldiers would not betray the amnesty announced by their leaders; this would be a grave sin. To illustrate his point, he described, rather graphically, how the Taliban’s willingness to obey commands had led thousands “to tie explosives to their breast and detonate themselves.”

Whether Akif was being deliberately misleading or unintentionally displaying wider confusion that exists within the Taliban is unclear. At the time, Akif’s assertion that his ministry’s role was advisory and not coercive was technically true; personnel seldom did more than give advice, despite this often being unsolicited. That was before a recent grand meeting convened by the Taliban’s spiritual leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, in Kandahar, again the de facto Afghan capital. At the meeting, a vocal and ultraconservative minority is reported to have strong-armed the cabinet into keeping girls’ schools closed, despite promises to open them by March 23. The decision was damaging, triggering uproar domestically and internationally. The ultraconservatives, one source told me, were not placated even with the announcement that schools would remain closed “until further notice,” as this implied the decision was temporary. Amid the hesitance to take a firm stand by the majority, the government’s broader direction veered unpredictably toward aligning with the ultraconservatives. This focused squarely on Akif’s ministry, thus far an advisory body.

Perhaps Akif sincerely believes that the ministry is doing its job, and he prefers to ignore or disbelieve violations that seem to be taking place outside of its remit. At times he appeared to care about the international community’s perception of the Taliban, which, in itself, should be a cause for cautious optimism. Yet he maintained that the ministry was only concerned with what was permissible and advisable according to Islam, which naturally would be based on the Taliban’s interpretation. The ministry’s relatively milder approach this time was not, Akif said, part of a broader charm offensive. Akif expressed little interest in this, even as crippling U.S. sanctions leave millions of Afghans at risk of starvation. “The pressures exerted on us [in war] were unparalleled, but we did not yield. … Why would we yield to international pressure now?” he asked.

To understand his contention that the ministry wants to advise people compassionately about their conduct rather than compel them by force, I put a number of hypothetical scenarios to him. He said music is “unanimously forbidden,” but if I were caught playing it in my car, I would only be advised that it is sinful. No similar unanimity of opinion exists on the obligation to grow a beard, he conceded, and thus I would not be punished if my beard were not fist length, though I would be praised if it were. At least until Amr-bil-Ma’roof’s recent escalation in activity, this roughly aligned with Fatawa-e-Alamgiri’s specification: The ministry, acting as scholars, should verbally discourage evil. Indeed, one friend told me that drivers in Kabul who are now weary of receiving unsolicited sermons from Taliban personnel simply turn down their music when approaching the city’s many checkpoints.

Akif was clear: Amr-bil-Ma’roof’s objectives are enforcing “the edicts of the shariah,” whether “20 years ago, now, or 20 years later. There will be no change in our [current] conduct.” His phrasing was, once again, subtle, but revealed that he equates the shariah by default with the ministry’s current trajectory. It also implied that what would be decided as shariah, an interpretative affair, would be decided according to the Taliban’s terms only. This is unlikely to be acceptable to many Afghans in the long term, including those outside the government who are highly educated scholars in their own right.

Just as during the first Taliban regime, some women in Kabul credit the ministry with helping to improve security in the city, and there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that incidents of violent crime and sexual harassment have dropped since last August. But at what cost? For Seraj these slight improvements to daily life cannot justify the steadily increasing nature of Taliban restrictions.

Her family history is intimately tied to what Amr-bil-Ma’roof has come to symbolize in the tug of war for political power across the Afghan ideological spectrum. Age 74, Seraj is the niece of Amanullah, whose secular reforms triggered an overthrow by those who ultimately instituted Amr-bil-Ma’roof in 1930. Amid the panic accompanying the Taliban’s takeover, Seraj was among the few high-profile women who remained in Kabul as officials, including Ghani, fled. She engaged and pressured the new government, earning widespread praise and even grudging respect from the Taliban.

While Seraj warned the U.N. that Afghan women are being erased from public life, she told me she had “no specific opinion” on Akif’s ministry, resigning herself to the reality that the Taliban perceived it as a necessity, though she misdiagnosed this as being because “they are followers of the Deobandi school.” Yet as the new government consolidates itself, Seraj was clear that Amr-bil-Ma’roof needed to be controlled or “it could become dangerous, like it was during the first Taliban [government].”

Recent events seem to suggest Seraj’s warnings are indeed coming true. There has undoubtedly been a Taliban reorientation toward the policies of the 1990s, but there is a lack of clarity on key issues, and internal dissent against the latest decisions is high. Those steering the momentary lurch to the ultraconservative policies of the past are powerful, but they are a minority. Faring well against the rest of the Taliban, whose composition has undergone substantial change in the past 20 years, is a tall order and unlikely to be a smooth ride.

In the long term, it remains to be seen whether it is Seraj or Akif who will be proved right.

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