KABUL — Inside the 25-foot-high, barbed-wire-topped walls of Pul-e-Charkhi prison, a thin line divides the Taliban of the past and what the militants claim they have become.
To Afghanistan’s new rulers, the inmates are evidence of their ability to effectively police the capital in a law-abiding manner. But on a recent day, when scores of prisoners gathered outside their cells to soak in the sun, some said they were arrested on flimsy accusations. Others described being treated violently, reminiscent of the harsh justice doled out by the militants when they ruled in the mid-1990s. None of the inmates had lawyers.
“They beat me up badly,” said Haji Hussein, a taxi driver who said he was arrested at a Taliban checkpoint because two of his passengers were drunk.
“My son killed a person and escaped, but they put me in jail instead,” said Timur Shah, speaking from behind a chain-link fence.
In the vacuum left by the sudden fall of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, the Taliban has stepped in to provide much-needed security to Kabul and other cities.
Long-haired, bearded militants oversee checkpoints to net criminals. District police chiefs, mostly commanders from the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, solve local disagreements. Community judges informally deliver verdicts on land, money, and family disputes, as the militants have done for years in rural areas.
But transforming a village-based guerrilla insurgency — accustomed to war for the past two decades — into a national security force capable of protecting vulnerable urban areas is proving challenging for the militants.
The Islamic State-Khorasan, Syria- and Iraq-based terrorist group’s branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has emerged as the most significant threat to the Taliban’s dominion as well as to public safety. So far, the Taliban has failed to contain the terrorists, who have staged numerous attacks nationwide since the militants’ takeover of the country two months ago, including two bombings of Shiite mosques within a week in Kandahar and Kunduz that killed scores of worshipers. That raises questions about whether the Taliban has the appropriate expertise, training, and intelligence capabilities to take down ISIS-K cells in Kabul and other urban areas, despite orchestrating similar assaults before the group overran the country.
Inside the Taliban’s own ranks, many fighters remain undisciplined and have committed crimes. People are often sent to prison on the slightest suspicion of illegal activity. They have no legal counsel and are languishing in cells until a formal judicial system is put in place.
As he listened to the grievances of his prisoners, Qari Zaki, a Taliban prison official, laughed, even as he acknowledged the questionable tactics.
“Who will accept the crimes they commit?” he said. “Everyone believes they are innocent. The people made complaints about them, so we captured them.”
The militants are also showing signs of a return to the brutal methods they used to impose order under their previous rule. In the western city of Herat, fighters have executed suspected kidnappers and hung their bodies on tall cranes in public view. Videos of Taliban fighters whipping alleged criminals have emerged on social media.
Even in the capital, where the world’s spotlight is on the militants, reports have emerged of accused thieves being paraded in public, their faces smeared with black grease. One captured narcotics dealer had his product stuffed into his mouth and his picture posted on social media as a warning.
In interviews around Kabul, police chiefs and fighters openly said they want their leadership to impose the kinds of strict Islamic punishments that were in place from 1996 to 2001, until the Taliban was ousted following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. All supported the hangings in Herat.
“If a court decides to cut the hand of a thief, we will support it,” said Qari Mohammed Ashraf, 43, the police chief of the capital’s District 12. “God willing, the punishment will be carried out publicly. The people will learn from it, and the thieves will stop thefts. And God willing, if a married woman commits adultery, she shall be stoned to death in public.”
Ashraf acknowledged that it was his men who nabbed the dealer.
“We sent a message by putting the drugs in the mouth of a seller,” he said. “If anyone does such things, he will face the same punishment.”
For now, the Taliban has more pressing concerns. Maulavi Zubair Mutmaen understands.
Burly with a black beard that matches his turban, he is in charge of Kabul’s District 9, the largest police district in the country, which makes him quite possibly the city’s most powerful law enforcer.
His experience, he said, comes from controlling a large area in the mountains of Logar province with “three fighters” and a network of informants. He was also a member of a Taliban shadow military commission that oversaw the capital during the previous government, he said, adding that other shadow commissions dealt with courts, prisons, and other aspects of governance.
“We had a complete government set up before taking control of Kabul,” said Mutmaen, smiling. The main difference now, he said, is that urban people feel “using alcohol is democratic, adultery is democratic, and robbing and kidnapping are their rights under the previous regime.”
“It will take time to bring these people back to normal life,” he added.
Among his fighters are some who know Kabul from an alternate angle: They were Taliban spies in the capital for years.
It was his fighters who were securing Kabul’s airport in the waning days of the American military withdrawal when an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 Afghans.
Since then, Taliban commanders and fighters say they have been hunting for ISIS-K cells. Ashraf, the District 12 police chief, said his men recently captured six suspected terrorists in a night raid, based on their intelligence gathering. In August, shortly after the airport bombing, a senior Taliban commander said the militants were monitoring phone calls, emails, and other forms of communication to combat ISIS-K.
But it’s unclear how much coordination exists among police districts in a capital where Taliban fighters have come from different parts of the country, each beholden to their immediate commanders, allowing ISIS-K to stage attacks easily. The U.S. military, the CIA, and their Afghan counterparts also found it difficult to prevent suicide bombings and other urban attacks by both the Taliban and ISIS-K.
Adding to the obstacles is a sense of denial. Ashraf said that ISIS-K poses “no major threat.” And Mutmaen said the threat has “been reduced.” He also blamed American troops for the airport attack, saying the explosion occurred on the U.S. side of the gate.
Five days after the interview, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a bombing outside a mosque in Kabul that killed at least five civilians; it happened during a memorial service for the mother of the Taliban’s acting deputy information minister.