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Former Afghan officials who once served the American-backed government in Kabul say the war against them did not end with the Taliban’s victory in mid-August.

Across Afghanistan, members of the jihadist group are pursuing revenge attacks with a single-minded determination that may even be quickening in pace, according to ex-officials and independent rights monitors.

They cite incidents of Taliban violence – from the dragging of a 6-year-old boy behind a motorcycle to pressure his father, to the severe beating of the brother of another former official in an attempt to reveal his hiding place – and they say colleagues taken by the Taliban are turning up dead, one after another.

Taliban leaders had declared a blanket amnesty that was meant to include even Afghan security forces and intelligence operatives, who had fought the Taliban for 20 years. Yet, because of their role in the collapsed U.S. nation-building exercise, the former officials instead describe still being treated as the “enemy,” as “infidels” subject to killings, disappearances, and confiscations of houses and cars.

The targeted violence – which appears to be increasing as the Taliban tap into captured government databases, according to experts and Western human rights monitors – shows how little the jihadis have shifted their thinking, and their priorities, even as Afghanistan faces new immediate crises of severe hunger and economic meltdown.

“You absolutely have a reluctance on the part of the Taliban [leadership] to acknowledge the extent to which this [violence] is happening,” says Andrew Watkins, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

The Taliban have “just been unwilling or unable to challenge the militant nature of their own organization,” he says.

The Taliban’s most devoted members, he says, “look out and see a landscape of very, very recently defeated enemies. Sometimes they’re taking them out because they’re a threat; sometimes because they feel like it’s righting a wrong. Sometimes they’re just doing it because all they’ve known is ‘hunt down and seek out and eliminate the enemy.’”

Effective indoctrination

The Taliban leadership “proved incredibly effective at indoctrinating and incubating an entire generation of fighters,” says Mr. Watkins. “Those guys have the mindsets that they do because of Taliban propaganda … and now they can’t put a lid on it.”

The result is that local Taliban commanders and fighters appear to be pursuing former government officials with the same zeal with which, for two decades, they waged an insurgency, and, a year ago, stepped up a targeted assassination campaign against officials, civil society activists, and journalists.

In central Wardak province, for example, a former finance officer shows photographs of his 6-year-old son, recently bloodied and bruised after being seized by the Taliban. The boy was beaten, tied up, and dragged behind a motorcycle for 10 yards – actions witnessed by neighbors, the father says – because the boy did not know where his father was in hiding.

The Taliban message? “Your death is permissible and your house and all your belongings are a prize for us, because you are not Muslim, and for 20 years you [were] a slave to the Americans,” says the former official, who asked not to be named for his safety.

The posse of a dozen Taliban fighters demanded that the former official forfeit his house, claiming it was “government” property. The family refused, noting the house had been built with private funds.

“The Taliban say former government officials are safe and secure, that no one can hurt, kill, or insult them … but this is just a slogan from the Taliban, and secret terrors are still going on,” says the former official.

War booty

Even before the Taliban victory, the official often received death threats, he says. His fears were heightened recently when two former colleagues, arrested by the Taliban last month, turned up dead.

“They call former officials ‘unbelievers,’ not committed to Islam and God, [who] should be tortured physically and mentally,” he says. “Taking cars and houses and other property is booty for them.”

The disconnect between the Taliban’s official amnesty and the targeting of former officials is made clear in a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released this week. It found that more than 100 former security and intelligence officers had been executed or “forcibly disappeared” in just four provinces between August and the end of October.

One Taliban commander from central Ghazni province told HRW that they have lists of people to target who have committed “unforgivable” acts.

“The pattern of the killings has sown terror throughout Afghanistan, as no one associated with the former government can feel secure they have escaped the threat of reprisal,” the report noted.

Rahmat Gul/AP Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, at his first news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021, said the victorious Taliban sought no revenge and that “everyone is forgiven.”

The surprise, says Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at HRW, is that Taliban revenge killings “have not only continued, but possibly increased and are more deliberate … as they’ve had time to go through documents, and all the information the fleeing government left behind” that allow them to pinpoint new targets.

Reasons for going after former officials include revenge, she says, as well as providing booty to fighters, and even going after senior district and provincial personalities to stymie the chances of organized resistance.

Placating the fighters

The Taliban “can’t pay these guys, and they need to give them something,” says Ms. Gossman. “The revenge part of it was also a kind of payback. They recruited these guys saying, ‘You’ll get your chance to get revenge on whoever did whatever to your family.’ So they choose not to pull the plug on that now.”

The Taliban also “fear alienating any of their ranks because they know they could be recruited by the Islamic State,” adds Ms. Gossman, who notes the volatility of a situation “where people don’t have enough food on the table.”

“There are a lot of armed, angry young men who could be recruited by anyone,” she says.

In late September the Taliban established a commission to purge wrongdoers. While publicly noting “isolated reports” of unauthorized executions, the Taliban told HRW it had removed 755 members for lesser offenses and set up a military tribunal to try cases of murder and torture.

But examples abound of continued abuses. In southern Helmand province, a former district governor who worked closely with the U.S. military and diplomats is among many on the run. He was widely praised in 2015 for wrapping his arms around a would-be Taliban suicide bomber, who had infiltrated a public meeting, to prevent him from detonating his explosive vest.

The former official “had endangered himself for the lives of scores of others,” according to the letter of recommendation for a U.S. special immigrant visa, written by an American official he worked closely with.

But the former Afghan official, who asked not to be named for security reasons, was unable to get on an evacuation flight last August. Instead, he is being hunted. He shares voice messages spread between Taliban commanders, who dismiss the amnesty and order their fighters to “have no mercy” and kill former officials “wherever you see them.”

One Taliban phone message addresses him directly: “Your killing is my only desire. I am asking Allah to find you.”

In recent weeks, he says, three of his colleagues, all former officials, have been arrested and killed by the Taliban. His own brother was held for 10 days and severely beaten in a bid to discover his whereabouts and details of property that could be seized.

A Robin Hood-esque narrative

And in eastern Nangarhar province, the wife of one former finance ministry official recounts how even after the Taliban took the family’s car, militants later came for their house, accusing the family of serving as a “puppet of America.”

“We told them that we are Muslims, we pray and follow all Islamic rules, but the local Taliban commander said, ‘No, you are infidels in Muslim clothes, and you are our absolute enemy,’” she says.

Her husband refused to give up the house and was severely beaten, she says. The Taliban arrested him more than a month ago, and he has not been seen since. Her home and possessions were seized.

Many Taliban fighters seeking revenge have long nursed grievances, which often include abuses and corruption at the hands of the previous Western-backed political order.

“It’s easy for people to tell themselves, ‘Well, we’re just righting a wrong,’” says Mr. Watkins of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “In some cases you have Taliban … who almost have a Robin Hood-esque narrative of, ‘We have to take away from the awful, corrupt class that was previously in charge and give back to those who were marginalized, sidelined, or ignored.’

“The only problem now is the people doing the taking are the new power brokers, the new abusers,” says Mr. Watkins. “And there is really nothing to check their behavior.”

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