The gruesome beheading by the Taliban of 17 civilians in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan is a reminder of the savage threat posed to society by a brutal organisation. This brings back memories of the Taliban rule of the 1990s that was marked by barbaric violence against defenceless non-combatants.
The 'crime' of the latest set of civilians victimised by the Taliban's enforcers was that they were caught in mixed-gender singing and dancing. The extreme chauvinistic take of the Taliban on Islamic morality and the resultant restrictions on personal freedoms have converted Afghanistan and bordering Pakistan into colourless lands where suffering is the only music.
The Taliban's dreaded black turbanned moral police have not only cracked down on the perceived deviant behaviour of ordinary Afghans and Pakistanis in the border region, but also prevented war-battered civilians' access to healthcare and education. After the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)'s co-option of health workers in the operation to kill al Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban banned polio vaccines on the grounds that they were part of an "American plot" to "sterilise Muslim children." Thanks to such propaganda and fear-mongering, Afghanistan and Pakistan are today two of three unenviable countries in the world where polio is still endemic.
The Taliban have also attacked schools educating girls on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The result is that the Waziristan belt in Pakistan has a female literacy rate of just 7% (against the national average of around 40%). Generalised gender-based violence is a centrepiece of the conflict. The Taliban view control over women's bodies and minds as the topmost priority for carving out a 'disciplined' society that can rout foreign invaders through a defensive jihad.
This tragedy is compounded by the narrative of liberal humanitarian imperialism, which has been an underlying theme of the US-led war in this region. In July this year, when the Taliban publicly shot dead a woman accused of adultery, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr cited the horrific incident as the reason for his country's involvement in the war there, viz. "advancing the rights of Afghan women and girls" and "building a forward-looking Afghanistan."
Western armies are fortified by the ideology that they are the saviours of local people who need to be freed from the savagery of the Taliban. Though the rationale for a war without clear aims is that western forces are in the business of preventing 'Af-Pak' from becoming a renewed launchpad for global terrorism, the deeper purpose they have projected is that this is a 'just war' against an oppressive Taliban. But portraying the contest as a struggle between a West that represents freedom and liberalism on the one hand, and a terrorist outfit that abuses civilians on the other hand, is misleading.
Long wars of attrition keep non-violent change agents and moderate forces on a tight leash and allow violence to be the only currency of power. Liberal imperialism, which banks on the notion that western armies can 'do good' and clean up villainous elements across the world through overwhelming might, is adding fuel to the fire by prolonging war-like conditions in which the Taliban thrive.
The answer to the Taliban's medieval conservatism is not the West's militarism disguised as a civilising mission, but rather a speedy end to the war that has dragged on too long. Halting large-scale hostilities will permit the emergence of local social actors, who can non-violently strive for true freedom and socio-economic uplift of their own people.
History is witness to the rise of a remarkable non-violent movement for self-determination under the 'Frontier Gandhi', Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, in these very tribal badlands where violence and martial culture had been glorified and routinised.
The courage of organisations like Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (Rawa), which have braved the bullets and threats of the Taliban to rid their country of the "blight of fundamentalism", contains the seeds of a decent 'third way' based on the notion of self-emancipation.
But for such indigenous transformative actors to win wider social approval and backing, it requires an opening of public spaces which must be free from endless crossfire and military operations. The Taliban menace has not been tamed for 11 years by the Nato war machine. It is time to give the Afghan people the reins to inaugurate the change they wish for themselves.
Sreeram Chaulia is professor and dean, Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal