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Punishment by amputation is back in Afghanistan

The return of the Taliban is a return to tyranny


Taliban leader Mullah Nooruddin Turabi Associated Press/Photo by Felipe Dana

Punishment by amputation is back in Afghanistan

Now that the Taliban has taken back power in Afghanistan, amputations as legal punishment are coming back as well. We are about to see the ruthlessness of theocratic rule on display.

A Taliban senior official in Afghanistan says its new government may reinstitute strict civil punishments under Islamic law, such as amputations of hands. “We will follow Islam, and we will make our laws on the Quran,” he said.

This development is no surprise, although it is horrible and tragic for the people of Afghanistan. But amputating hands for thievery is instructed by a literal interpretation of Islamic teaching. We rightly mourn for Afghans who will suffer under the Taliban’s many repressions. But, we should also recognize that the Taliban were not just forced on the Afghan people. A good many of those citizens cheered the return of Taliban rule.

The Taliban were not an external invading force. They were not strongly supplied by a great foreign power, although elements in Pakistan supported it. The Taliban is indigenous to Afghanistan and gained its support, political and material, mainly from Afghans.

With a population of 38 million, Afghanistan could have sustained the military and political strength to resist the Taliban. Instead, its USA-trained and well-funded armed forces showed ineffective resistance. In reality, the Afghan government and its military simply collapsed, unwilling to fight. There was no corporate, national will to support the USA-backed government.

Consider this—only 1.8 million Afghans voted in their last presidential election, or only about 10 percent of the voting population. That is not exactly an affirmation of self-government.

We Americans like to believe all peoples everywhere prefer freedom and law, as we understand them. Not all do—certainly not in that order. When confronted by stark choices, some nations choose the seeming security that comes with autocracy and tyranny. Iran in 1979, China in 1949, Germany in 1932, and Russia in 1917 made these same choices. The consequences were horrific. Later regret, even if genuine, comes too late.

Many Iraqis initially welcomed soldiers of the Islamic State [ISIS] because they loathed their government in Baghdad. Then, after living under tortures, many changed their minds and fought to resist, or at least welcomed liberation by others. But did they learn lessons from their disastrous early preference for ISIS? Hopefully. But humans often have short memories. And tyranny often is appealing, when the alternative appears to be chaos.

Soon, many Afghans who welcomed the Taliban conquest will regret their choice. Perhaps that regret will come after the first hand amputation they witness. (The Taliban official quoted above suggested that amputations may not be public spectacles but performed more discretely than in the past.) Some will resist their new rulers. Others will passively hope for liberation by outside forces. But that liberation will be a long time coming. Those who choose tyranny are usually stuck with it.

The idea of a people choosing tyranny is alien to most Americans. We want to believe humans are born naturally thirsting for freedom. But America’s founders, based on a biblical understanding of human nature, thought lawful freedom was a right bestowed by God on all His image-bearers. They did not believe that all cultures would achieve such freedoms.

Amputating hands in service to a theocratic thugocracy is a corruption of God’s grace, mercy, and truth in this world. But it reflects an intensely religious tribal and rural society that esteems a semblance of hackneyed justice over the messiness of a rights-based representative democracy.

Over 2,400 Americans died, and over 20,000 were wounded, amid hundreds of billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan across 20 years. Americans hoped that Afghans might achieve (and choose) some approximation of law and liberty without the threat of hand mutilations and other horrors. But in the end, most Afghans seem to want the rule of the Taliban over a society marked by ordered liberty.

Afghanistan’s choice, at least for now, should be instructive. It is a stark reminder of human nature. There is an element within all humanity that prefers the servitude of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. Freedom requires courage, responsibility, duty, trust, and faith. Tyranny is an easier choice.

But tyranny, with its injustice and chicanery, never serves God’s intention for humanity to thrive more fully in willing service to Him. Afghanistan’s choice for hand amputations is a tragedy. But it also is a warning to us. Human depravity is universal and human rights are often crushed by tyrants.


Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.


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