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Inside the Taliban religious police

Papers found by in the rubble of the headquarters of the Taliban’s religious police shed new light on their huge efforts to prohibit simple pastimes like raising pigeons. By Preston Mendenhall
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Papers found by in the rubble of the headquarters of the Taliban’s feared religious police shed new light on their severe interpretation of Islam and their gargantuan efforts to prohibit simple pastimes like raising pigeons. They also show the police were masters of bureaucratic minutiae — and not above seeking special treatment for friends and family.

THE KANDAHAR BRANCH of the Ministry for Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue was one of the first targets in the U.S. bombing campaign that ousted the Taliban from power.

The ministry wielded extraordinary power in Afghanistan, issuing decrees and edicts that were the backbone of the radical government’s strict interpretation of Islam. In Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban, the ministry’s laws were carried out to their fullest.

Today, the once-elegant façade of the religious police’s headquarters, a former Afghan royal palace, is in ruins, crushed by several 500-pound American bombs.

A scattering of papers left behind when the Taliban fled Kandahar in December reveals the police agency’s tireless fervor in imposing Taliban laws.


Judging by the copious records listing the infractions and punishments of thousands of Kandaharis and Afghans from neighboring provinces, the religious police rarely had a quiet day.

The papers show how anguished relatives pleaded with the ministry to release their kin. In one appeal, written on the official paper provided for such requests, a relative begged for clemency for a man called Sher Mohammed.

Sher Mohammed “was punished because he using fighting birds,” the letter said. “Please release him and he won’t do it again.” The raising of birds for pleasure or fighting was prohibited by the Taliban, which viewed such pastimes as a diversion from a life devoted to Islam.

In another appeal, a relative sought information about a man caught with a rabab, or guitar-like traditional Afghan musical instrument.

The Taliban banned music and other forms of light entertainment, and the confiscation of audiocassettes and musical instruments took up a good deal of the religious police’s time, the documents show, suggesting that the militia’s iron grip on the population did not go unchallenged.

In a document detailing the daily activities of one vice-and-virtue squad, an official boasted of a big haul of contraband: “Today, once again, the routine work of our team has yielded 150 music cassettes, one camera, one pistol and three drivers with cassettes in their taxis.” The report was signed “Mullah Hamed.”

The Taliban believed photography promoted idolatry and drew attention away from the teachings of the prophet Mohammed.


The black-turbaned religious squads, which patrolled the city streets in 4X4 pickup trucks, also monitored required daily prayers.

“We’ve been to different mosques and people were offering their prayers willingly,” said a report from officers Raz Mohammed, Mohammed Hussain and Melang Agha. “The people were very happy with this government.”

Most of the papers found by date to August, two months before the U.S.-led bombing campaign began in Afghanistan.

The religious police also occupied themselves with a darker side of Afghan life: drugs and sex crimes.

A man named Jamal was sent to prison for six months for “sexual perversion” with minors. “We have made an example out of him in order to get rid of these kinds of deeds,” his case report said.

Mohammed Sadiq was slapped with a six-month jail term for drug use. After he served his sentence, Sadiq was declared “rehabilitated” and sent back home.

But the vice and virtue police also showed they were not above “safarish,” Pashto for doing a favor for a friend. Warm notes from one mullah to another in the ministry sought special dispensation for family members and friends.

After a few words of praise, one mullah asked for a transfer for a friend, a teacher named Naqibullah. In response to another request, a ministry official wrote to a Kandahar institute to secure a course of study for a man called Mohammed Isa. It was not immediately clear whether the request was granted.

Afghans were also required to seek permission from the vice and virtue police to travel on Fridays, Islam’s holy day.

For a largely illiterate regime, the Taliban were prolific bureaucrats — and apparently busy accountants. The bombed-out remains of the religious police headquarters in Kandahar was filled with gas station receipts approved by the in-house bill payer.

And although the Taliban government went bankrupt under the weight of U.N. sanctions, there appeared to be plenty of money to keep the religious ministry’s fleet of pickup trucks filled with gasoline.’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Afghanistan.