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Taliban fighters took control of the Afghan presidential palace after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15.
Zabi Karimi/AP

Who are the Taliban now?

How the Islamic militant group has — and hasn’t — changed in 20 years.

Nearly a year and a half before the Taliban swept through Afghanistan, seizing control of the country for the first time since 2001, it reached a peace deal with the United States in Doha, Qatar.

That process gave the ideologically strident Islamist militant group a public venue to appear as “very well-dressed people, with smartphones, speaking very diplomatically in front of the international media,” said Sher Jan Ahmadzai, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. For the Taliban, it offered a glimpse of international legitimacy, something that it lacked when the group took over Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

But in recent weeks, the Taliban completed a rout through Afghanistan, taking districts without so much as a bullet fired and entering the capital of Kabul Sunday, culminating with the group declaring the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. As the Taliban advanced, reports began to trickle out: of executions, of women and teenage girls being forced into marriages with Taliban fighters, of female students being turned away from school. It harks back to the Taliban’s repressive rule of the 1990s and raises the question of exactly who the Taliban are today, seizing power 20 years after they were driven from it.

The Taliban negotiating team’s leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (center) during peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on July 18.
Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images
The head of the Taliban delegation, Abdul Salam Hanafi (right), is accompanied by Taliban officials (from second right to left) Amir Khan Muttaqi, Shahabuddin Delawar, and Abdul Latif Mansour during peace talks in Doha on August 12.
Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

Experts said the Taliban have changed, in that the leadership has learned from the past decades — its rise, fall, and rise again. The group has become more pragmatic, and it has become much better at public relations. But that does not mean the Taliban have altered their worldview, or their goals, and their victory this week may reinforce that.

“At its core — its ideology, the way it sees Islam, the way that it sees the imposition of religious law on society — [the Taliban] has not fundamentally changed as a movement,” said Vali R. Nasr, the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University.

In many ways, the Taliban remain opaque, and there are likely divides between their leadership and the soldiers on the battlefield. That makes it hard to predict exactly what Afghanistan’s future might look like under Taliban rule. But there is also a reason Afghans are clinging to US military planes, desperate to get out of the country at any cost.

The Taliban have sought more international legitimacy. But they’re still the Taliban.

The Taliban have adapted, politically and militarily, since they were ousted in December 2001.

During their preceding five years of running Afghanistan, the group, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, never had full control over all of the country. But where it did, it imposed strict Sunni fundamentalism that brutally oppressed many in Afghanistan, especially women, who were barred from attending school or working. The Taliban persecuted minorities, particularly Shia minorities in Afghanistan. The group also gave sanctuary to al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, who planned the 9/11 attacks within the country’s borders. That, ultimately, would lead to a US- and NATO-backed force toppling their regime months later.

Unidentified armed Taliban soldiers ride on a pickup truck outside Kabul in the late 1990s.
Getty Images

The Taliban’s leaders fled after their defeat, but the group did not disband; instead, it regrouped to wage a decades-long insurgency against the US-backed government in Kabul. In that time, the Taliban did change. They became more battle-tested, and so they began to wage a more successful insurgency, with carefully plotted attacks and better coordination and intelligence-gathering. They got richer. They got a bit more pragmatic: As Nasr pointed out, part of the reason the Taliban so swiftly retook Afghanistan in recent weeks — in a way they hadn’t even in the 1990s — is because they cut deals with lots of local officials; they were willing to “wheel and deal.”

A lot of this came from the Taliban reflecting on the failures and humiliations of the past. Asfandyar Mir, an analyst on Afghanistan, told me that much of the political echelon of the Taliban is still dominated by people who were instrumental to the Taliban’s movement in the 1990s. The sting of the 9/11 aftermath has not faded for them.

“They had a really strong sense of humiliation — that we had the government and this was our right and this right was taken away from us forcefully, and so we have to assert ourselves, we have to restore our credibility, which was forcibly taken away,” Mir said. “It’s those scars of the post-9/11 months, which I think continues to really guide and shape the overall calculus of organization.” It explains, in part, the unrelenting march toward Kabul, as the Taliban reclaimed the country by force.

At the same time, experts said, the Taliban also deeply understand the need for international legitimacy and recognition. “Not only because of its normative value, but also because of access to foreign funds which, for a larger part of its history, Afghanistan’s state has been dependent on,” Kaweh Kerami, a researcher at SOAS University of London, said in an email.

This meant going beyond Pakistan. The Taliban, in recent years, have built ties with Iran and regional neighbors, along with countries like Russia and China. The United States has said it will continue to isolate a Taliban government, but the Taliban cultivated other possible partners. They know they cannot go it alone if they want to retain power in Afghanistan.

As part of this strategy, the Taliban’s political leadership has tried to present itself as a much more rational entity. It is somewhat more cautious in its rhetoric, an attempt at a rebrand of the backward, brutal force it had been portrayed as. The Taliban sat down not just for peace talks but peace talks that women participated in.

Afghanistan’s possible new leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, embodies this tension. The Taliban’s current supreme leader is Haibatullah Akhundzada, but he hasn’t been seen in years and he may or may not be dead. Baradar, though, is the political leader and a co-founder of the Taliban movement, a close associate of the deceased Omar. In 2010, Baradar was captured in Pakistan by a joint US-Pakistani intelligence operation and imprisoned. He was released from prison in 2018, around the time the Trump administration began peace talks in earnest with the Taliban. (There are reports that his release was negotiated as a condition for the talks.) Baradar, ultimately, led those peace talks in Doha.

QATAR-US-DIPLOMACY-POMPEO-TALIBAN
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in the Qatari capital, Doha, on November 21, 2020.
Patrick Semansky/AFP/Getty Images

Kerami told me that because Baradar understands that the Taliban’s survival as a government depends on diplomacy and regional aid, he appears to be comparatively less strict on social issues, including women’s issues.

But Kerami and other experts remain skeptical. There are a lot of reasons to doubt that Baradar and the Taliban’s political leadership are suddenly open to, say, allowing women to work or hold office. In June, Baradar said that women and minorities would be protected based on “the glorious religion of Islam.”

“They never really clarified what that means,” Mona Tajali, an associate professor at Agnes Scott College and executive board member with Women Living Under Muslim Laws, said. “And if you’re someone who works on gender, and women’s rights within the Muslim world, you know that that’s basically a warning sign.”

Tajali said most women’s rights activists she works with in Afghanistan never believed the Taliban moderated their views, no matter how good they’ve gotten at public relations.

Reports from Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan suggest that people and organizations are changing behaviors — for example, reports that media organizations are taking female anchors off-air — over the expectation that the Taliban will begin to implement its repressive policies once again. As the AP reported, some directives are more explicit, with women again being told they can’t work or study or leave the house without a male escort.

Many experts said the Taliban political leadership ultimately may make some overtures to appease the international community — like leave some media organizations open, or allow younger girls to attend schools — but there is reason to question how serious this commitment is. And, again, some reports from Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan suggest the commitment is chillingly shallow.

“There’s a gap between what they say and what they do,” Mir said. “It’s a political attribute of sorts — that they’re able to engage the international community with polite words, by creating the impression that they are open to politics. But in the end, they remain a strident military machine, unwilling to compromise.”

And in a lot of ways, they have very little incentive to compromise — after all, they just rolled through Afghanistan and retook Kabul, as the United States, the occupying force they set out to defeat, scrambled to burn paperwork and evacuate staff at its embassy.

But for the Taliban, it may be a lot easier to retake the country than govern it. Which is why Afghanistan’s future under Taliban rule is still so uncertain.

Can the Taliban govern? Will it restart ties with terrorists? The big questions that still loom over Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about whether and how the Taliban can run Afghanistan. Even before the US invasion, they struggled to be a government in the 1990s — to control all the territory and, most important, to deliver services to people. Whether they can do better this time will depend a lot on whether their efforts for international legitimacy pay off.

Another outstanding question is how well this political leadership — particularly those involved in international negotiations — will work with the militants on the ground. “To what extent [is] this new quote-unquote, Taliban statesman that we sat across from in Doha able to influence and discipline and control the local people?” Nasr, of Johns Hopkins, said.

The political leaders of the Taliban have schooled themselves in world affairs. They recognize they need to talk about respecting rights, because they want that international recognition. But there are thousands and thousands of Taliban commanders and foot soldiers on the ground, who may not necessarily share that view. As Ahmadzai, of the University of Omaha, said, these different layers of the Taliban have different priorities, and it will be difficult to predict if they will stand in line. “There are Taliban who claim that we are victorious, we defeated the great power, we have the right to do whatever we want, because we have given sacrifice.”

“It’s yet to be seen,” he added. “There will be ideological splits.”

Taliban fighters in Jalalabad province on August 15.
AFP/Getty Images
Thousands of people mobbed Kabul’s airport trying to flee the Taliban’s hardline brand of Islamist rule on August 16.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Other divisions might emerge as well. A lot about the Taliban’s organization remains opaque, but there are different factions, many with a lot of power and potentially competing interests. As experts pointed out, the US has tried to create wedges between these different Taliban factions in the later years of the insurgency — some of these you’ve probably heard of before, like the infamous Haqqani network. But ultimately, the Taliban have stayed, at least on the battlefield, a pretty cohesive group.

The question now is whether the absence of the US will succeed where US government policy failed. In other words, once the Taliban lose the external threat of the US, will possible power struggles or competing factions emerge?

That also leads to another gap about this Taliban, which is to what extent they will grant terrorist organizations safe haven within their borders. In the US-Taliban peace deal, the primary condition for US withdrawal was the Taliban’s pledge not to harbor terrorists that might stage attacks against the US. Despite this, there is a lot of evidence and reporting, including from the United Nations, that Taliban leadership has kept close ties with al-Qaeda.

Experts told me there are likely splits within the Taliban here, too, ones that may generate tensions as the Taliban take a foothold. Many fighters, especially younger generations, may believe in an international jihadist movement and want to lend support. But others in the movement might see those ties as too risky, as those ties ultimately dislodged the Taliban from power.

Still, the Taliban’s victory, and the symbolism of the group retaking power, could offer a boost to terror groups everywhere, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere. “When [the Taliban] can topple a government supported by the whole international community — what kind of message does that send to the rest of the extremist groups for the world?” Ahmadzai said.

What does this all mean for the people of Afghanistan?

The Taliban took Afghanistan by force. The organization is not democratic, and never will be, but experts said whether Afghans see the government as legitimate will depend on how it governs.

The Afghan government and US intervention ultimately failed, and built up a lot of resentment during its two decades. A whole generation of Afghans, born after 2001, lived under the threat of ongoing war. But that same generation, at least in major urban areas, did not live under the Taliban’s oppression.

The 20 years has meant more journalists, activists, artists, educators, and politicians, many of them women. Millions of girls and women have gone to school. “Many of them are fleeing right now, and particularly those that have the opportunity are fleeing right now,” Tajali said. “But there’s just so many of them. That’s basically the main force that we’re thinking, ‘How will the Taliban try to repress at such an extensive level?’ I don’t know if it can.”

Even if the Taliban, in a quest for international standing, rolls back some of its harshest policies, there is little hope that it will truly moderate. “They’re going to govern exactly as they did before,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on civil-military relations in South Asia who’s written extensively on the region. Their ideology defines them. “The idea of thinking that the Taliban has changed is so incorrect,” Siddiqa added.

The reports coming out of Afghanistan, so far, have been ominous. There are reports of the Taliban going door to door in Kabul, seeking out women who worked for the government and media. In Kabul, store owners reportedly took down signs with women models. Some TV channels changed from soap operas to Islamic programming. Afghans who worked with US or international forces are terrified, and in hiding, for fear of reprisal.

The Taliban may have attempted to remake their image. But many in Afghanistan have no illusions about who they really are.

A family rushes to the Hamid Karzai International Airport as they attempt to flee Kabul on August 16.
Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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