On the eve of the U.S. invasion in 2001, a top Taliban diplomat issued a warning: “Afghanistan is a swamp. People enter here laughing, are exiting injured.”
The U.S., which soon afterward ousted the Taliban from Kabul in a matter of weeks, is now racing to evacuate the capital after the militant group seized control of it Sunday much faster than anyone predicted. Chaotic scenes gripped the airport Monday, with reports of several deaths among the swarming crowds a day after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
Even before the Taliban announce what comes next, the militant group appears in a stronger position on the world stage than it ever achieved during its five-year rule that ended after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Back then it was still fighting various warlords and its government was only recognized by three countries — Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, for a bit. Its leader at the time had never been photographed.
Now Taliban representatives are being welcomed from Beijing to Moscow, where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last month called them “reasonable people.” The group has a social media presence and responsive media team that is saying all the right things: It wants an inclusive government, it won’t take revenge on political opponents, diplomats are safe and investors won’t have trouble: “No one should worry about their life,” it said in a statement over the weekend.
“We shouldn’t embrace arrogance,” Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy leader, said Monday. “Now is the time when we will be tested on how we serve and secure our people, and ensure their good life and future to the best of our ability.”
But many are skeptical that the Taliban charm offensive represents a broader shift in its fundamentalist rule. Already reports have emerged of forced marriages, discrimination against female employees and orders for men to grow beards. Thousands of residents have fled to neighboring countries in an attempt to escape life under the insurgents.
While the group is “a very different kind of Taliban” from earlier decades, it remains to be seen if Afghanistan’s new rulers will allow women in government, cooperate with former enemies and respect basic freedoms, according to Arsla Jawaid, a political analyst at Control Risks.
“Rhetoric is one thing but putting rhetoric into practice is very, very different,” she said. “For international states and regional players looking at the situation in Afghanistan, engaging with the Taliban is going to be premier on the docket. The matter is really now about a carrot-and-stick approach.”
The U.S. and its allies on Monday said recognition of any Taliban-led government would depend on the Taliban’s willingness to create an inclusive discussion that includes women and minority groups.
“Telling the international community what it wants to hear will fool no one,” Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s envoy to the United Nations, told a U.N. Security Council meeting Monday.
The Taliban formed following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989, as a group of ethnic Pashtun clerics in the south sought to impose order on warlords who were running amok. One origin myth, recounted by author Ahmed Rashid in his book “Taliban,” said former Supreme Leader Mullah Omar in 1994 attacked a local commander who kidnapped two teenage girls, shaved their heads and repeatedly raped them. Omar became a Robin Hood figure, helping the poor against the warlords.
When the Taliban took power nationally two years later, it imposed an extreme version of Shariah law. While the harsh punishments appealed to some men seeking law and order, it was devastating for women: Schools for girls were closed and women were rarely permitted to leave the house. The group also banned nearly all forms of entertainment, from music and television to sports and kite-flying.
The American invasion brought a new constitution that treated men and women equally. Although women still faced discrimination, life was far better than under Taliban rule, with girls and boys able to attend school together. Many Afghans also got a taste of modern life, with access to the internet, Western films and a popular national cricket team.
Now the Taliban must figure out how to win over a more modern population, including a generation of young people raised to view them as backward terrorists, according to Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies who wrote “The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier.”
“They have their own worldview but that worldview is not in sync with the majority of the world,” Gul said. “They now have to live in the 21st century without hurting fundamental rights.”
Many analysts see those goals as incompatible.
“If the Taliban deviates and does not stay the same, their ideology and appeal will come to an end,” said Rashid Ahmad Khan, a retired international relations professor at several Pakistan universities who has written about the group for decades. “If they dilute their own Islamic system, they will erode their own political authority.”
After seizing Kabul on Sunday, Taliban fighters moved to win over the local population. One official passed around a WhatsApp message offering phone numbers to call in case residents faced threats from “thugs” seeking to take advantage of the leadership vacuum. They also set up checkpoints on key roads, said Mohamood Qaderi, a Kabul University student.
“They have their weapons on their shoulders, behaving well with the people, asking us ‘How are you’ and ‘If there’s any issue let us know,’” he said.
But while the Taliban are likely to find success in the short term, it will be a challenge to unite the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups over the long haul. The militant group’s leadership is comprised of Sunni Pashtuns, and traditionally they have battled ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks as well as Hazaras, who are Shia Muslims.
Moreover, the Taliban will face internal power struggles along with all the pressures to deliver economic growth to keep the various warlords and the rest of the population happy, according to Kabir Taneja, who wrote “The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia” and is now a fellow at Observer Research Foundation in Delhi.
“We know that the Taliban are an effective military system — do we know they are an effective political system? We don’t,” he said. “The hard part for them comes now.”