When they completed their takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban insisted they would not revert to the brutal medieval government that turned the hardline Islamist group into an international pariah in the late 1990s. Nicknamed the Taliban 2.0 for its deft use of the social networks, the renewal of the militant’s image is being received by deep skepticism.
Two days after the fall of Kabul, Afghan viewers saw a scene that would have been unthinkable under the former Taliban regime (1996-2001): an Afghan presenter for the Tolo news channel interviewed a Taliban official.
The host, Beheshta Arghand, who was sitting 2.5 meters from him, asked questions about the security situation in the Afghan capital. The privately owned news channel also posted a video of another journalist reporting from the streets of Kabul.
The broadcast came as Taliban leaders reiterated their message that their disciplined fighters would not launch a slaughter against their former enemies.
At a press conference on August 17, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid showed a conciliatory face, confirming an amnesty for former members of the Afghan army and police.
He also said that women would be allowed to work, study and actively participate in society “but within the framework of Islam.”
Despite widespread skepticism, the hardline Islamist group is working hard to spread the idea that it will not revert to its previous practices.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, women were banned from most jobs and girls’ education was limited to primary school.
Watching television and listening to music were prohibited, and adulterers could be stoned to death.
“The core ideology of the Taliban remains the same. They still want to impose a kind of ‘over-Sharia’, an extreme and more rigorous version of Islamic law than that implemented in other countries,” Sébastien Boussois, Afghanistan researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), told FRANCE 24.
In response to a question about the differences between the Taliban of the 1990s and those of today, Mujahid said that the ideology and beliefs are the same because they are Muslim, but there is a change in terms of experience: they have more experience and they have a different perspective. pic.twitter.com/IZBkc5gxx4
– TOLOnews (@TOLOnews) August 17, 2021
Renewal of the image of the Taliban
In its first official statement during the fall of Kabul, the Taliban political bureau said that the real test would be “to serve our nation and ensure the safety and comfort of life.”
The insurgent group thus signaled that it was ready to perform a series of government functions to improve the lives of the population, rather than simply imposing religiously inspired bans.
This renewal of the image has already facilitated the conquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban, according to experts. There were few reports of popular opposition to the militants’ advances and Kabul fell without the bloodshed many feared.
“The Taliban have constructed a narrative that is very different from the heterogeneous gang that stormed Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.
They are saying ‘We liberated you from the Americans and the evildoers, the corrupt Afghans who fled to Abu Dhabi or other places with the money that was supposed to stabilize the country. ”
They can present themselves as liberators, and not just as people who will lock up Afghans, “Boussois said.
“The Taliban will say that Islamic law is a means to create a strong and austere government after years of corruption and criminality.”
Seeking worldwide recognition
As an insurgent movement fighting the world’s number one superpower, the Taliban have developed strong adaptive skills over the past two decades. His policies have been driven by military and political needs, not religious, argues a research article published in March 2021 by the CTC at West Point, the US military academy.
The author, Thomas Ruttig, wrote that “policy adaptations that are only tactical at first [could] evolve towards genuine changes. “
This appears to be the case for the group’s most notable change since 2001: its efforts to improve its relations with foreign countries for global recognition.
While the first Taliban regime was recognized by only three countries in its heyday (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), it now maintains good relations with most of its neighbors.
Both Moscow and Beijing have bought into the Taliban 2.0 narrative, the latter even calling for “friendly” relations with the new rulers of Kabul just hours after Islamist fighters entered the Afghan capital.
Analysis: China and Russia keep embassies open in Afghanistan
This narrative could eventually lead Western countries to normalize their relations with the Taliban, according to Boussois. “If you agree that the Taliban have changed, then you could deal with them to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a new North Korea, or a country in eternal chaos.
If Western countries don’t, other countries They will – this is what is happening with China and Russia right now. “
What the Taliban Learned from Their 2001 Defeat
The Taliban crave international recognition because they learned the hard way that being an international pariah harboring terrorists is a sure way to attract foreign military intervention.
Movement leaders are well aware that the United States invaded Afghanistan after its refusal to hand over the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden, and not because of the human rights violations that had taken place several years earlier. .
While the Taliban are unlikely to commit to their ultra-conservative Islamist ideology at home, they will ensure that Afghanistan is no longer used as a base for al-Qaeda attacks against foreign countries, according to Wassim Nasr, jihadist expert at FRANCE 24. movements.
“The Taliban are definitely stronger than they were in the 1990s. They have more military and political experience. That does not make them more open-minded. But they will not risk being overthrown a second time due to a provocation. Qaeda. They will keep them under control, “Nasr said.
Fighting the Islamic State group
The Taliban have had strong relations with their jihadist partner for a long time. Internal documents show that all branches of al-Qaeda have pledged allegiance to the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda fighters participated in several battles in August 2021, according to Nasr.
But the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group has led several countries to rely on the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies to contain a new jihadist threat.
Reports of the assassination of an IS group leader after the Taliban seized the prison where he was being held show that Afghanistan’s new rulers are honoring their end of the bargain, for now.
“If the Taliban prevent the IS group from spreading to Central Asia, the Russians are happy. If they prevent the Uyghurs from joining the IS group, the Chinese are happy.
And if there are no more al-Qaeda terror attacks planned from Afghanistan The Americans are happy, “Nasr said.
Regardless of concerns about human rights violations, the Taliban 2.0 have found their ticket back to the international community.