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The Taliban want the world to think they've changed. But have they?

"When it comes to experience, maturity, vision, there is a huge difference between us in comparison to 20 years ago," a Taliban spokesman said.
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Since seizing control of Afghanistan, the Taliban have sought to offer hope that the country — and the world — could be spared a return to the hard-line regime of the 1990s.

“Our nation is a Muslim nation, whether 20 years ago or now," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in his first news conference after the militants took control of the country on Tuesday, according to a translation by Al Jazeera. "But when it comes to experience, maturity, vision, there is a huge difference between us in comparison to 20 years ago."

Their message of moderation has been met by skepticism both in the United States, which invaded the country after the Taliban government sheltered 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members, as well as by many Afghans scarred by the militants' violent struggle for power and history of oppression.

Image: Women dressed in burqas sit outside a door in Herat, Afghanistan, in 1999.
Women dressed in burqas sit outside a door in Herat in 1999.Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty file

It is "premature" to answer whether the Biden administration recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate governing power in Afghanistan, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House on Tuesday.

"Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the Taliban to show the rest of the world who they are and how they intend to proceed," Sullivan said. "The track record has not been good."

The track record

The Taliban were formed in the early 1990s and fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. The group, led by the secretive Mullah Omar until his death, which was confirmed in 2015, seized power after the country was plunged into civil war after many fighters who had expelled the Soviets turned on one another.

The group — which espouses a strict and austere interpretation of Sunni Islam and from 1996 to 2001 ruled the country as an emirate, led by an emir rather than a president, with no parliament or elections — was initially welcomed by some inside and out of the country for their attempts to re-establish order.

Image: A Taliban fighter searches the bags of people coming out of the Kabul, Afghanistan, airport on Monday.
A Taliban fighter searches the bags of people coming out of Kabul's airport on Monday.Wakil Kohsar / AFP - Getty Images

But the welcome soon wore off as they banned music, cut off the hands of thieves and stoned adulterers. They also persecuted and sometimes massacred ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, women were barred from attending school, holding jobs and leaving home without male escorts. They also had to wear all-encompassing burqas.

After the U.S. toppled the Taliban government, democracy and equal rights were enshrined in the constitution, if not daily life for many Afghans, and life broadly improved for minorities and many urban women.

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During this time, the Taliban continued to control parts of the country, creating shadow authorities by taking over state hospitals and schools and running their own justice system. Their rule was often harsh and women’s rights remained restricted, but some Afghans preferred the Taliban to the central government, whose officials were often seen as corrupt and inefficient.

The Taliban spent 20 years waging an insurgency against U.S.-backed governments in Kabul. More than 100,000 civilians have been killed or injured in the fighting since 2009.

The Taliban have been accused, along with other groups, of planting improvised explosive devices in public places, often injuring civilians, and of waging an assassination campaign targeting prominent figures seen as Western or liberal.

Image: U.S. Air Force Special Forces AC-130 gunship.
An Air Force Special Forces AC-130 gunship, which was used by the U.S. military to attack targets in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2001. U.S. Air Force / Getty Images file

In the first six months of this year, the group was responsible for nearly 40 percent of civilian casualties, more than any other party to the conflict, according to the United Nations. Taliban leaders have denied targeting civilians.

In February 2020, the militants made a deal with the Trump administration that all U.S. troops would withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months. When this didn’t happen, the Taliban launched an offensive to take back the country.

Reports of abuse

While the Taliban — run by a supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, and three deputies, Mawlavi Yaqoob, son of Mullah Omar, Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the powerful Haqqani militant network, and Abdul Ghani Baradar, who heads the Taliban's political office in Doha — now control three-quarters of Afghanistan, their capacity to govern is unclear.

“They have zero experience,” Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer at the American University in Afghanistan, told the BBC World Service.

Image: A wounded woman and her child
Men try to help a wounded woman and her child after Taliban fighters use gunfire, whips, sticks and sharp objects to maintain crowd control over thousands of Afghans who continue to wait outside the Kabul, Afghanistan, airport on Tuesday.Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Taliban commanders have acknowledged to NBC News that they were not prepared for such a swift takeover and were not equipped to control Kabul.

“We don’t have enough resources to pay salaries to the government employees,” a Taliban commander in the capital said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media outlets.

As Taliban leaders flocked to the capital and attempted to consolidate control, reports circulated that their fighters were committing abuses, sowing further doubt about their claims to have become responsible and moderate.

Taliban militants violently dispersed a protest in the city of Jalalabad after a crowd of people removed the group's white flag and replaced it with an Afghan one, a resident said Wednesday to NBC News, which was not immediately able to verify the report.

Reports also circulated that Taliban fighters had beaten women and children at a checkpoint in Kabul. One photograph by a Los Angeles Times reporter showed a woman and child bloodied and apparently unconscious.

A ‘strong Islamic’ government

While Mujahid on Tuesday sought to calm fears in the West, particularly in the U.S., that the Taliban's return to power would provide a safe harbor for terrorists, American defense officials will be concerned that their takeover will allow Al Qaeda to rebuild and consolidate.

While Al Qaeda has a diminished presence in the country, the security vacuum left by the withdrawal of U.S. military forces could create an opening for it and other terrorist groups to reorganize, the officials say.

In his news conference, Mujahid also provided Afghans an early glimpse of what a Taliban government wants the world to see.

He said very soon a “strong Islamic” and inclusive government will be formed that respects the rights of women and would allow them to study and work within the framework of Shariah, repeating statements the group has made in the past. He offered scant details as to the Taliban’s interpretation of Shariah.

Ashley Jackson, of the Overseas Development Institute, a London think tank, said on issues from girls' education to what kind of government they want, the Taliban have “kicked the can down the road.”

“There’s sort of this refrain of ‘When the war is over, we’ll figure it out,’” she said.

Image: A nonformal education class for adolescent girls run by a nonprofit in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2000.
A nonformal education class for adolescent girls run by a nonprofit in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2000 before the Taliban was toppled.Majority World / Universal Images Group via Getty file

The group has long rejected taking part in elections, and there was no mention of democracy by Mujahid. A member of the Taliban’s leadership council told NBC News the government would be based on a shura council, through which decisions would be made based on mutual understanding and Shariah.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, said she expected the best the U.S. could hope for was an Iran-like regime.

“Clearly we will see many restrictions on political and social freedoms,” she said.

Hope vs. experience

Still, in the early days of the Taliban takeover, there have been some glimmers of hope.

If Afghans tuned in to Tolo News on Tuesday morning they would have seen a female news anchor interviewing a Taliban spokesman live on air. Previously, under the Taliban women did not appear on television and their voices weren't heard on the radio.

Image: A female news anchor talks to a member of the Taliban on Afghan news channel Tolo News.
A female news anchor talks to a member of the Taliban on Afghan news channel Tolo News.Tolo News

Yet outside the capital, social norms were reportedly already beginning to shift.

In the relatively liberal city of Herat, it remained unclear Tuesday whether women would be able to return to their jobs as university academics, one resident told NBC News, adding that the Taliban had said female teachers will have to wear burqas and will not be able to teach boys past seventh grade. The source spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity out of fear of the Taliban.

In the northern city of Maymana, two residents said fewer women were out on the streets now that the Taliban had taken control — most probably out of fear.

“Without chadaris, no one can walk,” one resident said, using the Pashto word for a burqa, on condition of anonymity because he was afraid of retribution from the Taliban. “Before, everyone was able to walk how they were comfortable.”

It remained unclear how much of this behavior was self-regulated.