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Two Talibans Are Competing for Afghanistan

The gap between the group’s international leadership and its rank-and-file fighters has never been wider.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Head of the Taliban delegation Abdul Salam Hanafi, accompanied by Taliban officials Amir Khan Muttaqi, Shahabuddin Delawar and Abdul Latin Mansour, walks down a hotel lobby during the talks in Qatar's capital Doha on Aug. 12.
Head of the Taliban delegation Abdul Salam Hanafi, accompanied by Taliban officials Amir Khan Muttaqi, Shahabuddin Delawar and Abdul Latin Mansour, walks down a hotel lobby during the talks in Qatar's capital Doha on Aug. 12. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

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Leaving Afghanistan

Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, reports have spread of looting and executions across the country. Afghans based in Kabul have been sending messages to their friends abroad about Taliban ground troops hunting female journalists and doctors in house-to-house searches.

The leadership of the Taliban has been at pains to spread a very different message. They have scrambled to order their ground forces to operate with restraint and to persuade all Afghans of their good intentions. Taliban leaders have declared a general amnesty for anyone who worked for the previous regime; asked government officials and journalists, including women, to return to work; and even reached out to minority groups to assuage their concerns.

The top of the Taliban hierarchy, many of whom have spent years abroad during the recently ended war, clearly intend on presenting themselves as benign and reformed rulers who crave legitimacy among Afghans and recognition from the international community. Far less clear is whether the rank-and-file Taliban members now governing the entirety of Afghanistan desire the same—much less how, and at whose expense, any resulting tensions within the Taliban will get resolved.

Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, reports have spread of looting and executions across the country. Afghans based in Kabul have been sending messages to their friends abroad about Taliban ground troops hunting female journalists and doctors in house-to-house searches.

The leadership of the Taliban has been at pains to spread a very different message. They have scrambled to order their ground forces to operate with restraint and to persuade all Afghans of their good intentions. Taliban leaders have declared a general amnesty for anyone who worked for the previous regime; asked government officials and journalists, including women, to return to work; and even reached out to minority groups to assuage their concerns.

The top of the Taliban hierarchy, many of whom have spent years abroad during the recently ended war, clearly intend on presenting themselves as benign and reformed rulers who crave legitimacy among Afghans and recognition from the international community. Far less clear is whether the rank-and-file Taliban members now governing the entirety of Afghanistan desire the same—much less how, and at whose expense, any resulting tensions within the Taliban will get resolved.

A day after entering Kabul, the group’s leading spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, conducted a lengthy press conference in the city in which he said the Taliban did not seek revenge and would not execute anyone who had previously opposed them. He also assured the protection of women’s rights within an Islamic framework, the formation of an inclusive government, and round-the-clock protection to foreign embassies.

Many Afghans, and experts who have followed the group since its formation, believe these assurances amount to little more than a public relations exercise. Some pointed to Mujahid’s demand, in that same press conference, that the media would be obliged to observe Islamic law whilst reporting and the way he seemed to suggest that women might only have the opportunity to work in a few selected professions.

There are questions about whether the Taliban’s political leadership is inclined to make more concessions than its ground troops are willing to concede. Reports are already rife of Taliban rank-and-file shooting at protesters and public images of women being painted over.

This month, a Taliban fighter in Kandahar told Foreign Policy that the Taliban would never allow elections in the country. “Elections do not work,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to talk to the press. “For the last 20 years, we had elections, but that achieved nothing. We will have our own way.” The group’s official spokesperson in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, however, countered that view and said, “We are open to all ideas brought to the table,” including holding elections.

Douglas London, a former head of CIA counterterrorism operations for South and Southwest Asia, said the Taliban have become “fabulously media-savvy.” That newfound sophistication could forestall the group from committing an overt genocide, as it has in the past against the Hazara minority. But none of that suggests the group won’t continue to disrespect basic human rights or tacitly support terrorists. “They are going to cloak themselves in religious appropriateness in returning to repression of women, limiting exposure to the West, suppressing democracy, and disrespecting human rights,” London said. “They will not restrict terrorist groups, just ask them to operate low-key.” The Taliban have already released a number of significant al Qaeda fighters in the Indian subcontinent who had been held by Afghan authorities at a detention facility at Bagram Air Base.

Foreign Policy’s conversations with Taliban representatives at different rungs of the group’s hierarchy underscore that they are planning to resurrect an authoritarian regime yet one that might moderate its infamous cruelty. Some believe that the Taliban aims to adopt a more stringent version of the governance already in place in other Islamic nations, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. This would indeed amount to a more tempered and restrained regime than the Taliban oversaw the last time it was in power. The comparison with Iran suggests an unabashedly religious regime but one run according to an organized religious hierarchy, rather than ad hoc fundamentalist brutality. “Iran wants the Taliban to be like itself, an Islamic country run by clerics,” Rahmatullah Nabil, a presidential candidate in the last elections and former head of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, told me days before the Taliban claimed Kabul.

Taliban leaders in Doha, Quetta, and Kabul are currently debating the extent of social freedoms to grant to urban populations in the country, which have grown in size and have become less conservative since the group was last in power. Their goal will be to silence critics abroad while at the same time keeping its hard-line support base intact.

Habib Agha, the son of senior Taliban leader Sayed Akbar Agha who claims to be in touch with the Taliban leadership in Doha and Quetta, as well as with the group’s foot soldiers in Kabul, told Foreign Policy of the group’s political plans. “Girls will be allowed to go to school and even to university if they want,” said the younger Agha in Urdu. “They can become doctors because women need female doctors, but it might be hard for them to become journalists or lawyers, I think.”

Habib added that women might not be forced by law to wear a full veil as long as they wear a hijab and keep their hair covered. He added that the Taliban will likely stop running entertaining TV shows as they “distract the young from studying and waste the time of older people,” but there might be some room to listen to “good music.” However, it would all be monitored by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a draconian entity in its last incarnation under the Taliban. He admitted that some people had been executed by the Taliban in the south but only “the thieves,” in his words, and that some house-to-house searches were carried out but only of those who “hid weapons or owned state goods such as vehicles.”

Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and the author of a definitive book of the group’s ideology, said the Taliban will try to keep the country’s basic economic system in place to protect their own access to state assets, but the same doesn’t apply to human rights. “They don’t believe in democracy, so how will they choose a leader, for instance? Many questions they have not answered,” Rashid said. “I think they will try hard to integrate themselves in the international community, to get recognition. But all the talk of women’s rights is lip service. A whole new generation of zealots who were freed from jails in Afghanistan and spent time in Guantánamo, [who] had bad experiences with the West, will take a very hard line. The younger generation of Taliban fighters did most of the fighting. They will demand their pound of flesh and avoid any concessions toward liberalism and modernism.”

Russia, China, and, of course, Pakistan have already expressed trust in the Taliban’s return to power. But many in the West find it hard to swallow the group’s new self-presentation as a resistance force against U.S. occupation without any acknowledgement of its own history of domestic cruelty and terror. The world is watching and wondering if the Taliban deserve the chance to rule that they acquired so easily. Afghans meanwhile are holding their breath and wondering whether it is safe to step out of their homes yet.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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