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After the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan some 25 years ago, Americans became accustomed to news of public executions, bans on everything from televisions to kite flying, and brutal repression of women.
Now, just days after they retook the country, it has come as a surprise to many in the United States to see Taliban leaders speaking at press conferences and being interviewed on live television by Western anchors.
The Taliban clearly see value in communicating openly with Western media outlets, but some experts worry that Americans may be getting a distorted sense of who the Taliban are from this more open approach. The real question, they say, is whether the group has really become more moderate, or if it has just learned to say what Western governments want to hear.
Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said American media coverage has largely overlooked the “most important figure” in the Taliban: Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhunzada.
Akhunzada is the supreme leader of the Taliban, or what one expert describes as the “amir-ul-momenin,” the “commander of the faithful.” The supreme leader “stands at the top,” and “under him is the Rahbari Shura (Leadership Council) of which he is not a member and that advises him,” wrote Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“The leader takes the final decision,” Ruttig wrote earlier this year.
Most media coverage has focused on Abdul Ghani Baradar, the English-speaking chief deputy under the supreme leader. Baradar has engaged in negotiations with U.S. officials and spoken publicly, but Haqqani said skeptically that “journalists think people who speak English are the most important in the Taliban.”
Baradar is very influential, and senior to the Taliban’s two other deputies: Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqub (the son of the Taliban’s first leader, Mullah Omar) and Sirajuddin Haqqani. Another significant figure is Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai.
Baradar and Sirajuddin Haqqani are on the Leadership Council. Stanakzai is not. Neither are the spokesmen for the Taliban who have been highly visible of late, such as Sohail Shaheen and Zabihullah Mujahid.
But Baradar is still junior to Akhunzada, the supreme leader, who has kept a low public profile of late, allowing leaders underneath him to speak for the group. Haqqani, the former ambassador, noted that a key clue to Akhunzada’s worldview is that his 23-year-old son, Abdur Rahman, reportedly died in a suicide bombing in 2017, less than a year after his father had been chosen as supreme leader of the Taliban.
“That should give you an idea of how moderate he is capable of being,” Haqqani said.
Ruttig wrote a detailed article exploring how the Taliban may have evolved since the U.S. military stormed into Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. He concluded that “there have been some tangible changes in media and communications, the education system, and the relations with [nongovernmental organizations],” but that this “does not indicate positive changes toward women’s rights, political freedoms, and political participation.”
“It is difficult to untangle to what degree the changes in the Taliban’s policies, rhetoric, and behavior reflect a reaction to political necessity, are tactical lip service, or represent a genuine shift in ideology,” Ruttig wrote.
Haqqani, who fought political battles with extremists in Pakistan, was far more pessimistic.
“They’ve learned something in the last 20 years: that you have to say these things” about women’s rights, he said. “The real change is going to be nominal and minimal. The lesson they seem to have learned is not to whip women in front of Western cameras.”
The television interviews with Western journalists don’t mean the group has changed, according to Haqqani. “The fact that so many people are panicking is that they in their hearts know who these people are,” he said.
The question of whether the Taliban have moderated their views may miss a larger point about Afghan society. As one expert noted, much of the Taliban’s conservatism is popular in large swaths of the country.
“In fact, the Taliban’s positions and attitudes stem from Afghan cultural norms as much as they do Islamic doctrine, which influences them in both strongly conservative and relatively progressive directions,” Borhan Osman, a senior consultant on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, wrote in the New York Times.
“The socially conservative views the Taliban espouse are common among rural Afghans, as well as a substantial share of urban educated youth.”
To the degree that the Taliban have moderated their positions — for example, by allowing girls to go to school — it has come as the result of changes in public opinion and of their expanding influence over the past several years, which has led them to consider how to effectively govern a vast and decentralized country.
The Taliban “seem to have reached a conclusion internally that their 1990s model of government is not tenable today,” Osman wrote.
Regardless of those changes, many fear that even a more moderate Taliban will be repressive.
“As the Taliban have said, their ideology is the same, but they have more ‘experience,’” Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “I take this to mean that their political leadership has learned in the last 20 years how to manipulate rhetoric to try and gain international legitimacy, it has learned to maneuver on the world stage, but on the ground in Afghanistan — they haven’t shown any indication that anything will be different from the last time they were in power.”
There is “no indication that it will be any different from their regressive and draconian rule 20-some years ago,” Afzal concluded.
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