Free speech, women and the interpretation of religion are areas where the Taliban will be scrutinised the most.
The Taliban’s dramatic capture of power in Kabul and the end of the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan by the US has left many wondering what the new power brokers will end up doing with the country.
Between 1996 and 2001, when the US invaded the country and overthrew the group, the Taliban had established an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a government based around a radical interpretation of Islamic principles.
Now 20 years later, and with the US unable to defeat the group, the Taliban are on the cusp of securing another bid at ruling the country.
But Afghanistan and its people have changed. Twenty years ago, most people in the world, including Afghanistan, had little if any access to the Internet. The local media market was limited. Social media and its effect of amplifying messages and connecting people across borders didn’t exist.
The Taliban now has to contend with this brave new world. But has the group changed?
On Tuesday, the spokesman of the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, gave the group’s first news conference to the world.
For years Mujahid was an elusive figure often operating outside of the public eye but connecting with journalists for years through Whatsapp. Now journalists within Afghanistan and from international organisations could field questions and follow-ups in person.
According to one international journalist present, “all journalists were invited to the press conference – male and female,” by the Taliban.
One of the first journalists to question the group was a female from an international news organisation. A signal that the Taliban is so far willing to engage with the international media and willing to forgo past hesitancy of working women in the public space.
In the press conference, Mujahid implored the media to report freely and that they should “promote the unity of the nation.”
“We want to reassure all media and broadcast groups that if they work according to our Islamic rules, to Shariah, they will be free,” added Mujahid.
When the Taliban were in power in the late 90s, they banned television sets. Now the Taliban are coming back into power in a country which, according to some reports, has 96 TV channels, 65 radio stations and 911 print media in Kabul alone.
Whereas in the rest of the country, there are more than 107 TV channels, 284 radio stations, and 416 print media.
The media genie is well and truly out of the bottle. A female presenter in one of the country’s biggest news channels, Tolo News, interviewed a Taliban spokesperson live on TV. For now, the Taliban want to show themselves as having recognised the new reality in the country.
Over the last 20 years, the role of women has drastically changed. An increasing number of women are in education and in professional roles.
During their time in power, the Taliban committed to the education of both men and women. However, they issued a decree that women above the age of eight could not receive further schooling.
The Taliban later claimed that this measure was temporary and they were working on creating facilities that would ensure the separation of genders in educational institutions.
Against that backdrop now people are seeking guarantees from the Taliban that women’s education and employment will not be hindered.
In response to concerns about the role of women, the Taliban spokesperson said that they “will be afforded all their rights, whether it is in work or other activities, because women are a key part of society. And we are guaranteeing all the rights within the limits of Islam.”
What this means in practice, and whether they stick to their word in the long-run, is anyone’s guess. But if there is a small silver lining for women in Afghanistan, it’s that the Taliban again seem to be acutely aware that the country they are taking over has changed.
The Taliban’s harsh treatment of Shia minorities like the Hazaras during their first attempt at ruling has given way to something seemingly more sophisticated and indicative of their new approach to governance.
In a bid to burnish their new approach to power, Taliban officials visited a Shia neighbourhood and attended an Ashura morning event, which marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar and the day Muslims believe that the Prophet Musa (Moses) was saved by God from the clutches of the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Such scenes would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.
Yet this new approach to minorities is far from being evenly applied.
There are unconfirmed reports that the Taliban destroyed a statue of a Shia military leader Abdul Ali Mazari, who fought against the group in the country’s civil war and was later killed by the Taliban.
While it’s still too early to tell how the Taliban will rule the country, what’s becoming increasingly apparent is that the group is keen to project itself as different to what it once was.
While the Taliban are primarily drawn from the country’s Pashtun ethnicity, which makes up the largest grouping in the country, they are not a majority.
If the Taliban is to secure its position in the country more effectively, it will need to bring in other ethnicities. To this end, the Taliban have been careful about appearing triumphant or coming across as if they will monopolise power in this wildly diverse country.
In an exclusive interview for TRT World, the Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said they are seeking to form an “inclusive government,” adding that the “we do not believe or want a monopoly of power.”
“We want Afghans of all ethnicities to be united and be a part of the government as now is the time to build Afghanistan after the foreign forces have left,” added Shaheen.
His words are an indication that while the Taliban were victorious against the US occupation, its most significant challenge may well be bringing the country’s disparate minorities into a process where they will feel empowered and heard.
Reaching out to the International community
When the Taliban declared their Islamic Emirate in 1996, only three countries in the world recognised it, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
However, following the US declaring their War on Terror and under growing pressure – Pakistan and the UAE rescinded their recognition.
Today, the Taliban control much more of the country than they did in their first attempt to rule the country and are buoyed as a result of defeating an occupying power. But as before, the group could struggle to have its government recognised by the international community.
During his press conference, Zabihullah Mujahid declared that from now on, “Afghanistan will be a narcotics-free country”, however, he added, “it needs international assistance.”
“The international community should help us so that we can have alternative crops,” said Mujahid offering an olive branch.
With the opium trade already established as a global problem, any attempt to reduce that problem may require some form of cooperation with, or recognition of, the Taliban.
As an increasing number of Afghan refugees make their way towards Europe, it could further radicalise politics. A new Taliban administration may ultimately need to become a partner if it’s to stop refugee flows that could destabilise other countries.
Source: TRT World