Since retaking control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have desperately sought international recognition, Afghanistan’s seat in the United Nations, and access to Afghanistan’s frozen funds. Given the vital role of these elements, the Taliban have taken a series of measures including, but not limited to, running an international public relations campaign to project what we call “Taliban 2.0” and engaging in hostage diplomacy with the international community, a brand of diplomacy that they have mastered since their first takeover of Afghanistan in 1996. We intend to discuss these two measures in two parts. The first covers the Taliban’s PR campaign projecting Taliban 2.0; and the second discusses the Taliban’s hostage diplomacy vis-à-vis the international community.
We often hear from international intellectuals and diplomats such as Zalmay Khalilzad, former special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation; Gen. Sir Nick Carter, U.K. chief of defense; and Deborah Lyons, U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, who naïvely claim that the Taliban have changed. This is more than just cynicism, as they hardly reflect on the fact that it is often foreigners who notice a change in the Taliban, as opposed to Afghans who are directly affected by the Taliban’s rule. Foreigners would hardly expect their own political figures and domestic extremist factions to radically change their beliefs. For instance, it would be amazing to see any American expect Marjorie Taylor Greene to become pro-Jewish, pro-Muslim, and pro-immigrant; Mitch McConnell to become a liberal, or Bernie Sanders to switch to the Republican Party overnight. Yet, some Taliban apologists like Khalilzad are asking the world to believe that the Taliban has changed drastically into an apparently non-Taliban group. While Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and others continue to write reports based on first-hand accounts of Afghanistan’s residents, Taliban apologists rely either on the Taliban’s own accounts or other international diplomats and scholars who themselves interacted with the Taliban or their Pakistani lobbyists only.
The Taliban are an ideological group, and as is apparent, ideologies do not change suddenly. Based on their extremist religious interpretation, the Taliban have a particular worldview about women, minorities, and laws and governance. Now that they have won a war against a relatively democratic regime, the world’s mightiest power and its allies, they further feel validated on their worldview. Why would they change their beliefs after achieving victory? If anything, the so-called Taliban 2.0 indicates a change in their tactics and strategies, but not their beliefs. In other words, they have come to the realization that unless they project a more moderate image of themselves to the international community, they will never get international recognition and the support needed to govern Afghanistan.
How do we know this? The evidence lies in the discrepancies between what the Taliban say to foreigners and what they say and do to Afghans. To demonstrate these discrepancies, we’ll use the Taliban’s own words: those intended for international audiences and those directed at Afghans.
On Amnesty and Afghans’ Freedom of Movement
Upon their return to Kabul, the Taliban announced “a complete amnesty for Afghans, especially those who were with the opposition or supporters of the occupiers” and said that “everyone is forgiven,” much to the satisfaction of the international community. Simultaneously, however, they made it clear to Ziaul, a former government commander, that “there is no forgiveness for people like you.”
Sure enough, the group created a blacklist of people like Ziaul and tasked their so-called special force, Sara Qeta, to identify and hunt them down. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations produced reports of nightly raids, forced disappearance, torture, burning, killing, and ransoming of not just former government officials, but also their family members, civil society activists, and minorities, on daily basis. These and similar reports mostly come from big cities with more mainstream and social media access such as Nangarhar, Kabul, Balkh, and Kandahar whereas countless cases of killings, disappearances, and torture in rural regions go largely unreported.
In his very first news conference, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid suggested that those Afghans who wanted to leave Afghanistan were free to do so “if their documents are valid, then we are not going to ask what they were doing before.” The Taliban have also made pledges to the U.S. in Doha that they would not target those Afghans who wished to leave the country. But that was not to be the case domestically. From the very beginning of their return to power, death squads began hunting for those who wanted to leave, some even reportedly posing as a rescue organization to draw out their targets. In one instance, using this method, they killed four female civil society activists in Balkh. Reports of the Taliban targeting and killing individuals for the very same reason are becoming public on daily basis.
On Abandoning Acts of Terrorism
Pretending that they have abandoned terrorism, Mujahid stated in a news conference that “we assure the international community and especially the U.S. and neighboring countries that Afghanistan won’t be used against them.” A few days later, the group announced the formation of a new “martyrdom brigade” and held a victory parade in which they displayed car bombs, explosive vests, and suicide bombers, which they referred to as “martyrdom-seekers squadrons.” The parade was aired on national TV. In a subsequent event, they celebrated and rewarded the families of suicide bombers for the sacrifices of their children in the past 20 years in an official gathering at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel. While pledging lands, cash and more to the families of suicide bombers, the Taliban minister of interior stated that “their sacrifices are for religion, for the country and for Islam.”
The group has made it known to Afghans that they are building a standing army of suicide bombers to crush any opposition to their rule. Not only that, in a show of force and determination, the Taliban deployed several battalions of suicide bombers to the border with Tajikistan when tensions were escalating. Additionally, the Taliban have coerced media into describing suicide bombers as martyrs, and punished those who did otherwise.
Several security analysts have cast doubts about the disconnect between the Taliban-Haqqani Network and the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK). Some have highlighted how the last suicide attack on U.S. forces at the Kabul International Airport benefited the Haqqani Network, whose objectives were killing fleeing Afghans, discouraging others from staying at the airport and further embarrassing the new rulers, and ensuring the early departure of international forces. Earlier, a senior member of the Taliban in Doha tweeted about the Afghan crowd at the airport, describing them as “servants of the foreigners.” Furthermore, a June 2021 United Nations report revealed that the Taliban had not cut ties with al-Qaida, who recently congratulated their victory and called for the “liberation” of the rest of the Muslim world.
On Women and Minorities’ Rights
When under the scrutiny of the international reporters, the Taliban claims that “our sisters, our men have the same rights,” and that they respect women rights “within the bounds of Shariah.” But then they turn to Afghan women and warn them not to protest, not to go to school, not to go to work, and even not to look for public services without wearing a full hijab. They have fired at women protesters, lashed those without male companions, and kept girls and women out of schools and universities. Interestingly, a senior Taliban member told Reuters that they have fought for 40 years to bring Shariah and, therefore, women “are not allowed to come to our offices and work in our ministries.”
While the Taliban’s senior members were assuring the international community that they would respect minority rights “within the bounds of Shariah,” their provincial leaders were issuing eviction notices to thousands of Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmens, telling them that if they did not comply, they “had no right to complain about the consequences.” The Taliban have forced minorities out in at least one-third of the provinces, including Daikundi, Sar-e Pol, Helmand, Uruzgan, Ghazni, Balkh, Kandahar, Panjshir, Jawzjan, and Kabul provinces. In most cases, the population of a whole village would get three days to depart, leaving them no choice but to leave behind their belongings, harvests, and livestock. Those who could not leave by the appointed date found themselves shot or beaten, their belongings destroyed, and their houses burned.
Other religious minorities are on the verge of disappearance. Zebulan Simentov, the last member of the Jewish community in Afghanistan, fled the country days after the Taliban takeover. The dozens of remaining families of Hindus and Sikhs are also seeking possible ways out of Afghanistan. These actions reflect the Taliban’s lack of tolerance of others — especially minorities and women.
On Freedom of Speech and Media
On August 15, 2021, Mujahid assured Reporters Without Borders (RSF) that “no threat or reprisal will be carried out against journalists” and “we declare to the world that we recognize the importance of the role of the media.” Around the same time, however, a Taliban deputy governor warned a journalist that unless he stopped writing negatively about the Taliban, they would “hang [him] in the center of the city.” More recently, the Taliban issued a new regulation by which they have forbidden any anti-Taliban coverage. Music, movies, and other entertainment shows have been banned except those praising Islam and the Taliban. Senior officials and militia have personally warned nearly all media stations of severe consequences for reporting against the Taliban’s instructions. In a live interview, a Taliban spokesperson warned that not only were the women’s protests illegal, but also “covering their protests [by media] is illegal…and punishable.”
To make sure the media got the message, they burned, destroyed, or banned countless stations across Afghanistan, re-baptized a few into “Shariah” outlets, arrested at least 32 journalists, and killed, injured, or tortured a number of others. Since the Taliban’s seizure of power, over 100 media outlets have stopped operating, and over 1,700 female reporters have lost their jobs. Media coverage of certain regions, such as Nangarhar and Panjshir, are altogether forbidden to hide the Taliban’s grave crimes against humanity. The chief of provincial security in Panjshir officially ordered its forces to crack down on media, civil society, and human rights activists and make “an example of them for others to learn” because they are promoting an “infidel regime.”
On Forming an Inclusive Government
The Taliban have repeatedly reminded the world that “After consultations we will witness the formation of a strong inclusive Islamic government.” In his visit to Islamabad, Amir Khan Mutaqi, the foreign minister of the Taliban, in a speech at the Strategic Studies Institute, stated that “the international community is wanting us to form an inclusive government…. We have representatives from all ethnic groups.”
Everyone in Afghanistan knows that such a statement is simply false: The Taliban cabinet is all-male, nearly entirely ethno-religiously exclusive, and with U.N. listed-terrorists as ministers. Instead of recognizing the role of the women, the Taliban simply removed the Ministry of Women Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which conducts religious and moral policing. Even governor positions are filled almost exclusively with Taliban senior members who are mostly Pashtun males. For the province of Bamiyan, they appointed Mullah Sarhadi, the same Taliban commander who led the destruction of the Giant Buddha Statues and the same individual who ordered the massacre of Hazaras in Yakawlang.
A perfect example of the Taliban’s successful PR campaign is the global circulation of the news of the Taliban reinstating the Constitution of 1994. The news was generated when the Taliban brought up the issue not with Afghans, but with the ambassador of China in a brief meeting. Apparently, the Taliban did not see the need to first share this supposedly important decision with Afghans. Relying on this singular statement, national and international media rushed into reporting that the Taliban “restore[d] old Afghan Constitution.” Since then, months have passed, but the Taliban remain silent in the face of an eagerly awaiting society on when the constitution would be restored, how long this temporary constitution would last, and what parts of the constitution they found un-Islamic and would discard. The society will have to wait in vain because the message was not intended for Afghans, but rather for international consumption.
What to Learn from the Myth of Taliban 2.0?
The Taliban’s statements for foreign and for Afghan consumption could not be any further apart. It should not be surprising since the Taliban are pursuing two different goals internationally and domestically.
Internationally, they are seeking recognition and economic support; domestically, they are in the pursuit of opposition, focused on entrenching their control over Afghanistan, and enforcing their unwavering politico-religious ideology. Like all other Afghan regimes, the Taliban are projecting a government or an approach of governance that is not even close to reality and the local conditions in Afghanistan. Now that the international community is deliberating future relations with the country and the Taliban, they need to be cautious and mindful of the great divide between what the Taliban say and what the Taliban do in practice.
While it is difficult to expect accountability from the Taliban, the international community can at least make sure that it does not embolden a terrorist organization, which is imposing itself on more than 35 million Afghans.
In the second part of this series, we’ll examine the Taliban’s hostage diplomacy vis-à-vis the international community in greater depth.