This Is Not the Taliban 2.0

The group’s claims of having changed are probably more reassuring to those unfamiliar with its history.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid addresses a news conference in Kabul.
Hoshang Hashimi / AFP / Getty

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

When the Taliban first sacked Kabul 25 years ago, the group declared that it was not out for revenge, instead offering amnesty to anyone who had worked for the former government. “Taliban will not take revenge,” a Taliban commander said then. “We have no personal rancor.” At the time of that promise, the ousted president, Mohammad Najibullah, was unavailable for comment. The Taliban had castrated him and, according to some reports, stuffed his severed genitals in his mouth, and soon after, he was strung up from a lamppost.

The reports from Kabul are probably more reassuring to those unfamiliar with this history. The Taliban has once again declared a general amnesty, and asked everyone to show up for work in the morning and prepare to unite behind a Taliban government that will rule according to Islamic law—but perhaps, the group has suggested, not in the harsh manner that made it infamous during its rule from 1996 to 2001. Women can continue their education so long as they wear the hijab, and the Taliban will guarantee human rights and freedoms of speech and expression, it said, so long as they comply with Sharia. (Spoiler: The Taliban does not believe they do.) A Taliban spokesperson consented to an interview with a female television presenter whose face was visible. During the Taliban’s previous regime, it discouraged depiction of the human form, and would certainly not have countenanced the broadcast of a woman’s face to the entire world.

The Taliban now owns Afghanistan, and its first priority is avoiding anything that resembles chaos. In 1996, the group’s leader, Mullah Omar, told residents of Kabul to resist the temptation to flee, that the Taliban would keep them safe. Omar died in 2013, but his successors—who include his own son, the Taliban’s top military official—are saying exactly the same thing now. They have made sure the police phone number works, and they are calling for workers, including cops formerly loyal to the previous government, to report for duty. The Afghans I have reached by phone in Kabul say the same: Taliban are in the streets, acting not as avengers but as guarantors of public order. They are not executing people on street corners; instead they’re watching for looters and troublemakers. (The Taliban has always returned to this core role, since the movement’s founding: In the 1990s, when the Afghan countryside was beset by highwaymen, murderers, and rapists, the group won its first followers by securing the roads and providing order where the worst kind of anarchy had reigned.)

Yet those who wish to avoid being force-fed their own testicles should probably not read too much into the kinder, gentler Taliban initiatives currently being implemented in Kabul. The Taliban are cruel, but they are not fools, and magnanimity early in their rule does not mean that they will be any less vengeful than they were at the height of their power, in the 1990s and 2000s. Outside Kabul—which is to say, away from the eyes of the world—there are reports of summary executions.

Indeed, the leaders of the Taliban show no sign of mellowing. Why would they? For the past 15 years, they have been unremittingly violent, and for this pitilessness they have only been rewarded. They played at negotiating, but dishonestly, and only to accept the terms of American surrender. Moreover, the current generation of leaders is simply meaner than its predecessors, and in some cases hardened by time in Guantánamo Bay. The first generation of Taliban focused on overcoming its Afghan rivals. This one has taken on those rivals—and NATO—and has now won decisively. An Afghan in Kabul who knows senior Taliban told me they are “much more strict, much more hard-line.”

“They came into the city as a victorious Islamic army,” he said, “and of course they will act that way,” and treat their success as a reward from God for having shown no mercy.

Monday’s address by President Joe Biden suggested that even now—after America has been snookered by the Taliban in negotiation and defeated on the battlefield—he still takes them at their word. He said that the American goals in Afghanistan were to “get those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and make sure al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again,” and that those goals had been accomplished. “Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.” These comments suggest that Biden is gullible enough to be reassured by promises from a Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, who said the group will not let its territory be used against any other state.

The Taliban still has thousands of foreign fighters, including Chinese, Chechens, Uzbeks, and others, all with interests in their home countries. The Taliban denies these fighters’ existence, so its promise to keep them well behaved and never to let them run off to trouble other parts of the world is roughly as credible as its promise to rule without rancor or without serving gonad sandwiches to captured enemies.

Biden’s speech was noted for its lack of sentimentality about the thousands of Afghans left to the mercies of the Taliban. But its incoherence should be noted too. He claimed that the United States had no business trying to build a durable and democratic government; it sought only to keep the country terrorist-free. But Afghanistan’s availability as a sanctuary for terrorists is, to say the least, related to its status as a warlord-ridden wasteland. And the Taliban’s victory guarantees that Afghanistan will remain just such a country, whose best people are in every generation the first to be slaughtered or chased away. ​​Turning Afghanistan into a healthy democracy proved beyond America’s ability, but turning it into a dystopia that seeks to drag other countries to its level is well within the Taliban’s power.

That is what it does best. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan 20 years ago, it implemented a program of startling simplicity: in domestic policy, a law-and-order government according to an interpretation of Islamic law alien to modern conceptions of human rights; and in foreign policy, extension of hospitality to Sunni jihadists of all nationalities and persuasions. It claims to have chilled out. But its actions suggest that nothing has really changed, and the Taliban will turn Afghanistan into a place just as miserable for its people, and for the rest of the world, as it ever was. And the United States has all but announced that we are willing to let that happen.