The Taliban’s Biggest Threat Isn’t an Armed Group

The generation of Afghans who came of age after the American invasion will not so easily revert to the pre-2001 status quo.

Young Afghan men and women listen to a concert in Kabul.
Young Afghan men and women listen to Kabul Dreams, Afghanistan's best-known rock band, at the Afghan Youth Voices Festival in 2013. (Christoph Bangert / laif / Redux)

The average Afghan is 18 years old. Nearly two-thirds of the country is under 25. For these young people, the 2001 American invasion and the Taliban reign that preceded it aren’t memories, but history. Theirs is a generation that has known Afghanistan only under the protection of NATO forces.

Twenty years later, the Taliban has returned to power in a country unlike the one it previously controlled. As the group seeks international legitimacy, among its priorities will be to win over the young people who came of age in the years after its fall—those who have grown accustomed to many of the freedoms that the Taliban has long been hostile to, among them the right to an education and a free press. Though the Taliban will certainly face challenges from an array of other armed and ethnic groups, Afghanistan’s young people represent the greatest long-term domestic threat to the Taliban’s aims. Demographically, ideologically, and economically, theirs is the generation best positioned to determine what shape the country’s future takes.

It’s perhaps for this reason that the Taliban hasn’t implemented any sweeping reforms—yet. “Right now, nothing is changing,” Mudasir Sadat, a 25-year-old living in Kabul, told me. Although born in 1996, the year the Taliban first came to power, he doesn’t remember the group’s reign. For him and other young Afghans, the prevailing feeling right now is uncertainty. “We don’t know what will happen.”

The recent past offers little in the way of comfort. The Taliban’s five-year rule from 1996 to 2001 was defined by repression—most clearly of women, who were barred from receiving an education and were rarely permitted to leave the house without a male relative, and of ethnic minorities, who were subjected to discrimination and persecution. Simple pleasures such as music, television, and sports were banned. At Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium, soccer matches were replaced by public executions.

But Afghanistan isn’t the same country that it was 20 years ago. Although progress has been imperfect and largely concentrated in urban areas, since 2001 Afghan women have been attending school, running businesses, serving in the police and military, and holding public office. While Afghan society itself remains deeply patriarchal and conservative, many of its people belong to a more permissive generation. Those who inhabit the country’s more affluent and educated city centers, in particular, will not so easily revert to the pre-2001 status quo. As the main beneficiaries of the past 20 years, young people “are going to be all the more concerned about how much worse things could get,” says Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “And they’ll be that much more skeptical of the Taliban’s claims that things will be different.”

In an apparent bid to win over this younger generation, and to placate the departing Western powers, the Taliban has pledged that it will not return to violence and repression, including guarantees that the group will respect the rights of women (albeit within its strict interpretation of Islamic law) and will not seek reprisals against those who fought against it. The group has also vowed to support the Afghan media, so long as their broadcasts do not contradict Islamic values or the Afghan national interest.

These promises have so far rung hollow in Kabul, where posters depicting women were painted over and where women have been instructed to wear burkas, lest they be subject to beatings. Revenge killings, forced marriages, and other brutal tactics have been reported elsewhere in the country. Several of the Afghans I reached out to for this story declined to speak with me due to fear of retaliation. Others were simply too busy trying to find somewhere safe for their family to go.

“People are extremely afraid of what is going to happen to them,” Naveed Noormal, a 30-year-old Afghan former diplomat and Fulbright scholar, told me from Britain, where he currently lives. For those like him who grew up after the Taliban’s fall, their plans and goals for the country feel like “nothing but a dream now.”

Appealing to young Afghans like Sadat and Noormal matters for the Taliban because their generation represents not only the future of the country, but its demographic present. Although the Taliban has shown itself willing to rule by sheer force, securing the international recognition and legitimacy it seeks will prove considerably more difficult without the buy-in of the roughly half of the population born after 2001. Those who gained the most from the Taliban’s fall—notably young women, as well as the Hazaras, Afghanistan’s predominantly Shia ethnic minority—are understandably skeptical of the group’s appeals for peace.

“They have to be nice at this point because they want to establish a government,” Parwiz Karimi, 24, an ethnic Hazara from Ghazni, in southeastern Afghanistan, told me. Although he doesn’t recall living under the group’s rule, he said that his childhood was marked by its presence: He and his family would often be confronted by Taliban members in their village, ostensibly because they were Hazaras.

Karimi no longer lives in Afghanistan (his family sought asylum in Britain in 2012), but he fears for the safety of his family and friends who remain in the country, for whom the Taliban (which preaches a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam) has never hid its disdain. When I asked him about the group’s renewed pledges to respect the rights of the country’s ethnic minorities, he recalled a Taliban saying: Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan—or “graveyard.” “That group is now in power in Afghanistan,” Karimi said, “and what they’re going to do to Hazaras, God knows.”

Indeed, there isn’t much room for optimism. In a matter of days, Afghans have been abandoned not only by their leaders (who fled Afghanistan as the Taliban closed in on Kabul), but also by the international community, whose chaotic exit has left thousands looking for a way out. The sense of betrayal by the United States, which has appeared largely unrepentant about its handling of the withdrawal, has hit many young Afghans particularly hard. “The last thing they want is the Taliban to be back in power,” Kugelman told me. “But their anger toward the U.S. seems to exceed their anger toward the Taliban now, which really says something.”

The one thing that might rein the Taliban in is that the group needs young Afghans. “If they want to form a government, they need an army, they need people to run the government on all the stages, and that requires a lot of money,” Karimi said. “They need to have a society to operate.”

Still, as far as many young Afghans are concerned, the only people they can truly count on right now are themselves.

“Their hopes,” Karimi said, “are shattered.”