After the Taliban’s hard-line government collapsed in 2001, American leaders dismissed some senior militants’ attempts to join the new Afghan political order, shunning a group that had isolated itself from the outside world, harbored al-Qaeda and relegated women out of sight.

James Dobbins, who was leading diplomatic efforts to forge a new Afghan government after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, describes the refusal to entertain the Taliban leaders’ overtures to cooperate or surrender as “a major blind spot.”

“It was clearly a failure to recognize that the Taliban were an important element of Afghan society that could not be completely ignored or completely exterminated,” he said.

Twenty years later, as the United States begins withdrawing its remaining military force and experts predict a Taliban return to power via force or political pact, officials caution that it is still unknown whether the group has moderated its rigid beliefs.

Whether a renewed Taliban regime, should one emerge, proves more humane and inclusive than it was in the past would be a crucial test of President Biden’s decision last month to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and end the United States’ long military endeavor there.

A May 1 deadline for a U.S. withdrawal, which was negotiated under President Donald Trump in 2020 but was extended unilaterally by Biden to allow for more time to exit, has focused attention on the nature of the militant group, which now appears to be on the cusp of seizing a renewed share of political power.

Experts say the group, while unwavering in its desire to make Afghanistan an “Islamic society,” has not defined a clear stance on how it would approach many issues, including freedom of expression, the rights of women and minorities, and a future political structure — either out of strategic ambiguity or because the group has not reached a consensus on those topics.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said he believes the Taliban is waiting to gauge its strength relative to other parties, including elements of the current Afghan government or warlords, who might contend for power after the September deadline that Biden has set for the U.S. exit.

“We will start to know when the last soldier has left,” Ruttig said of whether the Taliban has changed.

In a recent research paper, Ruttig laid out the mixed evidence of whether the Taliban’s ideology and probable governing stance had evolved since 2001. The group, which previously banned TV and most music, has, for example, embraced the Internet and social media. It appears more open to facilitating foreign aid. But in other areas, such as political freedoms, it has shown little intent to embrace major change.

For many Americans, the Taliban’s stance toward women will be a key litmus test. After taking over in the 1990s, the Taliban largely banned women from public life, and girls were kept home from school. Over the past two decades, women have slowly claimed a greater role in economic and political life.

According to a recently declassified assessment from the National Intelligence Council, slim turnover in the Taliban’s leadership and the group’s inflexible negotiating positions are among the factors that suggest it will “roll back much of the past two decades’ progress” if it regains power.

“The Taliban’s desires for foreign aid and legitimacy might marginally moderate its conduct over time,” the assessment said. “However, in the early days of reestablishing its Emirate, the Taliban probably would focus on extending control on its own terms.”

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political leadership, said the group was “committed to women’s rights, whether they are in terms of [access to] education or work. So no need to worry about their basic rights.”

But experts said the Taliban’s administration of areas it now controls — which represent at least half of the country — may be the best indicator of its future actions. Even today, women are largely banned from working outside the home, except in the fields of education or medicine. Some provinces in the Taliban’s territory don’t have a single school for girls, while others allow girls to study only through primary school.

The group also represses free speech among Afghans living under its rule and regularly uses beatings and imprisonment as punishment for minor infractions.

When asked whether this kind of rule would be implemented nationwide under a Taliban government, the Taliban spokesman said he expects “there will be a review by experts to cater to essential aspects of human rights,” but any ruling would not deviate from Islamic law.

He appeared to acknowledge an expansion of access to education for women, saying “there will be need to adapt a decent uniform for girls at school and university level.” There are no universities in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), citing a wave of assassinations of female activists and journalists, said the United States must do everything in its power to support the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.

“Afghan girls should have the opportunity to grow up in a world with the freedoms their mothers fought to secure,” she said in a statement. “They are watching. We are watching.”

As the Biden administration seeks to keep a faltering peace process alive, also unknown is what sort of future Afghan government the Taliban would accept. While officials say the group appears more willing to share power, it’s not yet clear whether it would seek to restore some form of its pre-2001 Islamic emirate, led by unelected clerics, or whether it would accept a democratic system with elections and greater political freedoms.

Ashley Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, said Taliban leaders had made vague references to democracy but also expressed their goal of a “truly Islamic” form of government that would include Sharia law and would probably prioritize their religious norms.

“I would think they would be opposed to democracy, but they won’t say that publicly,” she said. “It’s hard to tell if they’re just buying time and hiding their objective, or if they have a different vision of representation and governance.”

Speaking before lawmakers this past week, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the promise of external funding and international recognition could act as an incentive for the Taliban to moderate its aims. The group’s previous government was recognized by only a handful of nations.

“The Talibs say they are interested in not being a pariah and being welcomed,” he said. “All I can say is that we have made it clear that if they do, they can end their prior status, there can be progress in relationship with us and with others. But if they don’t, the very thing that they say they do not want to happen will be inevitable.”

While Taliban military leaders may see the benefits of global legitimacy and aid, fighters on the ground may not share those priorities.

As officials seek clues about the Taliban’s intentions, the group continues a wave of violence, which has intensified speculation that it may attempt a military takeover once local forces no longer have foreign air support. According to a new report from a U.S. watchdog, Taliban attacks were nearly 37 percent higher in the first quarter of the year than they were during the same period of 2020.

Yasin Zia, Afghanistan’s acting defense minister, said he believes the country’s Air Force will be able to “fill the gap,” adding that once the United States hands over military equipment, Afghan ground forces will “completely change the game.”

Still, as the original May 1 deadlines passes for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, many Afghans fear that Taliban forces will return to large-scale bombings in urban areas, a tactic the militants largely halted following the signing of the withdrawal deal last year.

On Friday, a car bomb exploded in the provincial capital of Logar, killing at least 21 people and wounding at least 91, according to the Interior Ministry. The attack, which the government blamed on the Taliban, occurred as Afghans were breaking their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

U.S. officials are also concerned about the Taliban’s willingness — and ability — to ensure that groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda don’t attempt to strike the West, as al-Qaeda did on 9/11. While the Taliban’s leadership committed in the 2020 deal to sever ties with al-Qaeda, which maintains a small presence in Afghanistan, it did not make significant moves to do so for over a year.

Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan and served as U.S. ambassador in Kabul after 9/11, said the United States would seek to prevent the Taliban from resuscitating its earlier harsh governance but acknowledged that its ability to do so may be limited.

“We want our investments and sacrifices to have been worthwhile. And if we navigate the coming months appropriately, I believe that this can happen,” he said. “In the end, however, it will be up to the Afghans to seize their opportunities.”

George reported from Kabul. Sharif Hassan, also in Kabul, contributed to this report.