The Taliban who are taking part in the talks seem starkly different from the fanatical primitives who drew the world’s attention in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Eighteen years ago, the headlines focused on public executions in sports stadiums, bans on music and television, and the deliberate destruction of archaeological treasures. Women accused of adultery were stoned to death, and girls were imprisoned behind family walls.
Today, by contrast, Western media are presenting stories about young Taliban fighters playing cricket, hugging government security forces during religious festivals and raising normal families. Even Afghans themselves are expressing surprise at the sophistication of the insurgent negotiators. Afghan women who recently joined discussions in Doha marveled that the Taliban delegates sat across from them and engaged in direct dialogue, unthinkable in the recent past. They spoke of receiving gifts that reflected traditional Afghan warmth and hospitality.
Yet there is good reason to question the substance behind this apparent transformation. Along with presenting its members as shrewd negotiators, the Taliban is also selling a public image as a more modern, less conservative movement ready to take over the governance of Afghanistan. Often touted as “Taliban 2.0,” its emissaries have refined their public image and their public relations.
Leveraging (some say “weaponizing”) social media is a primary focus of this effort. The Taliban Cultural Commission employs Facebook and Twitter to broadcast messages in multiple languages. It issues communiques and spreads disinformation on WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram. As The Post’s Sharif Hassan recently noted on Twitter: “[the] Taliban’s trolls are more visible on twitter [sic] these days. They are defending the insurgents online, whitewashing their misdeeds and attacking journalists who report facts they dislike.”
The objective is to manipulate the perceptions of both the domestic Afghan audience and an exhausted West. The Islamist militants skillfully spin narratives by depicting themselves as patriots while characterizing the Western military as occupiers and the Afghan National Security Forces as “hirelings.” They convey their messages not as threats but as gentle admonitions delivered in the tone of wise elders speaking to the wayward young. During the centenary of Afghan independence on Aug. 19, the Taliban joined in the national celebrations by issuing a statement to Afghans touting the need for “jihad in the path of Allah and support of national insurrection.” The statement said almost nothing about the actual anniversary, which marked the emergence of a secular, constitutional monarchy.
For a movement seeking a return to an ultraconservative, intolerant 15th-century society, this use of modern perception management and anarchic 21st-century technology is no less than genius. Yet there are many signs that the Taliban seeks a reprise of its rule from 1996 to 2001 rather than an embrace of the open society that dominates in Kabul today. The Taliban 2.0 is only masquerading as an update.
Its goals are clear. Post-deal, the Islamist militants will aim to nullify the current constitution and its obligations to observe the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the principles of democratic government. Expect to see a rejection of torture bans, religious tolerance, universal education, equal rights, due process and a host of other freedoms routinely granted to citizens worldwide.
And elections? On Aug. 6, the Taliban issued a communique calling on Afghans to boycott this year’s vote or risk becoming targets of attacks. Elections were never held during Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, and no commitment to elections is being discussed in Doha. The fundamental principle of individual representation through elected officials will be eliminated once the Taliban regains control and reimposes a religious dictatorship.
Some would argue that the Taliban has proclaimed commitments to safeguard rights earned since 2001 and that these rights will be maintained in accordance with Islamic principles. Yet during Taliban rule, these principles denied education to women, dictated strict gender segregation, prohibited women from working outside of the house and leaving the house without an accompanying male. Women who left the house without wearing an all-enveloping cover received public beatings at the hands of the vice and virtue police. To be accused of sexual acts meant being stoned or shot in the head in a Kabul sports stadium.
The United States wants a deal. It wants to end the longest war in its history. Western negotiators have a goal — withdrawal from Afghanistan — and they are offering significant concessions in return for a graceful exit. Their tacit acceptance of a rebranded Taliban might facilitate an agreement, but no one should be fooled by Twitter feeds, Facebook sites or cricket matches. Today’s Taliban might have a far better understanding of how to market itself to a gullible world — but it is still the Taliban.