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The Taliban want you to know there’s nothing to worry about. And this time they’re trying to win over their opponents with Twitter, not just Kalashnikovs.
It’s a big ask for fighters notorious for sadistic executions in football stadiums to try to present themselves as a legitimate government, but they’ve learned canny diplomatic tricks over the past two decades. Now armed with a sophisticated media operation, the Taliban are out to project a fresh image of themselves as defenders of the rights of women and religious minorities, who offer amnesty to their enemies.
Their critics note that the Taliban offered a similar amnesty in 1996, the last time they entered Kabul, before launching a vicious spate of reprisals, but international governments have been caught so off-guard by the speed of the Taliban’s victory — and are so desperate to avoid a refugee crisis — they are signaling that they are now willing to judge the Taliban by their future actions rather than their past crimes.
That the rebrand is winning even the slightest traction is an astonishing turnaround for a murderous regime that previously excluded women from public life and destroyed cultural heritage like the Bamiyan Buddhas.
Watch the Twitter and other social media content that the Taliban are now producing, and that dark age is all behind them. After entering Kabul, the militants posted videos and photos presenting their fighters as ordinary, approachable people: working out, eating ice cream and looking good.
In other online videos, protective Taliban now check in with minorities like Shiite Hazaras and Sikhs, and insist that they are out to preserve their safety. Taliban leaders, who are Sunni, even attended a major Shiite commemoration. One official Taliban Twitter handle posted a video of girls attending school after the takeover in Herat to allay fears that women will be erased from Afghan public life again. The Taliban’s spokesperson stressed that the country won’t be used as a launchpad for terror groups again.
This is all about recognition. China, for example, is a prime target of the charm offensive, and is being given assurance that the Taliban will no longer be supporting Uyghur militants in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Being nice to Hazaras is all about keeping Iran sweet. Iran, which is majority Shiite, has settled into a phase of fragile cooperation with the Taliban, with whom it was united against a common U.S. foe, but any repeat of the Taliban’s previous violence against the Shiite minority could quickly reignite Tehran’s enmity.
The PR blitz already shows signs of working in foreign capitals.
“The messages coming out of Afghanistan are positive,” said Pakistan’s Ambassador to the EU Zaheer Aslam Janjua in an interview. “The Taliban have declared amnesty [for former government officials] and they are urging women and others to go back to work, which I think is one of the big concerns of the international community.”
Given the Taliban’s assurances, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the “propaganda” against the Taliban has been proven false.
The Russian foreign ministry said: “The Taliban have started enforcing public order and reaffirmed its guarantees of safety for local residents and foreign diplomatic missions.”
A senior diplomat from the United Arab Emirates told Reuters the Taliban’s statements were “encouraging.” (Pakistan and the UAE were two of the only countries, along with Saudi Arabia, to have recognized the last Taliban government in 1996.)
On the understanding that the Taliban stop helping militants in Xinjiang, China is taking its traditional line that it won’t meddle in another country’s affairs. Even Iran, once the Taliban’s most dead-set adversary, is playing its cards very close to its chest on whether it will now trust the Taliban, but it has shown signs that it is willing to consider a new-look Taliban. The Javan newspaper, close to Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards, had a headline proclaiming: Taliban: We have reformed.
Western governments also appear wrong-footed by the Taliban’s whirlwind success. Rather than simply condemning them as killers based on their track record, they are giving them a fresh chance to prove themselves.
Speaking in Britain’s parliament on Wednesday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We will judge this regime based on the choices it makes and by its actions rather than by its words — on its attitude to terrorism, crime and narcotics, as well as humanitarian access and the right of girls to receive an education.”
It’s a position echoed by France, whose Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that while he was encouraged by the Taliban’s commitments to preserving human rights, “they need to demonstrate it.”
In both cases, London and Paris are giving the Taliban a second chance.
By contrast, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flatly refused to recognize the Taliban. “They have taken over and replaced a duly elected democratic government by force … they are a recognized terrorist organization under Canadian law,” he said.
Not to be trusted
But the cracks are already emerging in the veneer of the new-look Taliban.
Neha Ansari, a Washington-based counterterrorism analyst, conceded that this was now “a very different Taliban” in terms of the 21st century games they have mastered. “They are seasoned fighters, very tech-savvy, media-savvy. They have traveled the world, they have negotiated with huge powers.”
Having established direct communication with the U.S., Russia, China and Iran over the years, Ansari said that the group has a sharper awareness of each country’s interests and how to — at least rhetorically — pander to them. But they were still impossible to trust.
“You cannot trust the political front of the Taliban,” Ansari continued. “You cannot trust their commitments because either they don’t have control over their soldiers, or they pretend not to.”
What’s more, the Taliban has supplemented its assurances with ominous caveats. Women’s rights will be respected “within the bounds of Islamic law,” its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a press conference on Tuesday. They clothed other commitments to fundamental rights within similar, vague conditions. Mujahid gave little detail on what the Taliban will do next, saying only that it’s engaged in “serious talks.”
And this is where the Taliban strategy is already unraveling. While the Taliban may be able to present a sanitized view of their activities on social media and in parts of Kabul, violence is hard to hide.
According to news reports, the Taliban have already killed a prominent poet and the relative of a journalist with German broadcaster DW. Women have been taken off the air, and the Taliban fired on protesters in the cities of Jalalabad and Asadabad. Other footage has shown people being rounded up in the streets and beaten. The Hazara community has reacted with fury to the destruction of a statue of one of their leaders, who was executed by the Taliban.
Despite the promise of no reprisals, the BBC reported that the group is carrying out door-to-door hunts for people on their wanted list.
“What we have seen is that the Taliban, in advance of moving into all major cities in Afghanistan, not just Kabul, is that they have a more advanced intelligence system,” Christian Nellemann, of the Norwegian Centre for Global Analyses, told the BBC.
As one EU diplomat put it: “Hard to believe they have changed, I don’t see …. actions in that direction.”
It’s likely many old vendettas will boil over again before the Taliban can secure international recognition.
We have seen this film before.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Esther Webber and Mark Scott contributed to this article.
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