Farooq Yousaf | 1 September 2021
When Kabul finally fell to the Taliban on August 15, 2021, several scholarly and media commentaries, both within and outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, started focusing on the Taliban’s positive moves and intent. This intent, for starters, is embodied by a smart and slick PR campaign that focuses on the positives rather than the negatives.
There were stories about their ‘desire’ to establish an ‘inclusive’ government, though almost all major political moves are preeminently made by the Taliban’s political committee. This committee ignores minority leaders, especially Hazaras.
Then, there were other stories of how the group plans to let women work in health and ‘other’ departments where they are needed; however, no one knows what these ‘other’ departments are.
Finally, there were stories of how the group has, so far, shown restraint against former government employees, politicians, interpreters and media personalities, even though the group has banned women presenters and journalists from Afghanistan’s national radio and TV networks.
A common takeaway from all these stories is how cleverly this apparently ‘new’ Taliban has managed its PR and social media campaigns.
The Taliban’s hierarchy and PR machinery were conscious of the fact that their takeover was being looked upon negatively by urban Afghans. Most of this demographic had in recent years started ‘enjoying’ more personal and professional freedoms, albeit in a limited and insecure environment. As a consequence, the initial statements coming from the Taliban’s upper echelons focused on positive vibes, progressive mindsets, forgiveness and inclusion.
However, one can precisely chart the Taliban’s future (negative) trajectory in Afghanistan through the various stories coming out of the country, especially on Twitter.
How different is the Taliban’s current PR propaganda machine?
Zabiullah Mujahid, the group’s spokesperson, had previously refrained from appearing in public (video) interviews. Soon after the group’s takeover he appeared in his first-ever public media interaction in Kabul. For some, the appearance was both impressive and well curated.
Mujahid not only took questions from nearly all the local and international journalists, but he refrained from commenting in detail on issues that were of serious concern to local and international human rights groups. It was as if we were listening to a seasoned politician who either ‘declined to comment’ on a sensitive matter or gave an ambiguous response.
For instance, his answer to a question on the future of Afghan women in the local job market was vague and uncontroversial. Even though he indicated that the group would let women work, his statement also carried a caveat; women would only be allowed to work under the scope of Sharia. So far, this scope remains unknown to Afghan working women. They remain unclear as to their future role and place in a Taliban-governed Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the ‘new’ Taliban now has spokespersons fluent in multiple languages, including English. Mujahid’s press conference was notable for the presence of a young translator, Abdul Qahar Balkhi. Balkhi translated international journalists’ questions into Pashto for Mujahid and Mujahid’s Pashto answers into English.
Similarly, a recent story by TRT News in Kabul focused on the infamous and suicide-ready 313 Badri Brigade and interviewed one of the brigade’s officers. The officer, fluent in five languages, professed in English to be a ‘martyrdom seeker’ who had lost his brother in the brigade. In short, this was what the Taliban in 2021 was all about; a tech-savvy multi-lingual militant (for many, a terrorist) group that in the last two decades has learned the nuances of media messaging, propaganda, political maneuvering and narrative manipulation.
Who, or what, are the ‘new’ Taliban?
The ‘new’ Taliban are politically aware and active. The Taliban’s political office in Doha allowed the group to engage in—and learn—the art of negotiation and diplomacy. Moreover, the fact that the US agreed to engage the group in peace talks gave the Taliban the ‘legitimacy’ it sought and a position of strength. In this scenario, the Taliban became an ‘equal’ and powerful stakeholder in the peace process. As a result, both the Ghani government in Kabul and the people of Afghanistan receded to a position of weakness. The Taliban reportedly used this ‘position of strength’ to convince the Afghan National Army’s troops to surrender and uploaded the surrender videos on its social media channels and handles.
Additionally, the ‘new Talib’ is not someone who has studied and trained in a religious seminary (madrassa), as is often still widely perceived by many in the west. Even though many fighters, militants and terrorists use the madrassa route, the Taliban in recent years seems to have realized that the internet, social media, and technology result in better and broader propaganda outlets than madrassas. As a result, since their takeover Taliban leaders have been actively seen in national and international media, something rare during the period of their first regime in Afghanistan.
What lies ahead?
In a recent interview with Pakistan’s Geo News, Zabiullah Mujahid backtracked on some of his initial statements. When asked whether his group would allow music and cultural activities, Mujahid responded that music was banned in Islam and that people expected them to implement a Sharia-compliant system. This statement was followed by reports tweeted by Afghan journalists that Fawad Andarabi, a local folk singer, had been shot dead by the Taliban in Kishaan village in Andarab district, Baghlan province.
So, the million-dollar question remains: Is the Taliban of 2021 different from the Taliban of 1996?
Short answer: Yes and No!
Yes, because the group is now tech- and politics-savvy and seeks to build regional ties and alliances. And no, because a group that boasts nearly 5,000 ready-to-detonate suicide bombers and has fought arguably the sole global superpower (USA) for two decades to get where it is will—in the long run—go back to its ‘basics’. Those basics are rooted in a hyper-masculine patriarchal worldview that opposes women’s personal and professional rights.
To understand the gravity of the situation we only need to look at what Afghan women, educators, journalists and experts are saying on social media. Their expressions of fear and uncertainty in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan summarize the ‘present and future’ of the country when it comes to providing equal rights and liberties. Not only women but young educated men, including one of my friends, who studied abroad and all had opportunities to move to or remain in Europe, the USA or Canada but who instead chose to remain in Afghanistan. They remained, despite the terrorism and violence, on the strength of their ‘hope’ that the country and its economy would finally take off. Yet in recent weeks even such patriotic and educated Afghans have been desperately seeking to leave their homeland as they can see no light at the end of the tunnel.
Dr. Farooq Yousaf, currently based in Australia, grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan. Now an associated researcher with SwissPeace, his new book Pakistan, Regional Security and Conflict Resolution: The Pashtun Tribal Areas examines peace and conflict resolution on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.