Jonathan Steele notes that during almost a decade of war with the Taliban, none of their top leaders have been interviewed which leaves many important questions unanswered.
Have the Taliban changed in the decade since they lost office? Is there a neo-Taliban, as some suggest? What of the younger generation of field commanders who lead today’s resistance to the Americans and British? Are they in regular touch with Mullah Omar and do they answer to him in any practical sense, either in military strategy or in their political objectives? Above all, is there room for compromise between the Taliban, President Karzai and the Tajik and Uzbek leaders who surround him in Kabul so that, if the US withdraws in the next few years, a power-sharing government can have a chance of lasting?
Some evidence that the Taliban have moved on since they were in power is provided by Antonio Giustozzi, a scholar at the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics, who has edited a collection of essays entitled Decoding the New Taliban. For one thing, the technology has changed. Men who used to reject television now put out propaganda DVDs and run a website of news and opinion, complete with pictures. More important, their social attitudes have shifted. Giustozzi argues that the Taliban realise their old position on education was self-defeating and lost them support, and the line is now being reversed. In Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, according to Tom Coghlan, one of Giustozzi’s contributors, people in September 2008 ‘reported a strikingly less repressive interpretation of the Taliban’s social edicts.’ They no longer ban TV, music, dog-fighting and kite-flying; nor do they insist on the old rule that men grow beards long enough to be held in the fist.
Some analysts believe that US air strikes have been so effective in killing senior Taliban that the war is now being run by a new generation of men in their twenties and thirties, with no experience of the anti-Soviet struggle that schooled the mujahidin warlords as well as Mullah Omar and his Taliban colleagues. Whether this means they are more radical than the previous generation is unclear. Coghlan quotes a Taliban cleric near Lashkar Gah in Helmand in March 2008 as saying: ‘These new crazy guys are really emotional. They are war-addicted.’
Recent reports suggest that most Afghans, tired of the all-pervasive insecurity, want negotiations with the Taliban. A survey of 423 men in Helmand and Kandahar, carried out in May by the International Council on Security and Development, found that 74 per cent were in favour of negotiations. In Kabul in March, I interviewed several women professionals, the people who suffered most from the Taliban’s restrictions on girls’ education and women working outside the home. To varying degrees they all supported the idea of dialogue with the Taliban. They felt the top priority was to end what they saw as a civil war – not an insurgency, as Nato calls it. They saw the Taliban as authentic nationalists with legitimate grievances who needed to be brought back into the equation. Otherwise, Afghans would go on being used as proxies in a long battle between al-Qaida and the US. It was time to break free of both sets of foreigners, the global jihadis and the US empire. Shukria Barakzai, an MP and women’s rights campaigner, put it like this: ‘I changed my view three years ago when I realised Afghanistan is on its own. It’s not that the international community doesn’t support us. They just don’t understand us. The Taliban are part of our population. They have different ideas but as democrats we have to accept that.’