Since the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan, there's been a lot of waiting, wondering and worrying about how they will rule the country.
Much of the concern today comes from the Taliban's first takeover of the country back in the 1990s — an era marked by brutality and rights violations.
Now, 20 years after the US-led invastion that toppled the group, the Taliban have wrested back control as American forces were completing their final withdrawal.
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This time around, the Taliban have promised to govern differently, but how they will do so remains to be seen.
We wanted to go a bit more granular and ask: Who exactly makes up the Taliban today?
It's not a simple question and we don't expect a simple answer.
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Ahmed-Waleed Kakar, editor of the Afghan Eye, an independent media outlet, discussed the issue with The World's Host Carol Hills from London.
Carol Hills: Ahmed, my first question is about the person who's been named the head of the Taliban-led Afghan government, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Who is he?
Well, he is from southern Afghanistan and he essentially cut his teeth in the Afghan political battlefield during the Soviet invasion and occupation. He partook in what was called the "Soviet jihad." And obviously, after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces and the collapse of the puppet communist government, we saw a surge in infighting among the Mujahideen. And in 1994, essentially what were a group of mujahideen commanders, leaders, in southern Afghanistan, got together and formed a political organization called the Taliban. And the Taliban means literally "students." And as a social or educational network, they have existed for centuries in the south of the country from which Mullah Baradar is from. But, this was the first time they became a political organization. So, Mullah Baradar, Abdul Ghani Baradar is essentially, for all intents and purposes, a co-founder of the Taliban, a veteran.
I want to move to the rank and file members of the Taliban. Who are they in terms of background education and where they're from?
The rank and file, it's difficult to, sort of, characterize them as a monolith. However, the way in which we could essentially characterize them is generally rural, religiously educated. So, they are literate, they can read and they can write and are generally very young. So, almost, you know, in their mid 20s. Most of them don't remember the Taliban's previous government in the late 1990s. Rather, the only real remembered experience is that of living after 2001 in the US occupation.
What about women in the Taliban or women who support the Taliban, say those who are married to members of the Taliban? Who are they, sociologically speaking?
Sociologically speaking, the women married to the Taliban, who form part of the Taliban's kinship networks, would be people who are from the same valleys, districts, villages, clans and tribes that the Taliban fighters and their leaders belong to. With regard to women supporters of the Taliban, we saw protests a couple of days ago of women in Kabul who essentially form, what we could say, the ultraconservative demographic within Afghan society, protesting against the previous regime, protesting in favor of the Taliban. However, in terms of actually supporting the Taliban, obviously there was a large stigma associated with being pro-Taliban, which would explain why a lot of these women were perhaps muted up until this point. But there have been more attempts to co-opt women's rights activists and to use them to essentially disseminate the message of, women should go to schools and offices, as usual, under the new Taliban government.
The, sort of, rural nature, less-educated profile of people in the Taliban, it's often looked at in the West or through media, as, these people are from villages, they're not educated. Put that in context in Afghanistan.
Well, in the context of Afghanistan, the fact that they're from villages and the fact that they are uneducated, or not educated enough, actually makes them rather uniquely placed to claim that they're representatives of Afghanistan. And what I mean by that is that the overwhelming majority of Afghanistan's population are young, but they also live in rural areas, about 75 to 80% of them. Universal schooling in Afghanistan never really took off in a way that we would expect in the West. Most of the country is still illiterate. So, the Taliban actually utilized that to argue against the previous regime by saying, "Look, this bunch of foreign imported technocrats who are highly educated are simply out of touch with the rest of the country."
What are your biggest concerns moving forward about how the international community deals with the Taliban, given legitimate concerns about how they might rule Afghanistan, but knowing what you do about the country?
I think even very early on in the US occupation, they sort of realized that their previous mode of governance was an utter failure. And with regard to fears of the international community, what I would say is that any attempt to isolate the Taliban would actually just push them into the place they were in the late '90s, where they tyrannized Afghans, where they were brutal and in which they didn't actually have to answer to any sort of international opinion. By engaging with the Taliban, whether or not we like them, whether or not they are palatable or whether or not they share all our values in the West, I think it's essential to keep a channel of communication open to engaging with them, because that would make them feel, more than anything, a need to act as a responsible member of the international community.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.