The Taliban are now trying to pose as moderates after years of terror tactics and taking the country in a final, brutal sweep

Taliban fighters in kabul
Taliban fighters stand outside the Interior Ministry in the Afghanistan capital of Kabul on August 15, after the militant force encircled and took over the city. Stringer/Reuters
  • The Taliban is vying to rebrand itself after regaining control of Afghanistan.
  • A Taliban spokesperson said the group would not seek revenge and would respect women’s rights “within Islamic law.”
  • Many Afghans and global leaders fear the Taliban will usher in a return of its dark, brutal rule in the 1990s.
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After years of terrorizing Afghanistan via tactics ranging from suicide bombings to kidnappings, the Taliban is trying to present itself as a changed, moderate entity now that it’s regained control of the country.

But Afghans continue to express fear of reprisals – even as the Taliban vows to extend “amnesty” to those who assisted the US or worked with the former government. The harrowing scenes at the airport in Kabul on Monday, in which Afghans could be seen clinging to US military planes as they took off, underscored how desperate many are to get out of the country with the Taliban back in control.

The Taliban employed terror tactics to weaken the US-backed government. The Taliban beheaded an Afghan interpreter for the US Army in May. A suicide attacker car-bombed the defense minister’s home in Kabul early this month. They assassinated the government’s director of government media just over a week ago.

Afghan officials accused the Taliban of complicity in a roadside bombing that killed 11 people, and in the triple-bombing of a high-school girls attended, where a blast in the school drove out students only to face two more bombs outside. Eighty-five people, mostly teenage girls, died. In May, the Taliban beheaded an Afghan interpreter for the US Army.

But since marching into the capital on Sunday after rapidly seizing major cities – often without much of a fight – the Taliban has sought to assure Afghans and the wider world that it does not intend to be a brutal, anachronistic ruler.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said the group would not seek revenge.

“We assure you that nobody will go to their doors to ask why they helped,” Mujahid said, though reports have emerged suggesting that is precisely what Taliban fighters are doing in parts of the country.

Mujahid also said that the media would be able to operate independently, while emphasizing that reporters “should not work against national values.”

The Taliban has a long record of repressive behavior toward women, but Mujahid maintained that women will have rights but “within Islamic law” – a stipulation that suggests women could lose their jobs, access to education, freedom to choose their clothing and even the possibility that brutal treatment at the hands of husbands, brothers and fathers will be condoned.

Afghanistan also will not once again become a haven for terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Mujahid said, in an apparent effort to quell Western concerns about what Taliban rule will mean regarding the terror threat in the region.

Based on the Taliban’s history, there are many reasons be skeptical of its claims. Prominent Afghan women have expressed concern that they will be killed in the coming days.

Along these lines, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at a UN Security Council meeting on Monday said, “I call upon the Taliban and all parties to respect and protect international humanitarian law and the rights and freedoms of all persons. We are receiving chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights throughout the country.”

“I am particularly concerned by accounts of mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan who fear a return to the darkest days,” Guterres added. “It is essential that the hard-won rights of Afghan women and girls are protected.”

The Taliban – a group of fundamentalist Islamic militants – first emerged in the mid-1990s in the wake of the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a Communist government that gained power via a coup the year prior. Much like the US, the Soviets waged a disastrous, costly, and lengthy war in Afghanistan – a country often referred to as the “graveyard of empires.” The Soviets struggled to win popular support among the overwhelmingly Muslim population and were ultimately pushed out.

The Soviet-backed Communist government collapsed in 1992 as civil war consumed Afghanistan. The Taliban was formed in 1994 by Afghan mujahideen, or guerilla fighters who’d resisted the Soviet occupation (and received CIA assistance in the process).

In 1996, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan and declared an Islamic Emirate. They imposed strict laws based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran, enforcing the rules in a brutal fashion – including mass executions.

The Taliban were overthrown after the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks. None of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 where Afghans, but the US invaded because the Taliban had opened its doors to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda – the terror group responsible for the attacks. The US aimed to destroy Al Qaeda , though the terror organization remains in operation today.

By December 2001, the Taliban was in retreat and bin Laden fled to Pakistan. The US would go on to hunt him down in Pakistan 10 years later, while remaining in Afghanistan for the next two decades as the Taliban waged an insurgency against the American forces, their NATO allies, and the US-backed government. Fast-forward to August 2021, and the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan as the US withdrew troops and ended the longest war in its history.