The Taliban 2.0? Militants seek image revamp in a bid for legitimacy

Taliban fighters patrol the streets in Herat on August 14, 2021. Large advertisement billboards featuring women are visible in the background
Taliban fighters patrol the streets in Herat on August 14, 2021. Large advertisement billboards featuring women are visible in the background © AFP

As it completed its takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban insisted it would not revert to the brutal medieval rule that turned the hardline Islamist group into an international pariah in the 1990s. But while a "Taliban 2.0" image revamp is being greeted with deep skepticism, the militants have learned some strategic lessons from the past.


Two days after the fall of Kabul, TV viewers in Afghanistan watched  a scene that would have been unthinkable under the former Taliban regime (1996-2001): An Afghan female presenter for the Tolo news channel interviewed a Taliban official.

The host, Beheshta Arghand, who was seated 2.5 metres away from him, asked questions about the security situation in the Afghan capital. The privately owned news channel also posted a video of another female journalist reporting from the streets of Kabul.

The broadcast came as Taliban leaders reiterated their message that their fighters would not go on a killing spree against their former enemies. In a press conference on August 17, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid showed a conciliatory side, confirming an amnesty for former members of the Afghan army and police.

He also said that women would be allowed to work and study and be active in society "but within the framework of Islam".

Despite widespread scepticism, the hardline Islamist group is working hard to push the idea that it will not revert to its former practices. When the Taliban governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, women were barred from taking most jobs and girls' education was limited to primary school.

Watching TV and listening to music was banned, and adulterers could be stoned to death.

So for many, any attempt to portray a kinder, gentler Taliban is simply window dressing.  

"The Taliban's core ideology remains the same. They still want to impose a sort of 'over-Sharia', an extreme and more rigorous version of Islamic law than the one implemented in other countries," Sébastien Boussois, a researcher on Afghanistan at Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), told FRANCE 24.

Seeking global recognition

In its first official statement during the fall of Kabul, the Taliban's political bureau said that the real test would be to "serve our nation and ensure security and comfort of life". The insurgent group thus signalled that it was is ready to perform a range of governmental functions to improve the population's lives, instead of simply imposing religious-inspired bans.

This image revamp has already facilitated the Taliban's conquest of Afghanistan, according to some analysts. There were few reports of popular opposition to the militants' advances and Kabul fell without the bloodshed many had feared.

"The Taliban have built a narrative that is very different from that of the ragtag gang that stormed Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. They are saying, 'We freed you from the Americans and the miscreants, the corrupted Afghans who fled to Abu Dhabi or elsewhere with the money that was supposed to stabilise the country'. They can portray themselves as liberators, and not just people who will lock down the Afghans," said Boussois.

"The Taliban will say that Islamic law is a means to create a strong and austere government after years of corruption and stagnation."

As an insurgent movement challenging the world's No. 1 superpower, the Taliban has developed strong adaptive skills over the last two decades. Its policies have been driven by military and political necessities, not religious ones, argues a research paper published in March by the anti-terrorism centre at the West Point US military academy. The author, Thomas Ruttig, wrote that "policy adaptations that are only tactical at first [could] evolve into genuine changes".

This seems to be the case for the group's most notable change since 2001: its efforts to improve its relations with foreign countries for global recognition. While the first Taliban regime was recognised by only three countries at its peak (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE), it is now on speaking terms with most of its neighbours. Both Moscow and Beijing have bought the Taliban 2.0 narrative, the latter even calling for "friendly" relations with the new rulers of Kabul only a few hours after Islamist fighters entered the Afghan capital.

This narrative could eventually lead Western countries to normalise their relations with the Taliban, according to Boussois.

"If one agrees that the Taliban have changed, then one could deal with them to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a new North Korea, or a country in eternal chaos. If Western countries don't do it, other countries will – this is what is happening with China and Russia at the moment."

What the Taliban learned from the 2001 defeat

The Taliban militants crave international recognition because they learned the hard way that being international pariahs that host terrorists is a sure way to attract foreign military intervention.

The movement's leaders are well aware that the US invaded Afghanistan after their refusal to hand over the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden – and not over the human rights violations that had been taking place for several years before.

While the Taliban isn't likely to compromise on its ultra-conservative Islamist ideology at home, they will make sure that Afghanistan is no longer used as a base for al Qaeda attacks on foreign countries, according to Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24's expert on jihadist movements.

"The Taliban are definitely stronger than they were in the 1990s," he said. "They have more military and political experience. That doesn't make them more open-minded. But they will not take the risk of being toppled a second time because of an al Qaeda provocation. They will keep them under control."

Nevertheless, the Taliban has maintained strong ties with its longtime jihadist partner. Internal documents show that all branches of al Qaeda have pledged allegiance to the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan, and al Qaeda fighters took part in several battles in August 2021, according to Nasr. 

But the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group has led several countries to rely on the Taliban to contain this new jihadist threat. Reports of the killing of an IS group leader after the Taliban took over the prison where he was being held indicates that the new rulers of Afghanistan are holding up their part of the deal – for now.

"If the Taliban prevent the IS group from spreading to Central Asia, the Russians are happy. If they prevent Uighurs from joining the IS group, the Chinese are happy. And if there are no more al Qaeda terrorist attacks planned from Afghanistan, the Americans are happy," said Nasr.

Regardless of the persistent concerns over human rights violations, the Taliban 2.0 may have found a ticket back into the international community.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app