Has the Taliban changed? Taliban 2.0 has new PR but the fundamentals are the same

Taliban in Kabul is eager to sport a moderate image. So are their sponsors in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.  it does not come as a surprise that the transformation of Mujahideen (freedom fighters) into Talibs (students in Pashto language) and now their rooting for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Empty coffers amidst scenes of chaos and bloodshed beamed into drawing rooms across the world have their own sobering effect on Taliban. So much so, a photograph that showed a Taliban spokesman being interviewed by a woman reporter of local TV is nothing short of a PR coup. Whether deliberate or accidental it served as the booster dose needed to reassure the world that Taliban 2.0 is truly different and they have changed in between 1996 and 2001.

Violence was an indispensable trait of Taliban in 1996.  The ‘transfer of power’ in 2021 was without any bloodshed.  The scenes at the Kabul airport and demonstrations against the takeover are simply tailor made to pump prime trustworthiness.

The Talibs trained in Pakistani Islamist schools are not known to honour their promises; they have been breaching their agreements with impunity. The do not respect the Pakhtoon code of honor which bars targeting women, and the unarmed.  They had promised peace after an agreement signed in Doha two years ago, but they returned to their violent ways shortly after.

Some gestures, some words and an odd photograph are not the barometer to gauge the change of heart. The Taliban have since invoked Sharia law and made it binding on women in particular. Clearly, the new Taliban frown upon the freedom Afghan women enjoyed for the 20 years that they werent there.  That was why even in the TV show designed to serve as PR, the woman reporter was seen sitting several yards away from the Taliban spokesman. Put simply, PR illusions and diversionary assurances have a short lifespan.

Pakistan’s role in the formation and support of the taliban contributes to the trust deficit Taliban suffers from. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is their creator and supporter; their creation was for creating a foothold in Kabul to secure the larger interests of Pakistan in the Middle East and Central Asia. This is what Pakistan sees as its strategic depth beyond Durand Line that divides the two countries.

There are reports that ISI had deployed its spies as liaison officers with the Taliban groups marching from across the country towards Kabul.

For Pakistan, Afghan Taliban and its offshoot, Haqqani Network are good Taliban, but Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, TTP, is bad Taliban since they target Pakistani targets – soft and strategic alike.

Lending further credence to Pakistan factor vis-à-vis Taliban 2.0 is the statement of Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed.

“Previously, Pakistan was supporting the US due to which TTP and Taliban were on the same page. That is not the case now,” Rashid was quoted as saying in a front-page dispatch in the Lahore based Daily Times on the 18th August. His comments appeared amidst reports that former deputy chief Maulana Faqir Mohammad and other key Pakistan Taliban commanders were released from Afghan jails.

“We have taken the Taliban on-board over the TTP issue. We told them that Pakistan will not allow its soil to be used against Afghanistan and we expect them not to allow the use of Afghan soil against us”, the minister stated. He, however, ducked questions on the role of Sirajuddin Haqqani, seen as Pakistan’s proxy, in the new dispensation, according to Daily Times. GHQ Shura reportedly told Taliban to induct Sirajuddin in the ruling Kabul circle.

The Taliban Pakistan link will remain for as long as terrorism is the key plank of Pakistan’s foreign and security policies targeted as much against India as facilitating the emergence of a new caliphate in the region and beyond.

The US is aware and monitors Pakistans involvement. Beijing is aware of Pakistan’s jihadi approach but has its geo-political compulsions, which range from contrasting the White House to checkmating insurgency in its own Uighur Muslim stronghold.

Russia is the odd man out in the Kabul theatre today. The desire to rewrite history and reclaim the lost glory is an overwhelming urge that made Moscow continue its engagement while it keeps Islamic terror at bay in the CIS states.

It is these concerns coupled with Pakistan’s quest for a larger than life role to control the Taliban’s finances that appear to reset the stage in Kabul.

Expectedly, the Pakistani establishment sees Indian ‘defeat’ in the return of Taliban. This is an extension of their India fixation that dates back to the day of their creation from British India.

Also,  during the past twenty years, India was actively helping Afghanistan to build its civic infrastructure – roads, schools, hospitals, and dams.  It was not Afghan specific outreach but Gandhian philosophy in action of helping less developed countries in whatever way possible.
Anyhow, India, unlike Pakistan’s Durand line conflict, has no dispute with Afghanistan.

Taliban 1.0 did not accept the Durand Line. Taliban 2.0 may do like-wise, as a part of its survival mantra.

Being Pashtun at the core, Taliban has an eye on the Pashtun speaking areas along the border on Pakistan side. It is too early to predict whether the Taliban will work to carve out a new buffer Pashtun state to undo an historical wrong.

But if it does, it will mean that the two-state theory which created India and Pakistan in 1947 will have failed a second time. The first time in 1971 with the creation if Bangladesh from Pakistan and now with the creation of a new pashtun state, which may lead to the balkanization of pakistan and creating a failed nuclear power.