The medieval Taliban, who ran Afghanistan with the Quran in one hand and a gun in the other now tweet and talk peace, but they remain a potent threat as a NATO withdrawal looms.
Ten years after being overthrown by U.S. forces in response to the airborne al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, the insurgents have shown a ruthless resilience to the West’s military might.
With the hardline Islamists who sheltered al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in contact with the United States in Qatar, the question of who they are now and what they want has taken on a fresh urgency.
There are fears in the capital Kabul that when the last of NATO’s U.S.-led 130,000 troops quit the country in 2014 the Taliban in their black turbans and long beards will come streaming back − looking for revenge.
The Taliban have shown that they have changed since their days in power, using formerly shunned modern technology such as the Internet and engaging in banter with NATO spokesmen over the micro-blogging site Twitter.
On Feb. 3, the following exchange took place between NATO’s International Security Force (ISAF) and a Taliban spokesman:
ISAF: The snow in Kabul must have affected your comms & ability to get factual info on real events.
Taliban: No no, ops and comms well established and ongoing even in cold winter. Must have something to do with successes you’ve achieved.
And they use video to put their message across − with masked anchors introducing footage of fighters training and other propaganda clips on their website.
But their fundamental beliefs remain rooted in a strictly conservative interpretation of Islam, which is widely shared in their strongholds in the south and east of the country.
There, the movement reviled in the west for blocking schooling for girls and whipping women who did not cover themselves from head to toe might win a large slice of support at the ballot box.
“In a free and fair election they might well get a lot of votes, in the south for example,” said Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
But the possibility of a negotiated settlement to the war is seen as being so far in the future − and perhaps so improbable − that few are willing to speculate on what a peaceful political landscape might look like.
“Many Afghans think that if the international force is not here in large numbers there will be some kind of wider of civil war,” Clark told AFP.
Military and civilian analysts doubt that the insurgents can take the capital again − as they did in 1996 during the civil war that broke out after the Soviet Union ended its 10-year occupation.
“The Taliban, the Afghan government, the world knows that it is impossible for one party to rule in this country with giving everyone a share,” says a former senior official in the Taliban government.
“They really want peace,” Maulavi Qalamuddin, former chief of the Taliban’s feared religious police and now a member of President Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council, told AFP.
“It is not true that the Taliban want to buy time and keep everyone busy till 2014 when foreign forces leave, and then they would have a chance to topple the Afghanistan government and return to power,” he said.
But, with their strength rooted in Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, the insurgents hold a key card in a country torn by ethnic rivalries.
Their survival is also “directly linked to the sanctuary, support and logistics they receive in neighboring Pakistan from various elements in that country,” says Pakistani author and veteran Afghanistan watcher Ahmed Rashid.
“The ability of the Taliban, unlike Al-Qaeda, to rebound from severe hits has proved them to be remarkably resistant to casualties, with a deep bench of commanders, logisticians, recruiters and administrators for their cause,” Rashid wrote last week in the Security Times.
In a summer offensive, he said, they can still mobiliser about 25,000 fighters − the same figure they had in campaigns in 2005-6.
Analyst Clark pointed out that the Haqqani network, based on the border with Pakistan and blamed by the United States for high-profile attacks in Kabul, including the US embassy siege in September, sees itself as Taliban.
“Haqqani network is a name coined by counter insurgency specialists. It’s not the name they call themselves − they refer to themselves as Taliban,” she said.
And despite reports of splits, Qalamuddin and others say the insurgents remain loyal to their reclusive, one-eyed leader Mullah Omar.
“The truth is that all Taliban are under the leadership of Mullah Omar, there is no split in their ranks,” Qalamuddin said.
“I think they are a very coherent group, particularly in comparison with other Afghan armed actors, both state and non state,” said Clark.
The Taliban’s strength is also a reflection of the weakness of Karzai’s government, widely viewed as corrupt and living off western military and aid money while the country remains one of the poorest in the world.
The insurgents range from a hardcore of those fighting out of a belief in their cause to “unhappy people.” says ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson.
“They are unhappy with the local situation because they haven’t seen governance, haven’t seen the law, they fight out of dissatisfaction,” he told AFP.
Such insurgents will have to be re-integrated with the rest of Afghan society if there is to be a non-military solution to the war, Jacobson said.
“The question is how much Taliban influence is Afghanistan willing to bear, and then how far can the integration of Taliban go − and that is an Afghan question,” he said.
“After every civil war in history the nation has to decide what can be forgiven and what cannot.”