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Emboldened Taliban try to sell softer image

29 January, 2012

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LAHORE: With the United States eyeing troop pull out from Afghanistan, the Taliban now appear willing to give up their hardline approach they once used to rule the war-torn country.

And as the US tries to negotiate a peace settlement with the insurgents, the international community grapples with a crucial question: If returned to power, will the Taliban behave any more responsibly this time around?

In recent public statements, the Taliban have made an effort to appear a more moderate force, promising peaceful relations with neighbouring countries and respect for human rights. The big unknown, according to The Wall Street Journal, is whether this new rhetoric represents a meaningful transformation—"or is merely designed to sugarcoat the Taliban's real aims".

"One might believe that they would change over time," said US Army Lt Gen Curtis Scaparrotti, the day-to-day commander of the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. "You see some messages that they might open their thinking a bit about women, a woman's place in society. But I don't know that I would bet on it."

US and Taliban representatives have met over the past several months, trying to establish a dialogue that could end America's longest foreign war. In a tangible sign of progress in early January, the Taliban dropped their insistence that all foreign troops must leave Afghanistan before any peace talks begin and agreed to set up a representative office in Qatar to facilitate future negotiations. To create trust in these talks, the US is considering transferring to Qatari custody five senior Taliban officials incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Despite a new willingness to negotiate with the US, however, the Taliban's leadership still believes it can reach its war aim of seizing Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan after most foreign forces withdraw in 2014, American military commanders agree.

Such a future Taliban government would be gentler and wiser than its 1990s incarnation, insurgent officials insist.

"As a movement gets older, it becomes more mature, and makes positive changes," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the Journal. "During the past Taliban regime the government would make some hasty decisions, but now we are careful and deliberate."

A key difference would be an effort to include all of Afghanistan's tribes and ethnic communities, he adds. The old Taliban regime was dominated by Pashtun clerics from southern Kandahar province, and discriminated against the Shia Hazara community and other minorities. This time around, "every group of the nation will be equally represented and privileged", Mujahid says.

The Taliban remain a mostly Pashtun movement, and deeply resents what it sees as disproportionate power enjoyed by smaller ethnic communities under Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But, in the post-2001 insurgency, the Afghan Taliban have largely shied away from the sectarian and ethnic violence that accompanied their rise to power in the 1990s, calling instead on all Afghans to unite against the foreign invaders.

In December, the Taliban leadership swiftly condemned the deadly bombing of Shia shrines in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.

A future Taliban administration also would seek to establish "good coordination" with the international community in the fight against narcotics, Mujahid says.

Severing remaining Taliban links with al Qaeda remains a key demand of the US and allies, and a concession that Western officials expect insurgents to make after the Taliban detainees are transferred to Qatar.

On the ground in Afghanistan, however, the few surviving al Qaeda fighters already have become irrelevant in the current insurgency, especially since Osama bin Laden's killing last May, coalition officials say.

"The Taliban have a local agenda, and do not operate abroad. Al Qaeda is international, and that's the biggest difference," explains the pre-2001 Taliban government's foreign minister, Wakil Abdul Muttawakil.

The Taliban's traditional foes, especially among the former Northern Alliance of ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias, dismiss any talk of the Taliban's new moderation as insidious propaganda designed to weaken the West's resolve in the war, the Journal reports.

"Wishful thinking has not taken anyone anywhere," warns former Northern Alliance leader Abdullah Abdullah. "The Taliban's views are the same."

Yet, on at least one crucial issue—education, for girls and boys— Karzai's government and Western officials concede that significant change has already occurred. "I don't find them to be as hard as they used to be in the 1990s," Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak told The Wall Street Journal.

In the early years of the insurgency, the Taliban would routinely blow up schools across the country, especially those teaching girls, assassinating government-paid teachers. As a result, in many southern and eastern districts of the country's Pashtun heartland, an entire generation of children grew up not knowing how to read, write or count.

"Our communities have told the Taliban: 'Hey, guys, you're telling us you're trying to topple the government of Hamid Karzai and establish your own government. But when you have your own government, you'll still need doctors and engineers. So why are you not letting my kids go to school?' " Wardak says.

The Taliban have heeded this message, according to the Afghan minister. Some 600 schools that had been shut down because of security concerns were reopened over the past three years, he says.


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