Back then, the Islamist group was known for being brutal, cutting off the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers, banning women from attending school or working outside the home, and forcing them to wear the burqa and be joined by a male relative whenever they went outside.
From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban ruled with a kind of “medieval brutality and cruelty” and even though they’re saying they’ve changed, the world should be “highly skeptical” of their claims, said Aurel Braun, professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto.
“Let’s not forget that this movement did not come to power through free elections,” he told Global News, adding often “repressive regimes of all types, when they take over … attempt to make promises to calm the situation down, to disorient the population.”
Since the Taliban seized Kabul on Sunday, effectively gaining control of the country, the world has been watching the Islamist militants as they offer “amnesty” to Afghans who worked with Western forces during the United States-led War on Terror, and offerings to women in government.
Many Afghans are skeptical of the claims, and thousands of them are fleeing the country.
Despite their claims, the Taliban have cracked down on dissidents who have been protesting in the streets. On Thursday, at a demonstration in Nangarhar province, online video showed one demonstrator bleeding from a gunshot wound as onlookers tried to carry him away.
Meanwhile, in Khost province, Taliban authorities instituted a 24-hour curfew after violently breaking up another protest. On Wednesday in Jalalabad, the group killed one person and injured others after a protest broke out there, the Associated Press reported.
What the Taliban say and what they do will determine how governments like the United States and Canada respond, said David Edwards, a professor with Williams College in the U.S.
“The main reason why the Taliban are making these gestures is that they need foreign aid,” he told Global News.
“I think the Taliban recognize – or at least one faction within the Taliban recognizes – that they have to govern now and they have to do a better job at governing versus when they had power back in the late 1990s and 2000s.”
Edwards added one of the things we’re likely to see as the dust settles in Afghanistan is a division within the Taliban.
“There is one wing of the Taliban that is interested in pursuing global Jihad, which is to say extending this victory to other countries,” he said.
“There are also members of the Taliban, and I think this is who we’re hearing from right now, who want to project a more moderate image in order to get international recognition … and to get the kind of support they need.”
Modern Taliban more 'savvy'
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada won’t recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government. The country didn’t recognize the Taliban when they were in power 20 years ago either, he added.
“They have taken over and replaced a duly elected democratic government by force, and … they are a recognized terrorist organization under Canadian law,” he said.
The Taliban haven’t offered specifics on how they will lead, other than to say they will be guided by Islamic law. They are in talks with senior officials of previous Afghan governments. Associated Press reports suggest an armed resistance is growing, though it’s unclear if it would pose a threat given that the country fell within days.
In the meantime, the Taliban have urged people to return to work, and girls were seen going back to school in the city of Herat, Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday.
Regardless, we shouldn’t trust this modern Taliban regime, said Tricia Bacon, an associate professor at American University.
“The group has become, within certain corners of the organization, very savvy at dealing with the international community,” she told Global News.
“They are not necessarily representing the realities on the ground and the commanders’ views on the ground. While the group is remarkably unified, I don’t think we can take these kind of pronouncements and this public posturing at face value at all.”
Bacon added she thinks the Taliban are probably surprised by how quickly they took over as well.
“In a way, governing can be harder than being in the opposition because you do have to try to work through some of these issues,” she said.
“I would say that it’s probably a positive step that the Taliban knows it should convey this kind of rhetoric, but I don’t think this rhetoric is necessarily a reflection of how the group will actually behave on the ground.”
'Alternative source of international acceptance'
This version of the Taliban is a “more formidable foe by a longshot now,” Edwards said, adding that governments must be cautious in how they deal with them.
“I think we have to be careful about offering too many carrots to the Taliban on the off chance that they are going to suddenly become moderate actors on the political stage,” he said.
“These are people who have been sending suicide bombers into the cities for the last 15 years since 2006. So I think we have to remember who they are, (but) at the same time I think we also have to avoid the tendency to see them as monolithic because I do think that there are moderate members of the Taliban … that I think we could, in the long term, deal with.”
Bacon said the U.S. and Canada will find themselves in a tough spot when dealing with the regime in the future, even though the Taliban claimed Tuesday it wants peaceful relations with other countries. The U.S. is currently coordinating with the group to airlift American and Afghan allies from Kabul.
“Yes, there can be a certain amount of cutting off aid and restricting flows of money into Afghanistan, but those kinds of sanctions are unlikely to be enough to change the Taliban’s behaviour surrounding issues that it genuinely believes are part of its vision for an Islamic emirate,” she said.
“I think the degree to which the broader international community … can speak with a unified message to the Taliban, there is something to be gained there. Even in the 1990s, the Taliban wanted international recognition, so there are some things that the Taliban may be willing to do in order to get that … but I don’t think the U.S. and Canada have much leverage over the Taliban at this point.”
Bacon added, though, that the Taliban could get an “alternative source of international acceptance” from U.S. adversaries in China and Russia.
“They can certainly survive. Thrive? Maybe not, but survive,” she said.
“So, in a way, the Taliban is in a better position than it was in the 1990s. It has more international contacts and more international experience, so I think you’re right that the Taliban can successfully rule and govern Afghanistan without support from the West.”
–With files from The Associated Press and Reuters