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Have The Taliban Changed In 20 Years?


As we were preparing to mark today's 9/11 anniversary here in the U.S., this week, the Taliban named a new interim government in Afghanistan. It's been nearly 20 years since the Islamist group was driven from power by U.S. and allied forces at the start of the war in Afghanistan. They found sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, but now after the U.S. withdrawal late last month, the Taliban are back in power and trying to convince the world they are a more moderate Taliban. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is in Islamabad, and she is with us now. Jackie, thank you so much for joining us.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: First, what could you tell us about this new interim government? Does it bear any resemblance to those who were ruling Afghanistan 20 years ago?

NORTHAM: Yes - a very strong resemblance. Many of them are looking a lot older and grayer and wearing glasses. But for the most part, it's the same group, and they're all men. There are a few changes, though. One of the more controversial additions is Sirajuddin Haqqani, and he's now the interim interior minister. He also has a $10 million FBI bounty on his head for his involvement in suicide attacks and, you know, ties with al-Qaida. He's part of the government. A couple other things to note - despite assurances from the Taliban, this doesn't appear to be an inclusive government at all, and nor does there appear to be any role for women. As I said, it's all men so far.

MARTIN: So many of the same faces we saw in the '90s. What about their policies? How are those shaping up?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, the Taliban are trying to assure the world that they're on a more moderate force now than the one that ruled Afghanistan before. And if you recall, Michel, you know, the Taliban back then was ruthless. I mean, they would whip people if they were caught listening to music or flying a kite. They'd have public executions. The Taliban now wants people to believe that's a thing of the past. But, you know, already we're seeing them crack down hard on any dissent, and that's just not a good sign.

MARTIN: So as to the question of the U.S.'s security interests here, If the Taliban is falling back on its old ways in the way they treat their own people, what should the U.S. posture be? I mean, should the U.S. believe that they won't allow Al-Qaida or other militants to operate in Afghanistan as they did in the past?

NORTHAM: In the short term, you know, the U.S. needs to work with the Taliban. You know, there are still Americans and Afghans who are at risk because they worked with the U.S. that are stuck in Afghanistan, and the U.S. needs the Taliban's help to get them out. You know, the White House issued a remarkable statement this week saying the Taliban have been cooperative, businesslike and professional in helping stranded people, if they have the right documentation, get out of Afghanistan. Also, Michel, in the long term, the U.S. may still have to work with the Taliban to help keep extremists like Islamic State and al-Qaida from operating in Afghanistan. But, you know, that all depends on how much the U.S. is willing to stomach if the Taliban starts going back on its old ways.

MARTIN: So does the U.S. have any leverage over the Taliban to try to keep them to their word?

NORTHAM: Yes. It does. Afghanistan is a country that needs foreign aid, and that pretty much dried up once the Taliban claimed victory there. The U.S. is already holding back billions of dollars in aid, and Germany, the World Bank, the IMF are also freezing millions of dollars in help until they see how the Taliban behaves. But, you know, this is really a tricky situation because Afghanistan is on the edge of an economic cliff. You know, many businesses have shut. There's high runaway inflation. The Taliban needs this financial support to keep the country running, and that's a lot of leverage that the U.S. has.

MARTIN: That was NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam in Islamabad, Pakistan. Jackie, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET'S "PENTHOUSE CLOUD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.