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Author of 'Taliban' reflects on how the group has changed since it was last in power

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This month, one year ago, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. It marked a chaotic end to the 20-year U.S. war in that country. Back around the time that war began, author and journalist Ahmed Rashid had written a book titled "Taliban," which became, for many, a defining text, maybe the defining text on the militant group. Well, Rashid has now written a new foreword to the book in which he says, quote, "the fighters who captured Kabul in 2021 were of a different breed." So we called him to reflect on this past year of Taliban rule again in Afghanistan and to ask how the group has changed in these past two decades.

AHMED RASHID: The first wave of Taliban, as it were, were really ignorant of the world. They didn't understand the way politics works, the way the world works, their responsibilities, that they now control the country, they control the government, and they have responsibilities. All they were interested in was pursuing their own religious agenda, which was that everyone had to be converted to their interpretation of Islam. They still pursued the same agenda, except with a difference. It's much harsher now. They understand their responsibilities. They are now heads of state and they're running a country and they understand that they have to keep the population down. They have to make sure that, you know, we don't see rioting going on in Kabul, anti-Taliban movement going on on our TV screens.

KELLY: How damaging is it to the Taliban's authority, their legitimacy, this latest twist, that the leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, turned up living in Kabul until a U.S. drone strike killed him last week?

RASHID: Yes, well, I mean, that has been a public relations disaster for the Taliban. But it should be remembered that al-Qaida has always had a very close relationship with the Taliban. And, of course, now it makes it very difficult for the U.N., for the Americans, for the Europeans to outrightly offer the Taliban recognition of their government or provide them with money and help.

KELLY: I was talking about this with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser at the White House. And I want to play you a little bit of our exchange and see whether you agree, whether you think what he's saying is plausible. I asked him if the Taliban definitely knew Ayman al-Zawahiri was in Kabul. Here's what he said.

JAKE SULLIVAN: We believe that senior members of the Haqqani network, who are now part of the Taliban entity running the government in Kabul, that they knew. We also believe that there were other senior Taliban officials who did not know. And, in fact, you know, we will now watch to see the extent to which this raises questions within the organization of the Taliban about the wisdom of having Zawahiri come back into Kabul.

KELLY: Oh, interesting. So you're watching for possible fractures or divisions in the Taliban or other extremists.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, I don't want to go so far as to say fracture. But, you know, certainly this is going to raise some eyebrows, we believe, within the leadership.

KELLY: Ahmed Rashid, what do you think? Is this raising some eyebrows? Do you see any sign of divisions in Taliban leadership?

RASHID: Well, this is very similar to what happened in 1996 when Osama bin Laden came down to Kandahar and was hosted by the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. A lot of Taliban leaders were opposed to it, and they were very strongly opposed to it. But they allowed Mullah Omar - because he was the supreme leader, they allowed him to carry on doing what he was doing. So we're seeing a repeat of that now with certainly some of the more hardline Taliban, like the Haqqani network, favoring extremists, terrorists from other countries. So, yes, there will be a division, but it will not lead to any chaos or unrest within the Taliban because the Taliban are supremely disciplined. They follow their leader come what may, and they know that if they clash with the leader in the open, they'll be got rid of.

KELLY: Well, given all that, elaborate on the final thought in the new foreword to your book. You write - and I'm going to quote - "unless the Taliban are prepared to moderate their policies, improve upon their earlier attempt at governance and become more people friendly, Afghanistan will remain the fulcrum of unrest and turbulence in Central Asia for years to come." Do you see any sign the Taliban are prepared to do any of that?

RASHID: Well, unfortunately, at the moment, quite frankly, no. As long as they have sources of income, they're able to keep thousands of young people armed and ready to fight. They haven't changed their ideological beliefs, their religious beliefs, which are very extreme and are not acceptable to most Afghans, especially Afghans from different ethnic groups. So, quite frankly, it's a very depressing situation. One thing the Taliban is not going to do is to come under Western pressure and admit to, for example, girls education or something like that, which they see as a direct threat to their ideology and their hegemonic control of the situation.

KELLY: That is Ahmed Rashid, journalist and author of the book "Taliban." Thank you so much, as always, for your insight.

RASHID: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.