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The Taliban Is Attempting To Present A More Subdued And Acceptable Image To The World

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

After 20 years of biding their time, the Taliban took over Afghanistan in a matter of weeks following the start of the U.S. troop withdrawal. As the militant group marched into the capital of Kabul last week, it tried to present a new, more tolerant image to the world, essentially countering everything known about one of the world's most repressive organizations for more than three decades. So how effective is this messaging, and who exactly is it intended for? Here to help us understand the Taliban's PR efforts is Mina Al-Lami. She analyzes extremist messaging as part of the BBC's monitoring division. Thanks so much for joining us.

MINA AL-LAMI: Hi.

DAVIS: So can you start by talking about the communications strategy the Taliban is employing? What are they trying to do here?

AL-LAMI: So the Taliban has launched a very sophisticated, proactive, savvy PR campaign, media operation online and on multiple platforms in multiple languages. And this actually even happened ahead of their capture in Kabul. So this media operation went hand-in-hand with the military operation. And you can see, back in those days, that the purpose was to demoralize people in areas where the Taliban had not yet captured. So all the clips and the footage that you can see from their accounts were about, oh, people are welcoming us. The Afghan troops are surrendering, or they're switching sides. They're joining us. Now, since they've captured Kabul, they've gone on a really media frenzy. So all - you know, the messages are very reassuring. It's assurances to people in Afghanistan, to the international community saying, don't worry. You will come to no harm. We plan, as they say, on building a very stable country for everyone. And they say that they want to have an inclusive government. But, of course, the messaging actually sounds too good to be true.

DAVIS: Right. I mean, that's my question because the messaging does not seem consistent with the reports of behavior from the Taliban on the ground. We're hearing reports of them targeting people that worked for the opposition government, rounding people up door-to-door, fears among women about their role in society. Is the message matching the reality?

AL-LAMI: As you said, of course, there are reports of violations. The Taliban - you can see with some of its statements, they are punishing, for example, some soldiers that are violating the Taliban message. They're even offering numbers on social media - if you have any complaints, if you've confronted anything that you're not happy with about the Taliban, please get in touch with us. We have our police. We're out there to help you. So it's a difficult balance for them, obviously. They know all eyes are on Afghanistan.

What they need now is international recognition. And to get that, they need to show that they are flexible, that they are pragmatic. And they've also said in the press conference that women will work shoulder-to-shoulder with men but within the framework of Sharia. There are various interpretations of Sharia, so which interpretation of Sharia will they implement? And I think they're deliberately keeping that vague for now because they want support at this point from people inside Afghanistan and abroad.

DAVIS: And Sharia is, of course, Islamic code of law. But are you seeing any evidence that those organizations, either foreign aid, foreign governments or the people of Afghanistan, are buying this new face of the Taliban? Or is the suspicion, for good reason, still there?

AL-LAMI: I think definitely, there's a lot of suspicion. You know, knowing the Taliban 20 years ago, they have changed.

DAVIS: How so?

AL-LAMI: If you look in, you knoe, recent years, its efforts - its messaging to neighbors, its, you know, courting China, Russia. It's - also its message to, you know, Shia Muslims, to minorities, in Afghanistan. For example, groups like - let's take a group like ISIS. ISIS considers Shia Muslim heretics and it targets them - it target civilians in Afghanistan, where it has a small branch, in Iraq and other places. It considers them legitimate targets, whereas the Taliban doesn't. And, in fact, it's managed to co-opt and get some Shia commanders in its ranks. So, you know, 20 years ago, it lost its whole rule as a result of sheltering al-Qaida. Now, I think it's had a lot - 20 years to reflect on that and see whether this was a wise move. Was it worth it?

DAVIS: Can I ask how extremist groups are responding to this new face of the Taliban?

AL-LAMI: So jihadists are a very divided lot, and there are two camps. So you have the al-Qaida and its supporters, and they are cheering the Taliban's victory. They're saying it's a historic victory, and they're really giving the Taliban this mythical status of this group that defeated a big army supported by the U.S. and NATO. Now, ISIS is a staunch rival of the Taliban. ISIS made its first comment on events in Afghanistan, and it basically called the Taliban a stooge of the U.S. ISIS said the Taliban had achieved no victory in Afghanistan. It was handed Afghanistan on a silver platter by the U.S.

DAVIS: So what advice would you have for foreign aid organizations or governments or people as they try to make sense of the Taliban's new PR messaging effort and whether to judge whether it is a sincere change or not or exactly that, just a PR effort?

AL-LAMI: I think it's very difficult to tell at this point. It's still early days. Even countries that are somewhat sympathetic to the Taliban - they haven't gone as far as recognizing the group as, you know, the legitimate ruler of the country. And that is for good reason because they're trying to kind of assess how genuine the Taliban is when it promises to protect freedoms, liberties, people, locals, foreigners. You know, on the other hand, when it's inviting everyone in, when it's saying, this is what we're trying to do - this is what we're trying to achieve - I think it needs to at least show some evidence that it is trying to create this stable environment for, you know, people to work.

DAVIS: That's Mina Al-Lami with the BBC Monitoring Project. Thank you so much for your time.

AL-LAMI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OKAN ERIN'S "ENHARMONIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.