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Not Much Has Changed With The Taliban, Says Noted Journalist

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we are witnessing more cities in Afghanistan falling to the Taliban. Today's headline - three more provincial capitals and a local army headquarters in the country's northeast. Well, 20 years ago, the U.S. and its allies drove out the Taliban, poured in thousands upon thousands of troops and billions upon billions of dollars to rebuild Afghanistan and train its security forces. That effort today is collapsing. The Taliban is back in control of two-thirds of the country. Our next guest literally wrote the book on the Taliban. Ahmed Rashid came out with "Taliban" in 2000, and it became the go-to, kind of a textbook, for everyone trying to understand world events after 9/11.

Ahmed Rashid, good to speak with you again. I'm sorry it's under these circumstances.

AHMED RASHID: Thank you.

KELLY: When I read these headlines out to you - three more provincial capitals fall, and two-thirds of Afghanistan back under Taliban control - what's the first thing going through your head?

RASHID: Well, it's just extremely depressing. This is something that I've been living with and seen all this happen before, not once but twice - when the Soviets left, and the civil war erupted after that, and then the Taliban came in, which led to another civil war. It's enough to make anyone weep, really - 40 years of conflict and war and an inability to settle down and get their act together.

KELLY: Let me turn you here and just ask how cohesive a group is the Taliban these days? Who's in charge?

RASHID: Well, there is a Shura - that is a council of elders - who most of them are on the Pakistan side of the border, and they decide the strategy. But the real strength now is with the commanders in the field. Many of them have been in jail, or they've been in Guantanamo, or they've been fighting the Americans, and they have determined that they're not going to avoid the capture of Kabul and the capture of the whole country.

KELLY: If I'm hearing you right, you're saying that the ongoing U.S. effort to host or participate in peace talks led by the top envoy on that, Zalmay Khalilzad, that the Taliban doesn't really have much incentive to negotiate. They're winning on the battlefield. Their commanders don't want to come to the table for peace talks.

RASHID: Yes, that's absolutely right, and especially not now when they're winning. But, also, I think the negotiations conducted by the Americans with the Taliban, which led to the original deal last year, was incredibly one-sided. The Americans gave up so much of their leverage with the Taliban. They didn't allow the Afghan government to have much say. And so there was already a kind of demoralization in government ranks that the Americans have not just physically abandoned us but politically.

KELLY: There are all kinds of questions about human rights, about women's rights, as the Taliban sweeps back. What do we know about how they view the role of women in Afghanistan today? Has it evolved in the last two decades?

RASHID: Well, unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have because what we are seeing is, in many areas, the commanders are imposing Sharia, forcing women to cover up. We don't know what's going to happen to the educational system. There is talk about greater freedoms for women, that women will be allowed to work. But, also, at the same time, we've recently heard of stoning of women as punishment for adultery, heads being chopped off as punishment for stealing. So there is a very strict interpretation of Islamic law, which, of course, was very prevalent in the early '90s when the Taliban had captured most of the country.

KELLY: And, given that, what does the Taliban - what do they want? What are their ambitions today? It sounds like - is it just to turn back the clock to summer of 2001?

RASHID: I think that's the question that has bedeviled the negotiators in Qatar. The Taliban in the last year and a half have not once enunciated what kind of political system they want. We all know they want to take power, but do - they say they don't believe in democracy. They don't believe in a dictatorship. They don't believe in any kind of authoritarian government. They want an Islamic government, but that doesn't spell out the details of what kind of - how are you going to choose the next leader if you don't allow elections and you don't allow polling? So we really have no idea as to, politically, what they want.

KELLY: If you were coming out with the 2021 updated edition of your book on the Taliban, what would need to change?

RASHID: I think it would be a very boring book because, frankly, not much has changed. I mean, there's been this whole conflict for the last 20 years after 9/11 and the revival of the Taliban. But, as far as their behavior, their attempts at governance, at enunciating a policy which is sympathetic to the public and the people and women and children going to school, we haven't really seen that yet.

KELLY: Is the journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of many books, including the 2000 classic, "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil And Fundamentalism In Central Asia."

Ahmed Rashid, thank you.

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