The young Talibs: ‘no compromise with the enemy of our martyrs’

Omari, a gaunt 23-year-old with a wispy beard and an Afghan special forces jacket, recalls the day when a group of preachers arrived at his madrassa in a village near Kabul.

“They talked on the podium and preached about the value and necessity of jihad,” he said. “I had belief, strong belief. [They] led me to join the Taliban.”

After graduating, he travelled to nearby Wardak province for military training and joined the local Taliban unit. There they would ambush Afghan forces and plant mines and bombs for targeted killings.

Omari represents a new generation of Taliban, one that makes up much of the group’s rank-and-file in a country where the median age is 18.

They are hardened by years of bitter conflict and too young to remember when the Islamists first ruled in the 1990s, carrying idealistic visions of what they want Afghanistan’s new Islamic Emirate to look like.

There should be “no compromise with the enemy of our martyrs”, Omari said. “The most important thing . . . is the establishment of a pure Islamic regime. OK, we can sit for talks about everything, but not about an Islamic regime. This is our red line.”

Omari’s hardline views, shared by thousands of younger fighters, are often at odds with the overtures made by older Taliban leaders who have pledged a more moderate regime with amnesty for former opponents and limited rights for women.

Many of the younger Taliban, in a country where the median age is 18, have idealistic visions of what they want Afghanistan’s Islamic Emirate to look like © Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

These vows have been repeatedly contradicted by the actions of militants on the ground. Within the Taliban’s disaggregated military structure, it is the beliefs, passions and grudges of this younger generation that will help define life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

For the ageing leaders, recently returned after decades in exile in Pakistan or Qatar, controlling and satisfying the younger Taliban will be vital to ensuring the unity and longevity of their government.

Ibraheem Thurial Bahiss, a consultant at the International Crisis Group, notes that while the range of views across Taliban ranks belies typecasting, a divergence between young and old will prove one of the group’s biggest challenges.

“The older generation is a bit more pragmatic in many ways because it has got that experience of running a government, and knowing what were the challenges the last time they ruled,” he said. “The younger generation don’t necessarily have that. They have a utopian vision of what they want.”

The US-led invasion in 2001 scattered the Taliban, with founders such as Hassan Akhund and Abdul Ghani Baradar — now prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively — fleeing overseas. The insurgency was sustained by the seemingly endless swell of young Afghan men.

While some, such as Omari, were driven by ideological fervour and disgust at the perceived venality of the US-backed government, others such as Hamza wanted revenge in the cycle of tit-for-tat brutality that sustained the war.

Taliban fighters patrol a market in Kabul
While the older Talibs have a more pragmatic outlook, the younger generation ‘have a utopian vision of what they want’ © AP

The 28-year-old from the eastern Nangarhar province, said he joined the insurgency in 2014 after his father — himself a Taliban militant — was allegedly executed by the US military during a night raid.

“They took him out of the house, blindfolded and his hands tied tight behind his back,” he said. “In an hour, we heard the gunshots.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said many of the younger Taliban were united by a sense of missing out.

“Most of them have not been able to take advantage of the riches and opportunities of the last 20 years,” she said. They feel “the rule of the past 20 years was very unfair, unjust, because it was run by crooks that were indifferent”.

While poor, rural communities wracked by drought and war have proved the Taliban’s most reliable recruiting grounds, the group is in other ways more diverse than before.

Mohammad, 30, worked as a Taliban spy while at university in Kabul, transporting weapons and alerting his unit to the movement of military convoys.

He appears more pragmatic and wants the Taliban to establish the international ties and trade needed to revive the country’s economy.

“The most important thing for me to happen is a well-functioning ruling system and international recognition,” he said. “We have respect for the world now. We were enemies because they invaded us, destroyed our houses and villages but now we want . . . to have a relationship.”

It is unclear how much representation younger members have within the Taliban leadership. Sirajuddin Haqqani and Muhammad Yaqoob, both scions of insurgent dynasties and members of the new Taliban generation, are part of the interim government but little is known about them.

Yaqoob, believed to be in his early 30s, was seen in public for the first time only this month. His whereabouts for much of the war were a mystery.

Some analysts are sceptical about how much influence these younger leaders have. For example Anas Haqqani, a 27-year-old who has been one of the Taliban’s most public figures since their takeover, is not in the new cabinet.

There is another group of young Afghans for whom the Taliban is simply too soft.

A 2020 study by the United States Institute of Peace found that Isis-K, an affiliate of the international terrorist group and Taliban enemy, has recruited much of its base from middle-class, urban youth. Many are drawn to its perceived ideological purity, condemning the Taliban’s “corrupted version of Islam”.

There is a generation “more radical than the mainstream Taliban”, said Graeme Smith at the International Crisis Group. The new Taliban rulers are “going to have their hands full”.

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