KABUL: In the 10 years since being toppled from power by invading US troops, the Taliban have transformed from media-shy mullahs into a technology-savvy guerilla force who could still end up back in government.
Ousted just weeks after a foreign assault started on October 7, 2001, the Taliban retreated, at least partly to Pakistan, and were written off by Western militaries as a spent force.
But they rebuilt and re-emerged to lead an increasingly brutal insurgency with a new generation of fighters motivated by the presence of 140,000 foreign troops — and some shifts in emphasis, if not belief.
Until earlier this year, Mullah Noor-Ul Aziz was the Taliban's shadow governor in Kunduz, north Afghanistan and before that was a commander in charge of 300 fighters in the southern province of Helmand.
“About 10 per cent were old fighters and 90 per cent were new recruits,” he told AFP, of his former men.
“Lots of new fighters have joined the Taliban because of the tyrannies of the foreign forces, because of the killings of innocent civilians by the foreign forces.”
A smiling man with a close cropped beard, Aziz is the most senior of several hundred Taliban to defect to the Afghan government under a US-backed reconciliation scheme.
He is now director of hajj and religious affairs in the southern city of Kandahar.
Although most Afghan Taliban leaders are still thought to live in Pakistan, many of the younger recruits fighting in Afghanistan are Afghans whose families moved to Pakistan after being displaced by the devastating 1990s civil war.
They share the militant religious zeal of their elders but typically take a less hardline view of the media.
The Taliban banned television when they were in power between 1996 and 2001, but the new generation have been encouraged to join by Taliban propaganda such as Internet videos of attacks on Western troops and beheadings.
“These young guys are equally radical in their Islamic beliefs (as the older generation) but they are radicals of the computer era and the Internet era,” said Afghan analyst and former diplomat Ahmad Sayedi.
For example, the Taliban use Twitter and text messages to communicate with media, plus their slick “Voice of Jihad” website in languages including English.
In other fields, though, there is little evidence of Taliban policy softening on issues such as women's rights.
Research last year from Human Rights Watch found that women in areas where the insurgency is strong often receive Taliban threats in “night letters” if they work, while girls going to school have been poisoned and even had acid thrown in their faces.
Female politicians also report attempts on their lives by the Taliban.
Sayedi said he thought the insurgents may have toned down their rhetoric and behaviour in some areas in a bid to gain support but that this did not represent a fundamental ideological shift.
“They are generally softer. They are not criticising you for not having a beard, they don't care what you wear. But I think this is a tactic rather than a change in strategy,” he said.
Taliban military tactics have also changed in recent years.
Violence in Afghanistan really picked back up in late 2007 and 2008 after the militia retreated to Pakistani border regions and built up strength as the West's focus switched to the war in Iraq.
The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), Western politicians and analysts have claimed major battlefield gains against the Taliban in their southern heartlands following a major push last year.
But the Taliban have increasingly focused on targeted assassinations, plus suicide bombings which overwhelmingly kill Afghan civilians.
“We haven't seen the Taliban coming out and fighting us in the field (this year),” said Isaf spokesman Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson.
“They're fighting their own population.”
The latest high-profile murder was last month's assassination of President Hamid Karzai's peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani, although unusually the Taliban have not claimed responsibility for it.
Karzai said Monday that a traditional meeting or loya jirga will review policy on talking peace with the insurgents amid increasing pressure from non-Pashtun ethnic groups to drop the effort.
The government had anyway made scant process on reaching out to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban, who say they will not engage until all foreign troops leave the country.
Experts still predict, though, that the Taliban will end up in power one way or the other after foreign combat forces leave Afghanistan, slated for the end of 2014.
“If the Americans leave the country, they will definitely take back power,” said Haroon Mir of the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies.