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Fractured Taliban leadership intensifies uncertainty in Afghanistan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It was August 15 of last year when Kabul fell. Not long after, the Taliban held a press conference and promised a more inclusive, more progressive Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The Islamic Emirate is committed to the right of women within the framework of Sharia. Our women have the same rights. They are going to be working shoulder to shoulder with us.

KELLY: Well, fast forward to today. Girls are banned from school after sixth grade. Women cannot board planes without a male relative. But the policies are not being implemented consistently.

KATHY GANNON: There's a great deal of uncertainty. There's a great deal of fear among people about what is to come.

KELLY: That's Kathy Gannon. She's reported on the Taliban for decades. She's the news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan for The Associated Press. Gannon told me the gap between the Taliban's promises eight months ago and today's more restrictive edicts are, in part, the product of a generational divide within Taliban leadership.

GANNON: The younger generation or the newer guard, they certainly do believe in education for girls and beyond grade six. Their own girls are being educated, often in Pakistan, where they still might have some families. And they certainly don't object to education. Of course, it must be segregated. Of course, it is conservative, deeply religious society, before the Taliban, and now with the Taliban. There are women working, for example, at the airport, at passport control in full, you know, hijab with the scarf, face exposed, but certainly with the scarf, women at the Health Ministry, women at the Education Ministry. But there are restrictions, and women have been largely the target of these repressive restrictions.

KELLY: Since it is the Taliban that is now running the country, what do they say when the gap between what they promised on many fronts last summer and the reality of today when that is pointed out?

GANNON: Sure, you're absolutely right. And when you talk to those who are on that pragmatic side, for example, in terms of the education of girls beyond grade six, none of them will say that they oppose it. They will all say they support it. But, you know, you have to go slowly because it has to be an edict that goes countrywide. And countrywide, it's not supported. In the deep rural areas, there is a resistance to girls going to school beyond grade six. And so they use that as an excuse, really, because you certainly can allow girls to go to school in the cities in vast areas of the country.

So I think it is more about the leadership of the Taliban trying to figure out who will dominate, whether it will be the more hard-liners, more older generation rooted in tribal tradition and tribal mores, or the younger, more pragmatic that understands that Afghanistan needs to engage with the world, that it needs to give to the women and the girls the rights that their own religion dictates and they say dictates.

KELLY: I introduced you by saying you have reported for a long time on the Taliban. I'm curious, what has surprised you in these last eight months - if anything - watching them come back, watching them try to figure out how are we actually going to run this country?

GANNON: I think the biggest change for me that I see - not a lot of surprises - you know? I mean, but I guess it's the leadership struggle. And the last time they were in power, Mullah Omar was the final word, and no one could challenge it, the council. And I remember when they destroyed the Buddhas, and somebody I knew on Taliban leadership council, he said to them, you know, don't do it. It's like cutting the throat of my son. You're destroying Afghanistan's legacy. But nobody could, once Mullah Omar had made a decision, challenge it.

That's not the case today. You have a lot of strong leaders and groups within the leadership that it is interesting to me and unknown to me how that will play out, and that certainly will impact how Afghanistan looks going forward.

KELLY: Where do you see the country going? I mean, are we looking at endless internal, political struggle, or do you think this new Taliban, at some point, will manage to speak with one voice, to get its act together, as it were?

GANNON: Yeah. I mean, you know, again, it's only been eight months. I think it's premature to predict one way or the other. But I think there certainly is an effort on their part to try to get to a position where they're actually governing the country. How they will get there and what it will look like is still unknown. And that's really difficult for Afghans because they're struggling with that uncertainty.

KELLY: That is Kathy Gannon, news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan for The Associated Press, speaking with us today from Islamabad. Kathy Gannon, thank you.

GANNON: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.