Who Is Running Afghanistan?

07/22/2010 01:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I have written previously that should the Taliban come to power again, they would be governing a far different place than the Afghanistan hijacked by the Taliban in 1996. There is another side to that coin: the Taliban today are a far different group than the holier-than-anyone zealots who came to power in those times, and are the de facto government in many parts of the country today.

The Afghanistan that the Taliban seized more or less control of in the 1990s was road-kill, a poor shattered junkyard of a country, damaged more after 1989 by the internecine warfare among the various Afghan factions than during the decade-long Soviet occupation. The infrastructure, such as it was, had been crippled; electricity was reduced to a once-in-a-while trickle. Once-bustling bazaars were piles of rubble. Kabul's airport was a cratered minefield. The Taliban of those days knew nothing and cared less about such things; they were all about beating up women in the streets and beheading people in the soccer stadium. They even beat up the old caretaker of Kabul's small walled cemetery for foreigners, for tending the graves of "infidels." The population, or what was left of it, consisted of the poorest and least educated of the Afghan people. It was a perfect home for the stateless terrorist organization called al Qaeda.

After the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 the country was flooded with foreign aid, foreign military, and foreign do-gooders. Schools opened, for girls and boys. The university reopened. The Afghan diaspora began to come home. Educated and world-wise Afghans returned to their homeland to play roles in the new government, to start businesses, build homes. New restaurants, new hotels, new office buildings sprang into life. The bazaars flourished, wedding halls were booked months in advance, and wonder of wonders, the Internet and cellphones arrived in Afghanistan. While the electricity grid was still largely a myth, hundreds of new shops opened up to sell computers and phones, and somehow the engineering was accomplished to establish a network of cell towers so that a Kabuli could call his brother in Herat or Kandahar or Mazar. Internet cafes attracted swarms of young Afghans eager to embrace the new technology, which they quickly mastered. The young Afghans are also watching Tolo TV, owned and operated by the Australian-educated Mohseni family, whose elder statesman, Saad Mohseni, 44, (profiled by Ken Auletta in the July 5, 2010 issue of The New Yorker) is the man who brought the country "Afghan Star," the wildly popular talent show inspired by American Idol. Afghans vote for their favorite competitors via cellphone, and the reason the cellphone towers haven't been blown up is because the Taliban themselves are heavy cellphone users and, while they officially condemn Tolo TV it is believed a number of Taliban cast votes for their favorite Afghan Stars. If the Taliban did indeed retake power in the country they would have to contend with, and accommodate, this new breed of Afghan citizen -- young, media-savvy, and world-aware. But in some significant ways that also describes the new breed of Taliban. They, too, are media-savvy. They use the Internet, satellite TV, cellphones. They seem to be more pragmatic and less ideological, at least to a degree. A friend working in Afghanistan today tries to be realistic about the future of the country:

It makes me sad to think of women and girls, and for that matter everyone, who suffer at times under Taliban rule, but at some point, we must leave ideology out of it. All this 'good guy, bad guy' talk gets in the way of getting anything accomplished here, and frankly, it would be impossible if ideals once again took center stage in the kinetic as well as political fight here. I think most Talibs aren't hardliners, anyway.

Back in February I participated in a panel discussion on Afghanistan during which anthropologist Ted Callahan, who worked with Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame, presented a map of his own making indicating where the Taliban had set up shadow governments. It looked like the electoral map of the U.S. after the 1972 Nixon-McGovern election: a sea of red with only one blue state, Massachusetts. The blue state in Ted's map was Kabul. Now the shadow governments are not so shadowy: they are the de facto government, running a good chunk of Afghanistan on a daily basis and as a matter of course are dealing with the NATO forces, the NGOs, the tribal leaders and even with the Afghan government in Kabul. In reality Afghanistan has a coalition government, and the Taliban are in the coalition, and the sooner we learn to accommodate that reality, the sooner we can leave Afghanistan.