Omari, a skinny 23-year-old with a tapered beard and an Afghan Special Forces jacket, remembers the day a group of preachers arrived at his madrassa in a village near Kabul.
“They spoke on the podium and preached on the value and necessity of jihad,” he said. “I had a belief, a strong belief. [They] led me to join the Taliban.
After graduating, he traveled to neighboring Wardak province for military training and joined the local Taliban unit. There they would ambush Afghan forces and lay mines and bombs for targeted assassinations.
Omari represents a new generation of Taliban, who form a large part of the group’s base 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 the new Islamic emirate of Afghanistan to look like.
There should be “no compromise with the enemy of our martyrs,” said Omari. “The most important thing… Is the establishment of a purely Islamic regime. OK, we can sit down and discuss everything, but not an Islamic regime. This is our red line.
Omari’s harsh views, shared by thousands of young fighters, are often at odds with overtures made by older Taliban leaders who have pledged more moderate rule with amnesty for former opponents and limited rights for women .
These wishes were repeatedly contradicts through the actions of activists on the ground. Within the crumbling military structure of the Taliban, it is the beliefs, passions and grudges of this young generation that will help define life in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
For aging leaders, recently returned from decades of exile in Pakistan or Qatar, controlling and satisfying the young Taliban will be vital to ensuring the unity and sustainability of their government.
Ibraheem Thurial Bahiss, consultant to the International Crisis Group, notes that while the range of views across the Taliban ranks belies the typography, a divergence between the young and the old will prove to be one of the biggest group challenges.
“The older generation is a bit more pragmatic in many ways because they have the experience of running a government and knowing what the challenges were the last time they ruled,” he said. “The younger generation doesn’t necessarily have that. They have a utopian vision of what they want.
The US-led invasion in 2001 dispersed the Taliban, with founders such as Hassan Akhund and Abdul Ghani Baradar – now prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively – fleeing abroad. The insurgency was supported by the seemingly endless wave of young Afghan men.
While some, like Omari, were driven by ideological fervor and disgust at the perceived venality of the US-backed government, others, like Hamza, wanted revenge for the cycle of tit-for-tat brutality that supported the war.
The 28-year-old, from the eastern province of Nangarhar, said he joined the insurgency in 2014 after his father – himself a Taliban activist – was allegedly executed by the US military during a night raid.
“They took him out of the house, blindfolded and his hands tied firmly behind his back,” he said. “Within an hour, we heard the gunshots. “
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution, said many young Taliban were united in a sense of missing.
“Most of them have not been able to take advantage of the riches and opportunities of the past 20 years,” she said. They believe that “the rule of the last 20 years was very unfair, unfair, because it was run by crooks who were indifferent”.
Although poor, rural communities ravaged by drought and the war has proven to be 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 Kabul University, carrying weapons and alerting his unit to the movement of military convoys.
He appears more pragmatic and wants the Taliban to establish the international links and trade necessary to revive the country’s economy.
“The most important thing for me is a well-functioning decision system and international recognition,” he said. “We have respect for the world now. We were enemies because they invaded us, destroyed our homes and our villages, but now we want. . . have a relationship.
It is not known what is the representation of young members in the leadership of the Taliban. Sirajuddin Haqqani and Muhammad Yaqoob, both descendants of insurgent dynasties and members of the new Taliban generation, are part of the interim government but little is known about them.
Yaqoob, who is believed to be in her thirties, was first seen in public this month. His whereabouts during much of the war were a mystery.
Some analysts are skeptical of the influence of these young leaders. For example, Anas Haqqani, a 27-year-old man who has been one of the Taliban’s best-known figures since taking power, is not part of the new cabinet.
There is another group of young Afghans for whom the Taliban are just too soft.
A 2020 study by the United States Institute of Peace found that Isis-K, a subsidiary of the international terrorist group and Taliban enemy, recruited a large part of its base middle class, urban youth. Many are drawn to its perceived ideological purity, condemning the Taliban’s “corrupt version of Islam”.
There is a generation “more radical than the traditional Taliban,” said Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group. The new Taliban leaders “will have their hands full.”