Omari, a skinny 23-year-old with a skinny beard and a jacket of Afghan forces, recalls the day a group of preachers arrived at his madrasa in a village near Kabul.
“They talked on the podium and preached about the value and necessity of jihad,” he said. “I had a belief, a firm belief. [They] led me to join the Taliban. ”
After graduating, he traveled to the nearby province of Wardak for military training and joined a local Taliban unit. Afghan forces would sit there and plant mines and bombs for targeted killings.
Omari represents a new generation of Taliban, one that makes up a large part of the regular group in a country where the average age is 18 years.
They are aggravated by years of bitter conflicts and are too young to remember when Islamists first ruled in the 1990s, carrying idealistic visions of what they want the new Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan 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. Okay, we can talk about everything, but not the Islamic regime. This is our red line. ”
Omari’s hard-line views, agreed by thousands of younger fighters, often contradict the overtures of senior Taliban leaders who promised a more moderate regime with amnesty for former opponents and limited rights for women.
These vows were several times contradictory by the action of militants on the ground. Within the Taliban’s divided military structure, the beliefs, passions and grievances of this younger generation will help define life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
For senior leaders, who have recently returned after a decade in exile in Pakistan or Qatar, control and satisfaction of the younger Taliban will be vital to ensuring the unity and longevity of their government.
Ibraheem Thurial Bahiss, an adviser at the International Crisis Group, notes that while the range of views of the Taliban ranks challenges rewriting, the difference between young and old will be one of the group’s biggest challenges.
“The older generation is a bit more pragmatic in many ways because they have that experience of running a government and knowing what challenges last ruled,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. They have a utopian vision of what they want. ”
The U.S.-led invasion in 2001 dispersed the Taliban, and founders such as Hassan Akhund and Abdul Ghani Baradar — now prime minister and deputy prime minister — fled abroad. The insurgency was sustained by the seemingly endless flourishing of young Afghan men.
While some, like Omari, were driven by ideological zeal and disgust at the perceived sale of a U.S.-backed government, others like Hamza wanted revenge in a cycle of brutality tit-for-tat that continued the war.
The 28-year-old from the eastern province of Nangarhar said that he joined the uprising in 2014 after an American soldier allegedly executed his father – who is also a Taliban militant – during a night raid.
“They took him out of the house, blindfolded and his hands tied behind his back,” he said. “We heard gunshots in an hour.”
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said many younger Taliban were united by a sense missing.
“Most of them haven’t been able to take advantage of the wealth and opportunities in the last 20 years,” she said. They believe that “the rule of the last 20 years has been very unjust, unjust, because it has been run by indifferent fraudsters.”
While they are poor, rural communities shaken by drought and the war proved to be the most reliable Taliban recruits, that group is otherwise more diverse than before.
Mohammad, 30, worked as a Taliban spy while at Kabul University, transporting weapons and warning his unit of the movement of military convoys.
He seems more pragmatic and wants the Taliban to establish the international ties and trade needed to revive the country’s economy.
“The most important thing that has happened to me is a well-functioning governing system and international recognition,” he said. “We respect the world now. We were enemies because they attacked us, destroyed our houses and villages, but now we want to. . . to have a connection. “
It is unclear how much younger members are represented in the Taliban leadership. Sirajuddin Haqqani and Muhammad Yaqoob, both descendants of rebel dynasties and members of the new Taliban generation, are part of the interim government, but little is known about them.
Yaqoob, believed to be 30, was first seen in public this month. His whereabouts for most of the war were a mystery.
Some analysts are skeptical about the influence of these younger leaders. For example, Anas Haqqani, a 27-year-old who has been one of the most prominent Taliban figures since taking over, is not in the new cabinet.
There is another group of young Afghans for whom the Taliban are simply too soft.
A study by the American Institute for Peace in 2020 showed that Isis-K, a subsidiary of an international terrorist group and enemy of the Taliban, has recruited much of its base middle-class urban youth. Many are drawn to his perceived ideological purity, condemning the Taliban’s “corrupt version of Islam.”
There is a generation “more radical than the major Taliban,” said Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group. The new Taliban rulers “will have their hands full”.