NEW DELHI -- The Taliban retook Afghanistan after a nearly two-decade war with U.S. forces, a feat the Islamic fundamentalist group achieved by wooing impoverished youths with social media and the promise of jobs.
The group imposed strict Islamic rules that banned television, music and education for girls during its last reign from 1996. But it has since adapted to the modern era at least in some ways by accepting the internet and smartphones.
"We wake up at 5 a.m. to pray together and recite the Quran," said a Taliban fighter in his 20s who is a guard in Kabul. "We eat breakfast, then we start working at 7. We use smartphones, too."
He checks the news on his phone after returning home to his wife around 6 p.m. He also makes calls but does not watch movies or other entertainment on it. He helps out with chores and spends time with family on days off.
Founded in 1994 by fundamentalist students, the Taliban are believed to consist of about to 50,000 to 80,000 male fighters. The last time the group was in power, there was no internet access because of the lack of infrastructure.
It now lets members use the internet and posts content to such platforms as Twitter. When a Taliban spokesman appeared before the press on Aug. 17 after an extended absence from the public eye, many in his entourage were seen snapping selfies on their smartphones.
Taliban leaders recognize that without an online presence, they cannot win over the internet generation and could lose ground to the competition. Music, movies and other entertainment accessible over the internet are believed to still be banned.
And for many young fighters, the group's ultimate appeal is its promise of a job.
The Afghan economy has struggled to take off, even with a flood of international aid during the long American stay. In a 2019 survey by the Asia Foundation, more than 70% of respondents cited a lack of employment opportunities as the biggest problem facing youth. The Taliban are believed to be using profits from the drug trade to lure poor youth with little prospect of finding work.
"I earn 10,000 afghani ($118) a month, which really is not enough at all," said a 20-something fighter waiting for his next mission with about 40 others in Kabul. "Still, I'm fortunate to work for the Taliban."
The Taliban had focused much of their efforts on fighting the U.S. military. With the American forces now gone, the group is turning its sights to its rivalry with the Islamic State.
The progress made on women's rights over the past 20 years could be overturned by the Taliban.
"I'm thinking of getting a second wife," said a Taliban fighter in his 30s in Uruzgan, a southern province.
"I'm planning to marry a third wife," said a commander in Helmand, another southern province. Men are permitted to take multiple wives in Islam, but most married Muslim men today have only one.
Women's role in society is also uncertain under the new rulers.
"I may have to give up my studies in interior design," a Kabul resident in her 30s said.
"The Taliban will ban women from education and employment again in half a year to a year, once international interest in Afghanistan wanes," she said.
"The Taliban say they will change, but nothing has changed," a woman in her 50s said. "I don't know when I can return to work."