A sticky wicket: the Taliban goes public with its views on cricket

Islamist group launches a Q&A section on its website as part of PR drive to win over the Afghan people

Kabul

What questions would you like to ask the Taliban? Why the organisation has decided to enter into negotiations with the US, perhaps, or whether the group will ban girls from attending school if it returns to power in Afghanistan?

These are just a few of the questions fired at the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, on a new Q&A webpage, with the Islamist insurgent group launching a concerted PR drive to try to convince Afghans they are not the music-hating, women-stoning extremists of the past.

Topping the most recent batch of questions is an enquiry about the Taliban's stance on cricket. Given the current success of the Afghan cricket team – it has just qualified for the Twenty20 World Cup for a second time – Abu Mohammad Ilyas Ahmadi's concern is whether the Taliban will allow the game to be played if it returns to power.

"There will not be any problems," Mr Mujahid reassured his correspondent. "All sport that is not against religion we do not have a problem with. We also supported the game of cricket during the Taliban times."

It is the Taliban's record on female education and empowerment that crops up most. During its rule from 1996 to 2001, girls were banned from attending school, and the oppression of women was one justification for the US-led invasion that ended Taliban rule.

But Mr Mujahid insists it was lack of funds available to ensure girls' schools were run according with to Islamic rules that caused them to be shut down. "We want our mothers and sisters to have education according to Islamic framework," he wrote.

As international combat troops prepare to leave the country by 2014 and efforts are made to engage the insurgents in peace talks, the Taliban has issued statements suggesting it has transformed into a more moderate organisation with a softer stance on education and human rights.

This PR blitz has included a wholehearted embracing of the internet and social networking. Mr Mujahid, who is widely assumed to be more than one person operating behind a fake name, regularly sends journalists statements via email. The organisation has also taken to Twitter. Last September, the Nato-led force (@ISAFmedia) and another Taliban spokesman Abdulqahar Balk (@ABalkhi) got into a spat over who was more to blame for putting Afghan civilians in harm's way.

The Q&A section of the Taliban's Voice of Jihad website was launched in February, and receives an average of eight questions a day. But many Afghans are wary. "These [public] declarations are all just to fool the people," said Hanif Ahmadzai, who fought against the Taliban in Nineties.

... but Al-Qa'ida goes offline

A number of websites used by al-Qa'ida to share videos and messages have been offline for the past 11 days, prompting speculation that they have been the target of a cyber attack.

The length of time the sites have been disabled for has led experts to conclude that they must have been taken down by a government. But US officials told The Washington Post they had no role in bringing the sites down.

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