Katherine Butler: Youths with nothing to lose, or tyrants?

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Should the outside world think about doing business with the Taliban? Ten years ago Taliban was a byword for medieval barbarity. The movement's followers were the religious extremists in black turbans who had blown up the priceless Bamiyan Buddha statues, who banned music and kites and executed women in football stadiums for flouting rules that treated them no better than farm animals. It was only after September 2001, though, that the US and its allies decided that the Taliban's links to Osama bin Laden – they had given safe haven to al-Qa'ida – meant the religious rulers should be driven by force from power.

Partly the creation of Pakistani intelligence, the Taliban emerged from the Pashtun areas of northern Pakistan in the early 1990s and came to power in Kabul in 1994. They promised to restore peace and security. But they also brought with them the harshest interpretation possible of sharia law, banning more activities than they allowed and imposing draconian penalties. Women were excluded from education and the workforce and were forced to cover their heads and bodies in the notorious Afghan burka. Television, music and dancing were outlawed. Men were forced to grow beads to a regulation length.

The fall of Kabul to coalition forces and the "defeat" of the Taliban in November 2001 is remembered for the almost comical disappearance of the organisation's leader, the one-eyed Mullah Omar, on a motorbike.

But the Taliban were not over. They regrouped with a vengeance as a fighting force on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. And now, faced with the reality of an endless war, Western leaders have started to paint a more nuanced picture of the organisation. According to British and US assessments, three quarters of the men who fight are not card-carrying extremists. They are young, unemployed, illiterates who sign up because they can earn $15 a day as insurgents. If these youngsters had opportunities, schooling or land they would reject the Taliban because they have no real ideological or religious affiliation with the original movement.

Kai Eide, the UN chief in Kabul, says the motives are more complex. "I don't believe it is as simple as saying these people who are unemployed will go our way if we find them employment," he said this week. And what of the remaining quarter, the "core" Taliban? Some of the men who served in the Taliban government are now described as "moderates". Even Mullah Omar, still on the run but thought to be in charge, is apparently mellowing. The Taliban, he said last year, wanted to "play our role in peace and stability of the region". Those who endured his brutal rule will be watching in dread for any attempt to take up the offer.