To most Americans, the term moderate Taliban would be an oxymoron, not unlike "middle-of-the-road Nazi"--just a joke in search of a punch line. So when Secretary of State Colin Powell cautiously endorsed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's view that such members of the repressive Afghan regime might have a role to play in a future coalition government, many people shared the same reaction as the partisans in the conflict. Both the Northern Alliance's Foreign Minister and the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan declared defiantly, "There's no such thing."
In the murky terrain of Afghan politics, however, nothing is ever that cut-and-dried. While the notion of any future governing role for Taliban leaders--even moderate ones--is bitterly opposed by the Northern Alliance and its backers Iran, India and Russia, a touch of Taliban may be an ingredient necessary to satisfy many other interested parties.
But who are these supposed moderates? Just last week speculation arose that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Taliban's popular southern military commander and a celebrated fighter against the Soviets, was playing both sides and had journeyed to Pakistan to negotiate a possible role in a broad-based future Afghan government. Haqqani, who was granted semiautonomous status by the Taliban, represents the kind of element the U.S. thinks it can woo: opportunistic leaders or fighters, outside the core group of dedicated followers, who may be just along for the ride. Many of these men, while fervent Afghan nationalists, don't necessarily believe in a jihad against the West.
Everything is relative, though, and in the Taliban's case, moderate doesn't mean enlightened--or powerful. For the most part, all Taliban members still support the idea of a pure Islamic state, though some are willing to allow slightly fewer restrictions on women's education and travel, as well as on the treatment of minorities. Mullah Mohammad Hasan Rahmani, the soft-spoken, one-legged Governor of Kandahar, and military commander Ibrahim Baloch signal their brand of open-mindedness by giving TV interviews or meeting with female journalists.
For the U.S., salvaging part of the Taliban may come down to a practical matter. It would be helpful to the jittery regime in Pakistan, which insists on empowering some of its ethnic Pashtun brothers from the southern part of its ravaged neighbor, who make up most of the Taliban, as a counterweight to its foes in the Northern Alliance. A vestigial Taliban may also give any potentially disaffected rank-and-file members some alternative to going down with the ship. As Secretary Powell put it last week, "You can't ethnically cleanse Afghanistan after this is over. You can't export them." All you can hope for, perhaps, is that Afghanistan has a good, enduring reason to halt its most threatening export.
--By Daniel Eisenberg. Reported by Rahimullah Yusufzai/Peshawar, Hannah Bloch/Islamabad, Massimo Calabresi/Washington and J.F.O. McAllister/London