Rarely photographed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is reportedly seen in this undated photo.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- You might be forgiven for thinking that Taliban leader Mullah Omar has had an abrupt change of heart and turned into some kind of progressive liberal – in Afghan terms at least.
After all, in a recent statement he talked about his fondness for “modern” education, respect for religious minorities and how he just wanted to get along with the rest of the world.
So, has the Taliban – known for harboring Osama bin Laden before and after 9/11, blowing up schools, boiling people alive, shooting Pakistani schoolgirls and killing polio workers – really evolved into a kinder, gentler movement?
The consensus from analysts and Afghans is a resounding “no.” Their advice: Don’t fall for the Taliban-lite propaganda, it is merely a PR stunt designed by militants responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in the country.
According to a United Nations report, 74 percent of the 1,319 civilian deaths in the first six months of this year were caused by “anti-government elements.”
Evan Kohlmann, NBC News terrorism analyst and founder of Flashpoint Global Partners, said Omar’s statement was simply “PR theatrics” designed to appeal to Americans who support an immediate drawdown of U.S. forces. The decision to publish the message in English underscored that view.
“They’re playing to the world stage here. There are a lot of people looking for reasons that would justify the U.S. withdrawing and they’re very smartly putting on campaign designed to play on that,” he said.
Kohlmann said the Taliban’s goal was “to present a picture that doesn’t seem so terrible, [so it] doesn’t seem so bad if they were in power.”
Omar Sobhani / Reuters
Children flee after an explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 24.
“And they’re willing to say whatever they need to in order to convince people to let them back in the door,” he said.
Kohlmann warned not to forget the Taliban regime's time in power in Afghanistan, from about 1996 when they took Kabul to 2001 when they were ousted by opposition forces backed by the air power of a U.S.-led international coalition.
Then they showed “no respect for women’s rights” and were responsible for “gross human rights violations” against a variety of ethnic and religious minorities, Kohlmann said.
“Don’t forget in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997, people were boiled alive in pots, [and] the soccer stadium in Kabul was turned into an execution stand. When you judge the Taliban’s claims now, you have to put them into that context,” he said.
However, Xenia Dormany, former director for South Asia at the National Security Council, said she thought Omar was more likely to have the domestic audience, rather than an American one, in mind.
She said the U.S. had talked about the need to win the “battle of hearts and minds” in Afghanistan.
“This to me shows that Mullah Omar and the senior leadership of the Taliban think similarly,” said Dormandy, now director of the U.S. program at U.K.-based think tank Chatham House.
“This is nothing if not an effort to change hearts and minds [of Afghans], which seems to me to be a fairly smart strategy.”
Shah Marai / AFP - Getty Images
More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.
Like Kohlmann, she said Omar’s words should be compared with the deeds of his followers.
“If you look at the Taliban’s actions -- the number of innocent civilians killed, the apparent lack of targeting, the willingness to sacrifice others’ lives for their own cause – I see no reason to think their attitudes and the attitudes of their leader have changed,” Dormandy said.
“They are bombing schools, not building schools.”
Many ordinary Afghans need little reminding.
Security guard Mohammad Arif, 35, said his cousin was killed by the Taliban and remembered their reign with bitterness.
“They betrayed our people,” he said. “If they wanted to bring unity, they would have brought that to the people when they were ruling instead of killing them.”
Kabul University student Jamshid Niazi, 23, is treasuring her current opportunity to get an education and fears the Taliban will only do harm to her fellow countrymen and women.
“They have already wasted their chance. They came into power but they misused it, instead killing their own sisters, mothers and brothers,” she said.
“If they come to power again, they will only cause a flood of blood.”
NBC News' Khyber Shinwari and Ian Johnston contributed to this report.