CNN  — 

The Taliban’s stunningly swift takeover of Afghanistan has caused dread across much of the nation, as Afghans anxiously readjust to life under a militant group that repressed millions when last in power.

Under the Taliban’s rule between 1996 and 2001, brutal floggings, amputations and public executions were common. Women were largely confined to their homes, and the death penalty was in place for offenses including female adultery, homosexuality and the rejection of Islam.

With the glare of the media again on Kabul, and Western forces staging a hasty retreat, the world is anxiously waiting to discover whether the new Taliban era will see a return to those days.

The militants have so far sought to present an image of themselves as more progressive, inclusive and restrained than the group that terrorized communities two decades ago – claiming that they will not seek retribution against their political enemies, and that women will play an important role in society and have access to education.

But every pledge has been caveated by a reminder of the Taliban’s “core values” – a strict interpretation of Sharia law, which experts say has not been drastically re-imagined in the space of 20 years.

The group’s co-founder and deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Afghanistan Tuesday for the first time since he played a key role the last Taliban government – a sign that the influence of the Taliban’s old guard has not diminished.

And their early actions have dashed many Afghans’ hopes that the Taliban might have changed in the intervening decades.

The group’s fighters clashed with activists during the first major protest against their new regime on Wednesday, three witnesses told CNN, firing guns into a crowd and beating demonstrators in the city of Jalalabad.

Women have already disappeared from the streets of Kabul, fearing the new reality of life under Taliban control; husbands and fathers have been purchasing burqas in the fear that their female relatives will be safe only if they cover up.

Attacks on women across the country in recent weeks, as the Taliban regained the ascendency in Afghanistan’s provinces, have provided a chilling preview of what may be in store for millions.

Who’s in charge of the Taliban?

The Taliban’s leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, took over in 2016 after the group’s previous leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed in a US airstrike in Pakistan.

He hails from a Taliban heartland in the Panjwai district of the southern Kandahar province, Sayed Mohammad Akbar Agha, a founding member of the Taliban who lives in Kabul and says he knows the new leader, said at the time of his appointment.

While Akhundzada was involved in the mujahideen struggle against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, Agha said he was unlikely to have participated in front line military activities. He did judicial work between 1996 and 2001, the period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and after the group’s fall from power in late 2001 he worked as Taliban chief justice, according to Agha.

Akhundzada has two deputies. One, Maulvi Mohammad Yaqub, is the head of the Taliban’s military commission; on Tuesday he told fighters not to enter locals’ homes or seize their assets, in a message distributed widely on the group’s channels. He added in the message that “things will be decided later in an organized way on the leadership level.”

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the other deputy leader, wrote a controversial op-ed in the New York Times last year in which he pitched any future Taliban government as moderate gatekeepers, and said “the killing and the maiming must stop.”

Haqqani is described by the FBI as a “specially designated global terrorist” and is wanted for questioning over a 2008 attack on a Kabul hotel that killed six people. The FBI is offering $5 million for information leading directly to his arrest.

The return of Taliban co-founder Baradar, a jihadi cleric who played a prominent role in their last government, to Afghanistan was confirmed by a spokesman for the Taliban’s political bureau on Tuesday.

It marks the first time Baradar has set foot in the country for 20 years, and comes 11 years after he was arrested in neighboring Pakistan by the country’s security forces.

He was released in order to be involved in peace talks between the Taliban and former US President Donald Trump’s administration, and has since played a key role for the Taliban on the global stage.

Baradar spoke with Trump by phone, and the two sides’ negotiations culminated in a historic peace deal signed in 2020 that set the stage for the drawdown of American troops and the subsequent resurgence of the Taliban.