When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, Maulvi Qalamuddin headed the Committee to Protect Virtue and Prevent Vice, the religious police that shut down girls' schools, beat up men with insufficiently long beards and arrested those in possession of music or video tapes.

Nowadays, the 60-year-old Taliban cleric is on a different mission: He is overseeing a network of schools that teach reading, writing and math to thousands of girls in his home province of Logar, an insurgent hotbed just south of Kabul.

"Education for women is just as necessary as education for men," Qalamuddin thunders. "In Islam, men and women have the same duty to pray, to fast -- and to seek learning."

The Taliban's restrictions on women and schooling, combined with support for Al Qaeda founder Usama bin Laden, turned the group into an international pariah even before the September 2001 attacks on America. Now, as the U.S. pulls out its troops and tries to negotiate a peace settlement with the insurgents, the international community grapples with a crucial question: If returned to power, will the Taliban behave any more responsibly this time around?

In recent public statements, the Taliban have made an effort to appear a more moderate force, promising peaceful relations with neighboring countries and respect for human rights. The big unknown is whether this new rhetoric represents a meaningful transformation -- or is merely designed to sugarcoat the Taliban's real aims.

"One might believe that they would change over time," says U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the day-to-day commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. "You see some messages that they might open their thinking a bit about women, a woman's place in society. But I don't know that I would bet on it."

U.S. and Taliban representatives have met over the past several months, trying to establish a dialogue that could end America's longest foreign war. In a tangible sign of progress in early January, the Taliban dropped their insistence that all foreign troops must leave Afghanistan before any peace talks begin and agreed to set up a representative office in Qatar to facilitate future negotiations. To create trust in these talks, the U.S. is considering transferring to Qatari custody five senior Taliban officials incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Despite a new willingness to negotiate with the U.S., however, the Taliban's leadership still believes it can reach its war aim of seizing Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan after most foreign forces withdraw in 2014, American military commanders agree.

Such a future Taliban government would be gentler and wiser than its 1990s incarnation, insurgent officials insist. "As a movement gets older, it becomes more mature, and makes positive changes," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid says. "During the past Taliban regime the government would make some hasty decisions, but now we are careful and deliberate."

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