The Taliban explained
The armed group is all set to retake power 20 years after it was removed from power in a US-led military invasion.
The Taliban entered the Afghan presidential palace in the capital Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country following the armed group’s stunning military victories in recent weeks.
The group has won 26 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals since it launched a military offensive in May as the United States-led foreign forces started to pull out from Afghanistan after 20 years.
The armed group was removed from power in a US-led invasion in 2001 following the September 11 attacks on US soil, but it gradually regained strength, carrying out numerous attacks on foreign as well as Afghan forces in the past 20 years.
It managed to win some sort of international legitimacy after the US under then-President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the armed group on February 29, 2020, to withdraw foreign forces in exchange for security guarantees.
Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, did not reverse the troop withdrawal decision, instead, delaying it until September 11 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. However, in July, he again revised that deadline to August 31.
Though the armed group largely kept its promise not to target US security interests, it continued to carry out deadly attacks against Afghan forces and civilians, saying the Western-backed Kabul administration was not a party to the February 2020 agreement signed in the Qatari capital, Doha.
The US-Taliban agreement paved the way for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan leadership. But the Doha talks have failed to make headway as violence continued on the ground.
The armed group first took control of crucial border crossings with Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan after it launched a sweeping offensive against government forces in May.
The group is believed to have 85,000 full-time fighters across the country, and exert control over more than half of the country’s roughly 400 districts.
On July 21, the top US military general said the Taliban appeared to have “strategic momentum” on the battlefield.
“This is going to be a test now, of the will and leadership of the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces and the government of Afghanistan,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley told reporters at the Pentagon.
Hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced due to the fighting, as the aid agencies warned against an impending humanitarian crisis.
Earlier, the group’s spokesman based in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, said the Taliban “did not believe in the monopoly of power”, and its chief Haibatullah Akhunzada called for a “political settlement”.
But the fighters from the group retook power by force. On the evening of August 15, after taking over the presidential palace, the group said it will form an inclusive government drawn from Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups.
The Taliban, which means “students” in the Pashto language, fought alongside the Mujahideen, Afghan rebels fighting the nine-year Soviet occupation.
The US provided weapons and money to the mujahideen as part of its policy against the Cold War foe, the erstwhile USSR. At the time, the Soviets were backing the communist leaders who had staged a bloody coup against the nation’s first president, Mohammad Daoud Khan, in 1978.
After the Soviets pulled out in 1989, things turned chaotic, and by 1992, there was a full-blown civil war with mujahideen commanders fighting for power and dividing the capital city of Kabul, which would be showered with hundreds of rockets each day coming from different directions.
The Taliban militia emerged as a substantial player in 1994. Many of its members had studied in conservative religious schools in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.
They made quick military gains winning control of Kandahar, the biggest city after Kabul, and promised to make the cities safe for people. Fed up with years of war, people generally welcomed them. The mujahideen commanders and their forces had been accused of rights abuses and war crimes in their competition for power.
By 1996, the Taliban seized the capital and hanged the nation’s last communist president, Najibullah Ahmadzai, from a Kabul square. It declared Afghanistan an Islamic emirate and started imposing its strict interpretation of Islamic law.
It was recognised by only three countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Pakistan.
The Afghan group was able to bring a semblance of normalcy and took the decision to tackle endemic corruption, which won it some initial popularity.
However, the group never eased restrictions, which it initially said had been done to ensure that the crimes of the civil war could not be continued. Those restrictions included banning women from education and keeping all women, except for doctors, from working. Under its rule, anyone who did not follow its strict guidelines could be jailed or beaten publicly.
Its six-year rule was marked by abuse of ethnic and religious minorities and curbs on seemingly innocuous activities and pastimes such as music and television. Even sports were highly regulated, as male athletes were told what to wear and matches were paused during the five daily prayers.
Its decision in 2001 to destroy the historic Buddha statues in Bamiyan province drew global condemnation.
In 1999, the United Nations imposed sanctions on the Taliban over its links to al-Qaeda.
The US invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, after the Taliban refused to hand over al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan after being initially invited back to the country by former mujahideen commander Abdul Rab Rassool Sayyaf.
In the lead-up to the US invasion, the group had asked the Bush administration to provide proof of bin Laden’s role in the 9/11 attacks and later for negotiations with Washington. Bush rejected both.
The Taliban was forced out of power within a couple of months as the US and its allies began a bombing campaign.
A new interim government headed by Hamid Karzai was formed in December 2001, and three years later, a new constitution was promulgated, which took its cues from the reformed constitution of the 1960s, when women and ethnic minorities were formally granted their rights by the nation’s last king, Mohammad Zahir Shah.
But by 2006, the Taliban regrouped and was able to mobilise fighters in its battle against foreign occupiers and its allies.
The 20 years of conflict devastated Afghanistan, with more than 40,000 civilians killed in attacks by the Taliban and the US-led forces. At least 64,000 Afghan military and police and more than 3,500 international soldiers were also killed.
The US spent almost $1 trillion on the war and reconstruction projects but the country still remains largely poor and its infrastructure in tatters.
In 2011, the Obama administration allowed for a group of Taliban officials to take residence in Qatar, where they would be charged with laying the groundwork for face-to-face negotiations with the government of then-President Karzai.
In 2013, its Doha office was formally opened. In 2018, the Trump administration began formal, face-to-face talks with the group without involving the Afghan government.
The Taliban has set up a parallel state calling it the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan with its own white flag. It has also selected shadow governors that have their own administrations in the nation’s 34 provinces.
The Taliban chief heads a council that oversees about a dozen commissions in charge of things like finance, health and education. It even runs its own courts.
According to Taliban members and a UN committee, it makes close to $1.5bn a year (PDF).
It has also earned revenue from partnering with local and regional mafias in the regional drug trade. Last year, it made millions from mining and trading minerals, and even producing methamphetamine (a stimulant widely used as a recreational drug) in partnership with regional mafias.
It also has its own tax collection system and receives funding from abroad – although suspected sources, like Pakistan and Iran, deny it.
Rip up the constitution
As it was feared for months, the Afghan government collapsed after the Taliban fighters gathered on the outskirts of Kabul.
While the Taliban engaged in peace talks with Afghan leadership, it never ceased attacks in the country. Almost 1,800 Afghan civilians were killed or injured in the first three months of this year. That is almost 30 percent more than last year.
The Taliban has also been blamed for a wave of assassinations targeting journalists and activists – a charge the group has denied.
According to a notable public opinion study (PDF) done in 2019 – 85 percent of people said they had no sympathy for them.
As the armed group is now all set to resume power, Afghans now worry if it will impose its conservative programme or offer moderate policy as promised by the group’s leadership.
There was chaos at the Kabul airport as people waited to fly out of the country. Many Afghans fear the Taliban will rip up the constitution – which protects basic human rights.
In a New York Times op-ed, the Taliban tried to clear things up, saying it wants to “build an Islamic system … where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected”.
Shaheen, the Taliban representative, reiterated in July, that “women will be allowed to work, go to school, and participate in politics but will have to wear the hijab, or headscarf”, a practice which is already commonplace in the current Islamic republic.