The Road to Taliban Control

Image Credit: Pixabay licence: ErikaWhittlieb

Mollie Breen analyses the recent History of the Taliban to help understand their resurgence

After nearly 20 decades of US led Western intervention, the 15th of August 2021 saw the Taliban capturing Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul. The state of fear was highly evident as Afghans desperately tried to flee the country. The final pillar to full control had been achieved and now the Taliban rule Afghanistan. But how did the militant group do it? And what does this mean for those living under this new Taliban regime? .

The Rise of the Taliban in the mid 1990s

The Taliban emerged from the horrors of the Afghanistan Civil War in the 1990s. The group promised to bring an end to the instability brought about by the war, offering an alternative of security and peace. Such a promise yielded support from the Afghan people. Afghan support enabled the Taliban to exert their influence and by 1998 the Taliban had encaptured almost 90% of Afghanistan. The Taliban practiced and promoted an extreme interpretation of Sharia law from their Islamic tradition. This extreme interpretation imposed punishments and misogynistic restrictions. Murderers were publicly executed, and amputations were carried out for those convicted of theft. Women suffered an oppressive life under a Taliban controlled state. They were prohibited from receiving an education and were barred from taking many jobs. In essence, women were confined to their home as a result of the Taliban’s repressive actions. The Taliban’s explanation for their misogyny was that the security situation was poor and once it improved women would be permitted to return. Under their ruling, women’s freedom never returned. The Taliban were also host to Al Qaeda and their leader Osama Bin Laden. This resulted in the US invasion in 2001. 

US Involvement in Afghanistan from 2001

President Bush declared a “war on terror” in Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks. These attacks were orchestrated by Al Qaeda., whose leaders had training camps based in Afghanistan. The US invasion was a direct retaliation to the 9/11 attacks. An international coalition led by the US invaded Afghanistan and launched air strikes the following month. The attacks continued up until December 2001 when Al Qaeda were driven out of Afghanistan. With 130,000 NATO troops on ground, the US achieved their main objective and hence were successful in their act of reprisal. They brought an end to the Taliban’s ruling over Afghanistan, and in the last 20 years there have been no terrorist attacks on Western soil from Afghanistan. 

Although the US were able to drive the insurgents out, they were never able to eradicate the group, as they found refuge in Pakistan. Nonetheless, troops from the US, UK, Germany, and New Zealand stayed in Afghanistan to help with reconstruction, which included providing training to build and equip Afghan security forces. A new democratic government was formed to ensure stability was achieved in Afghanistan. The government was formed by those who were involved in the Civil War, which meant that humanitarian issues persisted due to old tensions. 

Many things did change, however,  with Western aid opportunities arising for the Afghan people. Women could avail of an education, businesses emerged, and healthcare improved. But continuing Western intervention led to an increase of support for the Taliban as Western anti-terrorist attacks resulted in civilian deaths. In 2008, A US airstrike in the village of Azizabad killed an estimated 76 civilians, mostly children. The Taliban strengthened. Osama Bin Laden was killed by US forces in 2011. This resulted in further Taliban advances. In 2019, 40 civilians were killed at a wedding in the province of Helmand when Afghan special forces, supported by the US, carried out raids on Taliban hideouts. As civilian deaths continued to rise, so did support for the Taliban. US attitudes began to shift as a result of the militant insurgency. US Presidents voiced their desire to leave Afghanistan. President Obama promised to leave in 2014, stating, “Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country.” It was President Trump who actually made the withdrawal a reality. In February 2020, the US signed a peace agreement with the Taliban. The US agreed to withdraw their troops by May 2021 if the Taliban promised to prevent terrorist groups from gaining momentum.

The withdrawal of NATO troops and the Taliban’s recapture of Afghanistan 

Biden decided to carry out the withdrawal agreement, aiming to leave by September 11th          2021. The last US soldier left Kabul on the 31st of August 2021. British troops, alongside other NATO allies, similarly announced plans to withdraw from Afghanistan. The US did not expect the Taliban to advance so quickly, as they had left behind a 300,000 strong Afghan army who faced a Taliban army of 80,000. On paper, the Afghan army should have been able to put up a strong fight against the Taliban. The Taliban’s ability to advance quickly was due to a variety of reasons: without US air strikes the Afghan army lost their advantage over the Taliban; smelling victory, the Taliban were highly motivated, which starkly contrasted the low morale of the Afghan army. Many Afghans saw the withdrawal as a betrayal by the US; militants started with smaller cities and by June 25 the Taliban controlled a third of the country. They began to kill targeted journalists and carried out a propaganda campaign, pitching inevitable victory, which further impacted on the morale of the Afghan army. Therefore, a combination of factors led to the Taliban finally capturing Kabul and declaring full independence of Afghanistan at the end of August 2021.

What does the future look like for Afghans under a Taliban controlled state? 

An environment of fear permeates Afghanistan as many Afghans, especially women, are uncertain as to what the future holds. Chaos is unfolding as many try to flee the country. Citizens fear a return to the 1990s when the Taliban imposed harsh repressions on their freedoms. Taliban leaders are attempting to curtail these fears as they voice a more moderate leadership. Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen stated, “We will respect the rights of women...our policy is that women will have access to education and work.” Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid also stated, “Women will be afforded all their rights…within the limits of Isam.” The limits of Islam are yet to be defined, however. On the ground this moderate approach has not been adopted in some parts of Afghanistan. Women protested in Herat after Taliban militants ordered women to leave work. One woman who is the sole earner for her mother and disabled brother told The Guardian that “the manager called an emergency meeting as they told all women to leave.” The Taliban have ordered beauty salons to cover images of women. They have banned music. Women have also reported incidents of forced marriages and flogging. A female journalist, Khadija Amin showed up to work to find that a male journalist had replaced her.

It is clear that many of the freedoms enjoyed by Afghans prior to the Taliban’s control are being stripped from them. A similar pattern ensues which predicts an oppressive life with limited freedoms under a Taliban controlled state.