7 min read.Updated: 28 Sep 2021, 11:00 AM ISTYaroslav Trofimov
Afghan force that sheltered Osama bin Laden swept through the country following a US troop withdrawal
The Taliban, an Islamist fundamentalist organization that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until being toppled by the 2001 U.S. invasion, seized the Afghan capital Kabul on Aug. 15 after President Ashraf Ghani escaped the country, crowning a rapid offensive that started in May. The group that sheltered Osama bin Laden as he planned the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America has now established a new government in Kabul and reinstated the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to replace the toppled Afghan republic.
The Taliban, a word that means “students," were founded in southern Afghanistan by Mullah Mohammad Omar, a one-eyed Islamic cleric who became a mujahedeen commander during the war against the Soviet-backed regime in the 1980s. In 1994, Mullah Omar formed the group in Kandahar with about 50 followers, most of them also clerics or students of Islam from the country’s southern Pashtun heartland. They pledged to end the civil war between rival mujahedeen factions that followed the ouster of Soviet-backed President Mohammed Najibullah in 1992 and to restore security across the country.
The Taliban quickly captured Kandahar, opening roads to commerce for the first time in years, and seized the capital, Kabul, in 1996, hanging Mr. Najibullah from a lamppost. The Taliban swiftly imposed strict Islamic rules that banned television and music, barred girls from going to school and forced women to wear head-to-toe coverings called burqas. The Taliban provided bin Laden and other members of al Qaeda with sanctuary as they planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As the Taliban moved beyond the Pashtun heartland, seizing most of the country except for a sliver of northeastern Afghanistan, they committed massacres of the Shiite Hazara minority and killed diplomats at the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. At the time, no country in the world recognized the Taliban government in Kabul with the exception of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
When the Taliban refused U.S. demands to hand over bin Laden, American forces invaded Afghanistan and assisted the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of mujahedeen warlords in capturing Kabul. The December 2001 conference of Afghan politicians in Bonn, Germany, that installed Hamid Karzai as the country’s leader excluded Taliban representatives from sharing power. Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders found sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan and launched an insurgent campaign that gradually grew in strength, prompting President Barack Obama to surge some 100,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan in a failed attempt to roll back insurgent gains. Most U.S. combat troops withdrew in 2014. In February 2020, the Trump administration and the Taliban signed a historic deal in Doha, Qatar, that laid out a 14-month timetable for America to withdraw all of its forces from Afghanistan, with the Taliban pledging that the country will never again be used to threaten another nation’s security.
What are the Taliban’s goals?
The Taliban say they want to reimpose strict Islamic rule in Afghanistan and have ruled out holding elections. They have also proclaimed an amnesty to officials of the toppled government and its security services, asking former government employees to return to their jobs. Taliban leaders say they want to focus on rebuilding Afghanistan and won’t interfere in other nations’ affairs.
The Taliban have made some concessions to modernity, and instead of banning television run their own slick TV and video production. Independent broadcasters continue operating, smartphones are freely available in Kabul, and the internet remains uncensored. Barber shops also operate freely, and the Taliban, unlike in the past, don’t mete out punishments for shaven men. While the Taliban have allowed elementary schools for boys and girls to reopen, the middle and high schools for girls have remained closed. With a few exceptions, such as the security staff at Kabul airport, female government employees have been told to stay at home. While there have been numerous killings of the Taliban’s political foes, those are relatively rare. Prominent opponents of the Taliban, including Mr. Karzai and former Northern Alliance leader Abdullah Abdullah, continue living in Kabul, where they meet visiting foreign dignitaries.
Who leads the Taliban in Afghanistan?
The Taliban’s current supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, who once led the group’s Islamic courts, took over after a 2016 U.S. drone strike in Pakistan killed Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Nobody has seen Mr. Akhundzada in public for years, however, and some Western officials speculate he may be dead.
The new Taliban government in Kabul, announced on Sept. 7, is headed by Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund, one of the close aides of Mullah Omar. Mullah Omar’s son Mohammad Yacoub is defense minister, while Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network that is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., heads the ministry of interior that is responsible for internal security. Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was the public face of the Taliban during negotiations with the U.S. in Doha, Qatar, is one of two deputy prime ministers. Only a handful of members in the Taliban government represent the non-Pashtun ethnic groups of Afghanistan.
How is the international community reacting to the Taliban?
The U.S. and all Western nations, as well as India, closed down their embassies in Kabul after the Taliban takeover in August. Washington also froze some $9 billion in assets of Afghanistan’s central bank, depriving the country’s Taliban rulers of access to its foreign-currency reserves.
U.S. and other Western officials say they want to see a more inclusive government in Kabul that has women and members of political forces other than the Taliban. They also want to see the Taliban facilitate the departure of Afghans who had assisted the U.S.-led coalition in the past two decades, and more evidence of the Taliban severing links with al Qaeda.
While no country has formally recognized the Taliban regime, nations such as China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and Qatar have kept their embassies in Kabul open and engaged in dialogue with the new government. China and Russia, in particular, have urged the U.S. to unfreeze Afghan assets to prevent a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations, which refers to the Taliban as “de facto authorities," has raised $1 billion in emergency assistance and has dispatched several high-level delegations to meet with Taliban leaders in Kabul.
What does Taliban rule mean for women?
The most significant change in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover has been in the lives of Afghan women. While Taliban leaders say they are committed to women’s rights “in the light of Islam," in practice they have already taken several steps that severely curtail the freedoms that Afghan women enjoyed in the past two decades. Women aren’t allowed in most government workplaces and girls’ middle and high schools remain closed. In private universities, women students and staff have returned to school on gender-segregated alternate days. The Taliban have required that women wear the head-covering hijab, but aren’t demanding a face veil or a burqa. In some parts of the country, but not in Kabul, Taliban authorities have also banned women from leaving home unless accompanied by a male relative.
What happened to the anti-Taliban resistance?
Anti-Taliban politicians such as Ahmad Massoud and former Vice President Amrullah Saleh said after the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15 that they would lead a resistance campaign against the Islamist movement from their stronghold in the Panjshir valley north of Kabul. The Taliban, however, seized the valley in early September, routing the resistance forces. While occasional skirmishes continue in remote parts of Panjshir, the Taliban face no serious military challenge from supporters of the deposed republic. Unlike in the 1990s, when Iran, Russia and Tajikistan militarily supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Afghanistan’s neighbors aren’t engaging in a proxy conflict this time.
What is the difference between Taliban and Islamic State?
While both the Taliban and the regional branch of Islamic State, also known as ISIS-K, seek to establish strict Islamic rule, the two groups have profound religious and political differences, and have fought each other for years. Low-level violence continued after the U.S. withdrawal in August, with Islamic State carrying out attacks on the Taliban, particularly in the eastern city of Jalalabad, while the Taliban assassinate clerics and fighters close to Islamic State.
The Taliban belong to the less rigid Hanafi school of Islam, while Islamic State follows the purist Salafi creed. The Taliban also are an Afghan nationalist movement, and say they seek friendly relations with all countries, including the U.S. By contrast, Islamic State rejects the very notion of a nation-state or of peaceful coexistence with the West.
What is at stake after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?
The U.S. spent trillions of dollars trying to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent it from becoming a new sanctuary for groups like al Qaeda or Islamic State that could plan attacks against the U.S. and its allies. Now, as the country’s economy melts down and millions face starvation, it could become a new breeding ground for international terrorists. The crisis in Afghanistan could also send millions of refugees across its borders, first to Iran and Pakistan and then potentially into Europe. Afghanistan remains the main source of the world’s illicit opium trade, and governments world-wide are closely watching how the Taliban will deal with the country’s narcotics industry that helped finance the insurgency.
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