Who are the Taliban and what do they want?

Islamist insurgents capture Kabul after US military withdrawal as thousands flee

Joe Sommerlad
Tuesday 07 September 2021 11:42
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Taliban enter Kabul as US embassy in Afghanistan is evacuated

Afghanistan is again in a state of turmoil after Taliban fighters recaptured the capital city of Kabul in August, declaring the country an “Islamic Emirate” once more after president Ashraf Ghani abandoned the presidential palace and fled to Tajikistan.

The operation followed swiftly on from the withdrawal of American troops from the country last month at the order of Joe Biden, their exit coming almost 20 years after the US military drove the same faction out of Kabul at the outset of George W Bush’s War on Terror in response to 9/11.

President Biden expressed his determination not to hand the responsibility for policing Afghanistan on to a fifth commander-in-chief following the completion of his own tenure in the Oval Office and trusted in the Afghan military, in whom the US had invested almost $1trn over two decades, to keep the Taliban at bay.

“The fact of the matter is we’ve seen that that force has been unable to defend the country... and that has happened more quickly than we anticipated,” US secretary of state Anthony Blinken subsequently had cause to lament.

Mr Biden’s defence secretary Lloyd Austin also regretted the “lack of resistance that the Taliban faced from Afghan forces”, a collapse he said he found “extremely disconcerting” during a call with military leaders, according to CNN.

“They had all the advantages, they had 20 years of training by our coalition forces, a modern air force, good equipment and weapons,” Mr Austin said. “But you can’t buy will and you can’t purchase leadership. And that’s really what was missing in this situation.”

The Taliban came to prominence in 1994 during the Afghan Civil War, its ranks composed largely of students - from which the group derives its name (translating from Pashto as “students” or “seekers”) - many of whom had been mujahideen resistance fighters who had battled occupation by the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

At that stage, Reaganite America supported the rebels in their fight against its own Cold War enemy, so much so that Sylvester Stallone famously fought alongside the “gallant” mujahideen in Rambo III (1988).

A Deobandi fundamentalist Islamist movement originating in the Pashtun areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan and in northern Pakistan, the Taliban was led by Mullah Mohammed Omar and conquered first the province of Herat and then the whole country by September 1996, overthrowing the Burhanuddin Rabbani regime, establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and making Kandahar the capital.

Although their new state was only recognised diplomatically by Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban were initially popular with local citizens, according to the BBC, “largely due to their success in stamping out corruption, curbing lawlessness and making the roads and the areas under their control safe for commerce to flourish”.

But its rule by a draconian interpretation of Sharia law would prove as tyrannical as it was ruthless, characterised by the massacre of opponents, the denial of UN food supplies to starving citizens and the oppression of women, which meant forcing them to wear burqas and denying girls the right to work, study or travel.

Films, music and other non-Islamic cultural influences were also outlawed and historic artefacts like the Bamiyan Buddha statues destroyed.

The Taliban’s brutal rule was then brought to an abrupt end by US-led coalition forces in December 2001 in retaliation for the devastating Islamist terror strike on the World Trade Center in New York City, which killed 2,996 people and left 25,000 injured, an atrocity orchestrated by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden from within the sanctuary of Taliban-held Afghanistan.

Despite their defeat, Taliban fighters subsequently regrouped as an insurgency and have continued to battle to retake the country from US peacekeeping forces ever since.

Religious cleric Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada is the current leader of the movement, having succeeded Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in 2016 when he was killed in a US airstrike on Pakistan. He commands as many as 85,000 fighters, according to a recent Nato estimate.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s co-founder, is still part of its hierarchy and remains a key influence, even meeting with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, China, late last month to discuss the likely consequences of the American withdrawal.

The Taliban previously reached out to Donald Trump’s administration when the Republican took office in 2017 - recognising a fellow opponent of US involvement in costly “forever wars” overseas - and subsequently signed a peace accord in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020.

The agreement saw the extremists promising to prevent America’s enemies from using the country as a base for future terror attacks in exchange for troop withdrawal and the release of 5,000 of its prisoners.

But that did little to end violence in the territory, with the UN Security Council reporting last June that the Taliban had won back between 50 and 70 per cent of land outside of major urban centres and demonstrated little interest in securing peace for its own sake.

The group has made some moves to modernise its image of late, indicating it would be willing to permit a more liberal role for women in society and allow them to complete their education, but few international observers are convinced by the more temperate rhetoric, with many fearing a swift return to the old tyrannies of the 1996-2001 epoch.

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