The Taliban is generally portrayed as a group of men with beards and turbans, driven by Islamic fundamentalist ideology and responsible for widespread violence. But to understand the group that is poised to return to power in Afghanistan, and what we might expect from its rule, we need a much more nuanced picture.
To start with, it’s important to understand the Taliban’s origins in the 1980s during the cold war. Afghan guerrillas called the Mujahedeen waged war against Soviet occupation for around a decade. They were funded and equipped by an array of external powers, including the US.
In 1989, the Soviets pulled out, and that marked the beginning of the collapse of the Afghan government that had relied heavily on them. By 1992, a Mujahedeen government was formed but suffered from bloody infighting in the capital.
The unfavorable conditions on the ground created fertile ground for the emergence of the Taliban. An Islamic fundamentalist group dominated by those of Pashtun ethnicity, the Taliban is believed to have first appeared in Saudi Arabia-funded hard-line religious madrassas in northern Pakistan in the early 1990s. Some of them were Mujahedeen fighters against the Soviets. In 1994, the Taliban started a military campaign from the south of Afghanistan. By 1996, the group had captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, without much resistance.
Life under the Taliban
For the war-weary people of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s promise of bringing security and order on the one hand and curbing corruption on the other was appealing. But that was coupled with a high and sometimes unbearable cost, the introduction of harsh punishments such as public executions, closing girls’ schools (for those aged ten and above), banning television, and blowing up historical Buddha statues, to name a few. The group’s justification stemmed from the blending of a fundamentalist understanding of Islam with Afghan traditions.
During the peak of the Taliban rule (1999), not a single girl was enrolled in a secondary school and of those merely 4% of those eligible (9,000) were at primary schools. Now around 3.5 million girls are in school.
After the US-led invasion of the country following the Taliban’s refusal to hand over those behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, many of the Taliban’s senior figures evaded capture and reportedly took refuge in Quetta in Pakistan. Later, this led to the formation of the ” Quetta Shura” — the Taliban leadership council that guides the insurgency in Afghanistan.
The short-lived euphoria after the invasion came to an end when the Taliban remobilized in 2004 and started a bloody insurgency against the new Afghan government and supporting foreign troops, costing the lives of at least 170000 people, including 51,613 civilians to date. In 2021, the insurgent group has an estimated 75,000 fighters and its insurgency machinery runs on foreign funding (from governments and private donors) as well as local level taxation, extortion, and illicit drug economy.
There are multiple possible explanations for the Taliban’s resurgence, including the lack of a post-intervention strategy, the adverse effects of the foreign military campaign, a corrupt and incompetent government in Kabul, and a growing dependency on foreign financial and military assistance and regional rivalries.
Now the US has made a deal with the Taliban and is withdrawing from the country. This poses an existential threat to the fragile post-2001 political order, which has been largely shaped, funded, and defended by foreign money and boots on the ground.
Source: The Conversation