Afghanistan: how the Taliban emerged and 5 other key questions about the Islamist group that is taking back territory in Afghanistan

afghan taliban militants how emerged and 5 other key questions

The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 after a US-led military incursion, but little by little the Islamist group has been regaining strength across Afghanistan.

As the United States prepares to complete its troop withdrawal before 9/11, after two decades of war, the Taliban are invading Afghan military posts, towns and villages, and even some major cities, stoking fears that they may topple the government.

Since last Friday, at least five Afghan regional capitals have fallen into their hands.

Kunduz has so far been its most important conquest, since it is a city well connected with other parts of the country and with the capital, Kabul. A city resident described the situation there as “total chaos.

The Taliban entered into direct talks with the US in 2018, and last year both sides reached a peace agreement in Doha that committed the US to withdraw and the Taliban to prevent attacks on US forces.

They also agreed not to allow al-Qaeda or other militants to operate in the areas they controlled, in addition to continuing internal peace talks.

But the Taliban continued to attack the Afghan security forces and the civilian population.

Currently, the Doha peace talks have been paralyzed and many of the people living in the cities taken by the Taliban have lost their property or loved ones.

1. How did the Taliban come about?

The Taliban, or “students” in the Pashtun language, emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet Union troops from Afghanistan.

The predominantly Pashtun movement is believed to have first appeared at religious seminaries, mostly paid for with Saudi Arabian money, preaching a hard-line form of Sunni Islam.

Taliban militia fighters climb aboard their Toyota pickup with RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launchers and assault rifles.
Caption, The Taliban’s use of fast jeeps was a major factor in their surprise capture of the Afghan capital.

The promises made by the Taliban, in the Pashtun areas that lie between Pakistan and Afghanistan, were to restore peace and security and enforce their own austere version of sharia, or Islamic law, once in power.

From southwestern Afghanistan, the Taliban rapidly expanded their influence.

In September 1995 they captured the province of Herat, bordering Iran, and exactly one year later they captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, overthrowing the regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, one of the founding fathers of the Afghan mujahideen who resisted the Soviet occupation.

In 1998, the Taliban controlled almost 90% of Afghanistan.

2. What was life like under the Taliban?

Tired of the excesses of the Mujahideen and infighting after the expulsion of the Soviets, the general Afghan population welcomed the Taliban when they first appeared.

Its initial popularity was due in large part to its success in rooting out corruption, curbing lawlessness, and working to make the roads and areas under its control safe, thus boosting commerce.

However, the Taliban also introduced and supported punishments consistent with their strict interpretation of Islamic law: publicly executing convicted murderers and adulterers and amputating those convicted of robbery.

Also, men had to grow beards and women had to wear a burqa that covered everything.

Displaced Afghan women, October 19, 2016.
Caption, The Taliban ban music, makeup, and disapprove of girls aged 10 and over from going to school.

The Taliban also banned television, music, movies, makeup, and disallowed girls aged 10 and over from going to school.

Some Afghans continued to do these things in secret, risking extreme punishment.

The Taliban were accused of various cultural abuses and human rights violations.

A notorious example was in 2001 when the Taliban went ahead with l to the destruction of the famous statues of l Buddha of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, despite the condemnation and outrage it caused around the world.

3. What is your relationship with Pakistan?

Pakistan has repeatedly denied allegations that it helped shape the Taliban, but there is little doubt that many Afghans who initially joined the movement were educated in madrasas (religious schools) in Pakistan.

Pakistan was also one of only three countries, alongside Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to recognize the Taliban when they took power.

Likewise, it was the last nation to break diplomatic relations with the group.

For a moment, the Taliban threatened to destabilize Pakistan from the areas they controlled in the northwest.

One of the most notorious and internationally condemned attacks by the Pakistani Taliban took place in October 2012, when schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai (who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize) was shot on her way home to Mingora city.

However, a major military offensive that took place two years later, following the Peshawar school massacre, greatly reduced the group’s influence in Pakistan.

At least three key figures in the Pakistani Taliban were killed in US drone strikes in 2013, including the group’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud.

4. Allies of al-Qaeda?

The Taliban became a focus of attention around the world after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001.

They were accused of serving as a sanctuary for the main suspects in the attacks: Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement.

On October 7, 2001, a US-led military coalition launched attacks in Afghanistan and, by the first week of December, the Taliban regime had already collapsed.

The then leader of the group, Mullah Mohammad Omar, and other important figures, including Bin Laden, evaded capture despite having been one of the largest persecutions in the world.

Many senior Taliban leaders reportedly took refuge in the Pakistani city of Quetta, from where they led the group. But Islamabad denied the existence of what was dubbed the “Quetta Shura” in Pakistan, a group of veterans of the Taliban regime.

However, during the recent peace talks with the US, the Taliban assured that they would no longer host al-Qaeda, an organization that is greatly diminished.

5. Who leads the group?

Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada was appointed Supreme Commander of the Taliban on May 25, 2016, after Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed in a US drone strike.

In the 1980s, he participated in the Islamist resistance against the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan, but his reputation is more that of a religious leader than that of a military commander.

Akhundzada worked as head of the Sharia Courts in the 1990s.

Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada.
Caption, Upon his appointment, the Taliban said there was no photo of Hibatullah Akhundzada, but the Afghan media soon circulated this image.

He is believed to be in his 60s and has lived most of his life inside Afghanistan. However, according to experts, he maintains close ties with the so-called Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban leaders who claim to be based in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

As the group’s supreme commander, Akhundzada is in charge of political, military and religious affairs.

6. What is the current situation?

Despite serious concerns from Afghan officials about the vulnerability of the government without international support against the Taliban, US President Joe Biden announced in April 2021 that all US troops would have left the country by 11 April. September, two decades after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Having survived a superpower during two decades of war, the Taliban began to seize vast swaths of territory, threatening to once again topple a government in Kabul.

The group is now believed to be stronger in numbers than at any time since they were toppled in 2001, with as many as 85,000 full-time fighters, according to recent NATO estimates.

Their control of the territory is more difficult to estimate, as districts come and go between them and government forces, but recent estimates place it at between a third and a fifth of the country.

Progress is faster than many feared.

General Austin Miller, commander of the US-led mission in Afghanistan, warned in June that the country could be heading into a chaotic civil war, which he called a “concern for the world.

A US intelligence assessment conducted the same month reportedly concluded that the Afghan government could fall within six months of the US military leaving.