After 20 years of war, the Taliban completed their rapid advance across the country by capturing Kabul on 15 August 2021. This development came after foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan following a deal between the US and the Taliban, two decades after US forces removed the militants from power in 2001. Since then, the conflict has already killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions. This has led to rest of world raising concerns about how the group will govern the country, and what their rule means for women, human rights, and political freedoms. We take a look at the history of the Taliban rising to power.
Afghanistan is a landlocked multi-ethnic country located in the heart of south-central Asia. It lies along important trade routes connecting southern and eastern Asia to Europe and the Middle East. The modern boundaries of Afghanistan were established in the late 19th century in the context of a rivalry between imperial Britain and tsarist Russia.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, Afghanistan suffered the ruinous effects of civil war by a military invasion and occupation by the Soviet Union (1979–89). In subsequent armed struggles, a surviving Afghan communist regime held out against Islamic insurgents (1989–92). This was followed by the brief rule by Mujahideen groups, an austere movement of religious students - the Taliban – that rose up against the country’s governing parties and established a theocratic regime (1996–2001) that soon fell under the influence of a group of well-funded Islamists led by an exiled Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden. The Taliban regime collapsed in December 2001 in the wake of a sustained U.S. dominated military campaign. The crisis in Afghanistan can broadly be understood as happening in 4 phases:
1.Soviet occupation: Before civil war erupted in 1978, Afghanistan was a monarchy under Muhammad Zahir Shah, who had come to power in 1933. After World War II, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union used economic assistance to compete for influence. After the US established military ties with Pakistan in 1954, Afghanistan increasingly turned to the Soviet Union support. Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin Daoud Khan in 1973 and after gaining power, Daoud tried to marginalize the Parchamis and distance the government from the Soviet Union.
Alarmed by the collapse of the army and the prospect that a disintegrating Afghanistan would threaten its security on its southern border, the Soviet Union airlifted thousands of troops into Kabul on December 24, 1979. The Soviet occupation force of some 115,000 troops sought to crush the uprisings with mass arrests, torture, and executions of dissidents, and aerial bombardments and executions in the countryside. Some one million Afghans died during this period, most in aerial bombardments.
These measures further expanded the resistance to the communist government in Kabul and fueled a flow of refugees out of the country. Negotiations to end the war culminated in the 1988 Geneva Accords, whose centerpiece was an agreement by the Soviet Union to remove all its uniformed troops by February 1989.
The mujahideen resistance movement had started chaotically in 1978 and had always stayed highly segmented along regional, ethnic, tribal and religious lines.
3.The Taliban’s conquest, 1994-2001
They emerged in the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, predominantly in the south-west and the Pakistan border areas. Islamist organizations that became the heart of the resistance – and collectively became known as the jihad fighters or mujahidin – based themselves in Pakistan and Iran.
Partly as a response, the Taliban, a puritanical Islamic group led by a former mujahideen commander, Mohammad Omar, emerged in the fall of 1994 and systematically seized control of the country, occupying Kabul in 1996. The Taliban - augmented by volunteers from various Islamic extremist groups sheltering in Afghanistan - soon controlled all but a small portion of northern Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden, who had left Afghanistan in 1990, returned in 1996, until the Taliban took control of Jalalabad and Kabul. In areas under their control, Taliban authorities enforced their version of Islamic law, enacting policies prohibiting women from working outside the home in activities other than health care, and requiring corporal punishment for those convicted of certain crimes.
In August 1998, the United States launched air strikes against bin Laden’s reputed training camps near the Pakistan border. The strikes came in the wake of the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam. Fighting continued at a stalemate until 2001, when the Taliban refused demands by the U.S. government to extradite Osama bin Laden, who had close ties with the Taliban and was accused of having launched terrorist attacks against the United States.
4.USA military intervention, 2001-21
On September 11, 2001, the Al-Qaeda operatives hijacked 4 commercial airliners, crashing them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. A fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Close to 3000 people died in the attacks. Although Afghanistan was the base for al-Qaeda, none of the 19 hijackers are Afghan nationals.
Days later, U.S. officials said bin Laden, the Saudi exile believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, was the prime suspect in the attack. Following unanswered demands that the Taliban turn over bin Laden, U.S. and British forces launched airstrikes against targets in Afghanistan. American warplanes started to bomb Taliban targets and bases reportedly belonging to the al-Qaeda network.
By December 2001, Taliban fighters abandoned their final stronghold in Kandahar and surrendered the group’s final Afghan territory, the province of Zabul. The move led the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press to declare “the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan has totally ended”. Hamid Karzai, a royalist and ethnic Pashtun, was sworn in as the leader of the interim government in Afghanistan in December 2001.
The militants slipped away and later regrouped. NATO allies had joined the US and a new Afghan government took over in 2004 but deadly Taliban attacks continued. In 2014, NATO’s international forces ended their combat mission, leaving responsibility for security to the Afghan army. That gave the Taliban momentum and they seized more territory.
Peace talks between the US and the Taliban started tentatively, with the Afghan government pretty much uninvolved, and the agreement on a withdrawal came in February 2020 in Qatar. The US-Taliban deal did not stop the Taliban attacks - they switched their focus instead to Afghan security forces and civilians, and targeted assassinations. Their areas of control grew.
The Taliban takeover 2021 and recent developments
On April 14, 2021 President Joe Biden announced US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. On August 15, facing little resistance, Taliban fighters overran the capital, Kabul, and took over the presidential palace hours after President Ghani left the country.
Internally, Afghanistan is looking at an economic crisis. Rapid reduction in international support, loss of access to offshore assets and disruption to financial linkages have been occurring. Thousands of Afghans have attempt to flee already and experts suggest that it could lead to a refugee crisis. Moreover, the Taliban’s notions on human rights, women’s rights and education has also been under the scanner and is being seen as regressive and totalitarian.
Externally, countries have responded to the takeover differently:
·Iran: has set up temporary camps in 3 border provinces — Razavi Khorasan, South Khorasan, and Sistan and Baluchistan. Tehran reduced staff at its embassy in Kabul and evacuated staff from 3 of the 4 of its consulates.
·Russia: has been in contact with the Taliban and expressed a willingness to work with the Taliban should the new rulers curb their terrorist behavior.
·Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have all reacted with a flexing of military muscle by shoring up border security.
·China: is actively pursuing an assurance that a Taliban administration will not disrupt China’s economic endeavours in Afghanistan.
·USA: since withdrawing its troops, US and Taliban administration held its first round of talks in Qatar in October 2021. Afghan delegation had asked the US to lift its ban on the reserves of Afghanistan’s central bank. The US delegation focused on security and terrorism concerns and safe passage for US citizens as well as on human rights.
The US-Taliban agreement of 2020, which was negotiated by the administration of President Donald Trump, had demanded that the Taliban break ties with terrorist groups and guarantee Afghanistan would not harbour terrorists who could attack Washington and its allies.
·UN General Assembly: the issue was raised by several world leaders at the 76th UNGA. Germany, Japan, Bangladesh etc. all stressed on need to maintain international obligations and international law, and to preserve the security and stability of Afghanistan.
What does it mean for India?
The new security and economic architecture in Afghanistan is going to be different form the one followed by Kabul in the last 20 years. The new influencers like China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran, will be happy to see that the US influence reduces further. China and Pakistan will also try to minimise Indian engagement.
In the coming years, India will find itself in a relatively disadvantageous position in Afghanistan. India’s location and proximity to Afghanistan makes it an important point for connectivity. The whole idea of the US New Silk Road Strategy was to link Central Asia and South Asia via Afghanistan through trade, transit and energy routes.
From the Indian side, investments at the Chabahar port in Iran and the Zaranj-Delaram Road in Afghanistan were part of this strategy. Afghanistan will continue to be important for regional connectivity. But now the focus may change towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Gwadar port in Pakistan.
To counter China’s rise, India may aspire to work with the US in the Indo-Pacific, and find convergences with the China-Pakistan-Taliban nexus in South-Central Asia. It is time for India to carefully monitor the evolving situation and wait for the opportunity for new engagements. The Taliban government will need broader recognition and economic opportunities arising from Indian linkages.
Conclusion & way forward
History suggests that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has contributed to militancy and conflict in Kashmir. India faces the reality of not only a Taliban government in Afghanistan, but also its 2 biggest rivals, Pakistan and China, deepening their role in a country where India has many equities, investments, and close ties with non-Taliban political leaders.
India, which has often assumed the role of a stabilizing democratic force in the region, stands to be isolated in this scenario if it does not tread with caution. India could also use the United Nations as a platform to convey its views on Afghanistan, given that it holds the Security Council presidency in August 2021.
BBC world news
Council for Foreign Relations