Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks that marked the end of the Taliban regime, the Islamic fundamentalist movement is once again taking power in Afghanistan. Since the US government announced the withdrawal of the last troops on September 11, the Taliban have taken one provincial capital after another. Kabul also fell on Sunday. This gives the Taliban a second chance after their unsuccessful first reign in the late 1990s.
1 Who are the leaders of the Taliban?
Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada is known as a spiritual leader, not a military commander. An Islamic lawyer, Akhundzada was one of the top legal officials of the Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001. He played an important role in the Islamic courts, executing convicted murderers and cutting off convicted thieves’ hands.
After the US invasion, he fled to Pakistan, where he taught at Quran schools until he was appointed deputy to Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in 2015. He was killed less than a year later in an American drone attack on his convoy, which was en route from Iran to Pakistan. Akhundzada took over and is said to have tightened his grip on various factions within the Taliban ever since.
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Besides Akhundzada, there are some other influential figures such as Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the people with whom Mullah Mohammad Omar founded the movement in 1994 in Kandahar. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2010. He was released after eight years in captivity. He is now the top political leader of the Taliban, who led the negotiations with the Americans in Doha.
It is unclear who will take on the daily management of Afghanistan. Akhundzada himself? Or will it be someone like Baradar?
2 What are their political and religious views?
The Taliban consider themselves primarily an Islamic organization committed to strict adherence to traditional Sunni religious precepts.
They believe that women should cover their faces, that women and girls aged twelve or older should preferably stay at home and not work or study outside the home, that music and dance are sinful activities, and that corporal punishment for offenses such as theft and adultery is appropriate.
Although the movement is open to all Afghans, it has traditionally been made up mostly of Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, which also extends into Pakistan. The Taliban have their roots in the countryside in the southeast. That’s where their leaders come from.
The Taliban have their roots in the countryside in the southeast. That’s where their leaders come from
Many Afghan and Pakistani students from Quranic schools in northwest Pakistan have joined the movement since its inception. Hence the name Taliban (talib literally means: theology student). Many Taliban fighters were not recruited because of their religious beliefs, but because of the relatively good pay.
While the Taliban certainly do not shy away from violence and have sometimes sheltered terror networks like Al-Qaeda’s, they have never joined a global jihad. When it comes down to it, they are mostly inward-looking.
3 Did the Taliban have a plan to recapture Afghanistan?
It was striking that in recent weeks the Taliban advanced rapidly in the north and west of Afghanistan, where the Pashtun are much less numerous. These were the areas where they never really got a foothold in the 1990s. Although they also occupied Kabul then, they never even managed to conquer parts of the north.
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This time they seem to have been preparing for an offensive there for some time. Taliban leaders were able to mobilize local fighters, including warlords from Afghanistan’s Uzbek and Tajik minorities who were fed up with the corruption of their leaders. For some, the presence of American and other foreign military personnel in their country was also an eyesore.
The Taliban’s efforts have paid off in recent weeks. Just in the north, the first provincial capitals fell into their hands and they managed to get their hands on main roads. The city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the economic center of the north, fell almost without a fight, after a long siege in the 1990s.
4 Have the Taliban changed and become more moderate than they used to be?
That will have to become apparent. The Taliban regime was notorious in the 1990s for its corporal punishment, public executions, persecution of minorities, especially the Shia Hazaras, and the treatment of women who were not allowed to receive education, work or go out on the streets without a male escort. , and then only in the all-covering burqa.
This gave the country the status of an international pariah, especially after the Taliban blew up two monumental statues of Buddhas carved into the cliff of a valley in Bamyan province – one of the great wonders of antiquity. The Taliban rule was recognized only by neighboring Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Outwardly, the Taliban are now showing a more moderate face in an effort to gain international recognition. The movement has spokespersons who speak English who recently called the BBC to comment and call on the people of Kabul to calm down.
Outwardly, the Taliban are now showing a more moderate face in an effort to gain international recognition
In some regions controlled by the Taliban, girls do indeed go to school. But not everywhere. It very much depends on the local traditions and the whims of local warlords. And they are often just as brutal as they were 25 years ago, especially on the battlefield. For example, in 2020 the Taliban launched a wave of assassination attempts against journalists, activists, judges and women in high positions. And from the provinces conquered by the Taliban in recent months come reports of flogging of women, summary executions, closing schools and blowing up infrastructure.
5 What kind of governance can we expect from the Taliban this time?
The Taliban have not yet published a government program. However, a spokesman stated on Sunday that the government will not consist solely of the Taliban. He said there would be an “open, inclusive Islamic government”. It was not immediately clear who will be part of it. The Taliban have already stated that they want to rechristen Afghanistan in the Islamic Emirate, just like in 1996.
The previous Taliban regime made little impression. The country became isolated and the economy was in bad shape. In general, the movement lacks managerial talent, although leaders like Mullah Baradar seem a little less worldly than the movement’s founder, the late Mullah Omar, who was in fact little more than a semi-developed village mullah. The question becomes how the Taliban will control the economy. Interestingly, much of their income currently comes from opium and heroin, which are extracted from the Afghan poppy fields.
6 Are they tightly organized or rather divided?
In general, Taliban fighters follow the orders of their superiors, but in a highly decentralized country with its steep mountain valleys separated from each other like Afghanistan, individual commanders and their men often go their own way, sometimes violently. The Taliban are certainly not a monolith.
There is also a generation gap. Younger Taliban leaders believe that many older leaders are getting too close to Pakistani intelligence, a traditional mainstay of the Taliban. These older leaders themselves have often been in Pakistan with their families for a long time. The city of Quetta also houses their highest council, the Rahbari Shura.
7 Do the Taliban have more legitimacy internationally this time?
To avoid new international isolation, the Taliban have reached out to neighboring countries that have historically been hostile to their rule. They sent high-level delegations to Russia, China and Iran in recent weeks, hoping to gain support and build international legitimacy. They seem to have succeeded fairly well at that, at least for now.
China is the fastest to tighten ties – fearing that Afghanistan will become a haven for Uyghur terrorists plotting attacks in China. After all, the Chinese province of Xinxjiang, the homeland of the Uyghurs, shares a 76 kilometer border with Afghanistan. Therefore, China was only too happy to accept the outstretched hand of the Taliban, and is said to have promised major investments in energy and infrastructure projects, including the construction of a road network.
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Russia is more cautious. The envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said that Russia will not immediately accept the new Taliban regime, but will first wait to see how the movement steers. The Russian embassy was already in contact with the new rulers to discuss the security of the embassy.
Iran is also on the lookout for it, since in the 1990s it was at war with the Taliban, who had killed nine Iranian diplomats when they captured Mazar-i-Sharif.
Recognition of the US and European countries can forget about the new Taliban regime for the time being. The US has stated that it will not recognize a regime in Afghanistan that takes power by force. Similar voices are coming from the European Union. “If power is seized by force and the Islamic Emirates is re-established, the Taliban could face isolation, a lack of international support, and continued conflict and instability in Afghanistan,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 17, 2021