Mothership Explains: Who are the Taliban & how did they return to power in Afghanistan?

20 years after they were ousted from Afghanistan, the Taliban is back in control. Here's a look at how the insurgency group started and how it arrived at where it is today.

Matthias Ang | Low Jia Ying | August 20, 2021, 10:00 AM

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On August 15, the Taliban entered Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul, in a dramatic return to power, 20 years after they were ousted in 2001.

Amid their proclamation that the 20-year war in the country had ended, their arrival was marked by Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, fleeing the country, and scenes of chaos at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International airport, which included panicked Afghans falling from planes that were taking off, in a desperate bid to escape.

In the meantime, the militants held their first press conference with the media on August 17, with a spokesman for the group, Zabihullah Mujahid, stating that women's rights would be respected within "the framework of Islamic law," and encouraged them to return to work and school, AP News reported.

The statement marked a contrast to their initial reign which saw women largely confined to their homes.

Taliban militants were also spotted enjoying bumper cars and a merry-go-round at an amusement park in the capital.

So how did such a group come to be? And how did they make a comeback in Afghanistan?

First founded in 1994 in the civil war following the Soviet Union's withdrawal

In 1989, the Soviet Union was driven out by the mujahideen (Muslim guerilla fighters fighting against non-Muslim armies) from Afghanistan, ten years after it entered to prop up the country's then-communist government in 1979.

This withdrawal was followed by a period of civil war in which various militant factions began fighting among themselves.

It was within this backdrop that the Taliban were formed. They quickly attracted a following, with their promise to prioritise Islamic values and battle the corruption of other warlords.

According to The New York Times (NYT), the Taliban were first formed in 1994, within Afghanistan's Kandahar province, the heartland of the Pashtun ethnic group.

Many of the members were former mujahideen fighters who fought the invading Soviet Union in the 1980s with the backing of the U.S. government and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Sky News further reported.

A large number of the fighters had also received their education in Pakistani religious seminaries that were funded by Saudi Arabia and preached a hardline version of Islam, the BBC reported.

Took control of most of Afghanistan, declared it an Islamic Emirate in 1996

After months of fighting, the Taliban were successful in taking control of most of the country, including the capital, Kabul, which was captured in September 1996.

Many of the warlords who had opposed them fled to the north of the country, an area which later became the centre of their anti-Taliban resistance.

Meanwhile, the Taliban declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate, with their government recognised by only three countries: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The BBC highlighted that the Taliban were initially popular with the public, due to their pledge to curb the excesses of warlords, and their success in curbing corruption, lawlessness and enforcing law and order, which allowed commerce to take place.

Ruled Afghanistan with a harsh interpretation of Sharia law

However, the Taliban also introduced rules and punishments according to their harsh interpretation of Sharia law, and this became a defining characteristic of their reign.

The militants banned music, television and cinema, and publicly executed people convicted of murder and adultery, while those guilty of theft were subjected to amputation.

In early 2001, the Taliban also destroyed the massive Buddhas of Bamiyan, on the grounds that the sixth-century statues were blasphemous, and that their destruction was therefore holy.

Under Taliban rule, men had to grow beards while women had to don a burqa and be accompanied by a male relative whenever they were outside the house.

Girls aged 10 and above were banned from going to school, and a woman faced severe punishment in the event that she was found outside her house with her face uncovered or in the company of an unmarried man.

In addition, many young girls were forced into arranged marriages, at ages as young as 12, according to the Financial Times.

It is these aspects of Taliban rule that many Afghan women have repeatedly expressed their fears about since the group returned to power on August 15.

As such, many are sceptical of the Taliban's recent call for women to join the new government and their statement that women's rights will be respected in accordance with Islamic law.

Ousted from power following 9/11 attacks

Following the 9/11 attack carried out by Al-Qaeda on the World Trade Centre in New York, the Taliban came into the global spotlight when they were accused of providing sanctuary to the terror group founded by Osama Bin Laden.

When the Taliban rejected a request by former U.S. President George W. Bush to hand Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda over, the U.S. invaded the country on Oct. 7, 2001, and quickly toppled the militants' government with the help of the warlords from northern Afghanistan, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

The invasion saw Kabul falling to the combined U.S.-warlord force on Nov. 13, 2001, followed by the Taliban regime's official collapse on Dec. 9 of the same year when the group surrendered Kandahar, the province where they had been founded.

In the wake of the militant group's collapse, senior Al-Qaeda and Taliban officials fled to Pakistan.

NYT highlighted that with the help of Pakistan's military, which was also receiving aid from the U.S. to hunt down Al-Qaeda, the Taliban re-formed into a guerrilla insurgency.

The U.S. attempted building a Western-style democracy

In the meantime, the U.S. attempted to build a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan, with some early successes.

In 2004, the country held its first election since the Taliban were overthrown, and Hamid Karzai became the first democratically-elected president, according to CNN.

Girls were allowed back in school and women participated in the workforce and in public service, reported NYT.

The Reuters Institute also noted how starting from 2001, an independent media landscape started to take shape. Afghanistan went from having no independent media to over 100 newspapers and 170 radio stations in the span of two decades.

Singapore also participated in the counter-terrorism and nation-building effort between 2007 to 2013, with almost 500 personnel including dentists, intelligence analysts and military trainers deployed there.

According to Singapore's Ministry of Defence, the SAF helped to train the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) and conducted humanitarian assistance and reconstruction efforts there.

Singapore flag lowered in Afghanistan after the SAF concluded their deployment there. Photo by MINDEF.

The SAF eventually concluded its deployment in 2013, when the ANSF was in the final stages of taking full security responsibility for Afghanistan.

Culture of corruption in the Afghan government was also entrenched

However, the nation-building effort by the U.S. was ultimately dogged by corruption, the Washington Post reported.

One contributing factor, among many others, was that the Americans secured the alliance of the Afghan warlords through cash and lucrative contracts, some of whom had a reputation for brutality and graft, and were seen by the Afghan public as despots, which affected the image of the U.S. in turn.

Such warlords included Mohammed Qasim Fahim Khan, a Tajik militia commander who had another Afghan minister killed while he was defence minister from 2001 to 2004, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord accused of war crimes when his militia locked up hundreds of Taliban prisoners in airtight shipping containers and suffocated them in Nov. 2001.

In addition, the U.S. also targeted Afghan delegates from different provinces and tribes with bribes, in order to secure their support on Washington's preferred stance for human and women's rights.

A U.S. official noted that at the end of 2003, when the U.S. desired the formation of a "progressive constitution" for Afghanistan, religious leaders received "nice packages" in return for voting according to the Americans' position.

The official added that this started the following perception: "If you were going to vote for a position [Washington] favoured, you'd be stupid to not get a package for doing it."

The upshot of this was that by 2006, the Afghan government had "self-organised into a kleptocracy" in which there were no checks to prevent Afghan politicians from plundering the economy, according to Christopher Kolenda, a retired U.S. Army colonel who had advised American commanders during the war.

The result was that the Afghan public came to see the government as incompetent and malignant, unlike the Taliban who were brutal but efficient.

The issue was also exacerbated by the fact that ANSF soldiers were often reluctant to fight the Taliban and suffered from poor morale, CNN reported.

Taliban rally support in the Afghan countryside and among refugees in Pakistan

During this time, the Taliban gained popularity in the countryside, as well as among Afghans who fled to Pakistan and were educated in Pakistani religious schools.

The militants were able to rally support by presenting themselves as resisting occupation and fighting foreign invaders, something that Afghans see as "near and dear" to their identity, CNN further reported.

This led to the group's numbers increasing in turn with new fighters, through a mixture of volunteers and intimidation, as well as being able to offer better pay, compared to that of an Afghan policeman.

In late 2005, a Taliban spokesman claimed that the group had trained hundreds of suicide bombers to send against the Afghan government and its allies, NYT noted.

This was followed by a sharp rise in the number of suicide attacks in 2006, which quintupled to 139, from 27 in 2005, according to CFR.

The Washington Post reported that the rise in suicide bombings was fuelled by the successful establishment of Taliban sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.

The Taliban also began gaining territory in Afghanistan in 2006, according to Turkish media Anadolu Agency.

The U.S. sets the stage for making peace with the Taliban and withdrawing

Following the assassination of Bin Laden in 2011 in Pakistan, Obama announced a drawdown of U.S. troops and confirmed that the U.S. had been in preliminary peace talks with the Taliban.

The lead responsibility for security was then handed over to the ANSF in June 2013, along with an announcement that the U.S. and Taliban would hold discussions in Doha, Qatar where the militants opened an office, CFR highlighted.

These efforts subsequently culminated in then-President Donald Trump making a historic peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, which outlined a 14-month timetable to get all non-diplomatic foreign personnel out of Afghanistan, and for the Taliban to ensure that it would not threaten the security of the U.S. and its allies, reported CNN.

On Apr. 14 this year, Biden announced that he would be withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sep. 11 2021, explaining that the U.S. had already accomplished its objectives in the country.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC that the U.S. was currently in a much better position than it was 20 years ago to counter terrorism threats from Afghanistan, defending the U.S.' decision to withdraw.

The U.S. had actually started gradually reducing its troop numbers in June 2020 as part of the peace deal, reported NYT.

But Biden's announcement in April this year prompted an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops and its allies.

AP News reported that by July 2021, most European troops had already pulled out of Afghanistan. The U.S. refused to disclose exactly how many American troops were left over security concerns.

How the Taliban returned to power so quickly

Kabul's swift fall to the Taliban came as a shock to U.S. intelligence analysts, who earlier predicted that the Taliban would take a couple more months to retake the capital, according to CNN.

But the Taliban's ability to retake Kabul in a matter of days indicates that they had already been well-positioned to do so.

In the weeks leading up to their capture of Kabul, the Taliban seized over "dozens" of Afghanistan's 400 administrative districts by taking advantage of foreign troops leaving their posts, according to Al Jazeera.

This is despite the fact that the Taliban is grossly outnumbered by the Afghan forces.

According to The Financial Times (FT), Afghan soldiers' ethnic and tribal ties were more salient than any loyalty they had for the ANSF, making it easy for the Taliban to negotiate peaceful surrenders with Afghan forces.

Biden's sudden announcement that he would be pulling out U.S. troops also rattled the confidence of Afghan troops, who were deeply reliant on U.S. air and logistical support.

A long history of corruption and mismanagement in the ANSF also helped contribute to the lack of willpower to fight off the Taliban, FT noted.

Biden has called the current situation in Kabul "gut-wrenching", according to AP News, but stood by his decision to pull out of Afghanistan.

He told reporters that he would not pass the responsibility of America's longest war onto a fifth president, the BBC reported.

He said: "I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference."

What's next for Afghanistan?

In a press conference held on Tuesday (Aug. 17), the Taliban promised that they will not wage war again and have signalled a desire to become a member of the international community, reported NYT.

The Taliban also vowed to form an inclusive government with other factions, and have encouraged women to join the government, reported AP News.

But reports of thousands of Afghans attempting to flee the country — even at the cost of their lives — are an indication that many are unwilling to live in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and do not believe that the Taliban will honour its promises.

There are also fears that the Taliban will continue to provide a safe haven for terrorist organisations, like it did for al-Qaeda in the past.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan told local reporters on Tuesday (Aug. 17) that "with or without Afghanistan", terrorism still remains a credible threat to Singapore.

Vivian said that his ministry will continue to monitor the events unfolding in Afghanistan, and that Singapore will have to "wait and see" for what happens in the country.

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Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.

This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".