- The Islamic fundamentalist group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Since then, it has waged an insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
- Experts say the Taliban is stronger now than at any point since 2001. It launched an offensive amid the U.S. troop withdrawal and, by summer 2021, controlled over half of Afghanistan’s districts.
- The Taliban started its first direct peace negotiations with the Afghan government in 2020 after signing an agreement with the United States. Little progress has been made.
The Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion toppled the regime for providing refuge to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The Taliban regrouped across the border in Pakistan and has led an insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul for nearly twenty years.
In 2020, the Taliban signed a peace agreement [PDF] with the United States and entered into power-sharing negotiations with the Afghan government. However, little progress has been made in the intra-Afghan talks. Meanwhile, as the United States withdrew its troops in the country as part of the deal, the Taliban launched an offensive that has more than tripled the number of Afghan districts under its control. Analysts warn that an expanded civil war and more civilian casualties are likely if power-sharing talks remain stalled.
Does the Taliban pose a threat?
Many experts say the Taliban threatens Afghan democratic institutions, citizens’ rights, and regional security. The group has withstood counterinsurgency operations from the world’s most powerful security alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and three U.S. administrations in a war that has killed more than 6,000 U.S. troops and contractors [PDF] and over 1,100 NATO troops. Some 47,000 civilians have died, and an estimated 73,000 Afghan troops and police officers have been killed since 2007. Tens of thousands of Taliban fighters are also believed to have died.
The Taliban, which has between fifty-eight thousand and one hundred thousand full-time fighters, is stronger now than at any point in the last twenty years. As the United States has withdrawn its remaining forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban has increased attacks on civilians, seized control of critical border crossings, and dramatically expanded its presence throughout the country. In July 2021, the group controlled an estimated 54 percent of Afghan districts, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Long War Journal, a U.S.-based publication that has covered the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda and other militant groups since 2007; just months earlier it controlled only 20 percent. By midsummer 2021, sixteen of the country’s thirty-four provincial capitals were at risk of falling under Taliban control.
In its 2021 report, the UN team that monitors the Taliban said the group still has strong ties with al-Qaeda. The Taliban has started to “tighten its control over al-Qaeda by gathering information on foreign terrorist fighters and registering and restricting them,” the UN experts report. But it remains unclear, they say, if the Taliban will follow through on its commitment under the U.S. peace deal to prevent an international terrorist attack emanating from Afghanistan. The Taliban continues to provide al-Qaeda with protection in exchange for resources and training. Between two hundred and five hundred al-Qaeda fighters are believed to be in Afghanistan, and its leaders are believed to be based in regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. U.S. authorities reportedly think that al-Qaeda’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in Afghanistan [PDF], though in 2020 there were unconfirmed rumors that he had died. Up to 2,200 members of the Islamic State Khorasan are also thought to be in Afghanistan.
How was the Taliban formed?
The group was formed in the early 1990s by Afghan mujahideen, or Islamic guerilla fighters, who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–89) with the covert backing of the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). They were joined by younger Pashtun tribesmen who studied in Pakistani madrassas, or seminaries; taliban is Pashto for “students.” Pashtuns comprise a plurality in Afghanistan and are the predominant ethnic group in much of the country’s south and east. They are also a major ethnic group in Pakistan’s north and west.
The movement attracted popular support in the initial post-Soviet era by promising to impose stability and rule of law after four years of conflict (1992–1996) among rival mujahideen groups. The Taliban entered Kandahar in November 1994 to pacify the crime-ridden southern city, and by September 1996 seized the capital, Kabul, from President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik whom it viewed as anti-Pashtun and corrupt. That year, the Taliban declared Afghanistan an Islamic emirate, with Mullah Mohammed Omar, a cleric and veteran of the anti-Soviet resistance, leading as amir al-mu’minin, or “commander of the faithful.” The regime controlled some 90 percent of the country before its 2001 overthrow.
The Taliban imposed a harsh brand of justice as it consolidated territorial control. Taliban jurisprudence was drawn from the Pashtuns’ pre-Islamic tribal code and interpretations of sharia colored by the austere Wahhabi doctrines of the madrassas’ Saudi benefactors. The regime neglected social services and other basic state functions even as its Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice enforced prohibitions on behavior the Taliban deemed un-Islamic. It required women to wear the head-to-toe burqa, or chadri; banned music and television; and jailed men whose beards it deemed too short.
How has the world responded to the Taliban?
Over the past two decades, governments and international bodies joined U.S.-led efforts to oust the Taliban and bolster Afghanistan’s government, democratic institutions, and civil society in the following ways:
Military force. U.S. troops quickly overthrew the Taliban after they invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Since then, the Taliban has waged an insurgency against the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan peaked at around one hundred thousand in 2011. In the 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, the United States committed to withdrawing all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan if the Taliban carries out commitments that include cutting ties with terrorist groups. President Biden has said he plans to have all troops removed by August 2021. NATO assumed leadership of foreign forces in 2003, marking its first operational commitment outside of Europe. At its height, NATO had more than 130,000 troops from fifty nations stationed in Afghanistan.
Sanctions. The UN Security Council first imposed sanctions on the regime for harboring al-Qaeda in 1999 and expanded the sanctions after 9/11. They target Taliban leaders’ financial assets and ban them from most travel. The Security Council also imposed an arms embargo on the Taliban. The United States and the European Union introduced additional sanctions.
Democratic reforms and aid. Months after the U.S. invasion, UN member states committed to supporting Afghanistan’s transition away from Taliban rule. The United States and NATO spearheaded reconstruction efforts. Dozens of countries also provide assistance to Afghanistan, with 75 percent of the government’s public expenditures currently covered by grants from international partners, according to a 2019 World Bank report. During a conference in 2020, donors pledged a total of $3.3 billion in aid.
Investigation. The Taliban is now under investigation in the International Criminal Court for alleged abuses of Afghan civilians, including crimes against humanity, carried out since 2003. U.S. and Afghan forces are also being investigated for alleged war crimes.
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