The Taliban movement was formed in 1994, drawn together by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, and was used to suppress the former fighters of the Afghan resistance, collectively known as the “Mujahideen”, who had fought against Soviet Union’s occupation in the 1980s and by the early 1990s fallen into a civil war. Through the Taliban, the ISI intended to stabilize Afghanistan and the Taliban did this by imposing its brutal interpretation of Islamic law on the country.
The Taliban myth about its creation omits the role of Pakistan: according to their story, the founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, was disappointed that Islamic law was not adopted in Afghanistan after the end of the Soviet occupation, and he gathered around him fifty students (the Pashto word for “students” is “Taliban”), who pledged to rid Afghanistan of the warlords and criminals, and restore order, peace, and security to the war-torn country. The reality was that the ISI had marshalled the young men in the refugee camps and, with Pakistan’s money, weapons, and logistical support, the group grew rapidly, and began to take over cities and provinces. The Taliban was never popular, but it was less unpopular than the Mujahideen warlords, who were by then associated with corruption and chaos.
The Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, and by 1998 controlled 90% of Afghanistan. After the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001, the Taliban refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden, and thus incurred the wrath of the United States. The “Islamic Emirate”, as the Taliban called its government, was overthrown in two months. In the two decades that followed its fall from power, the Taliban, assisted at every stage by the Pakistani ISI, led an insurgency and launched attacks against coalition forces and the US-backed Afghan government.
In 2017, the Taliban issued an open letter to newly elected US President Donald Trump, calling on him to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. In 2018, the United States began negotiating a peace treaty directly with the Taliban, without involving the elected Afghan government. Afghan peace talks soon stalled, but after years of negotiations, the Taliban and the Trump administration signed a so-called “peace” agreement in 2020, which in reality provided cover for Washington to withdraw its troops and release about 5,000 Taliban prisoners. In theory, the Taliban had agreed to take steps to prevent any group or individual, including Al-Qaeda, from using Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States or its allies. The recent discovery of Al-Qaeda’s emir in the Taliban capital shows how hollow those promises were.
On 15 August 2021, Taliban returned to power by overthrowing the elected government. There were some suggestions from the Taliban, especially to Western interlocuters, that it would be more open than in the 1990s, would develop the country, and settle good relations with other nations. Predictably, the opposite has come to pass on all fronts.
A Year of Taliban Rule
Taliban declared 15 August 2022 a public holiday to mark the first anniversary of their return to power in the country. This was the first anniversary of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul after a hasty and unforced withdrawal of US-led NATO forces. Despite the friendlier messaging about what was intended, after a year of Taliban rule, Afghanistan has witnessed a sharp decline in its human rights situation and a severe humanitarian crisis. There has in some respects been a decline in violence in the country, though even this is qualified by pockets of nationalist resistance and the ongoing challenge of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP),
The grim human rights situation in general under the Taliban has been particularly harsh for women. The Taliban has largely excluded women from government jobs, restricted their right to travel alone outside of the cities where they live, and prevented girls from attending middle and high school. The Afghan Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada ordered women to wear the niqab in public. The Taliban have made clear that they prefer women to wear the burqa, but will tolerate other forms of veiling that expose only the eyes. The restrictions of Taliban on basic women right have not only repercussions on women rights but also on their involvement in the development of the country.
The right of speech has been severely restricted in the era of Taliban. Taliban gunmen have violently dispersed, with rifle butts and bullets, demonstrations organized by women to demand the right to work and education.
The humanitarian crisis is acute. The World Bank measured the country’s GDP as dropping by 34 percent in 2022 compared to 2020 and prices of crucial goods have risen. The UN data show that 90 percent of all Afghans are malnourished.
The incompetence of Taliban officials is another problem. For instance, the Taliban’s post-takeover cabinet consists of religious figures, none of whom have economic expertise. Some Taliban fighters claim that the joy of victory overshadows the economic crisis. “We may be poor, we may encounter difficulties, but the white flag of Islam will fly high forever in Afghanistan,” says one Taliban fighter. This is not a majority view. In addition, the Taliban ruling officials give the priority for policies that serve their political and religious aims, rather than the development of the country. One prominent example is the policy that keeps women from holding jobs, which is expected to cost five percent of Afghanistan annual GDP.
For the international community, there is a fear that Afghanistan will once again turn into a terrorist safe heaven and convenient ground for criminal networks in organized crime. Intelligence reports confirm that the Taliban remains closely associated with Al-Qaeda. To date, there have been no major plots linked to the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda guests, but one year since the Taliban seized power should not be a criterion to judge. One year of ruling is too short period for Taliban to build facilities and recruitment networks to wage a transnational campaign. Moreover, it is likely that the Taliban is unable to take concrete actions against ISKP, which has a more immediate intention and capability to wage external attacks. A UN intelligence report recently warned that Afghanistan could once again become a source of international terrorism, from both Al-Qaeda and ISKP. The drone strike which killed Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul proves that Taliban continues to host transnational terrorists in their territory.
One year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, it is clear how little has changed since the 1990s. The weakness of the Taliban in simple governance terms is obvious: the group has neither the ability nor inclination to achieve the well-being of the country and its stated development mission. The failure of Taliban in leading the country is a real source of concern to neighbouring states, and ultimately all the world: the organized crime, drugs, and refugees caused by Taliban rule will affect the whole international system—before considering the problem of the Taliban’s continued alliance with Al-Qaeda and inability to act against ISKP. The current trajectory of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the coming years is as a hotbed for terrorism and terrorist organizations, and a country where people are deprived of their basic rights, while being forced to live under a ruined economic and social system.