Zahid Shahab Ahmed, a research fellow focused on extremism in South Asia at the Alfred Deakin Institute
In 2020, Washington reached a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban in Doha. In April 2021, US President Joe Biden announced he would comply with the agreement by withdrawing all US troops before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, i.e., September 11, 2021. As the troops began evacuating — often without any proper handover to local troops — a vacuum occurred that benefited the Taliban. Although US intelligence reports had predicted a Taliban takeover three months after a withdrawal, they did not factor in the lacklustre response of the Afghan National Army and government.
As the world witnessed, the Taliban’s takeover was much swifter than most observers had imagined and, in a matter of weeks, they managed to capture Kabul. Much to everyone’s surprise, the takeover was largely carried out without bloodshed, as the Taliban faced minimal resistance. There was fighting in some places, for example in Herat, but, overall, the ANA did not pose a serious challenge to the Taliban.
These shocking developments have raised questions about how the US and its allies went about their withdrawal. Washington has faced multiple criticisms regarding its war on the Taliban which began in 2001 in retaliation to the 9/11 attacks. However, one of its most controversial moves, was its decision to launch a war on Iraq in 2003, diverting its attention from the war against the Taliban. Consequently, this allowed the Taliban to regroup and, in 2006, the militia began to wage guerrilla warfare. The criticisms carried over to 2020, when the US reached a peace deal with the Taliban, giving the group legitimacy and emboldened it to continue its aggression. As a result of this agreement, hundreds of Taliban prisoners were released and returned to the battlefield.
On its part, the Afghan government — which was, in fact, excluded from the deal — was extremely critical of the agreement. Despite several rounds of dialogue between the Taliban and Afghan government following the US-brokered deal, no agreement was reached. Meanwhile, powerful regional actors such as Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan all welcomed the agreement. This furthered emboldened the Taliban, which took full control of the country on August 15, 2021 — just one month after the US withdrawal. Since then, several international human rights organizations have raised concerns over the Taliban takeover, questioning its brutal and Islamist style of government.
This analysis aims to provide a better understanding of how the group has changed, if at all, and what kind of behavior can be expected from it in the months to come. To be able to understand any change in their policies and actions, it is important to look back at how the Taliban governed under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan during the years 1996 to 2001.
The Taliban’s Rise in the 1990s
The Taliban’s roots can be traced back to the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-1989) during which the US used the mujahideen (Holy Warriors), to fight against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. These mujahideen were recruited from around the world, trained in Pakistan and then deployed to Afghanistan. When Soviet troops withdrew at the end of the war, the US — believing its goal had been achieved — also left. What ensued was a struggle for influence within Afghanistan with a civil war breaking out in 1993 which paved the way for the emergence of the Taliban. The group was officially founded by Mullah Omar in 1994, comprising 50 students in Kandahar. Within a year, the group expanded its control to 12 provinces with 25,000 fighters in its ranks and, in 1996, established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan throughout most of the country. Many observers attribute their success to Pakistani support. In fact, the government was only recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, after US embassies in Nairobi were attacked by al Qaeda in 1998, the UN imposed sanctions on Afghanistan and designated Osama bin Laden and his associates as terrorists.
The establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was a culmination of the Taliban’s ideological movement. With this success, they were able to implement sharia (Islamic law) in Afghanistan. They believed in a strict version of sharia in accordance with the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence and obedience to the amir (leader) and a selected group of mullahs.
During its five years in power, the Taliban prohibited pork and alcohol — both considered haram (forbidden) in Islam. They also forbade music, television and movies, as well as paintings and photography. Movie theaters were closed and turned into mosques. Further restrictions included limitations on what men and women could play — for example, both genders were forbidden from playing football and chess. The Taliban also placed a ban on kite-flying and keeping pigeons and pets. Women endured the most suffocating restrictions — they were prevented from working and girls were barred from attending schools and universities. These restrictions had a negative impact on women, as the US State Department reported: “As many as 50,000 women, who had lost husbands and other male relatives during Afghanistan’s long civil war, had no source of income. Many were reduced to selling all of their possessions and begging in the streets, or worse, to feed their families”. The Taliban also banned gambling and opium production in 2000, delving out harsh punishments for drug users and dealers.
Religious and Ethnic Persecution
Religious and ethnic minorities were also targeted by the Taliban. As a majority Pashtun group, the Taliban replaced Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in bureaucratic positions with Pashtuns. Shia Hazaras — a minority sect — suffered the most under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. According to a report by Minority Rights International: “After the Taliban seized power in 1996, they declared jihad on Shia Hazaras. In the years that followed, Hazaras faced repression and persecution, including a series of mass killings in northern Afghanistan where thousands of Hazaras lost their lives or were forced to flee their homes”. In February 2001, the amir of the Taliban issued a decree to eliminate all non-Islamic statues in Afghanistan. Despite international pressure, the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001.
Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, Washington directly communicated with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and its key regional allies including Pakistan, seeking the arrest of al Qaeda leaders. The Taliban — abiding by their ‘Pashtunwali’ code of protecting their guests — refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. This triggered the war that ultimately led to the demise of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 2001.
So, now that the Taliban has regained control of Afghanistan nearly 20 years after the US-led ‘war on terror’, there are fears that the group might reinstate its strict form of sharia leading to human rights violations. So far, the Taliban has claimed that it is seeking an inclusive government. However, it is still too early to predict what will happen. So, has the Taliban changed? I will try to answer this question by focusing not just on the group’s narrative and recent actions but on other factors that may contribute to their future behavior.
A More Diplomatic Approach
As a group, the Taliban has appeared to have learned a lot from its past experiences. Soon after US-led NATO troops arrived in Afghanistan, Taliban leaders dispersed and reorganized in Pakistan mainly under Quetta Shura in Balochistan. While Pakistan helped the group in various ways by providing its members and their families refuge, the Taliban was never fully controlled by Pakistan. The Taliban, however, learned to expand its network of supporters by expanding its diplomatic outreach. Their office in Doha (Qatar) also played a key role and various geopolitical realignments brought them closer to Iran, Russia and China. The group also patched up their relationship with Pakistan which had frayed due to Islamabad’s alliance with the US in its ‘war on terror’. Scholars who wrote about the implications of the Taliban’s external relations on peace and stability in Afghanistan argued: “To push the US out of Afghanistan, the Taliban has exhibited a readiness to form relations with erstwhile adversaries, such as Iran and Russia, and has built on relations with Pakistan for linkages with China. The Taliban’s willingness to undertake these overtures is designed to enhance its credibility internationally and expand opportunities beyond its traditional links with Pakistan.”
Their enhanced external engagement helped the Taliban not just gain legitimacy — for example, Taliban delegations have attended negotiations facilitated by Beijing, Moscow and Islamabad — but also helped garner regional support for a US troop withdrawal. This has been evident through the convergence of interests among Iran, China, Pakistan and Russia, as they have been in favor of a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan and, therefore, welcomed the US-Taliban peace deal in 2020.
Meanwhile, Iran, China, Pakistan and Russia are maintaining their diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and continue to engage with the Taliban. Despite speculation that Iran would mobilize Shia militants in Afghanistan against the Taliban, this did not happen. This could be because of a tacit understanding with Iran, that offers a win-win outcome for both parties. Tehran has been uncomfortable with the US troops in its neighborhood and the rise of the Taliban solves that problem.
The Taliban’s first days in power, however, reveal some mixed signs regarding the possibility of sectarian conflict in the country. For example, the Taliban did not ban the Shia commemoration of Ashura earlier this month. In fact, the group even provided security for the occasion and some members even participated in the event. This was a stark contrast to events reported just a month earlier, where Taliban militants were said to have killed Hazaras on July 4-6 in Malistan.
In their initial statements, the Taliban claimed that it would allow women to work and girls to be educated, and would not carry out revenge attacks on anyone, including members of the ANA. There have, however, been some reports of the Taliban stopping women, e.g. journalists, from going to their workplaces. Other accounts claim that Taliban members have also stopped girls and women from attending schools and universities in some areas. However, in other places like Herat, girls were not prevented from going to school. In their first press briefing in Kabul, the Taliban asked for the world’s trust. The group is acting as if everything is normal, even allowing many countries to repatriate their troops and citizens from Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul.
Since its recent takeover, the Taliban has demonstrated a rather practical ruling approach and seems to have forged powerful regional alliances. Despite some reports of Hazara persecution and women being prevented from going to their jobs, the group has declared its support for women to work and girls to be educated. Also, the Taliban has demonstrated an eagerness to reach peace agreements with other political actors, including the now deposed government of Ashraf Ghani. While it is still too early to determine whether their words can be trusted, the initial days of Taliban rule show a very different group than the one that ruled Afghanistan 20 years ago.
 Ahmed, Z. S. (2012). Political Islam, the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Pakistan’s Role in the Afghan-Soviet War, 1979–1988. In P. E. Muehlenbeck (Ed.), Religion and the Cold War: A Global Perspective (pp. 275-296). Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
 Rashid, A. (2000). Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Yale: Yale University Press.
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