Shortcuts / 19 August 2021

The Taliban

This week the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Given the conditions in the country when they last ruled, there are huge concerns about what a Taliban-led Afghanistan will be like for the people who live there – and beyond. In this Squiz Shortcut, we talk through who the Taliban are and what they stand for, what life under the Taliban was like in the 1990s, how they have been able to regain control, and what Afghanistan might expect under the Taliban once again.

Who are the Taliban?
The Taliban is an Islamist militant movement that started out in Islamic schools called madrassas in Pakistan where a lot of Afghans were living in the 1980s. And it’s believed that those madrasas became recruiting grounds of Islamic volunteers to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Wait, how are the Soviets caught up in this?
Soviet forces were supporting the communist government in Afghanistan that came into power in 1978. It was known as the People’s Democratic Party.

Right, and it was unpopular…
Yup. Afghans and many in the international community weren’t fans. And so in 1980, a civil war broke out and insurgent groups began fighting the government.

And those insurgents were the Taliban?
Kinda. The Taliban was part of a larger group of insurgent fighters known as the mujahideen. They were backed by countries like the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and others that were supplying billions of dollars in cash and weapons to drive out those Soviet forces.

So nations like the US-backed the forerunners of today’s Taliban?
In the name of beating the Soviets, yes.


Can we fast forward a bit?
Good call. What happened after the civil war was that the groups that were fighting the communist government then turned against one another for power. And after 2 years of fighting, it was the Taliban that ended up on top in 1996.

How did that go down?
The Taliban was welcomed by local Afghans because they had already been through years and years of war, drought and famine. But it didn’t take long for locals to realise what the Taliban’s rule would mean.

Which was…
The Taliban’s goal was to create an Islamic state and so they enforced rules that represented their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. They became known for their enforcement of strict rules and human rights violations. It’s why the Taliban wasn’t recognised by the international community as the country’s legitimate government when it ruled between 1996 and 2001.

What kind of strict rules were they enforcing?
Well to start, rules on dress codes. Men for instance were required to grow beards and women had to wear the all-covering burqa. There were also bans when it came to things like television and cinema, and music was also banned except for certain types of religious songs and Taliban ‘chants’. And there were street patrols to make sure civilians were abiding by the rules…

And if they weren’t?
There were repercussions like corporal punishment. That includes physical punishment like public executions, floggings or having limbs amputated for crimes like robbery, adultery and murder. All of which were common at the time.

And women were particularly targeted…
Yep. Women and girls had many basic human rights stripped from them – things like going to school or studying, working and showing their skin in public. They weren’t allowed to leave the house without a male chaperone or access healthcare if it was a male doctor, and they were banned from being involved in any politics or speaking publicly.

So they were basically imprisoned in their homes…
Mmhm. Those that rebelled faced punishments – like floggings for not wearing a full-body-covering burqa, or being stoned to death if found guilty of adultery.

Hard to believe this was just 20 years ago…
It is.

So how long were the Taliban in power for?
The Taliban was kicked out of Kabul by the US and its allies like Australia at the end of 2001.

That was after 9/11, right?
You got it. The attacks on the US on 11 September 2011 were the deadliest in the country’s history with 2,977 people killed. And at the centre of it was the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda.

The name rings a bell, but who are they again?
They were another militant group that fought against the Soviets in the 80s.

Gotcha. So the US retaliated after 9/11?
Yep – it targeted Afghanistan and the Taliban because it had sheltered al-Qaeda. The goal was to stop the terror group from using Afghanistan as a base for its operations.

What happened to the Taliban?
After they were ousted in 2001, they fled to remote areas or across the border to Pakistan. And that’s where they began to rebuild.

What happened in Afghanistan after that?
The country was making major strides towards giving Afghans more freedoms, but most of that was happening in Kabul and other major cities. There were still remote parts of Afghanistan held by the Taliban who were relentless in cementing their power.

But they were kept at bay with the help of foreign troops…
They were, up until recently… Coalition troops – so soldiers from the US, UK, Oz and many more countries – stayed in Afghanistan to help the national government and train their forces. But earlier this year, troops were pulled out.

Who made that decision?
The conversations started when President Barack Obama was in office. But things really got moving when Donald Trump took over. He had campaigned on a promise of getting Americans out of the ‘forever war’.

Fast forward to…
February 2020 and a deal was done after long peace talks with the Taliban.

Which meant…
Ultimately, the US agreed to pull out its troops and the Taliban said it would cut ties with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

And did that happen?
The US kept up its side of the deal… So when President Joe Biden took office this year, troop numbers came right down and other countries like Oz followed suit.

Which is when things started to go belly-up…
Mhmm. What’s been most surprising is just how quickly the Taliban has re-gained territory. Just last week, US intelligence reportedly anticipated that Kabul would fall in 90 days – which was shocking news at the time. But then, earlier this week, the Taliban took control in a matter of hours…

There are a few reasons…

Go on…
One reason is its growing numbers. Reports say there are about 75,000 Taliban fighters. When you compare that to 300,000 Afghan security forces it’s easy to think the government should have been able to hold on to power pretty easily.

So what went wrong?
The government struggled to find recruits, as soldiers were not paid well and there were high casualty rates. And over the last couple of years, support for the Taliban has grown, with reports pointing to another 200,000 fighters in militia groups and the like bolstering their numbers.

Anything else?
Over the past 18 months, the Taliban has struck cease-fire deals across the country – which was basically the Taliban paying outposts of the national military cash for their weapons. So when it was time to fight, the military surrendered and fled.

So has the Taliban changed?
They say they have. They want Afghans to stay and help rebuild the country and say they’ll grant amnesty to those who have worked for the government. Of course, they’ve said that before… So whether it’s true or not, many are sceptical.

What do Afghans say?
​​Afghans who have fled Taliban-held areas or lived under their control are worried that things will return to the ‘dark days’. There are concerns for anyone who worked with the government in the past 2 decades. And those who got ahead and established new lives are at risk under the Taliban regime.

What about women and girls?
There are already reports of them being targeted and married off to Taliban fighters. It’s a really grim outlook.

Which explains why thousands are trying to leave…
Including foreign citizens. Sixty nations, including Oz, have called on the Taliban to allow those who want to leave a safe departure. And many countries have already planned for ways to get their diplomats and dual citizens out.

What does the international community have to say?
There has been a lot of finger-pointing at US President Joe Biden. He has been blamed for the collapse of the country after withdrawing troops.

What did Biden say?
He says that the Afghan military cannot or will not fight for control of its own country, so why should the US stay to prop it up? And he says that America cannot justify staying when it’s not in its national interest.

So what does this mean for Afghanistan?
There’s a lot of commentary about whether a Taliban controlled Afghanistan could see a rise in terrorist threats. And given US troops have withdrawn, some experts say it will be even harder to monitor those threats in Afghanistan.

So we’ve come full circle…

Squiz recommends:

Squiz Shortcut – Afghanistan

The New York Times’ The Daily podcast – ‘The Fall of Afghanistan’

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