The Taliban Takeover: Rise of Upcoming Powers

By Arin Doshi

The fall of Afghanistan 2021: a chronology of the collapse

Afghanistan captured worldwide attention through a variety of online news and social media platforms on August 16th, 2021. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons as the Taliban had gained control of the country overthrowing the civilian government under ex-President Ashraf Ghani.  The Taliban had planned to gear up for offense against the Ghani government after former American President Donald Trump had announced plans to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan towards May 2021. 

The withdrawal plans were conducted through the Doha Agreement in which the American government under Trump signed an agreement between the Taliban on the 29th of February 2020, in order to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan in May 2021, to ensure the stopping of the war in Afghanistan.  However, with Trump not winning a second term as president, Joe Biden came into power and changed the course of Trump’s decision and announced for troops to be withdrawn in September 2021, a later date. 

With a slow stream of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troop withdrawals occurring at early May 2021, the Taliban started advancing their attacks against government troops in Helmand province. Furthermore, American troops also began to withdraw from the Kandahar air base, Taliban insurgents then slowly started capturing districts near Kabul and in Ghazni province. 

By the period of June, the Taliban had already captured many districts in the Northern provinces of the country and also captured the Shir Khan border crossing, which faces Tajikistan. What is more is that Americans had rapidly withdrawn their forces on the 2nd of July from the Bagram airbase. The Taliban had gained control over half of the country. In August, the Taliban had fully gained control over provincial capitals in Afghanistan. Towns such as Mazar-I-Shariff collapsed under the buckle of Taliban forces. Eventually on the 16th of August, Kabul fell and so did the country.  

 The origins of the Taliban  

With the country already in tatters, Afghans fear a return of the year 1996 where the Taliban had kept a strong foothold in the country until 2001. The Taliban had previously also ruled Afghanistan under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from 1996 till 2001. In order to know how this mess occurred, one must look back in time when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, thus establishing the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA).  

The moment the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, American intervention under President Jimmy Carter kicked in with the steady funding of the Mujahideen forces. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a key role in funding the Mujahideen forces under Operation Cyclone. Operation Cyclone allowed for the movement of over US$500,000 worth of aid to the Mujahideen forces with the Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) forces helping them to fight the Soviets. This would then lead to a 9-year guerrilla war between the Soviet Union and the Mujahideen from 1979 till 1989.  

Eventually the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan but this created a power struggle between the different Mujahideen militias in Afghanistan, thus leading to a variety of Afghan civil wars. The first Afghan Civil war from 1989 towards 1992 was fought between the Mujahideen forces and the Soviet backed government under Muhammad Najibullah who still remained in power even after the Soviets left in 1987. The fighting ceased and this led to the formation of a short-lived interim government under the Mujahideen. On April 25th 1992 a civil war broke out between 6 different Mujahideen armies, thus leading to the rise of the Taliban taking control of the country at the time from 1996 until 2001. Why these civil wars took place was also due to the fact that many of the Mujahideen militias and the Taliban wanted an Islamic state to be made out of Afghanistan. Furthermore, many of the militias and warlords clashed with each other due to interethnic differences between the different Afghan groups. 

Taliban now vs Taliban before 

The Taliban of the 1990s

How different was the Taliban rule back then from the period of 1996 until 2001 in comparison to the current ruling of the country under the Taliban in 2021? In fact, are there similarities in the ruling from the yesteryear to the present time? These are questions that can be helpful in understanding whether the Taliban actually plan to change itself in order to become more legitimate or whether this is history repeating itself.

Mullah Omar who was the head of the Taliban at the time, pledged to rid the country of corruption, crime and warlords with the implementation of Islamic law. Unfortunately, this came at the expense of the Afghan population who had to conform to the medieval rules imposed by the Taliban. Women were classed as second-class citizens. Females were barred from attending universities and both women and girls were forbidden from obtaining any form of education. Additionally, men too were forced to conform to the rules imposed by the Taliban. This included not shaving their beards nor trimming them alongside wearing white caps and turbans, thus not having the freedom to dress how they wanted. 

Furthermore, entertainment outlets such as movies, videos, television etc. were completely removed from the Afghan public sphere as it was deemed to be counter cultural to the ideology of the Taliban. Those who were caught indulging in these outlets or if anyone spoke out against the Taliban, meant torture or death. Under the Taliban, stoning was a commonplace feature where women were stoned to death for adultery and thieves’ hands were chopped off. In fact, women were even whipped by the moral police if they did not dress “modestly” according to Taliban standards. 

Besides that, religious minorities during the time of this rule had to go into hiding to practice their religion in order to avoid reprisal from the Taliban. It should be noted that Afghanistan houses a small number of minority groups such as Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Shias like the Hazara community. The once thriving Hindu and Sikh communities fled to India soon after the Soviet invasion and when the Taliban took over in 1996. Sikhs and Hindus were often persecuted by the state through rampant kidnapping, beatings, bullying and forced conversion to Islam. Back in the 1970s, the Hindu and Sikh communities had a population of 700,000 people but this has sadly dwindled to a mere 550 people. The Hazaras have not fared better either as they are often faced with the same treatment like other minority groups due to them being Shia whilst the majority of the country’s population is Sunni. 

The Jews were a thriving community who had established themselves in Afghanistan in Herat in the middle of the 19th century with a population of 20000 Jews. Most Jews had emigrated to Israel in 1951 after the Jewish state of Israel was established and swiftly after the Soviet invasion. However, in the 1990s there were only 15 Jewish families remaining who soon moved out of Afghanistan to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and India. Yet, there was one sole Jew who insisted on staying in Afghanistan in spite of the hardships faced. His name was Zablon Simitov. Zablon had insisted on staying in Afghanistan in spite of the fact that the Afghan Islamic Emirate was established in order to preserve the last synagogue in Kabul. This came at a cost where he was detained, jailed and abused countless times by Taliban militants during their rule in 2001 for not willing to convert to Islam. Fortunately for him, when Kabul fell in 2021 he was taken out of Afghanistan to the USA where he has family.

The Taliban of 2021

Now back to November 2021, three months into Taliban rule, has anything changed? The Taliban under their new supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada has promised to retain a “better self-image” in order to be recognised as legitimate by countries worldwide. Ironically enough, it even stated that it will allow for non-Muslim minorities to practice their religions without any difficulties, even though the Taliban previously under Mullah Omar in 2001 blew up the centuries old Bamiyan Buddha statues since the fundamentalist Taliban oppose idol worship. It even leads to more confusion on how and why would the Biden administration suggest that the Taliban should encourage more diversity within their cabinet, when the Taliban have been notorious for persecuting religious minorities such as the Shia Hazara and restricting women from most aspects of society. 

In fact, when the Taliban came into power this year, women started losing their jobs and access towards education. An example of which female news reporters were swiftly told to go home and not return. Restrictions have also been placed on television channels and a medley of programs have been withdrawn from television and have now been replaced with Islamic/ Quranic recitations and Taliban announcements. Job restrictions have also been placed on barbershops and barbers are forbidden to trim the beards or even cut the hair of male Afghans in a Western style. 

Religious minorities fear the worst under the new Afghan administration. The Hazara minority were given a momentum to pack their bags and leave their villages/ towns and in some cases the Taliban seized their belongings. According to some members of the community, if the community had chosen to stay in their villages/ towns they would be further persecuted, thus many members of the Hazara community left in droves, from their towns/ villages trying to seek greener pastures in the West and or neighbouring countries

One can say that there is indeed diversity in Afghanistan but instead diversity of a gross range of human rights violations perpetrated by Taliban against the people of Afghanistan. 

New state actors

With the Taliban administration wanting to seek out new countries for legitimacy recognition and alliances, China has turned out to be a potential partner willing to recognise and support the Taliban. This has raised questions on why is China committed to forging with the notorious Taliban regime or what does China seek to gain from recognising the Taliban. Analysts have in fact argued that China’s foreign policy towards the country is not the same compared to the American foreign policy which was seeking for opportunities before withdrawing completely, rather China is mostly concerned with how it can manage threats towards itself with the rise of the Taliban in power in Afghanistan. Why this concerns China is that with the rise of the Taliban, there can be a spill over of terrorist groups pouring into Pakistan and leniency towards terrorist groups in Afghanistan which would seek to carry out attacks against China. So how has China intended to do this, one may ask? As a matter of fact, China has long sought to seek out agreements between the Taliban in regard to keeping the Uighur population from using Afghanistan as a base of operations to plot attacks against China. The Taliban level delegation assured China that Afghanistan would not be used as a breeding ground for terrorists to launch attacks. 

Additionally, China also has a keen eye for Afghanistan due to economic and commercial investments it has in the nation through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a geopolitical initiative which aims to connect Asia with Africa and Europe through land and maritime networks further improving trade and rising economic growth. China has included Afghanistan within the initiative in spite of security uncertainties and with the Taliban publicly noting that it will not interfere in China’s internal affairs.  An example of some of these investments are the build-up of the Mes Aynak copper dam located 40km away from Kabul. There were initially delays occurring due to past instabilities before the Taliban takeover however the Taliban has assured the Chinese government that the copper dam project will go ahead as planned. China has a 25% stake at this dam through China’s biggest copper producer Jiangxi Copper and the state-owned company Metallurgical Corp of China (MCC) and intends to further develop the copper deposit. 

Yet, another key state actor looks suspiciously at the developments that are playing out with the closeness of Sino-Afghan ties. The Republic of India. India has expressed concern with the Taliban in control of Afghanistan and has reiterated that it does not recognise the Taliban as the legitimate government in power. India had key interests within the region as it had conducted many infrastructural projects with previous Afghan governments prior to the takeover by the Taliban. India had formed a pact with Afghanistan known as the India Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2011 which helped rebuild Afghan infrastructure and institutions alongside its education services. This was one of the key agreements that also led to an increase in bilateral trade between those two countries. India had also committed itself to other development projects. An example of which is the Zaranj Delaram highway. This was a 218km long highway that was built between Zaranj the Afghan Iranian border town and Delaram which is near Kandahar. This was built to strategically connect India with Afghanistan since Pakistan does not allow India to partake in overland trade with Afghanistan. 

The concerns that India has with the Taliban in power is that the Taliban will be forging closer relations with Pakistan especially since the Pakistani ISI is notoriously known to work hand in hand with the Afghan Taliban. In spite of India being hesitant to recognise the Taliban, they hosted the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan with other national security advisors from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Iran in order to discuss the security of Afghanistan. Yet, there was no Afghan representative present in the talks alongside Pakistani and Chinese national security advisors. This leaves India at a crossroads on how to engage with the Taliban and questions remain on what are the Taliban’s intentions in regard to Indian interests in the country. The Taliban also further mentioned that no terrorist groups would operate in the country, yet India remains concerned about the risk of potential spillover of Taliban outfits into India through Pakistan.    

Is there any hope?

The future for Afghanistan appears very grim with the Taliban in control, with chaos ensuing and the increase in human rights violations being perpetrated by the Taliban to the Afghan populace. As seen throughout history foreign interventions by state actors like the US and the Soviet Union caused the once western liberalised state of the 70s to turn into an unstable state governed by the Taliban through Sharia law. Even if promises of prosperity and success are supposedly guaranteed by Chinese investments into the country, concerns remain as to whether all Afghans benefit from Chinese wealth pouring into the country or is it only a select few Afghans who are in the good books of the Taliban. 

In fact, there is another barrier in regard to access to development funds. The Central Bank of Afghanistan better known as the Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB) has stated that it will prove difficult for the Taliban to access US$10 billion worth of assets. The Taliban cannot access these assets due to the fact that the Taliban are put into an international sanctions list which proves impossible for them to access these assets which are located overseas. Again, this leads to questions on how would international institutions and countries recognise the legitimacy of the country under Taliban if they are sanctioned. This also leads to another bigger problem for the country’s development. Afghanistan already faces a bad reputation for its gross human rights violations under the Taliban but the country is even more likely to go towards deeper levels of poverty without access to funds. 

What should also be considered important in the case of Afghanistan, is that even with the Taliban as the central governing force of the country, countries that may be hesitant to form relations with Afghanistan alongside international humanitarian organisations need to be watchful and vigilant on the decisions that the Taliban make in regard to policy making and development of their country. This is crucial as it would be a stepping stone in keeping in check the human rights violations that are increasing under the regime. Additionally what happens in Afghanistan, also affects countries that are surrounding it, thus countries need to be aware of the policies and decisions the Taliban government makes for Afghanistan as it could affect them too. 

Edited by Zuzanna Mietlińska, Illustration by Kelly Ville