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The Rise and Return of the Taliban

The sudden fall of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban may have shocked establishment experts [1], but are certainly no surprise to those expert critics who for decades have criticised the corruption, the lack of strength in civil institutions, and the disparity between what Western governments told us and what reality was like on the ground [2]. That reality is approximately 175,000 dead, mainly Afghan national military and police, Taliban and other opposition fighters, and civilians. One could add an additional 67,000 for the Pakistani side of The Durand Line [3], a British imperialist invention that divides the indigenous Pashtuns and is treated with complete contempt by those on both sides of the border; all quite a remarkable achievement by the US after spending 2.261 trillion dollars on consolidating a military presence in a country of less the 40 million. Certainly, a windfall for those capitalists who invested in the war machine; returns on the top five defense contractors from 2001 to now have a return 50% greater than the general stock market [4].

The fall of Afghanistan has occurred under Biden, as the United States had agreed under Trump to withdraw its troops whilst the Taliban agreed not to allow al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups to operate under their areas [5]. Hand-waving their behaviour in the past, their gross violations of human rights and especially those against women, establishment experts tried to tell the world then, and continue to do so now, that the Taliban of 2020 are fundamentally different [6] from the Taliban of the 1990s. This is not entirely true; they are certainly more pragmatic in their international relations, and certainly more mercurial in public relations, but their ideology is the same, and their behaviour is the same. At the time of writing, the Taliban are going door-to-door searching for people who either worked for NATO or the Republic [7]. Whilst one would be happy to be wrong, we can certainly expect that horrific facts of the new Taliban rule will come out soon.


The reality is that the United States intervention in Afghanistan was wrong from the very start. It is often overlooked, and usually by the neo-conservative advocates of military adventures, that the Taliban themselves are a direct result of US foreign policy in the region. As the Soviet Union struggled to prop up the unpopular Democratic Republic of Afghanistan following the coup of the Khalq faction of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the United States under Reagan engaged in massive military support, funding, and training of regime opponents, especially through neighbouring Pakistan. In 1982 Ronald Reagan even dedicated the space shuttle Columbia to the Mujahideen resistance, describing it as "man's highest aspirations for freedom" [8]. Several years later the Soviet Union sought an agreement with the United States on a peaceful cessation of hostilities and a withdrawal of Soviet troops. In a famed debate between Vladimir Pozner, Soviet spokesperson in the United States, and Richard Perle, US Assistant Secretary of Defence, it became clear that the U.S. was not interested in preventing a takeover, even saying that is the Soviets left "the problem of support to the Mujahideen solves itself" [9]. The Soviet Union was quite stunned by this attitude; they understood that the US and the Soviets had differences in political economy and democracy, but they thought that the US would at least recognise the Mujahideen were anti-modernist reactionaries.

Following the fall of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in 1992, the various warlords and factions of the Mujahideen did indeed "solve themselves", in a manner of speaking, with more civil war between the nominal government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan and others who vied for power. Initially, the rival mujahideen groups agreed on a power-sharing agreement, the Peshawar Accord. But this fell apart as a major Pakistan-backed faction, Hezb-e Islami, did not sign the accord and sought to take Kabul. The civil war that followed between six different groups and their foreign backers would be in conflict (e.g., Ittihad-i Islami backed by Saudi Arabia, Iran backed Hizb-e Wahdat, Junbish-i Milli backed by Uzbekistan etc. In the midst of this conflict the Taliban were formally established in September 1994 in Kandahar by Mullah Mohammad Omar and some fifty students educated in the madrassas, Islamic religious schools for Afghanis by the ISI, especially the Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary in Akora Khattak, Pakistan [10]. With the support of Pakistan and the ISI, the Taliban were quickly able to position themselves and would capture Kabul by September 1996, declaring the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, even though the north-eastern regions of the country were outside their control and would remain so for the following five years as the United Front-Northern Alliance, supported by the United States, India, Russia, and Turkey, and others, combated the Taliban, who were supported by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan [11], and notably Al-Qaeda. Observers will note that the US was (and still is) providing military and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan at the time, making them effectively both supporters and opponents of the Taliban at the same time.

Taliban Rule

The rule of the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was characterised by attempts to establish a state dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group and strict adherence to their interpretation of Sharia Law, especially in accordance with the Hanafi school of jurisprudence and the edicts of Taliban founder, Mullah Omar [12]. The state only ever received recognition from a handful of other countries (Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). A theocratic regime, it was hostile to individual rights, democracy, secularism, and "the West" in general, especially the United States and Israel. Women and girls were subject to forced marriages, extremely limited health care, and were largely banned from public life, employment, and education, and would be subject to enforcement by religious police and would whippings or execution if they broke such rules. Taliban commanders were notorious for engaging in human trafficking, selling women and girls into slavery [13]. The Taliban engaged in widespread censorship on a technological level, banning televisions, cinema, VCRs, and satellite dishes [14], and notoriously destroying the 6th century Buddha statues at Bamiyan.

The involvement of Al Qaeda with the Taliban was evident from the outset, most notably through the 055 Brigade, which operated from 1995 to 2001. As Al Qaeda engaged in terrorist attacks in eastern Africa in 1998, the Taliban's war against the Northern Alliance and the targeting of Shiite Muslims (including killing Iranian diplomats), and the killing of international aid workers led to multiple Security Council resolutions (1193, 1214, 1333) and the formation of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan [15], and sanctions for harbouring Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives. On September 11, 2001 Al-Qaeda operatives launched terrorist attacks on the United States. When the Taliban refused to hand over to the US leaders of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the United States and several allies from NATO initiated an invasion on October 7 and after a month, the Taliban regime began to fall and often with minimal resistance. Notably, Pakistan evacuated thousands of leading commanders and military from the Taliban and, Al-Qaeda, and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency operatives before the capture of Kunduz by United Front troops [16].

Insurgency and Victory

For almost the next twenty years the Taliban conducted an insurgency against the new Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (until it was disbanded in 2014), and the subsequent Resolute Support Mission (2014-2021). The Taliban and their supporters showed a willingness to target military and civilian targets, and engaged in a highly agile campaign of asymmetric warfare. As violence increased the US-led forces increased in numbers, eventually reaching 140,000 at their peak in 2011, but with a gradual decline over the next few years leaving a greatly reduced force by the end of 2014 when NATO formally ended ISAF military operations and transferred security operations to the Afghan government. In this wake, the Taliban began a resurgence with their forces swelled by the Pakistani Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan against various insurgent groups (ISIL, Tehrik-Taliban, etc), who retreated into Afghanistan.

Despite minor conflicts within the Taliban itself, they were able to make offenses into the southernmost Helmand, having it under their control by 2016, and launching an even larger offensive in 2017, and in 2018, captured the small city of Ghazni for several days. But early 2019, only half of Afghanistan's districts were controlled by the government with, a third contested, and 12% controlled by insurgent forces; by the end of the year the majority of the country was under Taliban control [17], leading to the signing of a conditional peace deal between the United States and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar in February 2020 [18]; notably, the nominal Afghani government was not part of the agreement, and Taliban offenses against the Afghani government continued in 2020, with a major offensive launched in May 2021 resulting in the fall of major cities and provinces, usually without resistance (and with war crimes when the opportunity presented itself), and finally of Kabul on August 15. The Afghan National Army, supposedly at least three times larger than the Taliban, trained and equipped by the most powerful military forces in the world, turned out to have a large percentage of "ghost soldiers" (a situation known for a long time [19]), their pay-packets pocketed by their corrupt leaders.

The "New" Taliban

As mentioned, the new Taliban regime is trying to put on a more moderate face in its public pronouncements especially for international relations, but also to ensure compliance among the regionalised and fragmented ethnicities in the country. Variation between the public and high-level policy and the decentralised reality on the ground should be expected, and it is reality that matters. The tension between the "moderates" who will seek to protect the Taliban's state integrity and the "conservatives" who desire the fundamentalist rule will probably see an equivalent separation on top-level and local-level governance. The "moderates", it must be mentioned, are just as ideologically committed and are simply biding time, waiting until they are powerful enough to extend their theocratic rule to neighbouring and other countries. Against the Taliban, there were at least some moderate developments of civil institutions during the NATO occupation which will be a difficult experience to dislodge. Further, there is already a nascent National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, active in three contiguous provinces (Panjshir, Parwan, and Baghlan Province). Whilst moderate in number they have a defensible position, although the Taliban have now acquired significant military equipment [20]. Regardless of the outcome, future conflict seems inevitable. Afghanistan is strategically located which is rich in natural resources and is the biggest producer of opium in the world [21], as a result, major and regional forces will always have an unhealthy interest in the country.

Among the inevitable human rights violations and civil war, there are valuable lessons for international politics. The first is that regimes with widespread corruption that are obvious puppets of external powers will never provide a stable government or effective military, especially when confronted by a determined opponent. This was, despite appearance, a military victory of the Taliban that could have been prevented by more US and NATO forces; it was a collapse of a government that lacked popular legitimacy and mass loyalty. The Taliban were at least able to pretend that they were a sovereign force, although that will conflict with their reliance and involvement of international extremists. The second is that the ideology of theocratic terrorism can defeat powerful secular-democratic forces by an asymmetric war of attrition, and despite the Taliban's claim that they will not let the country become a haven for terrorists, the combination of politics and resources makes this very unlikely. When this iteration of the Taliban is overthrown, and they will be because all governments are at some stage either from within or by external forces, a better Afghanistan will require both sovereign rule and wealth, civil rule, and, most importantly, a cultural change that removes the reactionary ideas that stain the land and its people.


[1] Biden team surprised by rapid Taliban gains in Afghanistan, August 16, 2001
[2] Institute for Research on Public Policy. Letter From Kabul
[3] Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, The Costs of War Project
[4] $10,000 Invested in Defence Stocks When Afghanistan War Began Now Worth Almost $100,000
[5] Afghan conflict: US and Taliban sign deal to end 18-year war
[6] The Afghan Taliban have changed 'drastically' since they were last in power 20 years ago, experts say
[7] Afghanistan: Taliban carrying out door-to door manhunt, report says
[8] Space Shuttle's Flight Dedicated to Afghans
See also footage from The Power of Nightmares Part II:
[9] This debate is reviewed in Adam Curtis, The Power of Nightmares Part II, BBC, 2004
[10] Afghanistan: The massacre in Mazar-i Sharif. (Chapter II: Background). Human Rights Watch. November 1998.
[11] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, Tauris, 2002
[12] Kamal Matinuddin, The Taliban Phenomenon: Afghanistan 1994–1997, Oxford University Press, 1999 p37, 42-43
[13] "Lifting The Veil On Taliban Sex Slavery". Time. 10 February 2002.,9171,201892,00.html
[14] Ahmed Rashid, op cit
[15] "Security Council, concerned by deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, supports establishment of unit to deter human rights violations". United Nations. 8 December 1998.
[16] Seymour Hersh, "The Getaway". The New Yorker. 28 January 2002
[17] "America and the Taliban inch towards a peace deal in Afghanistan". The Economist. 7 August 2019.
[18] "Afghanistan's Taliban, US sign peace deal". Al-Jazeera. 29 February 2020.
[19] Afghanistan's 'ghost soldiers': thousands enlisted to fight Taliban don't exist. The Guardian. May 17 2016
[20] Why Afghanistan's Panjshir remains out of Taliban's reach. Deutche Welle. August 20. 2021
[21] How the US military's opium war in Afghanistan was lost. BBC News. 25 April 2019