[News analysis] Taliban return to power in Afghanistan after two decades of war

Posted on : 2021-08-17 17:40 KST Modified on : 2021-08-17 17:40 KST
Twenty years later, the Taliban have not only survived but it’s back, and stronger than ever
Taliban militants gather on Saturday after taking control of Kandahar, Afghanistan. (EPA/Yonhap News)
Taliban militants gather on Saturday after taking control of Kandahar, Afghanistan. (EPA/Yonhap News)

Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban, promised that his group of militants would survive and defeat the US invasion in a press conference on Sept. 26, 2001, shortly before American forces arrived in Afghanistan.

“I am considering two promises. One is the promise of God, the other is that of Bush. The promise of God is that [. . .] if you start a journey on God's path, you can reside anywhere on this earth and will be protected [. . .] The promise of Bush is that there is no place on earth where you can hide that I cannot find you. We will see which one of these two promises is fulfilled.”

Twenty years later, the Taliban have not only survived, as Omar said, but it’s back, and stronger than ever.

After Omar founded his group of militants in 1994 after claiming to have received a vision from Allah, the Taliban have seen good times and bad. They came to power only to lose it and endure terrible sacrifices until the American military began to withdraw, paving the way for their glorious return this year. This article will look back on that winding road.

Fifty militants dreaming of an Islamic state

The Taliban — the word means “students” or “seekers of knowledge” — originated in humble clerics who made a living by officiating over Islamic services in Pashtun villages in southern Afghanistan.

In 1994, Omar, who was then working as one of these clerics in a village near the city of Kandahar, reportedly began dreaming of a woman who asked him to end the confusion of the civil war and promised that Allah would help him. Believing he’d received a vision from Allah, Omar founded a group of militants that spring with 50 colleagues at a madrassa, or Muslim school.

He called his organization the Taliban.

Most of the members of the Taliban were young Pashtuns, who make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Its ranks were filled with graduates of madrassas built on the border with Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency, had used these madrassas to inculcate young Afghans with fundamentalist Muslim beliefs, with funding from Saudi Arabia.

Taliban’s rapid rise driven by arms Pakistan had given the mujahideen

In October 1994, a convoy of trucks filled with textiles departed from Quetta, a city in western Pakistan, bound for the Afghan city of Kandahar, en route to Turkmenistan, in Central Asia. The convoy was led by Naseerullah Babar, a close associate of Benazir Bhutto, then prime minister of Pakistan.

The convoy was intended to reestablish the trade route to the Middle East and Central Asia that had been paralyzed by the civil war in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which was embroiled in a dispute with India over the Kashmir region, wanted to maintain its influence over its neighbor of Afghanistan. Furthermore, aiding the Taliban, who were members of the Sunni sect of Islam, accorded with Pakistan’s Muslim values.

Once the convoy reached the Afghan border city of Spin Boldak, the Taliban made an appearance. Babar led Taliban members to a weapons depot nearby where the ISI had concealed weapons it was supplying to the mujahideen fighters during the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan.

The depot contained 18,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 120 pieces of artillery, and other supplies, enough weapons to arm tens of thousands of soldiers. These weapons, which were still in their boxes, were a force multiplier for the Taliban, which was instantaneously transformed into a formidable fighting force.

The Taliban soon entered downtown Kandahar, where the local warlord Naqibullah, who led a force of 2,500 soldiers, handed the city over without a fight. That success was the product of three favorable factors: Pashtun nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and Pakistani assistance.

Declaration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

In April 1996, Omar, leader of the Taliban, donned a legendary cloak said to have been worn by the prophet Muhammed, climbed upon the roof of the tallest building in Kandahar, and announced his plan to seize Kabul.

On Sept. 27, about six months later, the Taliban entered Kabul. Ahmad Shah Massoud, head of the provisional government that had controlled the capital, withdrew from the city into the Panjshir Valley in the north and became leader of the Northern Alliance.

That ended a civil war that had raged in Afghanistan during the seven years since Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, allowing the Taliban to declare the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Closer ties with Al Qaeda leads to isolation

In the spring of 1996, when the Taliban were driving toward Kabul, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden visited Afghanistan seeking sanctuary. Bin Laden had been driven from his home of Saudi Arabia but continued to denounce the House of Saud even after arriving in Afghanistan.

Omar took a liking to bin Laden and considered it a matter of pride to protect the man, who had come as a guest.

On Aug. 7, 1998, Al Qaeda carried out simultaneous bombings at US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The bombings left more than 200 people dead and more than 4,000 injured. On Aug. 20, the US launched a cruise missile strike at bin Laden’s base in Afghanistan, but he survived the attack.

The 9/11 attacks and collapse of the Taliban’s regime

On Sept. 9, 2001, a pair of men posing as Belgian reporters visited the Panjshir Valley, home of Massoud, the last warlord in Afghanistan. During an interview, a bomb hidden in their camera detonated, killing him.

That was the gift Al Qaeda had prepared for the Taliban just two days before it hijacked passenger planes to carry out the horrifying terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11. Its goal was to keep relations between the two groups strong even after 9/11.

Following 9/11, US President George W. Bush said the US would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

The US offensive against Afghanistan finally began on Oct. 7. The Taliban’s forces melted away under the ferocious onslaught, and Kabul fell on Nov. 13.

There was no doubt that the Taliban would be routed. The Taliban guerillas-turned-government troops tried to fight pitched battles against the Americans, with their mighty firepower and air superiority.

But after the Taliban retreated to Afghanistan’s rugged mountains and vast wilderness, it returned to its roots as fearsome guerillas.

The US had been focused on invading Iraq since the 9/11 attacks, and it showed little interest in eliminating Al Qaeda and bin Laden, which had been the whole point of invading Afghanistan. In early December, one month after taking Kabul, American forces tracked bin Laden down to Tora Bora, on the border with Pakistan, and narrowly missed capturing him.

Following the collapse of the Taliban, the American presence in Afghanistan was drawn down to 6,000 soldiers, while military resources were redirected to Iraq. Even worse, American aid to the people of Afghanistan, who were exhausted from more than two decades of war during the Soviet invasion and the subsequent civil war, amounted to just US$60 per person a year. 40% of that aid went to maintain offices for countries providing aid.

Afghan farmers went back to cultivating opium poppies, which had been their main source of income during the war, and the US and Afghan government tried to eradicate that. That played into the hands of the Taliban, which had also depended on opium production.

After Hamid Karzai’s election as president in 2004, the US’ loosening grip on the country and the new administration’s vulnerability combined to set the stage for the Taliban’s return. By 2005, the old saying that “where the roads end, the Taliban begin” had become true once again.

Return of the Taliban

In February 2006, Ronald Newman, then US ambassador to Afghanistan, warned of the Taliban’s return in a secret cable to Washington that contained the following warning from a Taliban leader: “You have the watches, but we have the time.”

Just as the ambassador had warned, the Taliban and other rebel groups ramped up their suicide attacks, which increased sevenfold, from 17 in 2005 to 123 in 2006. A car bomb even went off in Bagram Air Base, emblem of the American military presence in Afghanistan, on Feb. 27, 2007.

That July, 23 South Korean Christians on a short-term mission trip to the country were abducted by the Taliban. Two were killed, and the others were released after 43 days in captivity. The Taliban formalized its return by carrying out official negotiations with South Korea, a member of the US-led military coalition.

Negotiating with the US and building strength

In December 2009, following his inauguration as US president, Barack Obama said he would send more troops to Afghanistan to fulfill his campaign pledge of winning the Afghanistan War. But even as Obama announced he would increase the American troop presence, which had already ballooned to 70,000 since 2007, to over 100,000, his remarks were actually focused on a troop pullout that was supposed to begin in 2013.

But the Taliban’s power kept growing despite the surge of American and allied forces.

In September 2012, the Taliban boasted enough military strength to directly attack Camp Bastion (today known as Camp Shorabak) in Helmand Province, one of the largest bases for allied NATO forces.

By 2013, they announced that they were setting up a mission in Qatar. It was a signal that both the US and the Taliban were willing to start negotiating for peace.

But the negotiations failed to yield results. The biggest issue was the Taliban’s refusal to recognize the Afghan government, which itself opposed negotiating with the Taliban.

It later emerged that the Taliban’s move to pursue peace negotiations had to do with a change in leadership following the death of their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. He had died in the hospital, although the Taliban would not make that fact public until two years later in 2015.

His successor, Akhtar Mansour, also died in a May 2016 drone strike by the US forces, after which leadership passed on to current supreme commander Hibatullah Akhundzada. In the process of this leadership change, the Taliban began forcing more on increasing its strength and cracking down internally than on peace negotiations.

Back in power after two decades

On Feb. 29, 2020, the US and Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha. The terms stated the US and all other foreign troops were to withdraw completely from Afghanistan within 14 months, while the Taliban were to prevent the use of Afghanistan as a base for Al-Qaeda, among others.

It also stipulated that additional negotiations were to take place between the Taliban and Afghan government — but that ended up falling by the wayside. The withdrawal schedule was not observed, and the Taliban broadened their offensive, ignoring a US military that had lost its fighting spirit and was just marking time until its departure.

On April 14 of this year, US President Joe Biden affirmed that the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan would be completed before Sept. 11; this was later moved up to Aug. 31. On July 2, US troops departed their largest base in Afghanistan, Bagram Airfield, like the proverbial “midnight run.”

As the Taliban’s onslaught proved fiercer than anticipated, Biden asserted in a White House press conference on Aug. 10 that he did not regret his decision to withdraw the troops.

“Look, we spent over a trillion dollars over 20 years. We trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces,” he said at the time.

“They’ve got to fight for themselves,” he said.

But the astronomical amount of money the US poured into the Afghan military ended up going down the drain. At 300,000 troops, the Afghan government forces outnumber the Taliban’s estimated 200,000. But due to false registrations to earn a salary and other forms of padding, analysts put the actual scale of the government forces at roughly one-sixth the stated number.

Moreover, the Taliban have banded together strongly to fight for the places left behind by the withdrawn US forces, while the morale of government forces has dropped steeply since the US began pulling out.

On Sunday, the Taliban reached the outskirts of the capital Kabul, before the US withdrawal had even been completed. Just a few hours later, the Afghan government forces declared their surrender, announced that there would be a “peaceful transfer of power” to the Taliban.

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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