On February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement outlining a phased withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban commitments not to allow attacks on the US or its allies from Afghan territory. During the Trump administration the process of withdrawal was rather slow, but his successor President Joe Biden decided to accelerate the process. President Joe Biden initially set September 11, 2021, as the date of completion for the withdrawal, however on July 8, 2021, the US President announced that by August 31, 2021, all US forces will have withdrawn from Afghanistan except for 650 troops left behind to provide security for the US Embassy in Kabul.
The US president announced that “Afghans must decide their own future.”
For Afghans, the evolving situation presents both challenges and opportunities. The most serious challenge to Afghanistan’s future is the Taliban. The group—similar to the 1990s–has swiftly conquered large swathes of Afghan territory and continues to rapidly advance.
For Afghans, this worrying situation revisits the dark memory of the 1990s when the Taliban invaded and conquered Kabul, with the difference that this time progressive forces and educated youth have more influence in Afghan society and, therefore, the Taliban will face much tougher opposition in establishing their own ultra-conservative government. On the other hand, there are also opportunities that if properly exploited by Afghans will result in an inclusive, peaceful, and progressive Afghanistan.
Afghanistan of the 1990s
Afghanistan in the 1990s was markedly different from today’s Afghanistan. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the collapse of President Najibullah’s government, and the loss of US interest in Afghanistan after the defeat of the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan was left alone in the middle of competing regional players seeking to increase their influence in Afghanistan. The regional countries, especially the two neighboring countries Iran and Pakistan, with the support of various groups such as Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan – a militia group founded and led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar–sought to overthrow the mujahideen government of President Rabbani and thus a bloody civil war ensued.
There were several mujahideen groups that were pitched against each other but the two major groups were the Pashtun-dominated and Kandahar-based Taliban– with strong support from Pakistan–against Ahmad Shah Massoud’s northern alliance. These groups fought fiercely for the control of Kabul. The Taliban believed in the strict implementation of Sharia based on Salafist and Wahabist beliefs and in the strict control over society, while the northern alliance was progressive and open to civil rights, individual freedoms and, sgnificantly, women’s right.
Though the northern alliance put up a strong resistance against the Taliban, they were unable to keep the Taliban away from Kabul in the long run.
In the early 1990s, the Afghan people were tired of the lawlessness and widespread violence and they saw the Taliban as their saviors so they put their support behind the group and greeted the Taliban with bouquets of flowers at the gates of Kabul. Hence we can say that the Taliban’s early success was not built on their superior military might but was an expression of the widespread discontent and desperation about the steadily deteriorating situation. For instance, in 1996 Kabul was ruled by four different groups and when in September 1996 the Taliban conquered Kabul, the people breathed a sigh of relief and thought that easier days would come. But the execution of the former President, Dr. Najibullah, dispelled these fantasies and the people realized the nature of the group they were now facing.
Another factor of the Taliban’s success in the 1990s was the disinterest of the major international player–the US. By defeating its cold war archrival, the USSR, in Afghanistan, the US foreign policy goal was attained and therefore it left the country at the mercy of the Afghan mujahideen. The indifference of the US led regional players like Pakistan to meddle in Afghan internal affairs in order to prevent India from infiltrating the region. Pakistan at that time was preoccupied with threats to its national security from its bigger neighbor, India, and benefited from the Taliban’s available army for a proxy war.
It is now an open secret that in the 1990s Pakistan actively pursued the doctrine of “strategic depth.” Strategic depth was Pakistan’s military doctrine under which Pakistan used Afghanistan as an instrument of strategic security in ongoing tensions with India by attempting to control Afghanistan as a pawn for its own political purposes. In exchange for installing Pakistan’s friendly government in Afghanistan, Pakistan supported the Taliban in every possible way. Pakistan also had the tacit approval of the US to support the Taliban, and other significant Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE were also in favor of the Taliban.
Support from the people as well as from regional players coupled with a weak central government enabled the Taliban to govern large swathes of Afghanistan in the 1990s.
After the establishment of its movement in Kandahar, the Taliban grew rapidly and quickly rose to power due to a favorable internal and regional political environment. But as the group ruled, the Afghan nation grew dissatisfied due to their ultra-conservative interpretation of the Islamic religion.
The Taliban believe in the imposition of harsh justice, and their jurisprudence is derived from the Pashtuns’ pre-Islamic tribal code and interpretations of Sharia colored by the austere Wahhabi doctrines taught in Pakistani madrassas, which were funded by the Saudis. The regime neglected social services and other basic state functions but its Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice enforced prohibitions on behavior that the Taliban deemed un-Islamic. It required women to wear the head-to-toe burqa, or chadri, banned music and television, and jailed men whose beards it deemed too short.
Due to their infamous social restrictions, especially for women, not only did the Afghan nation grow increasingly dissatisfied but the Taliban also isolated internationally.
Fast forward to 2021: Now once again the Afghan nation is at a crossroads. With the US withdrawal, Afghanistan is engulfed by violence as many parts of the country are witnessing intense clashes mainly between the Taliban and Afghan forces for the control of territory. Although the Taliban took control of many districts while facing little resistance from Afghan security forces in the early days of their recent attacks, they will not be able to form an independent government this time. The Taliban are determined to achieve a quick military victory and they may continue to make great gains: According to careful estimates, the Taliban now control more than 180 districts of a total of 421. But forming an independent government in Kabul is still a distant and impossible goal for them.
Over the years, both the country and the Afghan people have changed significantly. First of all, Afghan people now don’t look upon the Taliban as their saviours. They all can still recall the social restrictions of their rule. While in the 1990s the Taliban were welcomed by Afghans, now the group has little support from the people. For instance, in a survey by the Asia Foundation in 2019 it was found that only 13.4 percent of Afghans had sympathy for the Taliban.
The Taliban’s restrictions for women—both twenty years ago and today in the areas they control–are a major reason for the fear of a Taliban government.
The dark memory of Afghan women’s treatment during the Taliban regime in the 1990s has led women today to mount a vocal opposition to any future Taliban rule. For instance, recently Afghan women have taken up guns in northern and central Afghanistan, marching in the streets by the hundreds in defiance of Taliban rule. One of the biggest demonstrations was in central Ghor province. “There were some women who just wanted to inspire security forces–just be symbolic–but many more were ready to go to the battlefield,” said Halima Parastish, the head of the women’s directorate in Ghor and one of the marchers. “That includes me,” she said. “I and some other women told the governor around a month ago that we’re ready to go and fight.” Similarly, women in other provinces are using various ways to express their support for the Afghan national forces. For instance, women in Takhar Province distributed food for the government forces fighting to retake districts from the Taliban, and women in Bamyan province also provided local food to the military effort.
But the people’s reaction to the Taliban is the opposite of the reaction toward the government forces. Most people in areas newly captured by the Taliban are reluctant to cooperate with the Taliban even if they are forced to do so. In a recent video posted on social media in Afghanistan, an old man is shown arguing with the Taliban commanders who force him to give them food. The old man boldly grabs one of the Taliban commanders by the shoulder and points to the commander’s gun, saying in Pashto, “Even if you shoot me a thousand times with the gun that is on your shoulder, even then you will not take food from my house.”
In fact, although the Republic has so far failed to solve the problems of the Afghan people and meet their essential needs, the Afghan people have nevertheless preferred to support it because they believe they can influence the central government by the power of their vote. Afghans have witnessed two elections and now believe that democracy is the only viable political future for Afghanistan. Though they are also disappointed with the corrupt and ineffective Afghan government, they still believe they can have a say in governmental affairs through the election process.
In addition, the emergence of many Afghan grassroots political movements such as the Enlightenment movement, Uprising for Change in 2017, and other movements have boosted the morale of the public to keep the democratic system as part of the structure of their country. The government response to these movements was bloody rather than constructive, but the willingness of the public to raise their voices sent the message that the people understand that democracy is the way forward and that the people are the real sovereign of state affairs.
The support of the people for a republic system, the lack of popular support for the establishment of an emirate, and the emergence of increasingly politically conscious Afghans are a challenge to Taliban leadership and that’s why the Taliban have repeatedly assured the Afghans that they have changed. But the Afghans are well aware that the Taliban can’t change. The Obe district incident in April this year reminded Afghans that the Taliban haven’t changed. In the viral social media video the Taliban can be seen brutally punishing a lady in a burqa for her alleged involvement in an unknown crime.
With the withdrawal of NATO and US forces from Afghanistan, and inspired by the memory of the Soviet withdrawal and the collapse of Dr. Najibullah’s government in the 1990s, the Taliban thought that the government of Afghanistan would disintegrate from within and that they could take control of most areas. In the first days of their recent attacks after the US and NATO withdrawal was announced, the Taliban caused alarm by seizing areas in northern Afghanistan. But halfway through they faced fierce resistance from Afghan defense and security forces and public uprising forces that brought several lost districts back under government control.
The ability of the Afghan security and defense forces to counter the Taliban with limited cooperation from their international partners has astonished the Taliban and their regional partners who have always said that the Afghan forces are incapable of defending against Taliban attacks alone in the absence of foreign forces. According to figures released by the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense, in the month of June and July alone, more than 6,000 Taliban members have been killed by Afghan security and defense forces and public uprisings forces (the Taliban has denied these figures).
This show of strength by the Afghan Security and Defense Forces will make the Afghanistan government powerful in political negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban’s agreement to resume talks for two days to reach a political solution could proof of this point. Previously, the Taliban considered themselves the main decision-makers at the negotiating table after reaching a peace deal with the United States, and they repeatedly refused to participate in the talks.
Also, unlike the 1990s, the US will have a keen interest in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. US President Joe Biden has already pledged that the United States will continue to help the Afghan government militarily, economically, and diplomatically. Hence, the government will have sufficient resources to fight the Taliban and their regional supporters, and Afghanistan–unlike the 1990s—will undoubtedly be a major challenge for the Taliban after the withdrawal of foreign troops due to the unfavorable domestic and international environment.
Afghanistan has suffered from incessant violence for the last four decades because of foreign interference. After the USSR withdrawal, fighting between mujahideen leaders, and then the Taliban regime, the eventful 9/11 incidents dislodged the Taliban from power. But the Afghans have had to suffer another two decades due to the “war on terror.”
Once again, Afghanistan is at a crossroads but this time Afghans have learned from the past and they will never return to the rule of the Taliban. However, they must fight to establish a government free of corruption, because the current system, which faces widespread allegations of corruption, is also unacceptable to the people of Afghanistan.
Afghans now must decide their future. Although the Taliban continues to gain territory, soon they will face a hostile Afghan populace. The Taliban, with the help of their regional supporters, may be able to escalate the violence and win some battles in order to gain a better advantage in negotiations with the Afghan government, but this time they will not be able to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Many knowledgeable Taliban leaders are also aware of this fact and many of them believe that they cannot form an independent government.
So the Taliban must participate in intra-Afghan peace dialogue and try to reach a power-sharing deal with other stakeholders. The only viable and long-lasting solution for bringing peace to post-withdrawal Afghanistan is a government that is representative of every Afghan faction.