Ask an expert: Kiran Banerjee on the rise of the Taliban and its brisk power grab in Afghanistan

- August 25, 2021

Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's fourth-largest city, fell to the Taliban in mid-August shortly before the group entered the capital of Kabul and wrested power from the government. (Marko Beljan photo/Unsplash)
Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's fourth-largest city, fell to the Taliban in mid-August shortly before the group entered the capital of Kabul and wrested power from the government. (Marko Beljan photo/Unsplash)

This week on Ask an Expert, we delve even deeper beyond the headlines with a two-part series on the Taliban's rapid re-emergence in Afghanistan.

Twenty years after the Taliban was forced from power in a U.S.-led assault, the group proved its own military prowess with a takeover that was much faster than experts predicted.

In this first part, we asked Kiran Banerjee, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and a Canada Research Chair, to discuss the history of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the regional implications of its return to government.

What is the brief history of the Taliban in Afghanistan?

During the 1980s the USSR-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DAR) and the Soviet army waged a protracted and devastating war against a range of insurgency groups. The most prominent were the ‘mujahideen’ – a loose alliance of guerrilla fighters whose common opposition to the Soviet occupation received considerable foreign aid, including extensive American financial assistance and military equipment. The USSR gradually came to view its military occupation as unsustainable, formally withdrawing from Afghanistan in February 1989.

With the loss of any external support following the breakup of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, the DAR regime proved unable to maintain itself, steadily losing control of the country to opposition armies of the Seven Party Alliance. The fall of Kabul in April of 1992 to mujahideen forces, however, did not bring an end to conflict. No longer united by a shared opponent, the different mujahideen factions were unable to maintain power sharing arrangements, leading to civil war among various armed parties.

The Taliban, a religious-political movement founded by students from conservative religious schools in Kandahar, were not initially involved in the conflict. However, they would eventually emerge as the most powerful of the country’s warring groups, especially benefiting from Pakistani material support. Originating in Afghanistan’s Pashtun-dominated southern area that borders on Pakistan, the Taliban’s ideological roots can be traced to the Deobandi movement and the Madrassas of the region that adhered to this fundamentalist strand of Sunni Islam. The students of these schools formed the ranks of the Taliban and informed the group’s strict, austere religious and political outlook.

By 1996, the Taliban had gained effective control over much of the county and, after taking the capital, established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They introduced a severe regime that enforced a rigid and uncompromising interpretation of Sharia law, which proved particularly oppressive toward women. The ascent and consolidation of the Taliban in Afghanistan appeared to be taken as largely peripheral to broader western interests. This radically changed following the events of 9/11, with the Taliban being linked to the attacks on the U.S. Following the unprecedented invocation of NATO’s mutual defense article, an American-led multinational coalition invaded and occupied Afghanistan, quickly driving the Taliban from power.

The U.S.-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was formed in 2004 and gained international recognition as the legitimate government of the country. However, the new Afghan regime and the NATO alliance would find themselves confronting the reconstituted forces of the Taliban in an extended civil war that lasted nearly two decades. This conflict would culminate in the Taliban’s effective return to power across much of Afghanistan following the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. After a months-long military offensive against the forces of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Taliban captured Kabul on August 15th and established de-facto control over the country.

How was it that the Taliban appeared to be able to reclaim power with such haste and ease?

This will likely be a matter for future historians to address in greater detail. What we do know is that high-ranking officials in multiple U.S. administrations harboured pessimistic assessments about the prospects of a peaceful resolution that sharply conflicted with public messaging. The release of the so-called ‘Afghanistan Papers’ in 2019 revealed the degree to which both American and world audiences were thoroughly misled about the situation – which may indeed help explain the disjuncture between what one might have anticipated and what we’ve observed. Indeed, a recent US Congressional Research Service report from June noted that "many once-public U.S. government metrics related to the conflict have been classified or are no longer produced," while going on to suggest that the Taliban were likely in a stronger position than at any point prior to 2001.

In this context it is worth acknowledging how the American withdrawal plan provided significant strategic advantages to the Taliban that may have proved decisive. The previous U.S. administration’s 2020 agreement with the Taliban was negotiated without the participation of representatives from the U.S.-backed Afghan government. This agreement offered few incentives for the Taliban to seriously engage in negotiations with the Afghan government and appeared to make it clear that Afghan forces would be left to stand on their own following the U.S. departure. In essence, the Taliban were provided with a nearly 10-month timeline to plan and prepare for their assault, with the knowledge that their military advances would likely not provoke any significant American response.

What are the regional implications for their return to government? Is there a risk that Afghanistan will become a safe haven for other terrorist groups?

The broader regional implications of the new Taliban regime are hard to predict. Much will depend on whether the country faces protracted instability, as well as the orientation the Taliban takes toward its neighbors.

Continued conflict would likely cause a mass influx of refugees across the region. Afghans constituted the world's third largest refugee population at the end of 2020, with Iran and Pakistan hosting over 85 per cent of these refugees. As of June, Pakistan had indicated that it would close its borders in the event of the Taliban taking control of the country, and Turkey has already begun blocked Afghans from entering via Iran. The humanitarian crisis facing refugees will likely prove profound.

Whether Afghanistan is likely to become a major site for terror groups in the future is also difficult to assess. It is unclear to what degree the new Taliban regime will be sincere in honoring the core assurances of the 2020 agreement with the U.S. Equally important will be the role of neighboring states, especially Pakistan, which has served as a key supporter of the Taliban from its inception and offered somewhat mixed messages on their return to power. Iran will likely wish to see a stable regime, given its economic and trade interests, and has already agreed to continue much needed fuel exports to the new government.  Russia has also been clear in indicating that it is highly attuned to the impact the new Afghan regime may have on its regional concerns, while the Taliban for its part has appeared quite willing to engage with Moscow. In addition, China has already shown a keen interest in the future governance of Afghanistan, having hosted representatives from the Taliban earlier this year. The focus of the diplomatic talks on security and economic matters underscored the two major concerns of Beijing – and it is quite likely that they will prove to be a major player in the country’s future.

Read part two: Kiran Banerjee on what the Taliban’s takeover means for Afghanistan and the global community


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