After two decades of warcosting trillions of dollars and thousands of deaths, the United States (US)and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, at a time when the Taliban is ascendant across the country. Ever since President Biden announced that all the US troops will be pulled out of Afghanistan by the twentieth anniversary of 9/11(later the deadline was moved up to August 31), the Taliban has made significant advancements by capturing territories, overrunning Afghan military outposts and surrounding major cities- inciting fears of an imminent Taliban victory in Afghanistan.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump had begun direct talks with the Taliban which eventually led to the signing of a peace agreement in Doha in 2018 that committed the US to withdraw and the Taliban to stop attacks on American forces. Other significant components of the deal included not allowing al-Qaeda or other militants to operate in areas it controlled, the release of prisoners and the agreement to participate in the intra-Afghan negotiations. Having failed to defeat them militarily, many in the West perhaps thought that reconciling with them would be the next best option and thus emerged the discourse about the “changed” Taliban. Some analysts are calling this phase of the movement - the Taliban 2.0. But the question is - Is there a Taliban 2.0? By briefly looking at the various contours of the Taliban movement in the 1990s and the present, this Special Paper attempts to identify some of the continuities and changes in the Taliban movement. It looks at the territorial gains achieved by them in Afghanistan over the past couple of months and analyses some of the strategies adopted by the group on the battlefield. Finally, it glances at the changing narratives pertaining to the Taliban and concludes by looking at the evolving situation is Afghanistan.
Resurgent Taliban? Continuities and Changes
The run up to the US withdrawal witnessed a dramatic spike in Taliban offensive, violence and civilian casualty in Afghanistan. The developments that followed after President Biden’s announcement about the departure of American troops from Afghanistan, signals an emboldened Taliban that is quickly filling the perceived power vacuum due to the pulling out of the US and coalition forces.In July, the group claimed to have seized control of about 85% of the territory in Afghanistan[i]. There were reports suggesting that the Taliban have gained control over 250 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts and are fighting to control many more- a claim dismissed by the Afghan government .[ii] It is important to note that the ground realities in Afghanistan are changing very quickly and there is no concrete mechanism to verify the claims of the conflicting sides. The situation remains largely fluid as many areas have been changing hands back and forth between the Taliban and the Afghan government. However, there can hardly be any doubt that the territories under the control of the Taliban have increased significantly (as indicated in Maps 1 and 2below) in the recent past, igniting speculations and fears concerning the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and its implications.
Map 1:Territorial control up to July 2021.Map 2: Taliban presence in 2017
Source: BBC Afghan Service, July 23, 2021
The Taliban over the years have demonstrated the ability to withstand counterinsurgency operations and could combat some of the most powerful military, in a war that killed over 6000 US troops and contractors and over 1,000 NATO troops[iii].The group’s rapid gain of territories in the recent weeks have further given push to the narrative that Afghanistan might fall to the Taliban in the near future, although the ground realities, as Map 1 indicate; seems quite different. The Taliban so far has not captured any provincial capital in Afghanistan and is struggling to take over control of population centers- where the fulcrum of the country’s post-US future lies. Recent reports indicate, the Afghan security forces and some of the local militias are pushing back the Taliban in provinces such as Balkh and Kapisa among others.[iv] Undoubtedly, the US’ increased airstrikes to support for the Afghan forces over the past few days have also been beneficial in countering the Taliban advancement.[v] What one can witness in Afghanistan is a see-saw game between the Taliban and the Afghan forces and it would be premature to reach any conclusion indicating the resurgence of the Taliban at this point.
There is a historical continuity as far as the military situation of Afghanistan is concerned. As a classic case of insurgency, the Taliban has controlled a lot of the countryside of Afghanistan, where they have created parallel administration (mainly to dispense Sharia justice and collect taxes) and legal structures. They have tried to administer regions where the Afghan government’s presence was limited. It is important to note that the citizen-state contract has been uneven across the geography of Afghanistan due to a variety of factors ranging from ethnic politics to tribal structures to conflicting interests within different power groups. They have made clever use of ethnic tensions, the rejection of foreign forces by the Afghan people, and the lack of local administration in gaining the support of the population.[vi]
Another aspect of continuity pertains to the general practice of looking at the Taliban predominantly as a Pashtun Movement despite the expansion of its support base in non-Pashtun communities. Historically, it emerged in the early 1990s as a Sunni Islamist nationalist and pro-Pashtun movement. It was deeply opposed to the Afghan tribal system and focused on the rebuilding of the Islamic Emirate[vii], which they succeeded in doing between 1996-2001 in Afghanistan. The movement’s founding nucleus – the word “Taliban” means “student” in Pashto – was composed of peasant farmers and men studying Islam in Afghan and Pakistani madrasas or religious schools.[viii] The Taliban found a foothold and consolidated in the South and Eastern part of Afghanistan where the predominant Pashtun ethnic group was in majority. Undeniably, even today the core leadership of the Taliban is made of Pashtuns, however, over the years the group has managed to make significant inroads into other non-Pashtun ethnic groups and recruited them with a view of expanding their areas of influence.
With respect to the Taliban leadership, Mullah Mohammed Omar - the one-eyed cleric commanded almost mythic status as the spiritual and political leader of the Taliban. He was referred to by his followers as Amir al-Mu’minin (Leader of the faithful), the prestigious title used by Islamic Caliphs throughout history. He led the group for sixteen years before the news of his death broke in 2015.[ix] BBC[x] recently reported that the Taliban’s current leadership is comprised of MawlawiHibatullah Akhundzada (Amir al-Mu’minin- the successor of Mullah Omar), Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (head of political office in Doha), Mullah Mohammad Yakub (Son of Mullah Omar, presently Military operational commander) and Sirajuddin Hakkani ( Head of Hakkani Network). Mullah Abdul Hakeem presently oversees the Taliban judicial structure and leads the negotiation team in Doha. The Taliban’s highest advisory and decision-making authority is known asRahbariShura -Leadership Council and it has 26 members. Some commentators asserted that the Taliban was facing a “legitimacy crisis”[xi] that the Taliban and other Jihadi factions could fracture, and that Mullah Omar’s death had “broken the back of the Taliban”.[xii] This has not been the case, the group remained resilient despite leadership change.
One of the noteworthy facets of the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan in the recent past is its remarkable gain of territories in the northern provinces of the country. Even at the pinnacle of the Emirate in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban could not make many inroads in provinces such as Takhhar, Kondoz, Baghlan and Badakshan up in the north. As reflective in the Maps below (3- I, II, III), since 1992 various Mujahideen[xiii] groups fought for the control of the country. Even when Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996- the north, west and central Afghanistan continued to remain a stronghold of ethnic minority groups.The northern provinces were under the control of the Jamiat-e-Islami founded by the Tajik leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, while the north-western provinces were under the control of the Uzbek Commander Marshal Dostum’s Junbish-e-Milli, and the central areas where the Hazara ethnicity was in majority was under the control of Hezb-e-Wahadat under Karim Khalili (Map 3-II). Even though between 1996 and 2001,the Taliban managed to expand its influence across western and central Afghanistan, it could not capture the northern part (Map 3-III).
Map 3:I (1992), II (1996), III (2001), IV (end 2001)
(Source: Wikipedia: Generic scheme of the War of Afghanistan (1992–2001) in four maps, showing the major armed militias fighting for control of the country throughout the years until the October 2001 US-led intervention in favour of the Northern Alliance.)
In July 2021, the Taliban delivered a huge blow to the government when they seized Afghanistan’s main border crossing with Tajikistan- Shir Khan Bandar and then captured the town and all the border check-posts with Tajikistan in northern Afghanistan.[xiv] Over 1000 Afghan soldiers fled into neighbouring Tajikistan to escape clashes with the Taliban who mounted aggressive attacks on the Afghan forces a few days back.[xv] It seems, Taliban’s strategy this time was to first establish control over territories where potential resistance would form against them. In terms of symbolism, the gaining of Taliban control in the northern provinces is extremely significant- these are home to Northern Alliance leaders, most prominent being the legendary Tajik Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud.[xvi] They not only stopped the Taliban advances in these regions in the 1990s when Massoud was alive, but the Northern Alliance leaders also played a key role in helping the Americans topple the Taliban.
Heavy fighting and contestations between the ANDSF and the Taliban have been reported across the country, especially in provinces such as Kandahar, Baghlam, Takhhar, Ghazni, Herat and Kunduz among others. Reportedly the government has been forced to abandon some district administrative centres, where it could not withstand pressure from the Taliban. Others have been taken by force. Where the government has been able to reorganise its forces or gather local militias, it has recaptured some areas that were lost - or fighting in those areas continues. Over the past months, the Taliban has tried to capture important border crossings such asWakkhan Corridor near China, Sher Khan Bandar dry port adjacent to Tajikistan, Islam Qala near Iran and Spin Boldak-Chaman with Pakistan as indicated in Map 4. Though reports also suggest that intense fight is going on presently to recapture these posts and the ANDSF has managed to re-capture Spin Boldak from the Taliban.[xvii] The Taliban strategy of capturing border posts is important to note. It aims to control the key lines of communication and logistic transfer for the Afghan forces and wants to have control over the revenues generated by cross-border trade, so that it can limit the inflow of finance to the government treasury – which is grappling with the shrinking financial support of the West. Strategies like these suggest that perhaps this time they are not aiming for a 1990s-style capture of power, rather they are aiming for a political collapse as opposed to a military takeover of Afghanistan, which would give them significant leverage in the intra-Afghan negotiations.
Map 4: Taliban Border Control
Source: BBC, July 23, 2021
According to some media reports, CIA has predicted that the Kabul government could collapse within six months after the US withdrawal.[xviii] Even though it seems the Taliban has a tactical momentum on the battlefield and an edge in psychological warfare and propaganda space, compared to its rival, Afghanistan’s military takeover by the Taliban is neither imminent nor inevitable. The way Afghan forces have withstood the onslaught for the first three months, it is evident that it would not be easy for Taliban. UN Report[xix]estimates that the Taliban has about 58,000 to 100,000 fighters, and its strength lies in insurgency and guerrilla warfare,it is struggling to retain control of the territory it is capturing in Afghanistan, which leads to the observation that the Taliban’s gains are the natural outcome of the massive security vacuum created by the US’ exit and ANDSF’s weakness, rather than the former’s strength. [xx]
Is there a Taliban2.0?
US Special Envoy for Peace Zalmay Khalilzad – in several of his interviews with local Afghan TV channels – has insisted that the Taliban have changed and have acknowledged their past mistakes with women’s education, their relations with the world, and in harbouring of terror groups. There is, however, little evidence to support these claims, argues a recent report by the Atlantic Council.[xxi] In fact reports from the districts they have taken over indicate they have imposed restrictions that replicate the approach of the Taliban adopted in the 1990s, when they were in power. Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, in an interview, argued that the advance of the Taliban means something different for Afghan women as they are trying to ban them from public life –“The evidence of what’s happening on the ground, there is no change in the Taliban. The same policies are being implemented again.”[xxii] She recently tweeted that “To eliminate women’s public presence by terror. To repress. To attack human dignity & spirit. To attack diversity & difference. To attack art & culture. To rule by fear. This is what I remember from Taliban “governance”. This is what we hear/see now. How can they claim change?”[xxiii]Perhaps, it is important to note that the Taliban did not claim they have changed, it was those who wanted to engage with them assumed so and put forwarded various narratives to suggest the Taliban has changed.
This attempt to convince the world about the “changed” Taliban began nearly 10 years ago. By early 2010, the sense of fatigue with the Afghan war had begun to set in and that convinced the international stakeholders to transform “a broad international conflict into an internal political struggle largely handled by Afghans.”[xxiv]A shift in the discourse seemed necessary given the declining enthusiasm and domestic support for America’s “war on terror.” In a strategic turnaround, the US, which was once entirely opposed to the idea of reconciling with the Taliban, decided to bring the ‘good’ Taliban to the table for talks, launching its (unsuccessful) quest to “buy out mid-level Taliban figures willing to renounce violence and abandon their fight.”[xxv] Subsequently, US$140 million[xxvi]was pledged at the 2010 London Conference specifically for buying peace in Afghanistan by distinguishing the so called “Good Taliban” from the “Bad Taliban”, and utilizing the pledged fund to lure the former with offers of cash, jobs and security.[xxvii] This step was preceded by the act of the removal of the “less active”[xxviii] members from the UN Sanctions list one year before, which in a way indicated beginning of a new discourse whereby the Taliban was not seen as a singular entity and reaching out to some of the “moderate” elements within the Taliban for reconciliation was seen as acceptable.
Documentaries such as “Life under the Taliban rule”[xxix] which provided glimpses of life under the Taliban in Helmand Province and “Afghanistan-A journey through Taliban country”[xxx] show that the Taliban still rule through fear; heavily tax local populations; close down schools in areas that they control; have no representation of women, and provide few public services. Moreover, the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha also indicate clearly that the Taliban have not changed in critical ways, as their team did not include women or minorities and implicitly objected to “FiqJaffari” (the Shia interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence)[xxxi]. So far, the Taliban has not shared their vision for the future of Afghanistan and continue to resort to vague and generalised statements on issues of gender, education, health, reconstruction and beyond. Evidence on the ground in the Taliban captured areas of Afghanistan does not encourage one to expect the Taliban 2.0 (if there exists one) to be fundamentally different from its original incarnation. One stark difference from its first innings is perhaps with respect to the acknowledgment by the international community, who have been willing to engage with the Taliban and host them for talks at various venues. The signing of the ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’ between the US and the Taliban on 29th February 2020, in absence of the Afghan government, granted the insurgent group certain validity that they did not have earlier. Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban had poor relations with the world, with only three states – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates (UAE) – officially recognizing them as the lawful government of Afghanistan.
To conclude, it can be said that the situation in Afghanistan is evolving and next two three months following the complete withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan by August 31 will be extremely crucial to understand the trajectory Afghanistan eventually takes. As far as the Taliban is concerned, the international acknowledgment it currently avails is significantly higher than its earlier stint in power. Secondly, one might also observe certain change in terms of approach or strategy on the battlefield, this time as they push for a sweeping offensive across the country. However, in terms of their governance approach, position on social issues and treatment of women, no significant difference in their approach could be observed in the areas they control. While it is difficult to predict what will eventually unfold in Afghanistan, it is obvious that the Taliban does not see much need to change itself and has little interest in acknowledging the realities of a new Afghanistan. It is safe to predict the evolving situation in Afghanistan will continue to remain a concern for the world at large and more so for its neighbours, including India.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]“Taliban claim to control 85% of Afghanistan”. The Hindu,July 10, 2021. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/taliban-claim-to-control-85-of-afghanistan/article35240241.ece (Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[ii] “Taliban say they control 85% of Afghanistan, humanitarian concerns mount”. Reuters, July 10, 2021. Available at:https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/militia-commanders-rush-aid-afghan-forces-against-taliban-2021-07-09/ (Accessed on 28.7.2021)
[iii] “Human Cost of post 9/11 war”. Watson Institute Report, Brown University, 2019. Available at: https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2019/Direct%20War%20Deaths%20COW%20Estimate%20November%2013%202019%20FINAL.pdf(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[iv] “Afghan security forces push back Taliban attack in Kapisa district”. ANI News, July 27, 2021.
Available at: https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/afghan-security-forces-push-back-taliban-attack-in-kapisa-district-official20210727162945/(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[v] “US vows continued air support for Afghan forces fighting Taliban,” Al Jazeera, July 25, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/25/us-vows-continued-air-support-afghan-forces-fighting-taliban(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[vi] Gilles Dorronsoro, “The Taliban’s Winning Strategy in Afghanistan”.Carnegie Endowment for InternationalPeace, 2009. Available at: https://carnegieendowment.org/files/taliban_winning_strategy.pdf.(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[viii] Felix Kuehn, “Taliban history of war and peace in Afghanistan”. Incremental Peace in Afghanistan. Available at: https://rc-services-assets.s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/9_Kuehn_Incremental-Peace-in-Afghanistan-36-41.pdf Accessed on?
[ix]“ After Mullah Omar, Taliban Leadership face a Legitimacy Crisis.”AL Jazeera, Aug 5, 2021. Available at:http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/7/30/after-mullah-omar-taliban-leaders-face-a-legitimacy-crisis.html(Accessed on 5.8.21)
[x] “Who are the Taliban?”BBC,July1, 2021. Available at:https://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11451718 (Accessed on 5.8.21)
[xii] Muhammad Taqi, “Mullah Omar’s Death Breaks the Back of the Taliban”. The Huffington Post, July 3,1 2016, 2015. Available at:https://www.huffpost.com/entry/mullah-omar-death-break-taliban_b_7912678
[xiii] Islamic guerilla fighters, who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–89) with the covert backing of the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI).
[xiv]“Taliban captures Afghanistan’s main Tajikistan border crossing”. Al Jazeera, 22 June 2021. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/22/taliban-capture-afghanistans-main-tajikistan-border-crossing.(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[xv]“More than 1,000 Afghan soldiers flee into Tajikistan as Taliban extends control, Tajik officials say”. The Washington Post, July 6, 2021. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/07/05/afghan-soldiers-flee-tajikistan-taliban/(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[xvi] Anwesha Ghosh, “The Taliban on the offensive in Afghanistan ahead of the US withdrawal”. Vivekananda International Foundation, July 15, Year?Available at:https://www.vifindia.org/article/2021/july/15/the-taliban-on-the-offensive-in-afghanistan-ahead-of-the-us-withdrawal(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[xvii] “Afghan gov’t claims it retook border crossing, Taliban denies”Al Jazeera, July 15, 2021. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/7/15/afghan-govt-says-pakistan-border-crossing-retaken-from-taliban(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[xviii]“Afghan Government Could Collapse Six Months After U.S. Withdrawal, New Intelligence Assessment Says”. TheWallStreetJournal, June 23, 2021. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghan-government-could-collapse-six-months-after-u-s-withdrawal-new-intelligence-assessment-says-11624466743(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[xix] “Letter dated 20 May 2021 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1988 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council, United Nations Security Council Report, Available at: https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N21/107/61/PDF/N2110761.pdf?OpenElement (Accessed on 30.7.2021)
[xx] Abdul Basit, “Its too early to herald a Taliban victory in Afghanistan”.TRT World, July 19,2021.Available at: https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/it-s-still-too-early-to-herald-a-taliban-victory-in-afghanistan-48497 (Accessed on 30.7.2021)
[xxi] Tamim Asey, “Taliban 2.0- Have the Taliban really changed and learnt their lesson?”, Atlantic Council, June 5, 2021. Available at:https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/southasiasource/taliban-2-0-have-the-taliban-really-changed-and-learnt-their-lesson/(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[xxii]Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in an interview with the Print, July 29, 2021. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcMpEyq0laE (Accessed on 29.7.2021)
[xxiii]Shaharzad Akbar, Chairperson, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission Twitter handle (@ShaharzadAkbar), July 27, 2021. Available at: https://twitter.com/ShaharzadAkbar/status/1420061386164551683?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Etweet. (Accessed on 29.7.2021)
[xxv]Chayanika Saxena, “The Good, the Bad and the Nationalist Taliban: Are we seeing a Change in India’s Stance?”,ISAS Insights, National University of Singapore, July 19, 2021. Available at:https://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/papers/the-good-the-bad-and-the-nationalist-taliban-are-we-seeing-a-change-in-indias-stance/?fbclid=IwAR2D-5oi0cxT9QgBSNlSP4wikvewDe1DmILO21stsr0bVATn1u5_TBL7ecg(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)
[xxvi]Prakash Nanda, “‘Good’ Taliban: Where do you find them?”, India News and Features Alliance, 6 February 2021, Available at: http://www.infa.in/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1447&Itemid=40.
[xxvii] “Afghanistan: The London Conference”. Communique Afghan Leadership, Regional Cooperation, International Partnership. January 28,2010. Available at:https://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2009_2014/documents/d-af/dv/af-london_conf_jan10/af-london_conf_jan10en.pdf (Accessed on 5.8.2021)
[xxxi] Tamim Asey, “Taliban 2.0- Have the Taliban really changed and learnt their lesson?”, Atlantic Council, June 5, 2021. Available at:https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/southasiasource/taliban-2-0-have-the-taliban-really-changed-and-learnt-their-lesson/(Accessed on 28.7. 2021)