Who is the Taliban and what do they want?

In the winter of 1995, a New York Times correspondent visiting Afghanistan reported that after years of brutal civil strife, great change seemed to be on the way.

A “new force of declared Islamic purists and Afghan patriots” had quickly taken military control of more than 40 percent of the country.

This was surprising, because until they took up arms just a year before, many of the fighters had been little more than religious students.

Their name itself meant “student”. Taliban, they called themselves.

A quarter of a century later, after surviving an international military coalition in a war that cost tens of thousands of lives, the former students are now rulers of the country. Again.

Here is a look at the origins of the Taliban; how they managed to take over Afghanistan not once, but twice; what they did when they first took control – and what it could reveal about their plans for this time.

The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. The group was rooted in rural Kandahar province, in the country’s ethnic-Pashtun heartland in the south.

The Soviet Union was invaded in 1979 to support the communist government in Afghanistan and eventually met the fate of past and present great powers that have tried to impose their will on the country: it was driven out.

The Soviets were defeated by Islamic warriors known as the mujahedin, a patchwork of rebel factions backed by a US government that was only too happy to wage a proxy war against its Cold War rival.

But the joy of that victory was short-lived as the various factions fell out and began to fight for control. The country fell into war domination and a brutal civil war.

Against this background, the Taliban, with their promise to put Islamic values ​​first and fight the corruption that drove the warlords’ struggles, quickly attracted supporters. During months of intense fighting, they took over most of the country.

In 1996, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, forcing a harsh interpretation of the Qur’an and enforcing it with brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations, and mass executions. And they strictly curtailed the role of women and kept them out of schools.

They also made it clear that rival religious practices would not be tolerated: In early 2001, the Taliban destroyed towering statues known as the great Buddhas of Bamiyan, objects of awe across the globe. The Taliban considered them blasphemous and boasted that their destruction was sacred. “It’s easier to destroy than to build,” the militants’ information and culture minister noted.

There was a framework for a modern government, including ministries and a bureaucracy. But at street level, it was religious injunctions and the whims of individual commanders that dictated the daily lives of Afghans.

However, they did not control the whole country. The North, where many of the mujahedin commanders had taken occupation, remained a bastion of resistance.

The Taliban was founded on an ideology that dictated that women should play only the most demarcated roles in society.

The last time they ruled, they prevented women and girls from taking most jobs or even going to school. And women caught outside the home with an open face risked harsh punishment. Unmarried women and men seen together also faced punishment.

After the Taliban government was overthrown by a US-led coalition, women made much progress in Afghanistan. But two decades later, when the United States negotiated a troop withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, many Afghan women feared that all that land would be lost.

And as the militants take power, there have been ample signs that this fear is well-founded.

In just one example, Taliban fighters walked into a bank in Kandahar during fighting in July and ordered nine women working there to leave, saying male relatives should take their seats, Reuters reported. And in the northern city of Kunduz this month, the city’s new Taliban rulers ordered women who had worked for the government to leave their jobs and never return.

“It’s really strange not to be allowed to come to work, but now that’s what it is,” said one of the bank employees in Kandahar.

When they were in power, the Taliban made Afghanistan a safe haven for Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born former mujahedin fighter, while building a terrorist group with global designs: Al Qaeda.

On September 11, 2001, the group struck a blow that rattled the world, toppled the World Trade Center towers in New York, and damaged the Pentagon in Washington. Thousands were killed.

President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban extradite Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. When the Taliban refused, the United States invaded. Unleashed a powerful air strike campaign and joining former mujahedin groups within the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance coalition, the United States and its allies soon overthrew the Taliban government. Most of the surviving Qaeda and Taliban officials fled to Pakistan.

Twenty years later, some of the same Taliban officials were among the delegation that reached an agreement that the United States should leave Afghanistan, and they will count among the country’s new rulers.

With the shelter and assistance of the Pakistani military – the same force receiving large financial aid from the United States to help hunt down Al Qaeda – the Taliban reformed like a guerrilla insurgency.

The United States began pouring resources into a new war in Iraq, and U.S. officials told the world that Afghanistan was well on its way to becoming a Western-style democracy with modern institutions. But many Afghans came to feel that these foreign institutions were just another way for corrupt leaders to steal money.

In the countryside, the Taliban began to gain ground and support, especially in rural areas. Their numbers grew – some warriors were intimidated into joining, others happy to volunteer, almost all better paid than local policemen. And the group found a rich recruiting vein among the Afghan diaspora in Pakistan, from families who had fled previous violence as refugees and were brought up in religious schools.

“Six years after being ousted from power, the Taliban are demonstrating resilience and ferocity that are alarming,” The Times reported in 2008, noting that “a relatively clammy uprising has managed to keep the world’s most powerful armies at bay. “

The Taliban weathered the storm when President Barack Obama greatly expanded the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, up to about 100,000 troops in 2010. And when the Americans began pulling down a few years later, the rebels began to gain ground again. It was a persistence campaign in which the Taliban bet that the United States would lose patience and leave.

They were right. More than 2,400 U.S. lives later, $ 2 trillion later, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and security forces died later, President Donald J. Trump entered into an agreement with the Taliban, declaring that U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan by mid-2021. President Biden supported the approach and led an uncompromising troop withdrawal, even as the Taliban began swallowing entire districts and then cities.

This week, just nine days after the Taliban captured their first provincial capital, rebels entered the capital, Kabul. The Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan has resumed.

Taliban leaders have so far appeared to avoid incendiary rhetoric and have urged commanders to govern justly and avoid reprisals and abuses. They have issued assurances that people will be safe.

The early days of Taliban control have actually seemed reluctant in some places. But enough reports of brutality and intimidation have surfaced to send waves of refugees to Kabul ahead of the group’s advance. And now the capital’s airport has become a scene of desperation and chaos as thousands of Afghans try to flee the country at all costs.

In Kunduz, the first major provincial capital to fall to the Taliban, its inhabitants were not convinced by promises of peace from their new rulers.

“I’m scared because I do not know what will happen and what they will do,” said one resident. “We have to smile at them because we’re scared, but deep down we’re unhappy.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Christina Goldbaum and Najim Rahim contributed with reporting.

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