The Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in 2021, twenty years after their ouster by U.S. troops. Under their harsh rule, they have cracked down on women’s rights and neglected basic services.
The Taliban are a predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group that returned to power in Afghanistan in 2021 after waging a twenty-year insurgency.
Following the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the original regime in 2001, the Taliban regrouped across the border in Pakistan and began taking back territory less than ten years after their ouster. By August 2021, the Taliban had swept back into power. Their swift offensive came as the United States withdrew its remaining troops from Afghanistan as outlined in a 2020 peace agreement with the group.
The Taliban have imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law despite pledges to respect the rights of women and religious and ethnic minority communities. Meanwhile, as they have transitioned from an insurgent group to a functional government, the Taliban have struggled to provide Afghans with adequate food supplies and economic opportunities.
What has the Taliban’s return to power meant for the rights of women and other Afghans?
The Taliban threaten Afghans’ civil and political rights enshrined in the constitution created by the U.S.-backed government. Since regaining control, the Taliban have taken actions reminiscent of their brutal rule in the late 1990s.
The UN mission in Afghanistan has documented numerous human rights violations. The Taliban have intimidated journalists and restricted press freedoms, leading to the closures of more than two hundred news organizations. Their government has violently cracked down on demonstrations, and protesters and activists have been monitored and forcibly disappeared. They also reestablished their Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which under their previous rule enforced prohibitions on behavior deemed un-Islamic. In November 2022, they ordered judges to enforce their interpretation of sharia; in the weeks after, authorities resumed public floggings and executions.
Women have seen their rights obliterated. The Taliban have prohibited most girls from attending secondary school, banned all women from attending and teaching at universities, and prevented women from working. In December 2022, the group prohibited women from working at local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The UN Development Program (UNDP) has estimated that restricting women’s employment could cost up to 5 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP). Amnesty International has reported a drastic increase in the number of women arrested for violating discriminatory policies, such as rules requiring women to only appear in public with a male chaperone and to completely cover their bodies. The rates of child marriage have also increased.
The Taliban’s takeover has also wiped out gains in Afghans’ standards of living that were made over the two decades after the U.S. invasion, according to the UNDP. In an October 2022 report, the agency said that almost all Afghans were living in poverty. The economy has shrunk by up to 30 percent since the takeover, and an estimated seven hundred thousand jobs have been lost. More than 90 percent [PDF] of the population has been suffering from some form of food insecurity. Exacerbating the crisis is a pause in aid by some countries and international organizations, which had been the lifeline of the economy and public health sector.
At the same time, the takeover brought an end to fighting that pitted Taliban fighters against U.S. and Afghan government forces. The country’s overall security situation has improved and civilian casualties have declined. However, violence remains widespread, particularly as the Islamic State in Khorasan terrorist group has increased attacks on civilians throughout the country.
Could Afghanistan again become a safe haven for terrorists?
International observers remain concerned that the Taliban support terrorist organizations, particularly al-Qaeda, posing a threat to regional and international security. The United States invaded Afghanistan after it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Under the Taliban’s rule, Afghanistan could become a safe haven for terrorists capable of launching attacks against the United States and its allies, experts say, despite Taliban statements that “Afghanistan’s soil will not be used against the security of any other country.”
In its April 2022 report, the UN team that monitors the Taliban said the group “remains close” with al-Qaeda and that “al-Qaeda has a safe haven under the Taliban and increased freedom of action.” Indeed, in August, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Reports suggested that Zawahiri was living in the home of a Taliban aide, and other al-Qaeda leaders are believed to be based in the country. The UN report said that al-Qaeda is likely using Afghanistan as a “friendly environment” to recruit, train, and fundraise, although it is unlikely to launch an international attack before 2023 at the earliest. Following Zawahiri’s killing, a leaked U.S. assessment said that al-Qaeda has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan, though some experts disagreed.
In addition, violence has increased along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, which has historically supported the Taliban. (Pakistan is thought to have provided financial and logistical support to the Taliban during the U.S. war, though Islamabad denies this.) The Taliban’s return to power has emboldened Tehrik-e-Taliban, a militant group sometimes referred to as the Pakistani Taliban. In late 2022, the group ended a cease-fire with the Pakistani government and launched attacks across the country. Pakistani officials have accused the Afghan Taliban of providing the militants with a safe haven in Afghanistan.
How has the world responded to the Taliban?
During the U.S. war in Afghanistan, governments and international bodies joined U.S.-led efforts to oust the Taliban and bolster Afghanistan’s government, democratic institutions, and civil society. They have taken various actions since 2001:
Military force. U.S. troops quickly overthrew the Taliban after they invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. The Taliban then waged an insurgency against the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The group withstood counterinsurgency operations from the world’s most powerful security alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and three U.S. administrations over the course of a war that killed more than 6,000 U.S. troops and contractors and over 1,100 NATO troops. Some 47,000 civilians died, and an estimated 73,000 Afghan troops and police officers were killed between 2007 and 2021. Tens of thousands of Taliban fighters are also believed to have died. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan peaked at around 100,000 in 2011. NATO assumed leadership of foreign forces in 2003, marking its first operational commitment outside of Europe. At its height, NATO had more than 130,000 troops from fifty nations stationed in Afghanistan. In the 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, the United States committed to withdrawing all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan if the Taliban carried out commitments that included cutting ties with terrorist groups. The United States completed its troop withdrawal in August 2021.
Sanctions. The UN Security Council first imposed sanctions on the regime for harboring al-Qaeda in 1999 and expanded the sanctions after 9/11. They target Taliban leaders’ financial assets and ban them from most travel. The Security Council also imposed an arms embargo on the Taliban. The United States and the European Union maintain additional sanctions, which have hindered aid deliveries since the Taliban’s takeover. Meanwhile, the United States has blocked the Taliban from accessing billions of dollars in assets.
Aid. For years, the Afghan government depended on assistance from dozens of countries; 75 percent of the government’s public expenditures were covered by grants from international partners, according to a 2019 World Bank report. Many of these countries suspended aid after the Taliban took over, sparking concerns of further economic turmoil. But in 2022, aid picked up, with donors providing over $2.6 billion. Since the takeover, the United States has provided more than $1.1 billion in aid. Still, UN officials said the commitments fell short of the country’s humanitarian needs.
Diplomatic ties. Many Western countries, including the United States, shut down their diplomatic offices in Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. They have refused to recognize and establish diplomatic ties with the Taliban government, which calls the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. (A handful of states, including China and Russia, have accredited Taliban-selected diplomats.) In addition, the UN General Assembly has indefinitely postponed a vote on who can represent Afghanistan at the United Nations.
Investigation. The Taliban are now under investigation by the International Criminal Court for alleged abuses of Afghan civilians, including crimes against humanity, carried out since 2003. U.S. and Afghan forces are also being investigated for alleged war crimes.
Who leads the Taliban?
The Taliban have been led for decades by a leadership council, called the Rahbari Shura. It is better known as the Quetta Shura, named for the city in Pakistan where Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s first leader, and his top aides are believed to have taken refuge after the U.S. invasion. (Omar died in 2013 and was succeeded by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a 2016 U.S. air strike in Pakistan.) Today, the Rahbari Shura is thought by analysts to oversee the Taliban government’s work, though its precise role is unclear. It is led by Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, who has not been seen publicly in years. (Taliban officials said in 2022 that Akhundzada had visited Kabul, but no photos or videos of such an appearance were made public. An audio recording of a speech he reportedly gave was released.)
The government is led by a thirty-three-member caretaker cabinet. All ministers are men and are former Taliban officials or individuals loyal to the group. A majority are ethnic Pashtuns, and some are considered terrorists by the United States and are sanctioned by the United Nations. Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who was close with Omar, is acting prime minister. Taliban cofounder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who led peace negotiations with the United States, is Akhund’s deputy. Sirajuddin Haqqani—who is acting head of the Haqqani Network, a militant group in Afghanistan’s southeast and Pakistan’s northwest with close ties to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan’s intelligence services—is the acting interior minister. Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, Omar’s son, is acting defense minister. Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi is the acting foreign minister, and Zabihullah Mujahid is the government’s spokesperson.
How were the Taliban formed?
The group was formed in the early 1990s by Afghan mujahideen, or Islamic guerrilla 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). They were joined by younger Pashtun tribesmen who studied in Pakistani madrassas, or seminaries; taliban is Pashto for “students.” Pashtuns comprise a plurality in Afghanistan and are the predominant ethnic group in much of the country’s south and east. They are also a major ethnic group in Pakistan’s north and west.
The movement attracted popular support in the initial post-Soviet era by promising to impose stability and rule of law after four years of conflict (1992–96) among rival mujahideen groups. The Taliban entered Kandahar in November 1994 to pacify the crime-ridden southern city, and by September 1996 seized the capital, Kabul, from President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik whom they viewed as anti-Pashtun and corrupt. That year, the Taliban declared Afghanistan an Islamic emirate, with Mullah Mohammed Omar, a cleric and veteran of the anti-Soviet resistance, leading as amir al-mu’minin, or “commander of the faithful.” The regime controlled some 90 percent of the country before its 2001 overthrow.
The Taliban imposed a harsh brand of justice as they consolidated territorial control. Taliban jurisprudence was drawn from the Pashtuns’ pre-Islamic tribal code and interpretations of sharia colored by the austere Wahhabi doctrines of the madrassas’ Saudi benefactors. The regime neglected social services and other basic state functions even as the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice required women to wear the head-to-toe burqa, or chadri; banned music and television; and jailed men whose beards it deemed too short.
What is the state of the Taliban’s finances?
Foreign trade with Afghanistan has fallen since the takeover. Despite a decline in imports, however, most of the country’s revenue in 2022 [PDF] came from taxes at border crossings. Additionally, it has increased coal exports to Pakistan. The Taliban government’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022 was $2.6 billion. (The previous government had a budget of around $6 billion in 2021.)
Prior to the takeover, the Taliban primarily earned revenue through criminal activities, including opium poppy cultivation, drug trafficking, extortion of local businesses, and kidnapping, according to the UN monitoring group. In 2021, Afghanistan accounted for 86 percent [PDF] of the world’s illicit opium production. However, in April 2022, the Taliban banned poppy cultivation.
Do Afghans support the Taliban?
For years after their fall from power in 2001, the Taliban enjoyed support. The Asia Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, found in 2009 that half of Afghans—mostly Pashtuns and rural Afghans—had sympathy for armed opposition groups, primarily the Taliban. Afghan support for the Taliban and allied groups stemmed in part from grievances against public institutions.
But in 2019, a response to the same survey found that only 13.4 percent of Afghans had sympathy for the Taliban. As intra-Afghan peace talks stalled in early 2021, an overwhelming majority surveyed said it was important to protect [PDF] women’s rights, freedom of speech, and the constitution.
Do any groups threaten the Taliban’s power?
The Islamic State in Khorasan, with up to four thousand members in Afghanistan, has emerged as the Taliban’s main military threat. The terrorist group has continued to launch attacks, particularly against minority communities such as the Hazaras, even as the Taliban work to eradicate it. Analysts say that the group’s attacks on the embassies of China, Pakistan, and Russia in Kabul in late 2022 could hinder the countries’ investment in Afghanistan. Amid the U.S. troop withdrawal, the Islamic State in Khorasan claimed responsibility for an attack near the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 Afghan civilians. According to the UN monitoring team, that attack elevated the group’s status and led the self-declared Islamic State to provide an additional half a million dollars in funding for the group.
In addition, a resistance movement of former officials, local militia members, and Afghan security forces who call themselves the National Resistance Front formed to oppose the Taliban’s rule, though analysts say the group is currently not strong enough to threaten the Taliban’s control. It is based in the mountainous, northern Panjshir Province and has launched guerrilla-style attacks in several other provinces. The group has called for external support, but U.S. officials have said that Washington does “not support organized violent opposition” to the Taliban.
(c) 2023, Council on Foreign Relations