Taliban’s rapid advance in the spring of 2021 culminated in the capture of Kabul on August 15th. The chaotic withdrawal of Western countries that had accommodated the return of Taliban marked the culmination of 20 years of unsuccessful attempts led by the United States to impose a liberal democratic system on Afghanistan.
With the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Sunni Islamist Pashtun Taliban had gained control of the country from 1996 to 2001. The departure of the US from the country in 2021 also paved the way for the group’s resurgence.
When the radical group Taliban regained power on August 15, 2021, many Afghans were concerned that they would once again be subjected to the brutal regime of the 1990s. Two years later, these concerns were proven valid.
Initially, the Taliban presented itself as a more moderate force, promising to support human rights and press freedom, attempting to alleviate the concerns of Afghans and the international community. However, despite two years passing since they took control of the country and ousted the Western-backed Afghan government, the radical leaders did not uphold their promises.
Instead, they returned with Taliban 2.0, implementing an authoritarian Sharia system that included restrictions on women, ethnic minorities, media, human rights organizations, and more. Currently, the Taliban is grappling with internal strife, economic crisis, issues with neighboring countries, and global recognition challenges.
Under theocratic rule, the Taliban imposed restrictions on various aspects of life in Afghanistan, including people’s appearance, freedom of movement, the right to work or education, and access to entertainment. One of the most discussed examples in the global public sphere was the reestablishment of the Ministry of Ethics and Virtue, known for enforcing harsh decrees through beatings and imprisonment.
According to the extremist and tribal interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, the Taliban has issued over 100 decrees and orders. The morality police often publicly punish offenders using violence. Those who violate the moral laws of the Taliban are imprisoned, and both men and women are publicly flogged as a deterrent.
Their discourse and policies do not align with those of the mid-1990s Taliban. When spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid addressed the media on their first day in power, he stated, “Our sisters, our brothers, they have the same rights… they will work with us shoulder to shoulder.”
However, this statement was quickly put aside. One of the most striking and controversial decisions of the Taliban was the exclusion of Afghan girls and women from various aspects of public life.
Restrictions on women continued with the dissolution of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, followed by a ban on women and girls pursuing higher education. Despite substantial international backlash, no reversals occurred. Currently, only girls are allowed to study until the sixth grade.
Pressure from the international community against the ban on girls’ education has led to challenges for the Taliban in terms of international recognition and access to external aid.
A decree banning forced marriages in Afghanistan was issued in the final month of 2021, yet according to the UN report, child marriages and gender discrimination have increased. Recently, hair salons and beauty parlors have also been closed.
Constitutional and criminal laws were set aside in Afghanistan, and the justice system was overhauled. Local Taliban leaders implemented their own decrees and bans. Kite flying, pigeon racing, and playing music in wedding halls were banned due to being contrary to Islamic law.
After two years, Taliban established diplomatic representation in 14 diplomatic missions worldwide, including Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, and China. In the mid-1990s, only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE formally recognized Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The international community now approaches recognizing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, under Taliban control, with caution.
Afghanistan faces regional peace challenges. The main reason for the continuation of these problems is the differing interests of all neighboring countries, hindering progress in regional cooperation organizations.
Tensions between Taliban and its neighbor Pakistan are significant. Pakistan is at war with various Islamist terrorist groups umbrellaed under the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), situated along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Betrayal between Taliban and TTP in Afghanistan is unlikely due to their shared Pashtun heritage.
The TTP, also known as the Pakistan Taliban, is a banned terrorist organization within Pakistan. It has posed a security concern for Islamabad for the past two years, being implicated in the planning of numerous attacks. It also plays a significant role in conflicts along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
According to the UN, the Taliban assists TTP in orchestrating attacks in Pakistan. There are claims that the Taliban has sold American weapons left in Afghanistan to the TTP.
However, while using TTP against Pakistan, Taliban grapples with its own nemesis, ISI-K. ISI-K (Islamic State–Khorasan Province) views the Taliban as an enemy. ISI-K targets Chinese and Russian assets in Afghanistan to establish influence. Nonetheless, Taliban maintains relations with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was rumored to have resided in Kabul, specifically in a house belonging to Taliban Interior Minister Haqqani, before being killed in a drone strike by the US.
Economically, sanctions imposed by the West against Taliban leaders are not as effective as they used to be. A report by American experts for Brookings in February states that Taliban has actually stabilized the Afghan economy. The report indicates that Taliban strengthened the Afghan currency, reduced inflation, partially regained imports, doubled exports, and collected customs and taxes more successfully than Afghanistan’s previous corrupt leaders.
This implies that despite some positive macroeconomic indicators, the economic situation is still dire enough to potentially lead to famine in the absence of humanitarian aid. According to World Food Programme (WFP) data, nearly half of the Afghan population, around 15.3 million people, cannot access sufficient food in 2023. According to the UN, 5 million Afghans have fled the country, and over 3 million have been displaced internally.
A large portion of Afghanistan’s budget was supported by international aid, but with the Taliban taking control, aid was suspended, leading to a financial crisis.
Within the Taliban, two distinct groups exist—one based in the capital, Kabul, and the other in Kandahar. The Kandahar group consists mainly of loyal religious leaders close to Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada. This more conservative group appears less willing to engage with the international community. However, the Kabul-based group is more modern and actively seeks international communication.
In the two years since Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan after a 20-year war against the US and its allies, life has dramatically changed for millions of Afghans, particularly women.
The chance for external intervention to free the country from the grip of Taliban 2.0 is now limited. The emergence of a new version update will likely depend on pressure from within the Taliban’s innovative faction.
*Yuksel Durgut is a columnist for TR724.com and expert on Foreign Affairs and Global Politics.