Afghanistan’s 48-year history of uncertainty

The US is now leaving Afghanistan after occupying the country for 20 years. In its wake, the Taliban insurgency has wasted no time to retake the territory it previously held before the invasion of the US in 2001. To understand the situation in Afghanistan today as well as the potential consequences of the Taliban’s resurgence, it is vital to know the history of the country and the circumstances that gave rise to the Taliban’s insurgency.

The Republic of Afghanistan, with strong ties to the Soviet Union, was founded in 1973 when the pro-Soviet General Mohammed Daoud Khan, member of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, overthrew Afghanistan’s last monarch, King Mohammed Zahir Shah, in a military coup to become president. Between 1975 and 1977, Khan proposed a new constitution that granted women rights and worked to modernise the mostly communist state

However, in 1978 Khan was killed in another coup, and Nur Muhammad Taraki, a founding member of the Afghan Communist Party, became president of Afghanistan. Taraki proclaimed independence from Soviet influence, and announced that the new government’s policies would be based on Islamic principles, Afghan nationalism and socioeconomic justice. Inconsistently, however, Taraki signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. While this was happening, conservative Islamic and ethnic leaders, who were opposed to the social changes brought about by Khan, began an armed revolt in the countryside. In June, the guerrilla movement, the Mujahideen, was established to battle the Soviet-backed government. On 14 September 1979, Taraki was killed by the supporters of his rival and deputy prime minister at the time, Hafizullah Amin.

On 24 December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support the teetering communist regime and on 27 December 1979, Amin and his followers were executed. Deputy prime minister Babrak Karmal became the new prime minister. By the early 1980s, the Mujahideen rebels united against the Soviet occupation and the USSR-backed Afghan Army. At the same time, Osama bin Laden travelled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to support the Mujahideen effort against the Soviet Union and formed al-Qaeda, or “the base”.  A young, barely literate Jordanian by the name of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi also joined the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets. Al Zarqawi would later gain notoriety as the founder of Islamis State (IS). The Mujahideen received arms from the US, UK and China via Pakistan during the proxy war. The Soviet Union eventually withdrew its troops in 1989, and in 1992, despite the signing of peace accords in Geneva guaranteeing Afghan independence from the Soviet Union, the Mujahideen and other rebel groups stormed the capital, Kabul, and ousted the puppet communist president Dr Mohammad Najibullah. The Mujahideen, a now-fracturing organisation, formed a largely Islamic State.

In 1996, a newly formed Islamic militia, the Taliban, rose to power promising peace. The militia outlawed the cultivation of poppies for the opium trade, cracked down on crime, and opposed the education and employment of women. Women were required to be fully veiled and were not allowed outside alone. At the time, Islamic law was enforced by executions and amputations.

By 2000, Bin Laden, now considered an international terrorist after his attacks on US embassies in Africa, was hiding in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban. As a result, the US demanded that he be extradited to stand trial, but the Taliban refused to extradite him.

In 2001, subsequent to the 9/11 attacks on the US by al-Qaeda, US and UK officials, believing that Bin Laden was in the country, invaded Afghanistan to hunt him and to target al-Qaeda networks hiding among Taliban strongholds. Bin Laden, however, escaped to Pakistan. After weeks of intense fighting, the Taliban eventually retreated southward from Kabul, and by 7 December 2001 the group surrendered its final territory. By 2003, due to increased violence in the country, Nato forces settled in Kabul to secure the territory, and in 2006, amid continuing clashes with the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, the Nato nations expanded their presence to the southern parts of the country, now consisting of 65 000 troops from 42 countries, including all 28 Nato member states. This ultimately resulted in the Taliban launching 139 bloody suicide attacks and 1 677 remotely detonated bombings that year.

By August 2009, the Pentagon had between 60 000 and 68 000 US troops in Afghanistan. In 2012, however, President Hamid Karzai called for US troops to leave Afghan villages after 16 Afghan civilians were killed by a US soldier inside their homes. The Afghan army eventually took over all military and security operations from Nato forces, and Ashraf Ghani was elected president of Afghanistan in 2014. By December 2014, Nato ended its mission in Afghanistan, while US-led Nato troops remained to advise and train the Afghan forces. By the time Donald Trump became president of the US the Taliban appeared to be as strong as ever, with Kabul experiencing suicide bombings on a scale never before seen, while the Taliban controlled or contested more than a third of the country.

In February 2019, peace talks in Doha between the Taliban and the US entered their highest level yet. These talks focused on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in exchange for the Taliban pledging to block international terrorist groups from operating on Afghan soil. Finally, in 2020, the US envoy and the Taliban signed an agreement that called for, among other things, intra-Afghan negotiations to start the following month. 

A month later, representatives of the Taliban and of the Afghan government and civil society met in Doha after nearly twenty years of war. Both sides showed an eagerness to bring peace to Afghanistan and establish a framework for Afghan society after the withdrawal of US troops. That same year, the deputy leader of the Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani published an opinion piece in the New York Times echoing the sentiments that the Taliban sought peace above everything, and further stated that the Taliban was committed to “working with other parties in a consultative manner of genuine respect to agree on a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded”. He also went on to say that the Taliban would “work towards an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam – from the right to education to the right to work – are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity”.

The Taliban never intended to collaborate with a US-backed government. 

Recent events in Afghanistan clearly points to the fact that US military intervention and counter-insurgency does not work, especially in a region where a Western-style government is a strange concept. A natural reaction to any occupying force is the rise of insurgent or terrorist groups, where the civilians of the occupied country would do anything to fight for the independence of their country. Counter-insurgency only benefits the occupier, and not the citizens of the occupied state. 

In recent years we have seen the  consequences of this play out in Iraq and Syria, with the rise of, among others, Hezbollah,  Ansar al-Islam, al-Qaeda, IS/Isil, and the al-Nusra Front. Longer ago in history we saw the US fail in Vietnam, with the rise of the Viet Cong, and in Somalia, with the rise of the al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabaab. 

With the US leaving Afghanistan, we could see another security vacuum opening up in the region, with terrorist organisations eventually taking advantage of the lack of Afghan security forces in the country. Afghanistan could become a haven for terrorists and a site for the Islamic State to rebuild its caliphate, which has the potential to spill over into neighbouring countries. The country could also see new militias rising up, and potentially a civil or proxy war.

For now, it is unclear how the rise of the Taliban will affect women in Afghanistan. There were some places in Afghanistan under Taliban control where girls were in school, with some of the girls being daughters, sisters, or nieces of Taliban fighters. This, however, was not everywhere. Despite Haqqani’s promises in his New York Times’ op-ed, it is hard to forget the Taliban’s brutal 1996 to 2001 regime when women were denied access to an education, employment, and were forced wear a burqa and forbidden from leaving home without a male escort. We could potentially see the Taliban revert back to this over time. It is also conceivable that the Taliban would want to establish or strengthen its ties with other countries, and would therefore be willing to extend rights to Afghanistan’s women as a measure to establish international partnerships. Only time will tell.

Jesse Prinsloo is a Mail & Guardian contributor and attorney with a keen interest in Middle Eastern security and geopolitics

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Jesse Prinsloo
Jesse Prinsloo is a young attorney with a keen interest in Middle Eastern security and geopolitics

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