Ruthless enforcement of fundamentalist Islamic law was the hallmark of the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan in the 1990s, denying women basic rights, putting LGBTQ people to death and crushing any murmur of dissent.
The fear of a return of strict Shariah law now that the Taliban have regained control of the country was glimpsed in the panicked crowds that descended on the airport in Kabul hoping to escape.
The world should expect little change in the character of the Taliban after nearly 20 years in exile, said Nathan Sales, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism in the Middle East.
“The Taliban is what it always has been: A violent Islamist militia that has made common cause with terrorists like al Qaeda,” Mr. Sales said in an interview.
The Taliban originated in the early 1990s, formed by mujahideen forces who had resisted Soviet occupation in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 and religious fundamentalists from Pakistani madrassas. The group promised to restore order from the unrest following the Soviet occupation. They seized Kabul in 1996 and maintained a tight grip on the country until the U.S. invasion in 2001.
At their core, the Taliban are religious warriors — disciples of Islam. Their name means “students” or “seekers of knowledge.”
When they ruled, those who violated their interpretation of the Quran would be subject to public punishment such as whippings, stoning and beheadings.
“The Taliban‘s core ideology remains the same. They still want to impose a sort of ‘over-Shariah, an extreme and more rigorous version of Islamic law than the one implemented in other countries,” Sébastien Boussois, a researcher on Afghanistan at Universite Libre de Bruxelles told France 24.
Mr. Sales, who also served as the State Department’s acting undersecretary for civilian security and human rights, agreed.
“The method they use to achieve that end is indiscriminate violence against anybody who stands in their way, whether it’s a Western NGO or female human rights activists. They will use violence indiscriminately to bring about what they see as a divinely ordained plan.”
Despite two decades of war and tens of thousands of Taliban casualties, analysts say the Islamic regime remains as strong as before.
The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that the Taliban still maintains between 58,000 and 100,000 fighters.
Just weeks after U.S. forces departed Bagram Air Base, the last remaining U.S. stronghold in the country outside of the capital Kabul, the Taliban with shocking speed took control of nearly all of Afghanistan.
The Afghan government’s lightning-fast fall erased nearly 20 years of U.S. combat and nation-building that began with an invasion to topple the Taliban after it gave a safe haven to al Qaeda to plot the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
On Tuesday, the group’s de facto leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, returned to Afghanistan after living in exile for more than 10 years.
The International community has shunned the Taliban because of its human rights abuses. The religious militants have thrived nevertheless.
Cut off from most of the international community, the Taliban financed its insurgency against U.S.-led forces through nefarious enterprises including drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that the Taliban’s annual income ranges from $300 million to $1.6 billion.
Pressure from the rest of the world, however, also prompted Taliban efforts at an image makeover. Namely, they created an appearance of distancing themselves from terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda.
Joshua White, a former National Security Council adviser to President Obama, said the Taliban‘s outward gestures of moderation and pledges to reform should not be trusted.
“It’s dangerous to presume that the ethos of the Taliban has changed and that they are more moderate, just because they are more media savvy,” he said. “But I think it would also be foolish to assume that they haven’t learned anything in their long insurgency in their experience of effectively governing or not effectively but having to provide some governance services in places that they’ve controlled.”
The U.N. Security Council estimates that between 200 and 500 al Qaeda fighters remain in Afghanistan under the support of the Taliban, and al Qaeda’s leaders are believed to be based in areas along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, an estimated 2,200 Islamic State Khorasan fighters are thought to receive refuge in Afghanistan.
The Taliban also has sought to distance themselves from their draconian image, promising to provide amnesty to those who supported the U.S. and pledging to adhere to international standards for human rights and freedom of the press.
Still, the Taliban does not enjoy the support of the Afghan people.
An Asia Foundation survey from this year found that an overwhelming majority of Afghan’s recognized the importance of women’s rights and freedom of speech. A 2019 survey demonstrated that less than 14% of Afghan’s had “sympathy for the Taliban.”
“If the Taliban ran in an election, they wouldn’t win,” Mr. Sales said. “Which is why they have felt the need to resort to armed conquest to accomplish their objectives. The Afghan people have spent the last 20 years enjoying, to a greater or lesser extent, liberties and freedoms and the democratic institutions that we in the West sometimes take for granted.”