The Taliban in Afghanistan

Lindsay Maizland

Since its ouster in 2001, the Taliban has maintained its insurgency against the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan and the Afghan government. As U.S. troops have withdrawn in 2021, the group has rapidly expanded its control, positioning itself for a return to power.
Taliban fighters attend a gathering to celebrate the U.S.-Taliban deal in March 2020.
Taliban fighters attend a gathering to celebrate the U.S.-Taliban deal in March 2020. Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Summary
  • The Islamic fundamentalist group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Since then, it has waged an insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
  • Experts say the Taliban is stronger now than at any point since 2001. It launched an offensive amid the U.S. troop withdrawal and, by summer 2021, controlled over half of Afghanistan’s districts.
  • The Taliban started its first direct peace negotiations with the Afghan government in 2020 after signing an agreement with the United States. Little progress has been made.

Introduction

The Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion toppled the regime for providing refuge to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The Taliban regrouped across the border in Pakistan and has led an insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul for nearly twenty years.

In 2020, the Taliban signed a peace agreement [PDF] with the United States and entered into power-sharing negotiations with the Afghan government. However, little progress has been made in the intra-Afghan talks. Meanwhile, as the United States withdrew its troops in the country as part of the deal, the Taliban launched an offensive that has more than tripled the number of Afghan districts under its control. Analysts warn that an expanded civil war and more civilian casualties are likely if power-sharing talks remain stalled.

Does the Taliban pose a threat?

Many experts say the Taliban threatens Afghan democratic institutions, citizens’ rights, and regional security. The group has withstood counterinsurgency operations from the world’s most powerful security alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and three U.S. administrations in a war that has killed more than 6,000 U.S. troops and contractors [PDF] and over 1,100 NATO troops. Some 47,000 civilians have died, and an estimated 73,000 Afghan troops and police officers have been killed since 2007. Tens of thousands of Taliban fighters are also believed to have died.

The Taliban, which has between fifty-eight thousand and one hundred thousand full-time fighters, is stronger now than at any point in the last twenty years. As the United States has withdrawn its remaining forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban has increased attacks on civilians, seized control of critical border crossings, and dramatically expanded its presence throughout the country. In July 2021, the group controlled an estimated 54 percent of Afghan districts, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Long War Journal, a U.S.-based publication that has covered the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda and other militant groups since 2007; just months earlier it controlled only 20 percent. By midsummer 2021, sixteen of the country’s thirty-four provincial capitals were at risk of falling under Taliban control.

Taliban Gains Large Swaths as U.S. Pulls Troops

Maps of Taliban control in Afghanistan in April and July, showing large gains in districts controlled.

Control by district:

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented a steep uptick in violence and has warned that 2021 could see the most civilian casualties since the agency started keeping records in 2009. It documented 5,183 civilian deaths and injuries [PDF] in the first half of 2021, significantly higher than the total killed or injured during the same period in prior years. Women and children made up a larger proportion of casualties than ever recorded by UNAMA in the first half of a year. Of the many armed groups involved in clashes, the Taliban was responsible for the highest percentage of casualties, at nearly 40 percent. Targeted assassinations and improvised explosive device attacks accounted for many of the casualties. Civilians were also caught in the crossfire between insurgents and government forces. Afghan government forces also caused casualties. No casualties were attributed to international forces.

International observers remain concerned that the Taliban supports terrorist organizations, particularly al-Qaeda. The United States invaded Afghanistan after it refused to hand over bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Many U.S. security experts remain concerned that under the Taliban’s rule, Afghanistan would remain a safe haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the United States and its allies.

In its 2021 report, the UN team that monitors the Taliban said the group still has strong ties with al-Qaeda. The Taliban has started to “tighten its control over al-Qaeda by gathering information on foreign terrorist fighters and registering and restricting them,” the UN experts report. But it remains unclear, they say, if the Taliban will follow through on its commitment under the U.S. peace deal to prevent an international terrorist attack emanating from Afghanistan. The Taliban continues to provide al-Qaeda with protection in exchange for resources and training. Between two hundred and five hundred al-Qaeda fighters are believed to be in Afghanistan, and its leaders are believed to be based in regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. U.S. authorities reportedly think that al-Qaeda’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in Afghanistan [PDF], though in 2020 there were unconfirmed rumors that he had died. Up to 2,200 members of the Islamic State Khorasan are also thought to be in Afghanistan.

How was the Taliban formed?

The group was formed in the early 1990s by Afghan mujahideen, or Islamic guerilla 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 (1992–1996) 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 it 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 it 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 its Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice enforced prohibitions on behavior the Taliban deemed un-Islamic. It required women to wear the head-to-toe burqa, or chadri; banned music and television; and jailed men whose beards it deemed too short.

How has the world responded to the Taliban?

Over the past two decades, governments and international bodies joined U.S.-led efforts to oust the Taliban and bolster Afghanistan’s government, democratic institutions, and civil society in the following ways:

Military force. U.S. troops quickly overthrew the Taliban after they invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Since then, the Taliban has waged an insurgency against the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan peaked at around one hundred thousand in 2011. In the 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, the United States committed to withdrawing all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan if the Taliban carries out commitments that include cutting ties with terrorist groups. President Biden has said he plans to have all troops removed by August 2021. 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.

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 introduced additional sanctions.

Democratic reforms and aid. Months after the U.S. invasion, UN member states committed to supporting Afghanistan’s transition away from Taliban rule. The United States and NATO spearheaded reconstruction efforts. Dozens of countries also provide assistance to Afghanistan, with 75 percent of the government’s public expenditures currently covered by grants from international partners, according to a 2019 World Bank report. During a conference in 2020, donors pledged a total of $3.3 billion in aid.

Investigation. The Taliban is now under investigation in 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?

Analysts believe that the Taliban’s leadership, primarily based outside the country, continues to maintain control over most of its fighters and officials throughout Afghanistan. However, the UN Taliban monitoring team said that internal disagreements, mainly over the peace process and talks with the United States, have “[grown] more pronounced.”

The leadership council is called the Rahbari Shura and is better known as the Quetta Shura, named for the city in Pakistan where Omar and top aides are believed to have taken refuge after the U.S. invasion. The council makes decisions for all “political and military affairs of the Emirate,” according to the UN monitor. It is currently led by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. (Omar died in 2013 and was succeeded by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a 2016 U.S. air strike in Pakistan.) The leader is supported by deputies, currently Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, Omar’s son; Taliban cofounder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar; and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is also 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 ISI.

The leadership council oversees various commissions, similar to the ministries in place prior to the Taliban’s overthrow, and administrative organs through which the Taliban operates a shadow government. The commissions focus on areas including economics, education, health, and outreach. The military commission appoints shadow governors and battlefield commanders for each of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. The political commission, headed by Baradar, led negotiations with the United States and is based in Doha, Qatar.

The Taliban’s Hierarchy

Leader

Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada is the current amir al-mu’minin, or “commander of the faithful.”

Deputies

Three deputies support Haibatullah: Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub manages ideological and religious affairs, Sirajuddin Haqqani oversees the insurgency, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar leads the Taliban’s delegation in peace talks.

Leadership Council

It is a group of top leaders that functions as the Taliban’s central cabinet, making policy decisions and overseeing the commissions.

Commissions and Administrative Organs

There are more than a dozen commissions, including the military commission and the political commission, and administrative organs.

Shadow Governors and Battlefield Commanders

Each Afghan province has a shadow governor and a battlefield commander. Both are appointed by the military commission.

What is the state of the Taliban’s finances and international support?

The Taliban primarily earns revenue through criminal activities, including opium poppy cultivation, drug trafficking, extortion of local businesses, and kidnapping, according to the UN monitoring group. Estimates of its annual income range from $300 million to $1.6 billion. According to one estimate, it earned around $460 million from opium poppy cultivation in 2020. The Taliban also levies taxes on commercial activities in its territories, such as farming and mining. As it has gained control over more border crossings, its customs revenue has climbed to thousands of dollars per day. It has also supplemented its income with illicit mining and donations from abroad, despite strict UN sanctions.

Many experts say the Pakistani security establishment continues to provide Taliban militants sanctuary in the country’s western tribal areas to try to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad dismisses these charges. (At the same time, Pakistan has battled its own insurgency group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban, which is distinct from the Afghan group.)

Do Afghans support the Taliban?

For years after its fall from power, the Taliban enjoyed support. The U.S.-based nonprofit organization Asia Foundation found in 2009 [PDF] 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 [PDF]. 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 current constitution. Around 44 percent of Afghans surveyed said they believed that Afghanistan could achieve peace in the next two years.

What’s next for the Taliban?

Little progress has been made since the Taliban signed the peace agreement with the Donald Trump administration in early 2020 and agreed to enter into its first direct peace talks with the Afghan government.

Taliban negotiators refused to attend a UN-backed peace conference in April 2021, and the group has not shared its roadmap for a political settlement. But spokespeople have said Taliban leaders remain committed to the negotiations. The Taliban claims that it wants to reach a political settlement through peaceful means and asserts that in most cases it did not use violence to seize Afghan districts in recent months. Afghan officials have expressed doubt about these statements. Meanwhile, the Taliban has sought to boost diplomacy with countries in the region, such as China and Russia.

If intra-Afghan discussions regain momentum, many issues need to be resolved, including how power will be shared with the Taliban, what will happen to Afghanistan’s democratic institutions and constitution, and how women’s, LGBTQ+ individuals’, and religious minority groups’ rights will be protected. Taliban representatives have said they would protect women’s rights under sharia but have given few details on what doing so would look like in practice.

Questions also remain over whether Taliban fighters will be disarmed and reintegrated [PDF] into society and who will lead the country’s army. The Taliban wants to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan, ideally as an emirate, which would be led by a religious leader and draw its legitimacy from clerics. Afghanistan is currently an Islamic republic, which is led by a president and draws legitimacy from universal suffrage and accordance with international laws and norms.

Analysts disagree on the Taliban’s motives and what the group seeks from intra-Afghan negotiations. Some experts and Afghans fear that the U.S.-Taliban agreement was just an attempt to remove foreign forces from Afghanistan and that it could spark a new conflict that would eventually allow the Taliban to regain control. For the Taliban, “peace doesn’t mean an end to the fighting, it means an end to the U.S. occupation,” says Bill Roggio, an editor for Long War Journal. “After the United States is gone, the Taliban will work to settle its scores and reestablish the Islamic emirate.”

Zachary Laub contributed to this Backgrounder. Will Merrow created the graphics.

The Taliban in Afghanistan