The role of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been what some would call positive. Economic growth and improved safety and security across the nation has sparked ongoing discussions about whether they could be seen as ‘unsung heroes’, despite their controversial past. For certain observers, the emergence of the Taliban was a response to the disorder following the Afghan Civil War, as well as the subsequent power struggles that left the nation in turmoil. They managed to gain support from certain segments of the Afghan population by offering promises of stability, order, and the implementation of Islamic law. These pledges resonated with many Afghans who were tired of the constant factional conflicts and disorder that plagued the country during the 1990s.
To provide context, on 15 August 2023, I was honored with the opportunity to represent MEPEI in a seminar discussion hosted by the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, regarding the interim Afghan government in power, and the assessment of their progress two years on. This seminar was attended by a diverse set of influential politicians and members of the current and previous governments. Among those was the former minister of Mines, Petroleum and Industries, Ms. Nargis NEHAN, and the charge d’ Affairs minister of the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad; Mr. Sardar Ahmed Shakeeb. This allowed a diverse conversation with various different opinions and was a testament that open discussion was truly the way forward in order to achieve unity and understand the disparate points of view.
During their initial rise, the Taliban effectively established a form of governance in the areas they controlled. They managed to curb criminal activities, suppress warlords, and create a relatively secure environment for regular citizens. This led some to perceive them as agents of law and order, stepping in to fill a void created by years of conflict.
However, this perspective is sharply contrasted with their strict interpretation of their systematic curtailment of personal freedoms, particularly for women. The Taliban’s oppressive rule, characterized by public executions, stringent dress codes, and the denial of basic human rights, has raised doubts about their claims of being Afghanistan’s unsung heroes.
Truly grasping the role of the Taliban requires delving into the intricate layers of Afghanistan’s history, culture, and the diverse motives driving their actions. While certain aspects of their ascent may appear aimed at bringing stability to a nation devastated by war, it’s also important to confront the harsh realities of their regime. As Afghanistan moves forward, it’s imperative to deeply examine the various facets of the Taliban’s history, distinguish between fact and fiction, and give weight to the voices of all those impacted by their rule.
The Taliban initially emerged as a resistance force against foreign occupation, particularly during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the subsequent US-led interventions. They garnered support from segments of the Afghan population who sought to reclaim their sovereignty and resist foreign influence. This narrative portrays the Taliban as defenders of Afghan independence, reflecting a sentiment shared by some locals.
The rise and popularity of the Taliban in Afghanistan is a complex narrative shaped by a series of interconnected events. It begins with the Afghan Civil War that raged from 1979 to 1992, a conflict triggered by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. During this period, various resistance groups, known as mujahideen, emerged to fight against the Soviet occupation. These groups received substantial support from the United States, Pakistan, and other nations.
However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 altered the dynamics in Afghanistan significantly. The withdrawal of Soviet forces left a power vacuum, resulting in a fractured and tumultuous political landscape. Different mujahideen factions, often divided along ethnic and regional lines, struggled for control, plunging the country into a devastating civil war.
Amid this chaos, the Taliban, meaning “students” in Pashto, emerged in 1994, primarily in the Kandahar region, under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar. Their primary objectives were to restore law and order, implement strict Islamic law (Sharia), and put an end to the disorder caused by the civil war. At this early stage, they garnered support from local communities disillusioned with the corruption and violence perpetuated by existing warlords.
The Taliban’s initial popularity was rooted in their capacity to provide a semblance of stability and security in the areas they controlled. While their implementation of Islamic law was characterized by harsh punishments like public executions and amputations, it also offered a form of swift and predictable justice in a lawless environment. Many Afghans welcomed this relative order in the face of the rampant anarchy brought on by the civil war.
Another significant factor contributing to the Taliban’s rise was their support from Pakistan. Pakistan viewed the Taliban as a proxy to establish a friendly government in Kabul and counter the influence of rival factions. This support included military training, weapons, and diplomatic backing.
However, the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, as well as their treatment of women, drew international criticism and led to their isolation on the global stage. Only three countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—officially recognized the Taliban regime.
The turning point for the Taliban occurred with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. The Taliban’s harboring of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda operatives prompted the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Over the subsequent two decades, the Taliban faced strong resistance from a coalition of Afghan and international forces.
Despite years of conflict and military setbacks, the Taliban managed to regroup and gradually regain control of substantial portions of Afghanistan, particularly in rural areas. This resurgence was driven by a combination of factors, including public discontent with the Afghan government, widespread corruption, and ineffective governance.
The final turning point came in August 2021 when the United States and NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving behind a power vacuum that the Taliban swiftly exploited. They rapidly captured major cities, eventually taking control of Kabul, marking the end of the Afghan government.
This takeover initially was harshly met with general media criticism, due to controversial laws that violated basic women and human rights, such as the instrumental right to education. However, two years on, and the Taliban seemed to have regained Afghan satisfaction. Speaking to the charge’d affairs minister, I quickly understood that his government’s primary objectives revolved around peace and security, short-term economic satisfaction, and international governmental recognition. Until this current moment, it is fair to say Taliban have achieved all excluding the latter, something I was keen on getting more information on.
The seminar allowed each representative to ask a question to the body they seek an answer from, and I was determined to understand the diplomatic philosophy that the Taliban go by to achieve international recognition. My question to Mr Sardar was “Mr. Sardar, it has been almost two years and your government has yet to be recognized by the United Nations, as well as major bodies such as the EU, and the US. Does this bother you ? and if so what is your government doing to achieve world recognition? ” Mr Sardar answered this question in his native language of Pashto, as this would allow him to be more expressive than answering in English. His answer was somewhat unusual, as he explained why the Taliban government should be recognized, highlighting their strong diplomatic ties with regional powers such as Pakistan, Qatar, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But at the same time, strongly expressed his frustration with the lack of recognition, claiming his government has all the assets to be treated as the legitimate Afghan government. Believing his government had done all in its power to attain legitimacy, the charge d’affairs minister showed no signs of any plans or curriculum to attain a higher level of international legitimacy in his response to my question.
To sum up all that has been stated, it is without a doubt that Afghanistan is not living up to its people’s social and economic expectations, with its per capita GDP still far below the global average, the Afghans are yet to be fully satisfied. In addition, western media outlet continues to highlight their negative policy towards women, labelling Taliban as backward and oppressive, further hindering their approval rates. However, if you view this situation from a different angle, we can see that the Taliban have managed to stabilise the nation once again. The primary foundation for any nation’s prosperity is domestic peace and security, and Afghanistan has been a nation ripped from such privileges for so long. For that reason, I think it is reasonable to label the Taliban’s as the nation’s unsung heroes, and while there is a lot more to be done, they have shaped themselves on the right path to nation prosperity.
About the author:
Mr. Ahmed Yasir Mustafa is a junior political research fellow of MEPEI and a Politics and international relations student at Royal Holloway University of London. Ahmed specialities in political research lye in middle eastern and North African politics, where he posses a profound knowledge of the political and diplomatic structure within the region.