Last Sunday, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani fled the country after the Taliban took control of the capital city.
In the days that followed, Kabul’s international airport has become the scene of much chaos and confusion.
Thousands of desperate Afghans have been trying to get on a plane and out of the country, fearing retribution from the Taliban.
But how exactly did we get here? What does this mean for Afghanistan and the wider international community? We explore these questions in today’s explained.
A Brief History of Afghanistan
Afghanistan is a landlocked country that has historically sat at the cross-roads of great powers.
In the 19th century, for example, the country was nudged between British India and the Russian Empire, and acted as buffer for both.
This strategic location has led Afghanistan to be a theatre of great power relations, with countries often trying to gain influence by both force and diplomacy.
However, Afghanistan’s harsh deserts, terrain and climate have made it extremely hard for it to be completely conquered. This is why the country is often called the graveyard of empires.
The Daoud Republic (1973-1978)
For most of the 18th to 20th century, Afghanistan was effectively ruled as an Islamic monarchy.
This came to an end in 1973, when Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin, staged a coup d’état to establish a single-party republic. He did this with the help of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a Marxist-Leninist political party.
Daoud Khan’s premiership can be described as being tumultuous. No real economic progress was made, and by 1978, he alienated most key political groups by gathering power into his own hands and refusing to tolerate dissent.
The killing of a prominent member of the PDPA in 1978 led the party’s leadership to fear that Daoud was planning to exterminate them all. Thus in April 1978, the PDPA overthrew Daoud’s regime and established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (1978-1992)
The PDPA rapidly pursued a socialist agenda once in power. It promoted the equality of the sexes, and implemented radical land reforms in the countryside. Together with these policies, the regime also closely collaborated with the Soviet Union, which was an atheist power.
All of this lead to resentment from Afghans who saw the imposition of “secular western values” to be “un-Islamic”. Land reforms also alienated many of the rural elites and “disrupted the system of reciprocal rights and obligations around which rural life was organised”.
When village mullahs and headmen opposed these changes, they were brutally suppressed. It is estimated that between 10,000 to 27,000 people were executed by the state between April 1978 and December 1979 alone.
Large parts of the country went into open rebellion because of the policies and the way they were enforced.
Soviet Afghan War (1979-1989)
The Soviet Union became anxious that the Iranian revolution, that had seen that country turn Islamic, could spread to Afghanistan and into Muslim areas under Soviet control. Thus, it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to quell the unrest and also put a more moderate government in power.
While the Soviets effectively captured many urban areas, the tribal warlords they had been fighting became united as the mujahideen (an Arabic term that refers to Islamic guerrillas) and retreated into the mountains. The foreign atheist invaders gave credence to the idea that this was a jihad, or a holy war.
Considering that this was happening during the Cold War, the United States became concerned of the Soviets’ increasing influence in the region. As such, it started Operation Cyclone, a program that armed and financed the Afghan mujahideen. At its height in 1987, the program was providing over $630 million per year to the mujahideen.
US involvement, together with the mujahideen’s guerrilla tactics, made it hard for the Soviets to decisively win the war. Thus, in 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in a defeat.
While the Russians continued to support the PDPA regime after they left, Afghanistan plunged into civil war once again after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The war only came to an end in 1996, when a new militia, named the Taliban, captured the capital. But who are they?
Who are the Taliban?
The Taliban are a mujahideen group originally consisting of religious students (talib) who were educated in traditional Islamic schools in Pakistan.
Angered that Islamic law had not been put in place after the fall of communist rule, Mullah Omar, the future leader of the Taliban, gathered 50 students in 1994 and pledged to rid Afghanistan of warlords.
Within months, the group’s popularity soared, with over 15,000 students from other madrassas joining the movement. Part of this could be attributed to support from external powers like Pakistan. But there was also genuine appreciation for the group’s success in stamping out corruption, lawlessness and upholding law and order.
By 1998, the group controlled over 90% of the country.
Why was the War in Afghanistan started?
After the September 11 attacks, US President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama Bin Laden and all other leaders of Al-Qaeda.
The Taliban was sympathetic towards Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups run by former foreign mujahideen volunteers. As such, when the Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden and other terrorists, the US invaded.
The US and its allies swiftly captured most urban regions and overthrew the Taliban. In 2004, a new state called the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was established with the support of the west. The Taliban, aided by Pakistan’s military, became a guerrilla insurgency once again.
Why did the US withdraw troops from Afghanistan?
Over the years, US public opinion on the Afghan war substantially soured. In October 2001, a poll by CNN/Gallup/USA Today indicated that about 88% of Americans backed military action in Afghanistan. Almost ten years later, a Pew Research Centre poll found that only 36% of Americans favoured the war with a whopping 62% opposing it.
The fragile and reversible nature of the security gains, an increasing number of American casualties, and doubts over the viability of the Afghan government all meant that the American public were turning against the war. This is why successive presidents – Obama, Trump and Biden – all promised to withdraw troops from Afghanistan at some point in their premiership.
The US and its NATO allies have also spent billions trying to build up the Afghan National Army, with the hopes of having it be strong enough to independently assert Afghanistan’s territory.
In February 2020, President Trump and NATO allies agreed to formulate a deal with the Taliban. The deal called for the Taliban to renounce Al-Qaeda and begin intra-Afghan peace talks in exchange for a complete withdrawal of US troops by May 2021. President Biden announced that the unconditional withdrawal of troops would happen by August 31.
How did the Taliban take over?
Coinciding with the American withdrawal, the Taliban launched a major offensive in May 2021. The offensive was so successful that by August 15, the group captured most of the provincial capitals and Kabul. On the same day, the incumbent President, Ashraf Ghani fled the country, thereby marking the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
Part of the regime’s downfall could be attributed to the failure of the Afghan National Army. Many corrupt military officials led “ghost battalions”, pocketing the salaries of non-existent soldiers. This meant that neither the US nor the Afghan government knew the true strength of the military and police, and thereby its operational abilities.
Afghan soldiers in rural areas also faced a shortage in food, supplies and ammunition. In all, the large scale corruption and the inadequate supplies led to low morale and resentment against the central government. Thus, many soldiers simply surrendered and left behind their equipment after the Taliban offered them safe passage.
Experts say that the troops that did in fact fight, were never expected to operate effectively without high-tech air and ground support from foreign allies.
What does this mean for Afghanistan?
Right after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, thousands of desperate Afghans swarmed Kabul’s International Airport in attempts to flee the country.
The mass exodus is indicative of two fears that Afghans have. For the 300,000 civilians that have been affiliated with the American mission in Afghanistan, retribution by the Taliban remains a grave possibility. Although the US has a program to grant these individuals special immigrant visas, only a minority of people qualify. Large yearslong backlogs prevent these individuals from being granted visas immediately.
There are also fears that the Taliban might return to the draconian ways of its past. When the group controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, there were regular reports of punishments like floggings, amputations and mass executions. The group also banned entertainment like televisions, cinemas, music, VCRs and satellite dishes.
While the Taliban has projected a more restrained image this time around, promising that there would be no retribution, questions still linger. There are already reports of women and children being beaten and whipped as they tried to make their way to the Kabul Airport.
What does this mean for women?
The Taliban’s brutal oppression during their first stint affected women the most. In a systemic system of segregation sometimes referred to as gender apartheid, women were not allowed to work or to be educated after the age of eight.
Women’s freedom of movement was also severely restricted, with them only being able to appear in public wearing a full burqa with a blood relative. This meant that women who could afford a burqa or did not have any male blood relative faced house arrest.
Punishments for these “offences” were also brutal. These included formal spectacles held in sports stadiums or spontaneous street beatings of women. In 1996, for example, a woman in Kabul had the end of her thumb cut off for wearing nail polish.
Under the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, women had become more empowered. The developments of the last twenty years have led to a professional class of women who are involved in politics, law, media and education. Yet again, while the Taliban has promised that there will “no violence against women, no prejudice against women”, women’s fears are rampant and justified. In early August 2021, there were reports of young women being killed by the Taliban for not wearing a burqa or for wearing “tight clothing”.
What does this mean for Singapore?
In terms of diplomacy, it is unclear if Singapore is going to recognise the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The last time that the Taliban were in power, only three countries recognised it – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
This time around, the global community seems a bit more divided on the decision to recognise. On one hand, western nations have been coordinating to block Taliban recognition. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, for example, has stated that any decision to recognise the group would be based on its actions rather than its words. The country would “certainly not” recognise a Taliban regime that did not live up to international commitments and human rights standards.
On the other, Beijing has been warming up the group in the lead up to its recent offensive. In July, a delegation of Taliban leaders visited China, where they promised Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi not to permit the Uygur Muslim militant groups from Xinjiang to operate in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, China too has been taking on a nuanced view, urging the Taliban to distance themselves from terrorism and form an inclusive Islamic government.
Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) also posits that the power vacuum that now exists in Afghanistan could lead to increased terror-related activities in South-east Asia. According to them, it is possible that organisations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria start to regroup in Afghanistan to establish save havens.
How can I help?
The UNHCR, the United Nation’s refugee agency has warned of a major humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. It estimates that over 400,000 Afghans have been forced from their homes since the beginning of the year, joining the 2.9 million Afghans already internally displaced across the country at the end of 2020. 80% of these refugees and displaced people are women and children.
The number of people fleeing violence and persecution is only expected to grow after recent developments.
You could consider donating to the UNHCR, International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee or Doctors Without Borders to aid in their front line work in the country. You would be contributing in efforts to provide emergency shelter, lifesaving aid, food, medicine and clean water.