The Taliban has regained control over Afghanistan in the wake of American and coalition troops pulling out of the country in July, following 20 years of military operations.
The insurgents have taken the Afghan capital Kabul and have claimed that the “war is over” as Western countries desperately scramble to evacuate their citizens from the country.
So who are the insurgents, what do they want, who funds them, and who is their leader? This is what you need to know.
What are the origins of the Taliban?
The Taliban is an extremely conservative political and religious faction, which first emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan, following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
The power vacuum which was left following the withdrawal of the Soviets saw a number of warlords take over different regions of the country, leading to constant fierce fighting.
The Taliban formed to try and restore some sense of order to Afghanistan, by taking over the country and enforcing a strict religious-based order.
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) explains: “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 more than nineteen years.”
The group promised to restore peace and security in Pashtun areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to enforce their own version of Islamic law once in power.
“The Taliban imposed a harsh brand of justice as it consolidated territorial control,” the CFR says.
In 2020, the Taliban signed a peace agreement with the US, and entered into power-sharing negotiations with the Afghan government - however, the group has continued to launch attacks.
The CFR describes the Taliban as “a powerful fighting force that threatens Afghan democratic institutions, citizens’ rights, and regional security” and that the group has managed to withstand counter insurgency operations from the world’s “most powerful security alliance” NATO.
What does ‘Taliban’ mean in English?
Taliban, which means “students” or “seekers” in Pashto, the language of the Pashtun region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The name originates from the group’s beginnings, according to the CFR, when “Islamic guerilla fighters” were “joined by younger Pashtun tribesmen who studied in Pakistani madrassas, or seminaries”.
Who leads the Taliban?
The group was founded and originally led by Mullah Mohammad Omar, though he went into hiding in 2001 and remained there until his death in 2013, which was only confirmed by his son two years later.
Since then the group has been led by Haibatullah Akhundzada, known as “Leader of the Faithful” an Islamic legal scholar thought to be in his early 60s.
Akhundzada is considered the group’s overall leader, with control of political, military and religious affairs.
Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, head of the Taliban military, might be described as Akhundzada’s number two.
In his early 30s, Yaqoob was reportedly put forward as a potential leader following the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, though he is believed to have said that he is too young.
Who funds the Taliban?
Throughout their long history the Taliban has received financial and other forms of support from various states, while now the group is thought to be largely self-sufficient, collecting significant revenues internally.
There is some debate about which states have formally funded the Taliban, though in their very earliest days the group was armed and funded by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a proxy against the Soviet-backed regime.
US security sources claim that a number of states, including Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, fund the Taliban to the tune of around $500m per year, though these figures are impossible to verify.
The bulk of the Taliban’s funds come through the illicit drug trade, with Afghanistan being the biggest natural producer of poppy seeds - used to create opium and heroin - in the world.
The group generates hundreds of millions through the drug trade, as well as through mining metals and rare minerals in the vast Afghan mountain ranges.
The group also earns significant revenue through taxes, extortion, real estate and charitable donations from supporters across the Arab and Gulf states, according to a researcher from the Center for Afghanistan Studies.
Why are they at war with ISIS and Al Qaeda?
The Taliban has long been the dominant militant insurgency within Afghanistan, but there are a number of other extremist groups operating in the region.
The Taliban is often equated with Al Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks led by Osama Bin Laden.
While both have clear links to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the late 80’s, Al-Qaeda was founded in Pakistan and follows a more extreme form of Sunni Islam with a more international focus.
The Taliban was set up in Afghanistan with the goal of restoring order to the country and ruling it under a form of repressive Islamic or sharia law.
The groups have long been allied in some ways, although there have also been clashes between factions within the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The extent to which the groups are still linked is unclear, partly because in a peace deal signed in 2020 the Taliban promised to prevent Al Qaeda from operating in the region if they US agreed to withdraw troops and return prisoners.
However, some analysts have expressed concerns that despite the agreement, the resurgence of the Taliban will likely provide space for Al Qaeda to operate.
Another extremist jihadist group which has operated in Afghanistan is ISIS, although the relationship between them and the Taliban is a much more clear-cut rivalry.
Some of those who founded ISIS had defected from the Taliban in Syria and the rise of ISIS has led to many Taliban fighters following suit.
However, the groups are opposed to one another, with each following a different interpretation of Suni Islam, and different priorities in terms of waging jihad.
ISIS and the Taliban have been at war since 2015, when the former declared an intention to take over parts of Afghanistan.
As the Taliban has battled with ISIS for control of parts of Afghanistan, this has occasionally led the US to offer them military support, as it views ISIS as a far greater international threat.
In October 2020 the Washington Post reported that US forces had been assisting Taliban forces in the Konar region, by deploying airstrikes against ISIS-held positions in anticipation of Taliban attacks.
This cooperation took place without formal discussion between US forces and the Taliban, with the former planning the support by listening to internal Taliban communications.
In 2015 the Taliban announced that it would send its elite ‘Red Unit’ to fight against ISIS.
What is the Taliban’s Red Unit?
Known in Pashto as “Sara Kheta”, Danger or Red Unit, this group of soldiers are reportedly the Taliban army’s equivalent of a special-forces or elite unit.
Intelligence reports suggest the fighters who make up this unit are much better trained and better equipped than regular Taliban fighters, using the highest grade equipment available, often stolen from Afghan security forces.
The Red Unit is often deployed on specific high-value operations, or to battles which are of great strategic importance to the Taliban’s overall goal.
The unit has become associated with particularly deadly attacks against Afghan security forces.
The Taliban has often boasted about the effectiveness of its ‘Red Unit’ across its social media channels, and has in recent years claimed to be vastly increasing its number.
The size of the unit is unclear, with analysts estimating somewhere between 300 and 1000.
Why are they capturing Afghan territories and what do they want?
As a native group with fairly significant support among some parts of the Afghan population, the Taliban see themselves as the rightful ruling power in the country.
The Taliban ruled over Afghanistan for a brief period after the withdrawal of the Soviets and prior to the US invasion.
The offensive which has begun against coalition-backed Afghan security forces by the Taliban was viewed by many as an inevitability following the withdrawal of troops and support from the region.
The Taliban want to rule Afghanistan and enforce their strict interpretation of Islamic law, which is highly repressive, particularly for girls and women.
Some have argued that the decades of unrest which have resulted from foreign intervention in Afghanistan makes Taliban-rule more attractive to the people of Afghanistan, as they claim to provide stability to the region.
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