Afghanistan and its Taliban Takeover: Tomb of Empires or Afghan Women?

By Stefano Cisternino

After 20 years of war, Afghanistan is back in the hands of the Taliban, with many accusing Biden of an epic defeat. After the seizure of the presidential palace and the flight of President Ghani on 15 August, a Taliban spokesman announced the rebirth of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which led the country from 1996 to 2001.

An unexpected collapse?

Despite talks of a Taliban ‘offensive’, from Mazar-i-Sharif – the main center in the north – to Jalalabad on the border with Pakistan, districts and provincial capitals have fallen one after the other without much of a fight. Regular soldiers of the so-called ‘Afghan army’ often surrendered without firing a single shot (although special forces fought valiantly). The Taliban, employing a strategy well-tested in the 1990s, had promised to spare those who would have laid down their arms and allowed them to peacefully return home. Furthermore, it was evident no reinforcements would arrive from Kabul or other provinces. But this is not enough to explain the proportions of a defeat so epochal as to deserve – like it or not – being compared with Vietnam.

The return of the Taliban to power depends, ultimately, on a divided military, despite the two thousand billion dollars allocated over twenty years for training and equipment, and on the lack of legitimacy of Afghan institutions. Moreover, the signing of the Doha agreement in February 2020, designed by the Trump administration with the de-facto exclusion of the Afghan government, reinforced corrupt local officials. “Many saw in that document the beginning of the end,” one army officer revealed to the Washington Post, “and everyone started looking out for themselves. It was as if [the United States] had abandoned us’.

Without US air support, the Afghan Army proved to be no match for the Taliban offensive.

But who are the Taliban?

The term ‘Taliban’ in Pashtu – the second most spoken language in Afghanistan and widespread in Pakistan – means ‘researchers’ or ‘students’. The movement was born in the 1990s in the madrassas (Pakistani Koranic schools) and became official in 1994 in Kandahar, the second-largest Afghan city. It was then headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar, former Islamic Mujahid in the conflict against the occupying Soviet forces between 1978 and 1989. The Taliban were mostly second-generation Afghans, raised and educated in US-funded, anti-Soviet, religiously motivated Pakistan. By returning to their home country, they aimed to claim power in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Their ultimate objective? Implanting a radical lifestyle based on the Sharia law, with public executions for those disobeying religious precepts, mandating burqas for women and beards for men.

They quickly organised into militias. After conquering Kandahar in 1996, they took Kabul, partly supported by the population for their infrastructural reconstruction plans. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was thus founded and, within a few years, it controlled almost the entire country, under the guidance of Mullah Mohammed Omar. Pakistan, the Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were the only states in the world to recognize its legitimacy and to support it via funds and humanitarian aid. According to many experts, the Taliban army is still financed by Saudi Arabia. The Taliban reject the idea of elections and democratic structures. Afghans who have collaborated with international diplomats, Western media and foreign forces are considered as ‘traitors’. When they came to power in the 1990s, the Taliban banned cinema, music and television. Women – who were not allowed to have relations with men except with their father, husband, or another family member – were forbidden to drive any vehicle, wear make up or jewelry.

How did such an extremist group come to power?

As President Biden reminded us in his speech to the nation, Afghanistan is often called the graveyard of empires: Mughals, Sasanians, Macedonians, British, Soviets and Americans have all never been able to control the country. Far from being just a place of death, Afghanistan has been a thriving example for millennia: thanks to its strategic location at the crossroads of Asia, it left its mark on history.

Though, centuries of unscrupulous rule, deeply-rooted ethnic divisions, and conflicts have led to a fragmented society. It is no coincidence that the country is affected by a plethora of crises –  political, economic, humanitarian, and even climatic – thus becoming a ‘breeding ground’ for the emergence and establishment of extremist groups. 

Since the 1990s, the Taliban have exploited the deep-seated climate of frustration and discontent among the population, capitalizing on the economic stress and consequent mistrust of both the government and external interventions, progressively establishing themselves as a political, social, and economic reference point for a population with no alternative. In spite of their extremist ideology, the Taliban seemingly offered what Afghans needed (and which neither the government nor the international community was able to provide), i.e: basic economic security; the promise of stability, on Afghan terms; a return to those traditions reminding of a bygone, glorious past after more than 40 years of uninterrupted war.

It is important to emphasize that although from this description it may seem as if the Taliban are the definitive solution to Afghanistan’s problems, they are in fact the symptom of a colonial and – subsequently peacebuilding – system that is struggling to understand and overcome its own mistakes. In this regard, the words of President Biden during his speech on 16 August are emblematic. The president defended the American withdrawal from the country, an action that precipitated events, invoking a well-known cliché: ‘The events we are seeing now are confirmation that no military intervention could ever make Afghanistan, known historically as the graveyard of empires, stable, united and secure’.

That Biden calls Afghanistan ‘the tomb of empires’ is, at best, evidence of his ignorance and, at worst, of his selfishness. Not only does he erase the thousands of years during which Afghanistan was a thriving civilization, but also, in a gesture of great imperial arrogance, he casts the blame of US failures on the Afghan people and the Afghan land. This reasoning reduces the history of Afghanistan to the history of its invaders and dismisses the Afghan people as backward and savage. In reality, it was only with the April – or Saur – Marxist revolution of 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion that the country began its descent into the four-decade-long conflict. Without wishing to idealize the past, recent history instead tends to portray an unstable image of Afghanistan, any external intervention up to itself and the Afghan people impossible to save, thus becoming the personification of ‘the tomb of empires’. Consequently, state-building in Afghanistan is viewed as futile, not because of any shortcomings of the US (or any other power’s) military occupation, but because Afghanistan and its people are seen as inherently ungovernable. Hence, the Taliban’s gradual establishment over the Afghan social construct, their rapid seizure of power in 2021 and the return of the Islamic Emirate.

Afghan security forces collapsed, despite enormous foreign funding: ill-organised, riddled by local corruption and ethnic tensions.

What is the impact of the new Taliban government on women?

The issue of Afghan women has become central since the Taliban took over the reins of power. While the fundamentalist group assured it will preserve their rights under Islamic law and guarantee them a role in the future executive, many Afghan women fear losing the rights won over the past twenty years. In fact, women are now barred from accessing schools and universities, with some being removed from their workplaces; street posters depicting bare-faced female figures have all been brought down. Reports by international media depict a terrible scenario for the lives of Afghan women, despite the Taliban itself tried to focus their public relations on a message of tolerance. “Women are an important element in Afghanistan” were the words of the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, who reassured the international community at a press conference on 17 August by stating that the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan would guarantee women’s rights under Sharia law and allow them to work and study, albeit within its own rules. At the moment, these declarations have not been enough to reassure most Afghan women, who fear a “dark future”. As the Washington Post reports, in several regions of Afghanistan, including Kabul, a generation of girls has grown up in a world completely different from their parents’ one. The post-Taliban Constitution of 2004 expanded women’s rights and improved their socio-economic status.

Now, however, there are those who testify that they have returned ‘to prison’, as they are forced back into their rooms. According to Al Jazeera – the world’s leading Arab media outlet – since the Taliban regained power, women who have tried to defy the newly imposed rules have been publicly humiliated, beaten or even killed. In addition to physical restrictions, social accounts are also being deactivated, which makes it difficult to estimate how bad the situation of women in the area might become. Taliban leaders have repeatedly stated that women would continue to have equal rights under Islamic law. However, reports from the country clearly prove the opposite.

 Do all Afghan women oppose the Taliban government?

Protests against the new Taliban regime, in which many women have participated, began on the first days after Kabul fell, spreading to all the major cities and abroad with the hashtag #DoNotTouchMyClothes. But this anger is only shared by part of the population. Indeed, the protests of Afghan women in the cities have not been accompanied by similar reactions in the countryside, where more than 70 percent of the Afghan population lives. Afghanistan is effectively divided in two: while in the cities the Soviet and American occupations have often brought – albeit with problems and inadequacies – rights and prosperity, in the countryside they have mostly brought violence, often against civilians. In the cities, the Taliban regime was experienced as hell; in the countryside, as a time of peace. In the countryside, Afghan women badly experienced the American occupation, which for them meant more of a resumption of violence and civil war. For many of them, the evil was not so much embodied by the Taliban as it was by the Afghan army commanders and the American soldiers who searched the countryside house to house, looking for the Taliban, sometimes killing suspected civilians or taking them to prison.

Women also recount how it was the Taliban who would often warn locals of impending attacks, advising them to stay indoors, not to drive on the roads, or closing off traffic to civilians when they were to attack an American vehicle. The Americans, however, did not. And every time a civilian died, the indignation towards them grew, even among women, who well remember the death of children playing or sleeping, of husbands or relatives killed by a drone while attending a funeral. When we think of how rural Afghan women are experiencing the new Taliban regime, it is important to have this in mind. For many of them – who did not go to university, did not travel, did not become journalists, politicians, or diplomats, did not live in burgeoning cities – the end of the American occupation and the return of the Taliban simply means the end of war.

Cover photo: “Empowering Afghan Women [Image 1 of 3]” by DVIDSHUB is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Photo 1: “Air Refueling Mission [Image 4 of 33]” by DVIDSHUB is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Photo 2: “Kandahar security forces host Afghan, coalition leaders [Image 8 of 11]” by DVIDSHUB is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stefano Cisternino has a BSc in International Studies (University of Trento) and an MSc in Peace and Conflict Research (University of Uppsala). He is a story-driven researcher with expertise on ethno-social dynamics of migration phenomena but also on the psychophysical effects of violent conflicts. His current research focuses on the impact of new technologies on the global social construct.

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