Afghanistan: Has the Taliban changed since it was last in power?
The Taliban has swept to power in Afghanistan, and will soon declare the country an Islamic Emirate.
Whether and how much the Taliban has changed since its last period of oppressive rule – from 1996, until the toppling of the regime by US-led forces in 2001 – will determine whether the hardline group achieves a government that the Afghan people can live with, and NATO nations might be willing to work with.
The Taliban takes control almost 25 years since it marked its last capture of Kabul with the hanging of former Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah. How has the Taliban changed since then – and what can the West expect?
Afghanistan live updates: All the latest as the Taliban establish new government
A wealthy Taliban more poised to take control
The Taliban of 2021 is in a far stronger economic position than when it emerged as one of several factions fighting a civil war in 1994.
As opposed to the still relatively new, inexperienced organisation from northern Pakistan – mostly paid for by money from Saudi Arabia – that ruled most but not all of Afghanistan in the 90s, the Taliban now has maintained a deep financial presence in the country and enjoyed a number of economic wins to fund its operations.
The fundamentalists have maintained a long-running insurgency across the country since its fall in 2001, with a sophisticated financial network and taxation system to fund operations – including recent seizures of key border posts that reportedly earned them millions at the government’s expense.
Afghanistan is also rich in natural resources, and many mining sites are now under Taliban control, where money is duly extorted.
Additionally, the Taliban has deeply embedded itself in the drug trade over the years (which has ensured drug labs where opium is converted into heroin remain key targets for US bombing campaigns).
External funding from abroad also remains a significant source of income.
However, as explained by Sky News business presenter Ian King, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest nations and some Taliban policies – such as preventing women from entering the world of work – will likely only make its economic situation worse.
Despite Afghanistan’s economy paling in comparison to the developed world, the Taliban will need to have an eye on preserving the wins that have been gained since 2001 thanks to the international support enjoyed by the Afghan government and the birth of a new liberalised constitution in 2004.
An international coalition of assistance has seen the country develop infrastructure and rebuild its education system, allowing millions of girls to attend school and young women join universities.
During the 90s, a country ravaged by civil war saw businesses routinely destroyed and capital fleeing the country.
“[In the 1990s] you had a country that was backwards, no infrastructure, a government living by the Quran with no clear legal entity,” says Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) security thinktank.
“If you’re an international country trying to engage with that it was pretty difficult. That’s why you didn’t see this level of engagement [from the Taliban].”
The Taliban will want to maintain Western aid and crucial NGO services to avoid stoking fears at home. International investment in Afghanistan’s infrastructure and resources will also be important to the Taliban’s legitimacy.
This, Mr Pantucci says, is responsible for talk of a new softer approach to human rights policies: “They will be smart…they will recognise they want to have international acknowledgement they will have to give something.”
Sky’s Middle East correspondent Alistair Bunkall, however, says the West should remain sceptical of the Taliban’s pledges and the most the group can hope for is a grudging acceptance of victory from Washington and London.
Recognition from abroad is more likely to come from elsewhere, with China having already indicated that it is willing to work with the new regime and Russia likely to as well.
Critical in the eyes of many in the international community when it comes to judging whether the Taliban has changed will be the treatment of Afghanistan’s minorities.
Though the Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun movement, Afghanistan has numerous ethnic groups. Many faced persecution and mass murder at the hands of the Taliban in the 90s – particularly Shiite Hazaras and the Uzbeks.
But reports surfaced last year that the Taliban had recruited a leader from the Hazara community in an effort to change its image.
“There has been 20 years of a government that has tried to govern for everyone, give everyone equal opportunity. For 20 years you’ve had a generation of Afghans brought up with this opportunity on the table – that’s the difference [between now and the 1990s],” says Mr Pantucci.
Women’s rights will also be a particularly potent issue.
Reports have already surfaced of Taliban fighters going “door-to-door” seeking girls as young as 12 to force into sexual slavery.
When the Taliban came to power in 1996, women were banished from the workforce, all educational institutions, and forced to wear the burqa – the most concealing type of Islamic veil, covering the face and body. Women were also not permitted to leave the home without a male relative and access to health care was severely limited.
Women were publicly flogged, stoned, beaten and often killed for violating Taliban rule.
Recent Taliban statements on women’s rights indicate it’s keen to show the world its leaders are prepared to make some changes – on the surface, at least.
On Sunday, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told the BBC in an impromptu phone-in: “[Girls] are continuing their studies. They are going to schools. The policy is that women can have access to education, and to work, and of course they will observe the hijab – that is it.”
It came despite reports of women already being sent home from work and university in some provinces.
Mr Pantucci says: “[In the 1990s] the Taliban were appealing to a very conservative mindset…the past 20 years has changed how Afghans see [women’s rights]. Though this does seem to be what the central leadership are saying, it’s not necessarily what will happen on the ground.
“Implementation will be spotty…the Taliban are not monolithic, you have lots of different group and factions. If a faction are controlling a certain province who [are against women’s rights], will the Taliban in Kabul say we need to do this or will they let it slide?”
The Taliban is driven by a set of fundamentalist and extreme religious beliefs and are associated with brutality and oppression. With its capture of absolute power in Afghanistan comes talk of a “new chapter of peace” and reforms to address any “grievances” the Afghan people may have with Taliban rule.
But the ethos of the Taliban of old will remain fundamental to Afghanistan’s foreseeable future.
“It will be an Islamic government,” Shaheen said at the weekend.
“We have fought for four decades.”
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