History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, or so says Mark Twain. But in the case of Afghanistan it is almost déjà vu. The current swift and spectacular takeover of the country by Taliban has been seen before — when the group moved from Pakistan’s bordering areas in 1994 to fully conquer Afghanistan two years later.
The extremist group established back then its ‘Islamic Emirate’ that ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001. It ended when the US invaded the country in October of that year and ousted their government following the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks in the US.
Taliban today is on the verge of restoring their Islamic Emirate after virtually capturing all the country. The quick victory by Taliban was of course made possible by the US decision to withdraw from the country by next month.
The US and Taliban have been talking in Doha since 2018 and in February last year they signed a ‘peace deal’ under which the US pledged to withdraw its troops and Taliban pledged to refrain from attacking American and other foreign forces.
The fate of the Ashraf Ghani led government was left out of the deal, giving credence to earlier speculations that the US is not entirely against the return of Taliban regime as long as it commits to the deal — not to attack US and Western interests and refrain from harbouring or abetting terrorist groups as they did in the past.
Taliban leaders claimed recently that they have learnt from their past mistakes. But the recent confirmed reports of abuse and abductions by the group’s fighters in cities — that fell to them last week — seem more consistent with the behaviour when they were in power two decades ago.
Rise of the students
Taliban, which means students, was born in the late 1980s in the last years of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and came to the scene in the early 1990s when they descended from Pakistan’s bordering areas, where they were studying religion in the traditional ‘Madrasas’. They challenged the transitional government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a leader of the early Mujahideen, who turned against each other following the Soviet withdrawal.
Led by an unknown Madrasa teacher, the seldom seen, Mullah Omar, Taliban, with light weapons and thousands of young fighters, began their military campaign to unseat the government in 1994.
Their campaign surprisingly picked up steam as a city after city surrendered to them. In September 1995, Taliban captured the strategic province of Herat, bordering Iran, and in 1996 they captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, ousting the Rabbani government. In 1996, Mullah Omar declared the birth of the Islamic Emirate.
The Taliban have had actually some support, and popularity in their first couple of years in powers as they were seen by the public as straightforward and anticorruption. Roads became safer and business in major cities began to grow.
Life under Taliban
But as things stabilised for the new regime, its leaders began to implement their strict interpretation of the religion on the country, including rife unchecked abuse of power, extrajudicial punishments for even minor infractions, public hangings, banning work and education of women, banning television, arts and music, forcing men to grow beards and women to wear the Burka.
Despite the unbearable conditions, the Afghans suffered under the rule of Taliban, the world chose to ignore the reports and images of torture and abuse even as hundreds of Afghans fled the country for refuge in Pakistan, Iran and in countries as far as western Europe and the US.
As human rights groups began to issue regular reports on the wide abuse of human rights in the war-ravaged country, Taliban, in an attempt to appease its domestic and foreign critics, decided in 1998 to write a constitution.
In that year, Mullah Omar summoned hundreds of religious scholars from different provinces who conferred for three days. The result was a 14-page document, described by the Crisis Group as “the first and only attempt by the Taliban to codify its views on power and governance.”
The document, whose text was full of religious terms, attempted to actually term all the abusive behaviour as lawful exercise of power by the supreme leader of the group, Mullah Omar who was named by the document as Amir Al Momineen, Commander of the faithful.
All powers were to be centralised in his hands without any restriction or time limit on his rule. He is the ultimate authority, head of state and would appoint ministers and members of a legislature, Shura council.
Terrorism and end of the regime
Taliban continued their uninterrupted rule until the day they decided, in 2001, to destroy the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues in central Afghanistan, which were designated by the United Nations as protected universal heritage. They bombed the statues despite wide world anger. But it was their sponsoring of terrorism that actually led to their fall.
As an Islamic regime with major grievances about the West’s treatment of Muslims around the world, Afghanistan became the preferred destination for extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden, who at the time was being evicted from Sudan.
Bin Laden was introduced to Mullah Omar and the two seem to have found many things in common. Bin Laden, who was not short of money — through his own wealth and the generous donations from around the Arab world at the time, was also seen by the Taliban as a way out from the economic crisis of Afghanistan which had no viable revenue at the time other than the remittances of the Afghans living abroad.
According to the US Congress Sep. 11, 2001 Commission Report, Taliban opened all doors to Bin Laden and his terrorist outfit. “Through his relationship with Mullah Omar — and the monetary and other benefits that it brought the Taliban — Bin Laden was able to circumvent restrictions; Mullah Omar would stand by him even when other Taliban leaders raised objections.”
Report suggest that Bin Laden had freedom of movement in Afghanistan that he had lacked in Sudan. Al Qaeda members were able to travel freely within the country, enter and exit without official procedures, purchase cars, import vehicles, weapons and equipment without the need for official transactions. They used license plates of the Ministry of Defence on their cars and used the state airlines to bring in people, money and cargo.
Afghanistan was also used as training camp for new al Qaeda recruits. The report estimated that up to 20,000 young men received military training in those Bin Laden camps.
Taliban of course paid a heavy price for that support when al Qaeda attacked America on Sep. 11, 2001. American invasion quickly ousted the Taliban regime and installed a pro-US government. Today, this government is being ousted by the Taliban.
Taliban claims they have changed. And that they will be functioning as a modern government. But that is what they had said in the early months of their first rule, in the late 1990s before they became a major source of regional tension and a key patron of international terrorism.
And that is, analysts say, what the world should brace for now. Or is this Taliban 2.0? Only time will tell.