The Taliban takeover of Kabul, as foreign delegations leave the country, marks the end of yet another stage in Afghanistan's troubled history. The Asian country has seen wars and invasions that have led to long years of violence and instability since the 1970s. The image of US helicopters evacuating the US Embassy in the capital has become a symbol of the end of foreign intervention in Afghanistan. An invasion that began two decades ago and has ended with the Taliban in power, as it did in 1996.
However, the takeover of Kabul in that year was very different from today. When the Taliban arrived in the capital, they seized former USSR-allied President Mohammed Najibullah and his brother. Both were taking refuge in the UN headquarters in the capital. After torturing them to death, their corpses were hung up so that everyone could get an idea of the brutality of the new Islamist regime.
Twenty-five years later, the image of the Taliban marching through Kabul is being repeated, although this time the transfer of power is taking place in a "peaceful" manner, as reported by Afghan Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal. The government knew what would happen if they chose to confront the insurgents, so they decided to hand over power to them with little resistance. The end of Kabul has been the same as the end for many of the conquered provincial capitals. Many governors, surrendered to the Taliban, did not order to defend themselves in exchange for leaving the country safely. This was also done by President Ashraf Ghani, who has moved to Tajikistan, according to local media reports.
Afghan armed forces have also fled in many of the clashes with the Taliban. Thousands of soldiers moved to neighbouring countries such as Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Afghan army has been trained and equipped by the US in recent years. Even so, it was unable to cope with the Taliban advance, and Washington's attempt to rebuild the national armed forces failed.
"It is time to end America's longest war", was how Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in April. With this phrase also began the reorganisation of the Taliban who, taking advantage of the withdrawal of foreign armies, began to expand throughout the country. Three months later, no one expected the insurgents to conquer most of Afghanistan, including its capital and some of the most geostrategically important cities.
At this point, many wonder what the intervention, which has cost Washington and other NATO countries billions of dollars, has been for. Moreover, it is necessary to take into account the thousands who have died over the past two decades. The US has lost some 2,448 soldiers and 3,846 contractors from the start of operations in Afghanistan until April 2021. On the other hand, 1,144 soldiers from allied countries died fighting alongside Washington. Within the Afghan army and security forces, the death toll stands at 66,000.
As usual, civilians pay the highest price in wars. Since the beginning of the invasion, 51,191 Afghans have died, many of them collateral victims of the violent clashes between the international coalition and the Taliban. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan is the country with the third highest number of displaced people. A figure that, due to recent events, will increase significantly in the coming months.
On the other hand, 444 humanitarian workers and 72 journalists died during these years, according to Associated Press data.
In 2019, the World Bank described Afghanistan as "a sea of uncertainty" despite achieving 2.9 per cent growth that year. The financial institution warned of rising poverty rates. Some 40 per cent of the Afghan population lives below the poverty line, according to the NGO Oxfam.
The Taliban's rise to power will further worsen the economic outlook. "While sustained peace would raise development prospects, the failure of talks could exacerbate violence, leading to loss of life, destruction, and potentially a refugee crisis that would hamper the authorities' ability to undertake reforms," the International Monetary Fund warned a month ago.
Although the Taliban have not yet organised the country politically, there are certain names of key figures within the movement who could play a role in the future government. Among these is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzadeh, who was appointed Taliban leader in May 2016 after the death of Akhtar Muhammad Mansur. Akhundzadeh, originally from Kandahar, achieved unity within the movement in some of the power struggles the Taliban have gone through.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader is one of the founders of the Taliban movement and was a military commander until he was arrested in 2010 in the Pakistani city of Karachi. He was released 8 years later and subsequently led negotiations with the Americans.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of one of the most famous leaders of anti-Soviet military operations, is the second-in-command of the movement as well as the leader of the Haqqani network. The Haqqani network has been considered a terrorist network by Washington and is one of the most dangerous factions to have fought against NATO forces over the past two decades. The Haqqani network is known for its suicide bombings, some of which are among the most violent the country has experienced.
Finally, there is Mullah Yaqoub, head of the military committee. Yaqoub wields great influence in the movement and has organised many of the war strategies against the Afghan government.
Moreover, this new government is expected to be based on Sharia, like the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996. This state forced men to grow beards, while women had to wear a burqa and obey the men.
It is precisely women who will suffer the most under this new extremist government. As the Taliban took over new towns, the women who lived there saw their rights diminished. In many of these towns, some were flogged in public and a women's rights activist was even murdered in Balkh. No more study, no more work, no more going out on the streets alone, no more choosing their own clothes. Afghan women are no longer masters of their own lives. The Taliban's rise to power has turned them into second-class citizens, taking away their voice, their face and their freedom.