Backgrounder

The Taliban in Afghanistan

Since its ouster in 2001, the Taliban has maintained its insurgency against the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan and the Afghan government. A collapse in intra-Afghan peace negotiations could pave the way for the group’s return to power.
Taliban fighters attend a gathering to celebrate the U.S.-Taliban deal in March 2020.
Taliban fighters attend a gathering to celebrate the U.S.-Taliban deal in March 2020. Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Summary
  • The Islamic fundamentalist group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Since then, it has waged an insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
  • Experts say the Taliban is stronger now than at any point since 2001. With up to eighty-five thousand full-time fighters, it controls one-fifth of the country and continues to launch attacks. 
  • The Taliban started its first direct peace negotiations with the Afghan government in 2020 after signing an agreement with the United States. Little progress has been made.

Introduction

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.

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In 2020, the Taliban signed a peace agreement with the United States and entered into power-sharing negotiations with the Afghan government. However, the Taliban continues to launch attacks against government and civilian targets and controls dozens of Afghan districts. The intra-Afghan talks have mostly stalled, raising questions about whether U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan. Analysts warn that violence could escalate dramatically in 2021 and that the peace process could collapse, increasing the likelihood of an expanded civil war, casualties, and activities by terrorist groups. 

Does the Taliban pose a threat?

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Many experts say the Taliban is a powerful fighting force that threatens Afghan democratic institutions, citizens’ rights, and regional security. The group has withstood counterinsurgency operations from the world’s most powerful security alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and three U.S. administrations in a war that has killed more than 6,000 U.S. troops and contractors [PDF] and over 1,100 NATO troops. Some 46,000 civilians have died, and an estimated 73,000 Afghan troops and police officers have been killed since 2007.

Despite the Taliban’s own losses, estimated to be in the tens of thousands, the group is stronger now than at any point in the last nineteen years. It has between fifty-five thousand and eighty-five thousand full-time fighters. In early 2021, the Taliban controlled an estimated 19 percent of districts, while the government controlled 33 percent, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Long War Journal, a U.S.-based publication that has covered the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda and other militant groups since 2007. The rest of the country was contested by both groups.

The group continues to launch deadly attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 8,820 civilian deaths and injuries [PDF] in 2020. Though that figure was one thousand fewer than in 2019, the last three months of 2020 saw a 45 percent increase in civilian casualties compared to the same period the previous year. During those months, targeted assassinations and improvised explosive device attacks accounted for many of the casualties. UNAMA attributed a majority of the casualties in 2020 to the Taliban and its rival, the Islamic State in Khorasan. Civilians were also caught in the crossfire between insurgents and government forces. Afghan government forces and air strikes, a majority by international military forces, also caused civilian casualties.

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International observers remain concerned that the Taliban supports terrorist organizations, particularly al-Qaeda. The United States invaded Afghanistan after it refused to hand over bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Many U.S. security experts remain concerned that under the Taliban’s rule, Afghanistan would remain a safe haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the United States and its allies. 

In its 2020 report, the UN Taliban monitoring team said the Taliban still has strong ties with al-Qaeda. The Taliban provides al-Qaeda with protection in exchange for resources and training. Between two hundred and five hundred al-Qaeda fighters are believed to be in Afghanistan, and several of its leaders were killed in the country in 2020. U.S. authorities reportedly believe that al-Qaeda’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in Afghanistan [PDF], but in 2020, there were unconfirmed rumors that he had died. The Taliban “regularly consulted” with al-Qaeda leaders during its negotiations with the United States, providing “guarantees that it would honor their historical ties,” the UN monitor reports. Up to 2,200 members of the Islamic State in Khorasan are also present in Afghanistan. 

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How was the Taliban formed?

The group was formed in the early 1990s by Afghan mujahideen, or Islamic guerilla fighters, who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–89) with the covert backing of the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). They were joined by younger Pashtun tribesmen who studied in Pakistani madrassas, or seminaries; taliban is Pashto for “students.” Pashtuns comprise a plurality in Afghanistan and are the predominant ethnic group in much of the country’s south and east. They are also a major ethnic group in Pakistan’s north and west.

The movement attracted popular support in the initial post-Soviet era by promising to impose stability and rule of law after four years of conflict (1992–1996) among rival mujahideen groups. The Taliban entered Kandahar in November 1994 to pacify the crime-ridden southern city, and by September 1996 seized the capital, Kabul, from President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik whom it viewed as anti-Pashtun and corrupt. That year, the Taliban declared Afghanistan an Islamic emirate, with Mullah Mohammed Omar, a cleric and veteran of the anti-Soviet resistance, leading as amir al-mu’minin, or “commander of the faithful.” The regime controlled some 90 percent of the country before its 2001 overthrow.

The Taliban imposed a harsh brand of justice as it consolidated territorial control. Taliban jurisprudence was drawn from the Pashtuns’ pre-Islamic tribal code and interpretations of sharia colored by the austere Wahhabi doctrines of the madrassas’ Saudi benefactors. The regime neglected social services and other basic state functions even as its Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice enforced prohibitions on behavior the Taliban deemed un-Islamic. It required women to wear the head-to-toe burqa, or chadri; banned music and television; and jailed men whose beards it deemed too short.

How has the world responded to the Taliban?

Over the past two decades, governments and international bodies joined U.S.-led efforts to oust the Taliban and bolster Afghanistan’s government, democratic institutions, and civil society in the following ways:

Military force. U.S. troops quickly overthrew the Taliban after they invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. Since then, the Taliban has waged an insurgency against the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan peaked at around one hundred thousand in 2011. In early 2021, there were 2,500 U.S. troops and around 7,000 additional troops from other NATO members. NATO assumed leadership of foreign forces in 2003, marking its first operational commitment outside of Europe. At its height, NATO had more than 130,000 troops from 50 nations in Afghanistan.

Sanctions. The UN Security Council first imposed sanctions on the regime for harboring al-Qaeda in 1999 and expanded the sanctions after 9/11. They target Taliban leaders’ financial assets and ban them from most travel. The Security Council also imposed an arms embargo on the Taliban. The United States and the European Union introduced additional sanctions.

Democratic reforms and aid. Months after the U.S. invasion, UN member states committed to supporting Afghanistan’s transition away from Taliban rule. The United States and NATO spearheaded reconstruction efforts. Dozens of countries also provide assistance to Afghanistan, with 75 percent of the government’s public expenditures currently covered by grants from international partners, according to a World Bank report. During a conference in 2020, donors pledged a total of $3.3 billion in aid.

Investigation. The Taliban is now under investigation in the International Criminal Court for alleged abuses of Afghan civilians, including crimes against humanity, carried out since 2003. U.S. and Afghan forces are also being investigated for alleged war crimes.

Who leads the Taliban?

Analysts believe that the Taliban’s leadership, primarily based outside the country, continues to maintain control over most of its fighters and officials throughout Afghanistan. However, the UN Taliban monitoring team said that internal disagreements, mainly over the peace process and talks with the United States, have “[grown] more pronounced.” 

The leadership council is called the Rahbari Shura and is better known as the Quetta Shura, named for the city in Pakistan where Omar and top aides are believed to have taken refuge after the U.S. invasion. The council makes decisions for all “political and military affairs of the Emirate,” according to the UN monitor. It is currently led by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. (Omar died in 2013 and was succeeded by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a 2016 U.S. air strike in Pakistan.) The leader is supported by deputies, currently Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, Omar’s son; Taliban cofounder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar; and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is also acting head of the Haqqani Network, a militant group in Afghanistan’s southeast and Pakistan’s northwest with close ties to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan’s ISI.

The leadership council oversees various commissions, similar to the ministries in place prior to the Taliban’s overthrow, and administrative organs through which the Taliban operates a shadow government. The commissions focus on areas including economics, education, health, and outreach. The military commission appoints shadow governors and battlefield commanders for each of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. The political commission, headed by Baradar, has been leading negotiations with the United States and is based in Doha, Qatar.

What is the state of the Taliban’s finances and international support?

The Taliban’s primary sources of revenue are opium poppy cultivation and narcotics, with a UN report [PDF] estimating that it earned $400 million in 2018 from the illegal drug trade. It also levies taxes on commercial activities in its territories, such as farming and mining. It has supplemented its income with illicit mining, the extortion of local businesses, and donations from abroad, despite strict UN sanctions.

Many experts say the Pakistani security establishment continues to provide Taliban militants sanctuary in the country’s western tribal areas to try to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad dismisses these charges. (At the same time, Pakistan has battled its own insurgency group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban, which is distinct from the Afghan group.)

Do Afghans support the Taliban?

For years after its fall from power, the Taliban enjoyed support. The U.S.-based nonprofit organization Asia Foundation found in 2009 [PDF] that half of Afghans—mostly Pashtuns and rural Afghans—had sympathy for armed opposition groups, primarily the Taliban. Afghan support for the Taliban and allied groups stemmed in part from grievances against public institutions.

But in 2019, a response to the same survey found only 13.4 percent of Afghans had sympathy for the Taliban [PDF]. As intra-Afghan peace talks began in 2020, 54 percent of Afghans said they believed that Afghanistan could achieve peace [PDF] in the following two years. 

What’s next for the Taliban?

The Taliban signed a peace agreement [PDF] with the administration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump in February 2020 and agreed to enter into its first direct peace talks with the Afghan government. But intra-Afghan talks didn’t start until September due to disagreements about a prisoner exchange. Little progress has been made, and both sides are still reportedly deciding what should be on the agenda. 

Experts say Taliban negotiators and Afghan government officials are waiting to see how the Joe Biden administration proceeds with troop withdrawal. In the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the United States committed to withdrawing all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 if the Taliban carries out its commitments, including cutting ties with terrorist groups. Officials argue that the Taliban hasn’t followed through and that the delayed start to intra-Afghan talks change the timeline for the troop withdrawal. The Biden administration has not yet said whether it will seek an extension of the withdrawal deadline; the International Crisis Group’s Laurel Miller warns that a U.S. decision to indefinitely keep troops in Afghanistan “would kill the peace process.”

During intra-Afghan discussions, many issues need to be resolved, including how power will be shared with the Taliban, what will happen to Afghanistan’s democratic institutions and constitution, and how women’s, LGBTQ+ individuals’, and religious minority groups’ rights will be protected. Taliban representatives have said they would protect women’s rights under sharia but have given few details on what doing so would look like in practice. 

Questions also remain over whether Taliban fighters will be disarmed and reintegrated [PDF] into society and who will lead the country’s army. The Taliban wants to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan, ideally as an emirate, which would be led by a religious leader and draw its legitimacy from clerics. Afghanistan is currently an Islamic republic, which is led by a president and draws legitimacy from universal suffrage and accordance with international laws and norms. 

Analysts disagree on the Taliban’s motives and what the group seeks from intra-Afghan negotiations. Some experts and Afghans fear that the U.S.-Taliban agreement was just an attempt to remove foreign forces from Afghanistan and that it could spark a new conflict that would eventually allow the Taliban to regain control. For the Taliban, “peace doesn’t mean an end to the fighting, it means an end to the U.S. occupation,” says Bill Roggio, an editor for Long War Journal. “After the United States is gone, the Taliban will work to settle its scores and reestablish the Islamic emirate.”

Recommended Resources

CFR’s Max Boot explains Biden’s options for a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

This CFR Backgrounder details the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement.

In its 2021 report, the Afghanistan Study Group offers recommendations for U.S. policy in Afghanistan [PDF].

In Foreign Affairs, Matthew S. Reid and Cybele C. Greenberg discuss Afghanistan’s opium problem.

This RAND Corporation report examines the possible disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration [PDF] of Taliban fighters.

Writing for the U.S. Institute of Peace, Barnett R. Rubin unpacks constitutional issues [PDF] in the Afghan peace negotiations.

Zachary Laub contributed to this Backgrounder.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
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