By Emre Aytekin
The Afghan Taliban, who were once at the driving seat in Kabul, have signed a peace deal with the U.S., paving the way for an end to the 18-year conflict, and their possible return to power.
But how did the group become one of the most influential political actors in the war-torn country?
The end of the 10-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1989 led to fighting between warring groups collectively known as the mujahideen.
The 1992 civil war led the country into another chaotic conflict. Due to political instability, there could neither be any governance nor infrastructure development.
In this atmosphere, Taliban came up with the idea of founding a state under “Islamic principles”.
The name Taliban, which means “students,” refers to pupils educated in madrassas (schools for religious education) in the eastern and southern regions of Afghanistan, mostly resided by the Pashtun ethnic group.
In September 1994, Mullah Omar founded the group in the country’s southern Kandahar province with 50 students. He was among the mujahideen who fought the Soviets.
After the capture ended, he started studying at the Sang-i-Hisar madrassa in Mayvand village, northwestern Kandahar. He demanded a system based on Islamic values after toppling of the country’s communist regime.
The movement that started with 50 people reached more than 15,000 in a few months. Students who were displaced in the Afghan war joined him in large numbers.
Pakistan, it is said, supported the organization, hosting its students in large numbers.
With a surprise attack, Taliban seized the center of Kandahar province on Oct. 3, 1994.
By 1995, it took control of 12 Afghan provinces before surrounding Kabul.
The first attempt to seize the capital was repulsed by temporary government forces led by Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Masud.
The group, which faced a heavy loss, gathered strength next year.
On 26 Sep. 1996, Masud and his forces left the city to the north of Hindu Kush Mountains, in order to reorganize against the Taliban invasion.
The next day, Taliban entered Kabul and ended the temporary government, announcing the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. By 1998, it controlled 90% of the country’s territory.
The landlocked country at this time was severely war-torn and lacked water and electricity, with no telecommunication or logistical infrastructure. Even the most basic needs of the people such as clothing, food and medicine were not being met.
The civil war had unsettled the social structure based on family and tribal cooperation.
Approximately one million civilians had died with 100,000 women being widowed and several hundred children orphaned.
Due to problems in access to health care, infant mortality rate touched 25 per 100, one of the highest in the world at the time.
The Afghan nation was in desperate need of humanitarian aid.
However, upon seizing office, the Taliban administration followed a strict Islamic administration, and was highly suspicious of foreign charities.
In the summer of 1998, it announced the closure of all offices of international NGOs, ending their operations in the country henceforth.
‘Aiding and abetting terrorism’
The Taliban regime (1996-2001) was recognized diplomatically by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates only.
During this period, it gave shelter to Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden, who organized some of the foreign mujahideen who fought the Soviets in the 1980s.
As the head of al Qaeda, bin Laden planned and administered international terror acts, and at the same time supported the Taliban financially. Militants connected to him were fighting in Taliban ranks, participating in the attacks on civilians and government forces.
The UN Security Council (UNSC), with decree number 1333 in December 2000, imposed sanctions on the Taliban regime for allowing their controlled regions in Afghanistan to be used as bases for training foreign terrorists, and aiding bin Laden, among other reasons.
9/11 and the American invasion
As part of the Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan weeks after the September 2001 attacks in New York by al Qaeda.
The NATO coalition led by the U.S. and its Afghan supporters, the Northern Alliance, took control of the major provinces one by one.
Taliban retreated from Kabul on Oct. 13, and then from Kandahar in the beginning of December, which was considered as its fortress. Chiefs of both the Taliban and al Qaeda were forced to flee the country.
After toppling the Taliban administration, at the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, Afghan leaders chose Hamid Karzai to head the Afghan Interim Administration, to be elected as president later.
Re-emergence of Taliban
Following the invasion, Taliban, under the leadership of Mullah Omar, regrouped and started guerrilla warfare against the U.S., the NATO-led International Security Assistant Force (ISAF) and the Afghan government.
With ambushes and guerilla attacks in rural areas, and suicide bombers in cities, Taliban started gaining control of certain parts of the country 2006 onwards.
International coalition forces were forced to increase the number of soldiers in the face of Taliban regaining their strength. Between 2009 and 2011, the ISAF command had 140,000 soldiers, 100,000 of which were from the U.S.
In 2012, the U.S. announced ending its operations in the country by December 2014, and started pulling back its soldiers.
On Dec. 28, 2014, NATO officially ended ISAF operations and gave all security responsibilities to the Afghan government. On the same day, it was announced that a NATO-led Resolute Support Mission started, in continuation of the Operation Enduring Freedom.
Forces under the central government could not succeed in keeping the country secure, and the retreat plan also failed. Taliban attacks, in the meantime, carried on.
For the first time in President Barack Obama’s administration, initiatives were made to conduct negotiations between Taliban and Afghan administrations. Attempts in 2011, 2012 and 2013 failed.
In 2015, peace negotiation attempts in coordination with China and Pakistan, also bore no results. This was primarily because the news of Taliban chief Mullah Omar’s death was leaked in public.
Mullah Omar is said to have died from tuberculosis at a Karachi hospital in 2013.
Negotiations were brought into the agenda again after Donald Trump was elected president in 2017.
At the beginning of 2018, President Ashraf Ghani announced they were ready for negotiations with the Taliban, unconditionally. He also promised to recognize Taliban as a legitimate political party and release its prisoners.
The Taliban said its counterpart for peace negotiations was not the Afghan administration, but the U.S., and declined the offer.
On Feb. 25, 2019, the U.S. and Taliban delegates met in Doha, Qatar, for peace talks for the first time.
On Aug. 12, 2019, after completing the eight rounds of negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban, it was announced that the parties were close to a deal.
U.S. President Trump’s special Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced last September that the two parties reached a deal, which awaited Trump’s approval.
However, following a terror attack in Kabul around the same days, which resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier, Trump cancelled the talks.
Negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban restarted in December 2019, which ended with the decision of an active cease-fire under the context of “reduction in violence.”
Following the 7-day process starting on Feb. 22, 2020, a peace deal was signed on Saturday, Feb 29, 2020.
* Writing by Firdevs Bulut