What the return of the Taliban means for Afghanistan
Twenty years after being dislodged from power by a U.S. invasion, the Taliban again took charge of Afghanistan in August, prompting the U.S. and its allies to expedite their planned exit from the country. The strict Islamic fundamentalists - whose previous five-year rule was characterized by the oppression of women and minorities, and the harboring of international terrorists - pledged to do things somewhat differently this time. Those vows met with skepticism among the world's governments and multilateral institutions, which withheld recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate authority in Afghanistan, blocked access to billions of dollars in Afghan assets held overseas and severed the development assistance that had long propped up the economy.
Did the world cut off aid to Afghanistan entirely?
No. Humanitarian assistance continued to flow. In fact, commitments to provide it - by the U.S., wealthy European countries and China - increased after the Taliban takeover, motivated in part by the desire to avert a mass exodus of Afghan refugees. However, the need was great. Before the suspension of non-humanitarian aid, foreign donors had financed about 75% of public spending. With the supply of money tight, many local companies closed, banks limited withdrawals, and workers were left unpaid. The Taliban dismissed the Afghan police and military forces, previously huge employers, altogether. United Nations officials warned that by mid-2022 as much as 97% of the country's 39 million people could be living in poverty, up from about 72% in 2020. Even before the regime change, the supply of food was an issue, as Afghanistan has been afflicted by drought and relies heavily on imports. In September and October, nearly half the population lacked regular access to sufficient safe and nutritious food, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
What's the status of women under the Taliban?
During their previous stint in power, the Taliban barred women from education, from work and even from leaving home without a male escort. This time, the group's leaders signaled a softening of these policies, but it's unclear how far changes will go. The Taliban no longer require women, when in public, to don the burka, a one-piece garment covering the face and body with just a mesh screen to see through. Instead they insisted on a headscarf and non-revealing clothing. In the first few months after the takeover, women were allowed to work for the most part only in the health and education fields. Girls were permitted to attend gender-segregated schooling up to the sixth grade but generally not the higher grades. Women had access to some universities and not others. The Taliban included no women in their cabinet and disbanded the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Many prominent Afghan women leaders either fled the country or went into hiding.
What about minorities?
The Taliban, who follow the Sunni branch of Islam, are overwhelmingly Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. Their previous rule was marked by offenses - including forcible displacement, rape and forced marriages of women - against other groups, especially Hazaras, who are Shiite Muslims. The Taliban's 53-member cabinet named in September was dominated by Pashtuns, though it did include 10 members of other groups that collectively make up almost half the population, including a Hazara as deputy health minister. At the same time, Taliban officials evicted thousands of Hazaras from their homes in five provinces, according to Human Rights Watch.
What are the Taliban's relations with terrorist groups?
Afghanistan is a magnet for Muslim extremists because of its weak government and legendary status as the place where jihadis first defeated a superpower - the Soviet Union in 1989. Two groups are of greatest concern to the U.S. and its allies:
Al-Qaeda: The American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was provoked by the Taliban's refusal to extradite al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after his group attacked the U.S. homeland on Sept. 11 of that year. An al-Qaeda force ranging from several dozen to 500 men remains in Afghanistan, according to a report by a UN Security Council committee. In exchange for a U.S. promise to remove its forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban agreed in early 2020 to prevent groups from using the country as a launchpad for attacks. Months before gaining power, the Taliban began tightening their control over al-Qaeda by registering foreign jihadis and restricting them, the UN committee said. However, ties between the groups remain close through shared ideology and intermarriage. American intelligence officials have estimated that al-Qaeda would need a year or two to rebuild the capacity to strike the U.S. at home again.
Islamic State: The Afghan franchise of this group, known as IS-Khorasan, is much more active than al-Qaeda and has an estimated 2,200 fighters. It is at odds with the Taliban, with whom it has fought for years. Islamic State views the Muslim world as one entity that should be united under a single Islamic ruler and lambasts the Taliban for being a nationalist movement. It continued to carry out attacks, often aimed at Afghanistan's Shiite community, after the U.S. and its allies left the country. The Taliban have vowed to combat the group and have an incentive to do so, as IS-Khorasan seeks to lure away Taliban fighters who want an even stricter interpretation of Islamic law in Afghanistan.
The U.S. vowed to combat threats from Afghanistan after its military withdrawal using so-called over-the-horizon capabilities, which include drone, missile and long-range bomber strikes as well as commando infiltrations. However, the loss of in-country bases and on-the-ground intelligence makes it much more difficult to pull off such operations successfully.