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The Taliban are returning to power in Afghanistan after two decades - but who are they?

The last time the Taliban had control over the country, women and girls were mostly denied education or employment.

Taliban fighters raising their flag at the Ghazni provincial governor's house in southeastern Afghanistan yesterday.
Taliban fighters raising their flag at the Ghazni provincial governor's house in southeastern Afghanistan yesterday.
Image: Gulabuddin Amiri/PA

AS THOUSANDS OF people rushed to the airport in Afghanistan’s capital city today, victorious Taliban fighters have been patrolling Kabul after the swift collapse of Afghanistan’s government.

President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country yesterday after Taliban fighters encircled the capital, topping off a military victory that saw them capture all of the country’s key cities.

Governments in other countries have been urging their citizens to leave Afghanistan for weeks, and scenes at Kabul airport today showed hordes of people trying helplessly to board a US aircraft as it made its way down a runway on its journey out of the city.

The images show the culmination of weeks of tensions in the country, which has seen the Taliban return to power two decades after being ousted by US forces – but who are the group and why are people desperately trying to leave a country now under their control?

Who are the Taliban? 

The Taliban movement originated among young Afghans who studied in Sunni Islamic schools in Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of 1979-1989. 

The word Taliban comes from ‘talib’, the Arabic word for student. 

The group was founded by Mullah Baradar and Mullah Omar in the early 1990s. Promising to restore order and justice, they drew substantial support from Pakistan and initially had the tacit approval of the United States.

embedded261729862 The Taliban flag at the Ghazni provincial governor’s house in Afghanistan. Source: PA

Gaining power in 1994, they seized the city of Kandahar almost without a fight. After this, they steadily moved north and eventually captured Kabul in September 1996.

The country’s president at the time, Burhanuddin Rabbani, fled when they took control.

Former president Mohammed Najibullah was hanged in a public street by Taliban fighters at the time. 

After taking charge of Afghanistan, the Taliban government imposed the strictest interpretations of Sharia law on the country’s citizens – a major reason why people are now trying to flee. 

People are also worried that the country could descend into chaos or the Taliban could carry out revenge attacks against those who worked with the US or the government.

By 1998, the Taliban had control of 80% of Afghanistan, but were only recognised as the legal government by Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The US and its allies subsequently launched air strikes on the country in October 2001 following the 9/11 attacks.

By early December, the Taliban government had fallen and its leaders fled to their strongholds in the south and east, or across the border into Pakistan.

The Taliban have been clear with their current aim – the complete resurrection of their Islamic emirate that ruled from 1996-2001.

politics-afghanistan Areas of control in Afghanistan showing how the Taliban made huge gains over the course of the past month. Source: Press Association Images

Previous reign

Under the hardline version of Sharia law that the Taliban imposed the last time they were in power, Afghani women and girls were mostly denied education or employment.

Full face coverings became mandatory in public and women could not leave home without a male companion.

Public floggings and executions, including stoning for adultery, were carried out in city squares and stadiums. Music and television were also banned. 

The Taliban’s ousting did not spell the end of abuses, but over the last two decades, human rights improved, particularly in cities, as women were allowed to attend universities and had more choice in the workforce.

In the weeks leading up to their return to power, the Taliban sought to reassure people that Afghans should not fear them, and said they would not take revenge against those who supported the US-backed alliance.

In a message posted to social media, Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar called on his fighters to remain disciplined after taking control of the city.

“Now it’s time to test and prove, now we have to show that we can serve our nation and ensure security and comfort of life,” he said.

However, fear and scepticism remain, given the laws that were in place during their previous reign. 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently urged the Taliban and all parties to “exercise restraint” and said the rights of women and girls must be protected.

afghanistan Taliban fighters in the Afghan presidential palace yesterday. Source: AP/PA Images

Inner workings 

The precise strength of the Taliban is not accurately known. UN Security Council monitors last year said the group had between 55,000 and 85,000 fighters.

Their finances are also unclear. Their revenues are estimated between $300 million-$1.5 billion (€255 million-€1.3 billion) a year, according to UN monitors.

They generate funds from Afghanistan’s huge narcotics industry, through extortion of businesses, other criminal activities, and by imposing taxes in the areas under their control, the monitors said.

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The Taliban movement’s inner workings and leadership are largely shrouded in secrecy.

Haibatullah Akhundzada was appointed leader of the Taliban in a swift power transition after a US drone strike killed his predecessor – Mullah Mansour Akhtar – in 2016.

Before ascending the movement’s ranks, Akhundzada was a low-profile religious figure. 

embedded5819986 Taliban fighters patrol inside the city of Kandahar, south-west Afghanistan. Source: Sidiqullah Khan/AP

Sirajuddin Haqqani doubles as both the deputy leader of the Taliban movement while also heading the powerful Haqqani network.

The Haqqani Network is a US-designated terror group that has long been viewed as one of the most dangerous factions fighting Afghan and US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan during the past two decades.

The group is infamous for its use of suicide bombers and is believed to have orchestrated some of the most high-profile attacks in Kabul over the years.

Mullah Yaqoob, the son of the the movement’s co-founder Mullah Omar, heads the group’s powerful military commission, which oversees a vast network of field commanders charged with executing the insurgency’s strategic operations in the war.

With reporting by AFP and Press Association.

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