Afghanistan: A Brief History
By Lucy Wright
The media is flooded with heart breaking images of the people of Afghanistan, desperately trying to flee their home. Constant updates on the escalating crisis dominate headlines and news reports. Fractured glimpses of a country paralysed by memories of a brutal past, and anxious for the future. One image in particular haunts the collective mind: an infant is lifted over the barricades of Kabul airport into the hands of a US soldier: an act of parental desperation that is far removed from the realities of our everyday lives. Desperation: the dominant mood in Kabul and beyond, as the citizens of Afghanistan pre- empt the destruction that a return of the Taliban to power will bring. Destruction of the progress that has been made to Afghanistan’s society and economy, most prominently, the significant improvements in women’s rights. A reversal of a way of life that the Afghan people have fought so hard to secure, fears that it will soon be shattered. To contextualise the desperation and despair, it is important to question who the Taliban are, in order to understand why their return to power has caused an internal and international outcry.
In April 1978, Mohammed Daoud Khan, president of the single party republic of Afghanistan is assassinated during a communist coup d’etat. Seeking to modernise the country, Mohammed Daoud Khan received aid from the dominant superpowers, the Soviet Union and the USA, who were competing for influence within the country. The communist agenda triumphed, and the Soviet backed government pushed wide ranging reforms. Seeking to modernise the country, the regime abolished most traditional and religious societal structures, causing widespread insurrection and Soviet involvement in the long war of attrition. The Soviet Afghan war of 1979-1989 caused millions of refugees to flee the country and was considered the starting point for the 9-year fight between the mujahideen – Afghan guerrillas – and troops from the Soviet Union. Supporting the mujahideen was money and weapons provided by the CIA, allowing the rebels to eventually triumph over the Soviet Union. The Soviets officially withdrew from Afghanistan on the 15th of May 1988, ending one year later on the 15th of May 1989.
Following the withdrawal of Soviet forces, a power vacuum is created within the country. April 1992: the ensuing chaos leads to a civil war. By 1994, a militia called the Taliban began gaining momentum. Translated to English as ‘students’ or ‘seekers’ , many of the group’s members had studied in conservative religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some had fought as mujahideen during the Soviet occupation. The ultraconservative group take over the southern city of Kandahar, and quickly impose their harsh interpretation of Islam on the territory under their control. Their goal is to seize Kabul and establish an Islamic government. Attempting to capitalise on civilian frustrations of the lawlessness witnessed in Afghanistan, the Taliban promises to make cities safe again.
By September 1996, the Taliban had seized Kabul, declaring Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate. Many of the capital’s residents hail them as saviours. The people of Kabul had emerged from a country in the grip of a vicious civil war that had destroyed their city and killed thousands of people. When gaining control in the south, they had chased out the gunmen who had terrorized the population. “We wanted an end to the warlords, and we wanted national unity,” recalled Nasimi. “The Taliban gave us that.” Yet it was their oppressive and intermittently brutal practices that characterised their rule. The Taliban began imposing their own strict interpretation of Islamic law, and restrictive measures translated into atrocities and abuses of human rights, particularly targeting women and minorities.
The Amr bel Maaruf, or the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, patrolled the streets looking for those who strayed outside the narrow confines of their laws. “It was like being in prison,” said Abdul Qadir. “We lost the feeling of being young.” Subjugated and oppressed, women were largely restricted to the home, and most girls were barred from education. Universities continued to function, with young women absent from all faculties except medicine.
The totalitarian rule of the Taliban lasted for five years. Their downfall began in October 2001, a direct result of Saudi-born al-Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden, who had received protection by the Taliban. Following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the US demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden. When they refused, the US coalition forces and the northern alliance invaded, launching Operation Enduring Freedom targeting the Taliban and al-Qaida with military strikes. By November 13th, the Taliban had fled south, their regime overthrown, leaving Afghanistan with an interim government. In the years following the US invasion, Afghanistan witnessed devastating conflict and remained deeply unstable. The Taliban, meanwhile, regrouped and remained a force to be reckoned with, still controlling portions of Afghanistan. The insurgency saw themselves as fighting international occupation, fighting what they believed to be the illegitimate government in Kabul, instead viewing themselves as a voice of resistance to restore a purer Islamic society to Afghanistan. An almost parallel state, the Taliban remained well organised, with a strong political structure and offering their form of justice via the sharia courts. Yet in 2019, the Asia Foundation found that 85% of people have no sympathy for the Taliban.
Afghanistan. A fractured past. A fearful future. We must hope for her people, that history does not repeat itself.
Image Source: The Atlantic