Image: Mohammed Rahmani (Unsplash)


The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan remains resilient for nearly two decades, the Taliban are a radical, Islamic fundamentalist group. The group is largely known for providing refuge to Al-Qaeda and its former leader, Osama Bin Laden. Following the invasion of Afghanistan in 1996, Taliban insurgents regrouped and have since led an insurgency against the United States (US) backed government in Kabul for nearly twenty years. Given the nature of this insurgency, Afghanistan has been continuously characterised by widespread insecurity. However, while many have said that Afghanistan has always been destined for failure, some positive strides have been made towards negotiating peace between the US government and the Taliban. 

Origins and history of the Taliban:

After the Soviet Union withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Afghanistan endured a civil war in which various factions vied for power. During this struggle, a new and unlikely group emerged on which the hopes of peace rested upon. The Taliban, also known as Koran students, was initially a combination of the Mujahideen (who fought against the Soviet Union in the 1980s), and the Madrassas (a group of Pashtun tribesmen who spent time in Pakistani religious schools). Similar to most insurgent groups that exist across the world, the Taliban’s motivations are rooted in the need to topple corrupt state regimes. Popular stories pertaining to the rise of the Taliban are largely centred around its heroic nature, where its leader Mullah Omar freed two girls who were kidnapped and molested by a warlord in the Kandahar province. Despite different variations on the heroic nature of the Taliban, a general consensus between scholars reveals that the group’s motivations started as a local response to the anarchic nature of the Afghan government. 

In November 1994, the Taliban entered Kandahar and seized the capital, Kabul, from President Burhanuddin Rabbani due to the corrupt nature of his governance. As such, insurgents aim to restore conventional Islamic forms of governance in Afghanistan through interpretations of Shari’ah law as they believe that society is based on military muscle as opposed to the tribal heritage that was prominent prior to experiencing years of struggle and strife. This resulted in the Taliban gaining popular support from both local civilians and foreign actors such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. In less than five years, post-invasion, the Taliban had gained control of at least 90 per cent of the country prior to the US invasion in 2001. Research has revealed that today, the Taliban controls some 20 per cent of the territory, the government 30 per cent and the rest of the country remains contested. 

What caused the insurgency?

In response to the 9/11 attack that killed nearly 3000 civilians, the governance under the administration of then President George W Bush ordered an invasion into Afghanistan. A month later, US-led forces toppled the Taliban’s regime which had been in power since 1996. This was mainly as a result of the radical groups’ inability to hand over Osama Bin Laden, who was believed to be the sole cause behind the 9/11 attack in America. This was not the end of the Taliban’s rule. Not only did the radical group gain greater influence than ever before, the Taliban has since led an insurgency against the US-backed government in Kabul. Experts state that the Taliban is stronger than it previously was, and they now control dozens of Afghan districts and they continuously launch attacks against both, civilians and the government. Since this resurgence, US forces have continuously failed to prevent Afghanistan’s government from collapsing and have also failed to end the inhumane attacks that are carried out by the Taliban. With over 1282 civilians being killed in the first half of 2020 and 2176 people wounded during the same period; many have argued that the Afghan war remains America’s greatest failure.

Reasons behind the US failure: 

Despite being a superpower, the US has been outlasted by the Taliban. While there a number of reasons for this, it is important to note that it is mainly through the use of guerrilla tactics that the Taliban stand at the brink of witnessing their most fervent desire: US troops leaving Afghanistan. A recent study investigating the successes of insurgencies revealed that there are two main reasons behind the Taliban being unbeatable; the availability of social resources and the factors that enable military adaptation. These factors are in addition to, both Western and Afghan efforts proving to be deficient which demonstrate present flaws in counterinsurgency tactics and the increased Pakistani support for the Taliban. 

With regards to the availability of social resources, growing insurgencies rely heavily on extracting resources (e.g. funds, supplies and recruits). Moreover, some insurgent groups rely on various acts of terror to enforce discipline within their ranks and to keep local civilians quiet. This tactic is most commonly used within the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Social endowments that take place in this form are essentially the driving mechanisms behind the success of insurgents. Not only do these tactics enable mobilisation, but they also enable insurgencies to develop governance processes and structures that will provide services for local civilians in the territory in which they control. Especially where a corrupt and anarchical government structure is concerned. 

Another factor that drives the success of insurgents is their ability to enable military adaptation. An essential key strategy of war is that all parties involved in the conflict need to be prepared to adapt to their environment and to the opposing side’s strategies and tactics. This usually takes places through training, planning and investing in particular methods of waging war. The Taliban has successfully been able to develop and roll out new tactics through acquiring the equipment necessary to operate in new ways.  Employing new tactics in response to opposition parties have resulted in the counterinsurgency strategies implemented by US troops, which proved to be both insufficient and ineffective. 

Moving towards peace:

It is difficult to say how costly the Afghan war has been, however, in January 2019, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stated that since 2014, at least 45 000 security force members had been killed. Moreover, a 2019 United Nations (UN) report revealed that there were more than 32 000 civilian casualties. Despite the detrimental effects the war has had on human security, an opportunity for peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban is under way in the Gulf state of Qatar. Reports have revealed that through the peace talks, the two parties aim for political reconciliation and an end to decades of violence. Despite the progress being made by negotiating parties, the process is still rooted in mistrust and recrimination. As such, it is difficult to tell whether or not peace in Afghanistan is even possible. 

Nirvaly Mooloo is a final-year student at the University of Pretoria. She is an activist and feminist at heart. Her interests strongly lie in academic fields specialising in Politics and International Relations. Her dream is to one day be the leader that brings change to the livelihoods of others. Nirvaly is one of permanent members of The Art of Politics writing staff.

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