On Sunday, Taliban militants retook Afghanistan’s capital, almost two decades after they were driven from Kabul by US troops.
The Taliban’s swift success has prompted questions over how the insurgent group was able to gain control so soon after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan — and, after almost 20 years of conflict in the US’ longest running war, what the Taliban want.
Who are the Taliban?
After the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, the Sunni Islamist organization put in place strict rules. Women had to wear head-to-toe coverings, weren’t allowed to study or work and were forbidden from traveling alone. TV, music and non-Islamic holidays were also banned.
The attack was orchestrated by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who operated from inside of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Less than a month after the attack, US and allied forces invaded Afghanistan, aiming to stop the Taliban from providing a safe-haven to al Qaeda — and to stop al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base of operations for terrorist activities.
In the two decades since they were ousted from power, the Taliban have been waging an insurgency against the allied forces and the US-backed Afghan government.
Who are the leaders?
The Taliban are led by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a senior religious cleric from the Taliban’s founding generation.
What did the Taliban agree to with Trump?
But that didn’t bring about peace.
The report warned that an emboldened Taliban posed a severe and expanding threat to the government of Afghanistan. The report argued that the Taliban leadership had no interest in the peace process and appeared to be focused on strengthening its military position to give it leverage in negotiations — or, if necessary, in using armed force.
“The Taliban’s messaging remains uncompromising, and it shows no sign of reducing the level of violence in Afghanistan to facilitate peace negotiations with the Government of Afghanistan and other Afghan stakeholders,” the report said.
What do the Taliban want?
The Taliban have tried to present themselves as different from the past — they have claimed to be committed to the peace process, an inclusive government, and willing to maintain some rights for women.
Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen said women would still be allowed to continue their education from primary to higher education — a break from the rules during the Taliban’s past rule between 1996 and 2001. Shaheen also said diplomats, journalists and non-profits could continue operating in the country.
“That is our commitment, to provide a secure environment and they can carry out their activities for the people of Afghanistan,” he said.
“International humanitarian law and human rights, especially the hard-won gains of women and girls, must be preserved,” he said.
Amin Saikal, the author of “Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival,” said the Taliban did not want Afghanistan to become a pariah state, and wanted to continue receiving international aid. But, Saikal said: “As far as their ideological commitment is concerned, they have not really changed.”
Why were the Taliban so strong against the Afghan forces?
Over the past two decades, the US spent more than a trillion dollars in Afghanistan. It trained Afghan soldiers and police and provided them with modern equipment.
Ultimately, though, the Afghan forces proved to be no match for the Taliban.
Carter Malkasian, a former senior adviser to the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is also the author of “The American War in Afghanistan: A History,” said the Afghan forces sometimes lacked coordination and suffered from poor morale. The more defeats they had, the worse their morale became, and the more emboldened the Taliban were.
“Afghan forces, for a long period of time, have had problems with morale and also their willingness to fight the Taliban,” he said. “The Taliban can paint themselves as those who are resisting and fighting occupation, which is something that is kind of near and dear to what it means to be Afghan. Whereas that’s a much harder thing for the government to claim, or the military forces fighting for the government.”
Taliban spokesman Shaheen said they weren’t surprised by their successful military offensive.
“Because we have roots among the people, because it was a popular uprising of the people, because we knew that we had been saying this for the last 20 years,” he said. “But no one believed us. And now when they saw, and they were taken by surprise because before that they didn’t believe.”
Could the US have known that the Taliban would return?
Just last month, senior officials in the Biden administration believed it could take months before the civilian government in Kabul fell.
American officials have expressed dismay at the now fallen US-backed Afghan government’s inability to protect key cities and regions from the Taliban, despite laying out a strategy for doing so during his communications with Biden and other senior US leaders.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the “lack of resistance that the Taliban faced from Afghan forces has been extremely disconcerting.”
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Jason Hoffman, Kylie Atwood, Jennifer Hansler, Nicole Gaouette and Nic Robertson contributed reporting.