The big story: Fear engulfs Afghanistan as Taliban takes over

Last week we told you about the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of fighting off the Taliban in the country. The war has its roots in the infamous 9/11 attacks on the US, but the real history goes back even further

Since that last update, and before the US’s official withdrawal on 31 August, Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban with breathtaking speed. This is devastating because of the militant group’s history of brutally repressing women, minorities and dissenters, and providing a haven for Al-Qaeda, which masterminded the 9/11 attacks.

In the 20 years since the Taliban was ousted from power in Afghanistan, women were able to go to school and university again, and work. Young people watched music and sport in stadiums where dissidents were once publicly executed. It’s almost certain this freedom is over. 

Families are destroying any books considered subversive. Girls have hidden their educational diplomas and certificates. Traders are doing a brisk trade in burqas as women scramble to fit in with the Taliban’s stifling idea of religion. As Vogue puts it: “The Taliban have never been about Islamic principles; rather they have always operated by their own set of oppressive and barbaric rules.” 

Current US president Joe Biden honoured his predecessor Donald Trump’s withdrawal agreement with the Taliban. He and others assured the world that, after two decades of training and billions of US taxpayers’ dollars, the Afghan army was ready to hold its own. It wasn’t. Biden has been hammered angrily from all sides in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover.

How did it happen so fast?

The Taliban moved quickly and smartly, negotiating directly with regional leaders for control and pulling the rug out from under President Ashraf Ghani’s administration (Ghani has fled the country). Soldiers were demotivated, abandoned by their leaders – and, as the Taliban won ground, cut off from supplies and salaries. They were reluctant to fight. The Taliban took the capital city Kabul almost bloodlessly. 

“They contacted everyone and offered the chance to surrender or switch sides, with incentives, including money and rewarding people with appointments afterward,” said one expert. 

What’s next for Afghanistan?

Remnants of anti-Taliban fighters are currently holed up in the Panjshir Valley, the only Afghan province not taken by the Taliban. They’re appealing to the west for help, and are rumoured to be in touch with the Taliban for a power-sharing agreement. 

Meanwhile, the Taliban has been all over the international media. Its message is clear: Afghanistan will be peaceful, and it will respect human rights. Children will be allowed to go to school, media freedom will be protected, and there will be no retribution for those who partnered with the US. But for now, reports from the ground are mixed. It’s a sad day for freedom. 

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 19 August 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.