How the Taliban went from international pariah to U.S. peace partner in Afghanistan
In the mid-1990s, U.S. oil company Unocal attempted to secure a gas-pipeline deal with the Taliban, which had seized control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, after a devastating civil war.
It was the United States' first attempt to forge a partnership with the fundamentalist Taliban regime, which was not recognized by the international community.
Unocal even flew senior Taliban members to Texas in 1997 in an attempt to come to an agreement.
Zalmay Khalilzad, who had served as a State Department official when Ronald Reagan was president, worked as a consultant for the now-defunct company.
Khalilzad, who met with the Taliban members in the city of Houston, publicly voiced support for the radical Islamists at the time. The "Taliban does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran -- it is closer to the Saudi model," Khalilzad wrote in a 1996 op-ed for The Washington Post. "The group upholds a mix of traditional Pashtun values and an orthodox interpretation of Islam."
Negotiations over the pipeline collapsed in 1998, when Al-Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. By then, the terrorist group, led by Osama bin Laden, had relocated from Sudan to Afghanistan, where it was offered safe harbor by the Taliban.
Suddenly, the Taliban went from a potential U.S. economic partner to an international pariah that was hit by U.S. sanctions and air strikes.
Three years later, the United States invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime after Al-Qaeda carried out the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania that killed nearly 3,000 people.
But now, after waging a deadly, nearly 19-year insurgency that has killed several thousand U.S. troops, the Taliban has regained its status as a potential U.S. partner.
On February 29, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement aimed at ending the United States' longest military action. The deal lays out a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for various security commitments from the insurgents and a pledge to hold talks over a political settlement with the Afghan government -- which it so far has refused to do.
The deal -- signed before a bevy of international officials and diplomats in Doha, Qatar -- has given the Taliban what it has craved for years: international legitimacy and recognition.
Meanwhile, the agreement has undermined the internationally recognized government in Kabul, which was not a party to the accord.
The architect of the deal was Khalilzad, the U.S. special peace envoy for Afghanistan, who secured a deal following 18 months of grueling negotiations with the militants in Qatar. The Afghan-born Khalilzad had served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq in the intervening years since working as a Unocal adviser.
"There's a 20-year bell curve, from 1998 to 2018, when the Taliban went from partner to peak pariah and now back to partner," says Ted Callahan, a security expert on Afghanistan. But the "changes that have occurred have been less within the Taliban movement and more based on U.S. instrumentalism and war fatigue."
The extremist group's transformation to a potential U.S. ally was considered unthinkable until recently.
During its brutal rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban oppressed women, massacred ethnic and religious minorities, and harbored Al-Qaeda.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban has killed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, fueled the illicit opium trade, and sheltered several terrorist groups.
"U.S. officials are selling the Taliban as a partner when it is anything but," says Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at a Washington-based think tank, the Foundation for Defense Of Democracies, and editor of the Long War Journal. "This is a fiction made up by U.S. officials who are desperate for a deal that will cover the military withdrawal from Afghanistan."
Radicalized In Pakistan
The Taliban, which means "students" in Pashto, emerged in 1994 in northwestern Pakistan following the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The predominantly ethnic Pashtun group first appeared in ultraconservative Islamic madrasahs, or religious schools, in Pakistan, where millions of Afghans had fled as refugees. Funded by Saudi Arabia, the madrasahs radicalized thousands of Afghans who joined the mujahedin, the U.S.-backed Islamist rebels who fought the Soviets.
The Taliban first appeared in the southern city of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, in 1994, two years after the mujahedin seized power in the country. Infighting among mujahedin factions fueled a devastating civil war that killed more than 100,000 people in Kabul.
The Taliban promised to restore security and enforce its ultraconservative brand of Islam. It captured Kabul in 1996 and two years later controlled some 90 percent of the country.
Neighboring Pakistan is widely credited with forming the Taliban, an allegation it has long denied. Islamabad was among only three countries -- including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- to recognize the Taliban regime when it ruled Afghanistan.
The Taliban was led by its spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, the reclusive, one-eyed cleric who was a mujahedin. Omar died of natural causes at a hospital in Pakistan in 2013, with the group's leadership covering up his death for two years. He was believed to be leading the Afghan Taliban insurgency from within Pakistan.
War-weary Afghans initially welcomed the Taliban, which cracked down on corruption and lawlessness and brought stability across much of the country.
But the welcome was short-lived. The religious zealots enforced strict edicts based on their extreme interpretation of Shari'a law -- banning TV and music, forcing men to pray and grow beards, making women cover themselves from head to toe, and preventing women and girls from working or going to school.
The Taliban amputated the hands of thieves, publicly flogged people for drinking alcohol, and stoned to death those who engage in adultery. Executions were common.
Besides its notorious treatment of women, the Taliban also attracted international condemnation when in 2001 it demolished the 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, a testament to the country's pre-Islamic history and a treasured, unique world cultural monument.
'We Were All Scared'
Orzala Nemat is a leading women's rights activist in Afghanistan. Under Taliban rule, she risked her life by creating a network of underground girls schools across the country. Classes were held secretly in living rooms, tents, and abandoned buildings. The teachers were often older girls or educated women.
Girls attending the classes would often come in twos to avoid suspicion and carry a Koran, Islam's holy book, in case they were stopped by the Taliban.
"We were all scared," says Nemat, who now heads a leading Kabul think tank. "They would probably flog us, put us in prison, and punish us [if we were caught]."
Under the Taliban, Isaq Ahmadi earned a living by playing soccer for one of the dozen teams created and funded by various Taliban leaders in Kabul. While the Taliban banned many sports and other forms of public entertainment, soccer and cricket thrived.
"It was a very difficult and dark time," he says. "There were no jobs, food shortages, and no public services."
During Taliban rule, the United Nations said 7.5 million Afghans faced starvation. Even then, the Taliban restricted the presence of aid groups in Afghanistan.
The Taliban regime generated most of its money from Islamic taxes on citizens and handouts from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, its only allies. The Taliban failed to provide basic needs and Kabul lay in tatters after the brutal civil war of 1992-96.
The Taliban attracted the world's attention after the September 11 attacks on the United States. The regime had harbored bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders responsible for the terrorist attacks. But the Taliban steadfastly refused to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders for prosecution and, in October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan.
By December, the Taliban regime was toppled with help from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Most Taliban leaders, including Al-Qaeda founder bin Laden, evaded capture and resettled in Pakistan's tribal areas and the southwestern city of Quetta, where its leadership is still based.
By 2005, the Taliban had reorganized and unleashed a deadly insurgency against foreign troops and the new democratically elected government in Kabul. Despite U.S.-led surges in troops and an escalation in air strikes, international and Afghan forces were unable to stop the Taliban from extending its influence in the vast countryside.
The Taliban enjoyed safe havens and backing from Pakistan, a claim Islamabad has denied. The insurgency was also funded by the billions of dollars the group made from the illicit opium trade.
Today, the militants control or contest more territory -- around half of the country -- than at any other time since 2001.
Meanwhile, the Kabul government is unpopular, corrupt, bitterly divided, and heavily dependent on foreign assistance. Government forces have suffered devastatingly high numbers of casualties against the Taliban.
Negotiating An End To War
In the fall of 2010, U.S. officials secretly met a young Taliban representative outside the southern German city of Munich. It was the first time the Taliban and the United States showed they were open to talks over a negotiated end to the war.
But in the intervening years, meaningful U.S.-Taliban talks failed to take off, hampered by mutual distrust, missed opportunities, protests by the Afghan government, and the deaths of two successive Taliban leaders.
For years, U.S. policy was to facilitate an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process between the Kabul government and the Taliban. But with the Taliban refusing to negotiate with state officials -- whom they view as illegitimate -- the peace process was deadlocked.
Controversially, U.S. policy changed in 2018 when Khalilzad was appointed as special envoy for peace and he opened direct negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar without the presence of the Afghan government. Eighteen months later, the sides signed the landmark deal aimed at ending the war.
"The U.S. has been sidelining the Afghan government for years, first by refusing to allow it to be involved with negotiations, then by signing the deal without the Afghan government as a partner," Roggio says.
"The Taliban maintains the Afghan government is merely a 'puppet' of the U.S," he adds. "The U.S. has done everything in its power to prove this point."
Road Map For Afghanistan
The prospect of the Taliban returning to the fold as part of a future power-sharing agreement has fueled angst among Afghans, many of whom consider the militants to be terrorists and remember the strict, backward societal rules they enforced when they were in power.
More than 85 percent of Afghans have no sympathy for the Taliban, according to the Asia Foundation's 2019 survey. Urban respondents (88.6 percent) were more inclined than rural respondents (83.9 percent) to have no sympathy for the militants.
But the Taliban's adherence to ultraconservative Islam and the Pashtun tribal code has struck a chord with some currently living under the movement's thumb in rural Afghanistan, which has borne the brunt of the war and where life has improved little. But those ideas are largely alien in major urban centers that have witnessed major social, economic, and democratic gains over the past 18 years.
"The main difference is that the Taliban of today, like Afghans generally, are more worldly in terms of their exposure to media, their increased engagement with various international actors and, at least for the leadership, the greater wealth they command, both individually and as a movement," Callahan says.
But the Taliban's "fundamental approach to governing, which is very maximalist and involves the imposition of a uniform moral order, stands in stark contrast to the more liberal norms that have evolved since 2001, mainly in urban areas."
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, millions of girls have gone to school and continue to study, women have joined the workforce in meaningful numbers, and dozens of women are members of parliament and work in the government or diplomatic corps.
Afghanistan also has a thriving independent media scene in an area of the world where press freedoms are severely limited. Under the Taliban, all forms of independently reported news were banned.
There was only state-owned radio, the Taliban's Voice of Sharia, which was dominated by calls to prayer and religious teachings.
The independent media have come under constant attack and pressure from the Taliban and Islamic State militants, which have killed dozens of reporters. The attacks have made Afghanistan one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists.
The Taliban has been projecting itself as a more moderate force, pledging not to monopolize power in Afghanistan. But few believe that the militants have changed.
"There is little difference between the Taliban of 1994 and the Taliban of today," Roggio says. "If anything, the group has become more sophisticated in its communications and negotiations. Its ideology has not changed. Its leadership has naturally changed with the deaths of its leaders [over the years], but this hasn't changed how it operates."
The Taliban has said it will protect women's rights, but only if they don't violate Islam or Afghan values, suggesting it will curtail some of the fragile freedoms gained by women in the past two decades.
Many Afghan women fear that their rights enshrined in the constitution will be given away as part of a peace settlement with the Taliban. The constitution guarantees the same rights to women as men, although in practice women still face heavy discrimination in society, particularly in rural areas.
But the Taliban has demanded a new constitution based on "Islamic principles," prompting concern among Afghan rights campaigners. As an Islamic republic, Afghanistan's laws and constitution are based on Islam, although there are more liberal and democratic elements within it.
Farahnaz Forotan launched an online campaign, #MyRedLine, in March 2018. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan women have joined the campaign to speak about the freedoms and rights they are not willing to give up in the name of peace with the Taliban.
Forotan, a journalist, says she wanted to let Afghan decision-makers know that peace cannot be achieved at the expense of the rights and freedoms of the country's women.
"Almost everything has changed from that time," she says, referring to Taliban rule. "We have made a lot of progress. We have a civil society, an independent press, and freedoms. People are more aware of their social and political rights."
Many Afghans support a negotiated end to the decades-old war in Afghanistan, but not at any price.
"I support the peace process with the Taliban, but only if women's freedoms are safeguarded," says Ekram, a high-school student from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, a relatively peaceful and prosperous region near the border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
"Under no circumstances do we want a peace deal that sacrifices our freedoms and democracy," Ekram says. "That wouldn't be peace at all."
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