Some 2,500 US soldiers and 7,000 Nato troops will pull out in coming months although Afghanistan remains in the grip of a Taliban insurgency against the US/Nato-backed government in Kabul. While the Taliban controls 20 per cent the country and the government 30 per cent, the rest is contested.
Since peace talks began last year, the Taliban has ramped up attacks against government forces and civilians. The Taliban has also refused Washington’s demand to curb the activities of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda terror groups in Taliban-held areas.
These groups train its fighters and carry out attacks which exert pressure on the government to capitulate to the Taliban.
Al-Qaeda has deep roots in Afghanistan, where its late founder Osama bin Laden was based when he plotted the September 11th, 2001, strikes on New York and Washington. Its current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri dwells in Taliban-ruled territory and the $25 million US bounty for his capture remains unclaimed.
The Taliban was founded by Afghan mujahadeen (warriors) recruited by the US and Pakistan and funded by Saudi Arabia, to drive Soviet forces out of Afghanistan between 1978-1988. They were joined by students – “taliban” – from the Pashtun community, the largest in Afghanistan, who were studying in Saudi-influenced Pakistani seminaries, called madrassas.
The Taliban was also reinforced by foreign fighters recruited by al-Qaeda, the parent of Islamic State, also known as Isis.
The Taliban seized power during 1994-1996 after nearly five years of civil war and imposed security and its harsh version of Islamic canon law and regressive social and cultural practices on the country – denying rights to women, instituting corporal punishments and crushing opponents.
The US toppled the Taliban soon after invading Afghanistan following al-Qaeda’s US attacks but the movement regrouped in Pakistan, where its leaders still dwell, and deployed fighters to Afghanistan. The Taliban’s main financial sources are the illegal heroin trade, extortion and taxes on Afghans living in its largely rural territorial base.
The Taliban’s goal is to transform Afghanistan, currently a struggling democracy, into a deeply conservative “emirate” led by a cleric.
While retaining some popular support, the Taliban is weakened by the division between factions that seek a military solution leading to Taliban rule and groups prepared to accept a powersharing deal with the government in the expectation the Taliban will, eventually, take over. It regards the government as US-owned and considers democracy a western import.
The Taliban has up to 85,000 full-time fighters while the US/Nato-trained Afghan army claims 180,000 and should be able to contain the Taliban. However, the army has been plagued by mismanagement and corruption and its troop strength is considerably lower than declared as commanders collect salaries for “ghost solders” who do not exist.
The Afghan military has an advantage over the Taliban of possessing a small air force that can provide troops with limited combat cover, but it will sorely miss US/Nato airpower and ground support.