Q&A: The Taliban in Afghanistan

May 14, 2015, 10:02 AM
Afghan policemen stand guard near the Park Palace Hotel after an attack by Taliban militants, in Ka...
Afghan policemen stand guard near the Park Palace Hotel after an attack by Taliban militants, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, May 13, 2015. Gunmen have stormed a guesthouse in the Afghan capital used by both foreigners and locals, sparking a gun battle with police The attackers targeted Kabul's Park Palace Hotel on Wednesday night Kabul police chief Gen. Abdul Rahman Rahimi says the gunmen were still shooting at his officers. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)
(AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)

More than a decade after being swept from power by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban remain a potent threat in much of the country, including the heavily-guarded capital Kabul, where the insurgents killed 14 people, including nine foreigners, in an attack on a guesthouse late Wednesday. Here’s a look at the Taliban’s goals and strategies.

WHAT DOES THE TALIBAN WANT?

The Taliban have been fighting for more than a decade to overthrow the Kabul government — which they brand a U.S. puppet — and replace it with an Islamic state governed by a harsh version of Shariah law. They have also demanded that all U.S. and other foreign troops leave Afghanistan. In recent weeks, however, the Taliban leadership has indicated it might soften its stance on some contentious political issues in order to end the conflict and play a role in governing the country.

HOW DO ATTACKS ON CIVILIANS SERVE THE TALIBAN’S GOALS?

Attacks, particularly those targeting heavily guarded sites in the capital, demonstrate the Taliban’s enduring strength and undermine the government, which is struggling to secure the country following the conclusion of the U.S.-led combat mission at the end of last year. The Taliban view virtually all foreigners in the country — including aid workers — as part of an occupying force, and the insurgents are committed to driving them out. By forcing the authorities to divert scarce resources to security as opposed to economic development, and by curbing the work of foreign governments and aid groups, the Taliban hopes to turn ordinary Afghans against the government.

WHY IS THE GOVERNMENT UNABLE TO STOP THE ATTACKS?

The Taliban have been at war since the mid-1990s, battling local warlords, U.S.-led forces and Afghanistan’s own beleaguered military and police. They have exploited the country’s rugged terrain and regularly retreat to strongholds on the other side of the border with Pakistan. They have also adapted their tactics. Rather than trying to sneak car bombs past Kabul’s ubiquitous checkpoints, they are increasingly deploying small groups of lightly-armed men instead, as they did in the attack on the guesthouse.

HOW POPULAR ARE THE TALIBAN?

Afghans largely welcomed the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban and the end of its brutal rule, which included public executions, severe restrictions on women’s rights, bans on music and sports, and the destruction of centuries-old historical sites. But the U.S.-backed government that took power in its wake is seen as endemically corrupt and has failed to deliver on years of promises to rebuild the war-ravaged country. The Taliban draws much of its support from rural areas in Afghanistan, which remain largely cut off from the world and have seen little of the prosperity enjoyed by elites in Kabul.

IS THERE ANY HOPE FOR PEACE?

The new government led by President Ashraf Ghani has urged the Taliban to enter peace talks. The Taliban leadership has said it welcomes peace efforts but has not backed off from its core demand that all foreign forces leave. In what was seen at the time as a major breakthrough, the Taliban opened an office in Qatar in 2013 ahead of expected peace talks, but the government of then-President Hamid Karzai angrily called them off after the insurgents flew their own flag over the building and presented themselves as a government-in-exile. Government representatives and Taliban figures held informal talks earlier this month, but both sides insisted any peace talks were still a long ways off.

WHAT IS LIFE LIKE FOR FOREIGNERS IN KABUL?

Kabul is still home to tens of thousands of foreigners, but those who work for embassies or international organizations are subject to strict security measures that severely restrict their movements around the city and their interaction with ordinary Afghans. The number of foreigners has dwindled in recent years as aid groups and other organizations have scaled back their efforts because of security concerns. A string of attacks on hotels and restaurants frequented by foreigners has further confined those who remain in Afghanistan to heavily-guarded compounds.

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