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What’s happened since the Taliban took over Afghanistan?

Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, 2021.
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Afghanistan withdrawal
August marks two years since Kabul fell. (Task and Purpose composite).

Tuesday marked the second anniversary of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, an event as painful to Afghanistan veterans as the fall of Saigon was to Americans who fought during the Vietnam War.

By the end of August 2021, the last U.S. troops had left Kabul, and the Taliban’s 20-year conquest of Afghanistan was complete.

The following year, the CIA launched a drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on July 31, 2022, U.S. officials have said the Taliban faction led by Afghanistan’s acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani – who is wanted by the Justice Department for planning and conducting kidnappings and other attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan – was fully aware that al-Zawahiri was in Kabul.

But with the ongoing war in Ukraine, the constant danger of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and the war against terrorism raging in Somalia and Western Africa, there is little public evidence that the U.S. military and intelligence community view Afghanistan as a priority.

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Army Gen. Michael ‘Eric’ Kurilla, head of U.S Central Command, testified before the Senate in March that the United States had conducted two “non-kinetic” missions in Afghanistan since the troop withdrawal, but he did not say publicly what those missions entailed.

For its part, the Taliban continue to revel in their victory two years after taking Kabul.

Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, said on Tuesday that Afghanistan has made progress under Taliban rule.

Taliban anniversary
Armed Taliban security personnel ride a vehicle convoy as they parade near the US embassy in Kabul on August 15, 2023, during the second anniversary celebrations of their takeover. (Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

“Currently, there is a total security all over the country, people can travel from one corner of the country to another without any security problem,” Shaheen told Task & Purpose on Tuesday. “The threat of Daesh [the Islamic State group] diminished. Poppy cultivation is strictly banned. Big drug traffickers have been detained. Some big economic projects have been launched but the people are suffering from the sanctions imposed on Afghanistan, we want lifting of the sanctions immediately.”

But life for Afghans under the Taliban varies greatly depending on their gender, said Afghanistan expert Jonathan Schroden. Afghan men face less violence since the end of the war, but they are likely in a much worse economic situation. Meanwhile, women and girls are suffering the almost total loss of any freedoms they may have enjoyed before the Taliban came to power.

The Taliban have banned Afghan girls over 10 years old from going to school and Afghan women are no longer allowed to go to gyms, parks, attend university, or work for non-governmental organizations.

There are also questions about how committed the Taliban are to curtailing poppy production and what their true goals might be.

While the Taliban have imposed dramatic reductions on poppy and ephedra cultivation this year, experts have noted that narco-traffickers have access to enough opium paste in storage to keep Afghanistan’s drug trade going for at least another year, said Schroden, director of the Countering Threats and Challenges program at CNA, a federally funded research and development center.

“In terms of Taliban motivations for doing so: it could be a purely religious edict on the part of the Supreme Leader with no room for negotiation; it could be a temporary move to demonstrate tangible action on something many Western countries care a lot about (counternarcotics) with the hopes of reciprocation; it could be a purely economic move (to drive up prices in the short term); it could be a combination of these or other reasons,” Schroden said. “It remains a very complicated situation, for sure.”

Afghan burqa-clad women walk past a Taliban security personnel along a street in Jalalabad on April 30, 2023. (Photo by Shafiullah Kakar/AFP via Getty Images)

As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan in 2021, they released thousands of prisoners, including fighters with the Islamic State Khorasan Province, ISKP, the Islamic State group’s branch in Afghanistan. One of those ISIS-K fighters is believed to have carried out the Aug. 26, 2021 suicide bomb attack outside Hamid Karzai International Airport’s Abbey Gate that killed 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghans.

The Taliban has long fought against ISIS-K – with the support of the U.S. military in some instances. Over the past year, the Taliban have become more effective at targeting the Islamic State group, Schroden said.

“Their early efforts, which were mostly heavy-handed sweeps of whole areas, have morphed into what appear to be intel-driven raids, whose effects have reduced total numbers of ISKP attacks, among other metrics,” Schroden said.

In April, the Defense Department announced that the Taliban had killed the ISIS leader who is believed to have planned the attack on Abbey Gate.

The Taliban may be at war with ISIS, but an April 2022 United Nations report found that “the relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaida remains close.”

The U.S. intelligence community believes that fewer than a dozen core al-Qaida members are currently in Afghanistan, and the group is not able to attack the United States or its interests from Afghanistan, a National Security Council spokesperson said on Tuesday.

However, the U.S. government underestimated the resilience of al-Qaida when it withdrew all troops from Iraq in December 2011. By June 2014, ISIS – which broke off from al-Qaida in Iraq – had conquered huge swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Since the Taliban assumed control of Afghanistan, al-Qaida has established training camps in about half a dozen of the country’s provinces, and several members of the Taliban’s government are affiliated with the terrorist group, according to Bill Roggio, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, D.C.

Taliban anniversary
Taliban supporters parade through the streets of Kabul on August 15, 2023 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images)

The Taliban have also routed armed groups that have resisted its rule and driven them underground, Roggio wrote in an Aug. 15 article for the Long War Journal, which is produced by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“The Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan remains strong,” Roggio wrote. “Any false hopes that the Taliban would evolve into a moderate and peaceful regime that respects the rights of its people while serving as an effective counterterrorism partner should have been dashed the moment it took power.” 

So far, the Taliban have managed to route armed resistance groups and drive them underground, Roggio wrote. With little foreign assistance, limited weapons at their disposal, and no territory under their control, the anti-Taliban resistance faces an “uphill battle.”

In just two weeks at the end of August 2021, the U.S. military managed to evacuate 124,000 people from Kabul. One C-17 managed to carry a record 823 people on a single flight. Nearly 80,000 Afghan refugees settled in the United States, but Congress has yet to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide them a path to permanent legal residency, leaving their futures uncertain.

Since the withdrawal, politicians and veterans alike have debated the way in which the Afghan withdrawal was conducted. The day after Kabul fell, the Veterans Crisis Line reported a 12% increase in calls, but it is not clear if the spike was directly related to the situation in Afghanistan, The Daily Beast reported.

The U.S. troops who guarded Hamid Karzai International Airport during the chaotic withdrawal have been left with nightmarish memories of desperate Afghans trying to get onto a plane.

“People were suffering from extreme malnutrition, dehydration, heat casualties, and infants were dying,” Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who was injured in the Abbey Gate attack, said in his March testimony before Congress. “Afghans [who] were brutalized and tortured by the Taliban flocked to us, pleading for help. Some Afghans turned away from HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport] tried to kill themselves on the razor wire in front of us that we used as a deterrent. They thought this was merciful compared to the Taliban torture that they faced.”

Vargans-Andrews was part of a Scout Sniper team during the evacuation that spotted a man matching the suspected suicide bomber’s description before the attack, but he was not permitted to kill the man.

He described the withdrawal as a “catastrophe” and said the U.S. government failed the 13 service members who were killed in the Abbey gate attack.

“The 11 Marines, one sailor, and one soldier that were murdered that day have not been answered for,” he said.

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