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What’s Happening in Afghanistan?

As chaos in Kabul continues amid Afghanistan‘s mass evacuations, the Taliban‘s rapid takeover and a suicide bombing that left more than 180 dead — including American soldiers — all eyes are on the U.S. now that the deadline for their final military withdrawal rapidly approaches.

The Taliban had moved with surprising speed in the months after U.S. President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of the remaining American troops from the country. A key turning point came when a contingent of U.S. troops emptied a major base — the militant group swept through and effectively conquered the majority of Afghanistan — including its capital — within weeks.

The Islamist group’s brutal reign of the country from 1996 to 2001 included stoning adulterers and banning women from working outside their homes or attending school, until they were pushed back by U.S.-led coalition forces hunting down elements of al-Qaeda that were being sheltered.

Fears over possible reprisals on Afghans that helped coalition forces have prompted a mass exodus in recent weeks. Other Afghan civilians, including officials, journalists, activists and minority groups, have also been prompted to leave.

Who are the Taliban?

With ‘Taliban’ meaning ‘students’ in Afghanistan’s native language of Pashto, the Taliban is an extremist group abiding by a strict interpretation of Islam and its traditional Sharia religious law.

The group originated from US-backed extremist group, the mujahideen, who successfully repelled communist Soviet Union forces occupying Afghanistan until 28 April 1992.

The Taliban then rose to power in the country, claiming it in 1996 as their territory and an Islamic state which would see an extremist interpretation of Sharia law imposed on the country’s citizens.

This included fierce physical punishment for crimes against the state such as public executions and strict limits on Afghan women’s freedom, movements and activities.

Since US and UK forces fought to replace the regime with a Western-backed alternative government in the early 2000s, the group has been less concentrated in Afghanistan – but has spent the last two decades attempting to fight against this government and shore up support with citizens across the country.

With former Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar dying in 2013, the group is now led by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a legal scholar who is the Taliban’s supreme authority on the group’s activities.