Afghanistan: Who are the Taliban and where did they come from?

Taliban fighters entered the presidential palace in Kabul on Sunday. Credit: AP

Almost 20 years after the US toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan the fundamentalist group has retaken the country largely within days of western forces pulling out, but who are they and what do they stand for?

The insurgents entered the capital of Kabul early on Sunday, effectively ending the western-backed government and many fear a return to the brutal regime that ran the country between 1996 and 2001.

Women were particularly limited in the first Taliban government, effectively having no rights, no access to education and facing harsh punishments for even the smallest breaking of the rules.

Where did the Taliban come from?

The Taliban, which means "students" in the Pashto language emerged in the south of the country in 1994.

It was one of many groups fighting for the control of the country after the Soviet withdrawal left the country in chaos.

Within two years the group had conquered most of the country, declared an Islamic emirate and a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.They ruled the country until 2001 when they were toppled by the US and it allies after western forces invaded the country for harbouring Al-Qaeda training camps in the wake of 9/11.

They were effectively defeated by 2003 but by 2006 with the war in Iraq occupying US attention militant attacks began resurging.As western forces began pulling out, the Taliban regained strength and with the final withdrawal a few weeks ago, they have effectively completed their reconquest of the country.

Hibatullah Akhundzada is the current leader of the Taliban

Hibatullah Akhundzada currently leads the group and is likely to be named the leader of Afghanistan in the coming days.

He is the third leader of the group, and took over from Akhtar Mansour after he was killed in a drone strike in 2016.

Mohammad Omar founded the group and ran the country when the Taliban was first in charge, he died in 2013, reportedly of tuberculosis.What do the Taliban believe in?

Part of the reason the Taliban are so feared and disliked by the west is because of the extreme form of Sunni Islam they preach.

They believe in a strict interpretation of Sharia law.

What is Sharia law?

Sharia law is a law code derived from interpretations of Islamic writings, mainly the hadith and the Quran.

It can inform every aspect of daily life for a Muslim if strictly followed.

In the modern world, the vast majority of Muslims do not follow the most outdated and extreme tenets of the law and use it as more of a guide than a strict rule system.

Most Islamic nations have also dropped the harsher punishments like amputation and stoning from their law codes in favour of European based law systems - although they often still use many aspects of Sharia to guide their legal systems.

The previous Taliban regime used one of the most extreme interpretations of the Sharia which they used to justify limiting women's freedoms, carrying out public executions and other brutal measures.

Although some beliefs may have changed in the 20 years they have been out of power the laws in their first reign were extreme.

During their first reign they:

  • Banned women from working, getting an education, and leaving the house without a male escort.

  • Cracked down on minorities, particularly Shiite Hazaras.

  • Preached an extremely anti-West outlook, banning European and American books, films and television programmes.

  • Practiced public floggings and executions as a form of legal punishment.

  • Destroyed any cultural artefacts that were deemed blasphemous - famously including the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two giant sixth-century statues which were destroyed in 2001.

  • Strongly curtailed freedom of the press and often punished journalists for working in their country.

Even though they were only in power for a few years, many of their beliefs and laws often proved inconsistent changing over time.

For example, they promised to protect the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 1999 before destroying them two years later.

These past inconsistencies mean that predicting what the Taliban will do next is very difficult.

Taliban fighters inside the Afghan presidential palace in the capital Kabul. Credit: AP

Spokesmen for the Taliban have said they will allow women to carry on with their daily lives and not restrict them like before, but many locals do not believe they will stick to their words.They have also said they will respect people's private property and not carry out revenge killings for people who worked with the previous administration.

However, there have been reports militants have taken over some houses and set fire to at least one school.

Families told the Associated Press on Friday that girls riding home in a motorised rickshaw in the northern Takhar province were stopped and lashed for wearing "revealing sandals."

Human Rights Watch says the Taliban routinely threaten and detain journalists, particularly women and reporters who are critical of the group.

On Friday, the Taliban commandeered a radio station in the southern city of Kandahar and renamed it the Voice of Sharia.

What do other nations think of the Taliban?

Almost uniformly all Nato nations as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand have evacuated their embassies in recent days.

All have condemned the ideology of the Taliban and vowed not to recognise the new regime.

The United Nations has urged the Taliban to uphold human rights especially for women and girls.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres told a meeting of the Security Council on Monday: “We are receiving chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights throughout the country.

“I am particularly concerned by accounts of mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan, who fear a return to the darkest days.

“The international community must unite to make sure that Afghanistan is never again used as a platform or safe haven for terrorist organisations.”

Russia, which has never had good relations with the Taliban due to the legacy of the Soviet invasion has also pulled out of the country.Only four countries, including neighbouring Pakistan, recognised the Taliban government when it was in power.

Taliban fighters pose with their flag Credit: AP

Pakistan has long denied helping the Taliban movement but militants easily crossing the border has frustrated the US for years.

Many leading Taliban members are also believed to have been educated in Pakistan and taken refuge there during the US occupation.

With the new regime looking set to take over soon, this time round it looks like more of their neighbours are gearing up to accept them but many are uneasy.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Monday called for national reconciliation in neighbouring Afghanistan, despite Iran being majority Shia.

China, which shares a tiny border with Afghanistan, has also indicated it will work with the Taliban government but has stopped short of saying they will recognise it.