This update is published in the context of significant recent changes in the situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban takeover in August 2021 is likely to result in important changes in the assessment of international protection needs. However, the extent of the impact of these changes cannot be conclusively assessed in the early stages following the takeover. The current situation presents a lack of clarity regarding the policies and behaviours the Taliban will pursue. It is also unclear to what extent the Taliban members in the different regions of the country would behave differently from what is communicated by their leadership in Kabul. It can also be noted that there is no conclusive information regarding the Taliban’s potential perception and treatment of individuals who have left Afghanistan and have applied for international protection abroad.
Since 2001, there have been ‘multiple and overlapping non-international armed conflicts’ between government forces and armed groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), among others. The Taliban have been active in Afghanistan for decades and their leadership ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 when it was removed from power by the US and international forces. The group continued to conduct an insurgency following its removal [State structure, 1.1; Security June 2021, 1.2.2; Anti-government elements, 2.1].
On 29 February 2020, after more than 18 years of conflict, the US and the Taliban signed an ‘agreement for bringing peace’ to Afghanistan. The main points outlined in the Doha agreement included guarantees by the Taliban on not providing protection to groups such as Al Qaeda, that pose a threat to the US and its allies; and guarantees by the US and their NATO allies to withdraw from Afghanistan. During the intra-Afghan talks, the Taliban demanded the establishment of a strict Islamic government while the Afghan government’s highest priority was the implementation of a ceasefire. The Taliban demanded to implement Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence as the main source of legislation in the country in the future.
Since the Doha agreement of February 2020, the US military has been less involved in direct conflict in Afghanistan. In general, the Taliban stopped their offensives against the US troops and interests in Afghanistan while the group intensified its attacks against the ANSF. The Taliban initiated their final offensive on 1 May 2021, the same day as the withdrawal of international forces was initiated.
During the summer months of 2021, the Taliban swept over Afghanistan and took control over several districts, notably in the northern provinces and districts encircling the provincial capitals [Security September 2021, 1.1.1]. According to analysts, the ‘mass dissolution of the Afghan security forces and surrender of provincial and military leadership’ was at least in part due to a ‘sustained outreach campaign’ by the Taliban, involving deals made in advance at the local level and ‘probably also at a very high level’, with officials knowing ‘who to call’ at the point when they decided to surrender control. A strategy of ‘coercion and persuasion’ was reportedly adopted and repeated across the country, as the Taliban ‘cut multiple surrender deals that handed them bases and ultimately entire provincial command centres’ [Security September 2021, 1.3.3].
In the first week of August the Taliban advanced, and in less than nine days they took control over most of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. During the last days of this offensive, key cities fell as Afghan forces surrendered. By August 13 the Taliban had taken control over 17 of 34 provincial capitals, including Kandahar and Herat. On 14 August Mazar-e Sharif fell, and as Jalalabad fell the following day, Kabul was left as the only major city still under government control. On 15 August, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, police and other government forces gave up their posts, and Taliban fighters entered the city and overtook control of its checkpoints. Taliban leaders entered the presidential palace, addressed media the following day, and declared the war to be over [Security September 2021, 1.1.1].
There were few reports of armed clashes since the last advance of the Taliban and the over-taking of Kabul in mid-August 2021. However, a resistance force emerged In Panjshir, under the name National Resistance Front (NRF). NRF consists of militia fighters and former government soldiers loyal to the previous administration and opposed to the Taliban rule. Although NRF kept control of Panjshir Valley and struck back Taliban attacks, the holdout was reportedly encircled, with a significant force of Taliban fighters reported in the area [Security September 2021, 1.4.1].
Since the Taliban took over Kabul, tens of thousands entered or assembled outside the airfield of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul trying to leave the country. Footage from the airport has shown hundreds of people running alongside and clinging to the side of airplanes on the runway, and scenes of persons and falling from planes after take-off. The turmoil resulted in several deaths. Emergency evacuations took place in the last weeks of August. Sources reported that more than 114 000 persons had been evacuated since 14 August and until the end of August. Many states evacuated their citizens, persons with residence permits or similar links to their country, as well as persons that had assisted diplomatic missions or military forces, such as embassy staff and interpreters. Some countries also evacuated persons that they considered to be at risk under the new circumstances [Security September 2021, 1.1.3].
On 26 August the airport was attacked in two bomb blasts, which killed more than 170 persons and injured 200 others. Both civilians and US military personnel were killed in the attack, claimed by ISKP. During the last days of August, US sources claimed to have repelled several other terrorist attacks against Kabul’s international airport [Security September 2021, 1.1.3, 1.4.1]. On 30 August, right before midnight, the last US forces left Afghanistan as the final evacuation flights departed from Kabul’s international airport [Security September 2021, 1.3.1].
In a Twitter post on 19 August, an official Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, declared the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The name is also used by the Taliban during public statements [Security September 2021, 1.1.2]. On 7 September, the Taliban announced the members of an interim government, proclaiming Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada a supreme leader. The cabinet includes several figures from the Taliban regime in the 1990s. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, was appointed interior minister. Among the 33 members of the announced cabinet, many appear on the United Nations sanctions list for their ties to terrorism. The Taliban government expanded its interim cabinet on 21 September by naming deputy ministers. It was announced that ethnic minorities will be represented, including a Hazara-Shia deputy minister, however the cabinet remained all-male. It was also reported that the Taliban shut down the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, reinstating instead the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. During the Taliban rule in the 1990s, the ministry under this name was reported to impose strict Islamic rules and harsh restrictions on women.
Due to the short time since the Taliban takeover, information is in general limited and/or conflicting. Limitations with regard to reliable reporting should also be taken into account, as underreporting from Afghanistan or certain parts of the country is likely.
While the future behaviour of the Taliban lacks certain predictability, profiles targeted by the Taliban may be at an increased risk, taking into account this actor’s increased capabilities and territorial control.
While the frequency of security incidents and the number of civilian casualties have generally decreased since the Taliban takeover, the future risk of indiscriminate violence in any part of the country should be assessed with caution and based on the most recent information concerning the dynamics in the particular area as well as the country as a whole.