When the Taliban were last in power, girls above the age of 10 were banned from school, men were forced to grow beards, criminal punishments included amputation and public execution and international terrorist organisations found a safe haven in one of the most oppressed countries on the planet. In 2001, and only after the situation led to an attack on American soil, a US-led coalition had enough, launching a campaign that quickly deposed the group.
Twenty years later, America has a different approach, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and entering into negotiations with the Taliban, hoping that since the 1990s they, too, have changed.
Today, as the organisation tears through the Afghan countryside and besieges provincial capitals, such hope diminishes by the day.
People who have fought the group predict impending catastrophe. Speaking to The National, British military officials have criticised US President Joe Biden's foreign policy, warning that the country will once again become a safe haven for terrorists, and that Kabul, the capital, will be overrun by "September or October at the latest".
Those facing the prospect of living under the Taliban also doubt that the group is any less dangerous. Since the start of 2021, about 330,000 people have been displaced fleeing fighting and the organisation's advances.
There are good grounds for this fear. Western embassies in the country are claiming that the Taliban might already have committed war crimes by carrying out revenge murders on civilians. There are also reports that the terror organisation is closing women's schools and medical facilities, forcing them to wear conservative clothing and even making girls as young as 13 marry fighters. On Wednesday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on the residence of the Minister of Defence, and vowed to carry out more attacks.
Since the Taliban were ousted, women have come to make up more than a quarter of parliamentarians. Now, the international community faces criticism for squandering this progress and abandoning Afghan women. Pashtana Durrani, an activist from Kandahar province, has criticised how gender rights in the country were used to justify war, only to be abandoned when countries wanted to pull out. “We were used as business cards," she says.
Some are more optimistic. Nicholas Kay, Britain’s former ambassador to the country, makes the case that Afghanistan itself is different from two decades ago, now being a "urbanised, youthful, modern, connected, Facebook Afghanistan”, and, he claims, potentially harder for the Taliban to control.
But even if those in the country are better able to resist, the wavering commitment of the country's western allies emboldens the Taliban even more. In its negotiations with the US in Doha, the group continues to assert that it deserves international recognition, denying any of the atrocities attributed to it on the ground. The group's negotiators have even gone as far to say that they are not in full control of fighters affiliated to them. If that is the case, US talking with powerless representatives would surely be pointless.
Today, the West has a different approach to the Afghanistan, and Afghan society has changed since the 1990s. But in a country where chaos makes the headlines every day, only one thing seems certain: the Taliban are committed to their old ways.