From motorcycle warriors to knife and fork wielding diplomats: How the Afghan Taliban insurgency evolved

Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering in Alingar district of Laghman province, Afghanistan, on March 2, 2020 to celebrate the peace deal and their victory over the US. (AFP)
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Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering in Alingar district of Laghman province, Afghanistan, on March 2, 2020 to celebrate the peace deal and their victory over the US. (AFP)
A Taliban fighter celebrates with villagers a ceasefire on the second day of Eid on the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. (AFP)
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A Taliban fighter celebrates with villagers a ceasefire on the second day of Eid on the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. (AFP)
Afghan Taliban militants celebrate ceasefire on the second day of Eid in the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Afghan Taliban militants celebrate ceasefire on the second day of Eid in the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. (AFP)
Victorious Taliban fighters mingle with villagers at a town in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. (AFP)
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Victorious Taliban fighters mingle with villagers at a town in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. (AFP)
Taliban fighters stand with their weapons in Ahmad Aba district on the outskirts of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, on July 18, 2017. (AFP)
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Taliban fighters stand with their weapons in Ahmad Aba district on the outskirts of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, on July 18, 2017. (AFP)
This screengrab taken from video from AFPTV shows armed members of the Taliban standing on a military vehicle in the streets of Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, after government forces pulled out. (AFP)
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This screengrab taken from video from AFPTV shows armed members of the Taliban standing on a military vehicle in the streets of Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, after government forces pulled out. (AFP)
In this file photo the American flag flies on a flag pole after it was raised at the opening ceremony of the US embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul on December 17, 2001. (AFP)
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In this file photo the American flag flies on a flag pole after it was raised at the opening ceremony of the US embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul on December 17, 2001. (AFP)
A Taliban fighter is surrounded by locals at Pul-e-Khumri on August 11, 2021 after the group captured Pul-e-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province about 200 kms north of Kabul. (AFP)
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A Taliban fighter is surrounded by locals at Pul-e-Khumri on August 11, 2021 after the group captured Pul-e-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province about 200 kms north of Kabul. (AFP)
Taliban negotiators walk down a hotel lobby during the talks in Qatar's capital Doha on August 12, 2021. (KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)
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Taliban negotiators walk down a hotel lobby during the talks in Qatar's capital Doha on August 12, 2021. (KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)
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Updated 15 August 2021

From motorcycle warriors to knife and fork wielding diplomats: How the Afghan Taliban insurgency evolved

Afghan Taliban militants celebrate ceasefire on the second day of Eid in the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. (AFP)
  • No longer are the Taliban just an assortment of brutal men in black turbans: they are a formidable fighting force
  • The group is estimated to have 55,000-85,000 trained fighters; locals say they are better equipped than ever

KARACHI, Pakistan: Spring, 1996. Tulips, poppies and contradictions were blooming across Afghanistan. Uzbeks and Tajiks in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif were celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year. A red flag flew over the city’s Blue Mosque.

Nearby, thousands gathered to watch horsemen play buzkashi, a game similar to polo except the ball is replaced with the carcass of a goat. The sport aptly reflects the violence and power struggles that have marked Afghanistan for centuries.

Almost a thousand miles away, in the southern city of Kandahar, I watched as members of the Taliban, then a newly emerged religious force, held a massive congregation of clerics from the seminaries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The Taliban are counting on the ulema to implement Shariah law on this land of Allah,” Taliban leader Mullah Omar said as a crowd of armed militiamen raised battle cries. “A new generation has to be trained. Our duty is to use force, take weapons … our mission has to be fulfilled.”

My Talib (student) guide explained the significance of Omar’s words. “These madrasah (Islamic college) clerics are our ideological custodians and their students are future soldiers,” he said.

The Taliban initially gained popularity among locals for offering security and an end to the brutal civil war that had been gripping the country.

On crossing the border from Pakistan into the town of Spin Boldak, en route to the Taliban’s headquarters in Kandahar, the group’s distinctive white flags were visible from a distance flying on rooftops and among the surrounding hillocks.




Victorious Taliban fighters mingle with villagers at a town in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. (AFP)

By the time of my next visit to Kandahar, in 1998, the Taliban had seized control of about 90 percent of Afghanistan. Local clerics announced new rules from mosques and over the airwaves of Radio Shariat.

Music, football and kite flying were banned. Men were told to grow beards at least the length of a clenched fist. Women were not allowed to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative. The education of girls was prohibited.

I wore a traditional salwar kameez but was still taunted on account of my French beard and uncovered head. My driver had learned to deftly switch music cassettes on the car stereo to play warrior anthems while driving in the city or in the vicinity of Taliban checkpoints.

I had traveled there to cover the first-ever talks between the UN and Mullah Omar at his fortress-like residence.

“The Western world fails to understand the Taliban,” Mullah Muttamaen, a leading member of the group, told me repeatedly. I asked him whether the Taliban, in turn, understood the world. He looked away in tense silence.

While investigating the experiences of minorities under Taliban rule, I found a neighborhood in which Hindus and Sikhs had been ordered to wear yellow cloth to identify themselves. I wrote a story about it that was published while I was still in Afghanistan. After receiving threats, I was forced to flee the country in the dead of night.

Since then, the Taliban has evolved into an organized force. No longer is it an assortment of clueless, brutal men in black turbans riding motorcycles and bullying locals.

When I met Mullah Akhtar Mansour in the late 1990s, he had just been appointed aviation minister by Mullah Omar because he had downed two Russian helicopters with a rocket launcher and was therefore thought to understand how objects worked in the air. He went on to become leader of the Taliban in July 2015, and was killed in a US drone strike in May 2016 after entering Balochistan in Pakistan from Iran.




Taliban fighters stand with their weapons in Ahmad Aba district on the outskirts of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, on July 18, 2017. (AFP)

Mullah Omar often boasted about how the Taliban movement began with just a few dozen madrasah students with motorcycles and two borrowed vehicles. Now it has developed a hierarchical structure.

Its leaders coalesce in the Leadership Council, or Rehbari Shura, a decision-making body for political and military affairs. It controls many commissions on economics, health and education, operating like a cabinet of ministers.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar effectively serves as the Taliban’s foreign minister. Its political commission has an office in Doha for international representation, which negotiates with diplomats on the Islamic militia’s behalf. The Taliban has developed ties with Iran, Russia and China in preparation for a potential return to power.

“If our leaders are eating meals with a knife and a fork in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or Doha, it doesn’t mean we will betray our ideology,” one Taliban leader said.

At one time, young Taliban fighters in Afghanistan feared American air power. I once witnessed a Taliban soldier shouting curses at a formation of B-52 bombers. “Meet us face to face if you have the courage,” he shouted at the sky. Now the group has reportedly used drones in some of its attacks.

It is estimated that the Taliban currently has between 55,000 and 85,000 trained fighters, and locals say they are better equipped than in previous years.

“They have night-vision goggles, thermal rifle scopes, armored vehicles, bulletproof vests, wireless sets,” said Rashid Khan, a resident of Nimroz province. “They have a huge quantity of American weaponry captured from Afghan forces — even Humvees.”

Although Taliban forces appear to be taking control of the country following the recent departure of US troops, with districts and provincial capitals falling like dominoes, reestablishing and maintaining rule across Afghanistan will not be easy.




A man sells Taliban flags in Herat province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, on  Aug. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Hamed Sarfarazi)

They will face opposition from a new generation of Afghans, including educated youths who bitterly oppose the group’s return to power.

During recent peace talks there has been much speculation about just how much the Taliban has changed in the past two decades in terms of governance, adherence to human rights, artistic expression, and whether women will be allowed to work and girls to go to school.

The group’s political leaders know that the methods of the past will not grant them legitimacy, but the fighters on the ground are ideologically committed to establishing an “Islamic emirate.”

The latter include the men who shot dead the comedian Nazar Mohammad Khasha in Kandahar in July. In another incident, two alleged kidnappers were publicly executed without a trial. Reports are also circulating about various restrictions already being placed on women.

It seems the Taliban now has three faces: The Rahbari Shura leaders who are the custodians of the Taliban ideology; the political Shura leaders who are trying to gain legitimacy by improving the Taliban’s public image; and the mass of fighters forged in war.




Taliban negotiators walk down a hotel lobby during the talks in Qatar's capital Doha on August 12, 2021. (KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)

There is also uncertainty over whether the Taliban can or will prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a global hub for terrorism. More than 2,000 militants affiliated with Daesh are reportedly operating in the country.

There is additionally the issue of the Pakistani Taliban using Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to launch attacks in Pakistan.

It will be difficult for the Afghan Taliban to sever ties with Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, even if it wants to, because the trio formed a nexus during the course of the “war on terror.”

While many analysts were surprised by how quickly the Taliban regime fell after the 2001 US invasion, porous borders continued to provide a sanctuary for its members. Many crossed into Pakistan’s Balochistan province with their families.

Much of the border has since been fenced but at the time, Taliban fighters in remote villages in Zabul and Uruzgan provinces were betting on the US forces eventually getting tired of fighting.

“Mullah Omar has said: ‘Americans have the clocks but we have the time,’” as one seasoned fighter put it. The Taliban’s perception of having time on its side persists.

For more than 40 years Afghanistan has been a battlefield of conflicting ideologies and ethnicities — a bloody tug-of-war between warlords over opium and opportunities for corruption.

I am reminded of the words of Shahrbano, a young Afghan woman I met in Peshawar years ago whose family twice had to flee Kabul: once due to Mujahideen infighting, which reduced the city to ruins, and again during the regressive rule of the Taliban.

“With every invasion, be it Russians or Americans or Mujahids or Taliban, each Afghan dies a little,” she said. “We are the target in this game of death, like a carcass in buzkashi — and the world watches it, again and again.”


Ethiopia launches air strike on Tigray’s ‘western front’

Ethiopia launches air strike on Tigray’s ‘western front’
Updated 26 min 20 sec ago

Ethiopia launches air strike on Tigray’s ‘western front’

Ethiopia launches air strike on Tigray’s ‘western front’
  • The seventh aerial bombardment in the war-hit region this last week

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopia’s military launched an air strike on a rebel-held facility in Tigray’s west on Sunday, a government official said, the seventh aerial bombardment in the war-hit region in a week.

“Today the western front of (Mai Tsebri) which was serving as a training and military command post for the terrorist group TPLF has been the target of an air strike,” government spokeswoman Selamawit Kassa said, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has been locked in a war against the TPLF since last November, though Tigray itself had seen little combat since late June, when the rebels seized control of much of Ethiopia’s northernmost region and the military largely withdrew.

But on Monday Ethiopia’s air force launched two strikes on Tigray’s capital Mekele that the UN said killed three children and wounded several other people.

Since then there have been three more strikes on Mekele and another targeting what the government described as a weapons cache in the town of Agbe, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the west.

The strikes coincide with ramped-up fighting in Amhara region, south of Tigray.

They have drawn rebukes from Western powers, with the US last week condemning “the continuing escalation of violence, putting civilians in harm’s way.”

A strike Friday on Mekele forced a UN flight carrying 11 humanitarian personnel to turn back to Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, and the UN subsequently announced it was suspending its twice-weekly flights to the region.

The conflict has spurred fears of widespread starvation, as the UN estimates it has pushed 400,000 people in Tigray into famine-like conditions.


Islamists suspend march under agreement with Pakistan government

Islamists suspend march under agreement with Pakistan government
Updated 24 October 2021

Islamists suspend march under agreement with Pakistan government

Islamists suspend march under agreement with Pakistan government
  • Pakistan government had agreed to drop pending charges against the party's leader
  • The head of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labiak party was arrested last year amid demonstrations against France over the publication of caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad

LAHORE: A radical Islamist party agreed Sunday to suspend for three days its march of thousands toward the capital Islamabad after Pakistan agreed to drop pending charges against the party's leader.
Party supporters Saturday departed the eastern city of Lahore, clashing for a second straight day with police who lobbed tear gas into the crowd. The group began its journey a day earlier with the goal of reaching Islamabad to pressure the government to release Saad Rizvi, head of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party. Rizvi was arrested last year amid demonstrations against France over the publication of caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.
Raja Basharat, provincial law minister, told The Associated Press that under the agreement Punjab will withdraw charges against Rizvi and release all those detained during the protest march by Tuesday.
Rizvi had been detained pre-emptively on a charge of inciting people to assemble unlawfully. It was unclear when he would be released.
Basharat also said the agreement stipulates that the federal government will honor a previous agreement with the TLP to address diplomatic ties with France over the publication of the caricatures.
Sajid Saifi, spokesman for Rizvi’s party, confirmed the minister’s account and said thousands of party supporters will stay in the town of Mureedke waiting for the release of party leaders and members who have been detained.
Pakistan Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters that the TLP's demand that the French ambassador to Pakistan be expelled over the caricatures would be taken to a parliamentary committee in the coming days.
Basharat, Ahmed and Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri took part in the talks with the TLP executive council.
Violent clashes erupted between security forces and the Islamists in Lahore killing at least two police and injuring about a dozen, police said. Saifi claimed four party supporters were killed by police fire and “many” others were injured. Police said the demonstrators torched several police vehicles there.
Ahmed said the government was unaware of any deaths of TLP supporters.
Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, campaigning on the single issue of defending the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. It has a history of staging violent protests to pressure the government to accept its demands.


President: Deadly blast in Ugandan capital a ‘terrorist act’

President: Deadly blast in Ugandan capital a ‘terrorist act’
Updated 24 October 2021

President: Deadly blast in Ugandan capital a ‘terrorist act’

President: Deadly blast in Ugandan capital a ‘terrorist act’
  • ‘It seems to be a terrorist act but we shall get the perpetrators’

KAMPALA:  Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said Sunday that an explosion in the capital Kampala that killed one and injured five was “a terrorist act” and vowed to hunt down those responsible.

“It seems to be a terrorist act but we shall get the perpetrators,” Museveni said in a Twitter post about the explosion late Saturday in northern Kampala.

Police said the “serious blast” occurred at around 9:00 p.m. (1800 GMT) at a popular street side restaurant strip in Kawempe, a Kampala suburb.

Museveni said he had been briefed that three people “left a package” at the scene that later exploded, killing one person and injuring five others.

He said investigators were still combing the bomb site and more details would be released later, including advice for the public in “dealing with these possible terrorists.”

“The public should not fear, we shall defeat this criminality like we have defeated all the other criminality committed by the pigs who don’t respect life,” Museveni said.


Strong quake strikes northern Taiwan

Strong quake strikes northern Taiwan
Updated 24 October 2021

Strong quake strikes northern Taiwan

Strong quake strikes northern Taiwan
  • Taiwan’s central weather bureau said the quake was of magnitude 6.5 while the US Geological Survey gave a lower figure of 6.2

TAIPEI: A strong earthquake struck northeastern Taiwan on Sunday, with residents reporting violent shaking in the capital Taipei but there were no immediate reports of widespread damage.
Taiwan’s central weather bureau said the quake was of magnitude 6.5 while the US Geological Survey gave a lower figure of 6.2.
It hit northeastern Yilan county at 1:11 p.m. (0511 GMT) at a depth of 67 kilometers (42 miles).
An AFP reporter who lives in Yilan said the shaking seemed to last some 30 seconds.
“The walls of the house were shaking, both sideways and up and down, it felt quite strong,” the reporter said.
There was no damage in his neighborhood.
The main quake was followed by a 5.4-magnitude aftershock and Taipei’s MRT metro system shut down as a precaution for a little under an hour before service resumed.
Tom Parker, a British illustrator who lives in Taipei, said he was riding the subway when the quake hit.
“First time I’ve felt a quake on the MRT. Like a tame rollercoaster,” he tweeted, adding he and other commuters were told to shelter in place in the station for now.
Many others reported the tremor on social media.
“I was scared to death, I screamed in my room,” Yu Ting wrote on Facebook.
“This earthquake is really big, glass has shattered in my living room.”
Some grocery stores reported food and other goods were thrown from shelves by the shaking.
Taiwan is regularly hit by earthquakes as the island lies near the junction of two tectonic plates.
Some earthquakes of this magnitude can prove deadly, although much depends on where the quake strikes and at what depth.
Hualien, a scenic tourist hotspot, was struck by a 6.4-magnitude earthquake in 2018 that killed 17 people and injured nearly 300.
In September 1999, a 7.6-magnitude quake killed around 2,400 people in the deadliest natural disaster in the island’s history.
However, a 6.2 earthquake struck in December 2020 in Yilan with no major damage or injuries reported.


Myanmar says it’s committed to ASEAN peace plan, despite military leader’s snub

Myanmar says it’s committed to ASEAN peace plan, despite military leader’s snub
Updated 24 October 2021

Myanmar says it’s committed to ASEAN peace plan, despite military leader’s snub

Myanmar says it’s committed to ASEAN peace plan, despite military leader’s snub
  • Junta says it upholds the principal of peaceful coexistence with other countries and would cooperate with the ASEAN
  • Myanmar leadership accuses ASEAN of departing from its principals on consensus and non-interference

Myanmar’s military rulers pledged on Sunday to cooperate “as much as possible” with a peace plan agreed with ASEAN, despite a stern rebuke of the regional bloc for excluding the country’s top commander from a summit this week.
In an announcement in state media on Sunday, the junta said it upholds the principal of peaceful coexistence with other countries and would cooperate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in following a five-point “consensus” agreed in April, a plan backed by the West and China.
ASEAN foreign ministers decided on Oct. 15 to sideline Min Aung Hlaing, leader of a Feb. 1 Myanmar coup, for his failure to implement that plan, which included ending hostilities, initiating dialogue, allowing humanitarian support and granting a special envoy full access in the country.
The junta struck back late on Friday, accusing ASEAN of departing from its principals on consensus and non-interference. It refused to agree to send a politically neutral Myanmar representative instead of Min Aung Hlaing.
ASEAN chair Brunei has not responded to Myanmar’s rejection.
A spokesman for Thailand’s foreign ministry declined to comment on Saturday, citing the sensitivity of the matter, while Indonesia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Teuku Faizasyah, said ASEAN’s consensus on who would represent Myanmar at the summit was the “common guide for all ASEAN members.”
The exclusion is an unprecedented snub from a bloc long criticized for being tardy and ineffective at dealing with member governments accused of atrocities.
More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in a post-coup crackdown in Myanmar, with thousands more detained, many tortured or beaten, according to the United Nations, citing activists. The junta is accused of using excessive military force against civilian populations.
The junta has insisted many of those killed or detained were “terrorists” determined to destabilize the country. The junta chief last week said opposition forces were prolonging the unrest.
ASEAN’s special envoy, Erywan Yusof of Brunei, had sought a meeting with ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but the military government said that was impossible because she was detained and charged with crimes.
The junta warned Erywan not to engage with opposition forces it has outlawed, including the shadow National Unity Government, an alliance of pro-democracy and armed ethnic groups, Japanese broadcaster NHK said, citing an unpublished report.
A Myanmar military spokesman and Erywan’s office did not immediately respond to separate requests for comment on Sunday on the reported warning.
In Sunday’s announcement, Myanmar’s rulers first reaffirmed their own five-point plan for restoring democracy, which they announced after the coup.
The military insists it is the legitimate authority in Myanmar and its takeover was not a coup, but a necessary and lawful intervention against a threat to sovereignty posed by Suu Kyi’s party, which it said won a fraudulent election last year.