In late August 2021, the US completed its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, ending a 20-year occupation. The Taliban retook the country with shocking speed. The Islamic fundamentalist political group was founded in 1994 and controlled most of Afghanistan until the US-led campaign ousted it in 2001. Now it faces the challenge of forming a new government.

Despite pledges to uphold human rights, Taliban forces are reported to have broken many promises. Women after a certain age are being excluded from school and public life and the United Nations has received allegations of reprisal killings. The safety of different ethnic and religious groups remains uncertain. The rise of the Taliban has taken a toll on Afghan media too, with more than 250 news services shut down. So what does the future hold for Afghanistan? Will the situation deteriorate further? And what can the international community do to help?

We asked US foreign policy professor Scott Lucas and political economy researcher Kambaiz Rafi.

Are the Taliban of today any different from the group ruling 20 years ago?

Kambaiz Rafi: The Taliban first emerged back in the 1990s. Afghanistan had recently come out of a ten-year Soviet occupation. This was followed by four to five years of internal conflict in rural areas and the big cities. The country was dismally diminished and subdued, and infrastructure that had been built before the 1970s more or less reduced to rubble. The population, which in the 1980s amounted to about 18 million people, had been reduced by about a third. Partly, this was the result of war-induced emigration to countries like Iran and Pakistan.

So when the Taliban first gained power in 1996, imposing draconian measures was much easier than today. Such measures in part reflect a culture rooted in the tribal dynamics of southern Afghanistan.

Things are different now – although not that different. Parts of the Taliban had to deal with the international community during the group’s 2002-2021 insurgency. This led to the formation of a political wing and, by 2013, an official office in Qatar. It became politically and media savvy and understood that it takes more than monitoring men’s beards and women’s presence on the streets to govern a country.

Parts of the Taliban are now attempting to project a modified version of the group, based on this new awareness of the realities of the world. On the other hand, extremist fringes within the Taliban want a return to policies similar to those implemented by the 1990s regime. It’s important to remember that the Taliban is not a homogeneous entity, but is divided into more or less extreme schools of thought.

Scott Lucas: As Kambaiz has illustrated, there is not a single picture here. The Taliban today are aware of 21st-century advances such as social media, which was non-existent in 2001. Plus, a number of members of the Taliban who had been outside the country pursuing political projects, notably through the Doha talks, have interacted with the international community. They are aware that one of their downfalls in 2001 was that they were isolated. Only three countries recognised the Taliban regime back then: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.