The armed Islamist movement overthrown by the US’s invasion nearly 20 years ago could soon be in charge again.
The Taliban ran a brutal, suffocating and reactionary regime when it acted as Afghanistan’s government in the 1990s.
So the US dressed up its invasion in 2001 as some liberating venture to drag Afghanistan out of the “Middle Ages”.
Yet the Taliban didn’t represent something inherently reactionary or backward in Afghan society.
The movement—and its particular brand of Islamism—was in fact only recently introduced to Afghanistan.
Before that, Afghanistan had been fought over by warring Islamist groups—the Mujahadeen.
These had been armed and funded by the US to fight against the occupying army of Russia, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
Much of the resistance to the Russian occupation came from localised guerrilla groups and fighters, organised around villages and settlements, rather than any one organisation.
But the US saw backing an array of Mujahadeen groups as an opportunity to inflict a defeat on its biggest global rival.
Yet once Russia was forced out, competing Mujahadeen groups, whose leaders each had their own interests and ideas about how to run Afghanistan, fought each other.
The Taliban emerged as an alternative to them all.
Its members and fighters had grown up as students at religious schools in Afghan refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan. These schools were supported by the US and its ally Saudi Arabia to keep Afghan refugees under their influence.
They taught a conservative, strict version of Islam closer to Saudi Wahhabism than the one accepted in most of Afghanistan.
With the approval of Pakistan and the US, the Taliban entered Afghanistan and swiftly took control of most of the country.
For many ordinary people, the Taliban seemed to offer order and security amid the wreckage of the wars.
For the US, the Taliban looked as if it could be a stable government it could do deals with. This included allowing a US oil company to run a pipeline through the north west of the country.
Yet the Taliban wasn’t simply a puppet of the US. It had its own interests and ideas that conflicted with the US’s control. It also harboured groups that challenged US power, such as Al Qaida.
At the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, US generals and planners wanted to reassert their dominance across the globe.
The US was already spoiling for a fight when Al Qaida attacked on 11 September 2001. The US invaded Afghanistan to show that anyone who dared strike at the US would be crushed. It was also designed to pave the way for the invasion of Iraq two years later.
But although the occupation succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban and installing a US-friendly government, it didn’t destroy the Taliban.
Instead, the Taliban became a decentralised, insurgent guerrilla network whose leadership was based in Pakistan.
The poverty and misery caused by the invasion—and the hatred at the atrocities of the occupying armies—drove many young Afghans into the Taliban’s ranks.
The Taliban offered a chance to hit back as an alternative, a shadow government, or simply a salary and survival.
That’s why the US has never been able to control Afghanistan the way it wanted to. Meanwhile the Taliban has some 60,000 full time fighters plus part time volunteers.
Its resilience, which will likely mean it returns to some form of government, is not only a humiliating defeat for US imperialism—it’s a direct result of it.