Kandahar’s fall to the Taliban is a moment of huge significance

In the sprawling compound of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s first emir, outside the southern city of Kandahar, curious onlookers were poking through his rooms.

There was the little mosque inside the walls, a camel stable damaged by a US rocket, and a series of bare rooms, some scattered with pages torn from a religious text, one a bedroom hung with a picture of an Alpine scene. Nearby, armed men sat on a strange sculpture of a mountain surrounded by spindly palm trees.

It was December 2001, a handful of days after the Taliban’s defeat in the aftermath of 9/11, and the group had fled the city that once was its capital. Mullah Omar himself was gone. And while there was little to learn about the character of the Taliban’s fled leader, Kandahar itself was giving up its secrets.

In houses behind walls in anonymous suburbs, the first reporters to reach the city discovered the training camps of the jihadis Mullah Omar hosted, places where foreign students were taught bomb-making skills and developed plans for attacks abroad, as evidenced by scorched notebooks in multiple languages found on a hastily lit bonfire.

Passing a street in the city centre, a group of men stood watching from a rooftop, one wearing an old Soviet gas mask. Citizens of the city spoke of the Taliban’s brutal rule; of executions by stoning and their own corruption, with many welcoming the group’s fall.

Now Kandahar has turned full circle, falling to the Taliban on Thursday, with the group’s officials once more in charge of the city and already taking meetings in the governor’s office.

“Kandahar is completely conquered. The mujahideen reached Martyrs’ Square,” a Taliban spokesman tweeted, referring to the city landmark.

The significance of the Taliban’s retaking of Kandahar after 20 years should not be underestimated either in terms of history or strategically. Regarded as the capital of the Pashtun-speaking south, Kandahar has always exerted a special sense of gravity on the rest of the country, representing one of its main ethnic faultlines.

What it underlines most powerfully is how the Taliban survived during the long years of the US-led intervention to be able to return to the place where it began.

If the sight of US and British special forces outside Mullah Omar’s house appeared to mark the emirate’s fall in 2001, the appearance of its fighters in Martyrs Square has reified its resurgence.

It was first formed in the early 1990s by members of the CIA-backed Afghan mujahideen, who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, and attracting younger Pashtun tribesmen who studied in Pakistani madrassas in exile.

The first iteration of the Taliban attracted support by promising to end the internecine warlord violence that characterised the Soviet withdrawal.

In the mid-1990s – as now – the Taliban expanded their control of the country, employing Kandahar as their first stronghold, and benefiting from the divisions among the warlords opposing them.

If some things have changed in the intervening 20 years, including the Taliban’s newfound engagement with the world and desire for international legitimacy, others have remained a constant.

As Gilles Dorronsoro noted in a prescient paper for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in 2009 – The Taliban’s Winning Strategy in Afghanistan – they remain “a revolutionary movement, deeply opposed to the Afghan tribal system and focused on the rebuilding of the Islamic Emirate.”

In some respects, the Taliban never quit Kandahar. In the long interregnum, Kandahar remained connected with exiled leadership of the Quetta shura across the border in Pakistan.

Even at the height of the US-led presence, when the sprawling airbase outside Kandahar, with its cinema, gyms and pizza restaurants, cast its shadow over the neighbouring city, those of us who visited the city independently were told of the districts where Taliban fighters’ families were lodged while the men were fighting.

Beyond the city, in the mulberry groves down by the Arghandab river, as an Afghan colleague once told me pointing to the river, was where the Taliban began.

It was almost most visible in the countryside of the province around the city not least during the surge against the Taliban a decade ago when some fighters fled and others simply melted back into village life and waited.

For now the question of the residents of Kandahar is whether the return of the Taliban to the city will also mark a return to the Taliban’s old ways after claims of the killing of opponents in the city in the past two weeks. Or whether the new era, for however long it lasts this time, represents some kind of departure.

On Friday one Kandahar resident, Abdul Nafi, told AFP the city was calm after the government forces pulled out early on Friday.

“I spent a distressing night as there was fighting, but in the morning it was quiet,” he said. “I came out this morning, I saw Taliban white flags in most squares of the city. I thought it might be the first day of [the religious festival] Eid.”

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