The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has dominated global news in recent weeks, dwarfing other headline events in number of articles.
It is justifiably big news. In 20 years of conflict over 200,000 Afghan National Security Force soldiers, Taliban soldiers, multinational military soldiers, and civilians have been killed. Billions have been spent on creating an Afghan military and internal security force which crumbled rapidly against Taliban forces. Afghanistan is now under the control of the Taliban, just like it was 20 years ago. The speed at which the Taliban gained victory has shocked many, perhaps even the various international militaries involved, and their intelligence branches.
At AYLIEN we believe that news can provide important risk signals and insights. That’s why we’ve examined the number of articles across global news publishers that have contained the entity ‘Taliban’ over the past 4 months. It’s a very simple query, but as you can see in the data visualizations below, it’s a highly effective way of showing the exponential growth of Taliban mentions in the news. This blog will also examine other entities frequently mentioned in articles along with the Taliban, as well as event clusters.
Timeline of Taliban Takeover
The withdrawal of US troops had been expected for some time. In February 2020 President Trump negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, setting May 1st 2021 as the date for the final withdrawal. US troop numbers were reduced in Afghanistan from 13,000 to 2,500, even though the Taliban were continuing to attack Afghan forces. On April 14th 2021, President Biden officially announced that all US troops would be removed from Afghanistan by September 11th 2021.
Withdrawal was committed despite an increase in Taliban attacks of 37% in the first 3 months of the year. For instance the graph below shows a minor spike in news stories (590 articles) on May 23rd 2021 when the Taliban clashed with Afghan forces near Kabul. On June 8th we can see another small spike in Taliban mentions (1,666 articles) when their intention to form an Islamic government system was announced.
Despite this, President Biden announced on July 8th that ‘speed is safety’, and all remaining troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by August 31st 2021, bringing forward the date from September 11th. This brought about a large spike in mentions of the Taliban (6,351 articles).
On August 6th the Taliban took control of its first province (Nimroz), breaking the agreement it had signed with the US, and leading to another spike in news, with 4,414 articles mentioning the Taliban. The fuse was lit, and the next 9 days saw a rapid takeover of the entire country. By August 15th the Afghani president, Ashraf Ghani, had fled the country, and its capital, Kabul, lay in the hands of the Taliban. The sudden takeover is mirrored in the exponential increase in media coverage mentioning the Taliban, culminating with 62,307 articles on August 15th.
The increase in media coverage sustained during the following weeks of panic and chaos. The race to evacuate foreign nationals and Afghanis at risk of Taliban retribution before the final US troop withdrawal deadline led to 48,018 articles on August 19th. The suicide bomber attack at Kabul airport on the 26th August saw another spike in news coverage with 35,790 articles. As September arrived, however, the media attention began to ebb away, while the people of Afghanistan face the reality of life under a new Taliban regime.
Trend analysis of related topics
Using AYLIEN News API’s trends endpoint we can analyse which entities were mentioned most frequently alongside the entity ‘Taliban’ throughout the month of August. We organized the results into four categories of entities: Person, Location, Organization, and Miscellaneous.
There’s no surprise that Joe Biden is the most mentioned person, followed by the now former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who is now taking refuge in the United Arab Emirates. Spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, is the most mentioned person for the Taliban. And Donald Trump has unsurprisingly managed to turn up, thanks to his role in the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, and his commentary on the chaotic events of August.
Locations are dominated by Afghanistan, Kabul, and the United States understandably. Neighbouring Pakistan is mentioned almost as frequently as the US for a number of reasons, such as being a main destination for Afghan refugees, and potential geo-political scenarios. Kabul airport is mentioned in 14,611 articles, after the eyes of the world were focused on airlifting thousands of foreign nationals and at-risk Afghans, as well as leaving many more behind. Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second largest city, and lay under siege for the best part of a month before toppling to the Taliban, with Kabul falling only a matter of days later. Global players such as China, India, Russia, Iran and Qatar are all mentioned frequently, demonstrating the stakes that the international community has in this unfortunate nation.
The miscellaneous section contains certain words which seem like nothing out of the ordinary when considered in isolation, but take on ominous meanings when related to the entity Taliban. The airport, as mentioned above, drew the world’s eyes during the chaotic scramble to get out of the country. The prevalence of the words ‘women’ and ‘human rights’ reinforces the fear of changes in everyday life under Taliban rule.
Key events viewed as clusters
Clustering events into groups of similar articles is a quick and effective way of viewing how impactful specific events were in the media. This chart is dominated by the two huge clusters in mid-August when the Taliban took control of Kabul, and a third large cluster representing the evacuations from Kabul airport. But there are many smaller clusters that in hindsight had potential to be bigger stories in the world’s media.
On July 15th President George W. Bush warned that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a huge mistake, and that the consequences would be ‘unbelievably bad’. Days later the Taliban killed and mutilated the Pulitzer prize winning photo-journalist Danish Siddiqui. It came just weeks after the US withdrew forces from Bagram Airfield and was a chilling warning of what can happen to journalists in a Taliban led Afghanistan.
As early as July 20th we see a cluster with the representative headline ‘Central Asia Prepares for Taliban Takeover’. By early August the Taliban had besieged many strategic locations including provincial capitals like Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, which fell after weeks of heavy fighting. But by mid-August, when global media was finally waking up to the seriousness of the situation, Kabul fell with relative ease to the Taliban.
A couple of weeks of intensive coverage followed focusing on the evacuation of Kabul airport, the airport suicide bombing attack, the warnings of further attacks and the prevention through US counter drone attacks, and finally the last US flight out of Afghanistan.
September arrived, and inevitably the interest of global media waned, refocusing on more local events, recentering on Covid-19, and getting caught up in the escapism of sporting events. The small clusters towards the far right of the X axis contain the news that the Taliban have announced their new government, and that Afghan women are protesting for their rights in deeply uncertain times.
This data was gathered using AYLIEN News API. You can investigate further yourself by signing up for a 14 day free trial now. Our comprehensive documentation and get started guides will help you discover whatever signals or insights in the news that you’re looking for.