The Taliban

The Taliban were born in the fires of the struggle against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s.  A village clergyman in Kandahar, Mullah Mohammad Omar emerged as a leader in 1994, he had lost an eye fighting the Soviet forces in the 1980s and was a charismatic and authoritarian leader. The Taliban and their supporters were disillusioned with the feuding Mujahideen warlords who after driving out the Soviet invaders had then fallen into conflicts among each other. The Taliban promised to bring peace and enforce Sharia (Islamic law). They proved popular, many Afghanis were fed up of constant fighting and the Taliban started to stamp out corruption and reduce banditry so that trade started to begin again.

The word Taliban is the plural form of the Arabic word Talib or student. Despite its usage in English the term Taliban is not a singular noun, the name originates from the fact that so many of the membership were students of religious seminaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are a Sunni Muslim group. There is some evidence that the US thought the Taliban would bring security to Afghanistan and that would allow US firms to build gas pipelines across the country, some in the US mistakenly believed the Taliban would bring back Afghanistan’s old monarchy.

They expanded quickly from their stronghold in the South West, in 1995 they captured Herat province which borders Iran, within a year they had captured the Afghani capital of Kabul over throwing the regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. In 1998 within four years of their emergence they controlled 90% of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s involvement in the Taliban’s rise to power is a source of some debate.

Once in power the Taliban became an authoritarian regime with very hard line views. Islamic punishments including execution and loss of hands for crime were introduced; Television, cinema and music were banned as a corrupting influence. Women above the age of 10 were forbidden to work or be educated; dress codes with men being required to grow a beard and women to wear the full Burqa were introduced and enforced by the religious police. Such policies brought them into conflict with the international community concerned over the rights of women and general abuse of human rights. The Taliban did bring the end to the infighting and unlike many before them made great progress at eradicating the growing of opium poppies. At first the Taliban laws banned the growing of the drug were not widely enforced but by 2001 they had reduced the growing of poppy drastically. Sadly for the rest of the world when the coalition disposed the regime poppy production returned to previous levels with Afghanistan supplying approx 87% of the world’s opium.

This alone would not have brought Western intervention but the Taliban became linked with Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. In allying themselves with the West’s enemies they were to bring about their downfall. In August 1998 Al-Qaeda bombed US embassies in Africa killing over 200 people, the US demanded that the Taliban expel Bin Laden and when they refused the US launched a missile strike at Bin Laden’s camp in the south of Afghanistan. Under US pressure the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the Taliban in 1999 and increased them in 2001. This did little except force the Taliban into a more extreme and isolated position. An example of this was the destruction of two statues of Buddha which had been carved into the hillside at Bamiyan. Each statue was thought to be over 1500 years old and despite Mullah Omar initially supporting the preservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage he ordered their destruction in line with the view that Islamic law prohibits any form of idol worship. Japan had offered to pay for the statue's preservation and there are rumours that Pakistani and Saudi Arabian engineers took part in the destruction, with Afghanistan museum treasures being shipped across to Pakistan to be sold off to private collectors. The governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE described the act of destruction as “savage”

Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda were rumoured to have trained a unit of fighters know as 055 Brigade which became part of the Taliban’s Army in 1997. Sharing very similar religious beliefs and political views Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were natural allies; in fact one of Bin Laden’s sons married one of Mullah Omar’s daughters further cementing the alliance.

In the aftermath of September 11th the US once again demanded that the Taliban hand over Bin Laden. They refused although they did offer to try Bin Laden in an Islamic court and on 7th October 2001 a US led Coalition invaded and by December with the aid of anti Taliban Afghani forces had toppled the Taliban from power. The US forces failed to capture Bin Laden, Mullah Omar or many of the Taliban leadership. This has left Coalition forces fighting against Taliban insurgents much like the Russians fought against the Mujahideen 20 years before.

During 2005/ 2006 the Taliban started to remerge. With NATO forces coming under increasing attack as well as aid workers and those involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan risking kidnap or death. In the South and East of Afghanistan the security is threatened by the resurgent Taliban insurgents. Evidence pointed to is that the Taliban have gone to the aid of Pakistani convoys under attack by mujahideen groups, many of the Taliban were educated in Pakistani religious schools (madrassas), and Pakistan was one of the three countries which recognised the regime and were the last to break off relations with them possibly due to US pressure following the September 11th attacks. Ethnically the Taliban’s supporters are mainly Pashtuns, which is the majority group in Afghanistan and who dominate the North West Frontier near Pakistan. The Taliban have considerable support from Pashtuns in Pakistan and rumours persist of their leaders gaining refuge in this wilderness. There are an estimated 40 million ethnic Pashtuns and with the US distracted with the war in Iraq, and the UK forces over stretched, it is clear the problem of the Taliban has far from gone away.

Samira and Samir: The Heart Rendering Story of Love and Oppression in Afghanistan, Siba Shakib. A fascinating biography of an Afgan woman raised as a man and what happened when she had to reveal her identity. cover cover cover

Afghanistan Cave Complexes 1979- 2002, Mir Bahmanyar. A study of the cave complexes that confronted first the Russians and more recently the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan. cover cover cover

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, Steve Coll. A sizable (736 page) history of the CIA and its involvement in this murky area. cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (1 March 2007), The Taliban,

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