What is the Taliban?
The Beginning – 1978-1996
The Taliban is a terrorist group that seized back control of Afghanistan’s government in August 2021.
The origin of the Afghan conflict dates back to 1978 when operatives of Afghanistan’s leftist/Communist Party assassinated the country’s president and set up a puppet government on behalf of the Soviet Union. One year later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support their new regime. To defend their Cold War interests, the United States supplied billions of dollars through a covert CIA operation based in Pakistan to support a resistance of Islamist-Afghan fighters who called themselves mujahideen, or “Soldiers of God.”
Over the decade of Soviet occupation, more than six million Afghans escaped to Pakistan and other countries. With few options for educating their children, refugees in Pakistan sent their boys, many of whom were orphans, to the Islamic seminaries, or madrassas, of Pakistan’s military government. The schools, with support from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and several Gulf countries, offered room and board and fundamentalist instruction that framed the Soviet war in religious terms. Upon graduation, many Taliban students joined the mujahideen “in defense of Islam” to “remove infidel forces” from Afghanistan, with clandestine U.S. backing.
Seeking control over Afghanistan and influence in Central Asia against India, Pakistan moved to create a proxy force from the fundamentalist madrassas graduates, the fringes of Afghan society, the refugee camps, and the most radical remnants of the mujahideen.
The Soviets withdrew in 1989, and the United States then halted its aid too, declaring a Cold War victory. The resulting collapse of the remaining Afghan government in 1992 opened the way for a power struggle among the mujahideen – Afghan leaders who fought against the Soviet invasion – descended into civil war. The most extreme faction, the Taliban, emerged from the chaos of the civil war with the help of several countries, including Pakistan, and took power over Afghanistan in 1996.
The Taliban in Power – 1996-2001
The word Taliban means students in Pashto, and leaders of the movement were and are exclusively clerics, a majority of them not well educated in religion or non-religious subjects. All are noted for religious zealotry, links to terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, drug trafficking, and abhorrence of modern values and symbols. Many lack experience of the pre-war diverse culture of Afghanistan, having grown up in the all-male madrassas with women only existing as a remote presence in their lives.
With Pakistan’s generous cash support and training, the Taliban expanded its reach throughout Afghanistan, partly by denouncing corruption and took control of Kabul in September 1996.
While in power, the Taliban immediately closed schools for girls, banned women’s higher education, and set up a gender apartheid society. Violations were punished with public floggings, stonings, and executions. Afghanistan became a training ground for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, all bringing in significant resources and new energy to support the fundamentalist dictatorship. Worldwide condemnation ensued, and the only countries to recognize the new regime were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. After the Al Qaeda attack of the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11/2001, the United States and its allies returned in force and ousted the Taliban at the end of 2001.
The Taliban During the Republic – 2001 to 2021
As the Taliban regime collapsed, their leaders fled to Pakistan and began to regroup. U.S. officials made little public effort to stop them or to deter Pakistani support, evidently believing the Taliban was finished as a relevant force. But they evolved into a destructive war machine with further help from Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia, waging unconventional and violent attacks from 2002-2021 in Afghanistan. In an attempt to gather support, it portrayed itself as a nationalist and religious movement to once again oust an invading force the Afghan Islamic Republic government.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and NATO helped establish a democracy and a republic government. With massive support from the U.S., NATO countries and allies, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was established with a constitution that guaranteed women and girls equal rights and established a Ministry for Women’s Affairs, seeking to end discrimination against women and minorities. Both public and private universities and schools were established, and women once again became doctors, teachers, nurses, lawyers, artists, engineers, public servants, and more. Elections were established, and despite terrorist attacks, millions of people (men and women) voted.
The Trump Administration sought a peace deal with the Taliban excluding the Afghan Republic’s representatives from all aspects of the negotiation.
The Biden Administration came to office in 2021 on a campaign promise to end the unpopular war. After much public agonizing, the administration chose not to rescind the Trump Administration’s agreement with the Taliban and the promised withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan. The Taliban surged in strength, easily retook Kabul, and returned to power on August 15. The last U.S. troops and contractors left Afghanistan on August 30 in a chaotic last-minute airlift.
The Taliban Today – August 15, 2021 to Present
The Taliban today is running the country with the same brutality as before. About half the current Taliban cabinet is on lists of either sanctioned individuals or terrorists or both. The interior minister, for example, has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. The Taliban has established an all-male regime from one ethnic group that is working to consolidate its power. As documented previously in this campaign kit, the Taliban has embarked on an historic undoing of all the hard-won socio-economic and political progress Afghanistan made in the previous 20 years, from 2002-2021. The Taliban remains immensely unpopular among the Afghan people for its brutal regime. Since their second return to power, they have committed war crimes and remain unaccountable for these crimes.