What is the Taliban?

The Beginning – 1996-2001

The Taliban is a terrorist group that retook control of Afghanistan 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. The Communist Party set up a puppet government on behalf of the Soviet Union, and a year later the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support their new regime. In response, the United States, through a CIA covert operation based in Pakistan, supplied billions of dollars to support a resistance composed 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.

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 and a civil war among various mujahideen factions. 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. With strong Pakistani support, these groups came together as the Taliban under Mullah Omar in Kandahar in 1994.

The word Taliban means student in Arabic, and leaders of the movement were and are exclusively clerics, a majority of them not well educated in religion and not well educated in non-religious subjects either. All are noted for religious zealotry, links to terrorist groups, including 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 as only 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.

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.

Taliban from 2001 to 2021

As the Taliban regime collapsed and their leaders fled to Pakistan during the U.S. invasion and began to regroup there. 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 and portraying itself as a nationalist and religious movement to once again oust an invading force and to oust the Afghan Islamic Republic government.

Meanwhile, the US and NATO countries helped establish a democracy and a republic government. With massive support from the US, 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 and excluded the Afghan Republic’s representatives from all aspects of the peace talks between the US and the Taliban. 

The Biden Administration came to office in 2021 on a campaign promise to end the unpopular war. After much public agonizing, chose not to rescind the Trump Administration’s agreement with the Taliban and the promised withdrawal 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 

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.