The Taliban is a quasi-government paramilitary force that rose out of the aftermath of the Russian-Afghan War in the early 1990s. Depending on who one may ask, their origins are somewhat debatable, but for the sake of this explanation, the rise of the Taliban will be considered in the historical context of the political atmosphere that resulted from U.S./Russian tensions stemming from the Cold War; a particularly Orientalist perspective, but a notable origin nonetheless.
In the early 1970s, the U.S. was beginning to cool down a significantly costly and disputed war with Vietnam. The Soviet Union used this crucial time to begin to expand foreign influence in Communist sympathetic countries. Wary to poke its nose in the affairs of other countries after the failure of Vietnam, the U.S. largely turned a blind eye as the Soviet Union began to focus on Afghanistan.
Early on, “the Soviet Union was cooperating with the Afghan government by providing aid, while encouraging discontent with it by the indoctrination of its officers in Soviet training courses and by the sympathetic attitude toward both Kamal and Taraki. It was pressing Kabul to take an implicitly anti-Chinese stand…thus trying to draw Afghanistan closer to it” according to Henry Bradsher. At the time, tensions between the Soviet Union and Communist China were heating up as the two sought for more control over the region.
The Soviet Union focused on Afghanistan for a number of reasons, including the fact that “Iran and Turkey were strong enough bordering countries to take positions that the Soviet Union did not like, but Afghanistan never had been and the Soviets had in the past shown themselves reluctant to give up positions of foreign influence without a struggle,” according to Bradsher.
The war between Russian-led soldiers of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, a Soviet-sympathetic quasi-government force, and the Sunni Mujahideen, soon dragged in forces, arms and money from various nations, such as the U.S., Iran, Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia.
Russia had a particularly difficult time fighting against the Mujahideen in the Pashtun region of Southern Afghanistan, much as the U.S. would years later. The porous mountainside region, littered with isolated, tribal villages provided an isolated, nearly impenetrable base of operations for the Mujahideen to train soon-to-be soldiers in Pakistan and send them over to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, as was the case with Osama Bin Laden and many other future al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives.
Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam madrassas in Pakistan held many of the war’s refugees, who were then able to be trained in Pakistan and sent back into the Pashtun region of Afghanistan, battle-tested and ready to fight. Among them, was Mullah Omar, the soon-to-be leader of the Taliban.
Because of the taxing nature of the war, and the Soviet Union’s impending collapse, Russian forces pulled out of the decade long war quickly in 1989, leaving behind a power vacuum worse than the state of Vietnam or Iraq after the departure of U.S. forces. As a result, Afghanistan descended into chaos with militant groups seizing what arms were left behind from the Russians. Eventually the state of affairs was such that regional warlords ruled over their respective provinces in a society that was largely unstable and practically lawless.
Although Russian forces were out of Afghanistan, direct Soviet influence was not disbanded in the country until the fall of Mohammed Najibullah’s Russian-backed regime in 1992.
While many Mujahideen groups fought for overall control between 1989 and 1992, Mullah Omar returned to Pakistan to open a madrassa, deeming him the title of Mullah. Here, Mullah Omar began creating the Taliban, by addressing his concerns with Afghanistan’s “laxity in adhering to Islamic law and in performing religious devotions, such as indifference to the plight of widows and orphans, adultery, lack of attention to obligatory prayers, and failure to allocate shares of inheritance fairly to women” in their postwar society, according to Gohari.
According to Gohari, he and his followers adopted a theology “similar to that of pioneering Saudis,” with respect to Wahabbism. Gohari states that “even the way the Taliban wants to convey the message is amazingly analogous, if not identical, with that of the Wahhabis. Like Mohammad Ibn al Wahhab, central to the Taliban’s message was the essential oneness with god”. On the other hand though, Gohari also notes that this meant “the Taliban policy to monitor and enforce religious regulations by members of the public, including the main gender issues, has raised controversy and resentment in he outside world.”
Both in the years before and after the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
The Taliban did not have purely religious goals though, as it sought to also have political impact in Afghanistan. Gohari believes that “some reflections on a theology which helped bring the house of Saud to power and keep them there for decades can furnish an invaluable recipe for anticipating the political and theological future of the Taliban” (7).
Much like the Wahhabis and the Saudis before them, “the Taliban have often repeated their concern with social stability as an effective solution to other problems. They have also made it clear that they are determined to achieve law and order in society through Islamic ways…instead they laid the foundations of an institution which they believe to have it’s roots in the holy Quaran” (55).
In 1992, Mullah Omar, and his small band less than 50 armed talibs, marched north from Maiwand, to his hometown of Kandahar City. In the process, they moved to take much of the surrounding area and after a significant shootout, eventually moved in the Kandahar City, after only losing a few dozen troops.
After establishing a base in Kandahar, the new Taliban repeatedly tried to take Kabul and other positions held under control of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “lion of Panjshir.” For a task as daunting as this, the Taliban used “Mujahideen internal conflicts which inflicted heavy damages and huge suffering on Afghanistan” as a “golden chance to verify their claim over the corruption and hypocrisy of their opponents,” winning them steady control over the surrounding areas and later much of the country.
After numerous failed attempts to capture the capital, Pakistan increased its military support for the Taliban, while Saudi Arabia increased its financial support. Shortly after, Massoud retreated back into Northern Afghanistan as the Taliban took Kabul in 1996.
The Taliban then held the seat of government in Afghanistan and strategically moved to push their religious and political ideology on the population. However, “in a country where various factions fight and kill their fellow country men, the Taliban needed reasons better than sheer longing for power to physically eliminate forces known previously as Muslim crusaders fighting for Allah.”
This translated into the Taliban tactic of systematically pushing for a more hardline, fundamentalist and in their eyes “moral” depiction of Islamic society, all while also gaining a stronger political foothold, much of which was mirrored after the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, and a bit from the Iranian post-revolutionary idea of an Islamic society. Gohari, states that “with an eye to the fact that the Taliban by both their kind of Hanifite beliefs and years of association with the Saudi way of life either in Pakistan or in Saudi Arabia itself, have developed a transparent view of the Saudi political system and with attention to predominance of Iranian experience which has inspired the politics of Islam for the last 20 years,” that “one might rightly conclude that the structure of the Taliban’s political thought must contain strong impacts from both aforesaid systems” (51).
What this eventually meant in practice, is that the Taliban that the West is used to seeing after 9/11, came to be. This meant diminished personal and social freedoms along with the insistence that performance of prayer is punctual, ritually correct, communally performed, and required of men. Also, consumption of alcohol is prohibited, men and women must dress modestly, which for women means wearing a burka in public. Schools, which are mainly for boys, are only taught in Arabic, and men are not allowed to trim their beards shorter than what could be made into a fist underneath their chin. The Taliban also endorsed public execution, which often took place in Kabul’s former soccer stadium. Of course, these are only very few of the restrictions the Taliban set in place until its defeat, but their specific brand of Islam came with long lasting repercussions on Afghan society.
The Taliban enjoyed their pseudo-Islamic state until the U.S. led invasion in 2001, when they eventually lost control of Kabul. They then retreated back into the mountainous Pashtun region in the south and blended in with civilian society, engaging in guerilla warfare with the United States until the present day. Although things in the region briefly heated up in 2006 and 2010, the Taliban as a political group are largely not in control of any large portion of society, though they do often operate deep in the porous Pashtun region in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The movement’s success is mainly a matter of interpretation. Although the movement did partially help defend Afghanis from the Soviet Union, and did enjoy a strong grip on Afghanistan’s political, religious and social sphere, it was only for a short time. Militarily speaking, the group and its affiliates are masters of guerilla warfare, though it comes at high cost to civilian life. Therefore, they are unsuccessful overall in protecting the Afghan people, as they seek to do.
Perhaps in the eyes of the Ulema, who seek to dismantle the West and democracy, they were successful, after playing a huge role in 9/11, and instigating and perpetuating the U.S. led “war on terror,” an infinite and economically strangling war that, like the fall of the Soviet Union, will likely bring the U.S. to its knees.
However, the Taliban is less of an offensive master and more of a defensive genius; prolonging a guerilla war at the high cost of the people it seeks to protect, to fuel the faded dream of what they see as a “truly Islamic society.”