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Who are the Taliban
Know Your Enemy

Afghanistan's ruling faction,
by Laura Hayes
Contributed by:  D.W.W.A.

The Taliban ("Students of Islamic Knowledge Movement") is the current ruling faction in Afghanistan. They came to power in 1996, during Afghanistan's ongoing civil war. Although they currently hold 90% of the country's territory, their policies -- including their treatment of women and support of terrorists -- have ostracized them from the world community. Initially, only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the U.S., however, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut diplomatic ties with the Taliban.

The Taliban are one of the "mujahideen" ("holy warriors" or "freedom fighters") groups that formed during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89). After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Soviet-backed government lost ground to the mujahideen. In 1992, Kabul was captured and an alliance of mujahideen set up a new government with Burhanuddin Rabbani as interim president. However, the various factions were unable to cooperate and fell to fighting each other. Afghanistan was reduced to a collection of territories held by competing warlords.

Groups of "taliban" ("religious students") were loosely organized on a regional basis during the occupation and civil war. Although they represented a potentially huge force, they didn't emerge as a united entity until the taliban of Kandahar made their move in 1994. In late 1994, a group of well-trained taliban was chosen by Pakistan to protect a convoy trying to open a trade route from Pakistan to Central Asia. They proved an able force, fighting off rival mujahideen and warlords. The taliban then went on to take the city of Kandahar, beginning a surprising advance that ended with their capture of Kabul in September 1996, from which time they have been recognized as The Taliban.

Afghanistan under the Taliban

The Taliban's popularity with the Afghan people surprised the country's other warring factions. Many Afghans, weary of conflict and anarchy, were relieved to see corrupt and often brutal warlords replaced by the devout Taliban, who were successful in eliminating corruption, restoring peace, and allowing commerce to resume.

The Taliban, under the direction of Mullah Muhammad Omar, brought about this order through the institution of a very strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. Public executions and punishments (such as floggings) became regular events at Afghan soccer stadiums. Frivolous activities, like kite-flying, were outlawed. In order to root out "non-Islamic" influence, television, music, and the Internet have been banned. Men are required to wear beards, and are subject to beatings if they don't.

Most shocking to the West has been the Taliban's treatment of women. When the Taliban took Kabul, they immediately forbade girls to go to school. Moreover, women were barred from working outside the home, precipitating a crisis in healthcare and education. Women are also prohibited from leaving their home without a male relative-those that do so risk being beaten, even shot, by officers of the "ministry for the protection of virtue and prevention of vice." A woman caught wearing fingernail polish may have her fingertips chopped off. All this, according to the Taliban, is to safeguard women and their honor.

In contrast to their strict beliefs, the Taliban profits from smuggling operations (primarily electronics) and, until recently, opium cultivation. When they cracked down on cultivation in July 2000, they claimed to have cut world opium production by two-thirds. Unfortunately, they also abruptly deprived thousands of Afghans of their only source of income, without offering them an alternative.

Although the Taliban managed to re-unite most of Afghanistan, they have not been able to end the civil war. Nor have they improved the conditions in cities, where access to food, clean water, and employment may have actually declined in the last five years. A continuing drought and a very harsh winter (2000-2001) brought famine and increased the flow of refugees to Pakistan.

Cultural and religious basis for the Taliban

In the context of Afghan history, the rise of the Taliban -- though not their extremism -- is unsurprising. Afghanistan is a devoutly Muslim nation -- 90% of its population are Sunni Muslims (other Afghan Muslims are Sufis or Shiites). Religious schools were established in Afghanistan after Islam arrived in the seventh century and taliban became an important part of the social fabric: running schools, mosques, shrines, and various religious and social services, and serving as mujahideen when necessary.

Most of the Taliban's current leaders were educated in Pakistan, in refugee camps where they had fled with millions of other Afghans after the Soviet invasion. Pakistan's Jami'at-e 'Ulema-e Islam (JUI) political party provided welfare services, education, and military training for refugees in many of these camps. They also established religious schools in the "Deobandi" tradition.

The Deobandi tradition originated as a reform movement in British India with the aim of rejuvenating Islamic society in a colonial state, and remained prevalent in Pakistan after the partition from India. The Deobandi schools in Afghan refugee camps, however, are often run by inexperienced and semi-literate mullahs. In addition, funds and scholarships provided by Saudi Arabia during the occupation brought the schools' curricula closer to the conservative "Wahhabi" tradition. Ties between the Taliban and these schools remain strong: when the Taliban were defeated in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif one of Pakistan's largest religious schools shut down for a month and sent thousands of students to Afghanistan as reinforcements.

While the Taliban present themselves as a reform movement, they have been criticized by Islamic scholars as being poorly educated in Islamic law and history -- even in Islamic radicalism, which has a long history of scholarly writing and debate. Their implementation of Islamic law seems to be a combination of Wahhabi orthodoxy (i.e., banning of musical instruments) and tribal custom (i.e., the all-covering birka now mandatory for all Afghan women).

The Opposition

Afghanistan's civil war continues. The Taliban's opposition is the Northern Alliance, which holds the Northeast corner of the country (about 10% of Afghanistan). The Northern Alliance comprises numerous anti-Taliban factions and is nominally led by exiled president Burhanuddin Rabbani. Generally, the factions break down according to religion and ethnicity. While the Taliban is made up mostly Sunni Muslim Pashtuns (also referred to as Pathans), the Northern Alliance includes Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, and Turkmen. The Hazara, and some other smaller ethnic groups, are Shiites. The Ismaili community, which has suffered in Taliban-occupied areas, also supports the Northern Alliance.

Although the Taliban have called for a negotiated end to the civil war, they have continued to mount new offensives. In September 2001, the leader of the Northern Alliance, Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, died from wounds suffered in a suicide bombing, allegedly carried out by al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization with close ties to the Taliban.

The Taliban against the world

The Taliban regime continues to face international scrutiny and condemnation for its policies. The UN has imposed sanctions on the Taliban, primarily in response to the Taliban's hospitality toward terrorist organizations.

The Taliban is suspected of allowing terrorist organizations to run training camps in their territory, and since 1994 has provided refuge for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization. The relationship between the Taliban and bin Laden is close, even familial - bin Laden fought with the mujahideen, has financed the Taliban, and has reportedly married off one of his daughters to Mullah Muhammad Omar. The United Nations Security Council has passed two resolutions, UNSCR 1267 (1999) and 1333 (2000), demanding that the Taliban cease their support for terrorism and hand over bin Laden for trial.

The Taliban's brand of Islamist radicalism and support for terrorism threatens to destabilize other countries in the region including Iran, China, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan. The Taliban's relationship with Pakistan is especially problematic. A high percentage of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns; Pashtuns are a sizable minority in Pakistan and dominate the Pakistani military. Public support for the Taliban runs very high in the Pashtun North-West Frontier province where pro-Taliban groups have held uprisings and sought to emulate Taliban practices by performing public executions and oppressing women. Any move on the part of Pakistan against the Taliban is likely to spark a violent reaction.

Future of the Taliban

The Taliban, successful at bringing order and uniting much of Afghanistan, have failed to rebuild the country and its economy. They recognize the need for international ties if they are to stay in power. Consequently, their recent moves have wavered between cooperation -- they claimed to have drastically cut opium production in July 2000 -- and defiance -- they pointedly ignored international pleas not to destroy the 2000-year-old Buddhist statues of Bamian. It is unlikely however, that the Taliban will be accepted by the world community until they drastically improve their policies regarding women, human rights, and terrorism.


At the time of writing, the U.S. is placing significant pressure on the Taliban to turn over bin Laden and al-Qaeda in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. As of September 27, the Taliban claimed to have asked bin Laden to leave Afghanistan, but threatened to fight any U.S. military incursion. The fate of the Taliban is likely to be determined by the outcome of this situation.

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