The Taliban is a fundamentalist Islamist movement which originated in the southern Pashtun region of Afghanistan. The most influential members, including Mullah Omar, were simple village ulema (Islamic religious scholars, whose education was extremely limited and did not include exposure to most modern thought in the Islamic community). Many of these figures rose to prominence in the chaos after the Afghan-Soviet War, and used local power bases to eventually bootstrap themselves to national prominence.
A group of such Taliban Muslims managed, despite having recognition as a legitimate government from only three other countries, to rule most of Afghanistan, as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, from 1996 until 2001, when the regime was toppled by US-led international military forces.
In Europe and the United States, most recent interest in the Taliban has focused on the Taliban government and criticism thereof. Among other things, its human rights record and alleged connections to terrorism have made it less than extremely popular around the world.
As with other movements, parties and governments led by ulema, their interpretation of the sharia law and suppression of ijtihad (independent thought on religious matters), not to mention suppression of the umma (community of Muslims) itself, reflects a very restricted notion of ijma (community consensus). Most Muslim scholars, in particular the reformers, point to the errors of the Taliban government. They condemn its support by and of such practices as slavery, heroin trafficking, and extortion. They see this as evidence of the need to re-examine the role of ulema in government and in Islamic culture.
Defenders of the regime, and the movement, argue that the chaos created by the superpower conflict in the region made Afghanistan impossible to control. They point to evidence that the Taliban attempted to act as an honest government but were forced to make compromising deals simply to survive an armed struggle with the Northern Alliance, which had in fact invited Osama bin Laden and other compromising figures into the country. Too, the United States played a major role in extending the Soviet conflict, destabilizing the regime that followed, and inflaming religious militancy. For example, textbooks written and printed in the United States during the 1980s teach primary schoolchildren to hate and attack infidels, assemble guns, plant land mines, etc. At the time when the Taliban fell in 2001, these textbooks remained in use.
History and Culture
In the languages spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Taliban (also Taleban) means those who study the book (meaning the Qur'an). Sometimes it is mistranslated as God's Students. It is derived from the Arabic word for seeker or student, talib.
The Taliban belong to the Deobandi movement of Islam, which emphasizes piety and austerity and the family obligations of men. It, in turn, belongs to the Sunni tradition of Islam, and has similarities to the Wahhabi movement practiced in Saudi Arabia. These movements are extreme examples of the various movements led by ulema (local conservative scholars) all over the Muslim world. Such movements have historically remained local, but in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, special circumstances let them rise to more prominent positions. Here we ignore the global movement, and consider only the local circumstances of Afghanistan in the 1990s:
After the Mujahedeen had overthrown the Soviet occupation forces in 1989, Afghanistan was thrown into a chaos of war between competing warlords. Mullah Omar started the Taliban movement in 1994, intending to restore order and to elevate Islam to its proper place in everyday life. While he was described as lacking charisma, he was able to defeat several competing factions with his group of Pashtun fighters, and attracted followers. Most Taliban are members of the Pashtun ethnic group of southern Afghanistan, the largest ethnic group in the country.
Initially, the Taliban had some public support, especially in the Pashtun majority areas. Pakistan, interested in a unified and strong Muslim neighbor, sent weapons and money. Many students and teachers, especially from religious schools in northwestern Pakistan, joined the Taliban "holy war".
After a civil war, and with considerable support by the powerful Pakistani intelligence agency ISI, in 1996 the Taliban overthrew the regime of Aghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and established their own government. At its height, it was recognised by Pakistan, by the United Arab Emirates and by Saudi Arabia. It then controlled all of Afghanistan, apart from small regions in the northeast which were held by the Northern Alliance. Most of the rest of the world, and the United Nations continued to recognize Rabbani as Afghanistan's legal Head of State, although it was generally understood that he had no real influence in country.
Saudi Arabia became one of three countries to offer the Taliban diplomatic recognition in 1997. Saudi aid flowed to the Taliban, including logistical and humanitarian support during its rise to power, and a continued commitment afterward. An estimated $2 million came each year from Saudi Arabia's major charity, funding two universities and six health clinics and supporting 4,000 orphans. The Saudi King Fahd sent an annual shipment of dates as a gift.
Once in power, the Taliban instituted a particularly harsh and oppressive form of Islamic law, leading to loud complaints from the international community and from human rights organizations. While the Taliban did lead a reform of the government, the replacement they created had no governmental experience. Most appointed local leaders had little education by Western standards. Many had training only as ulema, some not even that.
The Clinton administration of the United States was criticized for overlooking Taliban human rights abuses, since they presented the appearance of greater willingness to cooperate in talks, and to take action against drugs, than their predecessors. The accusation against the Clinton administration was made in particular by Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican congressman from California, who said in 1999: "I believe the administration has maintained this covert goal and kept Congress in the dark about its policy of supporting the Taliban, the most anti-Western, anti-female, anti-human rights regime in the world. It doesn't take a genius to understand that this policy would outrage the American people, especially America's women." These charges were denied by the administration.
In 1996, the Saudi alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden moved to Afghanistan upon the invitation of the Northern Alliance leader Abdur Rabb ur Rasool Sayyaf. When the Taliban came to power, he was able to forge an alliance between the Taliban and his Al-Qaeda organization. This led to rumors in the Western media that he exerted considerable influence on the Taliban leaders.
In March 2001, the Taliban ordered the destruction of two statues of Buddha carved into cliffsides at Bamiyan, one 38m tall and 1800 years old, the other 53m tall and 1500 years old. The act was condemned by UNESCO and many countries around the world, including Iran.
The Taliban forbade the cultivation of opium poppies in 2000, citing religious reasons. The production fell from 4000 tons in 2000 (about 70% of the world's supply) to 82 tons in 2001, most of which was harvested in parts of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance.
On May 17, 2001, the Bush administration announced an increase of $43 million in drought relief to the Taliban in reward for this achievement. After the Taliban lost power in late 2002, the opium cultivation increased dramatically.
On September 22, 2001, the United Arab Emirates and later Saudi Arabia withdrew their recognition of the Taliban as the legal government of Afghanistan, leaving neighboring Pakistan as the only remaining country which recognized them. Observers agree that the these nations wished to distance themselves from the Taliban, but they differ over whether this was a purely principled action, or was due to pressure from the United States and its allies.
The U.S., aided somewhat by the United Kingdom and supported by a broad coalition of other world governments, initiated military action against the Taliban in (October 2001) (see 2001 U.S. Attack on Afghanistan). The stated intent was to remove the Taliban from power because of the Taliban's refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden for his alledged involvement in the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which had occurred weeks earlier, and in retaliation for the Taliban's aid to him. There were also early unconfirmed reports that bin Laden was in fact acting as commander of Taliban forces during at least part of the attack. The ground war was mainly fought by the Northern Alliance. The Taliban lost power in December 2001.