by Michael Hughes
March 11, 2022
The Taliban originated in southern Afghanistan in the early 1990s as a civil war waged between mujahideen factions in the wake of the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. Most members, however, grew up as refugees or orphans across the border in Pakistan and spent most of their lives in madrassas where they learned an extremist version of Islam. The Taliban, with Pakistan’s support, exploited the chaos of the civil war and seized power in the mid-1990s on a vow to instill order, only to be toppled in the U.S. post-9/11 invasion. However, the political and religious movement after fighting a 20-year insurgency came back to oust Western forces and its client regime to re-take Kabul in August 2021.
This essay will focus on the Taliban’s political, social, tribal, religious, and ideological roots and address developments in terms of these origins – especially the movement’s initial rise to power and first ruling era.
TRIBAL, HISTORICAL & IDEOLOGICAL ROOTS
The Taliban leadership is mostly derived from Afghanistan’s south and east and hail from the Pashtun ethnic group who has ruled for most of the country’s history since the Afghan state was founded in 1747.
The Taliban, whose spiritual cradle and birthplace was the southern province of Kandahar – exploited their tribal ties during their rise to power – and to a certain extent continue to so today – despite working to toss the societal structure on its head by subordinating tribalism and nationality to religious creed. Under the Taliban, the tribal-centered society turned into a madrassa-centered one. Mullahs only led during times of holy war, but the radical movement would ensure the khans were subservient to the clerics permanently. Some alleged that de-Pashtunization was part of Pakistan’s game plan to ensure local identities were eliminated to ensure the Afghans were united around their Islamic ideology.
The Taliban in another sense can be seen as the offspring of the Mujahideen and thereby an indirect byproduct of the jihad against the Soviets – a period during which the U.S. and Pakistan armed, funded, and trained the most radical elements of the Afghan resistance. The Mujahideen leaders were based in Pakistan since the early 1970s, the “Peshawar Seven,” who received most of the billions in aid from the CIA’s Operation Cyclone which included donations from Saudi Arabia and other international contributors. Among these leaders were Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who would eventually side with the Taliban for a period, and Jalaluddin Haqqani – closely allied with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden – who would form the Haqqani Network faction of the Taliban umbrella. Approximately 90,000 Afghans in all were trained by Pakistan’s spy agency in the 1980s including a man by the name of Mohammed Omar Mujahid – later to be known to the world simply as Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric.
The Saudi involvement would have a profound impact on the Taliban ideologically although the movement’s value system was initially based on India’s Deobandi school of thought. The Taliban were indoctrinated on an austere version of Deobandi Islam in the Pakistani madrassas – thousands of which were founded by General Zia-ul-Haq throughout the 1980s to serve as holy warrior incubators to fight the Soviets. However, the version of the ideology that emerged when Mullah Omar took power appeared like a mix of Deobandi and Saudi Wahhabism, which became most evident in the draconian laws and customs the Taliban notoriously implemented – from forcing woman into burqas to banning music. Prominent Muslim scholars however have argued that the cruel punishments and repressive edicts enforced by the Taliban had no basis in Sharia law, while most of the tribal population considered them alien to Pashtunwali – the Pashtun’s tribal code of honor.
The story of the Taliban’s rise lends credence to arguments that the movement is not indigenous to Afghanistan. In fact, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who ruled from 1993-1996, has often been referred to as the “Mother of the Taliban” for her role in the group’s formation along with her sidekick and interior minister Naseerullah Babar. In a 2002 interview Bhutto herself admitted to providing the key funding that opened the door for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan. Her strategy, like every Pakistani regime to follow, was to ensure the rulers of Kabul were friendly to Islamabad and enemies of New Delhi. The Taliban were key assets in this Pakistani strategy known as “strategic depth” – premised on Afghanistan serving as a resource in any future conflict against India both in terms of territory and firepower.
According to the former chief of the CIA’s Near East and South Asia Division, Charles Cogan, the Taliban were initially created in 1992 “as a wholly owned subsidiary” of Pakistan’s spy agency – the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). U.S. Army War College Professor, Chris Mason, once referred to the Taliban as Rawalpindi’s “extended expeditionary force.”
Pakistan, to be sure, is largely responsible for the birth of the movement. However, there would be no Taliban without the CIA covert program that funded the Mujahideen – and American leaders knew this well. The architect of Operation Cyclone, Carter administration security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, in a 1998 interview told Le Nouvel Observateur that he had no regrets:
“What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”
The Taliban rose to power in 1996 because they were viewed as a decent alternative to their mujahideen predecessors whose civil wars between 1992 and 1996 reduced Afghanistan to a complete state of anarchy. In November of 1994, the Taliban conquered Kandahar City and by January of 1995 had seized control of twelve Afghan provinces. The Taliban appeared ready to run completely roughshod through Afghanistan toward Kabul but did face a major defeat at the hands of Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Masood in early 1995. However, with Pakistan’s material support the Taliban were able to eventually take Kabul in September of 1996 and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
At a grassroots level – especially in the southern Pashtun tribal areas – the Taliban’s religious purism was at first welcome as they disarmed warlords, cracked down on corruption, and implemented an efficient justice system.
In addition to their law-and-order platform the Taliban displayed a streak of pragmatism when they initially stormed through the countryside. Taliban fighters showed Pashtun villagers snapshots of former King Zahir Shah while promising to restore the monarchy. Of course they never did, but it is a stark illustration that even the Taliban understood the link between legitimacy and regime survival. In addition, Mullah Omar tried to legitimize his rule by wrapping himself in a sacred Pashtun cloak once worn by the Prophet Mohammed, while taking the title “Commander of the Faithful.” The ritual held deep tribal symbolism as well because the cloak linked Omar to the country’s founder, Ahmed Shah Durrani, who first brought it to Afghanistan, showing the Taliban trying to sanction their rule via Pashtun sacred tradition.
TALIBAN RULE (1996-2001)
The form of government established by the Taliban was an “Islamic Emirate” with Mullah Omar at the top of the ruling structure whose word had the force of law. Not all Afghans were excited by this turn of events, with one native calling the new name “a transplant from the Arab world.” Through an authoritarian legal structure the Taliban attempted to impose their ideology onto the Pashtun tribes from the top-down, implementing policies that reflected their own social milieu at the expense of the wishes of the larger populace. For example, the Taliban worked to eliminate egalitarian tribal jirgas and returned to the hierarchical ruling structure reminiscent of the early days of Islam when society was dominated by an elite council of clerics.
And, outside of justice and order, the Taliban showed little competence in governing as the economy came to a standstill. As poverty and unemployment soared the Taliban’s popularity began to sink and administrative ineffectiveness alienated large numbers of Afghans in every region including the tribal belt.
It didn’t take long for the Taliban to become unpopular as they enforced draconian laws and punishments, such as cutting hands off for stealing. Their harsh and perverse social edicts came to be despised by Afghans, particularly those banning education, music, television, kite flying and other local sports. The forced attendance at prayers violated the independent tenets of Pashtunwali. As journalist Ahmed Rashid once explained, although Afghans have always been devout Muslims, one Pashtun could never order another to pray.
The Taliban also acted as a divisive force that persecuted ethnic and sectarian minorities. As the Taliban continued the civil war against a northern enclave of minority militias, it massacred between 4,000 and 6,000 Shia Hazaras in 1998. Although some Pashtuns may have accepted Taliban rule at the outset, the fact a majority of the population, as in the nearly 60% of non-Pashtuns, likely never did calls into question Taliban claims to legitimacy. And the fact a civil war raged during its entire tenure detracts from the notion that the Taliban brought stability.
Of course, before the Afghans could rise up, the Taliban made the strategic mistake of offering hospitality to Osama bin Laden, which brought on the wrath of the American empire, albeit some suggest that the Bush administration refused a late Taliban offer to swap the al-Qaeda leader for peace.
In any event, against all expectations, U.S. troops were welcomed in 2001 by the Afghans as a bulwark against the forces that had ruined their country.
Editor’s Note: Taliban literally means “Students”. Talib is the Arabic word for student. Taliban is the Persian (Dari) plural of the Arabic word.