The Taliban is a Sunni Islamic extremist group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion toppled the regime for providing refuge to the al-Qaeda terrorist group and its erstwhile leader Osama bin Laden. Though it has been out of power for more than a decade, the Taliban remains resilient in the region and operates parallel governance structures aimed at undermining the U.S.-backed central government. Meanwhile, Pakistan's support and safe havens for the Taliban have stymied international efforts to end the conflict across the border. Since 2010, both U.S. and Afghan officials have pursued a negotiated settlement with the insurgent group, but with the planned withdrawal of NATO forces at the end of 2014, many analysts say the prospects for such an agreement remain dim.
Rise of the Taliban
The Taliban was formed by Afghan mujahideen who fought against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and Pashtun tribesmen who studied in Pakistani religious schools (madrassas) and received assistance from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). The Taliban (Pashto for "students") emerged as a force in national politics in 1994 in the midst of the country's civil war. After a series of territorial gains, it captured Kabul in September 1996, ousting the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani. Before its overthrow by U.S.-led forces in November 2001, analysts say the Taliban controlled some 90 percent of the country.
In power for roughly five years, the Taliban applied an austere form of Islamic law, requiring women to wear head-to-toe veils, banning music and television, and jailing men whose beards were deemed too short. The feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice violently enforced prohibitions on behavior deemed un-Islamic. Many analysts say the Taliban's destruction of the colossal, ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan in 2001 was indicative of the regime's intolerance.
Opposition, Then and Now
The Taliban was isolated long before the 9/11 attacks, when only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognized the extremist regime in Kabul. As explained in this CFR Backgrounder, Pakistan supported the Taliban in its quest for "strategic depth" in Afghanistan in order to offset India, its foremost rival.
But world powers moved to censure the Taliban government not long after its rise to power. A pair of UN Security Council resolutions in 1998 urged the Taliban to end its abusive treatment of women, and in 1999, the bloc imposed sanctions on the regime for harboring al-Qaeda. (These have been updated periodically since. In order to facilitate peace negotiations, the sanctions were split in 2011 to distinguish between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and its affiliates.)
In the late 1990s, various factions in northern Afghanistan opposed to Taliban rule, including former president Rabbani, formed the Northern Alliance. Predominantly Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara Shiites, the alliance assisted U.S. forces in routing the Taliban after 9/11. Some analysts say the Taliban's fear of fighting a reconstituted Northern Alliance in the wake of the planned U.S. withdrawal in 2014 is a factor driving it to negotiations.
Leadership and Support Structure
Mullah Mohammed Omar, an Islamic cleric and military leader who lost his right eye fighting the Soviets, ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 as "commander of the faithful." Omar initially granted al-Qaeda sanctuary on the condition that it not directly antagonize the United States. However, bin Laden reneged on this agreement, orchestrating the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, an episode that analysts say was indicative of tensions between the two groups prior to 9/11. Yet, believing the U.S. threat of invasion was not credible, Omar did not give up bin Laden after the attacks.
Reportedly based in Pakistan, Omar and many of his top advisers continue to form the Taliban's central leadership, known as the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), after the city where they took refuge after the U.S. invasion. The group's second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was captured in a U.S.-Pakistani raid in Karachi in 2010. Some military analysts estimate that there are approximately 25,000 Afghan insurgents with varying degrees of allegiance to the Taliban, but assessments of the group's relative strength vary.
A strategic partner of the Taliban remains the Haqqani Network, a U.S. designated terrorist group whose operations, including major attacks on NATO forces, straddle the Durand Line—the border that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan, cutting through Pashtun and Baloch tribal areas. The group's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, had ties to bin Laden in the mid-1980s and joined the Taliban in 1995, according to the U.S. State Department. "The Haqqani Network has been more important to the development and sustainment of al-Qaeda and the global jihad than any other single actor or group," said a 2011 report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. There are some three thousand Haqqani fighters [PDF] and supporters.
Meanwhile, many experts suspect the Pakistani security establishment continues to support the Taliban, though Islamabad has routinely dismissed these claims. (The Pakistani Taliban, organizationally distinct from the Afghan group, emerged in 2002 in response to the Pakistani army's incursions into that country's tribal areas to hunt down militants.)
Despite initial injunctions by Mullah Omar, opium production and trafficking have financed the Taliban's resurgence, netting the insurgency some $200 million annually, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Afghanistan is the world's top producer of opium, accounting for about 75 percent of the global heroin supply in 2012.
Public Opinion of the Taliban
Public reaction to the Taliban's rule was not wholly negative, at least initially. Though rigid social standards fostered resentment among much of the Afghan public, the Taliban cracked down on the corruption that was rampant prior to its rule. It also brought relative stability to Afghanistan, reducing fighting among warlords that had devastated the civilian population during the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil war.
More than a decade since its fall from power, the Taliban continues to enjoy some, if declining, support. An Asia Foundation survey found that in late 2012, 30 percent of Afghans had sympathy for antigovernment groups, a figure that has dropped over the past four years. Meanwhile, 81 percent of Afghans surveyed favored the government's efforts at reconciliation and negotiation with armed insurgents—a number that has remained relatively steady since 2009. Popular support for the Taliban has been further eroded in 2013 by perceptions that the group is a proxy for Pakistan [PDF].
Afghan support for the insurgency stems, in part, from grievances directed at public institutions. While the Asia Foundation found the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police garner high public confidence—93 percent and 82 percent, respectively—militias linked to the Afghan Local Police garnered just 39 percent, the justice system 50 percent, and government ministers 55 percent. The insurgency has greater public support in areas where military gains have not been coupled with robust development programs and governance reforms, as well where militias—many backed by the United States under the ALP program—have preyed upon civilians.
A Resilient Insurgency
As the Obama administration wound down the war in Iraq, it recommitted the United States to counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. In a December 2009 speech to West Point cadets, the president announced a military surge of 30,000 troops to supplement the 68,000 in country, and redoubled civilian efforts and diplomacy with Pakistan.
However, the insurgency continued largely unabated in 2013 as the Pentagon reduced its military footprint, including handing lead security authority over to Afghan forces in June. The United Nations documented nearly four thousand civilian casualties in the first half of 2013, a 23 percent increase over the same period a year prior. Suicide attacks, a tactic virtually unheard of in Afghanistan prior to 2001, have remained steady since 2009 at an average of 150 per year. Meanwhile, the Taliban has escalated "green-on-green" and "green-on-blue" attacks, in which Taliban infiltrate the Afghan police and army and turn their weapons on fellow Afghan or NATO forces, respectively. These accounted for 15 percent of NATO deaths in 2012, more than double the prior year.
U.S. military action and Pakistani arrests have put pressure on Mullah Omar, but experts say the Taliban is biding its time, believing that though it might not be able to pursue a monopoly of power after NATO's departure, it can consolidate footholds in the south and east.
The future of the insurgency hinges, to some degree, on the nature of U.S. military involvement after the 2014 withdrawal, which will likely entail several thousand residual personnel devoted to training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations. The Pentagon will likely end combat operations against the Taliban once its drawdown is complete, as the insurgent group renounced international terrorism.
Some military analysts see the Pentagon's complete withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011—after Washington and Baghdad failed to reach a bilateral security agreement—as a cautionary tale. In 2013, sectarian violence approached levels not seen since 2008, and al-Qaeda in Iraq gained momentum. A security vacuum in which groups like al-Qaeda find shelter would threaten U.S. and Afghan interests alike.
However, U.S. officials have sought to play down these concerns. Unlike Iraq, "the Afghans actually need us to stay … Most Afghans want us to stay. And we have promised to stay," U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins told the Senate in July.
An Elusive Endgame in Afghanistan
Since 2010, Washington's endgame has included a negotiated settlement with the Taliban largely out of recognition that the insurgent group cannot be crushed by force alone—particularly when it receives sanctuary in Pakistan. The Taliban, for its part, is fatigued by war, concerned about its domestic standing, and eager to gain independence of Pakistan and influence in Afghanistan.
According to the Congressional Research Service, Mullah Omar is surrounded by pragmatists [PDF] who "reportedly blame their past association with al-Qaeda for their loss of power" and are open to compromise with the West, having made the calculation that international legitimacy is necessary for their long-term survival. But others remain ideologically committed to an outright takeover of Afghanistan, a cleavage that may intensify [PDF] as NATO departs.
Opposite Omar's representatives at the negotiating table, the seventy-member Afghan High Peace Council, established by Kabul in 2010 to broker peace, insists that the Taliban stop the insurgency, disarm, and accept the Afghan constitution, which the Taliban sees as an illegitimate document imposed by foreigners.
Talks have suffered numerous setbacks since they were confirmed in July 2011. In September of that year, Kabul's chief peace negotiator, former president Rabbani, was assassinated. Meanwhile, 'the potential for backsliding on human rights—particularly women's rights—has raised objections from civil society despite the Taliban leadership's gradual moderation on social issues.
In June 2013, loyalists of Mullah Omar opened a political office in Doha to facilitate talks. Skeptics say that the office is a government-in-exile established by the Taliban to attain international legitimacy and conduct diplomatic business.
Whether a peaceful transition of power follows upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for April 2014, will be an important test for Afghan democracy. Some observers anticipate fraud, violence, and the possibility that Karzai, though term-limited, may resist ceding power.
RAND Corporation expert Seth G. Jones says conditions are not ripe for a grand bargain, but negotiations on such issues as "local cease-fires, reintegration, and the exchange of prisoners" can all take place at local levels. August 2013 brought some measure of hope for the peace process, when it was revealed that Taliban leaders and the Afghan government held preliminary, unofficial talks. However, Mullah Omar announced that the insurgent group would boycott the 2014 elections and continue its fight until foreign troops depart.
Greg Bruno and Eben Kaplan contributed to this Backgrounder.