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The Taliban in Afghanistan

Author: Zachary Laub, Associate Writer
Updated: February 25, 2014


The Taliban is a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion toppled the regime for providing refuge to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The Taliban regrouped across the border in Pakistan, where its central leadership, headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar, operates an insurgency and shadow government aimed at undermining the government in Kabul. Since 2010, both the United States and Afghanistan have pursued a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, but with the planned withdrawal of international forces at the end of 2014, many analysts say the prospects for such an agreement are dim.


Rise of the Taliban

The Taliban was formed in the early 1990s by a Pashtun faction of mujahideen, Islamic fighters who resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–89) with the covert backing of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). They were joined by other Pashtun tribesmen who, like the mujahideen, studied in Pakistani madrassas (seminaries); taliban is Pashto for "students." Pashtuns comprise a plurality in Afghanistan and are the predominant ethnic group in much of the country's south and east.

Taliban Taliban militiamen chant slogans as they drive toward the front line near Kabul in November 1997. (Photo: Courtesy Reuters)

The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Mohammad Najibullah, a Soviet client, was president from 1987 until 1992. He stepped down amid increasingly fractious politics, ushering in a period of civil war. Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik mujahideen leader, held tenuous control as president as mujahideen parties competed for control of Kabul.

The Taliban coalesced during this period, promising to impose stability and with it, rule of law in place of endemic corruption, a charge it leveled at Rabbani's government. Taliban jurisprudence was drawn from both Deobandi interpretations of sharia, which were colored by the austere Wahabbi traditions of the madrassas' Saudi benefactors, and Pashtunwali, the Pashtuns' pre-Islamic tribal code. As the Taliban consolidated its control over Afghanistan, it began imposing nationwide this syncretic legal system, which, with punishments such as flagellation, amputation, and execution, "deepened the ethnic divide," writes journalist Ahmed Rashid.

The Taliban took the southern city of Kandahar in November 1994, and in September 1996 seized Kabul, ousted the Rabbani government, and stormed the UN compound where Najibullah had sought refuge, torturing and executing him. The Taliban controlled some 90 percent of the country before its 2001 overthrow by U.S.-led forces, analysts say.

In power for five years, the Taliban regime was an "oxymoron of an Islamist state," writes Gilles Kepel, a scholar of political Islam. The Taliban's exclusive interests, he writes, were imposing Deobandi norms in Afghanistan while waging jihad on the country's periphery, and so it neglected basic state functions. The Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, for example, was responsible for morality. It enforced prohibitions on behavior deemed un-Islamic, requiring women to wear the head-to-toe burqa, or chadri; banned music and television; and jailed men whose beards it deemed too short. Humanitarian aid agencies, mostly drawn from the Islamic world, moved to fill the void of social services.

The Taliban regime was internationally isolated and censured from its inception; only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognized the government. Two UN Security Council resolutions passed in 1998 urged the Taliban to end its abusive treatment of women. The following year the council imposed sanctions on the regime for harboring al-Qaeda. The Taliban garnered international outcry in 2001 after destroying the colossal, ancient Buddha statues at Bamiyan, an iconic piece of the country's cultural heritage revered by local Shiites.

Pakistan supported the Taliban as a force that could unify and stabilize Afghanistan while staving off Indian, Iranian, and Russian influence, and saw its Pashtun roots, shared with much of the Pakistani army's officer corps, as a source of leverage, Kepel writes.

In the late 1990s, factions in northern Afghanistan opposed to Taliban rule formed the Northern Alliance, which was composed of ethnic minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras (who are Shiites). The alliance assisted U.S.-led forces in routing the Taliban after 9/11.

Afghan ethnic groups Courtesy Congressional Research Service
Leadership and Support Structure

Mullah Omar, a cleric and veteran of the anti-Soviet resistance, led Taliban-ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 as emir al-mu'minin, or "commander of the faithful." He granted al-Qaeda sanctuary on the condition that it not antagonize the United States, but bin Laden reneged on this agreement in 1998 when he orchestrated bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. The episode was indicative of tensions that emerged between the two groups, analysts say; the Taliban was fundamentally parochial while al-Qaeda had its sights set on global jihad. Yet after 9/11, Omar did not acquiesce to the U.S. demand that he give up bin Laden.

The regime was dismantled during the subsequent U.S. occupation, but Omar and many of his top aides escaped to the frontier territories of Pakistan, where they reconstituted the Taliban's central leadership. Dubbed the "Quetta Shura" for the capital of Balochistan province, where they are believed to have taken refuge, they maintain a degree of operational authority over Afghan Taliban fighters. But they have devolved significant authority to local commanders and appear "unwilling or unable to monopolize anti-state violence," a UN Security Council monitoring team found in September 2013. The team noted the presence of other insurgent groups in Afghanistan, as well as Taliban commanders who have conducted attacks that violate the shura's directives.

Crisis Guide: PakistanChief among those groups is the Haqqani network, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that is closely affiliated with the Taliban but operates with relative autonomy from its base in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Haqqani operations straddle the Durand Line, the border that cuts through Pashtun and Baluch tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and have included major attacks on NATO forces. During the Soviet occupation, the United States and Saudi Arabia provided the group's founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, with considerable materiel to fight the Soviets. By the end of the decade, he had cultivated close ties to Pakistan's ISI, wealthy donors in the Gulf, and bin Laden. While serving in the Taliban's government, he came to be al-Qaeda's "Afghan patron," New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll told Frontline.

Many experts suspect the Pakistani security establishment continues to support the Taliban to counter India's influence in Afghanistan by providing militants safe haven in its western tribal areas. While Islamabad dismisses charges of official support, tribes have provided sanctuary to Taliban fighters, in part out of obligations of hospitality under the Pashtunwali code. (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban, is distinct from its Afghan namesake; it emerged in 2002 in response to the Pakistani military's incursions into that country's tribal areas, and seeks the destruction of the Pakistani state. The Afghan Taliban, by contrast, views Pakistan as a benefactor.)

The Taliban's post-2001 resurgence has partially been financed by narcotics production and trafficking, though Mullah Omar issued injunctions against opium production and the Taliban eradicated much of the poppy crop during its rule. Insurgents and other strongmen often extract ushr, an agricultural tithe, from farmers, and levies at roadside checkpoints.

Public Opinion of the Taliban

More than a decade since its fall from power, the Taliban enjoys continued, if declining, support. The Asia Foundation found that in 2013, a third of Afghans—mostly Pashtuns and rural Afghans—had sympathy for armed opposition groups (AOGs), primarily the Taliban. Nearly two-thirds of Afghans, the survey found, believed that reconciliation between the government and AOGs would stabilize the country.

Afghan support for the Taliban and allied groups stems in part from grievances directed at public institutions. While the Asia Foundation survey found the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police garner high public confidence, many civilians see government institutions such as the militia-like Afghan Local Police as predatory, extracting rents and intimidating the local populace.

Many rural Afghans trust the Taliban's extensive judicial network, rather than government courts, to "solve disputes in a fair war, without tribal or ethnic bias, or more commonly, without having to pay bribes," says Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

A Resilient Insurgency

As the Obama administration wound down the war in Iraq, it recommitted the United States to counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban and allied groups in Afghanistan, promising in 2009 a surge of more than thirty thousand troops and redoubled civilian efforts. Pakistani safe havens stymied U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, though the CIA's covert targeted-killing program there seeks, in part, to fulfill a "force protection" mission where the U.S. military cannot operate. As the Pentagon withdrew the surge troops in 2012, further drew down its military footprint in 2013, and handed lead security authority over to Afghan forces in June of that year, the Taliban-led insurgency escalated.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 8,615 civilian casualties (deaths and injuries) in 2013, a 14 percent increase over the previous year and the highest toll since UNAMA began keeping these records in 2009. Among the casualties, UNAMA attributes 74 percent to antigovernment elements—the Taliban and its allies—and 10 percent to ground engagements between antigovernment elements and pro-government forces.

While the insurgency continues to favor improvised explosive devices as its primary (and most cost-effective) weapon, the Taliban has bowed to public pressure by claiming to abjure attacks on civilians, though it continues to assassinate government officials and other pro-government individuals, writes Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "The primary target of Taliban intimidation efforts have been clerics who have spoken out against the legitimacy of the presumed 'emirate' of Mullah Omar or against his proclaimed 'jihad,'" the UN Security Council sanctions committee's Taliban monitoring team reported in November 2013.

Insurgents also target both international and Afghan security forces. In "green-on-blue" attacks, insurgents infiltrate the Afghan police and army and turn their weapons on international forces. According to the New York Times, coalition deaths from these attacks fell from a high of sixty-four in 2012 to sixteen in 2013, reflecting the reduced presence of international forces on the frontlines. But the U.S. Department of Defense notes thirty-three insider attacks targeting Afghan forces during the 2013 fighting season, up from twenty in the same period a year prior.

An Elusive Endgame in Afghanistan

U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is "to deny safe haven to AQ and deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow" the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Pentagon states in its November 2013 progress report to Congress.

The post-2014 mission will likely entail several thousand troops if Washington and Kabul agree to a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that President Barack Obama has long pushed for. But Afghan president Hamid Karzai has put off signing the agreement, saying it shouldn't be finalized until his successor has been chosen. Though elections are scheduled for April 2014, a runoff vote is likely, so a new government may not be formed until August.

Some military analysts see the Pentagon's complete withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 as a cautionary tale for Afghanistan. Two years later, a revived al-Qaeda in Iraq gained territorial control in parts of Anbar province and unleashed on Baghdad levels of violence not seen since the height of the civil war several years prior.

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan

But even if Karzai and Obama sign a BSA and international forces remain in Afghanistan after 2014, the Pentagon is set to end combat operations against the Taliban. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama articulated a narrow post-2014 mission for U.S. forces that excludes counterinsurgency, limiting it to "training and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda." The United States sees political reconciliation with the insurgency as "the solution to ending the war," according to the August 2013 joint U.S. Embassy, Kabul–U.S. Forces-Afghanistan strategic framework.

The potential for backsliding on human rights under a government that includes the Taliban has raised objections from civil society. Women's rights activists have been particularly concerned that progress made in the past decade would be sacrificed under such a reconciliation agreement; 2013 already saw rights setbacks as Western attention flagged, Human Rights Watch says.

Talks between the Afghan Taliban and the seventy-member Afghan High Peace Council, which Kabul established in 2010 to broker peace, have suffered repeated setbacks over the past three years. Most notably, in September 2011, Kabul's chief peace negotiator, former president Rabbani, was assassinated.

Some analysts say Hezb-i-Islami, a Pashtun insurgent group led by former mujahideen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, sets a precedent for the Taliban to enter. Members of Hezb-i-Islami's political wing are active at the highest levels in Kabul while its militant wing continues to fight international forces. The group endorsed a presidential candidate in early 2014.

But the failure of negotiations and the Taliban's calculation that elections are an unlikely pathway to power seem to preclude the possibility of it competing in the elections, which hold out the promise of the country's first peaceful transition of power. The Taliban's central leadership rejects the elections' legitimacy, but has delegated to its local commanders broad discretion as to how they'll disrupt the vote, writes Harvard Kennedy School's Michael Semple.

Rural Afghanistan remains divided between government and insurgent spheres of influence, and the upcoming elections won't disrupt entrenched patronage structures, ICG's Smith says. "A lot of people, in rural areas especially, do not believe that democracy will deliver meaningful change," he says. Noting the increase in violence in the most recent fighting season, he adds, "So people vote with bullets."

Jayshree Bajoria, Greg Bruno and Eben Kaplan contributed to this Backgrounder.

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