Since its ouster in 2001, the Taliban has maintained its insurgency against the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan and the Afghan government. A new U.S.-Taliban deal could pave the way for the group’s return to power.
- The Islamic fundamentalist group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. In the nearly two decades since, it has waged an insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
- Experts say the Taliban is stronger now than at any point since 2001. With an estimated sixty thousand full-time fighters, it controls one-fifth of the country and continues to launch attacks.
- In February 2020, the Taliban signed a deal with the United States as the first step in ending the war. It conditionally agreed to start negotiations with the Afghan government on the country’s future.
The Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun, 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 and has led an insurgency against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul for more than eighteen years.
Experts say the Taliban is stronger now than at any point in recent memory, controlling dozens of Afghan districts and continuing to launch attacks against both government and civilian targets. An agreement signed by U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s administration and the Taliban in early 2020 could mark a new stage for the militant group as it starts intra-Afghan negotiations on Afghanistan’s future.
How was the Taliban formed?
The Taliban was formed in the early 1990s by Afghan mujahideen, or Islamic guerilla fighters, who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–89) with the covert backing of the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). They were joined by younger Pashtun tribesmen who studied in Pakistani madrassas, or 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. They are also a major ethnic group in Pakistan’s north and west.
The movement attracted popular support in the initial post-Soviet era by promising to impose stability and rule of law after four years of conflict (1992–1996) among rival mujahideen groups. The Taliban entered Kandahar in November 1994 to pacify the crime-ridden southern city, and by September 1996 seized the capital, Kabul, from President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik whom it viewed as anti-Pashtun and corrupt. That year, the Taliban declared Afghanistan an Islamic emirate, with Mullah Mohammed Omar, a cleric and veteran of the anti-Soviet resistance, leading as amir al-mu’minin, or “commander of the faithful.” The regime controlled some 90 percent of the country before its 2001 overthrow.
The Taliban imposed a harsh brand of justice as it consolidated territorial control. Taliban jurisprudence was drawn from the Pashtuns’ pre-Islamic tribal code and interpretations of sharia colored by the austere Wahhabi doctrines of the madrassas’ Saudi benefactors. The regime neglected social services and other basic state functions even as its Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice enforced prohibitions on behavior the Taliban deemed un-Islamic. It required women to wear the head-to-toe burqa, or chadri; banned music and television; and jailed men whose beards it deemed too short.
How did the world respond to the Taliban’s rise?
The regime was internationally isolated from its inception. Only Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan recognized the government. Many analysts say Islamabad supported the Taliban as a force that could unify and stabilize Afghanistan while staving off Indian, Iranian, and Russian influence.Read MoreThe 2020 Candidates on Foreign Policy
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. Omar granted al-Qaeda sanctuary on the condition that it not antagonize the United States, but bin Laden reneged on their agreement in 1998 when he orchestrated bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. The Taliban was further ostracized following its destruction of two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in March 2001. A UN General Assembly resolution called on the Taliban to protect the country’s cultural heritage.
After al-Qaeda operatives attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, Omar rejected U.S. demands that he give up bin Laden. U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, and the Taliban was quickly overthrown. Omar and many of his top aides escaped to the frontier territories of Pakistan. From there, the Taliban waged an insurgency against the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The group is now under investigation in the International Criminal Court for alleged abuses of Afghan civilians, including crimes against humanity, carried out since 2003. U.S. and Afghan forces are also being investigated for alleged war crimes.