The Taliban: Afghanistan's fundamentalist leaders
CBC News Online | Updated March 21, 2006
Taliban train in the mountains of Pakistan
The Taliban, fundamentalist Islamist movement based in southern and eastern Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, began an effort in late 2005 to regain the power and influence lost when their government was toppled by the U.S. and its allies in 2001.
The Taliban still act as a shadow government and retains a loyal following.
Taliban in Arabic means "seekers of truth" and is usually translated simply as "student." The term did not begin with the rise of the movement after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. A century ago, British missionaries in the northwest frontier of what was then the British Raj wrote accounts of debating the merits of Christianity and Islam with mullahs and the talibs – their students.
Afghanistan has had a history of civil war and instability since a coup ousted King Zahir Shah in 1973, ending the Durrani Dynasty and the Afghan monarchy. The country was the front line of the Cold War for the latter half of the 1970s and the 1980s, with Soviet-backed Communists battling the U.S.-backed mujahedeen, or Muslim holy warriors.
Two members of the Taliban at school
Many mujahedeen were trained in both religion and war in the madarassas or Islamic schools that grew up in the refugee camps in Pakistan.
The Taliban first drew the world's attention in 1994, when Pakistan recruited them to protect their trade convoys. They grew in popularity because they fought corruption and lawlessness and because they, like most of the Afghan people, are ethnic Pashtuns, while the leaders of the country were ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks from the north. The Taliban captured the Afghan capital of Kabul in 1996 and, by 1998, had virtually eliminated the opposing Northern Alliance.
Then the Taliban controlled 90 per cent of Afghanistan. Its rise to power effectively ended a 25-year period of civil war, but Afghanis then found themselves under the rule of an austere and puritanical regime that banned television, dance, film, photography, kite-flying, non-religious music and statues, such as the giant Buddhas in Bamiyan, which the Taliban destroyed in March 2001.
Even before the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan drew the ire of human rights groups and governments around the world with a series of edicts imposed on the Afghan people.
Under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic law – a controversial interpretation some Islamic scholars call a gross distortion – women were not allowed to work or attend school and had to be covered from head to toe when outside of their homes.
What is believed to be a photograph of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar taken around 2001. (AP Photo)
Since female doctors generally could not practise and male doctors could not see or touch their female patients' bodies, access to medical care for women was severely restricted.
Only three nations – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – recognized the Taliban and their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The United Nations imposed trade barriers and travel restrictions on Afghanistan. The sanctions were, in part, designed to pressure the Taliban into handing over Osama bin Laden. The United States and other intelligence agencies began actively supporting and rebuilding the opposition Northern Alliance.
A poster dated March 31, 2003, from Mullah Mohammed Omar and about 600 Muslim leaders declaring jihad or holy war against the Americans in Afghanistan and any Afghan who helps them. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)
A U.S.-led military force that included the Northern Alliance toppled the Taliban government in October 2001 in an attempt to halt support for al-Qaeda militants led by Osama bin Laden, blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.
The Taliban were forced back into the mountains in southern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan.
After sporadic attacks, the Taliban re-emerged when their militiamen vowed to disrupt the October 2004 presidential election. While there were some attacks in the weeks leading up to the vote, election day went off relatively smoothly.
In late 2005, the Taliban introduced new tactics against American, Canadian and allied forces in southern Afghanistan, the suicide bomb, ideas intelligence agencies the Taliban adapted from the war in Iraq. The same intelligence sources have told the news media that suicide tactics are frowned upon in the warrior society of Afghan. Police in the Kandahar region have said that the suicide bombers are not Afghani but foreigners.
It also may be a change in who is in charge. "Many of the former commanders are back, but a lot of young commanders, people who were perhaps foot soldiers at the time before 9/11, have now risen in the ranks," says Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid, who wrote a book about the rise of the Taliban.
Intimidation is also on the rise. In 2003, a Taliban-influenced court sentenced two Afghan journalists to death for blasphemy. The journalists escaped and sought asylum abroad. In March 2006, an Afghan man was brought to court and faced a possible death penalty because he converted from Islam to Christianity.
In Helmand province to the west of Kandahar, hundreds of schools have been burned down in a Taliban show of force designed to terrify villagers and send a message. The schools, often funded by Western governments, are a symbol of outside influence and an easy target.
The Taliban are not just attacking the coalition forces. They have attacked mosques where moderate imams preach against them. They have attacked hospitals and other social services funded by the international community. They have murdered teachers who provide instruction to girls. The Taliban leaders claim the Afghan population supports their suicide bombings against foreigners, and they plan to step up those attacks.
Taliban fighters prepare to launch a rocket.
One unidentified Taliban leader told al-Jazeera television, "By the will of God, we expect to gain the confidence and support of the Afghan people, especially their support for martyrdom operations, which will continue in the future. We already have a large group of Afghan freedom fighters who are waiting to volunteer in these martyrdom operations."
Less than 100 kilometres from Kandahar, just over the Pakistan-Afghan border, are the tribal lands of Baluchistan Province.
Gangs of men with guns roam at will. The Pakistani military is barely visible. The major city in this area is Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan. There many local people say the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters can operate in this area with impunity.
The Pakistan government vehemently denies it. But the Taliban have released propaganda videos that show Taliban recruits being trained to fight by Arab al-Qaeda commanders. The recruits learn to assemble anti-personnel mines and even how to shoot anti-aircraft missiles.
According to Major General Shaukat Sultan, Pakistan can react quickly to any notice that the Taliban are illegally crossing the border into or out of Afghanistan.
"We have the ability to react very swiftly. In an eagle swoop manner, we can go and get all of the terrorists," Sultan says.
Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf has insisted that his government has the Taliban on the run. "We've taken over their sanctuaries where they were in hundreds. Now they are only in dozens around in the mountains, and we are chasing them."
One recurring allegation in Pakistan is that the presence of the Taliban is not just being tolerated by the government here, it is being actively supported especially by the Pakistani spy agency, the ISI, or Inter-Services Ontelligence directorate, a very powerful and secretive branch of the Pakistani government.
Pakistani opposition politicians like Shahid Bugti say the intelligence services created the Taliban to fight against the Soviets many years ago, and are still supporting them today.
"They are supporting the Talibans. They are keeping them for the future. They must be having their own plans, but this has very much confirmed that they are being looked after by the agency people. For what purpose and how they're going to be used in the future, I cannot say anything about them," Bugti says. "I'm sorry to say, but I think the rulers of Pakistan, they think that an unstable Afghanistan would be in their interest."
The allegation is that Musharraf exploits the instability in the region to force the United States and other Western powers to support his regime.
It is true that the Pakistan military occasionally launches attacks against al-Qaeda and Taliban units in the tribal areas. Pakistan claims to have killed hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda members and have lost dozens of their own soldiers in the fighting. It is also clear that the Taliban's pipeline for new recruits and weapons is still very active in Pakistan and will be for some time to come.