Explained: The Taliban

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Over the past few days, and weeks, the news of the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan has shocked the western world. With its rise to power come fears of reprisal killings against the west’s Afghan partners, the repealing of women’s rights hard won over the last 20 years and return to pre-2001 living standards for the people who live there.

Who is the Taliban?

The name Taliban comes from the Arab word Talib, with a Qur’anic translation of “one who seeks knowledge”. In other words, a student. This is apt considering that the founding members of the Taliban came from within local Islamic schools known as madrassas. The Taliban’s members follow a strict interpretation of Sharia, Islamic, law within the lens of the Deobandi school of Islam.

In the past, the Taliban has interpreted this as not only banning the consumption of pork and alcohol but also sport, music, and technology, such as television and the internet. The Taliban also has restricted education for women and girls over 6 years old while maintaining that they must not leave their homes without a male escort.

Pashtunwali, or Pashtun tribal code, has also contributed significantly to Taliban law-making.

Where did they come from?

In 1978, the Marxist’s Peoples Party for Afghanistan, a Marxist-Leninist political party, overthrew the previous government of Afghanistan. The newly formed communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan then called on the Soviet Union for aid in quashing the various insurgencies in the country. This began Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.

During the 1980’s, the CIA began supporting various anti-communist groups fighting the Soviets and the Afghan government known, collectively, as the mujahedeen. Large amounts of currency and weaponry were funneled into the country, by the United States, through its porous border with Pakistan.

In 1989 the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from the country, leaving a weak Afghan government battling insurgencies without support. Within 3 years the communist government had been deposed.

What followed was factional infighting among largely tribal lines. Afghanistan has a multitude of ethnicities and warlords used this to form different factions to go to war with each other. By all accounts the Afghanistan of the early 90s was a lawless and corrupt country.

In response to this lack of centralized power, the Taliban was formed in 1994 in the Pashtun areas of the country bordering Pakistan. By 1996 it had captured the capital of Kabul, controlling all of the country bar the northern provinces, which Tajik and Uzbek warlords continued to control.

The Taliban instituted strict Sharia law over the country until it was toppled in the 2001 NATO invasion in response to the September 11 attacks.

Are the Taliban al-Qaeda?

Although both organisations follow a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, al-Qaeda was, originally, a largely Arab organisation founded by Osama bin-Laden. Al-Qaeda is focused on a global war against non-Muslim forces in Muslim countries and believes that there is a global Christian-Jewish conspiracy against Muslims. The Taliban’s main focus, by contrast, is ruling Afghanistan by way of fundamentalist Islamic law.

These distinctions do not mean the groups did not work together, however. Due to bin-Laden’s involvement with the mujahedeen in the 1980’s, there have been continued ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In the 1990’s, the Taliban allowed bin-Laden to establish al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and it is from here that attacks such as the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam United States Embassy bombings of 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 and, finally, the September 11 attacks in 2001 were planned and orchestrated.

These attacks and the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda prompted the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by NATO forces which toppled the Taliban’s government.

Why were the Taliban able to take over Afghanistan in 1996?

Simply put, Afghanistan was not a functioning country in the early 1990s. The Taliban are said to have stamped out lawlessness and corruption, secured roads and allowed businesses to function. The people of Afghanistan were in desperate need of stability and the Taliban was able to provide some of that stability.

What will Taliban rule look like this time?

The Taliban had said publicly that it will allow women to be educated. It says it wants to engage with the rest of the world and that it will not give sanctuary to groups such as al-Qaeda. However, there have already been reports of reprisal killings around the country. It has now essentially banned girls from secondary education.

In addition to this, the leaders of the Taliban may have trouble controlling some of their more hardline commanders in the provinces. Could it be one system for Kabul and another for more rural areas of the country? This remains to be seen.

As we look at the heartbreaking scenes from Kabul airport, we can be certain that at least some of the Afghan people do not believe the Taliban and are unwilling to put their families’ lives at risk to find out.

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