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The Taliban is a fundamentalist Islamist movement which originated in the
southern Pashtun region of Afghanistan. The most influential members,
including Mullah Omar, were simple village ulema (Islamic religious
scholars, whose education was extremely limited and did not include exposure
to most modern thought in the Islamic community). Many of these figures rose
to prominence in the chaos after the Afghan-Soviet War, and used local power
bases to eventually bootstrap themselves to national prominence:
A group of such Taliban muslims managed, despite having recognition as a
legitimate government from only three other countries, to rule most of
Afghanistan, as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, from 1996 until 2001,
when the regime was toppled by American military forces.
In Europe and the United States, most recent interest in the Taliban has
focused on the Taliban government and criticism thereof. Among other things,
its human rights record and alleged connections to terrorism have made it
less than extremely popular around the world.
As with other movements, parties and governments led by ulema, their
interpretation of the sharia law and suppression of ijtihad (independent
thought on religious matters), not to mention suppression of the umma
(community of Muslims) itself, reflects a very restricted notion of ijma
(community consensus). Most Muslim scholars, in particular the reformers,
point to the errors of the Taliban government, and its support by and of
practices such as slavery, heroin trafficking, extortion of Muslims, as
evidence of the need to re-examine the role of ulema in government and in
Defenders of the regime, and the movement, argue that the chaos created by
superpower conflict in the region made Afghanistan impossible to control.
They point to evidence that the Taliban attempted to act as an honest
government but were forced to make compromising deals simply to survive an
armed struggle with the Northern Alliance, which had in fact invited Osama
bin Laden and other compromising figures into the country. Too, the United
States played a major role in extending the Soviet conflict, destabilizing
the regime that followed, and inflaming religious militancy. For example,
textbooks written and printed in the United States during the 1980s teach
primary schoolchildren to hate and attack infidels, assemble guns, plant
land mines, and other activities which are generally considered to be
extracurricular by American teachers. On the fall of the Taliban in 2001,
these textbooks were in fact still in use.
History and Culture
In the languages spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Taliban (also Taleban)
means those who study the book (meaning the Qur'an). Sometimes it is
mistranslated as God's Students. It is derived from the Arabic word for
seeker or student, talib.
The Taliban belong to the Deobandi movement of Islam, which emphasizes piety
and austerity and the family obligations of men. It belongs to the Sunni
tradition of Islam and has similarities to the Wahhabi movement practiced in
Saudi Arabia. These movements are extreme examples of the various movements
led by ulema (local conservative scholars) all over the Muslim world. Such
movements have historically remained local, but the special circumstances of
Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan let them rise to more prominent
positions. Here we ignore the global movement and consider only the local
circumstances of Afghanistan in the 1990s:
After the Mujahedeen had overthrown the Soviet occupation forces in 1989,
Afghanistan was thrown into a chaos of war between competing warlords.
Mullah Omar started the Taliban movement in 1994, intending to restore order
and to elevate Islam to its proper place in everyday life. While described
as not very charismatic, he was able to defeat several competing factions
with his group of Pashtun fighters, and attracted followers. Most Taliban
are members of the Pashtun ethnic group of southern Afghanistan, the largest
ethnic group in the country.
Initially, the Taliban had some public support, especially in the Pakhtun
majority areas. Pakistan, interested in a unified and strong Muslim
neighbor, sent weapons and money. Many students and teachers, especially
from North Western Pakistani religious schools joined the "holy war" of the
After a civil war and with considerable support by the Pakistani
intelligence agency I.S.I., the Taliban established a government in 1996
which at its height was recognised by Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and
Saudi Arabia and controlled all of Afghanistan apart from small regions in
the northeast which were held by the Northern Alliance.
Saudi Arabia became one of three countries to offer the Taliban diplomatic
recognition in 1997. Saudi aid flowed to the Taliban, including logistical
and humanitarian support during its rise to power and a continued commitment
afterward. An estimated $2 million came each year from Saudi Arabia's major
charity, funding two universities and six health clinics and supporting
4,000 orphans; King Fahd sent an annual shipment of dates as a gift.
Once in power, the Taliban instituted a particularly harsh and oppressive
form of Islamic law, leading to loud complaints from the international
community and human rights watch organizations. While the Taliban did lead a
reform of government, the replacement government they created had no
governmental experience, and most appointed local leaders had little
education according to Western standards. Many had training only as ulema,
some not even that.
The Clinton administration of the United States was criticized for
overlooking the human rights abuses by the Taliban because they were more
willing to cooperate in talks, and take action against drugs, than previous
Afghan regimes. This accusation was made in particular by Dana Rohrabacher,
a Republican congressman from California, who said in 1999: "I believe the
administration has maintained this covert goal and kept Congress in the dark
about its policy of supporting the Taliban, the most anti-Western,
anti-female, anti-human rights regime in the world. It doesn't take a genius
to understand that this policy would outrage the American people, especially
America's women." These charges were denied by the administration.
In 1996, the Saudi alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden moved to Afghanistan
upon the invitation of the Northern Alliance leader Abdur Rabb ur Rasool
Sayyaf. When the Taliban came to power, he was able to forge an alliance
between the Taliban and his Al-Qaeda organization, leading to rumours in the
Western media that he exerted considerable influence on the Taliban leaders.
In (March 2001), the Taliban ordered the destruction of two Buddha statues
at Bamiyan, one 38m tall and 1800 years old, the other 53m tall and 1500
years old. The act was condemned by UNESCO and many countries around the world.
Taliban forbid the cultivation of opium poppies in 2000, citing religious
reasons. The production fell from 4000 tons in 2000 (about 70% of the
world's supply) to 82 tons in 2001, most of which was harvested in parts of
Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance.
On (May 17, 2001) the Bush administration announced an increase of $43
million in drought relief to the Taliban in reward for this achievement.
After the Taliban lost power in late 2002, the opium cultivation increased dramatically.
On (September 22, 2001), the United Arab Emirates and later Saudi Arabia
withdrew their recognition of the Taliban as the legal government of
Afghanistan, leaving neighboring Pakistan as the only remaining country
which recognized them. Observers agree that they wished to distance
themselves from the Taliban, but they differ over whether this was a purely
principled action or due to pressure from the United States and its allies.
The U.S., aided somewhat by the United Kingdom and supported by a broad
coalition of other world governments, initiated military action against the
Taliban in (October 2001) (see 2001 U.S. Attack on Afghanistan). The stated
intent was to remove the Taliban from power because of the Taliban's refusal
to hand over Osama bin Laden for his [?] involvement in the terrorists
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which had occurred weeks
earlier, and in retaliation for the Taliban's aid to him. There were also
early unconfirmed reports that bin Laden was in fact acting as commander of
Taliban forces during at least part of the attack. The ground war was fought
by the Northern Alliance. The Taliban lost power in (December 2001).
The UN Security Council, on January 16, 2002, unanimously established an
arms embargo and the freezing of assets of bin Laden, Al-Qaida, and the