Updated: Jul 6
The Taliban are a Pashtun fundamentalist Islamic group and political movement in Afghanistan. Formed by Mohammad Omar in 1994 (Olomi, 2021), they ruled around three quarters of the country for 5 years from 1996 following the Afghan civil war and the previous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan from 1978 to 1992. After being overthrown following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban initiated an insurgent campaign against the USA and its coalition partners, as well as the coalition-sponsored Afghan Government and its associated armed forces.
Following 20 years of insurgent activities and the pull-out of US armed forces in 2021, the Taliban succeeded in regaining control of Kabul. With the regaining of control over Kabul and major portions of Afghanistan, the group established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Khan, 2021). Due to the group following and implementing a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic Law (Matinuddin, 1997), the extent to which its rule over Afghanistan is considered ‘legitimate’ has been criticised. This is most notably due to the treatment of women, young girls and other minorities, including minority ethnic and religious groups as a result of the implementation of a strict interpretation of Sharia law (Rasmussen, 2022).
History & Foundations
Following the spread of communism and left-leaning politics in Afghanistan, the general Afghan populace experienced a gradual shift towards more socially-liberal norms, and hence began to adopt more left-leaning or liberal views on topics such as women's rights. The Afghan Mujahideen initially formed in response to the reforms initiated under the PDPA (Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan), which were aimed at "uprooting feudalism" (Bennett, 1999). Between April of 1978 and the Soviet Intervention in December of 1979, as many as 27,000 prisoners were executed at the Pul-e-Charkhi prison (Kaplan, 2008 p76). Many of the prisoners who were executed were village mullahs and headmen who were obstructing and demonstrating against the aforementioned modernisation and secularisation reforms, which would primarily impact the intensely religious Afghan countryside. This led to further mobilisation of mujahideen forces and the inflaming of preexisting socioeconomic and cultural tensions.
In Arabic, Talib means 'student'; the Taliban are called 'students' (Talibs), for they were scholars of Islamic Law when they mobilised to fight against an 'anti-religious' narrative. This narrative was common among communist 'revolutionaries' in Afghanistan, who were primarily funded and schooled by the Soviet Union. The Taliban, a group of Pakistani and Afghan refugee students, were given fundamentalist political instruction and were urged to restore what they perceived as the degraded state of Islam around the world. The jihad against the Soviet Union was actively supported by the Taliban and their ulema teachers. Many of them had even served in the mujahideen, but who had progressively drifted away from the Peshawar authorities. They harshly criticised the Afghan mujahideen's post-Soviet internal strife and governance because they believed that they had blown a huge opportunity to capitalise on the defeat of the Soviet Union and their Afghan equivalents in the PDPA (Bennett, 1999 p29).
After the intervention by the Soviet Union and the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, Islamic Mujahideen insurgents present within Afghan territory waged a war against the Soviet forces. After the fall of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992, Afghan political parties agreed on a power sharing agreement in which the Islamic State of Afghanistan was created. However, multiple groups refused to take part in this agreement and a civil war ensued. This outbreak of violence led to the Taliban, formed by Mullah Mohammad Omar in 1994, taking control of the country in 1996. This signified that Mohammad Omar had become the head of state (Council on Foreign Relations, 2015).
Under Mohammad Omar, the group instituted Sharia governance, which was criticised by global news outlets and the general international community for its perceived mistreatment of women, children and minority groups. By 1998, the Taliban controlled 90% of the country with the exception of certain northern territories which had resisted their takeover by the Taliban. The group also reportedly refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden in 1998, who was wanted for the bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, following a US missile strike (Whitaker, 2001).
Respectively, in their own views, the Taliban’s argument revolved around the US ‘deserving’ to be attacked on 9/11, notably as the group believed that the USA controls – or at least heavily influences – the governments of Islamic countries. This is consistent with the reasoning of the group’s founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who was interviewed by Voice of America in late September 2001, several weeks after al-Qaeda attackers struck the world trade centre buildings in New York. He refused to turn over Osama bin Laden, saying that it wasn’t “an issue” of al Qaeda’s leader but rather “an issue of Islam”. He went on to explain that “Islam’s prestige is at stake. So is Afghanistan’s tradition" and during the interview, he noted that “Americans will not be able to prevent such acts like the one that has just occurred, because America has taken Islam hostage" (Roggio and Joscelyn, 2019). Omar justified the terrorist attacks in the West and his reasoning was effectively the same as al Qaeda’s, as Osama bin Laden had repeatedly accused America of interfering in the Muslim-majority world and “occupying” Saudi Arabia (The Guardian, 2002).
Following the 11th of September attacks and the Taliban government's refusal to hand over Osama Bin Laden to the United States, the US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan with the help of the Northern Alliance – a loose coalition of resistance groups mainly based in the north of the country, especially in the Mazār-e Sharīf region. This invasion led to the toppling of the Taliban government and the installation of Hamid Karzai as president, following the country’s first democratic elections since the Taliban takeover (Council on Foreign Relations, 2021). Following this, the Taliban led an insurgent war against coalition forces which lasted over 20 years and led to the deaths of over 176,000 people, including deaths from both sides of the war as well as civilian casualties (Watson Institute, 2021).
The US-Taliban agreement, formally known as the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, was signed in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020 (Qazi, 2020). The terms of the agreement included discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government, as well as the removal of all American and NATO forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban also promised to keep al-Qaeda from functioning in any regions that they controlled. However, following the signing of the deal, there was in fact an increase in attacks by the Taliban upon government forces (Shalizi et al, 2020). The Taliban conducted a significant attack across Afghanistan in the middle of 2021 as US forces withdrew from the country; as of July 23, 2021, they controlled more than half of Afghanistan's districts (Ali and Stewart, 2021). By mid-August 2021, the Taliban had taken over all of Afghanistan's major cities, and they had successfully seized the Presidential Palace, henceforth enabling them to establish themselves as the rulers of Afghanistan. They subsequently established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, returning to power after two decades (Madi et al, 2021). Although the Taliban are the de-facto rulers of contemporary Afghanistan, their government is not de-jure, as no country recognises their rule. Nevertheless, certain countries have engaged in talks, notably surrounding trade, with the Taliban since 2021 (China being one of the most prominent countries in this exchange). Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has stated that the most burdening obstacle faced by the newly-formed Taliban government is the non-recognition of the Islamic Emirate by other countries, mainly prevented by the USA (Gul, 2022).
Objectives & Ideology
The core goals pursued by the Taliban are the establishment of Sharia law and a Taliban-run government in Afghanistan. The name of the organisation, which translates to ‘student’ in Arabic, makes it apparent that the tenets of the group are centred on the study of Salafism, an extremist interpretation of Islam. The anti-Soviet Mujahideen combatants' traditional Islamist beliefs in the 1980s had been replaced with a rigorous anti-modern Pashtun tribal ideology blended with radicalised Deobandi interpretations of Islam. According to the Deobandi school, Islamic societies have lagged behind the West in all areas of endeavour, because they have turned away from the Islamic prophet's original, unadulterated teachings and been deceived by the worldly and amoral 'illusions' of Westernisation. Deobandism is a conservative branch of Islamic orthodoxy that aspires to imitate Mohammed's life and times by adhering to a Salafist framework.
The Dar ul-Ulum madrasa in Deoband, India, is where the Deobandi school of thought was established in 1867. Deobandi madrassas grew in popularity throughout South Asia and received governmental support in Pakistan after President Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq took over the country's leadership in 1977. It asserts that a Muslim's devotion and fundamental duty are to his religion. Adherents of the Deobandi school consider it their fundamental duty and right to carry out jihad in order to defend Muslims in any nation (Global Security, 2019). Traditional Islamism, on the other hand, refers to a broader movement of social and political groups motivated by Islamic doctrine. These movements seek to create societies that are governed by or infused with Islamic beliefs. They are proponents of using Sharia as the basis for all laws and government.
To advance their vision of an Islamic society, traditional Islamists such as the Mujahideen, participated or currently participate in a variety of forms of activism, such as political activism, social welfare programmes, and educational endeavours. Notably, traditional Islamism includes both moderate and more conservative, or extremist, factions which are – and were – readily seen within the Mujahideen. This spans a broad spectrum of theological, political, and intellectual positions. The Taliban is committed to upholding and applying Sharia law in its strictest form (Rashid, 2020, p43). The group strongly advocates jihad among its members, promoting it as a "divine obligation" and claiming that refusing to support jihad is sin (Roggio and Weiss, 2017).
Military & Political Abilities
The Taliban have utilised many forms of violence in their attacks and their military abilities are varied. Taliban attacks primarily target Afghan government and NATO/coalition forces. The Taliban used guerilla tactics, rocket strikes, assassinations, suicide bombers, IEDs, conventional warfare, unconventional warfare, the targeting of NGOs and civilians, and suicide bombings in order to demoralise coalition and government forces (Pape and Feldman, 2010). The Taliban were known to utilise civilians to entice coalition forces into an area before detonating an explosive device or launching an attack against these forces. Very frequently, more civilians were killed in these bombings than coalition troops. In addition, the Taliban escalated its direct assaults against American government targets, as seen by the group's targeting of American military installations and an attempted assassination attempt on Secretary of Defence James Mattis (Ward, 2017).
The Taliban has access to several forms of weaponry, ranging from heavy machine guns to light infantry weapons such as AK-47s and other weapon platforms. Due to the pullout of American forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban gained access to stockpiles of American weapons and equipment, which were left behind by the latter during their pullout. This includes the M16 assault rifle in use by the American military, as well as handguns and even night vision goggles. The Taliban also captured an estimated 2000 armoured vehicles from these abandoned stockpiles and from equipment which was given to the Afghan army, including humvees which cost over $300,000 dollars each (Shelton, 2021). Additionally there are reports that the Taliban have successfully managed to repair over 70 aircrafts, as well as UH60 Blackhawk helicopters which were left behind by the United States following their withdrawal from the country (Kumar, 2023), although the credibility of these reports is somewhat ambiguous, notably as the Taliban may seek to artificially inflate their capabilities in order to enhance their image of strength. However, if these reports are accurate, it would pose a severe issue for the US and its allies as the equipment left behind was “likely to deteriorate without US contractor maintenance” (Department of Defense Office Of Inspector General, 2022) and this would effectively mean that the Taliban would have the capabilities to restore technologically complex equipment.
The video above dates from the period of the US pullout of Afghanistan. It circulated in numerous Taliban-linked Telegram channels, and it shows pro-Talib celebrations following the pullout.
Approach to Resistance
Historically, their approach to resistance has been marked by a combination of military tactics, political manoeuvring, and ideological influence. The Taliban first appeared in Afghanistan in the 1990s as a militant group seeking to establish its interpretation of Islamic law. They implemented a harsh form of governance that severely restricted human rights, particularly for women, and harboured international terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, during their previous rule from 1996 to 2001. When it comes to political conflict, the Taliban has used violence as a primary means of achieving their goals. Guerrilla warfare, ambushes, suicide bombings, and other acts of violence have been carried out against Afghan government forces, international military forces, and civilians. However, it is worth noting that the Taliban have also used other methods to achieve their objectives. They have used propaganda and psychological warfare to spread their ideology, such as through media, religious schools (madrasas), and word-of-mouth recruitment. They have attempted to exploit grievances and societal divisions in order to portray themselves as a force fighting foreign occupation and corruption.
The Taliban's use of violence as a core aspect of their approach to resistance is significant and has had a profound impact on the general conflict in Afghanistan. They employ various violent tactics to undermine the authority of the Afghan government, intimidate local populations, and control territory. One of these tactics is their extensive use of guerrilla warfare, The Taliban has been known to engage in guerrilla warfare tactics, which involve hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, and small-scale skirmishes. They utilise their knowledge of the local terrain and employ surprise tactics to target Afghan security forces and international military forces. This approach allows them to maintain a level of flexibility, evade large-scale confrontations, and inflict casualties on their opponents. Another tactic they have frequently employed are suicide bombings, usually targetting government buildings, military installations, crowded marketplaces, religious sites, and even schools. Suicide bombings have caused significant civilian casualties and instilled fear among the population, aiming to weaken public support for the Afghan government and international forces. The Taliban has conducted numerous suicide bombings throughout Afghanistan; for instance in January 2018, a Taliban suicide bomber targeted an Afghan army unit in Kabul, killing more than 100 people and injuring many others (BBC Asia, 2018). The attack occurred during the morning rush hour, causing civilian casualties.
IEDs are also widely used by the Taliban as one of their primary weapons against Afghan and international forces. They target military convoys, patrols, and infrastructure with roadside bombs and other explosive devices. These IEDs pose a significant threat to both military and civilian personnel, frequently resulting in casualties and disruption. In fact, IED usage in Afghanistan was the leading conflict-related cause of civilian death in Afghanistan every year since 2001, except for 2014 and 2016, with most of these attacks being attributed to the Taliban (Scalabrino, 2020). The Taliban has also targeted and assassinated government officials, tribal elders, community leaders, and individuals perceived to be supporting the government or international forces. These targeted killings are intended to eliminate influential figures who oppose or pose a threat to their goals, instilling fear and discouraging cooperation with the government. Fawzia Koofi, a prominent Afghan politician and women's rights activist, narrowly escaped a Taliban assassination attempt in 2021. Although Koofi survived the attack, the incident highlighted the Taliban's efforts to assassinate influential figures who oppose their views (BBC Asia, 2020).
International Relations & Potential Alliances
The Taliban had several important international relations and also several potential alliances, although these are subject to change and they have evolved over time. One of the Taliban's major international contacts over the years has been the Islamic Republic of Pakistan; the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has provided the Taliban with money, training, and weapons since its founding. The ISI also has close ties to the Haqqani network in Pakistan, a militant group that collaborates closely with the Taliban (Bhalla,2021). Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Haqqani network's leader, has also been a Taliban deputy leader since 2015 (FBI). It must also be noted that the Taliban own property in Pakistan and receive large donations from private citizens (Sufizada, 2020). Indeed, Pakistan was one of the few countries to recognise the Taliban's government during their rule in the 1990s.
The Taliban also maintain a political office in Doha, Qatar, which has served as a venue for peace negotiations and talks with various stakeholders. Qatar has been an important facilitator of dialogue between the Taliban and the international community. It has hosted numerous rounds of talks, including the US-Taliban talks that resulted in the Doha Agreement in 2020 (BBC Asia, “US and Taliban Sign Deal to End 18-Year Afghan War”, 2021). To different extents, the Taliban has collaborated with other regional actors. Iran, for example, has had a complicated relationship with the Taliban, supporting some factions while opposing others in Afghanistan. However, on the 27th of May 2023, Iranian and Taliban forces engaged in a shootout and clashes over water rights and the access to the water of the Helmand river (AFP, 2023).
The video above is another one which circulated around Instagram stories of Taliban fighters and leaked into numerous Taliban-linked Telegram channels, as well as general OSINT channels such as @ourwarstoday. It shows footage of the Taliban incursion into the Iranian border region.
Russia has expressed concern about the rise of extremist groups in Afghanistan and has worked with the Taliban on regional security issues, such as halting the flow of drugs and human trafficking which occurs on the Russian border (BBC Europe, 2021). Due to concerns about cross-border terrorism and the potential for regional instability, China has expressed an interest in maintaining stability in Afghanistan. This is due to the presence of unrest in China's Xinjiang province, of which Chinese security scholars have accused the Taliban of providing training and support to the Muslim population there (Dou and Tan, 2021). However, since the takeover of the government by the Taliban, the Chinese government has worked closely with the Islamist group and has attempted to open up business ventures within the country, including mining operations valued in the trillions of dollars (Marlow and Curran, 2021). The Chinese government and the Taliban also agreed to an oil extraction deal which will last for 25 years, as well as the potential opening of a copper mine in the country (Hoskins, 2023).
The relationship between the Taliban and other extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and IS-K (Islamic State Khorasan Province), is complex and characterises their international relations and alliance set heavily. The Taliban and al-Qaeda have had historical ties which date back to the formation of the Taliban in the 1990s. Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, used Afghanistan as a ‘safe haven’, per se, under the Taliban's rule from 1996 to 2001. Bin Laden and his followers provided the Taliban with financial and military support, while the Taliban offered them sanctuary and protection and al-Qaeda is/was bound to the Taliban by a pledge of allegiance – or "bay'ah" – which was first pledged in the 1990s by Osama Bin Laden to Mullah Mohammed Omar (El-Bay, 2021). As part of the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the United States, the Taliban had agreed to sever ties with al-Qaeda and prevent any future collaboration with the group whilst also banning al-Qaeda from operating within their territory, under promises of engaging with counter-terrorism policies set forward by the United States (Maizland, 2020). However, being seen as disloyal to their al-Qaeda partners would undermine the Taliban’s known image of uncompromising political Islam.
The relationship between the Taliban and IS-K (Islamic State – Khorasan Province) is characterised by armed clashes and ideological differences. IS-K emerged in Afghanistan in 2014 as an affiliate group of the Islamic State, seeking to establish its own presence and was created by disaffected members of the Taliban who didn't believe that their previous group was extreme enough (Schmitt, 2021). The Taliban views IS-K as a rival and has engaged in armed confrontations with the group. The two organisations have clashed over territorial control and ideological differences, with the Taliban primarily following a nationalistic and locally focused agenda, while IS-K aims for a broader transnational jihadist agenda. IS-K is also responsible for the killing of several pro-Taliban clerics, whilst the Taliban have also been accused of killing religious leaders who have alleged links to IS-K (Siddique, 2022).
This post in the @ourwarstoday Telegram channel communicates an AtlasNews report on clashes between the Taliban and the ISKP (IS-K).
Works Cited (MLA-style)
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