The Taliban , alternatively spelled Taleban, is an Islamic fundamentalist political movement in Afghanistan currently waging war (an insurgency, or jihad) within that country. From 1996 to 2001, it held power in Afghanistan and enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, of which the international community and leading Muslims have been highly critical. Until his death in 2013, Mullah Mohammed Omar was the supreme commander and spiritual leader of the Taliban. Mullah Akhtar Mansour was elected as his replacement in 2015, but as of November 2015 there are conflicting reports that he may have been killed or badly wounded. As of mid-2015, the group is “directly or indirectly” supported in Afghanistan by “about a dozen” militant groups, having “different goals and agendas”.
The Taliban movement traces its origin to the Pakistani-trained and US-sponsored mujahideen in northern Pakistan, a loosely linked confederation of Islamist militias fighting the Soviets during the Soviet–Afghan War. It was not fully unified until its 1994 capture of Kandahar. Under the leadership of Mohammed Omar, the movement spread throughout most of Afghanistan, sequestering power from the Mujahideen warlords, whose corruption and despotism Afghans had tired of. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was established in 1996 and the Afghan capital transferred to Kandahar. It held control of most of the country until being overthrown by the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001 following the September 11 attacks. At its peak, formal diplomatic recognition of the Taliban’s government was acknowledged by only three nations: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The group later regrouped as an insurgency movement to fight the American-backed Karzai administration and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The Taliban have been condemned internationally for the harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, which has resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans, especially women. During their rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban and their allies committed massacres against Afghan civilians, denied UN food supplies to 160,000 starving civilians and conducted a policy of scorched earth, burning vast areas of fertile land and destroying tens of thousands of homes. In its post-9/11 insurgency, the group has been accused of using terrorism as a specific tactic to further their ideological and political goals. According to the United Nations, the Taliban and their allies were responsible for 75% of Afghan civilian casualties in 2010, 80% in 2011, and 80% in 2012.
The Taliban’s ideology has been described as anti-modern, combining an “innovative form” of sharia Islamic law based on Deobandi fundamentalism and the militant Islamism and Salafi jihadism of Osama bin Laden, with Pashtun social and cultural norms known as Pashtunwali, as most Taliban are Pashtun tribesmen.
The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and military are widely alleged by the international community to have provided support to the Taliban during their founding and time in power, and of continuing to support the Taliban during the insurgency. Pakistan states that it dropped all support for the group after the September 11 attacks. Al-Qaeda also supported the Taliban with fighters from Arab countries and Central Asia. Saudi Arabia provided financial support. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee to United Front-controlled territory, Pakistan, and Iran.
The Taliban initially enjoyed goodwill from Afghans weary of the warlords’ corruption, brutality, and incessant fighting. However, this popularity was not universal, particularly among non-Pashtuns.
The Taliban’s extremely strict and anti-modern ideology has been described as an “innovative form of sharia combining Pashtun tribal codes,” or Pashtunwali, with radical Deobandi interpretations of Islam favored by JUI and its splinter groups. Also contributing to the mix was the militant Islamism and extremist jihadism of Osama bin Laden. Their ideology was a departure from the Islamism of the anti-Soviet mujahideen rulers they replaced who tended to be mystical Sufis, traditionalists, or radical Islamicists inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan).
Under the Taliban regime, Sharia law was interpreted to forbid a wide variety of previously lawful activities in Afghanistan. These prohibitions have included pork, many types of consumer technology, alcohol, most forms of art such as paintings or photography, and female sport. Men were forbidden to shave their beards, and required to wear a head covering.
Many of these activities were hitherto lawful in Afghanistan. Critics complained that most Afghans followed a different, less strict, and less intrusive interpretation of Islam. The Taliban did not eschew all traditional popular practices. For example, they did not destroy the graves of Sufi pirs (holy men), and emphasized dreams as a means of revelation. They also frequently used the pre-Islamic Pashtun tribal code, Pashtunwali in deciding certain social matters, which often contradicted the Qu’ran. Such is the case with the Pashtun practice of dividing inheritances equally among sons, even though the Qur’an clearly states that women are to receive one-half a man’s share.
The Taliban have been described as both anti-nationalist and Pushtun nationalist. According to journalist Ahmed Rashid, at least in the first years of their rule, they adopted Deobandi and Islamist anti-nationalist beliefs, and opposed “tribal and feudal structures,” eliminating traditional tribal or feudal leaders from leadership roles. According to Ali A. Jalali and Lester Grau, the Taliban “received extensive support from Pashtuns across the country who thought that the movement might restore their national dominance. Even Pashtun intellectuals in the West, who differed with the Taliban on many issues, expressed support for the movement on purely ethnic grounds.”
Like Wahhabi and other Deobandis, the Taliban do not consider Shiʻi to be Muslims. The Shia in Afghanistan consist mostly of the Hazara ethnic group which totaled almost 10% of Afghanistan’s population.
The Taliban were averse to debating doctrine with other Muslims. “The Taliban did not allow even Muslim reporters to question [their] edicts or to discuss interpretations of the Qur’an.”
The Taliban strictly enforced its ideology in major cities like Heart, Kabul, and Kandahar. In rural areas the Taliban had little direct control, and promoted village jirgas, so it did not enforce its ideology as stringently in rural areas.
Consistent with the governance of early Muslims was the absence of state institutions or “a methodology for command and control” that is standard today even among non-Westernized states. The Taliban did not issue press releases, policy statements, or hold regular press conferences. The outside world and most Afghans did not even know what their leaders looked like, since photography was banned.The “regular army” resembled a lashkar or traditional tribal militia force with only 25,000 men (of whom 11,000 were non-Afghans).
Cabinet ministers and deputies were mullahs with a “madrasah education.” Several of them, such as the Minister of Health and Governor of the State bank, were primarily military commanders who left their administrative posts to fight when needed. Military reverses that trapped them behind lines or led to their deaths increased the chaos in the national administration. At the national level, “all senior Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara bureaucrats” were replaced “with Pashtuns, whether qualified or not.” Consequently, the ministries “by and large ceased to function.”
The Ministry of Finance had neither a budget nor “qualified economist or banker.” Mullah Omar collected and dispersed cash without bookkeeping
Campaign of violence:
According to a 55-page report by the United Nations, the Taliban, while trying to consolidate control over northern and western Afghanistan, committed systematic massacres against civilians. UN officials stated that there had been “15 massacres” between 1996 and 2001. They also said, that “[t]hese have been highly systematic and they all lead back to the [Taliban] Ministry of Defense or to Mullah Omar himself.” “These are the same type of war crimes as were committed in Bosnia and should be prosecuted in international courts”, one UN official was quoted as saying. The documents also reveal the role of Arab and Pakistani support troops in these killings. Bin Laden’s so-called 055 Brigade was responsible for mass-killings of Afghan civilians. The report by the United Nations quotes “eyewitnesses in many villages describing Arab fighters carrying long knives used for slitting throats and skinning people”. The Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, in late 2011 stated that cruel behaviour under and by the Taliban had been “necessary”.
In 1998, the United Nations accused the Taliban of denying emergency food by the UN’s World Food Programme to 160,000 hungry and starving people “for political and military reasons”. The UN said the Taliban were starving people for their military agenda and using humanitarian assistance as a weapon of war.
On August 8, 1998 the Taliban launched an attack on Mazar-i Sharif. Of 1500 defenders only 100 survived the engagement. Once in control the Taliban began to kill people indiscriminately. At first shooting people in the street, they soon began to target Hazaras. Women were raped, and thousands of people were locked in containers and left to suffocate. This ethnic cleansing left an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 dead. At this time ten Iranian diplomats and a journalist were killed. Iran assumed the Taliban had murdered them, and mobilized its army, deploying men along the border with Afghanistan. By the middle of September there were 250,000 Iranian personnel stationed on the border. Pakistan mediated and the bodies were returned to Tehran towards the end of the month. The killings of the Diplomats had been carried out by Sipah-e-Sahaba a Pakistani Sunni group with close ties to the ISI. They burned orchards, crops and destroyed irrigation systems, and forced more than 100,000 people from their homes with hundreds of men, women and children still unaccounted for.
In a major effort to retake the Shomali plains from the United Front, the Taliban indiscriminately killed civilians, while uprooting and expelling the population. Among others, Kamal Hossein, a special reporter for the UN, reported on these and other war crimes. In Istalif, which was home to more than 45,000 people, the Taliban gave 24 hours’ notice to the population to leave, then completely razed the town leaving the people destitute.
In 1999 the town of Bamian was taken, hundreds of men, women and children were executed. Houses were razed and some were used for forced labor. There was a further massacre at the town of Yakaolang in January 2001. An estimated 300 people were murdered, along with two delegations of Hazara elders who had tried to intercede.
By 1999, the Taliban had forced hundreds of thousands of people from the Shomali Plains and other regions conducting a policy of scorched earth burning homes, farm land and gardens.
Several Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders ran a network of human trafficking, abducting women and selling them into sex slavery in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Time magazine writes: “The Taliban often argued that the restrictions they placed on women were actually a way of revering and protecting the opposite sex. The behavior of the Taliban during the six years they expanded their rule in Afghanistan made a mockery of that claim.”
The targets for human trafficking were especially women from the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Some women preferred to commit suicide over slavery, killing themselves. During one Taliban and al-Qaeda offensive in 1999 in the Shomali Plains alone, more than 600 women were kidnapped. Arab and Pakistani al-Qaeda militants with local Taliban forces, forced them into trucks and buses. Time magazine writes: “The trail of the missing Shomali women leads to Jalalabad, not far from the Pakistan border. There, according to eyewitnesses, the women were penned up inside Sar Shahi camp in the desert. The more desirable among them were selected and taken away. Some were trucked to Peshawar with the apparent complicity of Pakistani border guards. Others were taken to Khost, where bin Laden had several training camps.” Officials from relief agencies say, the trail of many of the vanished women leads to Pakistan where they were sold to brothels or into private households to be kept as slaves.
However, not all Taliban commanders engaged in human trafficking. Many Taliban were opposed to the human trafficking operations conducted by al-Qaeda and other Taliban commanders. Nuruludah, a Taliban commander, is quoted as saying that in the Shomali Plains, he and 10 of his men freed some women who were being abducted by Pakistani members of al-Qaeda. In Jalalabad, local Taliban commanders freed women that were being held by Arab members of al-Qaeda in a camp.
Oppression of women:
The Taliban were condemned internationally for their brutal repression of women. In 2001 Laura Bush in a radio address condemned the Taliban’s brutality to women. In areas they controlled the Taliban issued edicts which forbade women from being educated, girls were forced to leave schools and colleges. Those who wished to leave their home to go shopping had to be accompanied by a male relative, and were required to wear the burqa, a traditional dress covering the entire body except for a small screen to see out of. Those who appeared to disobey were publicly beaten. Sohaila, a young woman who was convicted of walking with a man who was not a relative, was charged with adultery. She was publicly flogged in Ghazi Stadium and received 100 lashes. The religious police routinely carried out inhumane abuse on women. Employment for women was restricted to the medical sector, because male medical personnel were not allowed to treat women and girls. One result of the banning of employment of women by the Taliban was the closing down in places like Kabul of primary schools not only for girls but for boys, because almost all the teachers there were women. Taliban restrictions became more severe after they took control of the capital. In February 1998, religious police forced all women off the streets of Kabul, and issued new regulations ordering people to blacken their windows, so that women would not be visible from the outside.
Terrorism against civilians:
According to the United Nations, the Taliban were responsible for 76% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2009, 75% in 2010 and 80% in 2011.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban’s bombings and other attacks which have led to civilian casualties “sharply escalated in 2006” when “at least 669 Afghan civilians were killed in at least 350 armed attacks, most of which appear to have been intentionally launched at non-combatants.” By 2008, the Taliban had increased its use of suicide bombers and targeted unarmed civilian aid workers, such as Gayle Williams.
The United Nations reported that the number of civilians killed by both the Taliban and pro-government forces in the war rose nearly 50% between 2007 and 2009. The high number of civilians killed by the Taliban is blamed in part on their increasing use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), “for instance, 16 IEDs have been planted in girls’ schools” by the Taliban.
In 2009, Colonel Richard Kemp, formerly Commander of British forces in Afghanistan and the intelligence coordinator for the British government, drew parallels between the tactics and strategy of Hamas in Gaza to those of the Taliban. Kemp wrote:
Like Hamas in Gaza, the Taliban in southern Afghanistan are masters at shielding themselves behind the civilian population and then melting in among them for protection. Women and children are trained and equipped to fight, collect intelligence, and ferry arms and ammunition between battles. Female suicide bombers are increasingly common. The use of women to shield gunmen as they engage NATO forces is now so normal it is deemed barely worthy of comment. Schools and houses are routinely booby-trapped. Snipers shelter in houses deliberately filled with women and children.
The Taliban has often targeted health officials that work to immunise children against polio due to fears of the vaccine, including the fear that it is used to gather intelligence about their organisation. Polio vaccines were banned in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan in June 2012 and in December 2012, Taliban assassins killed four female UN polio-workers in Pakistan because they were thought to be spies. The Afghan government was forced to suspend vaccination efforts to eliminate polio from the Nuristan province in March 2013 because of a large Taliban influence in the province. Taliban leaders changed their stance on polio vaccination in early May 2013, saying the vaccine is the only way to prevent polio and that they would work with immunisation volunteers so long as polio workers are “unbiased” and “harmonised with the regional conditions, Islamic values and local cultural traditions.”