Institute for Afghan Studies

An Introduction of the Taliban

Kawun Kakar, Institute for Afghan Studies
Fall, 2000

Since their rise in 1994, the Taliban have been a source of conflicting opinions. Their opponents have accused them of being created by Pakistan with the support of Saudi Arabia and the US oil company, UNOCAL, to secure trade routes to the Central Asia. Their supporters, on the other hand, hold that the Taliban are a religious and moral force that arose on their own from villages to save Afghans from the terror, lawlessness and corruption of Mujahideen era and to re-unite Afghanistan. The reality, however, seems somewhere in the middle. It is true that the immediate cause of the rise of Taliban was the fighting among Mujahideen groups that had virtually divided Afghanistan in separate fiefdoms resulting in carpet destruction of Kabul, killings of thousands of civilians, and general lawlessness. It is also true that once the Taliban entered the military and political stage, they received support from foreign sources to continue their military march.  

In this brief introduction, we will try to answer who the Taliban are by discussing the historical context of their rise. Second, we will discuss their goals, policies, and practices. We will also provide links to more detailed study of the Taliban on our web site.

Who are the Taliban?

Talib is an Arabic word, which literally means "one who is seeking," but generally Talib refers to "someone who is seeking religious knowledge." Taliban are students of "deeni madrassas" or religious seminaries, which have existed in Afghanistan, the Indian-Subcontinent, and the Central Asia since the arrival of Islam in these areas. (See also Excerpts from Mr. Barnett Rubins's article.) Both religious schools and taliban existed long before the modern system of schools and educations were introduced to Afghanistan close to a century ago. (See also The Afghan Taliban: Like It or Not, It Occupies Two-Thirds of Afghanistan and Shows No Sign of Weakening, by Musa Maroofi.) Many taliban also used to go to different religious scholars or local mullahs to acquire religious knowledge.

Although taliban have never been, until recent times, at the pinnacle of military and political power, they are not new to Afghanistan. They have been a component of the religious establishment and have always lived in the shadow of other military, political, and economic groups. Mullah Shor Bazar, an Afghan fighter known for inflicting heavy losses on the British during the Third Anglo-Afghan war of 1919, was also a talib, as were Mirwais Khan Hotaki, and Mullah Mushki Alam, who fought against the British occupation of Afghanistan.  During the national struggle against the Soviet invaders, taliban fought alongside the Mujahideen mainly under the leadership of Mohammad Nabi, one of the seven sanctioned Mujahideen leaders in Pakistan (also known as "Peshawar Tanzeem" Leaders).

However, most of the leaders of the current Taliban regime in Afghanistan have been influenced by the teachings of Islam in Pakistan, where they had migrated with millions of other Afghans after the Soviet invasion. There, they attended religious seminaries or "madrassas", while many of them also remained active fighting the Soviets in the battlefields. They are the followers of the "Deobandi" school of thought, preached by mullahs (clerics) in Pakistani madrassas. The Deobandi school emerged as a reform movement in British India with the aim of rejuvenating Islamic society in a colonial state. The Pakistani version of the Deobandi schools in Afghan refugee camps were, however, often run by in-experienced and semi-literate mullahs, associated with Pakistan's Jami'at-e 'Ulema-e Islam (JUI) political party. Saudi funds and scholarships, during the Afghan struggle against the Soviets, in combination with a lack of appreciation on the part of the mullahs of the reformist Deobandi agenda, brought the schools and its curricula closer to ultraconservative Wahabism, which claims to teach strict adherence to the practices of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and the Four Rightful Caliphs. (See Foreign Affairs, November 1999, The Taliban: Exporting Extremism, by Ahmad Rashid.). But it must be pointed out that the majority of Taliban foot soldiers are the products of Afghani Masjids, may they be inside Afghanistan or within Refugee camps. 

The Taliban's close ties with the Deobandi schools and in turn their association with JUI and its links with the religious, military, and political establishments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been prime sources of political, financial and military aid for the group. (See Pakistan's Deceitful Game.) Their opponents charge that even Pakistani military personnel have taken part in their military operations. While hard evidence to substantiate this charge has not surfaced yet, it is well known that the Pakistani madrassas in Afghan refugee camps have continued to supply the Taliban with fresh military recruits.

The Rise of the Taliban

As a military and political force, the Taliban surfaced in Qandahar in 1994 when Afghanistan was plagued by a vicious civil war. The main military struggle at that time was taking place in Kabul between the forces of Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander Ahmad Shah Masood and their allies on one side and the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his allies on the other side. As a result, about two thirds of Kabul was razed to the ground resembling "an archeological site" with a UN estimated deaths of 50,000 civilians. The rest of the country was taken by warlords and petty chieftains who ruled their areas with a free-for-all attitude. The Amnesty International 1995 annual report about Afghanistan begins with these terrifying accounts:

Thousands of civilians were killed and thousands more were wounded in artillery attacks deliberately aimed at residential areas by all factions in the civil war. Hundreds of men, women and children were deliberately and arbitrarily killed by members of the main armed groups during the raids on civilian homes. Torture, including rape of women and children, was reportedly widespread. People were unlawfully imprisoned in private detention centers because of their political opinions, religion, ethnic origin, or as hostages. Journalists covering the war were detained or imprisoned by the warring factions. Hundreds of people "disappeared." Warlords appointed themselves as so called Islamic judges and ordered punishments including executions.

Not receiving regular pay from their leaders in Kabul, Mujahideen fighters in the rest of the country turned on the people by establishing check points on highways forcing truck drivers and passengers to pay their way. According to one report, there were 71 such checkpoints between Herat, a western city in Afghanistan, and Chaman, a border city between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even in the capital, Kabul, the city was divided among seven armed factions, with several checkpoints between Shahr-e Naw and Karte-Char, covering a distance of just five miles. The worst effected areas were around Qandahar where lawlessness had spread to such an extent that shopkeepers reportedly could not keep their goods in shops during the night. (See also Excerpts from Mr. Barnett Rubins's article.)

Afghan women lived in especially bleak conditions during the lawlessness of Mujahideen era. Local commanders also abducted, forcefully married and raped women. (See Women in Afghanistan: A human rights catastrophe, 1994 Amnesty International Report). In Afghanistan: International Responsibility for Human Rights, the Amnesty International described the women's conditions in 1995 as follows:

" Women and girls all over Afghanistan live in constant fear of being raped by armed guards. For years, armed guards have been allowed to torture them in this way without fear of reprimand from their leaders. In fact, rape is apparently condoned by most leaders as a means of terrorizing conquered populations and or rewarding soldiers."

Perhaps the lasting legacy of the fighting among factions of the Mujahideen is the deepening ethnic division of Afghanistan. During their struggle to defeat their rivals, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar tried to win over Pashtuns, while Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masood appealed to Tajiks. Similarly, Hazara and Uzbek strengthened their militias and fully participated in the fighting, which was deliberately projected as an ethnic crusade. Unfortunately because of the blatant ethnic killings of the Mujahideen era and its continued practice during the Taliban era, the "ethnicization" of Afghan politics has cut deep rifts among Afghans in Afghanistan and abroad.

The cycle of violence, destruction, and chaos of the Mujahideen era created the condition for the rise of the puritanical Taliban. There are several versions of how a small group of taliban, led by Mullah Muhammad Omar took control of areas around Qandahar in 1994.

According to the most widely circulated account amongst the residents of Qandahar, a group of "madrasee" (belonging or originating from a Madrasa) taliban, headed by Mullah Mohammad Omar arrived in Afghanistan with the intent to re-establish law and order and to re-organize themselves. They took residence in a school near Dand in Qandahar. On September 20, 1994, an Afghan family on its way to Herat from Qandahar, was looted, its male members molested, and its female members were raped by gangs manning one of the so-called "check points" along the route. One of the victims escapes and reaches the newly established Taliban compound. The story goes that Mullah Omar and his followers rushed to the scene, capturing the perpetrators, executing them on the spot and then collecting and burying the bodies of the victims. It is this faithful incident, the Taliban claim, that marked the beginning of their campaign in Afghanistan. The Taliban then moved in and disarmed other groups in the area. They began consolidating their position and procuring weapons by winning the allegiance of several local military commanders. Among the groups who surrendered to the Taliban (through a peaceful arrangement) was that of Mullah Naqib, who along with a group of other warlords, had divided up the province amongst themselves. One of these warlords was Lalai, a former thief and "Sarbaz" (communist militia) who had defected to the Mojahedin during the Jihad era and had now become a post Jihad era warlord of a sector of Qandahar. While there is no a consensus about the triggering events that would mark the rise of the Taliban, it is clear that the initial popularity of the Taliban was due to the complete collapse of law and order under the so called Mujahideen era, which had officially begun in 1992.

The Taliban came in international limelight in November 1994 when they rescued a convoy of Pakistani trucks, which were on their way to the newly independent states of the Central Asia as a symbolic gesture of trade between Pakistan and those states. There are many versions to this story but it is widely believed that Commander Lalai, who by then had realized that the Taliban were fast becoming a threat to his interests is made aware of the convoy's schedule and its path, through Chaman-Qandahar highway, which was then controlled by two factions: the son of Haji Magash (a local smuggler turned warlord), and Lalai himself. It is now known that Lalai then joins forces with the son of Haji Magash and attacks the convoy, taking it hostage. While it is not clear whether Lalai's intentions were immediate economic gains, there are reports that he was trying to use the convoy as a bargaining chip to persuade the Pakistanis to force the Taliban to retreat from Qandahar. Regardless of Lalai's real intentions, the Taliban were able to rush and overrun his positions. Both Lalai and his allies then flee the scene, abandoning their respective fiefdoms. The caravan is freed and Qandahar falls into the hands of Taliban. 

Pakistan had hoped that a peaceful travel of the convoy would make the route more attractive to foreign investors and signal the start of new trading routes. In fact, while the arrangement for the convoy was being finalized on October 20, 1994, General Babar, Interior Minister of Pakistan, took Western ambassadors to Herat, which was at the time ruled by General Ismael Khan (a well-known commander of Prof. Rabbani's Jamiat-i Islami organization). Babar's goal was to showcase Afghanistan as a safe trade route between Pakistan and the Central Asia. The ambassadors were from such countries as the USA, China, Japan, Spain, France, and Germany. The entourage included Prof. Burhanudin Rabbani's Ambassador to Islamabad. Taliban's rescue of the convoy and their subsequent establishment of law and order in the areas under their control demonstrated that they would be the guardians of this new trading route, a role for which they are believed to have received extensive military support from Pakistan.

The Goals, Policies, and Practices of the Taliban

The initial goals of the Taliban were to disarm the country, end lawlessness and enforce the Islamic law or the Sharia on a united Afghanistan. The Taliban so far have been successful in bringing relative law and order in around 85% of the country that they control. They have done so mainly by disarming, and in certain cases by incorporating in their ranks, the previous warring groups. (See The Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 2000, Is Taliban's Afghanistan lease ready for renewal?) However, aside from the restoration of peace and security, the Taliban have failed so far to put forth a concrete plan dealing with Afghanistan's monumental problems at the national and international levels.

After seizing power in Kabul in September of 1996, the Taliban's internal policy has been centered on wresting all of Afghanistan from the control of their opponents, namely, the United Front headed by Prof. Rabbani and made up of a group of fleeting alliances and counter-alliances. In order to achieve their military goal the Taliban have taken on the offensive against their foes, often with devastating casualties on both sides as well as on the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. The Taliban and their allies have even engaged, specially after suffering military defeats, in carrying out their own massacres, forced eviction of civilians from their villages, imprisonment and terrorizing suspected enemy collaborators. Only last summer after their initial defeat in Mazar, Bamyan and the Shamali Plains, the Taliban were accused by the UN, International Human Rights groups and the Amnesty International of carrying out the afore-mentioned crimes in areas such as Mazar-e Sharif, Bamyan and the Shamali Plains. (See the Human Rights Section.)

Taliban's strict social policies and their anomalous interpretation of Islam have had detrimental effects on Afghans and have alienated them from the rest of the world. The Taliban initially banned all girls' schools, although more recently they have opened a handful of schools for girls under the age of 12. (See The Christian Science Monitor, December 30, 1999, Lives still restricted, Afghan women see hope.) They have prevented women from working, except in health care centers; if they leave their houses they have to be covered from head to foot with a veil or a "chadaree". Besides being veiled, women are usually required to be accompanied by a male relative when they go out on the streets. Taxi drivers have been admonished not to give ride to women unless they are covered fully. And women caught violating these rules have been beaten. Because of these policies, they have been accused of engaging in "gender apartheid." (See also Women's Rights Section.) The Taliban argue, however, that these restrictions are solely for the "protection" of women's dignity.  They further claim that the 20 years of war have depleted the country's resources to the point where a separate education system for girls is beyond their reach (Prior to Taliban, only high schools for boys and girls were separate.) In reality the restriction is an extension of rural social value system supercharged with a puritanical religious conditioning. Depending upon their background and the degree of exposure to the more extreme religious interpretations, even the unbending Taliban have moderates (in a very relative way) on the issue of women. 

In addition to their restrictions on women, men are required to grow untrimmed beards (considered to be Sunnah, something practiced and thus imitated from the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)) and pray five times a day( one of the five pillars of Islam). They have also cut the hands of thieves and stoned to death those who are convicted for adultery (as outlined, they maintain, by Islamic law). They have also banned kite flying, chicken fights, keeping pigeons and gambling (since they believe that this will lead to moral corruption). Celebration of new years (since they believe it to be a pagan ritual) and playing or listening to music (yet, according to them, another avenue of moral corruption) is also not allowed. The Taliban continue to justify their policies by stressing that they continue to face a costly war and the country's infrastructure is totally destroyed to accommodate the needs of all. However, critics of the Taliban's strict policies point out that even in cities where the Taliban have brought relative peace and security for the past 4 years there has been little loosening of these harsh and strict measures, making the lives of ordinary afghans harder in what are already hard times for the population. These rules are felt more harshly in the urban centers of the country. The Taliban, however, maintain that ordinary people's conditions have improved since the Mujahideen era.

In reality, the traditional way of life in villages has changed little by Taliban's rule. The situation of Afghans in the countryside controlled by the Taliban has improved because of increased peace and security, giving them the opportunity to rebuild after two decades of war. But this security comes at a cost. Forced recruitment of young men to fight the ever bloody war of attrition against the Northern alliance has depleted the man-power from these rural centers. In the cities and urban centers, the more modern and liberal way of life conflicts sharply with that of the Taliban's social and religious values. In addition the Taliban have shown little understanding in accommodating and appreciating the basic needs of an urban population.

In the development and rebuilding front, Taliban have failed to take any significant and meaningful steps in order to revive the country's shattered economy. But it must be emphasized that the de-evaluation of the Afghan currently is not necessarily a Taliban legacy. Afghan currency was printed by the billions by their predecessors in a check book campaign to buy off their opposition commanders. However, under Taliban the Economic hardships in cities have increased because of lack of jobs and business opportunities, which are generally the main sources of income in the cities. The standard of living has not improved and in many cases has down spiraled; unemployment is rampant; hunger, mal-nutrition, and diseases are the common traits of the Afghan society at present. A significant portion of the Afghan population, especially those living in cities, rely on assistance and donations provided by the UN and other Humanitarian Organizations. More than two thirds of Kabul residents receive some type of aid from these international organizations.

Some of the Taliban's strict policies and their unyielding position on issues such as, handing over the alleged terrorist Osama Bin Laden to the United States or to another country where he could be tried, have also isolated them internationally, resulting in non-recognition of their regime by the United Nations and imposition of international sanctions, thus denying Afghanistan much needed international aid and investment to rebuild. So far, they have also failed to put forth any comprehensive plan to revive the shattered economy, educational system, and infrastructure of the country. Without substantial international aid and the participation of educated and skilled Afghans, the Taliban do not seem prepared for such challenges in the future, since most of them lack administrative and technical skills.

Taliban's Foreign Policy

In the area of foreign policy, the Taliban have many enemies, but very few friends, evidenced by their unprecedented international isolation. This seems so partly because of their lack of experience, sophistication and in-depth knowledge of the world affairs, and partly because, except Pakistan, Afghanistan's neighboring countries, the West and Russia view
the Taliban as a threat to their national interests and have tried to isolate it.  

The Taliban's lack of appreciation of foreign policy is evidenced by their strict social policies, especially those targeting the women, which is a reversal of the international trend towards greater personal liberty and gender equality.  The Taliban's policy regarding women have
resulted in several open confrontation with the UN aid agencies and have hampered their efforts to provide aid to needy Afghans. The Taliban argue that by ending much of the infighting prevalent during the Mujahideen era, Afghan women are generally safer today, but the Taliban fail to recognize that the international community is outraged more by
the imposition of strict policies on women as a matter of law than by risks of indignities caused by general lawlessness, as evidenced by the difference in degree of the responses of the international community to the situation of women during Mujahideen era and the Taliban.  

More significantly perhaps, the Taliban's unyielding position on Osama bin Laden, whom the U.S. considers its enemy number one, has put them on crash course with the world's only super power.   Although Russia was never a friend of the Taliban, The Taliban's decision to recognize the government of independent Chechnya, a government that exists only in
name, has further increased Russia's animosity with them.  Showing moral support to the people of Chechnya was certainly called for in the face of their virtual slaughter and destruction by the Russian army, but the Taliban's recognition of an unviable government does not seem sound foreign policy as no other government has recognized the government of
Chechnya and the action has infuriated Russia to increase its military, political and economic support for forces of Ahmad Shah Mas'ud.  

In addition, Iran came close to attacking western Afghanistan in 1997 by amassing more than 200,000 troops along the Afghan border after the Taliban admitted that their "renegade" soldiers had killed nine Iranian consulate workers, and one Iranian journalist during their seizure of Mazar-i-Sharif.  Similarly, the Taliban are accused by India of aiding Muslim militants fighting its rule in Kashmir, a conflict that does not directly affect interests of Afghanistan.  

The Taliban's successes in foreign policy are limited to their recognition by Pakistan, United Arab Emirate and Saudi Arabia and the international praise that they won for their facilitation between the Indian government, which does not recognize the Taliban, and the highjackers of the Indian Airliner, which resulted in freeing of the hostages. 

Although the Taliban lack of experience in foreign policy has been an important factor in their international isolation, countries such as Iran, Russia, India, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have also tried very hard to isolate and weaken the Taliban.  These countries reportedly have and continue to provide military, economic and political support to Taliban's opponents.  In 1998, the government of Kyrgystan confiscated 700 tons of Iranian military hardware, which was bound for Ahmed Shah Mas'ud.  Before the Taliban took over Kabul, their jets forced down a Russian transport plane filled with weapons in Kandahar which was also bound for the Prof. Rabbani's regime in Kabul.  Further, there are reliable reports that the Russian and Tajik authorities routinely provide military hardware to Ahmad Shah Mas'ud through Kulyab airport in Tajikistan.  The provision of large quantity of weapons to their opponents, and the non-recognition of the Taliban government by other countries, despite their rule over almost 90% of Afghanistan finds parallel in history only perhaps in the experience of communist China
which was not recognized by the West for close to two decades even though it ruled over almost all of China. 

In any case, the government of Taliban has so far attained recognition only from governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Even the Saudis and the UAE have in the past year cooled their relations with the Taliban government, allegedly over the Osama issue.  The UN still recognizes the previous regime of Prof. Rabbani.  Unfortunately for Afghanistan, the further isolation of the Taliban by the U.S. and thus the U.N. through sanctions have led them closer to militant movements in Pakistan, as evidenced by the recent hijacking of the Indian airliner by Pakistani militants.


Ever since their appearance on the Afghan political scene the Taliban have attracted much attention, often times poorly understood by the world, while at the same time itself has demonstrated a remarkably poor understanding of the world and its realities and contradictions.  They have managed to achieve an end to the chaos of the Mujahideen era, successfully dis-armed warlords and patched together most parts of Afghanistan under a unitary military, economic and political authority.  However, they have failed to end the war and their strict policies at home and abroad have resulted in poverty and difficulties to ordinary Afghans and to international isolation of Afghanistan.  The Afghan ship, thus, still sails in uncertain waters and Afghans tragedies continue to unfold.