With the ‘War On Terror’ reaching its 15th anniversary very soon, I thought I’d take a look back to its inception with the rise of the Taliban.
The Taliban (Arabic for students) is an Islamic fundamentalist group that formed in the 1990’s as a force of stability in the lawless and unstable Afghanistan. Instability caused by a civil war between more radical Islamist movements (most notably the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) and the provisional less radical Islamist government (led by Burhanuddin Rabbani). Afghanistan was in a state of disarray leading to warlords fighting one another for control of provinces. The Taliban unified itself as a legitimate movement when it captured the city of Kandahar in 1994. It progressed from there and captured the capital city of Kabul in 1996, after seizing the capital it became the de-facto government and ruled until 2001. When a coalition of NATO forces invaded Afghanistan as part of the American ‘War on Terror’ deposed them and drove them underground into an insurgency. The Taliban’s regime was characterised by multiple human rights violations and the protection of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.
The Taliban has a long and convoluted history that can be directly linked to the American foreign policy in Afghanistan under presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Despite the clear link between the USA and Taliban movement, I would argue that while somewhat responsible. The creation of the group can be better and more accurately explained by the original Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and in particular Pakistan.
One of the factors in the creation of the Taliban is the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism. The Taliban is a group that came directly from two very radical strands of Islam called Wahhabism and Deobandi. In an effort to establish a Wahhabi government and implementation of a very strict form of Sharia law, the group formed and vied for power with the Mujahedeen warlords. The ideology itself predates foreign involvement in Afghan affairs, but it was not as prevalent until the Soviet invasion. So it can be blamed to some extent for the Taliban but it’s the weakest of explanations as to the origins of the group. Afghanistan itself under Rabbani had already implemented a form of Sharia law. The radical Wahhabi ideology is maligned in many areas as the Afghan population has many ethnic traditions that influence their religious ideology. In order for the radical ideology to manifest in a large movement like the Taliban, there must be other factors such as war and displacement which radicalises people into various extremist ideologies. Areas with high instability are havens for extremist ideologies like present day Iraq and Libya.
The Taliban’s’ origin is closely linked Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In order to maintain their geopolitical sphere of influence in Asia and the Islamic world. The Soviets invaded to quell the revolution that began as a result of displeasure towards the Socialist reforms by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The PDPA’s reforms angered the rural Afghan population, who were not keen on the removal of Sharia law and the new secular laws. The rebellion grew in size (supported by the Carter administration) and the USSR invaded in December 1979 to support the Socialist government. The rural tribes of Afghanistan unified against the invading Soviet force, forming a Mujahedeen which is a coalition of Islamic fighters in a defensive jihad. The Soviets quickly found themselves trapped in a quagmire as the guerrilla warfare tactics caught them off-guard. The Soviets indiscriminately used a ‘Scorched-Earth’ tactic in order to quell the rebellion. As a result around 876,825 Afghans died in the conflict as well as the displacement of up to eight million people. Such extensive civilian casualties, as well as the destruction of homes and families, placed huge numbers of civilians into refugee camps with limited access to supplies. It was here in these refugee camps where the vast majority of Taliban operatives came from. Being in refugee camps meant that the only access to schooling was through radical Wahhabi madrassas which indoctrinated the refugees into Islamist movements such as the Taliban (explained further on). As a direct result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the USSR created millions of people at risk of becoming radicalised as well as directly radicalising many others. While the Soviet invasion clearly had some responsibility for the rise of Taliban, the intervention of the USA prolonged the war which more people at risk of radicalisation.
The USA became involved in Afghanistan during the rebellion against the Socialist government, starting in July 1979. Initially funding non-lethal mujahideen activities with $500,000. After the Soviets invaded President Carter changed tactics, ordering the money be used to ‘Harass’ the Soviets. Involvement in Afghanistan for the USA was crucial as they had recently lost geopolitical influence due to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 (destroying a Soviet Satellite state would restore geopolitical power in the region) and Afghanistan was vital for trade in Asia. Fighting the Soviets vicariously would also give retribution to the United States as the Soviets had used a similar tactic against them in Vietnam.
The US involvement in Afghanistan was partially responsible for the rise Taliban twofold. The first was the prolonging of the war by funding the Mujahedeen fighters. As a result of the conflict spanning nearly 10 years, the refugee and casualty rate increased drastically. Funding for the fighters increased exponentially until it reached a plateau in 1985 when funding was at an enormous $250 Million. Such a well-funded and armed resistance was able to inflict many casualties on the Soviets but in response, the Soviets killed more and more Afghans thus radicalising the population. The second way that the US is responsible for the formation of the Taliban is the funding and weapons it gave to mujahideen fighters through the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI). These weapons found their way into the hands of radicals such as Mohammad Omar and others in the Taliban leadership. The funding was distributed by the ISI as the USA had to distance itself from the operation as much as possible, reducing the risk of increased diplomatic tensions. However, this meant that the most radical Islamists were more likely to get training and weapons. While more moderate and capable leaders like Ahmed Shah Massoud received very limited funding and advanced weapons like the Stinger launcher.
Large scale instability and lawlessness were incredibly important to the formation of the Taliban. Once the Mujahedeen had taken control of the government and Dr Najbullah Ahmadzai (PDPA) had been ousted, the government fractured and in 1992 a civil war erupted. Hekmatyar had split from the rest of the government as they fundamentally disagreed on the scale of the Afghan Jihad.
The more moderate Massoud and Rabbani believed the jihad stopped at the formation of an Islamic Afghan government. Whilst Hekmatyar believed that the jihad should continue and Afghan forces should remove secular Muslim leaders and apostates around the world. Another issue was that the most charismatic and capable leader in Massoud was ethnically Tajik rather than the majority Pashtun. This meant there were strong ethnic divisions in the government as well as religious. Hekmatyar in response to the moderate government sieged Kabul and bombarded it with support and arms from the ISI. This handicapped the government who could no longer exert its authority beyond the confines of Kabul. Afghanistan descended into chaos, as a power vacuum emerged, the Taliban formed out of necessity for a stabilising force. The Afghan Civil war inadvertently created a new unified force to replace the old fractured one.
One of the most important factors in the formation of the Taliban were the radical Madrassas built by the Saudi Arabian and Pakistani governments. On the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in 1971 there were around 900 madrassas, however after the Soviet invasion and the Afghan refugee crisis, there were an estimated 8,000 along the border stretching all the way down to Kandahar. The madrassas were funded by the Saudi and Pakistani governments who wished to spread their ideology beyond their own borders in order to appease the most radical clerics in their populations. Whilst these madrassas had the façade of simply helping by providing food and shelter; they had a much more insidious purpose. The strict radical Islamist education focused heavily on Wahhabism and also on militarism and jihad. The young refugees were not socialised into the traditional Afghan culture thus Wahhabism was all they knew.
The result was huge swathes of young vulnerable refugees who were indoctrinated by radical Islamic schools. These groups of young students looked for purpose and the Taliban was ideal in providing it. The Taliban started as a very small group originally (Around 50 students) however as their reputation grew so did their numbers and they soon gained a 15,000 strong force of mainly young Talibs. The leadership of the Taliban was mostly composed of veterans from the Afghan Mujahedeen, whilst the vast majority of the fighting force were the refugees from the Soviet-Afghan war. In direct response to this issue, Pakistan has now developed a governmental standard it requires madrassas to adhere to in an attempt to limit radicalisation.
The country that I believe is the most responsible for the rise of the Taliban is Pakistan. Several actions by the Pakistani government and the ISI directly contributed to the growth and inception of the Taliban. Firstly the ISI was responsible for controlling funding from Saudi Arabia and the USA during Afghan jihad. In order to bolster a potential Islamic ally in the region to oppose India, Pakistan under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq supplied the most radical Mujahedeen leaders with the best weapons. The ISI in doing so trained the then to be Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and supplied him with weapons. In doing this they created a well-trained leader for the Taliban to form behind. Secondly, they built many radical madrassas on the border to export Wahhabi Islam. Thirdly it supported Hekmatyar in the siege of Kabul, by supporting Hekmatyar Pakistan ensured that the new government became completely ineffectual and the subsequent power vacuum was filled by the Taliban.
The fourth way in which Pakistan was responsible for the creation of the Taliban, was the direct funding of the Taliban with weapons and money. The government’s reasoning to do so was influenced by two important factors. Benazir Bhutto wished to create stability by any means necessary as the refugee crisis was draining Pakistan economically, the return of stability in Afghanistan would mean refugees could return home. Secondly, Bhutto wanted to secure the Southern provinces of Afghanistan for the benefit of Pakistani trade. In order to decrease unemployment and increase trade, Bhutto wanted to create merchant jobs by establishing a ‘new silk road’ which planned to go through Southern Afghanistan. By financing a group like the Taliban some order would be established which would allow goods to move through with the reduced risk of attack. Bhutto designated the policy to her interior minister Naseerullah Babar who initiated a programme to give arms and support to the emerging Taliban movement in its infancy. Without the arms and funding the Taliban received from Pakistan, it is unlikely they would have been able to get as powerful as they did.
To a small extent, the CIA involvement in Afghanistan helped create the Taliban, the ill-advised strategy of funding radical extremists in the Mujahedeen as a means of beating the Soviets worked in the short-term but had huge long-term implications. The Taliban is one of those consequences, but it is far too reductive and simplistic to blame the Taliban on America solely. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was one of the major reasons behind the formation of the Taliban, the displacement of millions of Afghan citizens laid the framework for radical groups to form. The proxy war between the US and the Soviets merely created an incubator for extremism to form in, rather than actually creating the extremism. The incubator of extremism became worse when Hekmatyar sieged Kabul and destroyed governmental power which led to a state of Anarchism in Afghanistan coupled with huge supplies of abandoned weapons.
The biggest factor in the creation of the Taliban was instead Pakistan’s foreign policy, in the incubator of extremism they funded and armed the most radical of Islamist movements and even directly funded the Taliban for their own personal gains. By arming and training the most extreme Mujahedeen members like Mohammad Omar, Pakistan created the Taliban leadership. By building thousands of radical Wahhabi madrassas on the border, they created the Taliban’s fighting force. Both of these factors in an environment like Afghanistan was only going to result in one thing.
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