• Matthew Dooley

The Taliban: what is it and where did it come from?

Over the past few days, and weeks, the news of the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan has shocked the western world. With their rise to power come fears of reprisal killings against the west’s Afghan partners, the repealing of women’s rights hard won over the last 20 years and return to pre-2001 living standards for the people who live there.

Who is the Taliban?

The name Taliban, comes from the Arab word Talib, with a Qur’anic translation of “one who seeks knowledge”. In other words, a student. This is apt considering that the founding members of the Taliban came from within local Islamic schools known as madrassas. The Taliban follows a strict interpretation of Sharia, Islamic, law within the lens of the Deobandi school of Islam.

In the past, the Taliban has interpreted this as not only banning the consumption of pork and alcohol but also sport, music and technology, such as television and the internet. The Taliban has also restricted education for women and girls over six years old while maintaining that they must not leave their homes without a male escort.

Pashtunwali, or Pashtun tribal code, has also contributed significantly to Taliban law-making.

Where did the Taliban come from?

In 1978, the Marxist’s Peoples Party for Afghanistan, a Marxist-Leninist political party, overthrew the previous government of Afghanistan. The newly-formed communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan then called on the Soviet Union for aid in quashing the various insurgencies in the country. This began Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.

During the 1980s, the CIA began supporting various anti-communist groups fighting the Soviets and the Afghan government known, collectively, as the mujahedeen. Large amounts of currency and weaponry were funnelled into the country, by the United States, through its porous border with Pakistan.

In 1989 the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from the country, leaving a weak Afghan government battling insurgencies without support. Within three years the communist government had been deposed.

What followed was factional infighting among largely tribal lines. Afghanistan has a multitude of ethnicities, and warlords used this to form different factions to go to war with each other. By all accounts the Afghanistan of the early 90s was a lawless and corrupt country.

In response to this lack of centralised power, the Taliban was formed in 1994 in the Pashtun areas of the country bordering Pakistan. By 1996 it had captured the capital of Kabul, controlling all of the country bar the northern provinces, which Tajik and Uzbek warlords continued to control.

The Taliban instituted strict Sharia law over the country until it was toppled in the 2001 NATO invasion in response to the September 11 attacks.

What is the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaeda?

Although both organisations follow a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, al-Qaeda was, originally, a largely Arab organisation founded by Osama bin-Laden. Al-Qaeda is focused on a global war against non-Muslim forces in Muslim countries and believes that there is a global Christian-Jewish conspiracy against Muslims. The Taliban’s main focus, by contrast, is ruling Afghanistan by way of fundamentalist Islamic law.


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