The Taliban: A brief story


For eight years, NATO forces and their local allies have been battling Taliban militia and terrorists. But who are the Taliban, exactly?

"Afghanistan is the most foreign country in the world," William Wood told me last fall as he was concluding his term as America's ambassador in Kabul. He added: "It's a ferociously foreign country."

Mountainous, landlocked and remote, populated by legendary warriors -- Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek -- Afghanistan is rich in history but poor in just about everything else. For 30 years -- since the Soviet invasion of 1979 -- it has been in continual turmoil. It is a country used to violence. It also is a country traumatized by violence.

In 1989, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in defeat and disgrace. This was a great and consequential victory for Afghan fighters, achieved with assistance from the United States -- particularly after 1981, thanks to the efforts of Charlie Wilson and CIA officer Gust Avrakotos. Tom Hanks' film Charlie Wilson's War is not quite accurate on the details, but it does convey the essential spirit of the conflict and the enthusiasm there was then, among some in the West, for what were seen as allies in the Cold War.

Once the Russians were gone, however, Americans and Europeans lost interest in what became, again, an isolated corner of the world. Afghan warlords fought among themselves for land, power and poppies (from which heroin is made). Chaos and corruption ensued and life only grew harder for many Afghans.

In 1994, a group of provincial vigilantes led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the administrator of a religious school, rose up against these forces. He and his followers called themselves "the students" -- the taliban in the Pashto language.

The Taliban imposed a strict version of Islamic law and order. At first, many Afghans welcomed that. The Taliban also had the support of Islamists entrenched in Pakistan's intelligence service. The Saudis approved as well.

Before long, the Taliban's extremist agenda became manifest. Girls were no longer permitted to attend school. Women could not leave their homes unless covered from head to toe in a burka and accompanied by a male. Singing, dancing, playing music, watching television, sports, even flying kites -- an Afghan national pastime depicted in the marvellous novel The Kite Runner -- were prohibited. Prayer five times a day became compulsory.

Those who transgressed were sentenced to beatings, amputations, executions -- by the thousands, often in public. Traditional tribal leaders were murdered and replaced by fire-breathing mullahs who broke with Afghan tradition by melding religious and political power.

In March 2001, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan -- giant statues, great works of religion and art, built in the sixth century. Why? Because they were "idols" and deserved destruction -- like all things not Islamic. "It is purely a religious issue," thenAfghan foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil explained to a Japanese reporter.

The Taliban, wrote Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, represented a new kind of Islamic fundamentalism: "aggressive, expansionist and uncompromising in its purist demands to turn Afghan society back to an imagined model of seventh century Arabia at the time of the Prophet Muhammad."

At this same time, of course, the Taliban also were providing refuge to an Islamist Saudi exile by the name of Osama bin Laden. He was plotting his own assault against the despised infidels and their symbols.

The Taliban remained loyal to bin Laden and al-Qaeda after the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001. The result was an American-led invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban regime. Both bin Laden and Mullah Omar escaped across the border to the wild reaches of northwestern Pakistan.

"The Taliban are not sentimental people," a European diplomat in Kabul told me.

Over the years since, American and NATO forces have remained in Afghanistan fighting an on-again, off-again conflict against Afghan Taliban forces bolstered by Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis and other "foreign fighters." The Taliban have used the same techniques employed by al-Qaeda in Iraq: violence and intimidation, assassinations of local officials and policemen, improvised roadside bombs and -- while I was in Afghanistan -- throwing acid in the faces of young girls walking to school. "The Taliban are not sentimental people," a European diplomat in Kabul told me.

Like other militant Islamist groups -- Hamas and Hezbollah, for example -- the Taliban act locally but think globally. "We want to eradicate Britain and America," Ay'atulah Mahsoud, the emir of the Pakistani Taliban, has said, "and to shatter the arrogance and tyranny of the infidels. We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York and London."

The Taliban is no longer a unitary organization. There are many groups that call themselves Taliban. Some are closely and ideologically aligned to al-Qaeda. Others are believed to be nothing more than criminal enterprises that find it useful to use the brand.

The available evidence suggests most Afghans would not welcome the Taliban's return to power. And despite what has been described as a Taliban "resurgence," the group has not managed to regain control of a single city. In recent days, a new American "surge" has begun to clear the Taliban from its rural strongholds. Meanwhile, the Pakistani military has taken the fight to Taliban forces on its side of the border.

Military commanders and analysts say beating the Taliban on the battlefield is not the hard part. What is? Holding those battlefields afterward. When NATO troops liberate an area from Taliban control, trained Afghan security forces must be ready and able to take over security responsibilities. If that does not happen, and Western troops leave, the Taliban will return -- and cut the throats of everyone they suspect of having co-operated with NATO in the past.

For this reason, General Stanley A. McChrystal, the newly arrived top commander in Afghanistan, has reportedly concluded that more American troops will be needed, both to fight and to train Afghan security forces. It is not clear whether President Barack Obama and Congress will provide those resources.

An American general in Kandahar made the argument for more resources succinctly. "Do it right," he told me, "and we won't have to come back here years from now."



Clifford D. May, "The Taliban: A brief story." National Post, (Canada) July 17, 2009.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Clifford D. May.


Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism created immediately following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. A veteran news reporter, foreign correspondent and editor (at The New York Times and other publications), he has covered stories in more than two dozen countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, China, Uzbekistan, Northern Ireland and Russia. He is a frequent guest on national and international television and radio news programs, providing analysis and participating in debates on national security issues. He writes a weekly column that is nationally distributed by Scripps Howard News Service and he is a regular contributor for National Review Online, The American Spectator and other publications.

Copyright © 2009 National Post

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