Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban are portrayed as the enemy of America in the mainstream media, and the term itself is used liberally when discussing terrorism. Often mentioned whenever a terrorist act occurs in Central Asia or nearby regions, they are most famous for America’s ill-fated and lengthy ‘war on terror’ raging in Afghanistan for the last ten years. But who exactly are they?

The first thing to understand about the Taliban is that they are not a single, coherent, organised group.

Rather, they are a mosaic of tribes, each with different goals, objectives and motives, but all originating from the Pashtun ethnic group, a people believed to have originated in central Asia around the 1st millenium BC. The Pashtun are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and the second largest in Pakistan. Of course, not all Pashtun belong to the Taliban, far from it, but the majority of Taliban members are thought to be of the Pashtun ethnic background.

There are various tribes or groups of Taliban occupying most regions of Afghanistan. In fact, almost every province and district of Afghanistan has a Taliban group centering on the major Pashtun tribe in that particular area. In the southern regions of the country the Taliban are sub-tribes of Durranis, one of the largest tribal groups in Afghanistan. Most of Afghanistan’s ruling class and political elite belong to a sub-sect of the Durrani tribe. In the east they have a heavy Zadran component. In Pakistan, the Taliban mostly consist of the Mehsuds and the Wazirs. The Mehsuds are a sect of Pashtun people occupying primarily the mountainous northwest region of Pakistan, and the Wazirs, also a Pashtun tribe, occupy a similar region, but a little further north.

This map shows the location and movements of the various types of Taliban tribes within the country of Afghanistan.

Each of the Taliban tribes, although differing slightly in ideologies and philosophies, all identify themselves as Sunni Muslims, the largest branch of the Islam religion. The Taliban has its origins in the late 19th century, more specifically during India’s colonial period, where a school of thought developed in a small country town called Deoband, northeast of Delhi which was heavily linked to the prominent tribes in Pakistan and protested the British occupation of India and surrounding regions.

The Taliban slowly formed into the loosely-banded group of tribes we know today, and most scholars suggest the group was ‘formalized’ as such during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, during which time the Taliban were a mixture of Mujahideen who fought against the Soviet invasion and a group of Pashtun tribesmen who spent time in Pakistani religious schools and often received assistance from Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence Agency (ISI). The group’s leaders practiced Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam, which promotes a willingness to return to early fundamental Islamic sources of the Quran and Hadith, with inspiration from the teachings of Medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyyah and early jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

The Taliban came to be as we know it today, then, in the Islamic schools (known as madrassas) that had sprung up throughout the Afghan refugee camps inside Pakistan during this period. Its leadership and the bulk of its initial ranks were made up of young religious students, primarily Pashtuns, motivated by the zeal of religion and the belief that they were ordained to bring stability and the ways of Allah back to their war torn land.

The Taliban first emerged as a notable force in Afghan politics in 1994, emerging out of the midst of a civil war between forces in northern and southern Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) were thought to be behind the Taliban’s rise to prominence in Afghanistan, with the finance behind the meteoric rise provided by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The Taliban represent an uncompromising, fundamentalist form of Islam and are generally opposed to the branch of Islam known as Sufism, an orthodoxy that historically has not been shared by a majority of Muslims, particularly nobody outside of the Arabian Peninsula (such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, or Kuwait). Many of them were educated in Saudi-financed madrassas in Pakistan that taught Wahhabism, a particularly austere and rigid form of Islam with its roots in Saudi Arabia. Vali Nasr, an associate professor of political science at the University of San Diego, said on the Taliban: “This whole phenomenon that we are confronting, which al-Qaeda is a part of, is very closely associated with Saudi Arabia’s financial and religious projects for the Muslim world as a whole.”

As Saudi Arabia is/was a predominately a Sunni Muslim nation, at the time of the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970’s, they greatly feared the uprising Shia majority of Iran and thought of it as a threat that had to be countered. They feared that the country’s Shi’ite minority in the Eastern Province, coincidentally the location of the majority of the country’s oil fields, might rebel under the influence of the Iranian shi’ites. Thus they started the religious schools, the madrassas, throughout Pakistan, in the hopes of reaffirming Sunni as the dominant branch of Islam. One of the major groups sponsored by the Saudis who set up many of these ‘madrassas’ in Pakistan was ‘Sipaha Sahaba’, established to counter the influence of the Iranian Shias in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Saudis regarded the Iranian Revolution as a greater threat than the USSR and the Iranians regarded Sunni Islam as a greater threat than the USSR.

New madrassas were also financed in part by the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia, as part of their humanitarian programs to increase the literacy level in Pakistan. Many of these schools sprung up in Pakistan along the Afghanistan border, providing spiritual motivation to young Pakistani and Afghan men to fight back against the ever increasing Soviet menace. These madrassas indoctrinated their students with a love of Islam and a hatred for anything un-Islamic, leading to the beginnings of the Taliban’s hatred of Western culture.

In many ways, the West had underestimated the eventual belligerence and aggression that the extreme sects of the Sunni Muslims were capable of, at the time believing the Iranian Shiites to be a far greater threat to Western interests. Vali Nasr on the West’s misjudging of the situation: “We were under this assumption that the danger comes from Shiites (Iran), that Sunnis are somehow as conservative and fundamentalist as they get, they’re not going to be a threat to the West. In other words, the United States and the West fell victim to their own stereotypes. And we alternatively develop this view of Sunni fundamentalism, particularly associated with Saudi Arabia, as to be benign.”

Indeed, Nasr suggests that Saudi Arabia has been the single biggest source of funding for fanatical interpretations of Islam, and the embodiment of that interpretation in organizations and schools has created a self-perpetuating institutional basis for promoting fanaticism across the Muslim world, throughout countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, and countries in Central Asia such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The ironic aspect to all of this is that the United States has historically provided funding and protection to the Saudi regime, helping to enforce an absolute monarchy that has not been challenged since 1932. Ever since oil was discovered off the coast of the Persian Gulf by US-controlled oil company Aramco (Arabian American Oil Company) in 1941, the United States has been utterly intertwined with the affairs of Saudi Arabia, ensuring the rise of the Saud family and its continued dominance over the country and its people, and protecting it from perceived threats in the region, such as Iran.

The focus of the madrassas throughout Pakistan eventually shifted away from religious scholarship to training religious fighters who would go into the Afghan field and fight. The soldiers were usually recruited from among the lower classes and lower-middle classes – peasant children from impoverished backgrounds. Pakistanis themselves began to see all kinds of possibilities for Afghanistan. They particularly did not want Pashtun nationalism, which had always been a menace, to get out of hand. So they used the Taliban as a way of controlling Afghanistan. When the threat of Shi’ism and Iran was seen to be paramount, the United States turned a blind eye to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia organizing the Taliban, propagating hard-line Sunni thinking within Pakistan, and pushing it all the way into Central Asia and beyond.

A common misconception is that the Taliban were responsible for the 9/11 attacks on New York – actually, certain parts of the Taliban felt betrayed when al-Qaeda repeatedly issued inflammatory statements and encouraged violence against the West – and even more so when the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban-led regime. Given the Taliban’s limited interest in issues outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, if they came to power again now, they would be highly unlikely to host provocative terrorist groups whose actions could lead to another outside intervention.

The Taliban then, to answer our original question, are a multi-faceted group of tribes that arose out of a series of schools established by Saudi religious authorities that taught the principles of Wahhabism, the extreme fundamentalist form of the Islamic religion. They are often portrayed by the mainstream media as promoting and ideologically supporting terrorism, but there are really three different sides to the Taliban. There is the former ruling party of Afghanistan, successfully removed by the United States in the Afghanistan War; there is the Taliban operating principally out of Pakistan who are the main group associated with terrorism; and the group confined to Afghanistan today that many Afghans consider to serve the local interests and who do not have a desire to expand their influence or serve as a threat to the West.


photo credit: The U.S. Army via photopin cc
photo credit: Ammar Abd Rabbo via photopin cc
Reference and image credit: Agha H. Amin, David J. Osinski, Paul Andre DeGeorges, The development of Taliban factions in Afghanistan and Pakistan : a geographical account, 2010

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