History of the Taliban

Who They Are, What They Want

Taliban Militia Threatened By Opposition
Taliban militiamen ride in a heavily armed vehicle October 10, 1996 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Roger Lemoyne / Getty Images

The Taliban—from the Arabic word for "student,"  Talib—are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, mostly from Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes. The Taliban dominates large swaths of Afghanistan and a large part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, semi-autonomous tribal lands along the Afghan-Pakistan border that serve as training grounds for terrorists.

The Taliban seek to establish a puritanical caliphate that neither recognizes nor tolerates forms of Islam divergent from their own. They scorn democracy or any secular or pluralistic political process as an offense against Islam. The Taliban’s Islam, however, a close kin of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism, is far more perversion than interpretation. The Taliban’s version of Sharia, or Islamic law, is historically inaccurate, contradictory, self-serving and fundamentally deviant from prevailing interpretations of Islamic law and practice.


There was no such thing as the Taliban until Afghanistan’s civil war in the wake of the Soviet Union's troop withdrawal in 1989 after a decade-long occupation. But by the time their last troops withdrew in February of that year, they’d left a nation in social and economic shards, 1.5 million dead, millions of refugees and orphans in Iran and Pakistan, and a gaping political vacuum that warlords attempted to fill. Afghan mujahideen warlords replaced their war with the Soviets with a civil war.

Thousands of Afghan orphans grew up never knowing Afghanistan or their parents, especially their mothers. They were schooled in Pakistan’s madrassas, religious schools that, in this case, were encouraged and financed by Pakistani and Saudi authorities to develop militantly inclined Islamists. Pakistan nurtured that corps of militants as proxy fighters in Pakistan’s ongoing conflict over Muslim-dominated (and disputed) Kashmir. But Pakistan consciously intended to use the madrassas’ militants as leverage in its attempt to control Afghanistan as well.

As Jeri Laber of Human Rights Watch wrote in the New York Review of Books of the origins of the Taliban in refugee camps (recalling an article he’d written in 1986):

Hundreds of thousands of youths, who knew nothing of life but the bombings that destroyed their homes and drove them to seek refuge over the border, were being raised to hate and to fight, “in the spirit of Jihad,” a “holy war” that would restore Afghanistan to its people. “New kinds of Afghans are being born in the struggle,” I reported. “Caught in the midst of a grownups’ war, the young Afghans are under intense political pressure from one side or another, almost from birth." [...] The children that I interviewed and wrote about in 1986 are now young adults. Many are now with the Taliban.

Mullah Omar and the Taliban's Rise in Afghanistan

As civil war was ravaging Afghanistan, Afghans were desperate for a stabilizing counterforce that would put an end to the violence.

The Taliban’s most original aims were, as Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist and author of "Taliban" (2000), wrote, to “restore peace, disarm the population, enforce Sharia law and defend the integrity and Islamic character of Afghanistan."

As most of them were part-time or full-time students at madrassas, the name they chose for themselves was natural. A Talib is one who seeks knowledge, compared to the mullah who is one who gives knowledge. By choosing such a name, the Taliban (plural of Talib) distanced themselves from the party politics of the mujahideen and signaled that they were a movement for cleansing society rather than a party trying to grab power.​

For their leader in Afghanistan, the Taliban turned to Mullah Mohammed Omar, an itinerant preacher likely born in 1959 in Nodeh village near Kandahar, in southeastern Afghanistan. He had neither tribe nor religious pedigree. He had fought the Soviets and been wounded four times, including once in the eye. His reputation was that of a pious ascetic.

Omar's reputation grew when he ordered a group of Taliban militants to arrest a warlord who had captured two teenage girls and raped them. The 30 Talibs, with just 16 rifles between them—or so goes the story, one of many near-mythical accounts that have grown around Omar’s history—attacked the commander’s base, freed the girls and hanged the commander by their favorite means: from the barrel of a tank, in full view, as an example of Taliban justice.

The Taliban’s reputation grew through similar feats.

Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's Intelligence Services and the Taliban

Religious indoctrination in Pakistan’s madrassas and Omar’s campaigns against rapists alone were not the light that lit the Taliban fuse. The Pakistani intelligence services, known as the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI); the Pakistani military; and Benazir Bhutto, who was prime minister of Pakistan during the Taliban’s most politically and militarily formative years (1993-96), all saw in the Taliban a proxy army they could manipulate to Pakistan’s ends.

In 1994, Bhutto’s government appointed the Taliban as protector of Pakistani convoys through Afghanistan. Controlling trade routes and the lucrative windfalls those routes provide in Afghanistan is a major source of lucre and power. The Taliban proved uniquely effective, swiftly defeating other warlords and conquering major Afghan cities.

Beginning in 1994, the Taliban rose to power and established their brutal, totalitarian rule over 90 percent of the country, in part by leading a genocidal campaign against Afghanistan’s Shiite, or Hazara.

The Taliban and the Clinton Administration

Following Pakistan’s lead, then-President Bill Clinton's administration initially supported the Taliban’s rise. Clinton’s judgment was clouded by the question that has often led American policy astray in the region: Who can best check Iran’s influence? In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan's administration armed and financed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein under the assumption that a totalitarian Iraq was more acceptable than an unbridled, Islamic Iran. The policy backfired in the form of two wars.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration also funded the mujahideen in Afghanistan as well as their Islamist supporters in Pakistan. That blowback took the form of al-Qaeda. As the Soviets withdrew and the cold war ended, American support for Afghan mujahideen stopped abruptly, but military and diplomatic support for Afghanistan did not. Under the influence of Benazir Bhutto, the Clinton administration voiced itself willing to open a dialogue with the Taliban in the mid-1990s, especially as the Taliban was the only force in Afghanistan capable of guaranteeing another American interest in the region—potential oil pipelines.

On Sept. 27, 1996, Glyn Davies, a US State Department spokesman, expressed hope that the Taliban “will move quickly to restore order and security and to form a representative interim government that can begin the process of reconciliation nationwide.” Davies called the Taliban’s execution of former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah merely “regrettable,” and said the United States would send diplomats to Afghanistan to meet with the Taliban, potentially to re-establishing full diplomatic ties. The Clinton administration’s flirtation with the Taliban did not last, however, as Madeleine Albright, incensed by the Taliban’s treatment of women, among other regressive measures, halted it when she became the US secretary of state in January 1997.

The Taliban's Repressions and Regressions: A War on Women

The Taliban's long lists of edicts and decrees took an especially misogynistic view of women. Schools for girls were closed. Women were forbidden to work or leave their homes without verifiable permission. Wearing non-Islamic dress was forbidden. Wearing makeup and sporting Western products like purses or shoes was forbidden. Music, dancing, cinemas, and all nonreligious broadcasting and entertainment were banned. Lawbreakers were beaten, flogged, shot or beheaded.

In 1994, Osama bin Laden moved to Kandahar as a guest of Mullah Omar. On Aug. 23, 1996, bin Laden declared war on the United States and exerted increasing influence on Omar, helping to fund the Taliban’s offensives against other warlords in the north of the country. That lavish financial support made it impossible for Mullah Omar not to protect bin Laden when Saudi Arabia, then the United States, pressured the Taliban to extradite bin Laden. The fates and ideology of al-Qaeda and the Taliban became intertwined.

At the height of their power, in March 2001, the Taliban demolished two enormous, centuries-old Buddha statues in Bamiyan, an act that showed to the world in ways that the Taliban’s wanton massacres and oppression should have much earlier the ruthless, distorted Puritanism of the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.

The Taliban's 2001 Downfall

The Taliban was overthrown in the 2001 American-backed invasion of Afghanistan, shortly after bin Laden and al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Taliban were never completely defeated, however. They retreated and regrouped, especially in Pakistan, and today hold much of southern and western Afghanistan. Bin Laden was killed in 2011 in a raid by US Navy Seals in his hideout in Pakistan after a nearly decade-long manhunt. The Afghan government claimed that Mullah Omar died in a hospital in Karachi in 2013. 

Today, the Taliban claim senior religious cleric Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada as their new leader. They released a letter in January 2017 to newly elected US President Donald Trump to withdraw all remaining US forces from Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Taliban (known as the TTP, the same group that almost succeeded in blowing up an SUV full of explosives in Times Square in 2010) is just as powerful. They are virtually immune from Pakistani law and authority; they continue to strategize against the NATO-American presence in Afghanistan and against Pakistan’s secular rulers; and they are tactically directing attacks elsewhere in the world. ​

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Tristam, Pierre. "History of the Taliban." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-taliban-who-they-are-what-they-want-2352797. Tristam, Pierre. (2021, February 16). History of the Taliban. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-taliban-who-they-are-what-they-want-2352797 Tristam, Pierre. "History of the Taliban." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-taliban-who-they-are-what-they-want-2352797 (accessed May 14, 2021).