Who Are the Taliban?

These men surrendered when Afghan president Hamid Karzai offered amnesty in 2010.
Taliban militants surrender in Herat, Afghanistan in 2010. Majid Saeedi / Getty Images

The Taliban is a loosely-linked network of local Islamist fighters based in Afghanistan, although there is some spill-over into the tribal areas of Pakistan as well. Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan; the United States invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban government in 2001 following the September 11 attacks. Today, the Taliban's strength is unknown - estimates range from 25,000 to 40,000 fighters, but the true number likely fluctuates with the seasons.

The word "Taliban" is the Pashto-language plural of the Arabic talib, meaning "student" or "seeker." Many of the original core Taliban members studied in religious madrassahs in the border regions of Pakistan - schools funded by fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf states. The majority of ordinary Taliban today, however, are Pashtun farmers with little formal religious training. They adhere to and enforce a harsh interpretation of Sunni Islam, including requirements that men grow beards, women wear full burkas, and that convicted thieves have their hands cut off with a sword.

The Taliban originated among Afghan refugees and madrassah students in Pakistan in the early 1990s. After the Soviet Union pulled out following their failed invasion and war in Afghanistan (1979-89), the Taliban under Mullah Muhammad Omar moved into Afghanistan and began to fill the power vacuum. In the post-war chaos, some of the former mujahideen forces who had opposed the Soviets became rogue militias headed by warlords, robbing, raping, and killing Afghan civilians with impunity.

By 1994, the Taliban were openly fighting against the mainly non-Pashtun warlords for control of the Afghan countryside; many Pashtun villagers saw the Taliban as protectors against the warlords' abuses.

In September of 1996, the Taliban took control of Kabul from the United Front and formed a government.

This new Islamic regime banned music, kite-flying, movies and television, and tried to prevent girls from attending school. It also imposed capital punishment for crimes like adultery, and held public executions of those convicted. The only foreign nations that recognized the Taliban as a legitimate government were the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and neighboring Pakistan.

Because Mullah Omar was married to one of Osama bin Laden's sisters, and the al Qaeda network provided financial support to the Taliban, the new Afghan regime allowed bin Laden and his followers a safe haven in eastern Afghanistan, in the rough terrain along the Pakistani border. Despite these top-level contacts, however, most ordinary Taliban have little interest in al Qaeda's program of global Islamization. Following al Qaeda's attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes against bin Laden's bases in Afghanistan in 1998. Notably, the Taliban also sparked international outcry by destroying the historic Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.

After the infamous September 11 attacks on the United States, a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, ousting the Taliban government by December of 2001 in retaliation for its support of al Qaeda.

The coalition joined forces with elements of the former mujahideen, renamed the Northern Alliance, although its most trustworthy commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, had been assassinated by al Qaeda operatives on September 9, 2001.

Although its support waxes and wanes in the countryside, the Taliban continues to operate as an insurgent force in Afghanistan more than a decade after its government was brought down. Some Afghans see the Taliban as heroes, fighting a foreign invader, while others see it simply as an opportunity for a paycheck. Still others are tired of the Taliban and its extremist policies. The long-term outcome for this group of "students" is uncertain.