Little known outside academic
circles before 2001, the Taliban became the focus of America's war on terror after
the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when the group refused to hand over accused
terrorist and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida network.
then, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan under strict Islamic law.
group's rule, government forces in the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and
Prevention of Vice patrolled the streets enforcing a conservative interpretation
of Islamic law. The punishments were severe: thieves had their arms or legs amputated,
adulterers were stoned to death and drinking liquor resulted in lashings.
the Taliban regime, girls were forced out of school, and women were banned from
holding jobs, required to wear full-body burqas and were rarely permitted to leave
Laws required men to grow their beards and prohibited Western-style
clothing. Playing games, sports, flying kites, listening to music or watching
TV were all forbidden and punishable.
In 1994, when the Taliban came to
power, the Afghan people saw the group as peacemakers who promised a respite from
years of fighting during Mujahadeen rule. But the swing from purveyor of peace
to hard-line Islamist rule was not welcome by many and soon led to a backlash
from the international community.
The United Nations and nongovernmental
organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Physicians
for Human Rights, accused the Taliban regime of widespread human rights abuses,
especially concerning religious freedom and women's rights.
On Oct. 7, 2001,
following the 9/11 attacks, the United States, backed by a coalition of international
forces, entered Afghanistan with the aim of toppling the Taliban government and
capturing bin Laden.
After the government fell, the coalition hunted for
Taliban fighters and offered a $50 million reward for capturing bin Laden. But
the terrain -- extremely mountainous and passable only by foot -- made the task
difficult, and many Taliban fighters fled and found a haven in the Pashtun tribal
areas of Pakistan. There they could regroup, rearm their militias, and recruit
more fighters from the large Afghan refugee populations and madrassas, or Islamic
To build their support among Afghanistan's impoverished population,
the Taliban capitalized on economic frustrations by outbidding coalition offers
to recruit new fighters. The group also offered security that newly installed
President Hamid Karzai's government failed to provide, a repeat of the promises
it had made when it first rose to power in 1994.
Between 2001 and 2006,
U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, troops remained in Afghanistan,
but their presence was light and they left a power vacuum in the south. This,
coupled with frustrations about the central government's failure to follow through
with promises of development, created an environment for the Taliban to regain
"People don't really like the Taliban but they don't feel
like the government can provide them with anything," said Sam Zarifi of Human
According to Zarifi, the Taliban offer an alternative to foreign
influence in the region. "They are angry and frustrated with the heavy handed
tactics by the U.S. and NATO forces."
Taliban formed as a group of young Koranic students -- "talib" means student in
Arabic -- from madrassas in the Afghan refugee camps of Pakistan. They were predominantly
Pashtun -- though other ethnic groups were included -- and exclusively Sunni Muslim.
Mullah Mohammed Omar, called the "Commander of the Faithful," served as the movement's
leader. Members united under the mission to restore peace after years of war and
lawlessness, disarm the population and to enforce Sharia, or Islamic law on the
people of Afghanistan, according to Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban."
movement conquered Kandahar in the winter of 1994 and swept southern Afghanistan
before capturing Kabul in September 1996. Once in power, the Taliban provided
a haven for bin Laden and al-Qaida, who in return gave financial and political
In 2001, the Taliban received widespread condemnation from the
United Nations and governments around the world for destroying two Buddha statues
thought to be the world's tallest in the cliffs of Bamiyan claiming the statues
were an affront to Islam.
The Taliban operates in a shura structure where
decisions are made among a council with bases in Quetta, Baluchistan and Warziristan
in Pakistan. In 2006, elements of the old Taliban structure still existed with
Mullah Omar, the Taliban's one-eyed leader in charge, and Mullah Dadullah as a
commander and spokesman.
The broader anti-government movement is a combination
of the old school Taliban, smaller groups that operate independently but are ideologically
aligned, and elements of al-Qaida.
Within this loose and fragmented network,
Mullah Omar and bin Laden continue to play spiritual and philosophical leadership
roles, but the operational tactics and actual terrorist activities are organized
and carried out by smaller groups.
Though the exact link between al-Qaida
and the Taliban is hard to define, there is some evidence that the Taliban is
receiving training and material from insurgents in Iraq, according to Zarifi.
Taliban form the backbone of an anti-government insurgency that in 2006 began
regaining power in Afghanistan's southern provinces of Helmand, Oruzgan and Kandahar
and across the border in Pakistan's Baluchistan and North West Frontier Provinces.
The group once again has a deep influence on civilian life, and as its political
and military power increases, many of the human rights advances made after its
fall have been rolled back.
The group's primary goal remains the same: to
reinstate a strict Islamic-oriented government in Afghanistan. Its tactics, however,
have shifted with the influence of other terrorist organizations, notably al-Qaida.
the U.S. invasion, the Taliban, al-Qaida, warlords, militant groups in Pakistan
and drug producers became intertwined, providing all groups with more financial
support, recruitment opportunities and training.
Since its resurgence, the
Taliban has adopted new guerilla tactics such as suicide bombings -- formerly
a rare occurrence in Afghanistan -- and the application of explosive devices used
successfully in Iraq. It is unclear if Taliban fighters were taught these tactics
or are emulating what they see from al-Qaida in Iraq. It also has amassed ample
supplies of explosives, some smuggled from Russia, Iran or Eastern Europe that
are used for improvised explosive devices and suicide bombs.
But while al-Qaida
works to spread its global jihad across the Middle East, central Asia and the
Caucasus, the Taliban -- using funds from private individuals and possibly al-Qaida
members sympathetic to its cause, according to Greg Sullivan, a spokesman for
the State Department's Near East Asian Affairs Bureau -- is focused solely on
returning to power in Afghanistan.