Afghanistan: The Other War

Who Are the Taliban?

Jihadi firing rocket; Jihadis celebrating

Reporter Dave Johns looks at the world of the Taliban. What are their roots and ideologies? Where are they getting their support? And why are they back?

photo of johns

Dave Johns is a writer and public radio reporter in New York. His work has appeared on many national public radio programs, including NPR's Living On Earth, PRI/WNYC's Studio 360 and The Next Big Thing, and other shows. He last wrote for FRONTLINE/World about the crimes of Saddam Hussein.


The Taliban are a group of fundamentalist Sunni Muslim militants living today mostly near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The word Taliban means "students" in Pashto, a name used because many of the original members studied in Pakistani religious schools called madrassas. Other members come from the ranks of the mujahedeen, the battle-hardened Islamic fighters who beat back the Soviet military incursion into Afghanistan in the 1980s. The vast majority of Taliban are ethnic Pashtun.

Basic Ideology

The ideological aim of the Taliban today is to reestablish an austere and uncompromisingly puritanical Islamic state in Afghanistan. They are strongly antagonistic toward American and NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as the new government led by President Hamid Karzai. Afghans who cooperate with Western troops or even foreign nongovernmental organizations put themselves at risk for harassment or murder. The Taliban are fierce fighters and do not surrender easily. "These guys will mix it up," noted one American military officer.

Regional Strongholds

The Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to late 2001 when American and international coalition forces ousted them from power following the attacks of September 11th. Surviving Taliban fled into the rugged areas along the Pakistan border, where they remain in substantial numbers today. There are also high concentrations of the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan, particularly around the provinces of Zabul, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Helmand -- one of the largest opium-production centers in the world and an area the Taliban consider as a key beachhead in the fight to recapture territory. In recent months, the Taliban have also gained in strength in areas farther from the Pakistan border, such as the province of Ghazni.


Mullah Mohammed Omar
Photo Credit: AP

The Pakistan Connection

The Taliban have a strong presence in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border, and make their headquarters in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. They are also active in both North and South Waziristan, and effectively maintain a mini-Islamic "state within a state" in these areas, with minimal interference from Pakistani authorities. In the mainly lawless areas of North Waziristan, the tables are so turned that the Taliban have been known to escort Pakistani army troops to ensure their safety. South Waziristan has long been considered unsafe for journalists. The borderland in general is a rough place to be for outsiders. Remote and sandwiched between east and west, it has seen more than its share of invasion, violence and disorder.

Who Is In Charge?

Today most of the Taliban leadership is believed to operate from Pakistan, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, the group's chief organizer during the 1990s, who has been in hiding since the 2001 coalition invasion. An important new Taliban commander to emerge is Mullah Dadullah, a flamboyant, one-legged fighter who often serves as the group's spokesperson, and who has become a central figure in the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. Intelligence sources believe Dadullah is based in Quetta. Another key leader is Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former mujahedeen commander who joined the Taliban in the 1990s and trains fighters in North Waziristan, according to U.S. military officers.


The Taliban Emerge


In 1994, the Taliban emerged as a major force in the fight for control of war-torn Afghanistan. The country was in turmoil and rife with factional fighting among tribal leaders after the long war between the Soviets and the U.S.-backed mujahedeen. The Taliban wanted to wrest control from the many entrenched warlords and to establish a religious society based around a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law.

The Fall of Kandahar and Kabul


The Taliban had a reputation for discipline and effective fighting, and had won support from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), which viewed them as a worthy ally - or a useful asset - in stabilizing Afghanistan. With assistance from the ISI in the form of guns, money and fuel, the Taliban captured the city of Kandahar and marched on the Afghan capital, Kabul, which fell in September 1996.

New Order Under Sharia Law

1996 to 1998


Afghan woman in burka

The Taliban initially proved popular among Afghan Pashtuns tired of strife among the country's Tajik and Uzbek tribal leaders. Many Pashtuns, both Afghani and Pakistani, wished to be united under one Pashtun flag. The new leadership restored order and commerce and shunned corrupt warlords. They also implemented an unforgiving brand of Islamic law. The Taliban government banned most forms of entertainment, from music to television to kite flying, and dealt with crime via public executions, stonings and amputations. Government officials in the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice monitored the streets. Women were forced to wear full-body burqas in public and were prohibited from working, attending school past the age of eight or visiting male doctors without a male chaperone. These restrictions stirred resentment in some Afghans.

1999 to 2001 - Sanctions, Atrocities and Reprisals

1999 to 2001

World Trade Center on fire

World Trade Center after the initial impact

In 1999, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Afghanistan to force the Taliban to hand over Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden, who stood accused of orchestrating the deadly 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The Taliban refused, calling Bin Laden "a guest" in Afghanistan. International outrage grew in 2001 when the Taliban obliterated two treasured 1,500 year-old statues of Buddha carved into the Afghan cliffs at Bamiyan. Idol-worship was forbidden under the group's medieval version of Islam. This brazen act earned notable disgust in the international community, and was a capstone on their terrible human rights record.

In October 2001, following the September 11th terrorist attacks, United States and international coalition forces invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden. The government fell quickly and the Taliban retreated to the south and east, toward Pakistan. Coalition troops gave pursuit, but lost the trail in the mountainous terrain near the border. Neither Taliban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar nor Osama bin Laden was captured. Taliban fighters knew the area well and made their way across the border to the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan.

Taliban In Retreat, Karzai on the Rise

2002 to 2005


Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Photo Credit: AP

Back in Kabul in 2002 and 2003, the Taliban and Al Qaeda threats had receded and Afghan and coalition officials focused on reconstruction. The country convened a constitutional council, ratified a new constitution and elected Hamid Karzai as President in late 2004. In 2005, the first freely elected legislature in more than three decades came to power, and included women as members. An ABC News poll from December 2005 showed 77 percent of Afghans felt their country was headed in the right direction.

Only three nations granted diplomatic recognition to Afghanistan under the Taliban: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, America's most important ally in the war on terror.

The Taliban Are Back



Taliban soldiers crossing the Khyber Pass between Pakistan and Afghanistan

Pakistan has always maintained a close relationship with its northern neighbor, and no factor has been more essential to the resurgence of the Taliban in recent years than the passivity - or perhaps even complicity - of Pakistan. Since fleeing Afghanistan into Pakistan's tribal areas in 2002, the Taliban have regrouped. Largely beyond the reach of Islamabad, the tribal lands make an ideal rear base from which to organize and recruit new fighters. In many ways, the region is recapitulating its past; today the Taliban and other militants use the lawless zone to fortify for the fight against NATO and Afghan troops in much the same way the mujahedeen once did for war against the Soviets. The militant mix today consists of Taliban leaders and Afghan insurgents, Uzbek and other Central Asian militants, and Arab terrorists, including possibly Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. "It is the lesson from Afghanistan in the '90s," noted a Western ambassador in Pakistan. "Ungoverned spaces are a problem. The whole tribal area is a problem."

A clear indicator of the perils of these lawless areas is the spate of suicide bombings that recently have rattled Afghanistan and Pakistan. Suicide attacks were unheard of before 2001, and experts believe they are a hallmark of the influence of Al Qaeda on the Taliban. The bombings have rendered much of southern Afghanistan unsafe for foreigners. In February, a suicide bomber killed 23 people outside the U.S. base at Bagram during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney, who was unharmed. The Taliban later said Cheney was the target.

Afghanistan: A New Iraq?


Close to 100 suicide bombings have occurred in the last year in Afghanistan. A newspaper account described a willing suicide bomber who was turned away because there were too many recruits in line ahead of him. Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah recently boasted to Reuters that he had suicide bombers in every Afghan city. He also claimed the Taliban cooperate closely with Al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents, and that Osama bin Laden plays an active management role. But there is also evidence of internecine strife - insurgents with links to the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighting on both sides of militant-on-militant conflicts, and local tribes pitted against one another. Recently, a council of elders in the Wana region of Waziristan declared jihad against foreign militants, accusing them of killing tribesmen.

The Poppy Rises

2006 to 2007

The re-emergence of the Taliban has hinged on money, and that has meant control of Afghan poppy production. The Taliban today deal with drug lords to manage a crop they once banned as un-Islamic. Many Afghanis are sorely dependent on the plant for income. Women have been seen openly planting poppy in front of their homes to attract buyers. The Taliban uses coercion and threats to keep farmers away from coalition reconstruction jobs and in the drug business. "Night letters" appear on doorsteps, warning that cooperation with the United States is punishable by death. In 2006, more than 100 accused "American spies" were killed. Opium and heroin production in Afghanistan - the source of 90 percent of the world market - has spiked during the recent "Talibanization."

A New Offensive


woman in burka

Soldier on an Afghan street
Photo Credit: AP

The Pakistan government has struck several peace accords with tribal leaders in South Waziristan, and it agreed to terms with militants controlling North Waziristan in September of last year. But since the detente, cross-border attacks have not declined, and Taliban influence is on the rise. Pakistani newspapers have published reports on barbershops that refuse to shave beards; schools that have begun to ban girls; and televisions set ablaze in the streets. In Afghanistan, the population remains mostly pro-American, but frustration with President Karzai is running high, as reconstruction has stalled in the face of the resistance. There is general agreement that today the United States and NATO are fighting the Taliban on a scale not seen since 2001, and that 2007 will be a bloody year. There is also agreement that any solution will be economic or political, not military. Karzai recently acknowledged that he has met with Taliban militants in attempts to foster peace; and many observers admit that reconstruction and violence as inextricably linked. As American Lt. General Karl Eikenberry put it, "Wherever the roads end, that's where the Taliban starts."

SOURCES: Reuters, Associated Press, The International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor,, PBS FRONTLINE, PBS FRONTLINE/World, BBC, The University of Texas at Austin Libraries, United States Institute for Peace, Afghan News Network, Afghan Daily, The Daily Telegraph, Council on Foreign Relations, Front Page Magazine, The Sunday Times, The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed.,

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