The movement explained its success by pointing to its orthodoxy, sense of justice, courage and piety. Analysts, however, agree that their military triumphs were primarily due to Pakistani and Saudi Arabian support.
In the five years when the Taliban controlled Kabul and most of Afghanistan, the movement became infamous for brutal suppression of women, barbaric punishments, absurd bans on music, kite flying and songbirds, for the destruction of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, for massacres on prisoners of war and civilians – but also for creating peace and security in the controlled areas.
God’s invincible warriors
The origin of the Taliban is not well understood. The movement itself refers to selective, if not mythical, presentations of the historical facts concerning the conquest of Kandahar in 1994.
According to the myths, Mullah Omar assembled a group of religious students to liberate the war weary population from corrupt resistance leaders. One of the first achievements of the Taliban was to send in a lightly armed group to free a girl who had been kidnapped and abused by a local commander. After that, increasing numbers of volunteers rallied around the movement, which quickly seized power in Kandahar.
The stories about orthodox, incorruptible and pious religious students give this Pashtun movement its religious legitimacy among the southern Afghan Pashtun, who see the Taliban as ‘God’s invincible warriors’.
The Pakistan connection
Observers explain the initial Taliban victories with reference to massive support from various institutions in Pakistan and economic aid from Saudi Arabia.
The Pakistan intelligence service ISI supplied the Taliban with military advice, arms and large numbers of pickup trucks financed by Arabian states.
The use of pickup trucks gave the Taliban unique mobility on the miserable Afghan roads. It allowed them to launch rapid surprise attacks when local commanders could not be bribed or threatened into capitulation.
ISI supported the Taliban in the hope that the movement would create a peaceful Afghanistan, capable of acting as a reliable ally in Pakistan’s conflict with Hinduist India. A peaceful, safe Afghanistan could also stabilise Pakistan’s economy by increasing opportunities for trade with Central Asia.
Islamic parties in Pakistan
The Taliban acquired men via the Islamic parties in Pakistan, who considered the Taliban a just alternative to corruption and inefficiency. The parties run Quran schools, ‘madrassas’, from where the Taliban recruited the majority of its soldiers. In the Quran schools, Afghan boys from the refugee camps were taught a fundamentalist understanding of Islam and elementary skills in the use of arms.
The powerful regional smuggler mafia probably also supported the Taliban financially, not least to ensure its own freedom of movement and protection from local gangs of robbers on the Afghan roads.
“The Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice”
Before the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, the movement declared that its sole intention was to establish peace and safety until a legitimate government could be installed.
But such promises not to take political leadership were soon put to shame. The political ambitions of the Taliban were clearly expressed when Mullah Omar claimed religious authority as ‘Amir al Mumi’nin’ – the leader of the faithful.
As soon as the Taliban had taken the capital, they began to close the remaining girls’ schools and to issue decrees curbing women’s freedom to appear in public. To enforce this, and the many other prohibitions against kite flying, songbirds, cockfights, clattering women’s shoes, short beards and ‘Titanic hair’, the Taliban established a special religious police called “The Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice”. The common city population, however, found the prohibitions absurd and ridiculous and met the religious police with fear and silent contempt.
The Taliban and the USA
Until 1996-’97, mutual understanding marked the relationship between the Taliban and the USA. The American government for instance supported an American oil company in its plans to build an oil and gas pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan.
After 1996, the American government – under pressure from feminist groups in the USA – began to criticise the Taliban for offences against human rights. In 1998, following the terrorist attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USA tried in vain to make the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden. Subsequently, the US launched cruise missiles against presumed Osama bin Laden training camps in East Afghanistan.
After September 11th, 2001
After the terrorist attack on the USA on September 11th, 2001, the US intensified its pressure on the Taliban, which still refused to hand over bin Laden.
On October 7th, the culmination came as the international alliance against terrorism initiated aerial bombardments of the presumed hideouts of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Up until then, the Taliban had had the upper hand in the constant battle against the remaining resistance groups, who had joined forces and created the so-called Northern Alliance. However, the bombardments weakened the Taliban, and on November 9th 2001, the Northern Alliance seized Mazar-i-Sharif. Much of the Taliban military apparatus fell apart after that, and on November 13th, the Northern Alliance moved into Kabul after the Taliban had fled.
The fighting continued for a while around Kandahar in the south and Kunduz in the north, but it was clear that the Taliban had lost its grip of the country. Power was instead, following the Bonn Agreement in 2001, handed over to a transitional government in which several members of the Northern Alliance held central positions.