DNA Explainer: Who are the Taliban and why do they want to capture Afghanistan?

Literally translating to 'students' in English, the Taliban first emerged in the 1990s amid infighting between the Mujahideen warlords of Afghanistan.


DNA Explainer: Who are the Taliban and why do they want to capture Afghanistan?

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Chitresh Sehgal

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DNA webdesk

Updated: Aug 13, 2021, 02:48 PM IST

It has been 20 years since the Taliban government in Afghanistan was uprooted by the United States in 2001. Now as the US-led foreign forces leave the country, Taliban has never been closer to claiming rule over the war-torn country in the last two decades.

Taliban is quickly gaining ground. Estimates suggest the outfit controls around three-fifth of the country. In the last week, the Taliban has captured vital cities like Kandahar and Herat. It stands not more than 150 kilometres away from challenging the Afghanistan government in capital Kabul.

As per NATO, Taliban is stronger than it has been at any point in time since the 2001 downfall. It currently has around 85,000 fighters among its ranks. 

Afghanistan is on the verge of an all-out civil war between the Taliban and the President Ashraf Ghani-led democratically elected government. The conflict has already claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions more in its lifetime. 

The US Intelligence fears that Taliban could topple the government in a matter of months, reversing Afghanistan to their idea of an Islamic state.

Who are the Taliban?

‘Taliban’ is a Pashto word that literally means ‘students’ in English. The Taliban emerged as an Islamist movement in the early 1990s and its formation can be traced back to northern Pakistan. 

The Taliban’s origins can be traced back to late 1970s when thousands of Afghan mercenaries were trained in Pakistan to take on the erstwhile USSR’s occupation of Afghanistan. These fighters included Mulla Mohammed Omar, the future founder of Taliban. Backed by the US, these mujahideen fighters forced the USSR to withdraw from the Afghanistan.

The Taliban's rise came at a time when the USSR troops had withdrawn from the country and Afghanistan was under the chaotic rule of Mujahideen warlords.  

From south-west of Afghanistan, the Taliban rapidly gained territory and captured capital Kabul in 1996 ousting the Afghan mujahideen government in the process. Talibanis refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA).

The people of Afghanistan had grown tired of the Mujahideen warlords infighting and the corruption strangulating the common man. Taliban was welcomed and grew in popularity on the back of successfully curbing corruption and crime, thus making the right environment for economic activity to flourish.

However, Taliban’s rule introduced a strict interpretation of Sharia law which came with punishments like public executions and amputations of body parts. They made Burqa compulsory for women and beards for men, banned all forms of entertainment and condemned girl education in Afghanistan.

But the Taliban regime met its end in the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attack in the US. The US accused Taliban of giving refuge to Osama Bin Laden and his outfit al-Qaeda, who were identified as being behind the terror attack.

The US uprooted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in less than two months in December 2001. Senior Talibani leaders evaded capture and the group became an insurgent outfit, targeting the Afghan government and civilians, as well as the US-led foreign troops on peacekeeping missions in the country.

Why the Taliban want to capture Afghanistan?

Gradually gaining territory and expanding in numbers under its current leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban promises to restore peace and security to its predominantly Pashtun cadre and followers, alongside the enforcement of its strict version of the Islamic law or Sharia. 

The Taliban of 2021 pledged to keep Afghanistan from becoming a hub for terrorism against the West. The US and Taliban came to a peace deal in February 2020 after around two years of talks. While the US commits to a withdrawal, the Taliban has promised not to attack its troops or allowing outfits like al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan.

While Taliban's international acknowledgement was restricted to only three countries the last time it was in power, the outfit is already working on establishing diplomatic relations through senior leaders stationed in Doha, Qatar.