A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 11. Afghanistan #3 : Enter the Taliban

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Whereas the Mujahideen’s war against the communist government and their Soviet backers was one largely fought for control of the countryside, the civil war which followed from 1992 onwards was fought for control over the cities, primarily the capital Kabul, which had hardly been contested during the earlier period. Now it was all about Kabul. At the end of the last post I briefly described attempts by the various groups in April 1992 to reach an accord that would enable them to form some kind of interim power-sharing government. The plan was for the relatively-conciliatory figure of Mojaddedi (for an explanation of who all these dudes are, please see the last part) to become president for two months, and then Rabbani for four months, after which a council would be formed to stage elections. Each of the Mujahideen factions was offered a ministry: defense would go to Massoud and the Jamiat, Gailani’s group would get foreign affairs; Hekmatyar was offered the post of prime minster. The latter, however, backed to the hilt by Pakistan, had no interest in sharing power. Unhappy with offer of prime minister, he set out to wreck the agreement, denouncing the deal as ‘communist’.

Some of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami had already made their way into parts of Kabul, but several factors told against them. Massoud had taken the surrender (and confiscated weapons) of government forces. He also had the backing of all the other major factions for the Peshawar accords’ power-sharing agreement; particularly important was the powerful Junbish-i-Milli of Abdul Rashid Dostum, who joined him in the push to expel Hekmatyar’s forces from the capital. Assisted by the Ittehad-e Islami of Sayyaf and the Hazara Hizb-e Wahdat led by Mazari, these groups took most of the key positions in the city and drove Hekmatyar’s forces out of Kabul by the end of April, but not so far away that they could not use their artillery to mercilessly shell the city, killing untold thousands of civilians. This horror went on throughout the remainder of 1992. It was complicated by the fact that it wasn’t just Hekmatyar against everyone else. In the summer, fighting between the Sunni Ittehad-e Islami and the Shia Hizb-e Wahdat descended into all-out war, with Hazara’s faction eventually going over to Hekmatyar’s side and abandoning the ‘Islamic State of Afghanistan’ which was the nominal state which the Peshawar accords had founded. Several horrific massacres of innocent civilians would follow. Especially vulnerable were the minority Shia Hazara in the capital. In February 1993, about 700 were killed in cold blood by either Massoud or Sayyaf’s forces. Responsibility is disputed to this day. Mass rape no doubt took place, although numbers are very difficult to come by, partly because the shame attached to the women meant that they often didn’t report what was done to them.

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Kabul street scene, c.1992

A major problem was that there were too many actors involved who had no interest in seeing state institutions develop from the anarchy. This is true not just of Hekmatyar but Dostum, who wanted to rule an independent fiefdom in the north; the Hezb-i-Wahdat certainly didn’t want to see the emergence of a strong state dominated by Sunnis. Wars within wars. Having seen the Soviets withdraw, the outside world was now indifferent to what was going on in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s method of distributing aid to the Mujahideen groups contributed to the disunity; instead of encouraging a unified movement, the ISI preferred to finance the groups separately, keep them fighting each other. On top of all this, the humanitarian disaster was worsened by the return of roughly 1.5 million refugees, who were being sent back to the country on the understanding that war was over and the reconstruction would soon begin. Sadly, nothing could have been further from the truth.

The new state negotiated a truce, brokered by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with its enemies in March 1993. By this, Massoud agreed to relinquish the post of defence minister in order to get Hekmatyar onboard. This agreement broke down within a few months, however, and everyone went back to the way they were. It proved impossible to hold elections, and Rabbani extended his presidency beyond its initial term, leaving himself open to accusations of abusing power. Even worse was to follow for the government’s forces when, in early 1994, Dostum’s faction abandoned the coalition and went over to Hekmatyar’s side. The reasons for this appear to be as much to do with a power-struggle between Dostum and Massoud as anything else. Along with the Hazaras of Hezb-i-Wahdat, this coalition now appeared to pose a considerable threat to the newly-established Islamic State. Even the UN pulled out most of their staff: always a sign a government’s days are numbered. Once again, however, Massoud’s enemies underestimated his military genius, and by the summer, he had expelled Dostum’s forces from large areas of Kabul. This did not mean the government was saved. This year, 1994, saw the emergence of a new force in the south of the country who will very soon render this conflict between Massoud and Hekmatyar’s allies irrelevant and eventually drive them both out of Kabul. They were called the Taliban.

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The word ‘Taliban’ means a religious student, applied to the movement on account of the origins of many of its members in the religious madrasas run by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam over the border in Pakistan. This group, a more conservative, clerical-aligned rival of the Jamaat-e-Islami discussed in part 9, were inspired by the Deobandi movement of Sunni Islam, stressing orthodoxy and adherence to a strict Islamic legal code as interpreted by religious scholars. The Taliban took this fundamentalism a step further, however, and developed an idiosyncratic interpretation of sharia law that essentially sought to return Afghanistan to a state approximating the way the world looked at the time of Islam’s beginnings. These Deobandi madrasas had been around for decades, but their numbers really exploded in Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Province (today named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) with the influx of refugees from Afghanistan. By 1988, there were approximately 8,000 schools receiving government funding and, even more significantly, around 25,000 unregistered ones. Operating with little outside oversight, these madrasas  picked up the slack left by the inadequate state education system and were free to mould young men however they saw fit. Many of the teachers were themselves poorly-educated and taught a creed which deviated strongly from Deobandi orthodoxy in many ways. The ethos imbibed by the young Taliban, indeed, had as much to do with the collection of social mores and practices known as Pashtunwali, operating from time immemorial among the Pasthun and particularly strong in the conservative rural areas-as any set of religious precepts.

Religious schools alone, however, do not churn out fanatically-committed military movements who can conquer a country in little more than two years. The fact that a huge number of Taliban fighters were fairly young men, often orphans, who had passed through these religious schools, is, I think, key. These were Afghan refugee children in Pakistan who had never known peace. It is worth imagining for a moment what it must be like to grow up in a country like Afghanistan, which has basically been at war now (2017) for almost 40 years. An entire generation has lived and died without ever knowing anything but fighting. The brutalising effect this has on people is profound. These children, whose only education came from these madrasas, were often completely unsocialised in other ways, lacking, in their refugee camps, any semblance of a traditional social order from which to imbibe values and norms of behaviour. This heady mixture of religious fundamentalism and omnipresent violence lie at the heart of the Taliban’s story. But while they may have given the movement an edge and, even more importantly, a sense of mission, these factors alone do not account for the Taliban’s extraordinarily rapid progress across the country when they burst on the scene in 1994.

To understand how this initially small and poorly-armed group became so powerful so quickly, it must first be remembered the state of the country, and particularly the south of the country, at this time. After the failure of the Peshawar Accords, the Islamic state failed to make its writ run in large areas of the national territory. There were few means for any centralised government, even if they had been able to agree on one, to take back power. If you look back at the map near the end of the last post, you will notice that much of the country is coloured white, meaning no particular faction had control, neither government nor Mujahideen. By 1994, then, huge swathes of territory were under the control not of actors in the civil war, but warlords with their own private armies, who had little or no pretense of ideological commitment other than enriching themselves and bolstering their power. This was medieval-style anarchy. The warlords ostensibly took over many functions of the state, collecting taxes from their areas, providing rudimentary and arbitrary policing and social services. Mostly, there was fighting, and rape and death and no overarching authority to appeal to for help or justice.

This was particularly true of the south: Kandahar province, for example, where the Taliban would first emerge, led by an enigmatic Mullah (a term loosely describing an Islamic cleric or mosque leader versed in Quranic law) named Mohammed Omar. Omar had fought with the Hezb-e Islami of Maulawi Khalis during the war against the Soviet Union. Towards the end of the 1980s he was seriously injured, losing an eye, and he reportedly played little part in the civil war which followed, retreating to his village in Kandahar to focus on religious instruction. The brutality of the warlords and the exploitation (often sexual) of the local population, enraged him and his followers, and they decided to do something about it. Initially, this small armed group concentrated on protecting civilians from the criminal gangs who were employed by the warlords, who had hitherto acted with impunity. There are a number of stories of their valorous deeds doing the rounds which I won’t go into the details of, mainly because I’m not sure how authentic they are. The broad outlines of the story, however: that the Taliban won support because they offered protection from the lawlessness and random violence of the warlords, seems plausible.

It is often forgotten now, in the light of their later unpopularity, but many at the time welcomed the Taliban as better than the alternative of Hobbes’ ‘war of all against all‘. People in the west often talk about countries like Afghanistan as if the people are free agents with compete control over their destiny. This is profoundly mistaken. The choices of the civilian population in Afghanistan, like that of unarmed civilian populations everywhere in wartime, were severely circumscribed. For women, who were to suffer most under their rule, it is not dramatising too much to say that the alternatives on offer can be boiled down to a choice between being raped or forced to wear the burqa. For my part, I know which I would choose. For all that can be said about the Taliban, as they fanned out across the country conquering territory, practically no rape and little looting took place. This was in marked contrast to their adversaries conduct.

As their reputation grew throughout 1994, thousands more Taliban flooded in from the schools in Pakistan, swelling the numbers of the group. It also attracted members of the Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami of Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi (see previous post) which had been powerful in the south and was now to be eclipsed by the new, more radical movement. It would appear likely the Taliban were already receiving some support from the ISI at this stage. The movement’s credibility was boosted further when a group of Taliban protected a Pakistani trade convoy on its way through the country in autumn of that year. This is a crucial moment, and gives the clearest indication of what it was that would make the Taliban such an attractive proxy force for Pakistan in Afghanistan, soon to replace Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i as the recipient of their king-making patronage. This was, let us remember, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of a number of central-Asian republics bordering Afghanistan, namely: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (see the map in part 8). It was also a time when Russia under Yeltsin was in turmoil and fairly weak compared to what it had been, and what it is nowadays under Putin. Pakistan sought, therefore, to increase its influence in central Asia, both economically and otherwise, and Afghanistan was central to these plans.

First and foremost, trade (and the improved transport and communications which facilitate it) would be impossible without some degree of stability and maintenance of infrastructure, which at that moment was entirely lacking. The Taliban’s assistance in getting a trade convoy through the country gave some indication of their potential utility to the Pakistanis. But why, you might ask, not just turn to the already-established government in Kabul to perform this function? Well, they had been backing Hekmatyar for years against the government, and saw the state run by Rabbani and Massoud as inconveniently independent and, moreover, dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks rather than the Pashtuns. While the Taliban was clearly a Pashtun movement, moreover, its focus was overwhelmingly religious rather than national, so they showed little interest in Pashtun nationalism and a potential ‘Pashtunistan’ straddling the Durand line, something which further endeared them to Pakistan. As usual, Pakistan’s internal politics played a decisive role in what happened in Afghanistan. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) had not been hitherto very influential in the corridors of power, especially since the Islamist regime of Zia had been replaced by Benazir Bhutto (see last post) in 1988 and, after further elections, a more conservative government led by Nawaz Sharif. In 1993, however, another election was held in which Bhutto was re-elected.

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Bhutto campaigns in Punjab Province, October 1993. Credit: A. Abbas/Magnum Photos

Seeking to expand her power base, Bhutto had been obliged to reach out beyond the PPP’s traditional support of proletariat and left-intellectuals, to build bridges with more conservative Islamic elements in the country. Among these was the JUI, who lent their support to her campaign and were rewarded with influential positions within her government after 1993. They were therefore well placed to push the interests of the Taliban educated in their schools at the very time it was becoming more and more apparent that Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami was not going to fulfill the hopes Pakistan had placed in it. A key figure in increasing aid to the Taliban was Naseerullah Babar (below), who had been a long-time supporter of the Bhuttos and involved in training the original generation of Mujahideen in the 1970s as a general in the army under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was rewarded for his loyalty by Benazir with the post of minister of the interior in 1993. Throughout 1994-5, as the Taliban conquered Kandahar and made rapid progress through the south of the country, Pakistan gradually devoted more and more resources to the movement, and began to withdraw support for Hekmatyar.

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There is something of an irony in the fact that it was a female leader who played a role in facilitating the rise of the Taliban, who became so notorious for their treatment of women, but we should not fall prey to exaggeration here. I have read accounts of how Benazir Bhutto ‘created’ the Taliban, and stuff like that, which is clearly overemphasising the extent of her influence in this respect. This being Pakistan, you have to question how much control the civilian leader really had over the military/intelligence establishment, and what scope she would actually have had to prevent the ISI and the army aiding the Taliban. Likely none. She would probably have ended up like her father if she had attempted it.

Anyway, back to the war.

Another factor that played into the Taliban’s hands was timing. It was just at the moment they were emerging that Massoud was defeating the forces of Hekmatyar, Dostum and Mazari ranged against him. Having already been driven from Kabul, Hekmatyar found himself in February 1995 on the outskirts of the city with the Taliban fast approaching from behind. He fled, and that, essentially, was the end of him as a viable alternative to the Islamic state. He had, however, left his artillery behind, which the Taliban used to start shelling Kabul themselves. To some it seemed that the Taliban were poised to overrun the Islamic State but at this point, the government rallied. Already involved in bitter battles with the Hizb-e Wahdat, the latter, who were now without their ally Hekmatyar, negotiated an ad-hoc alliance with the Taliban so they could escape Massoud’s clutches. The government’s forces inflicted a heavy defeat on both the Hizb-e Wahdat and the Taliban, however: the movement’s first serious setback. Suspecting they had been betrayed by the Hizb-e Wahdat’s leader Mazari, incidentally, the Taliban had him tortured and killed shortly after this.

March to October 1995 was an interlude of relative peace, as the government appeared to have shrugged off the threat of the Taliban and many outside observers concluded they were a spent force. Indeed, many of the Taliban’s military advances had been made not in the heat of battle but against jaded warlords who submitted without a shot being fired, recognising the way the wind was blowing. That the Taliban had been defeated by the first serious opposition they encountered was said to be indicative that they had appeared more formidable than they actually were. In the west, however, the Taliban showed they were no mere flash in the pan. A second major front was opened up against the forces of powerful Jamiat warlord Ismail Khan, aimed at advancing north towards Herat. Fierce fighting took place, as Khan received increased aid from Iran, who were concerned at the growing power of the Taliban, whose Sunni fervour could only be bad news for Afghanistan’s Shia population. By May, the Taliban had been pushed back to Helmand province, but in the months that followed, a breakdown in negotiations between the government and Dostum left Massoud hampered in his efforts to assist Khan in the west. The latter’s forces were decisively defeated attempting to defend the airbase at Shindand and Herat fell to the Taliban on September 5.

The winter of 1995-6 belied expectations that the Taliban was finished. In fact, it became increasingly clear that the movement had little or no interest in reaching accommodation with any of the extant forces fighting in the country, and would not stop until they had taken control of the entire country. The way they ran Herat after they took over gave some idea, for the first time, of what kind of regime they would establish, shattering the illusions of many Afghans that they would act as a relatively benign kind of peacekeeping force to bring stability. In Herat, the Pashtun Taliban almost immediately went into action imposing their own interpretation of sharia law, heavily influenced by Pashtun custom, upon the mostly non-Pashtun, Persian-speaking population. It became abundantly clear that the Taliban just didn’t do compromise. Part 4 of the John Simpson reports below (about 5:00 in) gives some idea of the shock of Taliban conservatism and fundamentalism upon relatively-cosmopolitan Herat. Women were suddenly told to stop coming to work and stay at home, or if they did leave the house, to cover themselves up from head to toe. Men had to wear beards, and a range of activities, from playing music to flying kites, was suddenly forbidden by edict.

A kind of panic can be detected in all quarters during the spring and summer of 1996, as a resurgent Taliban once again began to advance on Kabul, with the help of resurgent Pakistani support. Aware of this, protesters attacked the Pakistani embassy in Kabul in retaliation for the takeover of Herat. In October 1995, the Taliban had once again returned to the outskirts of the capital and started shelling it. The following film was shot during this period, possibly the lowest point in Kabul’s bitter experience of civil war, having been without electricity for three years and facing a Taliban bombardment as indiscriminate as anything Hekmatyar ever launched on the city.

In April 1996, Mullah Omar was declared the Amir, or leader of all Muslims everywhere, and a holy war was declared on the Kabul government. To mark the solemnity of the event in Kandahar, Omar got up on a building and displayed the cloak of Mohammad to his gathered supporters. The cloak is an object of veneration in Islam that is usually kept hidden in a mosque in the city, only being revealed at times of national crisis. This was the first time it had been shown publicly in 60 years. The title given to this image of the rare event: ‘Mullah Omar reveals the prophet’s cloak’, does indeed sound like something out of Game of Thrones.

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Suddenly foreign governments like India, Russia, Ukraine started to take an interest in preserving Rabbani’s government and send serious aid to the government. It was all too little, too late. The desperation is palpable in the agreement made by Rabbani to bring Hekmatyar into the government as prime minister in June 1996. Bad idea. While Rabbani may have thought it would broaden his base of support, Hekmatyar was widely hated because of the carnage he had previously unleashed on Kabul. When he arrived he started issuing fundamentalist decrees about women’s dress etc. that pissed even more people off. On the whole, these efforts to co-opt the dwindling support of the Hezb-e actually damaged Rabbani’s reputation.

There was also the fact that many of Hekmatyar’s troops could not be trusted, many of them being Pashtun and sympathetic to the Taliban. These botched efforts by Rabbani to out-Taliban the Taliban are illustrated well in the botched public hanging which appears near the end of part one of the John Simpson films here. These are a series of reports Simpson made in 1996 when the Taliban were on the verge of taking power, and really give a good sense of what life was like for ordinary Afghans in that terrifying period. In our own time, an era of ’embedded’ journalists, the majority of whom are little more than ‘stenographers to power’, it is instructive to remember what real journalism looks like: someone taking the trouble to go to the centre of the action independently and really try and understand the country in its own terms. Here are the three films broadcast on Newsnight at the time, spread out awkwardly over 6 youtube clips for some reason:

Following Mullah Omar’s dramatic declaration at Kandahar, the Taliban advance once again gathered strength. Government-led attempts to re-take Herat failed, as well as efforts to push them away from Kabul’s southern suburbs. Increasingly clear that the Taliban was being provided with sophisticated arms and training by Pakistan, Massoud, who led attempts to defend the government in Kabul, realised that its capitulation was inevitable and his forces bound to be encircled if he did not take action. In the event, Taliban victory came swiftly and with little actual fighting. Jalalabad was taken on the 11 September 1996 and on the afternoon of the 26th Massoud ordered the evacuation of the capital. The Taliban took possession of the city on the following day. The first thing they did when they got there wraps up the story of Mohammad Najibullah, the ex-president who had been hiding out in the UN compound since the Mujahideen took Kabul in 1992. Rabbani’s regime, while it would have liked to put him on trial, did not dare to abduct him from UN property for fear of alienating foreign public opinion. The Taliban make it clear from the very start of their reign that they couldn’t care less about such diplomatic niceties. They entered the property and took Najibullah and his brother to the nearest traffic island where they were unceremoniously lynched.

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Massoud, as well as Dostum and some other leaders, managed to escape from the Taliban’s clutches and retreat to the north of the country. In both cases, they were pursued northwards and in both cases they kept the Taliban at bay by destroying the entrance to the Panjshir Valley in Massoud’s case, and the Salang Tunnel in Dostum’s. These groups, who would in time come to form an anti-Taliban front known as the ‘Northern Alliance’ therefore survived to fight another day, and the share of territories in the country ended up something like this in the aftermath of Taliban victory in 1996:

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And so begins the five-year rule of the Taliban in (most of) Afghanistan. It is the nature of this rule, and the very specific interpretation of sharia law which the Taliban enforced, which they are best known for. For good reason. What is often missed when discussions of the Taliban are folded into broader discussions of modern political Islam is just how anomalous the Taliban were in relation to other Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Shia revolutionaries in Iran. While modern political Islam is infused with radical political ideas and the aspiration to further Islam through the apparatus of a modern state and technology, the Taliban saw this as a corruption of the purity of Islam in the time of the prophet. The Taliban, in fact, wanted to have as little to do with politics as possible. Their vision was religious, and their goal to bring Afghanistan back to some imagined utopia of the past, free of televisions and recorded music, although it must be said the animus towards technology did not extend to giving up their modern weapons. The Taliban made Saudi Arabia seem positively liberal. There is a tendency among many westerners to think of conservative groups like the Taliban as somehow representative of Islam. It cannot be stressed enough how mistaken this is. The Taliban were at this time a very idiosyncratic sect within Islam, and to see them as representative of that religion on the whole is, quite frankly, as mad as thinking the Westboro Baptist Church somehow represent Christianity.

Neither were the Taliban internationalists in the sense that other Islamist groups were. Their offer of sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and his followers is often interpreted as a sign that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (as the state was officially known under the Taliban) was a hub of international jihad. The presence of Bin Laden, however, had as much to do with a feeling of commitment to someone who was believed to have played a key role in defeating the Russians, as anything else. There was also the much-needed funds that the wealthy Bin Laden also brought into the country. The presence of Bin Laden, and other foreign fighters in the Mujahideen, will be discussed in greater detail in another part. It was only, ultimately, the presence of foreign jihadists on Afghan soil, and their attacks on Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and New York, which prompted the west to move against the Taliban.

As Simpson noted in his reports, nobody in the west gave a toss about Afghanistan by 1996. If the country had continued tearing itself apart without American or European lives being lost, there is every reason to believe the outside world would have been content to leave them to it. In likelihood, a complete Taliban victory would have been welcomed by the Americans for the stability and economic opportunities it would offer. Not only were the Taliban financed and trained by Pakistan, but it could be argued that the United States by extension also assisted their rise to power. This is unsurprising, given that the Taliban was from the start seen as anti-Iran, which the US was primarily interested in opposing. There are good reasons for believing that American diplomats saw the Taliban as a nascent version of the Wahhabists who they had helped install in Saudi Arabia. A number of quotations from the US state department from around the time the Taliban seized power are instructive here:

‘The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament, and lots of sharia law. We can live with that’.

Cited in Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), p.179.

‘The United States finds nothing objectionable in the policy statements of the new government, including its move to impose Islamic law’.

State Department spokesman, Glyn Davies, Voice of America , 27 September 1996.

‘We have no quarrel with the Taliban in terms of their political legitimacy or lack thereof’.

Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel, BBC Newshour , 3 October 1996.

Given such statements, therefore, it is somewhat ironic that the Americans later reinvented themselves as the Taliban’s arch-enemy.

The Aramco mentioned in the first quote above, incidentally, is the main Saudi oil company. Between 1994 and 1998, multinational fuel concerns were actively pursuing collaboration with the Taliban, with assistance from the US government, seeking to develop Afghanistan for the transportation of natural gas through the country from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Unocal (now owned by Chevron) announced in 1997 they were investing heavily in such a project, as did an Argentinian company called Bridas. The visit of a Taliban delegation to the United States in 1997, in which the plight of women or the Afghan population in general appears to have been conspicuously ignored, must be seen in the light of these negotiations. Claims that later interventions were motivated by such considerations should therefore be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

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Abdul Salam Zaeef (seated) ambassador of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and some other Taliban members

There is an elephant in the room which I have largely ignored here, because I will devote an entire post to the subject. This is the other major factor which gave the Taliban an edge against its enemies within the country, but which would ultimately lead to their downfall. I speak of course of Osama bin Laden and his followers. To understand him, we have to go back to the 1980s and explore the whole issue of foreign, predominantly Arab, fighters in the country during the jihad against the Soviet Union.

Featured image above: Eyes of Mullah Mohammed Omar.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 11. Afghanistan #3 : Enter the Taliban