The fall of the last Soviet-backed government of Najibullah in 1992, without doubt, ended Moscow’s influence in Afghanistan, but it led the new civil war among the competing Mujahedeen militia for power sharing who had previously fought with the Soviets. The US, instead of making the proper power structure, left the country in the midst of crisis on the fate of powerful warlords. Although, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani was chosen as the president of Afghanistan, yet his power was limited to the certain region.
These rival Mujahedeen turned the entire Afghanistan, from where they belonged, into their private fiefdoms. They occupied highways, installed checkpoints and collected illegal taxes from the vehicles. There was an absent of center government controlling the whole country, as Burhanuddin Rabbani was also the nominal head of state. Life property and honor of people were not safe. The warlords in their fiefdoms, raped girls, robbed merchants and illegally occupied homes of the people at their will. The toll tax became a burden for the businessmen. Ahmed Rashid writes in his book “Taliban”, “In 1993, I travelled the short 130 miles by road from Quetta to Kandahar and we were stopped by al least 20 different groups, who had put chains across the road and demanded a toll for free passage.”
The regional countries including Pakistan also supported the different warlords with money and weapons to create their puppet government in Kabul after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, which led to the further intensification of competition among the rival mujahedeen groups and deterioration of the law and order situation in the country. Pakistan supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who had already controlled some parts of Southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban emerged in the Southern Afghan province of Kandahar in 1994 under the leadership of Mullah Muhammad Omar. At that time, Kandahar was divided among three rival warlords who ruled their fiefdoms with impunity. Mullah Muhammad Omer was a prayer leader and teacher in the local Madrasah. According to the Taliban’s own story of its origins, one day, a warlord abducted two young girls and raped them. When the news reached to Omar, he prepared his 30 students, attacked the military camp of the criminal, freed girls and hanged the culprits. This marked the beginning of Taliban movement. The word Taliban is taken from Talib, which means a student. Taliban were actually students of Mullah Omar. After defeating the one criminal gang, these Taliban attacked another fiefdom and went on.
The emergence of Taliban movement was sudden and unplanned. Soon it became a local political and military force. The indigenous people, who were victim of the cruelty of warlords looked at the Taliban with a hope to restore peace. The local merchants and businessman supported them with money because they removed checkpoints and stopped collecting toll taxes. Many other warlords joined Taliban and the movement kept increasing in size and influence. In November 1994, they successfully took the control of Kandahar. Pakistan changed its side and started supporting Taliban because of their speedy success and abandoned Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who failed to bring Afghanistan under its control even after receiving the generous assistance from Islamabad.
In the North of Afghanistan, non-Pashtun, liberal leaders, to resist Taliban’s intrusion into the Northern part, formed an alliance. However, Kabul fell into the Taliban’s hand in 1996 and they finally prepared to occupy Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997. Pakistani madrasahs were emptied and students were sent to help Taliban to occupy Mazar. The movement received stiff resistance, but was able to achieve victory and occupy the city. Pakistan was among the first country to recognize the government of Taliban.
On the one hand, Taliban restored peace and improved the law and order situation of Afghanistan by punishing cruel warlords. They gave Afghanistan a central government. Besides, they stopped demanding illegal toll taxes from vehicles and removed many checkpoints.
One the other hand, they pursued some policies that not only defamed their movement at international level, but also cautioned the local people about their radicalism in Afghanistan.
Firstly, the gender policy of Taliban remained controversial and condemned by many indigenous Afghans and international actors. Taliban closed down girls’ schools and confined women to their homes. For instances, when Taliban took control of Kabul, they barred all women from work at the time when women contributed to one quarter in Kabul’s civil services. Besides, they closed down schools and colleges affecting some 70,000 female students. Furthermore, they imposed strict dress code for women to cover themselves from head to toe.1
Secondly, they carried out atrocities against the other ethnic groups in the Northern Afghanistan particularly towards the Shia Hazaras whom they placed outside the pale of Islam. For example, when they occupied Mazar, they indiscriminately fired at every one including women and children. They did not even spared donkeys and goats. Street were covered with dead bodies.2 According to the interview given by one Tajik survivor to the UNHCR, dogs were eating human corpses in the streets. Taliban gave Shia Hazaras three choices; either converts to Sunni Islam, leave for Shia Iran or die. 3
Thirdly, they did not respect the culture of local people and imposed harsh policies against their centuries old civilization. For instances, it was the culture of many Afghan people to visit shrines, decorate the graves of their ancestors with stones and red or green cloth, play music and dance on their weddings, fly kites and so on. Taliban banned these all activities. Arab fighters who had arrived in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan actually helped radicalized Taliban including Mullah Omar. Arabs belong to rigid Saudi-Islamic doctrine that is against the marking of graves and visiting shrines unlike local Afghan Pashtun. They started destroying graves during Soviet-Afghan war. Consequently, clashes took place when local Afghan resisted them resulting in killing of some Arabs graveyard raiders.4 The same doctrine of Arabs were adopted by Taliban when they came in power.
Finally, They gave sanctuary to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Osama bin laden set up training camp in Afghanistan to prepare militants to carry out their so-called jihad in the Western countries. Taliban focused was confined to Afghanistan while Al-Qaeda had wider international agenda that was Initially, disliked by Mullah Omar as well because he knew that it would create problems for him to get recognition of his government from the US. Mullah Omar once told a senior Pakistani diplomat, “he [Osama] is like a bone stuck in my throat”5 However, after the passage of time as written by Zahid Hussain in his book “The Scorpion Tail” Osama bin laden became successful in bringing Mullah Omar under his influence. Besides, some leaders of Pakistani sectarian groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were given sanctuary in Afghanistan by Taliban after Pakistan launched crackdown against them. When the government sought the extradition of these leaders, Taliban refused to handover them to Islamabad. In fact, terrorists’ camps of these groups were set up in Afghanistan to launch deadly attacks against Shia in Pakistan.
Initially, Taliban movement received appreciation in Afghanistan by the indigenous Afghans. The way they punished cruel warlords and restored the law and order situation, they could have ruled for the decades. However, the imposition of their own version of Sharia in Afghanistan and adopting of soft approach towards Al-Qaeda not only diminished their mass support, but also caused their downfall. Had they sidelined Al-Qaeda and adopted pure Sharia, their rule would have been long lasting.
- Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: The power of militant Islam in Afghanistan and beyond, 2010, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, p.50.
- Ibid, p.73
- Ibid, p.74
- Steve Coll, Ghost wars, 2004 penguin publisher, p.152.
- Zahid Hussain, Frontline Pakistan, I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2010, p.42