(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)



The Taliban (Taleban) is a fundamentalist Afghan Islamist group that gained control of much of Afghanistan between the mid-1990s and its ouster by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001; closely allied with Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, it continues to attack Western and Afghan government targets. The Taliban originally claimed to be an army of religious students committed to ending the disastrous post-Soviet civil war for control of Afghanistan. Taliban forces entered the capital city of Kabul on Sept. 24, 1996. On September 27 the Taliban executed Najibullah, the last Communist president of Afghanistan. A new government based on strict Islamic law was then established.

The group arose in the Pashtun area of southern Afghanistan in 1994 to protest the abduction and rape of a group of Afghan women by local warlords. Its leader was Mullah Muhammad Omar. Omar grew up in a poor village. Like many members of the Taliban, he spent years fighting the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan. During its rise to power, the Taliban received support from Pakistan and from Afghans (including defecting mujahideen fighters) seeking a return to peace and stability after nearly two decades of war.

The victorious Taliban imposed puritanical restrictions on the areas they controlled. Women were no longer allowed to attend school or to work. These measures were particularly onerous for the many women widowed during the years of war; they were often the sole source of support for their children. Penalties such as stoning for adultery and the amputation of limbs for theft were imposed. Women who failed to wear the concealing traditional Afghan village garment called a burka in public were beaten. Men who did not grow beards suffered the same fate. The Taliban soon gained control of more than two-thirds of the country. Their violations of human rights sparked international criticism, however. Domestically, resistance to their intolerant form of Islamic rule continued in central and northern Afghanistan. (The nation's Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities were concentrated in these areas.) In August 1998 the Taliban captured the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. This city was the major stronghold of the anti-Taliban forces. Its capture raised prospects for unifying all of Afghanistan under Taliban control. Subsequently the Taliban were accused of killing thousands of Shiite civilians in perhaps the worst mass killing of Afghanistan's civil war. Iran backed the opposition forces. It viewed the Taliban as a threat to its national security and massed troops on its border with Afghanistan in September 1998. Diplomatic efforts to end Afghanistan's civil war failed repeatedly.

In the summer of 1999, the Taliban launched a new offensive against the remaining northern opposition strongholds. Thousands of refugees fled the fighting. Nevertheless, the Taliban failed to win a conclusive victory over Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masood in the rugged Panjshir Valley. By August of that year, only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates had recognized the Taliban as the legal government of Afghanistan. The opposition coalition, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, still held Afghanistan's seat in the United Nations.

In October 1999 the UN Security Council voted to impose sanctions on the Taliban in an effort to force it to hand over Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden. The Taliban refused to do so. It contended that there was no proof that bin Laden was a terrorist. In December 1999, Pakistan froze all assets owned by the Taliban in Pakistani territory. Later that month, after a hijacked Indian Airlines plane was flown to Afghanistan at the direction of its abductors, the Taliban was instrumental in resolving the hostage crisis. In exchange, several Kashmiri militants who had been imprisoned in India were released. In February 2000 the Taliban arrested several people in conjunction with the hijacking of a Kabul-based Ariana Airlines plane to Britain.

The UN Security Council imposed additional sanctions on the Taliban in January 2001 in response to the group's continued unwillingness to hand over bin Laden. The following month the Taliban issued an order calling for the destruction of all statues, which were considered idolatrous by the militant Islamists. The order included the destruction of the giant statues of Buddha at Bamian. The destruction was widely condemned. A Taliban edict later that year that Hindu Afghans wear a special identifying label and that Hindu women veil themselves as Muslim women are required to do was also widely criticized. Because of Taliban discrimination against religious minority groups, many of those minorities left the country. In September 2001 the Taliban put eight foreign-aid workers on trial for preaching Christianity (a banned religion); they were released late that year during the collapse of the Taliban regime.

The Taliban was quick to condemn the massive terrorist attack on U.S. targets (the World Trade Center and the Pentagon) that occurred on September 11, 2001. It argued that the scope of the attack was far beyond anything Osama bin Laden might be capable of. The United States provided evidence to the contrary (though not directly to the Taliban), however. The Taliban quickly lost its few allies. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic ties with the Taliban regime. Pakistan, the only country to still recognize it, supported the U.S.-led campaign against international terrorism. It also tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Taliban to stop providing sanctuary to bin Laden. On October 7, U.S. and British forces launched air strikes on targets linked to the Taliban and bin Laden. The Taliban rejected a subsequent U.S. offer to halt the air strikes if it turned over bin Laden and his associates. By this time, many of the Taliban's front-line troops were believed to be Arab militants, revolutionaries from Uzbekistan, Uighur separatists from China, and other non-Afghans who had been trained in camps operated by Al Qaeda.

The Taliban suffered its first significant military defeat on Nov. 9, 2001, when the forces of the opposition Northern Alliance, with U.S. air support, recaptured Mazar-e-Sharif. This opened a strategic land route from Uzbekistan into Kabul. The latter fell to the Northern Alliance on November 13. The Taliban fighters abandoned that city and withdrew to their southern military stronghold of Kandahar. On December 7 the Taliban fled after agreeing to surrender even this last major stronghold. Thus, in a matter of weeks, the Taliban lost the territory that had taken four years to win. A labyrinth of caves in the rugged White Mountains near the Pakistani border then became the chief target of U.S. and anti-Taliban Afghan forces.

On Dec. 22, 2001, under terms of an accord reached by the leading anti-Taliban Afghan factions meeting in Bonn, Germany, an interim Afghan government assumed power in Kabul. It was headed by anti-Taliban Pathan leader Hamid Karzai. His government's 30-member cabinet included 11 Pathans, 8 Tajiks, 5 Hazaras, 3 Uzbeks, and representatives of other minorities. It was protected by a British-led international peacekeeping force established by the UN Security Council. Before its six-month term ended, an emergency tribal assembly convened. This assembly elected a broad-based, multiethnic transitional administration that represented all groups in Afghanistan. It was also headed by Karzai. A constitutional tribal assembly was convened; it adopted a new constitution for Afghanistan on Jan. 4, 2004.

Security problems continued, particularly in the southern and eastern parts of the country. Taliban militants continued to roam freely in this area. The lack of security delayed national elections originally planned for June 2004. Pakistan's government cracked down on that country's religious extremists, who had backed both the Taliban and Muslims fighting in Kashmir. Nevertheless, the Taliban still enjoyed considerable support in Pakistan. The level of violence in the Taliban southern stronghold in the mountains near Kandahar escalated in the spring and summer of 2005. A Taliban threat to disrupt the October 2004 presidential and September 2005 legislative elections was largely unrealized, although the six months leading up to the legislative elections were the deadliest since the group's ouster.

By 2008 the Taliban had regrouped and launched an Iraqi-style insurgency, including suicide bombings. Taliban leader Omar and Al Qaeda head bin Laden were still at large. The Taliban continued to receive support and protection from Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of its leaders had been captured or killed, but it gained new recruits in the rugged border region. The Taliban thus remained a threat to the Afghan government. Security concerns caused the pullout of foreign aid workers in some parts of the country and delayed much-needed reconstruction. By early 2009, Taliban insurgents were operating a virtual parallel government in Afghanistan funded by the opium trade. The deteriorating situation led new U.S. president Barak Obama to significantly increase the U.S. military presence there. Omar, who was believed to be in the Pakistani city of Quetta, called on his followers to fight against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan rather than Muslim soldiers and civilians in Pakistan.

A new radical Islamic group also calling itself the Taliban emerged in northern Nigeria in late 2003. It staged a violent uprising in Yobe state that was put down by government authorities. The militants called for the creation of an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.

Further Reading:

Crews, Robert D., and Tarzi, Amin, eds., The Taliban and the Crisis of (2008).

Friedman, Norman, Terrorism, Afghanistan, and America's New Way of War (2003).

Gutman, Roy, How We Missed the Story: Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan (2008).

Kaplan, Robert D., Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rev. ed. (2001).

Maley, William, ed., Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban (1998).

Marsden, Peter, The Taliban (1998).

Rashid, Ahmed, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2008), and Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2000).