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The case for

The Taliban

Victorious Taliban soldiers in Laghman province. AFP/Getty Images

Why do the Taliban enjoy so much support in Afghanistan?

Who are they?
Originally, a dusty rabble of Sunni Muslim theology students from the countryside in Kandahar province, in the country’s Pashtun south. They first rose to prominence in the mid-1990s, declaring Afghanistan an Islamic emirate and enforcing a harsh form of sharia law with brutal punishments such as floggings, amputations and mass executions. According to their hardline reading of the Koran, music and TV were not allowed, men had to grow beards and women were forced to the margins of society, barred from work and education, and severely punished if they were seen outside with their faces uncovered.

Why were they popular in the 1990s?
After the Soviets were driven out in 1989 by CIA-backed militias known as the mujahideen, the country fell into warlordism and brutal civil war. Against this backdrop, the Taliban cut a pious, bucolic dash, and soon gained mass support with their promise to battle corruption and put Islamic values first. Over a few months of intense fighting in the mid-1990s, they took over most of the country.

Did Pakistan nurture them?
Very much so. Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, branded them the Taliban (meaning “students”). The name, which was carefully focus-grouped in the villages around Kandahar, was intended to evoke the image of young, sober, religious apprentices. All these Taliban wanted, went the ISI messaging, was to get the corrupt and brutal warlords infesting the country to stop extorting ordinary people.

Why does Pakistan care?
The Pashtun ethnic group spans the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with tribal bonds established long before either country existed. Pakistan also has “vested ideological interests” in the Taliban, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. It suits the government in Islamabad to have a stable, strictly Muslim ally as a neighbour, and it was in Pakistani madrassas that the Taliban learnt their machinegun piety. Pakistan’s PM, former cricket star Imran Khan, said recently that the resurgent Taliban were “breaking the chains of slavery” after the US occupation.

How closely are the Taliban linked to al-Qaeda?
A shared love of radical Islam and mutual loathing of the West meant Saudi millionaire and al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden found a natural home with the Taliban. After 9/11, which was masterminded from Kandahar, the Taliban refused to give bin Laden up, which led to the US invasion in late 2001. The Taliban have never formally cut ties with al-Qaeda, in part because those ties are often tribal and marital. But relations were always strained. A computer recovered in Kabul after the Taliban were ousted in 2001 showed the more worldly al-Qaeda operatives looked down on their Afghan hosts as illiterate and incapable of understanding the Koran. After Seal Team Six killed bin Laden in 2011, documents found in his lair indicated that he and his former Taliban pals had largely lost touch.

What about Isis?
The Taliban hate Isis, who they see as overzealous upstarts hell-bent on world domination, to the detriment of the Taliban’s more modest local ambitions. When Taliban fighters seized Kabul last week, they took control of the prison, freed hundreds of inmates and killed nine members of the Afghan offshoot known as Isis-K. In 2019 and early 2020, a series of Taliban offensives devastated Isis in eastern Afghanistan, reducing its patch to just two small valleys in the northeast. The Taliban have not evicted Isis-K’s fighters entirely, but its troops may soon finish the job now they no longer have to fight elsewhere. And if the US helps out with the odd airstrike, as it did this week, all the better.

What do the Taliban believe in?
The group’s main drive is to impose a strict religious order and end the corruption that has flourished on an epic scale during the US occupation. Ordinary Afghans may not have been aware that in recent years corrupt officials and drug-runners were shifting £170m a week in cash out of a nation where the average income is less than £430 a year. But they can hardly have failed to notice the vast food chain of corrupt officials squeezing bribes from ordinary people every time they “went through a checkpoint, filed paperwork or even applied for a job”, says Sebastian Junger in Vanity Fair. For all their many failings, the Taliban are said to be more reasonable extortionists than the state police. In government-controlled areas, truck drivers are expected to pay repeated bribes to any officer who asks. In regions controlled by the Taliban, drivers pay once, then receive a stamped receipt that they can show at any Taliban checkpoint in the country and be waved through.

Anything else they get right?
Deep in Taliban mythology is a fierce opposition to a centuries-old Afghan practice called bacha bazi, in which young “dancing boys” are forced into sex slavery by older men. According to Taliban lore, founding father Mullah Omar killed two men for raping a young dancing boy. When the Taliban swept to power in the 1990s, they stamped out the practice immediately, threatening perpetrators with death. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the Americans. In 2015 The New York Times reported US soldiers had been specifically instructed not to intervene when they saw bacha bazi going on, on the basis that the rampant abuse was the responsibility of local Afghan authorities. Grimly, it was often the authorities who were carrying it out.

Are there different factions?
What is not clear is the extent to which the Taliban’s metropolitan leadership can control the footsoldiers under its command. Slick spokesmen in Kabul are promising peace, order and an amnesty for those who worked in the previous regime: “Nobody will be harmed,” purred Zabiullah Mujahid at a news conference in mid-August. “There is a huge difference between us now and 20 years ago.” Kabul’s new rulers have promised to prevent Afghanistan becoming a playground for jihadi hotheads, and to respect women’s rights. Whether they mean it sincerely or not, they can’t enforce it. A female Afghan MP told Home Office minister Victoria Atkins that she was hiding in her third safe house with her husband and children. The Taliban had already raided her home in Kabul, destroyed everything and hanged her dog. She is certain that if she is found, she will also be killed.

But now they’re in charge?
The West’s failure to convert Afghanistan into a shining liberal democracy may have something to do with Afghans themselves, says Matthew Syed in The Times. Joe Biden says they lacked the “will to fight for their future”. But the future he had in mind – a “freedom-loving democracy with gender-neutral lavatories” – was never what they wanted. A full 99% of them favour sharia law, 85% support stoning for adultery and 79% support execution for apostasy, according to the Pew Research Center. We shouldn’t overlook the West’s successes: widening access to education for girls, for example, and preventing terrorist attacks. But nor should we “indulge the fantasy” that we made Afghans a better offer than the Taliban did.

Is there anything we can still do?
The Biden administration still has levers it can pull: The Wall Street Journal says the US Treasury has halted shipments of dollars to the country and blocked Taliban access to the central bank’s reserves, most of which are held overseas. But the real victims of sanctions are the 39 million Afghans who can’t leave and face an extremely tough economic future if foreign investment remains blocked. We may not like it, says John Humphrys in the Daily Mail, but we failed. It’s up to the Afghan people to decide what laws they live by. We can only hope our leaders have learnt what may be the most valuable lesson of all: “Western values cannot be imposed at the barrel of a gun.” 

“Don’t forget us”

Dr Alberto Cairo, an Italian prosthetic limb specialist who has lived in Afghanistan since 1990, tells Radio 4 he sees 15 or 20 dismembered Taliban patients a day. “You see a Taliban sitting beside a mujahideen sitting beside a former communist.” They “sit quietly”, sometimes all talking together, discussing their false legs. Does he have a message for the rest of the world about Afghanistan? “Don’t forget us.”