In their nearly 30 year history, extreme Islamic fundamentalist group the Taliban have had a prominent and violent existence.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have been responsible for brutal massacres, denying UN food supplies to 160,000 starving civilians and conducting a scorched earth policy, which resulted in the burning of vast areas of fertile land and the destruction of tens of thousands of homes. They have been condemned internationally for their harsh interpretation of misogynistic and extreme Islamic Sharia law.
The group re-emerged on the world stage in August 2021 following their capture of Afghanistan. They swept across the country in just 10 days, taking their first provincial capital on 6 August and then Kabul only 9 days later, on 15 August.
Here are 10 facts about the Taliban and some of the most significant events of their three-decade-long existence.
1. The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s
The Taliban first emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. It is probable that the movement first appeared in religious seminaries and educational groups and was funded by Saudi Arabia. Its members practiced a strict form of Sunni Islam.
In the Pashtun areas which straddle Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Taliban promised to restore peace and security and enforce their own severe version of Sharia, or Islamic law. Pakistan believed that the Taliban would help them prevent the establishment of a pro-Indian government in Kabul and that the Taliban would attack India and others in the name of Islam.
2. The name ‘Taliban’ comes from the word ‘students’ in the Pashto language
The word ‘Taliban’ is the plural of ‘Talib’, which means ‘student’ in the Pashto language. It takes its name from its membership, which originally consisted largely of students trained in the aforementioned religious seminaries and educational groups. Many of the Islamic religious schools had been established for Afghan refugees in the 1980s in northern Pakistan.
3. Most members of the Taliban are Pashtun
Most members are Pashtun, historically known as Afghans, who are the largest Iranian ethnic group native to Central and South Asia, and the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The ethnic group’s native language is Pashto, an Eastern Iranian language.
4. The Taliban protected al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden, the founder and former leader of al-Qaeda, was wanted by the FBI after he appeared on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1999. Following his involvement in the Twin Tower attacks, the manhunt for bin Laden increased, and he went into hiding.
Despite international pressure, sanctions and assassination attempts, the Taliban refused to give him up. It was only after 8 days of intensive US bombing that Afghanistan offered to exchange bin Laden in return for a ceasefire. The then American President George Bush refused.
Osama bin Laden going into hiding led to one of the biggest manhunts in history. He evaded capture for a decade until one of his couriers was followed to a compound, where he was hiding. He was then shot and killed by United States Navy SEALs.
5. The Taliban destroyed the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan
The Taliban are known for having destroyed a number of culturally significant historical sites and works of art, including at least 2,750 ancient works of art, and 70% of the 100,000 artefacts of Afghan culture and history from the National Museum of Afghanistan. This is often because the sites or artworks refer to or depict religious figures, which is considered to be idolatrous and a betrayal of strict Islamic law.
Known as the ‘Bamiyan Massacre‘, it has been argued that the obliteration of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan is the most devastating act ever conducted against Afghanistan.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan were two 6th-century monumental statues of Vairocana Buddha and Gautama Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan Valley. In spite of international outrage, the Taliban blew the statues up and broadcast footage of themselves doing so.
6. The Taliban has largely funded its efforts through a thriving opium trade
Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s illegal opium, which is made from tacky gum harvested from poppies that can be turned into heroin. By 2020, Afghanistan’s opium business had grown enormously, with poppies covering more than three times the amount of land compared with 1997.
The UN reports that today, the opium trade is worth between 6-11% of Afghanistan’s GDP. After initially banning poppy growing in 2000 with the aim of securing international legitimacy, the rebels who formed the Taliban proceeded with the trade, using the money they made from it to buy weapons.
In August 2021, the newly-formed Taliban government pledged to ban the opium trade, largely as an international relations bargaining chip.
7. Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for speaking out against educational bans
Under Taliban rule from 1996-2001, women and girls were banned from going to school and risked severe consequences if found to be receiving an education in secret. This changed between 2002-2021, when schools reopened for boys and girls in Afghanistan, with almost 40% of secondary school students being girls.
Malala Yousafzai is the daughter of a teacher who ran a girls’ school in her home village of Mingora, in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. After the Taliban took over, she was forbidden from attending school.
Yousafzai subsequently spoke out about women’s right to an education. In 2012, the Taliban shot her in the head while she was on a school bus. She survived and has since become an outspoken advocate and international symbol for women’s education, as well as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Upon their capture of Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban claimed that women would be allowed to return to segregated universities. They then announced that they would ban girls from returning to secondary school.
8. Support for the Taliban within the country is varied
Though the implementation of hardline Sharia law is viewed by many as extreme, there is evidence of some support of the Taliban amongst the Afghan people.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Afghanistan was devastated by a civil war, and later a war with the Soviets. At this time, around a fifth of all men in the country aged 21-60 died. Additionally, a refugee crisis emerged: by the end of 1987, 44% of the surviving population were refugees.
The result was a country with civilians who were ruled by warring and often corrupt factions, who had little or no universal legal system. The Taliban have long argued that though their method of governance is strict, it is also consistent and fair. Some Afghans see the Taliban as necessary to sustain themselves in the face of an otherwise inconsistent and corrupt alternative.
9. A US-led coalition governed Afghanistan for 20 years
The almost 20 years of US-led coalition was put to an end by the Taliban’s widespread insurgency in 2021. Their swift offensive was bolstered as the United States withdrew its remaining troops from Afghanistan, a move stipulated in a peace agreement with the Taliban from 2020.
10. The regime hasn’t been universally recognised
In 1997, the Taliban issued an edict renaming Afghanistan the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The country was only officially recognised by three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Shortly after their takeover in 2021, the Taliban regime sent out invites to six countries to attend the inauguration of their new government in Afghanistan: Pakistan, Qatar, Iran, Turkey, China and Russia.