The rise and fall of the Taliban

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Taliban in Southern Afghanistan (Image: voanews.com, (public domain))

The Taliban have risen, fallen, and risen again in the past 15 years. The Islamist movement rose to power in Afghanistan in the mid 90's, ruled the country in the late 90's, and fell to the US led invasion in 2001. Nowadays, the Taliban seem to be gaining strength, not only in Afghanistan, but in neighboring Pakistan.

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Reporter Charles Sennott has covered the Taliban from their early days. He's produced a series of four reports on the movement's history and fluctuating fortunes. The series is a partnership between PRI's "The World" and Globalpost.com, an international news website that Sennott co-founded.

Sennott's first report begins at a refugee camp in northwest Pakistan:

It was 1995 when I first came down this road that leads to a dusty plain on the edge of Peshawar. I came to report on the Afghan refugee camps that had amassed here, and out of which was emerging a nascent movement known as the Taliban. Back then, the Afghan refugee camps looked exactly like this one.

The chaos, the mud, the endless rows of tents are the same. It's the same patch of earth with the same name, Jeloza Camp. But the people are different. These refugees, arriving when I visited last month, are internally displaced people from the Pakistani military's ongoing offensive against a relatively new version of the Taliban, one that has taken root in Pakistan's Swat Valley.

These very same refugee camps that during the Civil War in Afghanistan gave rise to the Afghan Taliban are filling up once again. Only this time they are fleeing the Taliban, at least what it has become on the Pakistan side of the border.

Rahimullah Yusefzai knows these camps perhaps better than anyone. He is widely credited with making the first report on the Taliban in 1994. He was the first, and among the very few, to interview the Taliban’s spiritual leader Mullah Omar. And he has interviewed Osama bin Laden several times. For him, this all feels like the echo of history.

It is a familiar story I think," said Yusefzai. "When I look at these IDP camps, I say, okay we had these camps for Afghan refugees, and they became the nurseries ... then for Afghan Taliban. Some of them also joined Al Qaeda. So, maybe it is being repeated."

Down a dirt path lined with new, white UNHCR tents, I came upon a sound I had heard before when I was here 15 years earlier.

These children are from Swat, and they rock in a rhythmic fashion memorizing the Koran. It's the same rhythm and the same sound as the young Taliban students I saw here so long ago chanting in a makeshift madrassa just like this one. The Pashtun word "Taliban" literally translates as "religious students.

But what I saw back then was Dickensian. The students were literally chained to a wooden beam, and the boys, mostly orphans, would become the foot soldiers in a movement that would seek to take Afghanistan back to a mythical golden age of Islam. They were in many ways easy recruits, indoctrinated in Madrassas, steeped in the South Asian Islamic tradition known as Deobandism. This school of thought dates to the Islamic resistance to the British empire in the 19th century.

Yusefzai says this fused with Wahhabism, a puritanical version of Islam exported from Saudi Arabia with the Mujahideen who arrived to fight the soviets in the 1980's, "They were following the Deobandi line, so they had a character of fighting against foreign occupation. That is, you must fight injustice, you must fight foreign occupiers. But they became involved and interacted with these Wahabbis, Arab money was also flowing into the Afghan jihad."

That was certainly the case with the first madrassa I encountered here. I couldn't find that religious school, perhaps it had been disbanded. But for all intents and purposes it had been replaced by the one I did find. And the 23 year old, poorly educated imam leading the class, Ali Mohammed, was as wide eyed as the Taliban imams were back then.

"I have no concern with things political, said Mohammed through a translator. "I am just in this to spread the word of God. It makes no difference to me or my work, who is in charge, the government or the Taliban."

This apolitical idealism was very much the mood of the early Taliban madrassas. It was later, in their drive to rid Afghanistan of the corrupt warlords vying for control of the country, that they became political, and increasingly extreme. Nancy Hatch Dupree has lived between Peshawar and Kabul for most of the last 40s years. She is an ethnologist, not only studying the Afghans and the Taliban, but living among them through their wars. At age 83, she still does.

"The problem came when they very quickly, too quickly, conquered too much of the country," Hatch says. "And they really weren't managers -- they didn't know how to govern. Then they decided, they were going to impose the real Islam, after they got Kabul. This is sin city, they’re gonna clean it up. And they forgot that the characteristics of the Afghan society. Like tolerance, about respecting elders, respecting women, respecting the beliefs of others. I mean, they forgot that that was part of Afghan society, it is also part of Islam."

The Taliban, who took control of Afghanistan and sheltered Al Qaeda, who conducted public executions, closed girls schools, banned music, were in many ways the creation of those who are now fighting them. The US backed the Majahideen in the 80's, many of whom became the Taliban. And Pakistan actively backed and funded the Taliban, who came mainly from the ethnic Pashtun population.

Hamid Gul says Pakistan finds the Taliban a "handy tool."

Gul would know. He's a former director of Pakistan's Intelligence Services, and played a direct role in developing Pakistan's strategy in Afghanistan. Gul says that attempts by Pakistan to influence its neighbors through the 40 million ethnic Pashtuns, who straddle both sides of the border, dates back at least to the British colonial presence. That border has always been fluid, and Pakistan, he says, has always supported the Pashtuns as a foothold in Afghanistan.

"It's never been respected by the people," says Gul. "They've been crossing through 98 years of British rule. See the battle where they have taken the British battles. They were in this very area, not anywhere else."

The Taliban was a religious movement that grew out of the Pashtun rural traditions. There is an argument that it would never have become so ideological if it hadn’t been for the United States. Abdul Hakim Muhajid, the Taliban’s former representative to the United Nations, says the US abandoned the Afghan people after they had suffered so much to fight against the Soviet Union. That, he said, left Afghanistan under the Taliban with few options but to side with those allied with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and even individuals like Osama bin Laden, who came with Saudi riches.

Gul agrees, "Yeah, that's the reality. While Afghanistan was in a very broken position, it was a ruined country with a broken economy, being put sanctions against them. What can you think, that they will naturally go to LL those powers who are supporting them? Actually, they were forced to go to radical direction, the radical people."

In October 2001, the US led air strikes in Afghanistan paved the way for the regime to be toppled. And as quickly as they rose to power, they were pushed into the mountains along the border of Pakistan.

There the US made a fateful strategic blunder, and according to Gul, allowed the Taliban and some elements of Al Qaeda to regroup, "Osama bin Laden was trapped in Tora Bora area. Americans did not come in, they were afraid. That was a failure of military planning by America. They trusted the northern alliance commanders, and, you know, their hearts were with Osama bin Laden. Their guns were with America, but their hearts with Osama. This was a military failure, intelligence failure of the highest order."

Owen Sears, who worked for ten years for the Defense Intelligence Agency, is now working with a special counter-insurgency program in Afghanistan. He helps US field commanders see the complexity of cultural and religious issues involved in the fight against the Taliban.

Sears says a new movement emerged after 2001, a "neo-Taliban." He stresses in its origin, the Taliban was a religious rather than political movement, and it's one that now is trying to return to its roots as a Pashtun tribal force with a wide rural appeal.

"It's almost like they got it," says Sears. "After the defeat, they got it. It being that you have to play to a larger audience in order to win back power in Afghanistan. Now that there are foreigners in your country, occupiers as you call them, you understand the weak point in your occupier’s strategy is their home population. And if you can exploit that weakness, and make them withdraw, you can, at a minimum make a lot of Afghans think, is the coalition going to be here for very long? Probably not. So why would I be backing the wrong horse. The same with the Pakistani government. They’re sitting back and they’re looking at the scene and they’re saying, okay when’s the coalition leaving? Probably sooner than later, so why would we ditch our so-called strategic asset, the Taliban now, when we’re gonna darn well need them, you know, in a couple of years when we need to restore our influence in Kabul."

The Taliban of Pakistan, or TTP, is more of a loose affiliation of different groups. But while they have re-armed and re-organized, they also overreached when they took Swat and imposed a fierce form of Sharia.

In the refugee came near Peshawar, there was a seething anger and despair, just as I had witnessed 15 years earlier. There is a lot of blame to go around. Some blame the government for leaving them displaced, but many, including 16-year-old Ikramullah, blame the Taliban.

Ikramullah [through translator]: "The Taliban do one good thing and then they follow it up with a bad thing so the people turn against them. They slaughter people, and they flog women in the streets. This is all wrong."

From this refugee camp to the capital of Islamabad, Pakistan is turning against the Taliban. As the movement the country helped to create, is increasingly viewed as an internal threat.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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