The United States’ custom-built enemy: The Taliban

  • The Taliban, a Pashtun Islamic extremist group, has regained complete territorial control after 20 years of insurgency.
  • While spending trillions on battling the Taliban, the United States played an indisputable role in their rise to power in the 90s and now
  • China’s Secretary Xi, Iran’s President Raisi, and Pakistan’s PM Khan all look to garner influence with the new rulers of Afghanistan
Afghani women out shopping prior to Taliban takeover

This August, the world watched in shock and horror at the rapid advance of the Taliban through Afghanistan. One by one, major cities under control of the national government fell like flies to Taliban control. Shocking images of Afghani citizens clinging to airplanes, trying to escape this oncoming force, spread onto the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Many Afghani people, especially women and former government officials, now fear for their lives. While the US spent trillions of dollars fighting this guerilla force, they had a crucial part in the Taliban’s rise to power in the first place. Understanding who the Taliban are and their ties to the US is crucial to understanding the impacts of a Taliban take-over in the region.

Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban originated as a group contending for power during the instability following the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989. During the Afghan Civil War, a group of former students (Taliban in Pashto), led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, a mujahideen leader, took over the city of Kandahar in 1994; quickly sweeping the rest of the country and entering Kabul by 1996. The Taliban have their roots in the Saudi-funded madrassas (conservative Islamic seminaries) across Afghanistan and Pakistan, most prominently the university Darul Uloom Haqqania in Pakistan, which educated many Taliban leaders. This religious background gives the Taliban a strict Islamic stance on governance. When they governed Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they prevented women from entering schools, work, and even walking outside without a full burqa. They banned music besides prayer, Western television, destroyed historical Buddhist monuments, and killed any who dared to go against their interpretation of Islam. While this would normally push away supporters, the firm stance and structure of the Taliban drew many supporters into the group during the chaotic withdrawal of Soviet troops.

The Taliban’s ethnicity plays a large role in their formation as well. The Taliban is largely made up of  the Pashtun group which inhabits the populous southern region of Afghanistan and makes up a plurality of the Afghan population at around 40% (estimated as no accurate census has ever been completed in Afghanistan). They make up the majority of the population of Kandahar, the Taliban’s home city, and Farah with significant minorities in Kabul and Ghazni. One of the important sects of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, derives from a wealthy Pashtun family and now leads the security enforcement in Kabul. Additionally, many Taliban founders and leaders come from Kandahar. Due to their ethnic makeup, many Pashtuns look on the Taliban favorably, seeing them as a force which could bring political stability while favoring them over other ethnic groups. Furthermore, many Pashtuns, including the Taliban, see themselves as the rightful rulers of Afghanistan, and the Taliban provided a vehicle to fulfill this right to rule.

What is the Taliban’s connection to the US?

In 1978, a left-wing coup against the government of Mohammed Daoud Khan brought communist revolutionary Nur Muhammad Taraki into power in Afghanistan. A year later, President Taraki called in Soviet forces to help solidify his power amidst insurgencies from right-wing Islamist groups. This troop presence, known as the Afghan-Soviet War, lasted from 1979 to 1989. During this war, successive US administrations funded certain factions of the mujahideen, the loosely-connected group of rebels fighting against the Soviet army, in what they called Operation Cyclone. Many times, the Reagan and Carter administrations deferred to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency, for the contact and distribution of funds to the Mujahideen. Much of these funds went to radical Islamist groups, especially Pashtuns who shared a common ethnicity with northern Pakistanis.

One of these factions, the Haqqani network, which currently governs Kabul under the Taliban, became one of the main benefactors of US intervention, receiving millions of dollars a year in funding from the CIA. To demonstrate, President Ronald Reagan even called Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the network, a “freedom fighter.” Influential US Congressman Charlie Wilson, who directed much of the funding to the mujahideen from Congress, called him “goodness personified.” After the end of the Afghan-Soviet War, the US turned on this faction, declaring them terrorists and expelling them during the 2001 Invasion of Afghanistan. But the Taliban were not alone as the US funded many other factions. Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, an Islamist faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, received millions of dollars in weaponry to fight against the Soviets, only to use that weaponry to fight against the US after 2001.

While not directly funding the Taliban (the Haqqani network only joined in 1995, after the end of Operation Cyclone), by funding so many different Islamic militias, the Reagan and Carter administrations created an inevitable event: A take-over of Afghanistan by an Islamist group. The US funded more than just military operations though. Textbooks provided by CIA funding promoted Islamist teachings and taught children to repel foreign invaders, showing pictures of various guerilla weapons. Textbook topics included “The Alphabet for Jihad Literacy,” which featured the alphabet full of violent descriptions of fighting against foreign invaders. T stood for topak (gun in Pashto), with the example sentence of “my uncle has a gun, he does jihad with a gun.” M stood for mujahideen, with the example of “Muslims are Mujahideen. I do Jihad together with them. Doing Jihad against infidels is our duty.” In this light, US funding and manipulation was indispensable with the rise of the Taliban in 1994. When they took over Kandahar in 1994, they utilized a culture of rebellion against foreign entities and a vast array of Western-provided weapons to quickly take over Afghanistan.

Biden has maintained a different view on the Taliban than most of the foreign policy establishment. During the Obama Administration, when he served as Vice President from 2009 to 2017, Biden regularly pushed for a reduction in troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, against the wishes of the hawkish national security establishment. He took a softer view on the Taliban then, saying in 2011 that they were “not our enemy” and that if they maintained a promise to keep out Al Qaeda, the US could maintain a relationship with them in government. Especially when compared to the previous Trump Administration, Biden and his State Department are likely much more keen to reach out to the Taliban and grant them recognition. However, Biden has also championed a liberal democratic foreign policy, withholding recognition for Myanmar’s military government which came into power via a coup in February and regularly condemning and withholding funds for anti-democratic players abroad. This event will put his two philosophies, liberal democracy and dovishness, to the test.

What does the Taliban’s second take-over mean for regional players?

When American and coalition troops pull out on August 31st, 2021, the West’s influence in Afghanistan, and the region as a whole, will be greatly diminished. While the US theoretically has an ally, or at least a partner, in Pakistan, this relationship regularly deteriorates, as Pakistan’s ISI always has an ulterior motive when dealing with the US. Now, India and the Gulf States will serve as the closest US allies to Central Asia, both of which worry about the Biden administration’s focus on democratic rights abroad. This leaves China, Pakistan, and Iran to all take their shot at gaining influence in an Afghanistan newly-open to non-Western influence.

Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, is a winner from the victory of the Taliban. Iran’s economy will hugely benefit from a Taliban take-over. While much of the world fears US sanctions for dealing with Iran, the Taliban knows that the US will sanction them no matter what, so commerce with Iran remains on the table. President Raisi can now sell oil to the Taliban, which needs a source for this critical material to boost Afghanistan’s ailing economy, and President Raisi now has access to the natural resources which Afghanistan provides, including uranium. Raisi now has more breathing room in negotiating with Western leaders over sanctions, with critical resources now available next door. The shared border between the two provides for easy commerce, crucial for selling large amounts of oil and natural resources. The two governments also share a common religious claim to legitimacy, an outlier in the global system. While last time the Taliban rose to power Iran backed the US effort to overthrow them (that is, until George Bush listed them on the Axis of Evil), Iran has since become a pariah on the international stage and needs allies much more now than it did in the 1990s.

While officially opposed to the Taliban, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan likely feels much more comfortable with the current situation than he did during the period of American Occupation. During the war against the Taliban, Pakistan regularly sheltered Taliban assets from the US and coalition partners as well as bankrolled the Taliban. They especially funded the Haqqani network in the Taliban, the network which now runs Kabul. Securing this influence gives PM Khan an ally on their northwestern border, allowing him to focus on his rivalry with Indian Prime Minister Modi. Additionally, in supporting the Taliban, Khan made an unwritten deal with the group: We fund you so you don’t support Pashtun rebellions in Pakistan. This status quo has allowed the Taliban to use Pakistan’s vast resources of disenfranchised Pashtun refugees (totaling nearly 3 million) to recruit for a take-over of Afghanistan. To Khan, this gets rid of the threat of Pashtun nationalism and secures his influence in a new Afghani state, a win-win scenario. In the future, the Taliban may begin to demand more for their avoidance of Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan, which may secure Pakistan in the grip of the Taliban, flipping the status quo.

Since seeing the writing on the wall in the spring of a Taliban take-over, Xi Jinping’s diplomats have reached out in an attempt to garner influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s take-over of Afghanistan serves as a dilemma for Secretary Xi. On one hand, Afghanistan contains many natural resources critical to secure China’s rise as a global superpower and fuel Xi’s “Made in China 2025” initiative. Moreover, the opportunity to create an ally at her doorstep could allow China to bypass the US’ wall of allies along China’s eastern shore. An Afghanistan free of US influence also gives Secretary Xi a chance to expand his Belt and Road Initiative, where Afghanistan could link the Middle East with China. Currently, a big gap exists dividing China and oil-rich Iran; an Afghanistan under China’s influence could fill that gap. However, Xi’s domestic problems in Xinjiang, where they are attempting to eradicate a Muslim Turkik culture similar to Afghanistan’s, could prove a barrier. The Taliban, although desperate for allies, may distrust China’s dealings given these human rights violations against Muslims. Secretary Xi likely also fears that increased relations with the Taliban could embolden Uyghurs to push for their own Muslim Turkik state, separate from China’s secular Han-dominated state.

What does the Taliban’s second take-over mean for Afghanistan?

Since their take-over of Afghanistan, the Taliban have tried to convince the rest of the world that their second time ruling would differ from their first. They claim to seek a more modern society still based off the principles of Sharia Law and fundamentalist Islam which includes women and minorities. However, this merely serves as a façade, as evidence by the recent announcements as to the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The current Taliban leader, Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, has advised Taliban leaders for decades on religious matters; his philosophy on religion has likely not changed drastically in the past year. The current generation of Taliban commanders has also shifted from the well-educated graduates of Darul Uloom Haqqania (who largely opened to liberal reforms after 2001) to uneducated, young, radical, and energetic commanders who look forward to regressing back to the Taliban of old. While trying to put up a modern façade, the Taliban will likely treat women and minorities just the same as it always has: brutally, unforgivingly, and violently. The Taliban will force girls from school, force burqas on women, push minorities further into the fringes of society, and vacate women from their places of work. While the Taliban claims to provide amnesty for those who fought for the Afghan National Army (ANA), ANA veterans fear for their lives as reprisal killings take place. Lastly, Al Qaeda, the terrorist group with thousands of dead on its hands, will now have a safe haven in Afghanistan. The Taliban have promised to prevent Al Qaeda from operating within their territory, and are unlikely to give up the bargaining chip which keeps the US fearful of the Taliban.