Background on the Islamist militant group's aims and origins, and the current state of the Afghan struggle against it. 

The Taliban has rooted its entire existence in the light of ‘invading forces,’ from the Soviets during the Cold War to the US-led forces of the present day. The Islamist militant group, which controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, continues to focus its rhetoric on the idea of a religious jihad aimed at establishing a divinely ordered Islamic political system in Afghanistan, free from foreign unbelievers. Recently, it has been combining this rhetoric with a convincing resurgence. A look at the group's aims and origins is key in understanding the current state of the Afghan conflict. 

An Ongoing Struggle

In October last year, the militant group temporarily took control of Kunduz city. The military was able to push the Taliban back out of Kunduz, but the attack was a bleak reminder that the Islamist group retains the strength to contest a major Afghan city. Recent reports have claimed that the Taliban has been challenging six of Afghanistan's thirty-four provincial capitals, including Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

The US, which led the invasion that toppled the group 15 years ago, has in the past maintained that joint security force efforts will preserve control in Afghanistan. The US bolstered its own military presence in the country, extending the remit of its ability to conduct airstrikes against the Taliban in June 2016, which allowed for more offensive air capabilities in partnership with Kabul’s forces. The following month, Washington confirmed a pledge to keep 8,400 military personnel in place. Whether this policy will continue under President Donald Trump remains unclear.

Rumours of peace talks between the Taliban and Kabul continue, encouraging belief in a non-military solution to the Afghan conflict. However, alleged talks, while significant, are nothing new. Hopes were raised in 2013 when the Taliban opened an office in Doha, ostensibly ready to pursue political options, but this never came to fruition. In 2015, a round of peace talks with the Afghan government failed after the death of Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in a US drone attack. While Kabul has made progress using political solutions – a peace agreement was signed in September with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Afghanistan’s second-largest militant group Hezb-e-Islami – mistrust between the government and militants remains high.

The Origins of the Group

The Taliban can be understood as a predominantly nationalist Islamist insurgency aimed at seizing and transforming Afghanistan into an Islamic emirate via a 'local' jihad, in stark contrast to the expansionist 'caliphate' of ISIS, for example. During and after the Cold War the group solidified a nationalistic aim, interlaced with a distinct radical Islamist ideology, which remains the basis of the group today.

This anti-Soviet jihad manifested itself in an insurgency, sponsored regionally by states like Pakistan as well as further afield by the US and Saudi Arabia, that was battling to expel forces trying to turn Afghanistan into a communist state in the 1970s and 1980s. The Arab-Afghan Mujahideen, which loosely encompassed various Islamist opposition groups, engaged in a conflict that helped define what it meant to be a jihadi militant. Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, and Mohammad Omar – who would head the Taliban for 19 years – took up arms alongside thousands of foreign and Afghan fighters. The Taliban's original conception can be traced to its future leaders fighting in localised fronts emerging within different Mujahideen 'tanzim,' or militias, from the early 1980s onwards, particularly in Afghanistan's south. They were organised by ulema, or mullahs, who mobilised their students.

By 1989 the fighters achieved their loose goal – Moscow ended its costly war and began withdrawing from Afghanistan. By 1992, the communist government in Kabul had collapsed and the country was left adrift in a phase of insecurity, with no clear successor. It was under this context that the Taliban seized control.

Many Taliban fronts, which had ceased fighting in 1989 to re-focus on teaching Afghan refugees and militants, remobilised through the early 1990s, apparently appalled by the prevailing chaos and lawlessness. These students, or Talibs, merged and called themselves the Islamic Movement of the Taliban. The movement was a younger, more ideologically radical, Islamist generation of former Mujahideen. A central sense of piety was cemented into the Taliban’s identity that was presented in stark contrast to other immoral Mujahideen fighters who had gone astray. This piety continues to be important in the Taliban’s internal structure, with its leaders still expected to maintain outward uprightness.

Specifically, the Taliban’s ideological heritage lies in a fusion of Sunni, Hanafi, and Deobandi traditions, mixed with Pashtun tribal norms. It adheres to Hanafi jurisprudence, one of the four orthodox Sunni schools, in line with the majority of Afghan Sunnis. The Deobandi influence – a school of thought that emerged in nineteenth century north India as a reaction to British colonialism – manifests itself in anti-imperial, anti-Western sentiments. The group also follows the Deobandi orientation around the madrassah system, along with a disdain for modernist Islamic thought, and an austere ethic – particularly in terms of its derogatory treatment of women. It should be clearly noted that many Sunnis in South Asia are also Hanafi and many accept the Deobandi school of thought and certainly do not share the Taliban’s views. But these characteristics are indicators of the Taliban’s multifaceted dogma. Salafi militants fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s and funding from Saudi Arabia may also have left some residual ideological influences.

This anti-modern, hardline Islamist ideology appealed to a war-weary population desperate for an end to warlord tyranny, corruption, and instability. The Taliban would continue to cultivate a reputation for strict justice, rooted in ancient Islamic Sharia teachings, to try to win over the Afghan people for years to come.

This newly united Islamist group took control of Heart province in September 1995. At this time, the Taliban gained the attention and assistance of the Pakistani government, and is believed to still receive Islamabad’s tacit approval to this day. By 1996, the Taliban had captured the capital, Kabul, and declared itself ruler of the freshly named Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. By 1998 almost 90 per cent of the country was under its control. The group transferred the capital to Kandahar and rolled out its puritanical Sharia law, drawing international condemnation for repeatedly violating the Afghan people’s human rights, particularly those of women. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates ever acknowledged the Taliban government.

The world turned its attention to the Taliban again in 2001 after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The group had given al-Qaeda leader and orchestrator of 9/11 Osama bin Laden sanctuary within its territory. After refusing an ultimatum to hand over bin Laden, the American-led military coalition invaded Afghanistan on 7 October. By December, US troops were in Kandahar and the Taliban regime had fallen. The leadership fled to Pakistan. A UN-sponsored process began to establish a new Afghan government, excluding the Taliban, and a transitional administration was enacted. Elsewhere, the Islamist group and its allies began dusting-off messages from the 1980s, renewing calls for Afghans to reject the foreign invaders and their proxy government in Kabul.

This newly united group took control of Heart province in September 1995. At this time, the Taliban gained the attention and assistance of the Pakistani government, and is believed to still receive Islamabad’s tacit approval to this day. By 1996, the Taliban had captured the capital, Kabul, and declared itself ruler of the freshly named Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. By 1998 almost 90 per cent of the country was under its control. The group transferred the capital to Kandahar and rolled out its puritanical Sharia law, drawing international condemnation for repeatedly violating the Afghan people’s human rights, particularly those of women. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates ever acknowledged the Taliban government.

The world turned its attention to the Taliban again in 2001 after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The group had given al-Qaeda leader and orchestrator of 9/11 Osama bin Laden sanctuary within its territory. After refusing an ultimatum to hand over bin Laden, the American-led military coalition invaded Afghanistan on 7 October. By December, US troops were in Kandahar and the Taliban regime had fallen. The leadership fled to Pakistan. A UN-sponsored process began to establish a new Afghan government, excluding the Taliban, and a transitional administration was enacted. Elsewhere, the Islamist group and its allies began dusting-off messages from the 1980s, renewing calls for Afghans to reject the foreign invaders and their proxy government in Kabul.

Leadership Legacies

Mullah Mohammad Omar was the leader, or emir, of the Taliban for 19 years. The son of a village cleric, he joined the Mujahideen resistance in 1979. He gained a reputation for bravery, famously losing an eye in battle. Under his command the Taliban seized power and then reemerged as an Islamist insurgency. The Taliban has an entrenched culture of centralisation and reverence for its leader, which can be traced back to the centralised culture of the madrassas from which the Taliban emerged. Mullah Omar died of illness in 2013 but the group, and the Afghan government, did not announce the death until 2015. This two-year delay led to a level of subterfuge and fractiousness within the group, which arguably allowed ISIS to establish a presence within Afghanistan.

Mullah Akhtar Mansour became the group’s new ruler. He had previously served as a deputy of Mullah Omar and like his predecessor had fought against the Soviet invaders in the 1980s. In May 2016, Washington confirmed that a US drone strike had killed Mullah Mansour in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, a move criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada was appointed within a few days of Mansour’s death. A deputy to Mullah Mansour and former head of the group’s judicial wing, Mullah Akhundzada’s appointment was seen as a victory for the Taliban’s old guard. The choice of an elder member, with statesman-like status, was a sign of unity and strength. His judicial credentials can be used to aid the group’s claims of religious superiority in the face of competing ideologues. In particular, his authority can be used to counter ISIS’ lofty religious claims, including its declaration of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, Taliban leaders have declared themselves ‘leader of the faithful,’ or amir ul-momineen, a challenge to parallel claims made by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A New Rival: ISIS

ISIS Afghanistan

Afghan security forces patrol in Nangarhar province during ongoing clashes with ISIS in July 2016.

Indeed, ISIS' emergence in Afghanistan in early 2015 has highlighted the differences between it and the Taliban. The two have regularly clashed despite rumours of truces. The groups have fundamental distinctions – simplest of all, ISIS has engaged in a global jihad aimed at destroying all non-believers and enemies, whereas the Taliban retains the aim of controlling Afghanistan.

ISIS, still a relatively small force in the country, has also engaged in sectarian attacks – as it regularly does in the Middle East – which is not part of the Taliban’s playbook. When ISIS targeted a Shia gathering in Kabul, killing at least 80 people, the Taliban condemned the assault as a “plot to ignite civil war.” The Taliban uses its propaganda to discredit the newer militant group, stressing legitimacy through its deep historical roots in Afghanistan, including the "jihad against the British empire, Russian invasion, and current jihad against the Americans."