Afghan Taliban: Ideological Roots

Taliban – Heroes who Became Terrorists

Taliban is the militant insurgency group originally based in Afghanistan. The word Taliban is plural of Talib (Arabic: Ta’alib), which means student. Originally, Taliban were students of Madrassahs (religious schools) in North-Western Pakistan. From 1994-1996, Taliban fought violent war with th Northern Alliance to gain control of Afghanistan. In 1996, they formed government and declared it Emirate of Afghanistan. From 1996-2001, they ruled the country with conservative methods, mostly controversial for modern world. The movement of Taliban became the center of attention for the world after 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The USA demanded that Osama Bin Laden, the leader of AlQaeda, be handed over for trial. Taliban initially refused, but further agreed to hand him over to Pakistan if evidence of his involvement in 9/11 attacks was given. Upon Pakistan’s refusal to take custody of Osama, the USA and its allies attacked Afghanistan in October 2011. Taliban have since then fought as insurgents against the US led forces.

How did these students become the rulers of Afghanistan after the Cold War? How did they achieve support of large Muslim population around the world? How did they manage to form and run a government for 5 years? These questions have answers in both ideological and political context of the Taliban movement. Three major factors explain the ideological roots of Taliban: Cultural, Religious and Reactionary.

Cultural Influences – Pashtun Nationalism

Afghanistan, Central Asia and North Western part of present day Pakistan have seen wars, invasions and political turmoil for centuries. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan hosts dangerous and rugged terrain of Hindukush, which has for long time served as a passage to India for invading forces from the Central Asia. For centuries, rulers from Persia and the Central Asia ventured for the Indian Subcontinent through this route. Centuries of war, foreign invasions, cultural mix and particular nature of the terrain have shaped what today is called the Pashtun culture. The Pashtun tribal areas on both sides of Hindukush served as homeland to ideological roots of Taliban.

Pashtun nationalism is a complex mix of valor, conservatism, strict adherence to religion, desire for freedom and abhorrence for foreign invaders. People tribal areas in the North Western Pakistan fought British for 200 years and were never fully dominated. After partition in 1947, the government of Pakistan never managed to gain full control over these areas. The tribes of the region have their own laws, justice system, wealth management and social values. They have remained in disconnect with the rest of the society in terms of land reforms, education, health facilities and infrastructure. In simple words, the government of Pakistan has no rights over these areas.

When USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Pashtun nationalism was used to gather support for insurgence against the invading forces. Heavy financial and logistic support came from the Unites States of America, and Pakistan’s Intelligence agencies acted as intermediaries (Hussain, 2001). These agencies provided training, logistic support and to some extent planning for insurgence. CIA and ISI worked in collaboration to train and support the Mujahedeen who later became main source of manpower for Taliban. These Mujahedeen were students of Madrassahs from North Western Pakistan who came to fight along the Afghan insurgents in their freedom struggle. The main driving force behind this was Pashtun Nationalism (Afsar, Samples, 2008).

Religious School of Thought

Pakistan and Afghanistan predominantly host a Sunni Muslim population with heavy influence of Deoband School of thought. Naturally, religious schools in Pakistan are heavily tilted towards Deoband version of Islam. For Taliban, the first influence towards desire to form a Sharia based Islamic State came from the early education in Madrassahs. This is important to note that the element of violence and militarism did not stem from this early education, rather the early influence in Madrassahs formed basis of Taliban’s philosophy to form Sharia based the Islamic State in Afghanistan, their disconnect with modern democratic setup and their disapproval of international relations (Rashid, 2010). The strict and anti-modern method of governance of Taliban should be seen in context of cultural values combined with radical interpretation of Islam by Deoband School.

The second influence in this context came from the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and UAE. After Taliban acquired control of Afghan territories, Saudi Arabia and UAE provided financial support for the group’s activities. With the financial help from Saudi Arabia and logistic support from Pakistan’s Intelligence Agencies, Taliban managed to fight Northern Alliance and increase their influence. Apart from financial support from the Middle East, trained volunteers also arrived and, with them, came Wahabi religious influence. Saudi Arabia follows Wahabi School of thought. In its structure and religious jurisprudence, it is closest to Deoband School. The merger of the two influences was only natural which formed the religious basis of ideology of Taliban (Fielden, Goodhand, 2001).

Post Cold-War Imbalance of Power and Reactionary Militarism

In 1991, with disintegration of USSR, Russian backed communist government of Afghanistan collapsed. Various factions and war-lords claimed power over their areas. Violence erupted in many areas apart from those controlled by few strong tribal leaders. At the same time, the disintegration of USSR also announced the end of the Cold War and, naturally, the world saw imbalance of power created as the USA became sole super power. New alliances were made and political ambitions shifted on international stage. As Saudi Arabia and Pakistan remained political allies of the USA, a new school of thought emerged which had roots in both religious and political context. Bin Laden and AlQaeda were creations of this change. This school of thought viewed the USA and its allies responsible for plight of Muslims in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and Bosnia. Afghanistan provided them with an ideal platform to increase their influence and propagate their ideas. It was natural that this new ideology became part of original ideological roots of Taliban (Zaidi, 2009).

Way Forward

Since the US invasion in 2001, Taliban have fought the war against the US and NATO troops with surprising tactics. Today, Taliban are still the most prominent force fighting the US led forces in Afghanistan, although local insurgents groups have also emerged (Johnson, 2006). Since the USA laid out its plan to pull its forces out of Afghanistan, the dialogue for future political setup in Afghanistan has gained momentum. Karzai led government has invited Taliban to participate in the democratic process couple of times. Taliban have given indications of their willingness from time to time but no major breakthrough has been made so far. Recently, Pakistan released a few Afghan Taliban leaders on demand of the Afghan government. The move was geared towards reconciliation process between the Afghan government and Taliban. The war-torn country has a complex political and ethnic mixture and the situation will only become clear once the allied forces leave Afghanistan, making the transition of power and security forces to Afghan government.


Afsar, S., Samples, C., & Wood, T. (2008). The Taliban: An Organizational Analysis. EBSCO Host Connection, 88(3), 58.

Fielden, M., & Goodhand, J. (2001). Beyond the Taliban? The Afghan Conflict and United Nations Peacemaking. Conflict, Security & Development, 1(03), 5-32.

Hussain, R. (2005). Pakistan and the emergence of Islamic militancy in Afghanistan. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Pub Limited.

Johnson, T. H. (2006). Afghanistan’s post-Taliban transition: the state of state-building after war. Central Asian Survey, 25(1-2), 1-26.

Rashid, A. (2010). Taliban: militant Islam, oil and fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven, Connecticut, USA: Yale University Press.

Zaidi, S. M. A. (2009). The new Taliban: emergence and ideological sanctions. Hauppauge, New York: Nova Science Pub Inc.

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