How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History

Larry Holzwarth - August 31, 2021

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
Pakistan military police in Karachi, Pakistan. Wikimedia

13. Human Rights Watch condemned Pakistan for support of the Taliban in 2000

By 2000 Pakistani support of the Taliban was widely known, though the Pakistani government denied it. Weapons, training for Taliban fighters, and financial support all flowed to the Taliban from Pakistan. Military troops and coordinated airstrikes supported their attacks on the Northern Alliance. Throughout the rest of Afghanistan under Taliban control, atrocities against citizens continued. In 2000 the United Nations imposed an embargo against military support to the Taliban, which Pakistan ignored. Across the mountainous border, Pakistani arms and financial support poured into Afghanistan, though international aid to the Afghani people did not. What food and medicines did arrive in the country quickly went into Taliban stores. In the summer of 2000, British intelligence (MI6) announced that Pakistan’s ISI also supported Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, both militarily and financially.

American intelligence sources estimated that up to 40% of the troops fighting with the Taliban forces were in fact from the Pakistani army. Despite UN sanctions and international condemnation Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, including paying the salaries of government functionaries in Kabul. Pakistan was not the only foreign power to manipulate the fighting in Afghanistan, but according to Human Rights Watch, “…Pakistan is distinguished both by the sweep of its objectives and the scale of its efforts…” Human Rights Watch noted that Pakistan provided the financing to support Taliban operations and the manpower to carry them out, as well as diplomatic support internationally. Nonetheless, resistance to the Taliban and its allies by the Northern Alliance continued through the summer of 2001. That September, an Al Qaeda plot to attack the United States resulted in the 9/11 attacks, and direct American military intervention in Afghanistan ensued.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
The Taliban denied Osama bin Laden’s involvement in the September 11, 2001 attacks, and refused to surrender him. US Air Force

14. The Taliban denied Osama bin Laden’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks

The day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mullah Omar released a statement in which he claimed Osama bin Laden had not been involved. On September 13, the Taliban’s emissary to Pakistan announced they would consider extraditing bin Laden if evidence of his involvement in the attacks was presented. That same month bin Laden twice denied his involvement in the attacks (in 2004 he recanted and claimed he directed and planned the attacks). By the third week of September, the United States demanded the delivery of bin Laden and other associates and the destruction of the Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. The Taliban responded publicly by suggesting bin Laden leave the country, though the Pakistan foreign ministry was told that he would never be surrendered to the west. Nor would the camps, largely paid for by Pakistan, be destroyed.

Since the 1998 bombings in Africa, the Taliban had ignored demands to surrender bin Laden and other terrorists to the United Nations. In September and October 2001, they tried to negotiate a surrender based on being able to view convincing evidence. At the same time, they proposed moving bin Laden to Peshawar, in Pakistan, under house arrest, to be tried under Sharia law. The Pakistani government overruled the plan, concerned over potential international attacks on Pakistan. Taliban officials then offered to try bin Laden in an Afghan court, using the evidence provided by the United States and the international community. The United States ignored the request, and on October 7, 2001, initiated an air campaign against Al Qaeda camps and Taliban military positions in Afghanistan. By then American special forces had already been deployed against the Taliban in conjunction with the Northern Alliance.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
CIA advance team Juliet worked with members of the Northern Alliance prior to the full invasion by US and British forces. US Government

15. The Taliban government fell to the invasion by the end of the year

The American and British led invasion of Afghanistan rapidly caused the Taliban government to collapse. Taliban fighters opposing the invasion were quickly eliminated, and by the end of the year proposals for a new government in Afghanistan, including a new constitution, were the subject of international discussions. The Taliban’s military, significantly reduced by casualties and desertions, melted into the highlands along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Hard fighting with some units and Al Qaeda terrorists continued through the remainder of 2001, but by the early weeks of the following year, the American and NATO presence in Afghanistan had become an occupation, rather than a combat operation. For the next 20 years the United States, supported by every member nation of NATO, maintained a military presence in Afghanistan, with casualties mounting.

The Taliban, though defeated militarily and politically, did not surrender. Instead, it returned to the regions of its birth. Some Taliban fighters returned to their Afghan homes, while many more fled to Pakistan. By mid-2002 the leadership had reformed, and recruiting for the Taliban returned in Pakistan, and covertly in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the forces of the invasion concentrated on building a government in Afghanistan, and a military to defend it. Terrorist attacks against Afghani citizens and western troops continued in the chaotic country, and other than the major cities few areas in the country offered anything remotely related to safety. Cells of formed Taliban fighters formed, including in Kandahar. Mullah Omar remained in hiding, though he retained the leadership of the movement. In short order, the Taliban would re-emerge to launch yet another insurgency in Afghanistan.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
US Forward Operating Base Lonestar, situated near Tora Bora to restrict Taliban and Al Qaeda incursions. US Air Force

16. The Taliban began overtly resisting the occupation in 2003

In the late winter, 2002-03, religious pamphlets and newsletters began spreading in Afghanistan’s towns and villages. They exhorted the Islamic faithful to join in the jihad against the foreign infidels occupying Afghanistan. Though some undoubtedly came from Al Qaeda and its associated groups, the majority were published by a resurgent Taliban. As it had from the beginning, Pakistan provided the group with support and shelter within its borders. In early 2003, armed attacks against Afghani civilians, foreign troops, and the newly formed Afghan military and police units began. Taliban units formed within Afghanistan, divided into multiple districts of command by the group’s leaders. By June, training camps for Taliban fighters had returned to Afghanistan. In June 2003, Taliban attacks against military and civilian targets increased, and more and more recruits were drawn from Pakistani madrassas.

Mullah Mohammed Omar continued to direct the Taliban insurgency, though his whereabouts during the resurgence remain a point of dispute. Some say he resided in Karachi, Pakistan, during this period. Others claim he lived in hiding in Kandahar, and others still claim he lived near Zabul. Because he was wanted by the US government (for harboring bin Laden) his continued residence in US-occupied Afghanistan seems unlikely. Residence in Pakistan further demonstrates the support of that country for the Taliban and the continuing war in Afghanistan. Throughout the following decade, Omar released statements and occasionally granted interviews to news outlets in Pakistan and with the BBC. The Taliban continued to attack civilians and military with IEDs, small arms, missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and suicide bombers, all directed by Omar and his subcommanders.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
A 2009 cartoon by Carlos Latuff depicts the traps set by the Taliban during the post-invasion terror campaign. Wikimedia

17. The Taliban gradually regained control of much of Afghanistan

By 2006, the Taliban’s insurgency campaign, which consisted largely of suicide bombings and the use of IEDs, had allowed them to control over 50% of Afghanistan, despite the continuing presence of NATO forces and the Afghan security forces. Recruiting for Taliban forces had by then reached as far as Xinjiang, China, where Uyghur Muslims responded to the call. Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, and numerous other countries contributed Islamic fighters to support the Taliban. Other nations, opposed to NATO, provided financial support and weapons. Despite the vast investment in people and resources to Afghanistan by the United States, it had become the quagmire seen previously by the British Empire and the Soviet Union. Besides the Taliban, other militant groups emerged in the fighting. Some supported NATO, some the Taliban, and some opposed both.

By 2007 suicide bombers and car bombs made up the bulk of the attacks carried out by Taliban terrorists. That year alone 140 suicide bombers struck in Afghanistan, killing over 300 people, the majority of them civilians. The Taliban recruited the majority of their suicide bombers in Pakistan, where their leaders attracted poorly educated young men with promises of the rewards of jihad. Taliban raids on smaller towns and villages led to kidnappings, destruction of local government and infrastructure, and killings of those sympathetic to the NATO-supported government. Less than a decade after the US led invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban was again strong enough to threaten reprisals against those Afghans who voted in elections. In January 2010, the Taliban launched multiple attacks against civilians and security forces in Kabul even as the president was swearing in his new cabinet ministers.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates meeting with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, 2007. White House

18. The Taliban favored targeted assassinations during the insurgency

Targeted assassinations of government officials, clerics opposing the Taliban, and international security forces personnel grew in number as the insurgency dragged on. In December 2001, Hamid Karzai emerged as the leader of the transitional government in Afghanistan. In 2004 he was elected as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. His administration soon proved to be rife with corruption, and protests against it grew to include groups not affiliated with the Taliban. The latter attempted at least four times to assassinate him during his presidency. The first occurred during the transitional government, in Kandahar in 2002. In 2004, another attempt included the launching of a missile targeting the helicopter in which Karzai was being transported. It missed. Missiles were featured in another attempt on Karzai’s life in 2007.

In June of that year, Taliban terrorists fired at least a dozen rockets into a gathering of elders in the city of Ghazni as the president addressed them. Karzai again escaped unhurt. The fourth attempt consisted of an assault by terrorists armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades against a military parade. The attack took place in Kabul as the president attended the event. The event was attended by numerous government officials, senior military officers, diplomats and officials from several foreign governments, as well as Karzai. At least three people were killed, including a member of the Afghan parliament, several more suffered injuries. Karzai was unscathed. The Taliban, through a spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attack, noting it proved they could strike anywhere, at any time, against whomever they chose.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
Weapons and explosives found during a raid on a Taliban safehouse in 2013. US Army

19. The Taliban continued to operate as an organized government throughout the insurgency

The Taliban maintained governmental offices, in the form of men holding their titles of office, throughout the insurgency. This included a Supreme Court, lesser courts, ministers of defense, and other offices, though Mullah Omar held sway over all as the Commander of the Faithful. Taliban leaders opened an office in Qatar, in order to communicate and negotiate with the west. In 2013, rumors emerged through that office that Mullah Omar had died. The Taliban denied the rumors, insisting Omar was alive. They finally admitted Omar’s death had occurred in 2013 two years later, reporting he had died of tuberculosis. Others claimed he had been assassinated, among the conspirators was his immediate successor, Akhtar Mansour. Mansour had been active in maintaining the secret of Omar’s death for two years for unexplained reasons.

Mansour received a promise of allegiance from Al Qaeda in 2015, shortly after replacing Omar as Commander of the Faithful. In 2016 he entered Iran for medical treatment. In May of that year, he entered Pakistan, under a false passport identifying him as a Pakistani citizen, intending to cross the Afghanistan border. He didn’t make it. The US launched Reaper drones, which penetrated undetected into Pakistani airspace. The drone operators were guided by signals intelligence obtained by the American National Security Agency (NSA). It enabled them to track Mansour’s vehicle as it approached the Afghan border. Two missiles launched by the drone attack killed Mansour while he was still in Pakistan. The US government believed removing Mansour might expedite a peace process involving the Taliban. It did not.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
US Secretary of State meets with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, in September 2020. US State Department

20. The Taliban insurgency destroyed Afghani faith in their government

Following the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001, the United States and their allies worked to install a democratic government and society in Afghanistan. Billions of dollars were spent to improve infrastructure, build schools and open them to women and girls, and establish civil justice. The insurgency thwarted those efforts. Outside of the larger cities and the main roads the Taliban controlled the country. Peaceful protests were attacked. Polls were threatened. Checkpoints operated by the Taliban monitored travel. Afghani citizens found it difficult, if possible at all, to exercise their rights guaranteed to them by their constitution. Access to legal courts became non-existent to many. And the constant violence and suicide attacks made it readily apparent that security forces could not protect them without the assistance of the coalition forces.

In the two decades since the fall of the Taliban women in the Afghan workforce grew to represent almost 20% of the total in the civil service alone. More than 80% of elementary school-age girls enrolled in schools. Scores of new media, including radio, television, newspapers, and magazines became part of Afghan society. Under the Taliban, only one radio station, operated by them, was allowed. Still, the insurgency ground on, destroying the faith of the Afghani people in their own government. On February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed the Doha Agreement in Doha, Qatar. The US and agreed to withdraw American and NATO troops in return for a Taliban promise not to allow Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups sanctuaries in Afghanistan. The government of the Republic of Afghanistan did not participate in the talks, nor sign the agreement.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Who are the Taliban?” Article, BBC News. August 18, 2021

“The Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1979 – 1989” Article, The Atlantic. August 4, 2014. Online

“The US War in Afghanistan”. Timeline, Council on Foreign Relations. Online

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“Explainer: The Taliban and Islamic Law in Afghanistan”. Arwa Ibrahim, Al Jazeera. August 23, 2021

“Taliban extend control to details of Kabul daily life 17 rules make it illegal to fly a kite, keep a bird”. Article, The Baltimore Sun. January 16, 1997

“The Taliban’s War Against Women”. Report, US Department of State. November 17, 2001. Archived online

“How India secretly armed Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance”. V. Sudarshan, The Hindu. September 1, 2019. Online

“A Decade Ago, Massoud’s Killing Preceded Sept. 11”. Renee Montagne, NPR. September 9, 2011

“Pits reveal evidence of massacre by Taliban”. Rory Carroll, The Guardian. April 7, 2002

“The Death of the Buddhas of Bamiyan”. Pierre Centlivres, Middle East Institute. April 18, 2012. Online

“Cruise Missile Strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan”. Frederic L. Kirgis, American Society of International Law Insights. August 18, 1998

“Pakistan’s Support of the Taliban”. Report, Human Rights Watch. 2001. Online

“Taliban face ultimatum”. Tom Bowman, Mark Matthews, and Gail Gibson, The Baltimore Sun. September 17, 2001. Online

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“Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan”. Monograph, Seth G. Jones, RAND Corporation. Online

“Karzai Escapes Attack in Kabul by Gunmen”. Carlotta Gail, Abdul Waheed Wafa, The New York Times. April 28, 2008

“Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour killed, Afghans confirm”. Article, BBC News. May 22, 2016

“Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”. Document, US Department of State. February 29, 2020