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
Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance controlled the Panjshir Valley during the Taliban’s rule. Wikimedia

8. The killing of Ahmad Massoud

By the end of 2000, resentment against the Taliban rule in Afghanistan became widespread, including in many of the areas peopled by the Pashtun. Dostum’s forces had been defeated and their leader had gone into exile. Only Ahmad Massoud remained of the larger militia forces opposing the Taliban. In the areas under his control, organized democratic organizations emerged, and women’s rights were protected. Upwards of 1 million Afghani refugees fled the areas under Taliban control, many of them seeking refuge with the United Front and Massoud. The militia leader requested international assistance for the people of Afghanistan, decried the Taliban’s distorted views of Islam, and claimed both would quickly collapse if aid from Pakistan and bin Laden was curtailed. During his visit to Europe to express his views, he warned of growing intelligence of a major terror attack on US soil.

In late summer, 2001, Massoud consented to an interview to be taped in the Afghani province of Takhar. On September 9, 2001, Massoud received two journalists to conduct the interview. They turned out to be suicide bombers, detonating a bomb hidden in a video camera. They may have been Taliban, but more likely they came from Al Qaeda. Massoud was rushed to medical care but he died in the helicopter before aid could be reached. Two days later hijacked airplanes were deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth airplane was diverted by its passengers into a Pennsylvania field. Up until that time few Americans had ever heard of the Taliban. In the response to the attacks it became a household word in the United States.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
The Hazara people endured severe persecutions under the Taliban. US Army

9. Massacres during the Afghan Civil War were committed by all sides

The Hazaras are an ethnic people living primarily in central Afghanistan, where they have been for centuries. A smaller community lives in Pakistan. They practice Islam, with the majority of them of the Shi’a faith, though some follow the Sunni religion. As with their fellows, the Tajiks, they speak predominantly Persian. During the Afghan Civil War both the Hazaras and the Tajiks primarily opposed the Taliban, siding with the Northern Alliance which controlled the areas of most of their tribal lands. Between 1996 and 2001, according to the United Nations, the Taliban committed 15 deliberate massacres of civilians in Afghanistan, with a special focus on the Hazaras and Tajiks. In September, 1998, Taliban forces executed an estimated 4,000 as they captured the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Door to door searches for Hazaras and other Shias continued for weeks, with those found summarily executed.

It was far from one-sided. During the fighting against the Northern Alliance, over three thousand Taliban fighters found themselves as prisoners of the opposing forces. In late May, 1997, over 3,000 Taliban fighters fell into the hands of their enemies, and were promptly and summarily executed. The United Nations described units of Al Qaeda also taking part in the massacres of opponents of the Taliban during the late stages of the Civil War. Al Qaeda’s 055 Brigade, serving within the Taliban army, massacred Shia populations in Afghanistan, under the command of Taliban forces. The total number of people deliberately killed has only been estimated, and the total varies widely. Before the United States entered into the war Afghanistan was a killing field of immense proportions. Nearly all of the Taliban conducted massacres could be traced directly to Mullah Omar, the self-proclaimed Commander of the Faithful.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
An 1833 engraving of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Wikimedia

10. The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan

Until the spring of 2001, two stone Buddhas stood in niches carved into the side of a cliff in central Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. The statues, carved directly out of the sandstone rock of the cliff face, represented Vairocana Buddha and Gautama Buddha. They were completed between 570 and 620 CE. The main statues were of standing Buddhas, with the faces and other details supplemented with mud and straw coatings to delineate the features. In July, 1999, Mullah Omar announced the Buddhas would be protected, in part because they represented a potential source of income from tourism. In 2000, local Taliban leaders asked for financial assistance to repair the Buddhas and restore their original appearance. Several international entities offered financial support for the project. By then, international assistance with food and medicines from NGOs had all but ceased, due to protests over the Taliban’s treatment of women.

Omar ordered the destruction of the Buddhas, and they were blown up by Taliban forces in early 2001. He then blamed the international community for their destruction. Omar reasoned that the offer of money for the restoration of statues in the face of his people’s starving was “extremely deplorable”. Other Taliban leaders gave different reasons for the destruction of the Buddhas, all of them based on their interpretation of Sharia. The international reaction to the destruction of the Buddhas was overwhelming condemnation. The Taliban responded with little more than a shrug, and continued to blame the isolating of Afghanistan by the rest of the world. To Mullah Omar, the Afghani people were suffering and starving not because of Taliban practices, but due to international indifference to their plight.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
A soldier of the Afghan National Army holds a rifle in one hand and an opium poppy in the other. Wikimedia

11. The Taliban and Afghanistan’s opium crop

After seizing power, the Taliban announced a ban on the growth of poppies and the production of opium. It was an empty promise. Mullah Omar called the production of narcotics incompatible with the teachings of Islam. Taliban leaders quickly learned the cultivation of poppies and production of opium presented a valuable source of revenue. Heavy taxes were imposed on farmers who produced opium, which provided the majority of the funds available to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Under tremendous international pressure, in 2000 the Taliban banned the growth of poppies as an official policy. Yet Afghani stores of opium remained extensive, and no effort was forthcoming to destroy existing stocks. The result was opium prices rising globally, increasing the value of their stores, as well as encouraging further production.

Following the US led invasion of Afghanistan, efforts to stop the production of opium in Afghanistan proved a costly failure. The United States alone spent over $8.6 billion in futile attempts to eradicate opium production. Among the programs were financial incentives for Afghan farmers to grow other crops for shipment to the west, among them wheat and saffron. But in areas where Taliban support remained, opium continued to be produced, lining the pockets of the Taliban leadership. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, opium produced in Afghanistan accounted for nearly 90% of all such product in the world. By 2015 the total acreage in the country dedicated to the production of opium reached 250,000 hectares, nearly four times the level of the mid-1990s. The Taliban relied on income from the drug trade to remain operational throughout the occupation of Afghanistan by NATO troops.

How the Taliban Secured its Militant Grip on Afghanistan Through History
Pakistani Air Force technicians seen during training in the United States in 2010. US Air Force

12. The role of Pakistan in supporting the Taliban

Pakistan supported the development of the Taliban from the beginning. Motivated by the desire to gain influence in Afghanistan’s affairs, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provided military training and finding to Mullah Omar and his supporters. Further support came from Al-Qaeda, both financial and military, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden. The Taliban allowed the latter to establish safe havens in Afghanistan. Training camps for Al-Qaeda terrorists emerged in areas where the Taliban had control with funding and support of the ISI and the Pakistani regular army. Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan was described by Ahmad Shah Massoud as a “creeping invasion”. By 1998, both Russia and Iran had accused Pakistan of direct military intervention in support of the Taliban operations during the Afghani civil war. Both claimed army troops and air strikes supported the attacks against the Northern Alliance.

In August, 1998, US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were the targets of bombings launched by Al Qaeda. In retaliation, US Navy cruise missiles struck Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan’s province of Khost. The attacks were intended, in part, to decapitate Al Qaeda’s leadership by killing Osama bin Laden, but intelligence failed to note the he was not present in the camps at the time. International pressure on the Taliban led them to promise to deliver bin Laden to Saudi Arabian security forces. The Taliban later reneged on the promise. Bin Laden remained sheltered in Afghanistan camps, under the protection of his Taliban allies, for the rest of the decade, though he frequently crossed the border into Pakistan undetected. Casualties from the American strikes were relatively light, and included Afghanis, Pakistanis, and other nationalities among them. The American strikes drew remonstrations from the international community.

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 air strikes 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 remains 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, and 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

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

“Pipeline Politics: Oil, Gas, and the US Interest In Afghanistan”. Richard Tanter, Outlook Magazine. November 21, 2001

“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

“Afghanistan War”. Article, History.com. August 20, 2021. Online

“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

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