“Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?” a reporter asked President Biden in a press conference on July 8, 2021, to which Biden replied with absolute conviction, “No, it is not.”
Later, on August 30, 2021, the last of the U.S. troops chaotically left Afghanistan. The Taliban swiftly took control of the country without resistance from the Afghan Army or any other groups. This takeover started in May of 2021 and finished when the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15, 2021, again without any resistance. The news repeatedly aired scenes of the Taliban entering major cities and the chaos at the Kabul airport. The shock of this news is being observed worldwide due to uncertainty about the future and a major shift in the geopolitical atmosphere. Many analysts had predicted that the Taliban would take over and control the entire country, but unfortunately, the U.S. Government failed to see this obvious eventuality.
Most of the world sees the Taliban as a terrorist organization and knows only what is being aired on their respective media outlets. However, there is undoubtedly a substantial lack of knowledge of the history and circumstances that brought this violent extremist group into existence. Who are the Taliban, and where did they come from?
Recognizing the group’s beginnings demands us to recall more than 40 years of Afghan history. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The CIA developed its clandestine operation ‘Cyclone’ to finance armed militants in what was thought to be an anti-communist war. The U.S. provided armed Afghan Mujahideen militants to counter this invasion. International support propped up the diverse group of rebels, pouring in from Iran, Pakistan, China, and the United States.
In the brutal nine-year conflict, an estimated one million civilians were killed, 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers. A civil war surged after the withdrawal of the NATO troops, setting the stage for the Taliban’s takeover of the country in 1996.
Due to this conflict, countless Afghans migrated to Pakistan and Iran, creating an unsurmountable refugee crisis in these neighboring countries. Many Muslims from all over the world also volunteered to participate in this war, or as they perceived it, ‘Jihad’ against the Soviets. Among them was a young Osama Bin Laden.
Pakistan’s Reaction to Soviet Invasion:
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan suddenly became a “front-line” state. Pakistan was no longer separated from the Soviets by the Afghan mountains; it now had to face a 13,000-mile border that was, for all practical purposes, a Soviet border. Overnight, Pakistan became of “vital interest” to the United States, which pledged its military support. On the surface, Pakistan did not seem alarmed by the Soviet invasion, for Pakistan had minimal troop movement. There was one noticeable change in Pakistan: the country was suddenly flooded with Afghan refugees. These refugees migrated across the Pakistan border to avoid Soviet air raids, and over the next few years, millions of Afghan refugees made their home in Pakistan. The refugees caused numerous problems for Pakistan, including a shortage of jobs and a shortage of pasture land. Pakistan has also put itself at risk with Afghanistan and the Soviet Union by providing help to the refugees.
Beyond aid to the Afghan refugees, Pakistan’s initial response was cautious, as it feared a direct Soviet conflict. General Zia’s (Pakistani Head of State) initial strategy was twofold: First, mobilize support from Islamic countries and the West against the Soviet invasion; second, strengthen Pakistan’s military defense by seeking aid from a foreign power. Pakistan did mobilize support in opposition to the Soviet invasion by strongly condemning the Soviet action. The invasion was universally protested and condemned by the Islamic Conference in early 1980. While these countries voiced their objection to the Soviet actions and implemented part one of Zia’s strategy, Pakistan began searching for a powerful ally. After unsuccessfully attempting to mend relations with India, Pakistan rejected an initial offer of help from the U.S.
Meanwhile, Pakistan began receiving aid from China and the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. Pakistan, however, still wanted to find one powerful ally willing to give full support. Finally, in 1981, with President Reagan in office, the U.S. made a second offer, and Pakistan accepted. Pakistan had successfully achieved both of its initial goals,” but one crucial question still loomed, whether or not to support the Afghan rebels and risk a direct Soviet conflict.
In 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan consulted with Mujahideen leaders at the White House. Mujahideen were soldiers, warriors volunteering to fight a Holy War against the oppressors in a Muslim country. The United States considered them allies in the battle against communism and the Soviet Union. Their conviction to the cause and fearlessness made them extremely difficult to overcome. Furthermore, they were also well supplied with western weapons and a seemingly unlimited amount of money. These conditions were perfect for the Mujahideens to fight the Soviets because they had an unlimited supply of volunteer soldiers, weapons, and money to keep fighting this Jihad. Their conviction to the cause was their strength, and death was just a way to be called a Martyr and attaining a direct pass to Paradise.
Pakistan and the Afghan Resistance:
The Afghan resistance was a broad national movement that included almost the entire population inside Afghanistan, the Afghan refugees, and the exiles in Pakistan, Iran, and worldwide. The fighting men in the resistance are collectively referred to as the Mujahideen and were located on hundreds of fronts throughout most of Afghanistan. Soon after the Soviet invasion, Pakistan extended an invitation to the leaders of the Mujahideen to meet, organize and plan strategy in Peshawar, Pakistan. The resistance leaders accepted the invitation, and while there was a strong independent fighting group based in Afghanistan, most resistance fighters were now affiliated with one of the seven resistance groups headquartered in Peshawar. While helping the Afghan rebels in other ways, Pakistan had expressly refused to be a middleman for military supplies sent to the Mujahideen during the years immediately following the Soviet invasion.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan presented Pakistan with numerous problems. Pakistan faced the dangers of being a front-line state bordering on hostile world power, the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had over 115,000 troops located throughout Afghanistan, including troops placed on the Pakistani-Afghan border. Many diplomats, including Pakistani officials, thought that the next move for the Soviet Troops would be into Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan reacted by aiding anti-regime rebels. While the dangers faced by Pakistan were not illusory, it is questionable whether these dangers were of such an immediate nature as to require intervention by Pakistan.
Another justification for Pakistan’s intervention might be found in the doctrine of humanitarian arbitration. Humanitarian intervention can be defined as interference by one state to protect the human rights of citizens of another state. The Afghan refugees living in Pakistan were costing Pakistan money, jobs, and land. Furthermore, the refugee camps were crowded and highly unsafe. Nevertheless, the refugees would remain in Pakistan until the fighting in Afghanistan slowed down. The Mujahideen strongly believed that fighting may not stop until the Communist regime government is removed from power; Therefore, it may be in Pakistan’s best interests and in the best interests of the refugees to support the rebel forces. Pakistan’s intervention in Afghanistan was a socially responsible, and even wise, individual policy decision.
Movement Towards a Soviet Withdrawal:
Initially, Pakistan rallied support in opposition to the Soviet occupation but refused to involve itself in negotiations for a Soviet withdrawal. Finally, late in 1981, Pakistan requested that the United Nations become involved in the crisis by appointing a representative to explore this situation. The U.N. appointed such a representative, and after initial discussions, formal meetings were held in Geneva throughout 1982 and 1983. While helpful in determining the major issues, these meetings showed little progress towards a final withdrawal settlement. Talks continued periodically throughout 1984 and 1985, and again produced no results. During the period from 1980–86, the U.N. General Assembly passed eight resolutions calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Though the Soviets refused to abide by the resolutions, the U.N. could not take any action due to the Soviet Union’s Security Council veto power.
Due to Moscow’s apparent intent to remain in Afghanistan, withdrawal seemed unlikely. The success of the Resistance Movement Besides using physical force, the Soviets attempted to “Sovietize” the Afghan spirit; that is, Moscow tried to bring Soviet ideas and ideals into Afghanistan. Due to the Afghans’ strong rejection of these ideals, the Mujahideen became more unified and more adept at fighting the Soviets. By the early 1980s, Moscow had gained no ground on the rebels. After four years of Soviet occupation, the Mujahideen controlled about eighty-two percent of the countryside, and Moscow was spending between $15 and $20 million per day to keep the rebels out of the other eighteen percent of the country. The Soviets reacted by replacing Karmal with Najibullah, the former chief of the Afghan secret police (KHAD), in May 1986. The Soviets had also attempted to appease the Afghan citizens by formally showing respect for the Islamic faith.
Najibullah called for a cease-fire and a national reconciliation, both of which were largely ignored by both sides. Najibullah also proposed a new Constitution, but the resistance movement was further incited when he was self-inaugurated as President under the new Constitution. In 1987, the resistance grew even stronger, and the Soviets were forced to take defensive positions in key Afghan cities. Soviet army casualties continued to increase while respect for the Red Army continued to decline. Soviet involvement in the Afghan war prompted comparisons to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as the war became unpopular among the Afghan populace. Afghan and Soviet officials also began to talk of mistakes made in the invasion.
Finally, in 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader, made it clear that the Soviets wanted to withdraw. In 1986, Moscow implied that it was considering withdrawal; however, little progress was made. Nevertheless, the gap between the parties regarding the withdrawal timetable was decreased to less than one year. The Soviet Union demanded that an interim or transitional government be set up with the Najibullah as leader, and that the U.S. halt all aid to the rebels before it would withdraw troops.
Clearly, these demands were not acceptable to the U.S., Pakistan or the Afghan rebels. In 1987, Moscow finally began making concessions at the bargaining table. The Soviets further decreased the withdrawal to ten months and complied with U.S. demands for a front-loading plan. The Soviets were becoming displeased with Najibullah and agreed to withdraw without the establishment of an interim government.
This final concession pleased everyone except Pakistan. Pakistan was faced with a dilemma as to whether or not to continue aiding the rebels. Pakistan feared that the refugees would refuse to return to Afghanistan if its government was in disarray. Therefore, Pakistan demanded that a broad-based interim government be set up. However, Pakistan backed off this stance for two reasons: first, the unlikelihood of reaching an agreement on this issue; second, the likelihood that any agreement reached would be ignored. The Soviets agreed to withdraw troops beginning on May 15, 1988.
This advancement would not have been feasible had it not been for the resilience and struggle of the Afghan people to rid their nation of foreign occupation. The exceptional firepower of the United States and relentlessness of the ground troops began to take their toll on the Soviets. In 1989, after nearly 10 years of occupation, the Kremlin finally accepted defeat and planned to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. After withdrawal, the Soviet-backed head of state Mohammed Najibullah surrendered and was placed under house arrest at a United Nations compound. The Mujahedeen captured Kabul, and most militant groups joined them to create the new Islamic State of Afghanistan.
Two years later, the Taliban emerged in southern Kandahar. They assumed control of the province and violently enforced an especially severe interpretation of Islamic law (Sharia). The group was founded by Mullah Mohammed Omar and his trainees. Omar’s intent was to install Sharia Law now that communism had collapsed. The Taliban moreover declared they wanted to rid the country of territorial warlords and corruption. In a matter of months, up to 15,000 students from spiritual institutions in Pakistan, most of them Afghan refugees, had actually answered the call to join the Taliban.
By 1996 collaboration between Mujahideen leaders had decayed, provoking four brutal years of war between multiple factions. Kabul was left in ruins from the conflict that killed nearly 50,000 people. In September of that year, the Taliban captured Kabul after taking the majority of the country with limited resistance. They immediately executed former president Najibullah and his brother. After taking power, the Taliban enforced its variation of Islamic Sharia Law, which included preventing women from getting an education and obtaining employment. Judicial punishments, as well as executions, occurred publicly. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were the only countries to officially recognize the Taliban regime.
After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. issued a warning to Mullah Omar. Mullah Omar was an Afghan mullah (Cleric) and Mujahideen commander who led the Taliban and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996. The U.S. believed the implicated mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden was under Taliban protection and demanded he be surrendered to the U.S. However, Mullah Omar blatantly refused.