What inspires the Taliban?

September 26, 2021

The Taliban have made gross miscalculations about their self-determined messianic role

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Afghanistan witnessed one of the most extraordinary reversals of political fortunes in recent history. When the Taliban were knocking on the door of Kabul, the US was fleeing Afghanistan, and US troops were being located in Pakistani hotels for safety. Kabul airport remained the epicentre of a feverish activity bringing back the iconic images of the US retreat from Saigon.

As Biden’s deadline to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by September 11 drew closer, the Taliban sprang into action with remarkable alacrity. Being an appendage to the US rule in Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani remained largely inconsequential during his stint in power as the Afghan president. Despite the assertion of Zalmay Khalilzad that Ghani’s exile scuttled the transition, the only difference was that Ghani’s escape from Afghanistan hastened what was already a writing on the wall. Panjshir Valley was the last to fall to the Taliban.

Ever since the fall of Panjshir Valley to the Taliban, the Taliban have entered a new phase of forming the government but have so far adamantly resisted any suggestion by its (few) allies to form an inclusive government. But just for the sake of argument, why should they form an inclusive government? After all, the Taliban have clinched victory from the sole superpower and wrested control over the country. They also have other mundane reasons to be exclusive because it is difficult to see eye to eye with the groups who gave the Taliban a bloody nose for two decades under an umbrella government propped up by the US against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The world has been reluctant to recognise the Taliban because of their horrible human rights record. Even more disturbingly, Afghans themselves feel on the edge about what is going to come. The desperate efforts of some Afghan men to leave Afghanistan by clinging on to a US airplane is a measure of desperation and state of fear among the public. By the fag end of the US occupation of Afghanistan, the Taliban stopped targeting the US and its allies and doubled down on their attacks on Afghan nationals, including both security forces and civilians.

But nowhere have the Taliban received more international opprobrium than for their mistreatment of women. Women have been ostracised from the labour force. Young girls have been barred from education.

The Taliban have made gross miscalculations about their self-determined messianic role in a country of nearly 40 million Muslims, as evidenced by the scramble at Kabul airport for escape from Afghanistan. It is worth asking where the roots of their ideology lie.

The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. According to some accounts, the Taliban first appeared in the religious seminaries. The fact that the word Taliban literally means “students” lends credence to this claim. Afghanistan was in chaos after the Soviet withdrawal. Motley-coloured warlords had established their small fiefdoms, and writ of the central government had been almost non-existent.

The Taliban promised peace, security, and Sharia law to the people. Peace and security were music to the Afghan public because they had been thoroughly disappointed and disgusted by the unending violence unleashed by the warlords.

The Taliban quickly consolidated their sphere of influence in the South West, and by September 1995, they had captured the province of Herat. One year later, they overthrew President Burhanuddin Rabbani and captured Kabul. By 1998, the Taliban had captured 90 percent of Afghanistan and largely stamped out corruption, curbed lawlessness, curtailed poppy production, and established the state’s writ in their areas of influence.

Parallel to these developments, the Taliban imposed their version of Shariah which largely comprised Hudood-related punishments. In addition, men were required to grow a beard, and women were required to wear Burqa in public places. The Taliban banned tv, music, and cinema, and banned education for girls who were older than ten years.

The world has been reluctant to recognise the Taliban because of their horrible human rights record. Even more disturbingly, Afghans themselves feel on the edge about what is going to come. The desperate efforts of some Afghan men to leave Afghanistan by clinging on to a US airplane is a measure of desperation...

This begs the question of who inspired the Taliban to reduce religion to a level where religion could be equated with penalties and punishments. An outsider may be excused for seeing Islam as synonymous with little more than an elaborate system of punishments after seeing the Taliban rule. Much of the rigorous scholarship sees a clear link between the Taliban and the Deobandi school of thought through the seminaries dotting the Pakistani landscape.

When Pakistan won its freedom from the British in 1947, many prominent Deobandi scholars migrated to Pakistan and set up many religious madrassas. Over time, the Deobandi madrassas became politically active partly because of the treatment meted out by the Indian government to the Muslims in the Indian Occupied Kashmir. By 1967, there were around 8000 Deobandi seminaries worldwide which mostly tended to the poor and the vulnerable.

However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 fundamentally changed the character of religious seminaries. Millions of Afghan refugees took shelter in the Pashtun belt in Pakistan. Many young Afghan refugees ended up in Deobandi seminaries in Pakistan, including Darul Uloom Haqqania of Akora Khatak. Many of the Taliban’s leaders, including Mullah Omar himself, studied in Deobandi madrassas, though not necessarily in Haqqania.

Shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, American covert involvement in the Afghan wars was instrumental in recruiting ardent religious fighters, mainly from the Deobandi madrassas. The lure of American dollars made the religious elite collude with the powerbrokers in Pakistan to provide a sustained stream of religiously motivated young people, mostly Pashtuns, to wage Jihad in Afghanistan.

In a parallel development, the Iranian revolution in 1979 sent shockwaves in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was apprehensive that the Iranian revolution infused with Shia Islam’s spirit would influence the neighbouring Muslim countries. So it made a massive investment in establishing Salafi (or Wahhabi) seminaries in Pakistan. Wahhabism is a religious faction inspired by a literal interpretation of classical religious texts. Wahhabi madrassas also flourished in Pakistan.

Though the original Deobandi faction had espoused Sufism as a necessary condition for achieving spiritual uplift, Wahhabi Islam had altogether rejected Sufism. Taliban’s recourse to banning music, punishing barbers, and restricting women from entering educational institutions after a certain age could be seen as a deviation from the original Deobandi school of thought. Though the original Deobandi school of thought remained largely peaceful in India since its inception, the Taliban have significantly deviated from the spirit of original Deobandi school of thought in waging an armed struggle.

Apart from the Taliban’s Deobandi ideology, Pashtun ethnicity has also coloured the character of the Taliban movement. The issue that gives the Taliban a preponderant Pashtun character is their strict observance of Pashtunwali, a strict moral code governing social customs, such as honour, hospitality, mutual support, and revenge. A related concept of “Tor,” which literally means “black,” relates to protecting women’s honour.

An additional source of influence is the rootlessness of the younger generations of the Taliban. They landed in (the former) NWFP as refugees where they were physically removed from their home territory, and more importantly, removed from the Afghan cultural values. Islam had never been dogmatic in Afghanistan, and Sufi Islam dominated due to Afghanistan’s poor state of public education. The only option for the destitute and thousands of orphaned Afghan refugees in Pakistan was Deobandi madrassas.

Consequently, the refugees’ education was “highly conservative, very literalist, and quite categorical in its moral logic”. This explains the Taliban’s insistence on a strict dress code, flogging barbers, restricting women from public spaces, and disrupting women’s education. A few may have missed the irony that the Taliban, claiming to have religious knowledge, are a staunch enemy of women’s education, whereas Islam has made it obligatory for every man and woman to seek knowledge.


The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus



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