Who Are the Taliban, and What Do They Want?

Taliban members in an area controlled by the group on March 13, 2020, in Laghman, Afghanistan. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

In the winter of 1995, a New York Times correspondent visiting Afghanistan reported that after years of brutal civil strife, a big change seemed to be afoot.

A “new force of professed Islamic purists and Afghan patriots” had quickly taken military control of more than 40% of the country.

It was surprising, because until taking up arms just a year before, many of the fighters had been little more than religious pupils.

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Their very name meant “students.” The Taliban, they called themselves.

A quarter-century later, after outlasting an international military coalition in a war that cost tens of thousands of lives, the onetime students are now rulers of the land. Again.

Here is a look at the origin of the Taliban; how they managed to take over Afghanistan not once, but twice; what they did when they first took control — and what that might reveal about their plans for this time.

When did the Taliban first emerge?

The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. The group was rooted in rural areas of Kandahar province, in the country’s ethnic-Pashtun heartland in the south.

The Soviet Union had invaded in 1979 to prop up the Communist government in Afghanistan, and eventually met the fate of big powers past and present that have tried to impose their will on the country: It was driven out.

The Soviets were defeated by Islamic fighters known as the mujahedeen, a patchwork of insurgent factions supported by a U.S. government only too happy to wage a proxy war against its Cold War rival.

But the joy over that victory was short-lived, as the various factions fell out and began fighting for control. The country fell into warlordism, and a brutal civil war.

Against this backdrop, the Taliban, with their promise to put Islamic values first and to battle the corruption that drove the warlords’ fighting, quickly attracted a following. Over months of intense fighting, they took over most of the country.

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