Questions about the Taliban: Struggle against the USSR; Reagan; how popularity was gained

Reading Ahmed Rashid’s TALIBAN: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), a partial copy of which is available here, at least a couple of questions I had were addressed early on in the book. This post is meant to complement an earlier one, “Glimpses of What the Mainstream Media Might Have Told Us About Afghanistan.”

Freedom Fighters: Taliban

One set of questions had to do with the origins of the Taliban, specifically in relation to the fight of the Afghan mujahidin against the Soviet occupation. In the mainstream media, not to mention “popular” commentary, one finds two extremes: one that suggests the Taliban are, as a whole, a direct offshoot of the same mujahidin funded, equipped and trained by the CIA, along with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and China; the other suggests the opposite, that the Taliban bear little or no relation to those praised by Ronald Reagan as “freedom fighters” and celebrated by sections of the American media of the 1980s as gallant heroes — indeed, that is likely the reason for some of the denials: embarrassment, refusal to acknowledge blowback, and denial of the Orwellian nature of American foreign policy.

Instead, as Rashid points out, the reality is much more complex. The Taliban are not all mujahidin, and not all mujahidin became Taliban, which is not to say that there is no relation between the two. Indeed, very few people, on any side in Afghanistan, could still be classed as part of the anti-Soviet mujahidin struggle, since that ended 20 years ago. Surviving mujahidin from that struggle would now have to be, at the very youngest, about 35 (if they were child soldiers), or more likely over the age of 40.

What Rashid points out is that the core, founding leadership of the Taliban did indeed form part of the anti-Soviet mujahidin struggle. In particular:

  • Mullah Omar
  • Mullah Mohammed Hassan Rehmani, the former Taliban Governor of Kandahar, “a founder member of the Taliban…considered to be number two in the movement to his old friend Mullah Omar”
  • Mohammed Ghaus, former Foreign Minister
  • Nuruddin Turabi, former Justice Minister
  • Abdul Majid, former Mayor of Kabul
  • and to that list we can add, Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani, much in the news lately.

That is only a partial list which, with the exception of the last entry, was provided by Rashid. Of course, if anyone with expertise in this area would like to make the argument that leadership, authority, training, teaching and tradition are minimal features of life as a Talib, that would be interesting to hear. Also interesting would be more names to add to the list above.

Praise Freedom, and Pass the Ammunition…to the Taliban

Ronald Reagan meeting in the White House with Afghan mujahidin in March 1985

Ronald Reagan meeting in the White House with Afghan mujahidin in March 1985

Going back, for a moment, to Ronald Reagan. In an earlier post I mentioned, and quoted, Reagan’s praises for Afghanistan’s “freedom fighters,” some of whom, as we know, went on to found and lead the Taliban. I shared these two quotes:

in Afghanistan, the freedom fighters are the key to peace. We support the Mujahadeen. There can be no settlement unless all Soviet troops are removed and the Afghan people are allowed genuine self-determination. (Applause.) (7th State of the Union speech)

“To watch the courageous Afghan freedom fighters battle modern arsenals with simple hand-held weapons is an inspiration to those who love freedom. Their courage teaches us a great lesson—that there are things in this world worth defending. To the Afghan people, I say on behalf of all Americans that we admire your heroism, your devotion to freedom, and your relentless struggle against your oppressors.” (March 21, 1983).

To which we can add this one, from Reagan’s “Proclamation 5034—Afghanistan Day, 21 March 1983“:

The resistance of the Afghan freedom fighters is an example to all the world of the invincibility of the ideals we in this country hold most dear, the ideals of freedom and independence.

Reagan was generous in his praise — in the context of a speech about the “freedom fighters,” he dedicated the space shuttle Columbia to the people of Afghanistan:

That is the same space shuttle you can see here, on 01 February 2003 over Palestine (Texas):

Beyond speeches and symbolism, Ronald Regan had much more than just a butterfly effect where the Taliban are concerned. Indeed, in a report in London’s Telegraph on 26 September 2001, by Toby Harnden, the Taliban themselves still had 50 of the 1,000 Stinger missiles provided by the Pentagon for the anti-Soviet war effort in the 1980s (mentioned for those who like to see “smoking gun” connections).

We do not know what Reagan thought of the Taliban proper, who seized national power in 1996, since by that time Reagan was already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. However, we do have access to the words of one early protagonist who helped to aid the mujahidin (from as early as six months before the Soviet invasion): U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Speaking with specific reference to the emergence of the Taliban, enabled by his (Carter’s) administration’s support for the mujahidin, this is what Brzezinski had to say in 2001:

What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Hero Stories of the Taliban: They “Protected” Women and Children Too

In the first chapter of his book, Rashid helps us to also address the question of why the Taliban gained popularity in parts of Afghanistan. The answer, in part, is due to certain heroic stories told about the Taliban. Rashid says:

The most credible story, told repeatedly, is that in the spring of 1994 Singesar neighbours came to tell him that a commander had abducted two teenage girls, their heads had been shaved and they had been taken to a military camp and repeatedly raped. Omar enlisted some 30 Talibs who had only 16 rifles between them and attacked the base, freeing the girls and hanging the commander from the barrel of a tank. They captured quantities of arms and ammunition. ‘We were fighting against Muslims who had gone wrong. How could we remain quiet when we could see crimes being committed against women and the poor?’ [Mullah] Omar said later.

Then there is the account of the Taliban protecting boys who were to be sodomized:

A few months later two commanders confronted each other in Kandahar, in a dispute over a young boy whom both men wanted to sodomise. In the fight that followed civilians were killed. Omar’s group freed the boy and public appeals started coming in for the Taliban to help out in other local disputes. Omar had emerged as a Robin Hood figure, helping the poor against the rapacious commanders. His prestige grew because he asked for no reward or credit from those he helped, only demanding that they follow him to set up a just Islamic system.

This is an incomplete post for now, so if anyone has any notes to add, feel welcome to post them below. Hopefully what has been provided thus far helps to clear up at least few misconceptions and answer some questions.

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6 thoughts on “Questions about the Taliban: Struggle against the USSR; Reagan; how popularity was gained

  1. Rocket

    “That is the same space shuttle you can see here, on 01 February 2003 over Palestine (Texas)”


    For all you know, it might have been shot down by a Stinger missile.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      You know, the other funny thing is that the Israeli pilot who bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor was also on that shuttle when it exploded…above Palestine. One might think the whole thing had been scripted.

  2. Darryl Li

    Properly assessing the relationship between the mujahidin (where there’s a consensus of US support) and the Taliban (where there isn’t) requires first disaggregating the category of ‘mujahidin.’ As the work of Gilles Dorronsoro and Barnett Rubin have demonstrated, the label of ‘mujahidin’ was applied to a variety of armed political groups operating under the sign of Islam during that period who nevertheless were very different in terms of their historical roots, ideological/doctrinal outlooks, organizational structures, etc.

    While it is true that the Taliban leadership in their younger days belonged to some of these groups, some other factors should also be taken into account:

    First, the relationship between the Taliban and the larger mujahidin groups (especially Jami’at-i-Islami and Hizb-i-Islami) was if anything antagonistic. As the excerpts in the second part of the post demonstrate, the Taliban largely built its reputation on setting itself _against_ the mujahidin and the corruption/brutality/chaos they represented. Indeed, the Taliban militarily defeated or marginalized these groups.

    Second, the mujahidin group that Mullah Omar and some other key Talibs fought in during their youth was a smaller and relatively marginal one, Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami, though this group did receive US aid (and indeed was labeled as one of the “moderate” groups).

    Third, Haqqani is an interesting exception. Among prominent mujahidin commanders, I believe he was the only one who did not get sucked into the post-1992 chaos and was also the only one to be co-opted by the Taliban later on.

    For these and other reasons, there may never be a clear historical answer as to whether the U.S. “caused” the Taliban or not via its support for the mujahidin. But what is clear is that one can easily oppose the U.S. project in Afghanistan without answering this question, however important it may be. And as the execrable Christopher Hitchens has demonstrated, acknowledging responsibility for “blowback” can also be an argument for invasion as well.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thank you very much for that contribution Darryl, much appreciated, and I am sure not by me alone.

      In addition to the useful notes, your conclusion is well put: “there may never be a clear historical answer as to whether the U.S. “caused” the Taliban or not via its support for the mujahidin. But what is clear is that one can easily oppose the U.S. project in Afghanistan without answering this question.”

      (The bad news is that every single comment on this blog is now automatically being thrown into the spam queue. Sorry if you thought it had gone astray, and I am glad I saw it without automatically deleting. I mention this just in case other commentators encounter similar problems and wonder why their comments might not appear immediately.)

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