Who Are the Taliban and What Is Their Goal?

Fears over the future of Afghanistan following renewed Taliban rule has seen swarms of Afghans make desperate attempts to flee the country.

The militant group, who ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s under a narrow interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, regained control of the country two weeks before the U.S. was scheduled to fully withdraw its troops, who have been there since 2001.

During a press conference on August 17, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's longtime spokesperson, vowed the country would forgive those who fought against them previously and would respect women's rights under the new era of Taliban rule.

A statement published on the official website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) on August 15, said: "The Islamic Emirate once again assures all its citizens that it will, as always, protect their life, property and honor and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation. In this regard, no one should worry about their life."

Here, we take a closer look at the history of the Taliban and its latest developments.

Who Are the Taliban?

In Pashto, the national language of Afghanistan, the word "Taliban" means "students."

The militant group was formed of Islamic guerilla fighters known as the mujahideen, who resisted the Soviet occupation between the years 1979-89. Founded by Mullah Mohammad Omar, an imam from Kandahar, in 1994, the group had the covert backing of the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI).

The Afghan mujahideen were joined by younger Pashtun tribesmen who studied in Pakistani madrassas (or seminaries). Pashtuns are the predominant ethnic group in much of the south and east of Afghanistan. They are also a major ethnic group in Pakistan's north and west.

The Taliban found a foothold in southern Afghanistan and consolidated their strength in the region.

The Council on Foreign Relations explains the group gained support at the start of the post-Soviet era with the promise of establishing stability following the years of conflict from 1992 to 1996 among rival mujahideen groups.

The Taliban provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda in the years leading up to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S. The group provided a base in which al-Qaeda "could freely recruit, train, and deploy terrorists to other countries," the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) explains.

The Taliban maintained control of Afghanistan until October 2001 when a U.S.-led campaign against al-Qaeda ousted them from power.

Taliban fighters in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Taliban fighters standing guard at an entrance gate outside the Interior Ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 17. Javed Tanveer / AFP via Getty Image

What Is the Goal of the Taliban?

Speaking to Newsweek, Dr. Thomas Barfield, the author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, said: "They [the Taliban] want to rule an Islamic State in Afghanistan using conservative rules, I do not believe that [they] have an ultimate goal beyond that."

The author, who is also a professor of anthropology and the director of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University, told Newsweek "everyone's watching to see" if the new regime's promises will prove to be true, but "they are different and are taking public stances very different from the 1990s."

"In practical terms they cannot govern without the cooperation of the government employees and groups that provide services (medical, humanitarian, etc,). The Kabul they ruled in the 1990s was a ruined city with no functioning government or infrastructure with a few hundred thousand people.

"Now it is a city of five million that expects a government not only to provide security but delivers services. The Taliban have no means of doing this without reaching out to their former enemies," Barfield explained.

The Taliban Regime in Late 1990s

By 1994, the Taliban had moved through the south and captured several provinces after the Soviet-backed Afghan government fell in 1992. By September 1996, the group seized the Afghan capital of Kabul, killed the country's president and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The Taliban's first move after taking control in the late 1990s was to implement "a strict interpretation of Qur'anic instruction and jurisprudence," which in practice entailed "often merciless policies on the treatment of women, political opponents of any type, and religious minorities," the NCTC says.

According to a November 2001 report released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the U.S. Department of State, the country under strict Taliban rule in the late 1990s had "one of the worst human rights records in the world."

The regime at the time "systematically repressed all sectors of the population and denied even the most basic individual rights" and its "war against women was particularly appalling," the state report says.

Another report carried out report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) in June 2020 said the oppression at the time also entailed "cruel corporal punishments, including executions; and extreme suppression of freedom of religion, expression, and education."

Severe restrictions were placed on Afghan women's access to work, education and health care, as well as on their physical movements and dress code, which required them to be covered under a burqa, a garment that covers the body and face.

Women were only allowed to be out in public when accompanied by male relatives or risk beatings by the Taliban.

"Women were stripped of their dignity under the Taliban. They were made unable to support their families. Girls were deprived of basic health care and of any semblance of schooling. They were even deprived of their childhood under a regime that took away their songs, their dolls, and their stuffed animals—all banned by the Taliban.

"The Taliban perpetrated egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction, and forced marriage. Some families resorted to sending their daughters to Pakistan or Iran to protect them," the 2001 report said.

Promises of Peace and Protection Under the New Taliban

The August 15 statement published at the website of the IEA claimed: "All those who have previously worked and helped the invaders, or are now standing in the ranks of the corrupt Administration of Kabul, the Islamic Emirate has opened its door for them and have announced for them amnesty. We once again invite them all to come and to serve the nation and the country.

"In areas which are under the control of the Islamic Emirate, people should lead a normal life, especially in the official arena, whether it is educational, healthy, social or cultural," the statement said.

The IEA stated on August 15: "No one should leave their area and country. They shall live a normal life; our nation and country need services, and Afghanistan is our joint home that we will build and serve together."

The Associated Press reported that under the latest Taliban rule women have been encouraged to return to work. A female news anchor interviewed a Taliban official in a television studio on August 16. Elsewhere, girls were allowed to return to school and handed Islamic headscarves at the door.

According to AP, at the August 17 press conference, Taliban spokesperson Mujahid promised the Taliban would honor women's rights within the norms of Islamic law, though he failed to rule out cutting off hands as feet as punishment, as was the method used during the group's first rule.

Mujahid stated on August 17 that the Taliban were granting amnesty for former soldiers as well as for contractors and translators who worked for international forces. He said the Taliban will not seek retribution against ex-soldiers and government officials, Reuters reported,

"Nobody will go to their doors to ask why they helped," Mujahid said at the August 17 news briefing.

According to Reuters, he also claimed that day that "nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors," noting there was a "huge difference" between the Taliban now and that which ruled 20 years ago.

The AP reported the Taliban spokesperson also said that private media should "remain independent" but that journalists "should not work against national values," at the August 17 news briefing.

India's NDTV reported Mujahid said: "We have three suggestions: No broadcast should contradict Islamic values, they should be impartial, no one should broadcast anything that goes against our national interests," at the August 17 press conference.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid in 2021.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid (left) speaking during a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 17. Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images

Despite Mujahid's reassurances, fears remain in Kabul after prisons and armories emptied out during the insurgents' sweep across the country.

AP reported on August 18 that residents in the capital have claimed armed men have been going door-to-door in search of those who worked with the ousted government and security forces, but it was unknown whether the gunmen were Taliban or criminals posing as militants.

Mujahid claimed the Taliban only entered the capital in order to restore law and order after the police presence was diminished, and blamed the breakdown of security in the city on the former government.

An unnamed Taliban official told Reuters that the group's leaders will also show themselves publicly rather than live in secret, as they had done previously.

They said: "Slowly, gradually, the world will see all our leaders, there will be no shadow of secrecy."

In the wake of the Taliban's latest advance, one of the group's leaders and co-founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, returned to the country after a 20-year exile.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said both the U.S. and other countries are not expected to take the Taliban at their word when it comes to their vows to respect women's rights.

Sullivan explained at the White House briefing: "Like I've said all along, this is not about trust. This is about verify. And we'll see what the Taliban end up doing in the days and weeks ahead, and when I say we, I mean the entire international community."

Will the Taliban Invade Other Countries?

The IEA stated on August 15: "Once again, we assure all our neighbors that we will not create any problems for them, they should thereby have confidence."

This was reiterated by Taliban spokesperson Mujahid, who told reporters: "We don't want any internal or external enemies."

India's NDTV reported Mujahid said: "The Islamic emirate is pledging to all world countries that no threat will be posed to any country from Afghanistan."

"We want to establish a government that includes all sides," the Taliban spokesperson said on August 17, adding that they want an end to the war.

Boston University professor Barfield doesn't believe the Taliban will invade other countries.

He told Newsweek: "Even in the 1990s the Taliban were focused only on Afghanistan."

"Some of their foreign allies like al Qaeda or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Pakistani Taliban do however seek to move beyond Afghanistan," Barfield explained.

Newsweek has contacted Taliban spokespersons Mujahid, Suhail Shaheen, Dr. Mohammad Naeem and Qari Yousaf Ahmadi for comment.

In Focus

The Taliban and Afghanistan Through The Years

A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 18.
Launch Slideshow 10 PHOTOS