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Afghanistan: The Taliban's Rise To Power

Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban militia, which today controls nearly all of Afghanistan, is also harboring fugitive terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden. The Taliban has become the primary focus of a call by the United States for a full-scale war against terrorism.

Prague, 18 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- From students to conquerors, the members of the Taliban Islamic militia have come a long way fast.

The Taliban -- literally "the Seekers" -- was founded in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar by graduates of Pakistani religious colleges. Their aims were to end the political chaos that had been ongoing in Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and to impose a strict interpretation of Islam.

Their ascent to power began seven years ago, when a 30-truck convoy from Pakistan was nabbed by an Afghan warlord in southern Afghanistan. A small band of Taliban militants came to the rescue, freeing the convoy and executing the hijackers in the desert.

With that initial public appearance, the Taliban emerged as a reformist force to be reckoned with -- honest, fierce, and devoutly Islamic.

Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistan-based correspondent who has reported on Afghanistan and Central Asia for more than 20 years. He is the author of a book on the Taliban and spoke with RFE/RL today about the factors that contributed to its rise to power.

"In southern Afghanistan, there was a law and order crisis. There was rampant warlordism, and the Taliban came in as a cleansing force to establish law and order and wipe out the warlords and impose Islam, which they did. And they were quite popular doing it, initially. Their spread is really related to the support they got from Pakistan, which increased their military capability. And then they took Kabul in 1996."

The Taliban's efforts were initially embraced by the war-ravaged Afghans. But soon their promise to end the chaos of war and warlords resulted in the imposition of a strict interpretation of Islamic law. They decreed amputations and executions for criminals, imposed severe restrictions on women, and banned television, considered a symbol of Western decadence.

The Taliban was basically a group of politically inexperienced young students. Analysts, including Rashid, believe the group never would have achieved its dramatic rise to power without the guidance of more mature governments, namely Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, who offered training and initial financial support. Ironically, the Taliban was also endorsed by the United States.

Rashid says the U.S. initially perceived the Taliban as a stabilizing force, one that could ensure the flow of Middle Eastern oil to the West.

"The U.S. didn't provide arms or anything to them, but the U.S. was very sympathetic to them because they were anti-Iran, anti-Shiite. And the U.S. at that time was looking for allies in its confrontation with Iran. The U.S. at that time was also looking for pipeline routes out of the Gulf, which would be under the control of U.S. allies. And they hoped [it would be] through Pakistan to the Gulf. So that was their other objective."

In May 1996, Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden, who had used some of his family fortune to assist the Afghan fight against the Soviets, was exiled from Sudan under international pressure for his alleged terrorist activities. He returned to Afghanistan, where he was later embraced by the Taliban, to whom he reportedly gave $3 million to boost its flagging military efforts.

Rashid says bin Laden's entry into Afghanistan was the impetus for a turning point in the Taliban's ideology. In exchange for safe harbor, he infused the movement with money and is said to have promoted an intensified turn towards radicalism in his many training camps:

"One of the main issues is that, first of all, [bin Laden] funded a lot of their activities. He provided funds to them. He provided thousands of fighters. There [are] some 3,000 Arabs fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was involved in many business deals with them in exporting, in consumer goods and smuggling, and also drugs trafficking. And he's also become a kind of ideological mentor of theirs in the sense he introduced them in many ways to the world of Islamic radicalism. He's taken them along the way that he wanted to. He wanted not only to have a sanctuary with the Taliban, but he wanted them to be his allies."

In its efforts to control the country the Taliban became as brutal as its predecessors -- killing civilians, burning houses, and destroying crops in the villages and towns it had conquered. As a result, the Afghan people became far less supportive of the ruling government. Analysts say the Taliban found it difficult to recruit native Afghan men into its ranks.

Again, Pakistan and bin Laden helped fill the void. Pakistan continues to allow recruits from its religious schools and religious political parties to fill the Taliban's ranks, and bin Laden has created and funded a force that has attracted Saudis and others. With the urging of bin Laden, Rashid says the Taliban is believed to have opened its training camps to Islamic extremists from throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

The Taliban now is under intense political pressure to extradite bin Laden for his suspected role in last week's terrorist attacks in Washington and New York. A Pakistani delegation is in Kabul for a second day of talks today, pressuring Taliban leaders to extradite bin Laden. Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Khan spoke today from Islamabad.

"Motivated by our feelings of friendship, the close bonds of brotherhood that we have with Afghanistan -- these are age-old bonds -- we were moved to send this delegation. The [Pakistani] President [Musharraf] sent this delegation and sent a message to the Afghan leader."

Unconfirmed reports say the Taliban is insisting on a number of conditions before granting bin Laden's extradition, including his trial in a neutral Islamic country, the suspension of UN sanctions, and the allocation of economic assistance.

Conditions or not, it is unlikely the Taliban will give up bin Laden. Over the weekend, Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen threatened military retaliation against Pakistan if it should assist the U.S. militarily.

"If neighboring countries or regional countries, particularly Islamic countries, gave a positive response to American demands for military bases, it would spark up extraordinary danger. Similarly, if any neighboring country gave territorial way on airspace to the U.S.A. against our land, it would draw us into an imposed war."

The Taliban is estimated to have no more than 45,000 troops, including up to 12,000 foreign troops -- Pakistanis, Arabs, Uzbeks, and others. The militia is believed to be armed with Soviet T-59 and T-55 tanks left over from the 1980s, as well as artillery, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, aging Soviet MIG and Sukoi fighter planes, mortars, and thousands of small arms. Already, there are news reports of tank movements near the Pakistani border.

Rashid says it is the guerrilla tactics used by the Taliban that make the militia more formidable than its numbers might indicate.

"The Taliban are likely to scatter in small groups, and they're likely to carry out guerrilla war with U.S. troops. They're not going to provide a sitting target for them." If the U.S. were to send in ground troops, they would land in a war zone that has changed little from the desert country of nomadic tribes and medieval villages that British troops invaded more than two centuries ago. If that invasion is to be any indication, the U.S. military has limited promise of success.