On Sunday November 18, four suicide bombers struck a public park in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing at least 25 people, including a young child. These events and events like them are part of a horrifying pattern of regular attacks by Taliban fighters. They also serve as a reminder of the enduring instability of Afghanistan, the country that endured the worst of America’s wars: the Soviets’ occupation and nine years of brutal Taliban rule that ended in their ouster by the U.S. and its allies.
Olivier Douliery, Pool/Getty Images President Donald Trump meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during a bilateral meeting at the White House on Aug. 3, 2018.
The Taliban have managed to remain in power and survive by attracting new recruits and allies who come into their ranks by spreading fear and terrifying the population. But what makes them unique is their determination to carry out mass casualty attacks like the one on Sunday. Like their initial insurgency back in the 1990s, today’s Taliban leadership views terrorism as an effective, powerful weapon in their arsenal. The Taliban learned much about how to use terror attacks back then—successful terrorist attacks were a key part of the strategic thinking of mujahedeen who fought the Soviets—and they maintain expertise and capacity that has helped them in their next step toward gaining power. To understand the Taliban we need to dig a little deeper than a rudimentary understanding of the decade-long insurgency that left Afghanistan in shambles.
Afghanistan experienced a violent decade that immediately followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The Soviets lost 528 out of 7,000 troops after the first two years of war. Many Afghans lost their lives, having been told from the start that the Russians were imposing their rules on Afghans and would treat them like prisoners. During the Soviet withdrawal, 150,000 refugees fled to neighboring Pakistan in a matter of weeks. “Human tragedy and colonial violence prefigured the creation of the Taliban,” writes journalist Barbara Demick in her book Resistance, Resistance, Resistance: The Memoirs of Donald John Ashcroft, the first U.S. attorney general. In the countryside, food became scarce, the Taliban took advantage of this, forcing people to sell crops for cash, a situation that was not unlike what we see today with the ongoing food crisis caused by drought.
THE ADVANTAGE OF MEMORY
The U.S. military and economic support in response to the turmoil in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal was geared toward pacifying the country, not bringing relief. The result was a generation of angry men and women, who reacted to the Soviet invasion with uprisings. The group that came to be known as the Jirga (congregation of women) proved to be the most influential force of the time. The Jirga was a forum for Afghans to speak their minds, discuss their grievances, and complain that their grievances were being ignored. The leaders of the Taliban emerged from a young generation of men and women who studied at jihadist seminaries in Pakistan and began preparing to rise up against their government.
The Taliban had been more or less integrated into the Afghan political economy of the 1990s. They operated outside the government, their religious freedom the result of a three-decade American war. The United States supported the early years of their rise to power by arming and training their forces. The Taliban won the first elections in Afghanistan in 1996, but soon their appetite for power began to diminish. They feared that rising oil prices might put the country into a slump and they would lose control over their people. In fact, even before the oil price spike in 1997, they began to choose the softer path of letting Afghans vote, rather than holding elections or imposing their will.
Though they were able to find some protection within the Afghan government, the Taliban at one point withdrew from power because it was losing confidence in the ability of the Afghan government to protect it. Afghanistan suffers from severe institutional weaknesses: governments are generally weak, and poor governance keeps many people poor. At this point the United States came in as the principal power broker, backing an interim government that was a change from the government of the days following the Soviet withdrawal. The United States used the world’s resources in an effort to bring stability and development to the country, which is still reeling from the effects of the Soviet invasion and occupation.
Some of our ideas about the Taliban were formed during that period. They are, in our view, ideological extremists. We conceived of them as fighters, not people. The Taliban are not just armed and well-trained fighters, but organizations of people who operate with their own special objectives and philosophies. They also have institutionalized violent ideologies that they continue to use to carry out their attacks. While this all sounds rather dire, it is important to