It’s been said that history does not repeat but it does rhyme. A generation after seizing power for the first time in an Afghanistan destroyed by war, the Taliban returned to Kabul last August after enduring another long war with foreign invaders.
As ever, the Taliban mystify observers who do not understand how these fanatical holy warriors prevailed against a militarily superior opponent and over a population that disapproves of its authoritarian edicts and brutal repression.
In this episode of History As It Happens, Andrew Watkins, a senior expert on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace who has conducted extensive field research in Taliban country, discusses the group’s origins in the early 1990s and the reasons for their staying power.
“There’s something universal and very human in the idea of I don’t want foreigners coming into my home, into my house, and running my country. It’s not about the substance of their policies. It’s not about the structure of the government they came to set up. If it’s foreign and they are telling us what to do, then it is automatically bad and we want it out,” said Mr. Watkins, describing the tribal, rural mindset that rejects outside interference.
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“That’s why the Taliban, in spite of their abuses and authoritarianism, were able to draw as many people into their group as they were. Something that is easy to forget is that the U.S. military, NATO and the Afghan government every year for almost 10 years were claiming thousands of Taliban casualties. But people who study the Taliban kept saying that every year the Taliban’s overall fighting strength was getting bigger,” Mr. Watkins said of the group’s ability to recruit new fighters to reject foreign occupation.
From the beginning, the Taliban were poorly understood – and not just by U.S. diplomats who initially cheered their emergence as a potentially stabilizing force during the Afghan civil war. Backed by Pakistan’s intelligence services, the Taliban appeared in 1994 and captured Afghanistan’s second-largest city before anyone in the West knew who they were. By late 1996, they had swept into Kabul.
After being ousted by U.S.-backed forces in 2001 following the al Qaeda terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, it appeared the Taliban had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Listen to this episode to understand why this Pashtun-dominated group of religious zealots defied the odds to return to power.
In Tuesday’s episode, also timed to mark the anniversary of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen discussed the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri and the state of Islamic fundamentalism a half century after it swept the Muslim world.