What is the Taliban? The purpose of the Taliban
Taliban fighters attend a gathering to celebrate the U.S.-Taliban deal in March 2020. Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto/Getty Images

What is the Taliban? The purpose of the Taliban

Since its overthrow in 2001, the Taliban have continued their revolt against the US-led mission in Afghanistan and the Afghan government.

A collapse in intra-Afghan peace negotiations could pave the way for the group’s return to power.

1. The Islamic fundamentalist group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to its US-led invasion in 2001. Since then, he has launched a revolt against the US-backed government in Kabul.

2. Experts say the Taliban has been stronger than at any point since 2001. With up to eighty-five thousand full-time fighters, he controls a fifth of the country and continues to launch attacks.

3. The Taliban began their first direct peace negotiations with the Afghan government in 2020 after signing an agreement with the United States. Little progress has been made.

It is a predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when a US-led invasion overthrew the regime when the Taliban overthrew the regime to seek refuge in al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The Taliban have regrouped on the border with Pakistan and for more than nineteen years started a revolt against the US-backed government in Kabul.

The Taliban signed a peace treaty with the United States in 2020 and entered into power-sharing negotiations with the Afghan government. However, the Taliban continue to attack the government and civilian targets and control dozens of Afghan areas. In-Afghanistan talks mostly stalled, raising questions about whether US troops would remain in Afghanistan. Analysts warn that violence could escalate dramatically in 2021 and that the peace process could collapse, increasing the likelihood of an extended civil war, casualties, and activities of terrorist groups.

Is the Taliban a dangerous formation?

Many experts say the Taliban is a powerful fighting force that threatens Afghan democratic institutions, citizens’ rights and regional security. The group endured counter-resistance operations from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the world’s strongest security alliance, and three US administrations in a war that killed more than 6,000 US soldiers and contractors [PDF] and more than 1,100 NATO soldiers. Approximately 46,000 civilians have died since 2007, and an estimated 73,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed.

Despite the Taliban’s own losses estimated at tens of thousands, the group is now stronger than any point in the past nineteen years. It has between fifty-five thousand and eighty-five thousand full-time fighters. In early 2021, the Taliban controlled an estimated 19 percent of counties, while the government controlled 33 percent, according to the US-based Defense for Democracies Long War Magazine, which discusses the US fight against al-Qaeda and others. Militant groups since 2007. The rest of the country was contested by both groups.

Taliban influence in Afghanistan

Control by district, as of March 2021

The group continues to carry out deadly attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians. The UN Relief Mission (UNAMA) in Afghanistan documented 8,820 civilian deaths and injuries in 2020 [PDF]. Although this figure is a thousand less than 2019, there was a 45 percent increase in civilian casualties over the same number in the last three months of 2020.

Targeted assassinations and improvised explosive device attacks accounted for the majority of the casualties during these months. UNAMA attributed most of the losses in 2020 to the Taliban and its rival, the Islamic State in Khorasan. Civilians were also caught in the crossfire between rebels and government forces. Afghan government forces and air strikes, mostly international military forces, also caused civilian casualties.

International observers remain concerned that the Taliban support terrorist organizations, especially al-Qaeda. The United States invaded Afghanistan after the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks refused to hand over bin Laden. Many US security experts continue to worry that, under the Taliban, Afghanistan will remain a safe haven for terrorists who could carry out attacks on the US and its allies.

The UN Taliban monitoring team said in its 2020 report that the Taliban still have strong ties to Al Qaeda. The Taliban provide protection to al-Qaeda in exchange for resources and training. Two hundred and five hundred al-Qaeda fighters are believed to be in Afghanistan, and several of their leaders were killed in the country in 2020. ], but there were unconfirmed rumors that he died in 2020.

According to the UN monitoring report, the Taliban “held regular consultations” with al-Qaeda leaders during its negotiations with the United States and made “assurances to honor their historical ties”. There are also up to 2,200 Islamic State members in Khorasan in Afghanistan.

How did the Taliban come about?

The group was founded in the early 1990s with the covert support of the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI), by Afghan mujahids or Islamic guerrilla fighters who resisted the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan (1979-89)).

Younger Pashtun tribes who attended Pakistani madrasas or theology schools also joined them; Pashto for taliban “students”. Pashtuns make up a plurality in Afghanistan and are the predominant ethnic group in most of the south and east of the country. It is also an important ethnic group in the north and west of Pakistan.

The movement received popular support in the early post-Soviet period, promising to impose stability and the rule of law after four years (1992-1996) of conflict between rival mujahideen groups. The Taliban entered Kandahar in November 1994 to pacify the crime-filled southern city, and in September 1996 captured the capital Kabul from President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik he viewed as anti-Pashtun and corrupt.

That year, the Taliban declared Afghanistan an Islamic emirate with Mullah Mohammed Omar, a clergyman and veteran of the anti-Soviet resistance, who led the emir al-Mu’minin or “commander of the faithful.” The regime controlled 90 percent of the country before the 2001 overthrow.

The Taliban imposed a harsh form of justice as it consolidated regional control. The Taliban jurisprudence is drawn from the pre-Islamic tribal laws of the Pashtuns and the Shariah interpretations colored by the harsh Wahhabi doctrines of the Saudi philanthropists of madrasahs.

The Ministry of Virtue Incentive and Prevention of Evil, outlawing what the Taliban described as non-Islamic, neglected regime social services and other essential state functions. It required women to wear burqas or tents from head to toe; music and television were banned; and the men in prison whose beards were thought to be too short.

World reactions to Taliban?

Over the past two decades, governments and international organizations have participated in US-led efforts to overthrow the Taliban and support the Afghan government, democratic institutions and civil society in the following ways:

Military power: US troops quickly overthrew the Taliban after invading Afghanistan in October 2001. Since then, the Taliban has launched a revolt against the US-backed Afghan government. The number of US troops in Afghanistan peaked at around one hundred thousand in 2011.

By early 2021, there were approximately 7,000 additional soldiers from 2,500 US soldiers and other NATO members. NATO assumed leadership of foreign forces in 2003, marking its first operational commitment outside Europe. NATO had more than 130,000 soldiers from 50 countries in Afghanistan.


The UN Security Council first imposed sanctions on the regime in 1999 for hosting Al Qaeda, and expanded sanctions after 9/11. They target Taliban leaders’ financial assets and ban them from most travel. The Security Council also imposed an arms embargo on the Taliban. The United States and the European Union have imposed additional sanctions.

Democratic reforms and assistance

Months after the US invasion, UN member states pledged to support Afghanistan’s move away from Taliban rule. The United States and NATO led the reconstruction efforts. Dozens of countries also provide aid to Afghanistan, which currently finances 75 percent of the government’s public spending with grants from international partners, according to a World Bank report. At a conference in 2020, donors pledged a total of $ 3.3 billion in aid.


The Taliban are currently under investigation at the International Criminal Court for allegations of harassment of Afghan civilians, including crimes against humanity, since 2003, and Afghan forces are also being investigated for war crimes.

Who runs the Taliban?

Analysts believe that the Taliban’s leadership, primarily outside the country, continues to control most fighters and officials in Afghanistan. However, the UN Taliban monitoring team said internal disagreements “became more pronounced”, mainly related to the peace process and talks with the US.

The leadership council is called Rahbari Shura and is better known as Quetta Shura for the city in Pakistan where Omar and his senior aides are believed to have taken refuge after the US occupation. According to the UN observer, the council takes decisions for “all political and military affairs of the Emirate”.

It is currently managed by Mevlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. (Omar died in 2013 and was replaced by Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in the 2016 US air strike in Pakistan.) The leader is now backed by lawmakers, Omar’s son Mullah Mohammed Yaqoub; Taliban co-founder Molla Abdul Ghani Baradar; and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani Network, a militant group with close ties to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISI in southeastern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan.

The leadership council oversees various commissions and administrative bodies under which the Taliban ruled the shadow government, similar to ministries before the Taliban overthrew. Commissions focus on areas such as economy, education, health and social assistance. The military commission appoints shadow governors and battlefield commanders for each of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. The political commission headed by Baradar leads negotiations with the United States and is headquartered in Doha, Qatar.

Hierarchy of Taliban

Sources: UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team; CFR research.

Financial and international support to the Taliban

The Taliban’s main sources of income are opium cultivation and narcotics, and the UN report [PDF] estimates that it earned $ 400 million from the illegal drug trade in 2018. It also receives taxes from commercial activities on its territory, such as farming and mining. Its revenue was complemented by illegal mining, extortion of local businesses, and donations from abroad, despite strict UN sanctions.

Many experts say the Pakistani security service continues to provide shelter to Taliban militants in the country’s western tribal areas to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan. Islamabad denies these accusations. (At the same time, Pakistan, unlike the Afghan group, fought Pakistan with its own rebellion group Tehrik-e-Taliban, commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban.)

Do Afghans support the Taliban?

It enjoyed support for years after the Taliban fell from power. The US-based nonprofit organization Asia Foundation found in 2009 [PDF] that half of Afghans – mostly Pashtuns and rural Afghans – sympathize with armed opposition groups, especially the Taliban. Afghan support for Taliban and allied groups was partly due to complaints against public institutions.

However, the response to the same survey in 2019 revealed that only 13.4 percent of Afghans sympathize with the Taliban [PDF]. When intra-Afghanistan peace talks started in 2020, 54 percent of Afghans said they believed Afghanistan could achieve peace within the next two years [PDF].

What’s next for the Taliban?

The Taliban signed a peace agreement with the administration of US President Donald J. Trump in February 2020 and agreed to enter into the first direct peace talks with the Afghan government. However, talks within Afghanistan did not begin until September due to disputes over prisoner exchange. Little progress has been made and both sides reportedly are still deciding what should be on the agenda.

Experts say Taliban negotiators and Afghan government officials are waiting to see how the Joe Biden administration will move forward in the troop withdrawal. In the US-Taliban deal, the United States pledged to withdraw all US and NATO troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 if the Taliban fulfilled its commitments, including cutting ties with terrorist groups.

Authorities argue that the Taliban has not fulfilled and that the delayed start of negotiations within Afghanistan has changed the timeline for the troops withdrawal. The Biden administration has not yet said whether it will ask for an extension of the withdrawal period; Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group warns that the US decision to keep its troops in Afghanistan indefinitely “will kill the peace process”.

During the intra-Afghan debate, many questions need to be resolved, such as how to share power with the Taliban, what will happen to Afghanistan’s democratic institutions and constitution, and how to protect the rights of women, LGBTQ + individuals and religious minority groups. . Taliban representatives said they would protect women’s rights under sharia, but gave little detail on what it would look like in practice.

Questions remain as to whether Taliban fighters will be disarmed and reintegrated into society, and who will lead the country’s army. The Taliban wants to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan, ideally as an emirate, to be led by a religious leader and legitimized by clerics. Afghanistan is currently an Islamic republic ruled by a president and legitimized by universal suffrage and compliance with international laws and norms.

Analysts disagree on the causes of the Taliban and what the group wants from the intra-Afghan talks. Some experts and Afghans fear that the US-Taliban deal is simply an attempt to drive foreign forces out of Afghanistan and could eventually lead to a new conflict that will allow the Taliban to regain control. For the Taliban, “peace does not mean the end of the war, it means the end of the US occupation,” says Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal. “After the United States leaves, it will work to balance Taliban points and reestablish the Islamic emirate.”

Recommended Resources:

In its 2021 report, the Afghanistan Study Group offers recommendations for U.S. policy in Afghanistan [PDF].

In Foreign Affairs, Matthew S. Reid and Cybele C. Greenberg discuss Afghanistan’s opium problem.

This RAND Corporation report examines the possible disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration [PDF] of Taliban fighters.

Writing for the U.S. Institute of Peace, Barnett R. Rubin unpacks constitutional issues [PDF] in the Afghan peace negotiations.

CFR’s explains Biden’s options for a withdrawal from Afghanistan.