The Taliban are the ugly offspring of the Cold War who came to power in the 90’s as a result of US and Soviet meddling in Afghanistan.
The Taliban are not the same as the mujahideen, a strange talking point on twitter which flattens a more complicated and nuanced history.
Both however are a product of imperial meddling.
In the 1970’s Afghanistan’s president Daud Khan undertook an aggressive policy of modernizing the country.
He relied heavily on foreign aid from the United States and the Soviet Union in particular.
This was the reality of Afghanistan going back to its earliest history as a nation: having to navigate the influence of two great empires.
Emir Abdur Rahman equated it to being a swan in a lake with a tiger on one shore and bear on the other.
Daud Khan attempted to leverage this precarious position famously stating he preferred to light his American cigarettes with Russian matches.
As a result the major employer in Afghanistan was the government and that government relied entirely on foreign aid.
The result was an enduring economic crisis the bred corruption, scarcity, and economic disparity.
One of the results of Daud Khan’s modernizing efforts was a new generation of university-trained professors, journalists, military commanders, and government officials.
This generation of thinkers were drawn heavily to the vision of reform.
They fell into two camps: the Khalqis who sought change by any means including revolution and the Parchamis who sought a more gradual reform based on political mobilization.
The relationship between Daud Khan and these groups soured and after attempting to repress them, Khalqi-aligned young military officers overthrew him.
Daud Khan and his entire family were wiped out in what would later be called the Saur Revolution of 1978.
The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was led by Nur Muhammad Taraki allied with the Soviet Union.
Initially the Soviet Union was caught unaware and was somewhat hesitant.
The new DR of Afghanistan was progressive and made great strides in women’s education, economic reforms, literacy, and access to healthcare.
The United States viewed the revolution as a major threat. However, there was not a single formal response to it.
We often hear the US created the mujahedeen that is not true, though some would love to take credit.
The DR of Afghanistan was unfortunately wildly repressive. Despite the progress and reforms, they also had a habit of disappearing people. Under Taraki and his right-hand man Hafizullah Amin upwards of 20,000 people or more were killed in imprisonment camps.
This resulted in armed resistance. Once they attempted land reforms, the rural landowners joined in open revolt.
This resistance became the mujahideen.
They were not a singular group, nor did they have a unified ideology.
There were made up of 4 groups of people roughly aligned
The most organized were reactionary Islamist factions led by individuals like Hekmatyar a particularly vile man who carried out acid attacks on women and who desired a Qutb-inspired jihad.
He was allied with the various rural mullahs.
And the more moderate Ahmad Shah Massoud
The second segment were disaffected leftists and Maoists who had been suppressed by the new government.
The third was actually the junior offices of the PR of Afghanistan who were part of the revolution but who quickly grew disillusioned and defected.
Finally, the bulk of them were simply ordinary Afghans who didn’t take up arms until later.
The DR of Afghanistan’s continued reprisals was a source of concern for the Soviet Union.
In March 1979, Brezhnev warned Taraki that his repressive tactics was fomenting a resistance. Taraki dismissed the concern.
The United States exploited this to its advantage by aligning itself with the more organized elements of the mujahideen and funds were funneled to Pakistan’s ISI who were deeply worried about the revolution which took place just across the border.
The internal divisions in the DR of Afghanistan escalated with Hafizullah Amin killing his boss and taking charge.
Even more violent than Taraki, his reprisals bolster the resistance.
He reached out to the Soviet Union for military support specifically in the form of advisers and equipment (dude really wanted helicopters) but again the Soviet Union was hesitant noting that any involvement would escalate the situation.
They were also aware the majority of the mujahideen were just ordinary people and had hoped that by altering DR of Afghanistan’s tactics they can mollify this group.
Things changed when the Soviet Union got wind of a rumor that Amin was making overtures to the United States. The fear of a proposed “Ottoman plan” would spur them to action.
Early the Soviet Union had accurately assessed that any involvement would not only be messy but would foment resistance.
But the threat of the US getting a foothold and the reality that the US was already meddling with funds meant the cost of noninvolvement was too high.
The Soviet Union invaded.
Operation Storm 333 was activated; they stormed the presidential palace, killed their one-time ally Amin and his family and installed Babrak Karmal.
The invasion triggered two things: first it led to the final group of the mujahideen to take up arms. This was the bulk of the mujahideen; just ordinary people who fought an invasion by a foreign power.
Second, the United States threw its full support to some segments of the mujahideen.
While the US initially had a muddled policy, some like Brzezinski had been angling for an invasion for a while.
He says he wrote to the Carter “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.
The US escalated by increasing funds, setting up training camps, and bringing in Saudi Arabia and China. The hope was to foster jihadism as an alternative to communism.
The four countries: the US, China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia became the main backers of the mujahideen.
Interestingly US analysts were annoyed by their attempts to train the mujahideen.
The group did their own thing and refused to organized like a formal military.
In fact one documents complains that Afghans had their own sense of time (something anyone from related cultures can attest to if you’ve ever tried to attend a wedding lol).
Basically, when it was time for tea, Afghans would drop their guns and just chill.
The US mostly allied with the more organized segments of the mujahideen like Hekmatyar but most of the mujahideen were an organic resistance.
The United States also began producing textbooks to ostensibly teach children how to read and count, but included images of violence and militant rhetoric aimed at disciplining children into a type of American-style patriotism with jihad.
Textbooks like the following included images of bombs and bullets and phrases like my uncle uses this gun in his jihad against the Russians
These textbooks were used in refugee camps in Pakistan. It is from these camps the Taliban were born.
After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union the various factions of the mujahideen turned on one another, even go so far as shelling Kabul.
The Taliban were the second generation, a group who grew up in refugee camps, were trained by US textbooks, and then returned to Afghanistan in the midst of its mujahideen civil war.
After the Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan’s ISI had hoped their ally Hekmatyar would be useful, but he turned away. Worried about Hekmatyar and the mujahideen’s design, the ISI turned to the Taliban.
Major-General Naseerullah Babar called the Taliban “my boys.
With new arms and training they entered the fray led by an older mujahideen commander, Mullah Omar.
In 1994 the Taliban was born.
By 1996 they had established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan exploiting the divisions of the mujahideen and the vacuum left behind by a great power (sound familiar?).
Unlike now, the Taliban in the 90’s never fully conquered Afghanistan.
Segments of the mujahideen continued their resistance fighting against the Taliban and holding important pockets.
Even more interestingly, the US-made textbooks are still in use by the Taliban. They’ve simply crossed out where it says “Russian” and replaced it with “American.”
The Taliban were born in displacement camps, forged by war, nurtured by imperial meddling, and the ugly offspring of the Cold War.