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A Brief History of the Taliban

People around the world are trying to make sense of the situation in Afghanistan and how the Taliban regained power.

The Taliban took control of much of Afghanistan for the first time in 1996, but the group’s story starts two decades earlier during the heat of the Cold War.

On Monday, President Biden said in his remarks about Afghanistan, “Our mission to degrade the terrorist threat of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and kill Osama bin Laden was a success.”

Robert Crews is a professor of history at Stanford University and a leading scholar on Afghanistan. Crews says the president’s claim is untrue because the Taliban remained and continued to work with radical groups like al-Qaida — which means al-Qaida “likely still exists in Afghanistan” today.

“Looking at this through kind of 20-year lens as we approach 9/11,” he says, “we now confront a moment in which some of the key features of that environment remain intact with the Taliban in Kabul and a host of radical groups still functioning in the country.”

The United States made the mistake of thinking its military defeated the Taliban, he says, when in reality the group “merely scattered” to save havens such as Pakistan.

The U.S. harmed and killed many civilians in Afghanistan while fighting against the Taliban on the battlefield — which increased support for the movement, Crews says. At the same time, Taliban leadership remained focused on restoring an Islamic state in Afghanistan.

On Afghanistan during the Cold War

“We might begin our story in April of 1978 when a group of leftist revolutionaries seized power by force of arms in Kabul and then began to embark on a revolutionary project to introduce socialism to Afghanistan. And early on, both Moscow and Washington began to invest in the future of the country, attempting to back particular groups to shape the future.”

“It really begins in the summer of 1979 when the United States begins to send aid to these emergent groups who claim they're fighting in the name of Islam. They're engaged in what they call a jihad. So they call themselves mujahideen. Their strength then causes Moscow to panic in part. And then we see the Soviet invasion of December 1979, and they managed to fight the Red Army to a standstill with the crucial backing of the United States and especially the covert operations of the CIA. The Red Army had found itself flummoxed by the guerrilla tactics of the mujahideen. But as the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the various mujahadeen parties worked together, but they never formed a cohesive whole. And so they maintained internal rivalries. They fought numerous battles against one another. So as the Soviets began to withdraw, there is a stage for a potential fight among mujahideen. But they managed to partial together temporary coalitions. As a coalition, [the mujahadeen] seize power in 1992 in Kabul and declare an Islamic state.”

Read entire article at WBUR