“Talib”: Scholar or Fighter?

By Frank Blechman

Taliban | Quick Take - As It HappensWith the military success of the Taliban, the Islamic political movement now ruling Afghanistan, many Americans are wondering, “Who are these people?” “What do they want?” “What does this mean?” Americans asking these questions are not just lightly educated news readers, but supposed scholars within the national defense and national security establishments. Somehow, the experts claim ‘surprise’ at the rapid pace of recent events.

I am not an expert on Afghanistan, Islamic theology, or military strategy, which gives me the license to explain all this as I understand it.

The term “taliban” means, effectively, “the student/scholar coordinating committee.”

  • The word talib is an Arabic term for “student” or “scholar.” As has been the case with many movements for social change, it was students who, in the 1970s and ‘80s, organized resistance to outside influences on their culture. Seeing the British, the Russians, and more recently the Americans as corrupting influences, they tried to purify their communities through personal example, personal leadership, and ultimately, direct action. The term taliban means, effectively, “the student/scholar coordinating committee.”
  • By 1994, the Taliban has emerged as one of the leading factions in the civil war against the Russian occupation, which was supported by many outside groups, including the Saudi engineer Osama bin Laden and the US Central Intelligence Agency. As Russian forces withdrew, the Taliban under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar took control of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and established strict enforcement of their version of Sharia Islamic law. Women and  religious and ethnic minorities suffered severe restrictions and penalties. Recognizing only the governments of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, the Taliban welcomed private support, which included Al-Qaeda.
  • Following the 9/11/2001 attacks on the United States coordinated by Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, a US invasion ousted the Taliban from power, but did little to restrain the schools (particularly within the Pashtun regions of the country) where the strict fundamentalist fires from which the Taliban sprang continued to burn.
  • Since 2016, the Taliban have engaged in active insurgency against the Western-supported government of Ashraf Ghani. Areas in which the Taliban took control during this civil war suffered considerably, caught in the middle between forces and punished by both sides for being there.
  • Starting under President Trump in 2020, the United States announced that it’s forces would be withdrawn. Once a final date for withdrawal was set in May 2021 by President Biden, “peace” negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government stalled, and war for control of the country accelerated.
  • Back in power last week, the Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada has proclaimed that the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) will seek friendship and cooperation with all neighbors, and recognize the rights and privileges of women and minorities, ‘within Islamic law.’ It is unclear what this means, although it is clearly intended to neutralize some international opposition to its authority.

For women and minorities especially, the return of the Taliban promises nothing but tragedy.

I share the view that the rapid collapse of the established government of Afghanistan shows that neither it nor its policies ever gained broad or deep popular support. Those who cooperated or supported the government or its policies now face severe retribution. For women and minorities especially, the return of the Taliban promises nothing but tragedy.

I can hope that the failure of Western efforts (under UN auspices, but largely financed and led by the United States) may mark the end of our delusion that everybody really wants to be just like us, given a chance. Of course, we should have learned that lesson years ago.

I have no hopeful thoughts for those who worked with us that we have now left behind. My only positive thought at the moment is that President Biden had the integrity to come before the cameras and acknowledge that while he did not cause most of this mess, he now ‘owns’ it in the political sense. I salute his statements that “… there was never a good time to get out of Afghanistan….,” and “…not one more American should die for a cause the Afghan people did not support….”

I believe that looking back, most voters will reject those who — without any strategy whatsoever — wanted to continue this war forever.

Politically, I actually hope that the GOP tries to make an issue in 2022 about Democrats “losing Afghanistan.” We have 15 months until the midterm congressional elections. I believe that looking back, most voters will reject those who — without any strategy whatsoever — wanted to continue this war forever.

Let’s all hope that we will help thousands more endangered Afghans find refuge. If the opportunity arises, let us welcome them into our communities, and support their difficult journey toward a new life. We owe each other that much, at least.


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