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This investigation will explore the question: “What factors led to the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan after the Soviet-Afghan War?” While some time prior to the Soviet-Afghan War will need to be discussed in order to provide context, the investigation will focus on the events from immediately after Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan to ten years afterwards, enough time to show the Taliban’s growth.
The first source is an online article titled, “Who is Responsible for the Taliban?”, published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, written by Michael Rubin and published 2002 March. The author also has past articles written concerning the state of the Middle East during the Iraq War, suggesting expertise in the region. The document’s purpose is to evaluate who is at fault for the rise of the Taliban. However, in its conclusion, it is clear that the document serves the secondary purpose of downplaying the United States’s role in the Taliban’s rise to power. The document is valuable as it shows internal and external factors that led the Taliban to grow rapidly, while supporting the viewpoint that Pakistan is mainly to blame for the Taliban’s rise to power. However, as expected, the document is limited in its addressing of America’s fault in the Taliban’s rise. The document contains a history of the Taliban’s rise to power from the American perspective, concluding that the United States could have done something about the Taliban, but nothing would have worked in the face of strong Pakistani fundamentalism.
A second source is another online article, entitled, “Afghanistan: The Taliban’s Rise To Power”. This document is an article published 18 October 2001 by Alexandra Poolos, editor for Radio Free Europe, an organization funded by the American government that sends news to countries such as Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. The document’s purpose is to outline the history of the Taliban’s rise to power, beginning from the Soviet withdrawal of Afghanistan up to modern times. The tone of this document is biased against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The article holds value in that it presents the factors that led to the Taliban’s rise to power in an easily digestible format. Its value also stems from its American-based bias, where, due to being a government-supported service, it shows the American government’s belief that the Middle East is to blame for the Taliban. However, the document is similarly limited by its bias, as, by placing the blame solely on the Middle East, it fails to address the role of the Soviet Union and the United States in the Taliban’s rise to power. The document is similar to the first analyzed document in content, as both are a report on the Taliban’s rise to power. However, unlike the first document, this document editorializes the brutal acts and quick acceptance by the Middle East of the Taliban and connects it to 9/11, directly implicating the Middle Eastern countries as at fault for that event also.
The Taliban was an Islamist extremist terrorist organization that began in Pakistan, in the wake of the Soviet-Afghan War. The Taliban began as group of Muslim students (Poolos), but quickly grew into the radical Islamist organization it is best known as within a matter of years. As a group, their goal was to implement their interpretation of Sharia law throughout the region. Their rise to notoriety and power was led by its members but facilitated through external factors, as created by the unrest within the surrounding Middle Eastern countries, the power vacuum left by the Soviet Union after the Soviet-Afghan War, and the inaction of the United States in response to the Soviet Union’s leave.
The Soviet Union had had influence within Afghanistan prior to the Soviet-Afghan War, due to the Communist puppet state-the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan-the Soviets had established within the region in 1970 (Ahmed). This puppet government would prove unpopular, and there would eventually be multiple coups and assassination attempts on the government throughout the 1970s by Islamist groups within Afghanistan (Rubin). However, a successful assassination in 1978 of one of the leaders of the PDPA would then be followed by the Saur revolution led by Muhammad Daoud Khan, who would gain the support of the Soviet Union due to his implementation of an Afghan democratic republican government (Rubin). However, infighting within the Afghan government, along with the rise of the mujahdeen, rebel groups such as the Taliban whom resisted against the regime change, would lead the Soviet Union, currently led by Brezhnev, to feel that internvention was needed against these rebel groups in order to secure their political power within Afghanistan (Rubin). As a result, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan as a campaign against the mujahdeen, as in order to secure the Communist position in Afghanistan, all resistance had to be suppressed.
The Soviet Union began the Soviet-Afghan War with their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (Ahmed). What was expected to be a quick invasion of Afghanistan which would resolve in a matter of weeks would end up becoming a decade-long war of attrition as the United States would quickly step in and support the Afghan rebels after the invasion (US State Gov). The Soviet Union would then end up having spent $5 billion annually in their failed efforts to reinstate their puppet government in Afghanistan (Rubin). As a result of the almost immediate American intervention against the Soviet Union, the Soviet-Afghan war could be perceived as yet another proxy war against the two countries, much like the Vietnam War was in the middle of the 20th century. This failure and eventual loss of the war was largely due to the large amount of aid given by the United States. According to the Washington Institute, the American government began sending aid to the Afghan resistance in response to the Soviet invasion and gradually increased their aid, from $30 million in 1980 to $250 million in 1985 directly to Afghan rebels. This aid was motivated by the American stance during the Cold War in which all attempts of spreading communism were to be contested. With cooperation from the Pakistani ISI, the United States, through the CIA, would also provide arms to the Afghan rebels (Rubin), however after the war these arms were never taken back, thus leaving a large amount of weaponry in the hands of Afghan rebels. As a result, the Soviet Union would eventually concede defeat and withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989 (History of Taliban).
In the wake of Soviet withdrawal the Taliban would quickly grow in the power vacuum and infighting among the mujahdeen left by the departure of both the United States and the Soviet Union. The Taliban would initially have no lack of weaponry with which to arm its members with, as the United States had already covertly supplied the rebel group during the Soviet-Afghan War, and had made no attempt to take the arms back at the end of the war (Rubin). The Taliban also had large amounts of support from Pakistan, due to ethnic and religious bonds between the Shiites within the Taliban and Pakistan (History of Taliban). This support from Pakistan would then provide the manpower required to supplement the leftover American arms and allow the Taliban to grow in power. In Pakistan, many Muslims from various Middle Eastern countries would travel to Pakistan simply to join the Taliban, wanting to join the Taliban due to the Islamic group’s endorsement from countries such as Saudi Arabia (BBC). These travellers to Pakistan would quickly become indoctrinated within one of the 33,000 religious schools located within the country in 1988 which taught the Taliban’s doctrines (Rubin). Support from Pakistan, which was mediated through the Pakistani ISI (Rubin), and manifested in arms and military training, would lead the Taliban to take over Afghanistan throughout the 1990s, culminating in the conquering of Kabul in 1996 (History of Taliban). A further alliance with al-Qaeda would then provided the financial backing the Taliban needed through the illegal dealings that al-Qaeda was a major part of (Poolos). However, bin Laden’s association with al-Qaeda would serve to further radicalize the ideals of the Taliban, as with his association the Taliban would grow more brutal and radical in their Islamic beliefs (Poolos). Regardless of their ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban would continue to grow in land and power, eventually controlling 90% of Afghanistan by 1998 (BBC).
Initially, the rise of the Taliban initially unnoticed by powers such as the United States (Rubin). However, upon learning of the Taliban and their goals, the group was met with tentative optimism by Western powers, and as a result there was no intervention within the Middle East from said countries (Rubin). In the United States, the Taliban was initially perceived as a group that could establish a stable regime in Afghanistan, which would hopefully secure the flow of oil from the Middle East into the United States (Ahmed). The United States, specifically, had strong hopes for the Taliban, since the Taliban was allegedly, “anti-Iran and anti-Shiite” (Poolos). However, this viewpoint would quickly change with the Taliban’s partnership with Osama bin Laden, who by then had already been seen as a public enemy against the United States (Poolos). However, by the time the global perception of the Taliban had changed, it would be far too late for any country to intervene, as by then the Taliban had already claimed Afghanistan and as a result was recognized as the official government of the country by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates (Rubin).
Overall, the Taliban’s rise to power was more due to the actions (or inactions) of other countries allowing the Taliban to flourish after the end of the Soviet-Afghan War. The Taliban’s own internal growth was due to the popularity of joining the Muslim extremist group, especially since, they, as a group, had technically proven their strength against the stronger world powers with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, instead of eventually falling apart like any other non-state sponsored organization, the Taliban remained operational, as they were able to remain functional due to the large amount of resources left to them by the United States and continued patronage by Pakistan. Finally, the idea that the United States is unlikely to have been able to do anything to stop the rise of the Taliban may have been exaggerated to an extent, as while the policy of the presidential administration at the time leaned towards détente (US State Gov), the United States is no stranger to intervening in the Middle East, especially with its covert support of the same Afghan rebels during the Soviet-Afghan War.
This investigation led me to discover the difficulty historians face in their research, especially in researching all potential points of view in a given subject. Through this investigation I feel I have developed a sense of healthy skepticism when reading anything presented to me, and along with that the inquisitiveness needed to explore that skepticism. In order to conduct this study, I analyzed research presented by secondary sources, supplemented by what little primary sources I could find.
During my investigation, I faced various limitations in my research. While the majority of sources used appeared rather straightforward at first glance, it immediately becomes clear upon further research that the majority of American-sourced sources, especially when from the news or from government agencies, carried strong biases which strongly implicated Pakistan to be at fault for the Taliban’s rise to power while also minimizing the impact of American inaction in the reason as a factor in said rise to power. Another factor that was rather limiting was a lack of easily available sources from the Middle Eastern perspective, especially from within the Taliban themselves. Due to the lack of modern recording equipment and information disseminated by the radical group, in contrast to the mass amounts of propaganda produced by the modern Islamic State among its people, it was unlikely to find anything produced by the Taliban pertaining to the topic, especially as it would essentially be a concession by the group that their rise to power was due to external powers rather than their own innate strength. Finally, there was also a similar lack of primary sources readily available from the Soviet viewpoint, which, while expected, was still disappointing nonetheless. Without much quantitative data available about either the Taliban or the Soviet Union, it was therefore impossible to show a correlation between things, such as number of new recruits joining the Taliban or resources supplied by the United States, and global perception, such as the perceived strength of the Taliban over time.
Overall this investigation left me with an appreciation for what historians undertake when they create their conclusions due to the innate difficulty of finding sources to extrapolate into a conclusion. This investigation also left me unsatisfied as I still feel I have not seen every possible point of view within the factors that led to the Taliban’s rise to power after the Soviet-Afghan War.
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