Who are the Taliban? A primer for middle school students

My previous post about how the Taliban shot 15-year old Malala Yousafzai explored some basics about Malala’s situation and about life in Pakistan, but we were left with these large questions: WHAT IS THE TALIBAN?  WHY WAS THE TALIBAN RULING?  IS THE TALIBAN STILL RULING? CAN’T THE GOVERNMENT OF PAKISTAN STOP THE TALIBAN? 

Indeed, who are the Taliban and what are they trying to do?  Why would they be so opposed to a girl getting an education?

The basic answer is that the Taliban are a group of radical Muslims from the Pashtun ethnic background. Okay, what does that mean? Pashtun?  Muslim?  I’m a middle school student just starting to engage with world events.  Help me out here!

For the purpose of this blog post, I’m assuming students know something about Islam and Muslims — if we had not introduced the topics of Islam previously, we would explore that topic in some depth at Triangle Learning Community middle school (opening in fall 2014).

As for Pashtun, here’s a map showing in orange where the Pashtun ethnic group is concentrated — mainly along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Now that we have a sense of where the Taliban come from, let’s look at this first paragraph from the Wikipedia article about the Taliban:

Okay, so the Taliban come from Pashtun areas, and they managed to rule large parts of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, including the capital city of Kabul.  They originated, or at least had their first stronghold, in the city of Kandahar (see the map below — Kabul and Kandahar are both in Afghanistan)

The leader of the Taliban is a man named Mohammed Omar — more about him later. And in the Taliban’s view, women should be repressed. Here’s an excerpt from a Wikipedia article about the Taliban’s treatment of women.

While in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban became notorious internationally for their treatment of women. The stated aim of the Taliban was to create a “secure environments where the chasteness and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct,”[1] reportedly based on Pashtunwali beliefs about living in purdah.[2]

Afghan women were forced to wear the burqa at all times in public, because, according to one Taliban spokesman, “the face of a woman is a source of corruption” for men not related to them.[3] In a systematic segregation sometimes referred to as gender apartheid, women were not allowed to work, they were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, and until then were permitted only to study the Qur’an.

From the previous post, we saw that Malala wears a hijab, but apparently the Taliban want women to wear something called a burqa when in public.

If we hadn’t talked yet about a burqa, we could find out what one looks like using a Google Image Search:

And we’d also have to make sure students know about the qur’an, the holy book of Islam.

It’s difficult to simulate how I’d teach this material to students at TLC, because so much of our approach depends on letting student inquiry direct the discussion. For now, let’s assume students understand some of the basics of Islam, and are interested in the Taliban as a political and military force — one that can apparently shoot a 15-year old girl and threaten a 17-year old girl without the authorities in Pakistan stopping them.

To have enough context to “get” where the Taliban come from, I think we have to go back to at least World War II.  To simplify big-time, between about 1939 and 1945, the world was at war. Some of the bigger players were the US and USSR, which allied with Great Britain against Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Here’s where Germany and Japan controlled:

Eventually, the US and USSR won World War II.  But soon after the war, the former allies — both of which had developed nuclear weapons (US in 1945 and USSR in 1949) — looked suspiciously at each other.

For four decades, they fought against each other in a conflict known as the “Cold War,” which is distinguished from a hot war, or regular war, because in the “Cold War,” the US and USSR never fought each other directly.  They fought indirectly by arming other countries and supporting their side — effectively they battled for control of the world, and any weak country would represent a possible place where the US or USSR could extend its influence.  In a famous speech, Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England, talked about how an “Iron Curtain” had divided Europe into the East (Soviet) and the West (US and Great Britain).

Here’s a map, from a Western perspective, showing the “Soviet Threat” in red:

Again, in a massive oversimplification, the US spread capitalism and democracy (Blue) and the USSR spread communism (Red).  One of the areas where the USSR looked to spread its influence was Afghanistan, which the USSR invaded in 1979.

In response, the US boycotted (did not attend as a sign of protest) the 1980 Olympics, held in Moscow.  And to retaliate, the USSR boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.  Tensions between the US and USSR were big until 1989, when the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the Cold War, began to be dismantled. By 1991, the “cold war” was over.

How does all this relate to Afghanistan? (which, by the way, joined the USSR in boycotting the Olympics in 1984)

Well, the US was supporting forces in Afghanistan known as the mujahideen, who were trying to kick the USSR out of Afghanistan. There’s an old saying that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  By that logic, the US became friends with the rebels called the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Here’s a blurb from the Wikipedia article about Afghanistan:

Between 1979 and 1989, the country experienced a major war between the US-backed mujahideen forces and the Soviet-backed Afghan government in which over a million Afghans lost their lives.[20][21] This was followed by the 1990s Afghan civil war, the rise and fall of the extremist Taliban government and the 2001–present war.

So the Taliban were able to come to power because after the USSR pulled out of Afghanistan, the US support for the mujahideen forces also dried up, and Afghanistan was left with a “power vacuum” — nobody strong was in power.  The Taliban emerged to fill the power vacuum.

Here’s a long excerpt from the Wikipedia article about the Taliban — let’s read this and then try to understand it, sentence by sentence:

The most often-repeated story and the Taliban’s own story of how Mohammed Omar first mobilized his followers is that in the spring of 1994, neighbors in Singesar told him that the local governor had abducted two teenage girls, shaved their heads, and taken them to a camp where they were raped. 30 Taliban (with only 16 rifles) freed the girls, and hanged the governor from the barrel of a tank. * * *

In the beginning the Taliban numbered in the hundreds, were badly equipped and low on munitions. Within months however 15,000 students arrived from the madrassas in Pakistan.[48] The Taliban’s first major military activity was in 1994, when they marched northward from Maiwand and captured Kandahar City and the surrounding provinces, losing only a few dozen men.[49] When they took control of Kandahar in 1994, they forced the surrender of dozens of local Pashtun leaders who had presided over a situation of complete lawlessness and atrocities.[49][50] The Taliban also took-over a border crossing at Spin Baldak and an ammunition dump from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In the course of 1994, the Taliban took control of 12 of 34 provinces not under central government control.

The main idea is that Afghanistan had a weak government (power vacuum) once the USSR pulled out, and the Taliban formed as a group that opposed the ruling government.  The Taliban recruited many of its members from nearby Pakistan, and had a major victory at Kandahar.

So let’s look again at that map of Afghanistan and Pakistan to see where the border is, and to see where Kandahar is located:

Starting in 1996, and running up to 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

As we read above, the Taliban is led — at least spiritually — by a man named Mohammed Omar – here’s a blurb about him from his Wikipedia entry:

Mullah Mohammed Omar (Pashto: ملا محمد عمر‎; born c. 1959), often simply called Mullah Omar, is the spiritual leader of the Taliban. He was Afghanistan‘s de facto head of state from 1996 to late 2001, under the official title “Head of the Supreme Council”. He held the title Commander of the Faithful of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was recognized by only three nations: PakistanSaudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He is thought to be living somewhere in Pakistan.

And here are two pictures of him, courtesy of a Google Image Search:

So that’s a start to unpacking the Taliban.

If students read this, please write comments and questions below and I’ll try to address your questions.

I also found a 90-minute video made by National Geographic called Inside the Taliban.  It should not be online (copyright violation), but it is, and I watched the first 12 minutes of it so far.  It explains some about how Mohammed Omar came to power, and how he lost his right eye, which you can see in the pictures above, does not look good.

Here are the first few paragraphs of a profile of Mohammed Omar from May 2011 — now that we have some context about the Taliban, these paragraphs should make a bit more sense:

During five years in charge of the country, he rarely visited the capital and was hardly seen except by his inner circle. He was never interviewed by a foreign journalist and few photographs of him exist.

Born in obscurity around 1960 in rural southern Afghanistan he has become one of America’s most wanted men, with a $10 million bounty on his head.

Mullah Omar rose to prominence as a Mujahideen commander fighting the Russian occupation around the southern city of Kandahar.

He lost his right eye during the fighting and when the government was defeated he returned to his home as village cleric in a rural valley west of the city.

However, when the Russians were replaced by predatory warlords, who robbed, raped and abused the villagers, Mullah Omar was chosen by his former comrades to lead a militia of fighters who would restore order.

So this is an example of how we will do things at TLC.  Recently (Jan 9, 2014), I found a nice summary by the BBC that does a nice job explaining Who are the Taliban?  It’s worth a read.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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