The Taliban Story: Afghanistan’s Complex Nationhood (Part 1)
Photo Source: Indian Express

By Arun Anand-

The Taliban Story: Afghanistan’s Complex Nationhood (Part 1)
Photo Source: Indian Express


This is first of the multi- part series on Taliban. This series would bring ‘The Taliban Story’ to our readers. You can share the feedback at [email protected]. Here is the first part.

Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, which was decimated two decades ago by the United States and NATO forces has resurrected itself and recaptured the power in Afghanistan. It appears to be more formidable than before. The defence of Afghanistan’s security forces fell like nine pins and within months Taliban was able to capture the power in Afghanistan.

Surprisingly, the US and NATO as well as Russia, all those who have fought Taliban and opposed Islamic fundamentalist in post 9/11 era, have been trying to strike a deal with Taliban. This is intriguing for those who are unaware about the complexities of global power play where countries look out for their interests and ‘real politik’ takes precedence over moral grandstanding.

There are complex geostrategic and geopolitical issues that must be looked into if one wants to understand the phenomenon called ‘Taliban’. And one has to start from the beginning.

Afghanistan is a complex country and Afghan nationhood is even more complex due to the historic developments that took place in in the region. The origin of Taliban is rooted in the complexities related to the evolution of modern Afghanistan.

Modern Afghanistan is a landlocked country with an area of around 2,45,000 square miles. ‘The country is split by a north-south divide along the massive Hindukush mountain range. Although there was much intermingling of races in the 20th century, a rough division shows, to the south of the Hindu Kush live majority of Pashtuns and some Persian speaking ethnic groups, to the north live the Persian and Turkic ethnic groups. The Hindukush itself is populated by Hazaras(many of them migrated to Pakistan and other parts of the world after facing ethnic cleansing by Taliban in 1990s, though in Pakistan they continue to face the persecution) and Tajiks. In the far north-east corner, the Pamir mountains which Marco Polo called ‘the roof of the world’ abut Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. The inaccessibility of the Pamirs means that there is little communication between the myriad of diverse and exotic ethnic groups who live in its high, snow bound valleys.’[i]

Afghanistan has experienced influence of Persian empires as well as the Turkic nomadic empires, in addition to the earlier influence of ‘Hindu Civilisation.’

Several invaders and conquerors have swept through Afghanistan since fourth century BC. In 329 BC, Macedonial Greeks under Alexander had conquered Central Asia and Afghanistan before invading India where they met their match and had to retreat. This Greek invasion in Afghanistan also resulted, interestingly, in fusion of Greek-Buddhist culture. This is arguably the only known fusion between Asian and European cultures.

By 654 AD, Arab armies swept through Afghanistan and forcibly converted the residents of this region to Islam. From 874 to 999 AD, Afghanistan was under Persian Saminid dynasty. From 977 to 1186, it was ruled by Ghaznivad dynasty which had plundered several parts of north west India, Punjab and eastern Iran.

In 1219 Mongols led by Genghis Khan captured Afghanistan. They destroyed well-established Afghan cities such as Herat and Balkh. Thousands were massacred, maimed and raped brutally by Mongol army. However, some Mongols also contributed, unintentionally, in diversifying the ethnic fabric of Afghanistan by getting married to the locals and this gave birth to a new community called ‘Hazaras’ which has been persecuted widely in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan by Islamic fundamentalist forces.

Around 160 years later, another successor of Gengis Khan, Taimur or Tamerlane as he is known in the west, captured Herat in 1381. While Taimur, who had built a vast Timurid empire on the foundation that comprised mounds of dead bodies, loot, plunder and all kind of inhuman acts, had kept his capital at Samarkand, which is in modern day Uzbekistan, his son Shahrukh moved the capital to Herat in 1405.

Herat, over a period of time had emerged as one of the most beautiful, habitable and culturally rich and artistic cities of the world. Herat, which earlier had Persian influence, now also got the Turkic nomadic influence and the fusion between the two is an important cultural context that must be counted whenever Afghanistan and Taliban are looked at from any perspective.

From the beginning of 15th century, for almost 300 years several eastern Afghan tribes invaded India also and many of them ruled at Delhi. The Afghan Lodhi dynasty ruled Delhi from 1451 to 1526 . Taimur’s descendant Babur , who was driven out of his home in Ferghana valley in Afghanistan went on to capture Kabul in 1504. Later, he also captured Delhi and established Mughal dynasty which ruled in certain parts of India till the British brought India under the colonial rule.

However by 16th century, the Timurid dynasty had lost its sheen and Afghanistan went back under the umbrella of Persian rule under the Safavid dynasty.

‘This series of invasions resulted in a complex ethnic, cultural and religious mix that was to make Afghan nation building extremely difficult. Western Afghanistan was dominated by speakers of Persian or Dari as the Afghan Persian dialect is known. Dari was also spoken by the Hazaras in Central Afghanistan, who were converted to Shiism by the Persians thereby becoming the largest Shia group in an otherwise Sunni territory. In the west, the Tajiks, the repositors of Persia’s ancient culture also spoke Dari. In Northern Afghanistan, the Uzbeks, Turcomans, Kyrgyzs and others spoke the Turkic languages of Central Asia. And in the south-east , the Pashtun tribes spoke their own tongue Pashto -a mixture of Indo-Persian languages.’[ii]

(To be continued)



[i] Taliban: The Story of Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan books, 2001 ed.(pp 7-8)


[ii] Taliban: The Story of Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan books, 2001 ed.(pp 9-10)