The Taliban Story: Rivalries, Coups and Making of a Fragmented Afghanistan (Part 2)
Photo Source:

By Arun Anand-

The Taliban Story: Rivalries, Coups and Making of a Fragmented Afghanistan (Part 2)
Photo Source:

This multi-part series brings ‘The Taliban Story’ to our readers. You can share the feedback at [email protected]. Here is the second part

During the 18th century, the Persian Safavid dynasty, Moghuls, and the Uzbek Janid dynasty, all were on the decline. The southern Pashtuns in Afghanistan took advantage of this situation and started the formation of a new Afghanistan. However, the Pashtuns were also a divided house, and the impact of these divisions is visible today in the fault lines in Afghanistan’s polity, politics, and security. Taliban is primarily a Pashtun force but the deep divisions within Pashtuns challenge the façade of ‘Pashtun’ unity or ‘Islamic unity’ in Afghanistan. The fault lines are clear and distinct, and they have been there more than 500 years.

The division between the Pashtuns is an important reference point that needs to be taken into account especially in the context of the fertile ground created for the rise and emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s. This ground was created due to the historical developments which had started in 15th century Afghanistan and went full-throttled in the 18th century.

Hence, we need to go back more than a little bit to understand the historic evolution of the ecosystem that sustains, promotes, and nurtures forces like the Taliban whose backbone is largely Pashtuns.

‘The Pashtun tribes were divided into two major sections the Ghilzai and Abdali who later called themselves Durrani. The Pashtuns trace their genealogy to Qais, a companion of Prophet Mohammed. As such they consider themselves a Semitic race although anthropologists consider them to be Indo-Europeans, who assimilated numerous ethnic groups over the course of history. The Durranis claim descent from Qais’ eldest son Sarbanar while the Ghilzais claim descent from his second son. Qais’ third son is said to be the ancestor of other diverse Pashtun tribes such as Kakars in Kandhar and the Safis around Peshawar.[i] In the sixth century Chinese and Indian sources speak of Afghans/Pashtuns living east of Ghazni. These tribes began a westward migration to Kandahar, Kabul, and Herat from the 15th century. By the next century, the Ghilzais and the Durranis were already fighting each other over land disputes around Kandahar. Today the Ghilzai homeland lies south of the Kabul River between the ‘Safed Koh’ and Suleman range on the east to Hazarajat in the west and down to Kandahar in the south.’[ii]

In 1709, there was a rebellion against the Persian ruler Safavid Shah who was ruling in Afghanistan also. The rebellion broke out in Kandahar, and it was led by a Ghilzai Pashtun leader who was also chief of the Hotaki tribe. His name was Mir Wais. One of the key reasons fueling this rebellion was attempts by Shah to convert the Sunni Pashtuns into Shias. This historical animosity is significant as it still exists in the Taliban. The Taliban are fervent Sunnis. This historical animosity is evident from the Taliban’s hostility towards Iran and Afghan Shias, almost three hundred years later.

Mir Wais’ son conquered Iran also but Afghans were defeated and driven out from Iran in 1729. The Ghilzai power was on descendance. Taking advantage of the situation, their rival Abdali’s captured power. In 1747, an Afghan confederation was formed following a nine-day-long meeting of the tribal chiefs. Such meetings are known as ‘Loya Jirga’. Ahmed Shah Abdali was chosen to lead this Confederation and he changed the name of this confederation from Abdali to Durrani.

Over the next 200 years, the Durrani clan ruled Afghanistan. This rule came to an end in 1973 when Zaheer Shah, the last Durrani King of Afghanistan was deposed in a coup led by his own cousin Mohammed Daud Khan. The latter declared Afghanistan as a republic. Meanwhile, the bitter rivalry between the Ghilzai and Durrani tribes continued.

‘Just five years later in April 1978, Marxist sympathizers in the Army, who had been trained in the Soviet Union and some of whom had helped Daud to power in 1973 overthrew him in a bloody military coup. Daud, his family, and the Presidential Bodyguard were all massacred. But the Communists were bitterly divided into two factions the Khalq (the masses) and Parcham(the flag). The first Khalqi communist president Nur Mohammed Taraki was also murdered while his successor Hafizullah Amin was killed when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and installed the Parcham leader Babrak Karmal as president.

‘Within a few short dramatic months, Afghanistan had been catapulted into the center of the intensified cold war between the Soviet Union and the USA. The Afghan Mujaheddin were to become the US-backed anti-Soviet shock troops. But for the Afghans, the Soviet invasion was yet another attempt by outsiders to subdue them and replace their time-honored religion and society with an alien ideology and social system. The Jihad took on new momentum as the USA, China and Arab states poured in money and arms supplies to the Mujahideen. Out of this conflict, which was to claim 1.5 million Afghan lives and only end when Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, would emerge as the second generation of Mujaheddin who called themselves Taliban (or the students of Islam).’ [iii]

(To be continued)

[i] Taliban: The story of the Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan books(pp-10)

[ii] State and the Tribe in Nineteenth-Century Afghanistan by Christine Noelle, Curzon Press, London, 1997

[iii] Taliban: The story of the Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan books(pp-13)