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NPR's History Podcast 'Throughline' Examines The Rise Of The Taliban

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Taliban took control of Afghanistan over a month ago. The last time they rose to power was in 1996, promising order through a strict interpretation of Sharia law. But how did they become the dominant force in Afghanistan? Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, hosts of NPR's History podcast Throughline, look at the origins of the Taliban, starting with the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan more than 40 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: In 1979, the Soviet Union launched a full-scale military invasion of Afghanistan in an attempt to keep the then-communist government in power. It was one of the most brutal occupations of the 20th century.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in non-English language).

ABDELFATAH: During the war against the Soviets, hundreds of thousands of Afghan children ended up as refugees in neighboring Pakistan. Most lived in refugee camps, where one of the only ways to get an education was to go to Islamic school, also known as madrassa. And those schools often included curriculum designed to indoctrinate children in the ideology of jihad - holy war.

ASFANDYAR MIR: But there was a lot of militarism starting at very young ages.

ABDELFATAH: This is Asfandyar Mir. He's a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is affiliated with Stanford University. He specializes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and South Asia.

MIR: What teachers and the actual content itself would prefer to say, you know, A for Allah.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) A is for Allah, nothing but Allah. That is the beginning of Bismillah.

MIR: When they wanted to, say, indicate quantities, you know, instead of saying two apple, they would say two guns.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) J is for Jannah, the garden of paradise. H is for hajj, the blessed pilgrimage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MIR: And all of this was done to support this war that was going on next door. You know, a lot of madrassas, seminaries were constructed in support of this particular effort with Saudi money.

ABDELFATAH: The interpretation of Islam taught in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, puts out ideas about Islam that are extreme in their strictness.

MIR: The ideological content of the curriculum and a lot of these madrassas had a very strong Wahhabi slant.

ABDELFATAH: But here's the thing - even though Wahhabism was a foreign ideology for most Afghan and Pakistani people, there was a certain Islamic ideology native to South Asia that provided a nice landing pad for Wahhabism. It's called Deobandism.

STEVE COLL: And one of the striking things about the Deobandi school is that it is full of rules and interpretive rules.

ABDELFATAH: This is Steve Coll, a staff writer at The New Yorker and dean of the journalism school at Columbia University.

COLL: Now, if you read the Quran, the Quran is quite a remarkable body of law. It has a lot of specifics in it. But the Deobandi rules, in order to create a community that resembled that which might have existed in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, had to be prescriptive about lots of things the Quran couldn't contemplate, like are tape recorders OK? Are cameras OK? Are kites OK? Very interpretive and very prescriptive.

ABDELFATAH: This new mishmash of Islamic schools of thought was being directly injected into the minds of many young Afghan refugees in Pakistan. And as these boys grew into men, they would return in waves to fight against the Soviets and eventually remake the country in their own image.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: By 1994, Afghanistan had been through a 10-year-long occupation and then a brutal civil war. Thousands had been killed, and millions had fled into exile. There was lawlessness. Different parts of the country were controlled by militia leaders and warlords, mostly along ethnic lines. Ethnic violence continued. Life was dark for most Afghans. And it's in this world that a new group emerged

MIR: Talib - The word Talib means student. They are students of madrassa.

COLL: They started, modestly, as a group of young men who volunteered to fight the Soviet occupation and who had been educated in seminaries.

MIR: Others are said to have had training in seminaries in Pakistan.

COLL: They became well known for their honorable service in the war in the regions where they retired around Kandahar.

ARABLOUEI: Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan, became a hotbed of warlordism. Crime and violence were rampant. Many of the early Taliban leaders were living under these conditions.

COLL: They were pious preachers. They were living poor lives. They were credible.

ARABLOUEI: Steve Coll says some local residents came to them.

COLL: And they said, can't you do something about this?

ARABLOUEI: They began talking amongst themselves and decided they were going to do something about it.

COLL: They raised the flag of Islam and organized themselves as a justice force in the name of religion.

MIR: And their goal, really, is to rid Afghanistan of the instability, violence and the impunity of warlords.

COLL: And they started attacking and making examples out of the warlords that they captured, interrogated. They strung people up. They executed people.

ABDELFATAH: They'd become more than a local vigilante group. They'd restored order to an entire city. And that caught the attention of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMTIN ARABLOUEI'S "UNKNOWN")

MIR: In as early as 1994 - November 1994 - they're providing the Taliban with material aid, firepower. And they're hoping that this will restore order.

COLL: Primarily because Afghanistan is a big and destabilizing at times neighbor of Pakistan. Pakistanis basically make a bet on them - initially, I think, a hedging bet, and then eventually an all-in bet. Like, this is our solution for Afghanistan. I don't think the Taliban would be the factor in Afghanistan or on the world stage that they are if Pakistan did not support them. They are a proxy of Pakistan's desire to exercise political influence in Afghanistan.

ARABLOUEI: And it was with the help of Pakistan's ISI that the Taliban were able to move beyond Kandahar and take all of Afghanistan in 1996.

MARTIN: That was Steve Coll and Asfandyar Mir speaking with Throughline hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah. You can listen to the whole episode wherever you listen to podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMTIN ARABLOUEI'S "UNKNOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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