Who are the Taliban? We still see this question floating around a fair amount on social media and online. People also tend to confuse them with al-Qaeda. Now that the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan at a lightning pace over the last two weeks they claim to have been “reformed.”

Hallelujah! Can I get an “Amen!”

Yeah. Right.


Not As Many As You Think

For a really deep dive into the Taliban, I highly recommend the book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, offers an excellent history of the Taliban. This is probably the most authoritative English language profile of them.

In Pashto, the word “Taliban” means “seekers” or “students.” Pashto is the language spoken by Pashtuns, the largest ethnic and tribal group in Afghanistan. Pashtuns, which make up 48 percent of the population, are of Iranian-Persian descent. They are also the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistan.

Sher Ali Khan
Sher Ali Khan (middle) and company, in 1869, during the Second Afghan War with the British. Ali Khan was the Pashtun emir of Afghanistan from 1868 until 1879. He was the founder of the Barakzai Dynasty which continued to rule until 1973.

Most Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are Pashtun. This adds to the division and rivalry between the Taliban and other ethnic tribes in the region. There are an estimated 60-70 million Pashtuns in the region. By comparison, there are an estimated 60,000-70,000 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. This could point to a lack of popular support for the group.

What the Taliban seek is an Islamic emirate or a government based on Islam. Yet, their interpretation of Islam is a strict and extreme one.