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Birth Of The Taliban


Now that a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban has brought Afghanistan back into focus again, we wanted to look back at the origins of this group that first emerged in 1994. At the time, NPR's Greg Myre was a journalist based across the border in Pakistan. He often traveled to Afghanistan to cover a raging civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet troops. He joins us here in the studio to talk about that time. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: What do you remember most about Afghanistan in 1994?

MYRE: Well, a lot of things - but I definitely remember being there on my honeymoon. My wife and I were based in Pakistan. We came back to the States, got married, went back to Pakistan. And then within a couple of weeks, we were off to the capital, Kabul, and covering this nasty civil war. The city was under constant rocket attack. And this was by the warlords at this time, these different factions, but not the Taliban. And that was the last time my wife let me make travel plans.

MONTAGNE: Well, totally understandable, Greg. But you know, at this time - let's remind folks - the Taliban had not taken over the capital, Kabul.

MYRE: That's correct. So in the late summer of '94, the Taliban were formed down in the southern city of Kandahar. And they quickly marched up toward the capital, Kabul. But details were very scarce at this time. I mean, we knew of their existence, but we didn't really know much about them. They reached the outskirts of Kabul early in '95, and I just went out there and talked to them. My interpreter and I got in a car, drove to the edge of the city.

They were a very motley crew. They were all dust-covered, traveling in these old Soviet tanks and jeeps and even some just ordinary sedans. I was one of the first reporters to encounter them. And there were few, if any, photos of the Taliban at that time. I took some really basic snapshots, and they ended up showing up in newspapers and magazines all around the world.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. And I gather they weren't, in a way we think of them now, very particularly scary. I mean, what were they - what were the Taliban saying about their plans?

MYRE: Right. Their message was very simple and clear - end the chaos in Afghanistan, this violence and corruption, and establish a true Islamic government based on Islamic law or sharia law. Now, it was pretty clear they were more extreme than the other groups and faction we had seen, even if we didn't know all the details at that point. We should really stress that many Afghans welcomed the Taliban at first. They hated these ruthless warlords, which had really turned Kabul into a battleground, slaughtering civilians by the tens of thousands. We heard this over and over again - anybody but these warlords - we would welcome the Taliban.

Another very surprising thing at this time - the U.S. was generally pretty positive toward the Taliban. They thought it could break this deadlock among the warring factions. In '96, when the Taliban did takeover, the U.S. called it a potentially positive step. Some U.S. diplomats were meeting with the Taliban. But the Taliban quickly showed their true colors when they banned women from being in public, going to work, being in school. They banned movies and TV and music and had public executions.

MONTAGNE: But you know, it's a quarter century later. So much has changed in Afghanistan. It's become so modernized in certain ways, at least in the cities. Has the Taliban changed, do you think? Are they ready to make peace in Afghanistan?

MYRE: There are certainly some differences. They're much savvier now. They've learned they can't succeed if they try to take on the whole world by themselves. They'll say things like, we won't let other terror groups operate in Afghanistan. We'll tolerate or respect women's rights. So they know what they need to say. And in some ways, this U.S.-Taliban relationship has come full circle since the mid-1990s. The U.S. is, again, talking to the Taliban in negotiating this deal. President Trump really wants this to work and wants U.S. troops out. And we've just seen the beginnings of a drawdown from 13,000 U.S. troops toward 8,600.

But we're also seeing signs of trouble - Taliban attacks, U.S. commanders saying the violence is going to have to come way down. There's supposed to be talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Those haven't got started yet. There's a constant risk of collapse. And again, you have to feel for ordinary Afghans who've been spectators throughout and are just on the sidelines watching this play out.

MONTAGNE: Spectators and victims.

MYRE: That's true.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thanks very much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.