Beginning in the late 1970s, the United States sent weapons to "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan who were opposing a Soviet occupation. Now, "Islamic extremists" are poised to take over the country. Are these the same people?
Sort of. The Taliban, as the current group is known, have horrified many with their strict enforcement of Islamic law (summary executions, amputations, women completely covered). The head of the Taliban, one Mullah Mohammed Omar, was in fact a low-ranking member of the mujahedeen, the collection of groups labelled "freedom fighters" by Presidents Carter and Reagan. These groups had visions of varying attractiveness. Not all were as extreme as the Taliban. After the Russians withdrew in 1989, the mujahedeen turned to infighting and plunder.
Who are the Taliban? One story is that the Taliban were born in 1994 when Mullah Omar, then a cleric, learned that local warlords were responsible for raping and killing two teenage girls from his village. Omar grabbed a few rifles and hanged the soldiers from the muzzle of a tank. Myth or not, it's certain that within a few months Omar attracted an army and the Taliban occupied a significant portion of Afghanistan.
Over the last four years the Taliban's soldiers have fought the other former mujahedeen, defeating some in battle, convincing others to surrender.