The Taliban is both a product of and a reaction to the civil war that has gripped Afghanistan since the demise of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992. The movement developed out of refugee Koranic schools in Pakistan. Taliban leaders declared a holy war against the various warlords who carved up Afghanistan, and preached the role of strict Islamic rules as a unifying force. This simple message found a ready audience among the largely rural population of southern Afghanistan. Like the Taliban leadership, most southerners are ethnic Pashtun Sunni Muslims who, though accounting for the majority of the Afghan population, had not fared well in the civil war.
The Taliban captured the southern city of Kandahar--where its reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, resides--in late 1994 and the capital, Kabul, last September. In all conquered regions, the Taliban has immediately implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law. Among other things, women are barred from work and most education, and men may not trim their compulsory beards. In southern rural areas, such strictures have been accepted, especially as the Taliban has provided a stable environment for the cultivation of poppies. Domestic drug use is severely punished, but heroin production for export is permitted.
Taliban rule has not been popular with non-Pashtun communities or the more sophisticated, liberal-minded residents of the major cities, especially Kabul. This is unlikely to change. The recent heavy defeat of the Taliban in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif highlights both its failure to incorporate ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, or Shiah Hazaras into its leadership, and its refusal to moderate its Islamic zeal. Even if the Taliban succeeds in conquering the entire country, many areas will remain subject to guerrilla warfare.