The Taliban have again taken up residency on the front pages of our newspapers. Bill Moyers asks historian (and one-time Pakistan resident) Juan Cole a question many of us might feel silly asking after all of these years of war in Afghanistan and worry over Pakistan: “Who are the Taliban and what do they want?”
What we're calling the Taliban, it's actually a misnomer. There are, like, five different groups that we're swooping up and calling the Taliban. The Taliban, properly speaking, are seminary students. They were those refugee boys, many of them orphans, who went through the seminaries or Madrassas in northern Pakistan back in the nineties. And then who emerged as a fighting force. Then you have the old war lords who had fought with the Soviet Union, and were allied with the United States. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, they have formed insurgent groups to fight the Americans now. Because they had fought the Soviet occupation, they now see an American occupation, so they've turned on the United States. They were former allies.
So we're calling them Taliban. And then you have a lot of probably disorganized villagers whose poppy crops, for instance, were burned. And they're angry. So they'll hit a NATO or American checkpoint. So we're scooping all of this up. And then the groups in northern Pakistan who are yet another group. And we're calling it all Taliban.
Want more? The interview (which also includes Pakistani-American journalist Shahan Mufti) is a must read for anybody trying to make sense of our growing entanglement in Afghanistan and Pakistan.