TIME.com Primer: The Taliban and Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban and why are they sheltering Osama bin Laden?

The Taliban, who overran most of Afghanistan in 1996, are a militia driven by an extremely harsh Medieval interpretation of Sunni Islam. Backed by Pakistan and funded by Saudi Arabia, they promised to put an end to the factional warfare that had claimed thousands of lives in the years following the defeat of the country's Soviet puppet government in 1991. The Taliban imposed an extremely repressive, sectarian Islamic regime on the Afghan people, barring women from work and education and even killing Shiite Muslims of the Hazari minority.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Bin Laden had been a hero of the 'jihad' against the Soviet occupiers, and the Taliban welcomed him back to Afghanistan in 1996 after his expulsion from the Sudan. Bin Laden has reportedly cemented his ties to the Taliban leadership through his daughter's marriage to its leader, Mullah Omar. But more importantly, his "Arab Afghan" fighters have played a leading role in the Taliban's ongoing military campaign against its opponents. The Taliban's elite brigade were trained in Bin Laden's camps, and are believed to be loyal to the Saudi terrorist's "Al Qaida" movement.

Is the Taliban the recognized government of Afghanistan? Do they have domestic opposition?

Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's government, and international recognition as a legitimate government remains the movement's most important foreign policy objective. The country's seat at the United Nations is still held by representatives of the government overthrown by the Taliban in 1996, to which the opposition Northern Alliance remains loyal. The Northern Alliance is a loose anti-Taliban coalition that includes remnants of the former Soviet-backed regime, and a number of ethnic minority-based groups fiercely opposed to the Taliban's harsh rule — and also to the principle of being ruled by a government composed only of ethnic Pashtuns. The key component of these forces are the ethnic Tajiks who control the strategically important Pansjir valley. The Taliban have failed to dislodge them despite launching massive annual offensives — but they did strike a body blow last week by assassinating the Northern Alliance's key military leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, the "Lion of the Pansjir." The Northern Alliance forces only control five percent of the country, but the Taliban's harsh regime has provoked growing resentment, even among Afghans who initially welcomed their takeover.

Is it possible that the Taliban would hand over Bin Laden for trial?

It's unlikely, but it's not impossible. The Taliban's priorities are quite different from Bin Laden's — they want to build and consolidate an Islamic state in Afghanistan; he's waging a global jihad. And right now, those priorities are somewhat in conflict, because, as Pakistan has tried to warn its erstwhile protegees, standing with Bin Laden now will spark a confrontation that could see the Taliban overthrown. But the Taliban has become so dependent on Bin Laden's own forces and men loyal to him that they may struggle to rationalize giving him up without facing internal disintegration. They're likely to play for time, and try and fudge the issue, and it wouldn’t be surprising to hear Taliban spokesmen in the very near future proclaiming that Bin Laden has left Afghanistan, regardless of his actual whereabouts.

How have Afghanistan's neighbors responded to the Taliban?

Pakistan has been more than a friend to the Taliban — in many ways it has been mentor and tutor, too, and even, according to opposition groups, an active participant in its rise to power. In geopolitical terms, Pakistan needs to dominate Afghanistan to offset the discomfort of being wedged between hostile neighbors India and (to a lesser, but not insignificant extent) Iran — and the Taliban were to have been their vehicle. But the Bin Laden terror campaign has put Pakistan in a tight spot, where its all-important relations with the West are now dependent on standing against its Afghan progeny, a decision that raises considerable domestic difficulty for Pakistan's leaders.

China shares a small border with Afghanistan, and has been generally supportive of the U.S. call for action against terrorism. Bin Laden's group has trained Islamist fighting for secession in western China, and Beijing would be happy to see an end to the regime in Afghanistan that allows terrorist training camps to be maintained there. The Chinese have moved troops to the border recently, but are unlikely to support any direct U.S. military intervention in their neighborhood, much less allow their own territory to be used. Beijing's importance may lie in the fact that it is Pakistan's key military ally, particularly since that country's nuclear program forced the U.S. to maintain its distance for most of the past decade. China is certainly in a position to put the squeeze on Pakistan’s leadership, but much may depend on Beijing’s attitude to any direct U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.

Tajikistan, the former Soviet republic whose six million people share strong ethnic ties with Afghan Tajiks has long been engaged in Afghanistan, particularly as a key rear base of opposition activity. Wracked by internal conflict, it continues to allow a Russian military presence and has been the staging ground for Russian assistance to Afghan opposition groups. Tajikistan could be an important staging ground for any U.S. military action in Afghanistan — if Russia gives its approval, which remains an open question.

Uzbekistan, another former Soviet republic whose 25 million people share ethnic ties with an anti-Taliban section of the Afghan population, faces an Islamist insurgency of its own, and that intensifies its opposition to Afghanistan's ruling militia. It has served as a rear base for opposition forces based in the north, and could be another important base for U.S. action — once again, if its Russian patron is willing.

Turkmenistan, the third former Soviet republic bordering Afghanistan, is less engaged with events across the border. It appears reluctant to get involved, and like its neighboring "stans" won’t act without Moscow's say-so.

Iran is implacably hostile to the Taliban over that movement's extremist theology and over its killing of Afghan Shiite Muslims. In 1999, Iran almost went to war against the Taliban after its militia killed eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist after capturing a predominantly Shiite town, and has worked together with Russia to support anti-Taliban opposition forces. Despite the overtures between the reformist president Mohammed Khatami and the West on ways of cooperating against terrorism, hard-line spiritual leader Ayatollah Khameini insisted that while Iran condemned the terror strikes in the U.S., Tehran could not support U.S. military action against Afghanistan. Still, whether working directly with the U.S. or not, Iran remains a key regional player in the anti-Taliban alliance.