The Taliban are an Islamist militant group that emerged as a political force in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, following the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the civil war that ensued. The Taliban claimed to restore peace, security and Islamic law in the country. They managed to capture most of the territory by 1996, establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Only three countries recognized them: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Taliban regime was notorious for its oppressive rule, especially towards women and minorities. Equally infamous was its support for terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
A US-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power in 2001. Despite their removal, they continued to wage a guerrilla war against the Afghan government and foreign forces. Fast-forward to 2021. The world witnessed a seismic shift in Afghanistan’s geopolitical landscape when the Taliban launched a massive offensive and seized control of the entire country. This resurgence followed the US announcement of its withdrawal, marking the end of a 20-year war. The Taliban declared they would re-establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a statement that would reverberate globally and pose complex questions about the legitimacy of their rule.
The Taliban assert their legitimacy as Afghanistan’s rightful rulers although they have the support of neither the Afghan populace nor the global community. The organization’s claim to legitimacy is rooted in its ideology, relying on three pillars: its supposed connection to the Afghanistan’s historical emirate, its Pashtun ethnic identity and its adherence to the Deobandi school of Islam.
Rekindling the emirate
The Taliban’s right to rule starts with their self-proclaimed position as heirs to Afghanistan’s historical monarchy, officially called the Emirate of Afghanistan. Established in 1826 by Emir Dōst Moḥammad Khān, the emirate symbolized unification under Pashtun leadership and staunch resistance against foreign incursions, particularly from the British and Persians. It marked the country’s first independent state, solidifying its borders and identity.
While facing internal and external challenges like the Anglo-Afghan Wars and Panjdeh Incident, the emirate witnessed significant advancements. Constitutions, flags, anthems, a currency, postal systems and even a nascent railway network all marked notable strides during this period. In 1926, the emirate came to an end when Emir Amanullah Khan declared Afghanistan a “kingdom” with himself as king. The name change marked a shift to a more modernizing, Western-influenced style of governance.
The Taliban strongly reject both a kingdom and a republic as incompatible with their Islamic ideology. They view an emirate as the sole licit, authentic political system for Afghanistan. This stance is further bolstered by their adoption of the original emirate’s name, flag and symbols. They see themselves as its rightful successors, inheriting its legacy and its responsibility to safeguard Afghanistan’s sovereignty against foreign influence.
In their narrative, the British, Soviets and Americans stand as historical invaders and enemies, while their own resistance is a sacred jihad — a struggle for moral correctness. The internationally recognized government and its security forces were illegitimate collaborators in their eyes, puppets of foreign powers. The Taliban strive to establish a pure Islamic state governed by their understanding of Sharia law, with the emirate’s revival serving as a cornerstone of their legitimacy claim.
The horrific obsession of the Deobandi school
Building upon their historical connection to the emirate, the Taliban further bolster their legitimacy with their strict adherence to the Deobandi school of Islam. Born in 19th-century India, Deobandism emerged as a reformist movement that emphasized strict adherence to the Quran and Sunnah, traditional Islamic practices, and social reform. While not entirely rejecting the four conventional Sunni schools of jurisprudence, Deobandis prioritize the direct interpretation of religious texts. They advocate for a literal, conservative understanding of Islam.
This ideology found fertile ground in Afghanistan, particularly among rural Pashtun communities. Deobandi madrasas — colleges dedicated to Islamic study — flourished, educating generations of scholars and religious leaders, including many future Taliban members. The Taliban embraced Deobandi principles as their official creed, shaping their vision for an Islamic state governed by an unwavering understanding of Sharia law.
The Taliban’s specific interpretation of Deobandi principles led them to impose an austere version of Islam in Afghanistan. They banned music, art, entertainment and education for women, viewing these things as incompatible with their morality. Religious minorities, deemed heretical or infidel, faced persecution. While these actions are justified by the Taliban as upholding Deobandi doctrine and defending Islam, they are broadly condemned by Deobandis and the international community.
Crucially, this Deobandi foundation imbues the Taliban’s claim to legitimacy with a unique character. Their fight is cast as a divinely ordained crusade, drawing authority directly from God. This renders modern concepts like democracy and nation-states obsolete in their eyes. They see themselves as instruments of God’s will, liberated from the need for earthly validation through elections or global recognition. This divine mandate, they argue, justifies their actions and grants them unyielding support from their devout followers.
Assimilation, xenophobia and Pashtun identity
The Taliban also draw their legitimacy from their ethnic identity. They are predominantly Pashtuns, members of the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Primarily located in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, Pashtuns constitute approximately 42% of the population. For centuries, Pashtuns have not simply inhabited Afghanistan, but have played a role in shaping its destiny, leaving a legacy that the Taliban now weaponize as their birthright to leadership.
Prior to the ascendancy of the Pashtuns, Mongol and Turkic dynasties ruled Afghanistan. The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed the rise of Pashtun dynasties like Hotak, Durrani and Bārakzai. Their empires stand as testaments to Pashtun political prowess and influence. The Hotakis challenged the Mughal Empire’s dominance by capturing Kandahār Province from them. The Durranis established an empire stretching from Mashhad in Persia to Kashmir and Delhi in India. The Bārakzais shaped the framework of modern Afghanistan and founded the emirate.
This legacy forms the bedrock of the Taliban’s narrative. The Pashtun identity they claim suggests an inherent right to rule stemming from ancestral ties and past achievements. They argue that Pashtuns are not merely Afghanistan’s largest minority but the core of its national identity. For the Taliban, the term “Afghan” itself serves as an synonym of “Pashtun.” (The name, “Afghanistan,” meaning, “Land of Afghans,” first appeared in the 1879 Treaty of Gandamak following the Second Anglo-Afghan War.)
Beyond their historical narrative, the Taliban draw heavily on Pashtunwali, a deeply ingrained ethical and social code that governs Pashtun life. This intricate tapestry of values, encompassing melmastyā́ (hospitality), nənawā́te (asylum), nang (justice), badál (revenge) and túra (bravery), serves as a cornerstone of their legitimacy claim. They portray themselves as not only rulers, but caretakers of this moral code.
The Taliban argue that Pashtunwali forms the bedrock of Afghan identity. They propose that other ethnic groups in Afghanistan either share Pashtun ancestry, having assimilated into their cultural sphere over centuries, or have embraced Pashtunwali as their own moral compass. This assertion of cultural hegemony is another vital argument in their narrative, suggesting that their leadership is not merely a political choice, but an imperative for maintaining moral and cultural unity. The Taliban’s ideology is a hybrid and synthesis of the Pashtunwali and Deobandi schools of thought, which complement and reinforce each other.
The Taliban’s emphasis on Pashtun identity breeds xenophobia. Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks face suspicion, marginalization and even demonization. The Taliban ignore their legal and cultural systems in favor of a rigid interpretation of Pashtunwali and Sharia law. The Pashtuns’ language, Pashto, flourishes in education and government while other languages wither. Representation in these spheres is deeply imbalanced, stoking resentment among excluded groups. The most brutal manifestation of this xenophobia is the Taliban’s use of violence and intimidation, creating a climate of fear that silences dissent. This exclusionary approach sows deep societal fissures, jeopardizing Afghanistan’s fragile unity.
The Taliban’s rule remains at odds with the desires of the Afghan people and the principles of the international community. As long as this fundamental dissonance persists, the question of legitimacy will continue to cast a long shadow over Afghanistan’s future, with profound consequences for its stability and prosperity.
[Lee Thompson-Kolar edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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