Afghanistan, which may be a crucial target of U.S. forces, is notoriously diverse. Almost two dozen language groups exist in that country, which is divided religiously among Sunni, Shia and Ismaili Muslims, along with a few historically accepted Hindus (and now a tiny group of Christian converts from Islam, most of them fearful and secretive).
Indeed, the Muslims are subdivided in their orientations toward Islam and even Islamic radicalism comes in several varieties Scarcely any Muslim in Afghanistan would have approved of the bombings of Sept. 11. Most Afghans' commitment to Islam has never been particularly shrill, perhaps because Afghanistan was never under sustained colonial domination.
The places where radical Islamic ideologies developed, notably Egypt and India, were long subject to European control. The radical Islam that exists in Afghanistan was imported during the anti-Soviet struggle of the 1980s. And the Islam of the notorious Taliban is something else, a creation of special circumstances after the Soviet- Afghan war. The term "Afghan" originally referred to a particular ethnic type, who are otherwise known as "Pushtun" or (in Pakistan) "Pathan." These "true Afghans" speak Pushtu (Pashto) and are organized tribally, at least in many rural areas. The elite of the country have typically been of Afghan extraction.
Some of the peoples in the country have resented and resisted Pushtun domination and call themselves by their ethnic and linguistic identities, "Hazara," "Uzbek," "Tajik" etc., to distinguish themselves from the Pushtun. They nevertheless identify themselves as "Afghan" to people (like most Americans) who know little about internal Afghanistan affairs.
Mujahedeen means "holy warriors" and was claimed, especially after 1980, by those people who opposed the Afghan Communist government and its Soviet sponsors. Seven of the many mujahedeen organizations were supported officially by Pakistan and the CIA, which tried (with only moderate success) to orchestrate the resistance activities against the communist regimes.
The mujahedeen were able to force the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989 and eventually to bring down the Afghan Communist government in 1992. Between 1992 and 1996 they fought fiercely among themselves over control of Kabul. Elsewhere in the country they carved the landscape into their own respective fiefdoms, effecting a widespread collapse of social order.
The Taliban arose in the context of that disorder. They are the products of the Islamic schools that were set up among the Afghan refugees during the war. Most of the schools were small and taught by local mullahs, but they were a useful escape from the refugee camps as they provided food and lodging for the boys that their own families could scarcely muster. The Taliban are mostly Pushtun and generally they have little understanding of the other groups in the country. In truth, they know nothing about the history of Afghanistan, even of the recent Soviet- Afghan conflict.
Centered on the religious schools and their dormitories, the Taliban ("students") had a different understanding of the world from their families in the refugee camps. Journalist and author Ahmad Rashid calls them "orphans" of the war whose essential anchorage was the "puritan Islam" they were taught. Most of the Taliban speak only Pushtu and Urdu--an indication that in fact they are (at least culturally) Pakistanis, not Afghans.
Arab-Afghans, including Osama bin Laden, joined the resistance against the Soviets. They were accepted among the Pushtun parties, especially those favored by the Pakistanis and Saudis, but were rebuffed by the Persian speaking parties of the north. Many of them were trained during the war and dispersed into other parts of the Arab world after the war, where they became active in radical movements.
In recent years, however, as the Taliban have been fighting what is left of the mujahedeen, now known as the Northern Alliance, many Arab-Afghans have become allied with the Taliban. These Arab-Afghans are the only elements in the country that have any affinity with or commitment to the destruction of Western society and culture. It remains to be seen which, if any, of them were involved in the bombing on Sept. 11.