Most Taliban members are Pashtuns, a people who for centuries dominated a vast territory straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1893 the frontier between the two countries was fixed by Britain, which had never been able to impose its will on the fierce mountain people.
The Durand line, as it was called, cut the Pastun population in two, and it has always been seen as an imposition from outside. The Taliban movement came to prominence in Afghanistan in 1994, after CIA weapons and money had helped them kick the Russians out five years previously. Most Talibans were educated in religious schools, madrassas, in Pakistan. They promised to restore peace and security and enforce their own austere version of Sharia law once in power. In 1996 they conquered Kabul. Two years later almost 90% of Aghanistan was theirs. At their head is Mullah Omar,a village clergyman who lost his right eye fighting the Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s. He is accused by the West of giving hospitality to Osama bin Laden and senior al-Qaeda associates. So in October 2001 a US military coalition with the help of the Northern Alliance invaded Afghanistan, and by early December the Taliban regime had collapsed. Although Mullah Omar survived the American onslaught, the Talibans were forced into Afghanistan’s southern provinces. It enabled them to limit human and material losses, and return with a vengeance. Today despite the presence of Western troops in the country the Taliban has regrouped, rendering vast parts of the country insecure, and violence is back to 2001 levels. The Taliban wants the election on Thursday to fail; they want the US to fail, and they are doing everything they can to stop people going to the polls. Last Sunday they went beyond calling for a simple boycott; now they promise bombs and bullets for voting stations, and mutilations for those who dare to vote. But one former Taliban commander is running for President. Mullah Abdul Salaam has renounced violence and attempts to gather rebels round the talks table. At a meeting of his supporters in Kabul, he spoke to foreign media: “We need the Afghani Taliban, whether extremist or moderate. We have to gather with them around the table and accept what they have to say. The other Taliban, the ones from al-Qaeda, the foreigners, their opinions we’re not going to take into account. We will banish them,” he says. Mullah Abdul Salaam’s chances of becoming president are all but non-existent, but he hopes to carve out a role for himself as negotiator between the government and the Taliban.