THE US IS hoping that recently released footage of four US Marines apparently urinating on dead Taliban soldiers will not derail any possible peace talks with the group.
It is understood that there are already quiet talks between Barack Obama’s people and representatives of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar underway.
The hardline Islamic organisation, although political as well as militant, has enjoyed a resurgence in the past number of years as a fighting force with major links to terrorism. So, why would the US sit down for talks with them?
Who are they? What do they stand for? What are their political hopes?
In the beginning…
The Taliban first emerged in Pakistan in the early 1990s and Afghanistan in 1994.
Its overall rule in Afghanistan was sealed in 1996 following promises of enforcing Islamic law in ethnic Pashtun areas. Until 2001, it did just that, ruling with a brutal, iron fist, upholding strict Sharia law. It had a reputation for gross human rights abuses and dreadful treatment and repression of women, in particular.
Public executions of murderers and adulterers and amputations of thieves’ limbs were common. Women were required by law to wear the burqa. Men had to grow beards. Television, music and cinema were banned. Education for girls was extremely limited.
Both an Islamist militant and political group, it only held diplomatic recognition in three states: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
It enforced Sharia law to the strictest degree possible, interpreting Islamic law to the point it was denounced by various Muslim leaders across the world.
Taliban or Talibans?
Taliban or Taleban is an Arabic word meaning student. The name came about as the group originated in conservative Pakistani religious schools. The word Taliban now refers to either the group or one individual. For example, one person can be described as an English Taliban.
Post-war recruits are still coming from madrassas, or religious schools.
Following the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the Taliban seemed to disintegrate as the US waged war against in Afghanistan.
In 2001, the regime fell following the invasion. In the minds of many Americans (and Europeans), the Taliban equated to Al-Qaeda (the group who took responsibility for 9/11).
Although the World Trade Centre atrocities were Al Qaeda-organised, it is understood the Taliban did much to shelter its leader Osama bin Laden and were taken to task for it.
Despite its quick demise, the organisation never fully disappeared and the group once more dominates rural life in Afghanistan. Although the group still existed in Afghan political circles, the US omitted all members from talks about the country’s future. This is about to change.
Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar is still thought to be the current leader in Afghanistan. In 2009, he sent a message to journalists to urge Taliban members to continue fighting Western forces in Afghanistan.
There are numerous ties between Omar and Osama Bin Laden. So close were the pair, it is thought that Omar married Bin Laden’s eldest daughter and, in turn, the Al-Qaeda head took the Taliban leader’s daughter as a fourth wife. These rumours have always been denied by the Taliban.
Although some Taliban members are fierce supporters of terrorist network Al-Qaeda, others could be described as more moderate and have shown more interest in the political rather than the militant.
Many analysts believe that there has to be some engagement with the political arm of the group to ensure peace in Afghanistan. However, it is still unclear how much co-ordination there is between the more moderate sections and the militant groups.
There is a new Taliban movement that is now promising economic reforms, an accountable government and non-aggressiveness on the world stage. Al Jazeera reports that leaders have hinted at being open to power-sharing agreements.
The fighting factions
There are three fighting groups operating in Afghanistan but only one – the Quetta Shura – works under the Taliban name.
The Quetta Shura Taliban is reportedly made up of the senior members of the movement that ruled Afghanistan until 2011. They run the country’s so-called shadow government but actually 33 of its members are governors in 34 provinces, according to US intelligence officials. They collect taxes, run a judicial system and man checkpoints on roads.
They have showed interest in holding talks with both the current Karzai administration and the US but remain armed and willing to fight.
Terrorism is a tactic employed by the Taliban since its resurgence.
In the past decade, kidnappings and murders carried out by the Taliban have been commonplace in Afghanistan as the organisation has taken up arms against the government trying to stabilise the country.
In the first six months of 2011, UN figures show that the Taliban (and other anti-government elements) were responsible for about 80 per cent of the 1,426 civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
According to the BBC, the main Pakistani faction is led by Hakimullah Mehsud. His fighters have been accused of carrying out numerous attacks, including suicide bombings.
Where does Qatar fit into all of this?
It is understood that any possible discussions between the Taliban and the US will take place in Qatar. The Taliban plans to open an office there and it is widely seen as a neutral party in the war.