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Afghan Civil War (1996-2001 period)
Part of the Afghan Civil War
Factions after the 1996 fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
Date September 27, 1996–October 7, 2001
Location Afghanistan
Result Taliban makes gains against Northern Alliance, UN intervention.
Afghanistan Northern Alliance Afghanistan Taliban
Flag of Jihad.svg Al-Qaeda
Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani
Afghanistan Ahmed Shah Massoud
Afghanistan Mohammed Fahim
Afghanistan Abdul Rashid Dostum
Afghanistan Mohammed Omar
Afghanistan Obaidullah Akhund
Afghanistan Mullah Dadullah
Flag of Jihad.svg Osama bin Laden
Flag of Jihad.svg Ayman al-Zawahiri
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Afghan Civil War

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The Civil war in Afghanistan continued after the capture of Kabul by the Taliban, with the formation of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (more commonly known as the Northern Alliance), which attempted to oust the Taliban, from 1996 to 2001.

It proved largely unsuccessful, as the Taliban continued to make gains and eliminated much of the Alliance's leadership. The Northern Alliance was supported by Russia, Turkey, Iran and India while the Taliban were supported by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.



Since 1978, Afghanistan had been in a civil war between different factions. The Mujahedin eventually succeeded in taking control in 1992, only to then descend into chaos as they fractured into different groups all fighting for control of the nation.

In 1994 the Taliban was formed and made gains against the other factions, and by 1996 they had taken Kabul and executed the former President of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah, who had been residing there under UN protection since his regime was ousted in 1992.

The Taliban practiced a radical form of Sunni Islam that took strict stances on women and society. Additionally, they were a predominantly Pashtun militia, and so imposed their ethnic customs onto non-Pashtuns. Much of the civil war could be characterized as an ethnic conflict between the Pashtun Taliban, and the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance, since both sides of the conflict espoused fundamentalist Islam, though the Taliban subscribed to a particularly narrow interpretation of Islam.



Northern Alliance formed

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on September 27, 1996,[2] Uzbek General Dostum joined forces with the Tajik Ahmed Shah Massoud to form the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban.[3] Both parties espoused Islamic fundamentalism, and wished to impose Sharia law in the country. Russia and Iran supported the Northern Alliance, because they were concerned about the Taliban and Al-qaeda's growing influence, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia backed the Taliban financially. Pakistan also backed the Taliban, as they saw this as a good opportunity to increase their influence in the region.

Alliance pushes to Kabul

In October 1996, the Taliban began to strike points north of Kabul with jets and artillery while Dostum and Massoud massed forces in preparation for an offensive.[4] On October 19, the alliance pushed forward with tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy weapons into the Bagram airbase, which was the first major victory against the Taliban since they lost Kabul.[5]

They continued their advance and vowed to retake Kabul, with Massoud's front line commander stating "God willing, we will be in Kabul today or tomorrow."[6] But fighting raged for several days, and the lack of a major breakthrough forced the Alliance to withdraw to northern positions.[7]

The Return of Ismail Khan

In March 1997, Ismail Khan returned from Iran. He lead approximately 2000 fighters, including those allied to Dostum, to fight the Taliban in Badghis and push them to approximately 20 kilometers North of the Mughrab river leading to Qala-i Naw.[8] One of Dostum's MiG 21s was downed in a dogfight during the fighting. The Taliban's advance was halted but significant gains could not be made by either side.

The Battles for Mazar-e Sharif

Dostum faces uprising

In May 1997, angry at Dostum's alleged involvement in the assassination of his brother, Abdul Malik Pahlawan and other commanders such as Qari Alam Rosekh, General Abdul Majid Rouzi and Ghafar Pahlawan met with Taliban commanders Mullah Abdul Razzaq and Mullah Ghaus in Baghdis. There they agreed that Malik would betray Dostum, capture Ismail Khan and take control of the city of Mazar-e Sharif. [9] Malik attacked Dostum's forces in Jawzjan on 22 May 1997 and occupied Dostum's stronghold of Sheberghan. Most of Dostum's commanders defected and joined Malik and even some of his air force pilots joined the battle on Malik's side. [10]

On 22 May 1997 fighting broke out between Dostum's forces and the Taliban in Andkhoy and Khwaja Dokoh. Massoud sent reinforcements but the Northern Alliance faced heavy losses.Dostum retreated to Mazar-i Sharif and fled to Turkey from Uzbekistan on May 24th, with his family going one day before. On May 25th, Abdul Majid Rouzi arrested Ismail Khan in Baghdis and handed him over to Abdul Razzaq, the governor of Herat where he was sent to Kandahar prison.

Taliban Ousted

Although the exact details of the agreement were not clear, it appears as if the Taliban had failed to take their part. On May 25th, the Taliban entered Mazar-e Sharif and began to close schools, offices and impose Sharia law. In the Hazara sections of the city, particularly in the North-east and east areas around Syedabad, local Wahdat commanders and armed "civilians" began to enlist themselves in resistance.

On May 30th, heavy fighting broke out around Syedabad. Taliban fighters were ambushed. At this point, Malik allied his forces with Wahdat, taking thousands of Taliban soldiers prisoner in Maimana, Sheberghan and Mazar-e Sharif. Those taken prisoner in Mazar were summarily executed, reportedly under the supervision of Malik's brother General Gul Mohammad Pahlawan.[11] Estimates of the total number killed were 30000. Furthermore Junbish commanders such as Ghulam Haidar Jawzjani were also captured and killed, along with Salam Pahlawan and Rais Omar Bey. In the months following the fall of the Taliban in Mazar-e Sharif, Malik then proceeded to reincorporate Jamiat-e Islam into the city's administration.


Approximately 2000 Taliban fighters in Kunduz were surrounded by forces of Massoud on all sides after the fall of Mazar-e Sharif. However these forces were able to survive after allying with one of Rasul Sayyaf's former Pashtoon commanders.[12] Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, who was among these men, led an attack on 4 July 1997 against the capital of Takhar, Taloqan. Although the attack failed it produced difficulties for the Northern Alliance.

Northern Alliance gains

Meanwhile, in July 1997, the forces of Massoud attempted another push towards the capital. After making gains north of the capital, capturing the Salgani tunnel and Charikar, they entered Bagram air base only to once again met heavy resistance in Kabul.[13] They manage to get within 20 kilometers of the capital where they were able to launch rockets against positions in the city.

Taliban Counter-attack

However these gains were not sustainable. The Taliban counter-attacked the area north of Kabul in Mid-august, after 18 days of deadlock. Furthermore infighting between Dostum's forces and those of Malik created an opportunity for the Taliban. Uprisings begain in Samangan and Baghlan and local commanders defected to the Taliban in Balkh.[14] The Taliban were then able to surrond Mazar-i Sharif from the rear, capturing Hairatan directly across from Termez on 20 September, as well as simultaneously cut off the supply route in the area North of Kabul. Rabbani and Malik then fled from Afghanistan. However two days later Hairatan again fell to the forces of Dostum. The Taliban were then repulsed and pushed back into Kudnuz.

However after four months, in September 1997, the Taliban bombarded the city, laying siege to it for 23 days. Looting, killings and rape by all sides were reported. The Taliban were eventually defeated, but killed 70 Hazara civilians in Qizilabad and around 50 Junbushi prisoners in Qalai-i Kul Muhammad. [15] In November 1997, Dostum returned to power and Malik fled to Iran.

Fall of Mazar-e Sharif

By July 1998 the Taliban had taken control of much of the area north of Herat, including the road linked to Maimana, where Dostum had returned and ousted Malik's forces (and also many Pashtoon civilians living in Faryab. This cut off one of the main supply lines, and on 8 August 1998 the Taliban entered Mazar-e Sharif.

Hezb-e Islam reportedly switched sides and joined the Taliban, having encircled the front lines of Hezbe Wahdat at Qalai-Zaini-Takhta Pul.[16] Here about 1500-3000 Wahdat fighters were trapped. Many were executed on the spot, while approximately 700 attempted to flee in pick up trucks, many being killed on the way. Commanders of Wahdat such as Muhammad Muhaqiq evacuated by helicopter.

The Taliban then proceeded to enter the city where they took their revenge, executing approximately 2000 Hazara civilians. One group, Sipah-i Sahaba, associated with Pakistan and the Taliban, capture the Iranian consulate and shot dead one journalist and 8 intelligence and diplomatic officers[17]. The Taliban, for the next 6 days were reported to have gone door to door looking for male Hazara Shias and then subsequently executing them. Thousands of prisoners were transported by both sides in metal transport truck containers were many suffocated or died of heat stroke.

Iranian crisis

Also among those killed in Mazari Sharif were several Iranian diplomats. Others were kidnapped by the Taliban, touching off a hostage crisis that nearly escalated to a full scale war, with 250,000 Iranian soldiers massed on the Afghan border at one time.[18] It was later admitted that the diplomats were killed by the Taliban, and their bodies were returned to Iran.[19]

In September the Taliban claimed that Iran violated its airspace, and later Iran claimed minor clashes occurred between the Taliban and Iran after it led a raid into eastern Iran, though the Taliban denied it led the raid.[20][21] Eventually with UN mediation, the tensions cooled.

Continued push

The Taliban continued to push north, making gains against the Northern Alliance in 1999. At one time they held roughly 95% of the nation and had pushed the Northern Alliance out of range of Kabul entirely. But Ahmed Shah Massoud once again defended the Panjshir Valley from Taliban advances and brought the war to another stand still.[22]

Massoud assassinated

On September 9, 2001, a suicide bomber, posing as a journalist, blew himself up after gaining access to Ahmed Shah Massoud office. The suicide bomber was killed along with one of Massoud's followers, and the Afghan commander's guards killed the second person posing as a journalist. Massoud was struck in the chest with shrapnel from the bomb, which was either hidden in the camera or concealed around the waist of one of the terrorists. Massoud died shortly after being taken to Tajikistan for emergency care.

It is reported that al-Qaeda carried out this attack against Massoud to eliminate the Northern Alliance's most effective military leader. At this time Taliban human rights violations and actions such as the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, were creating international support for Massoud's group as the legitimate representatives of Afghanistan,[23] while Al-Qaeda was planning the September 11th, 2001 attacks on America which were sure to provoke serious retaliation and create a need for the Taliban's protection.[24] The killing was reportedly handled by Ayman Zawahiri and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad wing of al-Qaeda.

The attack left the Northern Alliance leaderless, and removed "the last obstacle to the Taliban’s total control of the country ..."[25] But it did not lead to chaos as some had feared. The Northern Alliance held together and would go on to work with the USA and its coalition in Operation Enduring Freedom. At the time of Massoud's assassination, Northern Alliance strength was estimated at 11,000 troops and the Taliban at 45,000.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. ^ "Afghan rebels seize capital, hang former president". CNN. 1996-07-27. 
  3. ^ "Afghan warlord vows to join fight against Taliban". CNN. 1996-10-15. 
  4. ^ "Taliban bombards targets in northern Afghanistan". CNN. 1996-10-18. 
  5. ^ "Afghan government forces recapture key military positions". CNN. 1996-10-19. 
  6. ^ "Afghan government troops close in on capital". CNN. 1996-10-20. 
  7. ^ "Heavy fighting with no results in Afghanistan". CNN. 1996-11-10. 
  8. ^ The Taliban Phenomenon, 95
  9. ^ Afghanistan Justice Project. "Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, 1978-2001." 2005. Accessed at: [Accessed on 10 November 2009], page 115
  10. ^ The Taliban Phenomenon, page 98
  11. ^ Afghanistan Justice Project, 116
  12. ^ Matinuddin, Kamal. "The Taliban Phenomenon: Afghanistan 1994-1997." Accessed at: of mazar-e sharif 1997&f=false , page 102
  13. ^ "Afghanistan's Taliban, opposition both claim gains". CNN. 1997-07-31. 
  14. ^ Matinuddin, Kamal. "The Taliban Phenomenon: Afghanistan 1994-1997."
  15. ^ Afghanistan Justice Project, 107
  16. ^ Afghanistan Justice project, 120
  17. ^ Afghanistan Justice Project, 121
  18. ^ "Iranian military exercises draw warning from Afghanistan". CNN. 1998-08-31. 
  19. ^ "Taliban threatens retaliation if Iran strikes". CNN. 1998-09-15. 
  20. ^ "Afghanistan claims Iranian aircraft invaded its airspace". CNN. 1998-10-02. 
  21. ^ "Iran reports clash with Afghan militia". CNN. 1998-10-08. 
  22. ^ "Massoud ready to fight on". Eurasianet. 2000-10-06. 
  23. ^ Wright, Looming Towers (2006), p.337
  24. ^ "Flawed Ally Was Hunt's Best Hope". Washington Post. 2004-02-23. 
  25. ^ Wright, Looming Towers (2006), p.355
  26. ^ "Taliban and the Northern Alliance". usgovinfo. 2001-11-09. 


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