The Taleban (usually spelled "Taliban" in english news media and pronounced "t
ahl-e-baan") are a group that once came to power and ruled Afganistan
From 1979 onward, Afghanistan was left in ruins from a Soviet invasion and 10 years of an all-out war to drive them out, followed by fighting by indiviual warlords who carved out fiefs. Lawlessness, banditry and chaos became commonplace. Enter the Taliban in 1996. They were a group of students from refugee religious schools (strongly influenced by the Deobandi way of thinking that is popular in India and Pakistan) who wanted to change things. They organized and recruited other Afghans who were sick of the suffering, and eventually the Taliban steamrolled over most of the warlords. They were able to seize something like 95% of the country, aside from Northern Alliance strongholds primarily in the northeast.
The Taliban inherited a country where people were starving, cities were in ruins, and the economy was of Stone Age proportions. Women were just as poor and desperate as the men were. Their idea for reform was that first husbands and fathers had to become stable with steady work and then women could take their place in society as well. Unfortunately, their logic backfired, and the lot of women worsened while that of their men failed to improve. One such example was they decided to create schools segregated by gender, which would comply with what the conservative religious leaders wanted. Unfortunately, they didn't have enough money for two schools, so only kept them open for males and prohibited women from participating. They simply implemented policies as they saw fit. In their devastated land probably nothing they could have done would have worked. As of today, a famine threatening five million people has blanketed the nation's countryside. Under such circumstances, can any reform work for men and women?
Many Muslims and the international community criticized the Taleban for going overboard, in many ways. They made beards mandatory for all men, and banned all women from working, and required women to cover themselves in large robes called Burquas. They banned music and the internet. They sentenced two missionary women to death for preaching Christianity. According to CNN reports, they killed adulterers and gays. It is important to note that the before the events of September 11, 2001, many Muslims and other groups had already condemned much of the Taliban's actions. Muslims worldwide had criticized the Taliban for years for oppressing women. Also, when the Taleban decided to destroy antique buddha statues, a large delegation of muslim scholars went to Afghanistan to try to persuade the Taleban to stop. Plenty of muslim groups condemned the Taleban, and television preacher Sheikh Qaradawi said that it was permissible for muslims to fight in the US military against the Taleban.
None of the Taliban's decrees concerning women is rooted in authentic Islamic Law, such as the forcing of women to wear Burqas. The Taliban leadership admitted as much when their representative in the United States remarked, "We are following Afghan customs that go back thousands of years." They are a product of their national experience, and their policies show that their culture takes precedence over their religion. Some have accused the Taleban of being too wahhabi, when it is a combination of Deobandi ideas and culture. There are plenty of Muslim leaders who have publicly spoken out against the Taleban, too many to list here or link to. I will however provide the link to a fatwa where a person asked a scholar's personal opinion on the Taliban at http://islam-online.net/fatwa/english/FatwaDisplay.asp?hFatwaID=35010
British Journalist Yvonne Ridley was critical of the way Afghanistan under the Taliban was ostracized. The Afghans told her that nobody cared for them when they needed food for their people, but when they decided to destroy some "rocks" (the Buddha statues), "suddenly the whole world wanted to talk to us." Interestingly enough, she was arrested by the Taleban for sneaking illegally into the country for reporting, and later told of how respectfully they treated her. On an interesting note, she later accepted Islam some months later when she returned to the UK and decided to study Islam.
The Taliban were not considered politically legitimate in most of the Muslim world. Only 3 countries had recognized them, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Pakistan. Within an extremely short time, the US declared Osama Bin Laden as the prime suspect behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He had been exiled from Saudi Arabia since 1996, and was in Afghanistan since. The US asked the Taliban government to hand him over to US authorities for questioning in his involvement and to charge him. While condemning the terrorist attacks, the Taliban refused, saying that since he was a "guest" they would not hand him over without proof of his involvement, with which he would be tried under the Taliban's laws. The US threatened military action unless the Taliban complied. Neighboring Pakistan rushed delegates over to help persuade the Taliban not to oppose the US, but they didn't relent. A few days later, the United Arab Emirates withdrew support for the Taliban, giving them only two countries that recognized their government. Saudi Arabia withdrew their recognition later as well.
Subsequently, the US launched Operation Infinite Justice (which was later changed to Operation Enduring Freedom because it was offensive to Muslims). The stated goals were to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden and dismantle the Taleban. The US tried to carry out their second goal by backing the rebel Northern Alliance. Before November 2001, the Taleban withdrew from the major cities in Afghanistan and the US detained hundreds of Taleban fighters, sending hundreds to Camp X-Ray. It was declared that the Northern Alliance would eventually take over control of Afghanistan (with US military and support). As of today free elections have not happened yet.
Once the situation stopped making headlines, the US began making preparations to invade Iraq, withdrawing thousands of its troops from Afghanistan and moving them to Iraq. That was a disadvantage because the troops looking for Osama Bin Laden and Taleban forces were scaled back. Most experts speculate that Taleban forces are in hiding on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are also rumors that the Taliban is amassing in the rural areas, building up strength and support to retake the cities.