There is no known evidence that the Americans have helped the Taliban. Still, for a bunch of people who advertised their takeover with public hangings, and threaten to confine half the population to their homes, the Taliban have been given a polite American welcome. The State Department says it wants early talks with Taliban leaders, and admits "on-going contacts for the past couple of years".
Of the two bloody episodes that disfigured south-western Asia in September, the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians won far more headlines than the capture of Afghanistan's capital by a murky army of Islamic militants who call themselves the Taliban, "the Seekers." Yet what has happened in and around Kabul is much the bloodier of the two stories, and it may matter at least as much to the rest of the world.
Afghanistan is the third country to pass into the hands of an Islamic-revivalist government in the past 17 years, after Iran and Sudan; and the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan is the first to have been achieved by straight force of arms. This is not a purely local affair. Its causes lie, in part, outside Afghanistan; so, quite possibly, will its consequences
Afghanistan suffers from being a poor country that sits on an important part of the map. It produces some gas, quite a lot of heroin, a few emeralds and not much else of interest to outsiders. But it lies very close to several energy-rich countries, and on what should be a trade route from Russia to the Gulf and India. Other countries have been interested in Afghanistan ever since the Great Game between 19th-century Britain and Russia; and the game, almost certainly, is not over.
The Taliban had their origins in the chaos which outsiders' manipulation of local politics has created in Afghanistan. When the Soviet Union in effect took over the country, from 1979 to 1992, the Americans sent the aid they provided for the resistance through the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis feared that a single Afghan resistance group might acquire the independence that the Palestine Liberation Organisation had won in its own part of the world. They therefore sent their money into seven different grouplets, which became rich, wellarmed factions.
The policy worked well for the Pakistanis; for the Afghans themselves, though, the consequences were not good. The Russians' eventual withdrawal was followed by civil war. The two strongest parties - the moderate Islamists, under Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander, Ahiliad Shalt Masoud, and a fundamentalist alliance run by Gullbuddin Hikmatyar - fought for Kabul for three years. The rest of the country was run partly by their parties, partly by others. But government, such as it was, lay in the halids of local commanders, who collected "taxes" and meted out punishment with varying degrees of corruption and brutality
The Kabulis probably had the worst of it. Their city, which had survived the Russian occupation reasonably well, got shelled to ruins. But things were pretty bad in much of the rest of the county too. Most Afghans could not understand why, once the hated Russians had gone, they could not have peace. One large grievance was the difficulty of travel. At least the Russians had kept most of the main roads open. But, once the civil war started, men with guns were stopping travellers and demanding money every few miles. Kallimullah Yusufzai, a journalist from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, counted 42 such "checkpoints" on the three-hour drive fiom Spin Buldak to Kandahar. Trade grew harder, goods scarcer, prices higher and ordinary people got steadily angrier.
In the summer of 1994, a convoy was stopped by bandits on the road north of Kandahar. The convoy's owners, influential Pakistanis, begged their govermnent to do something. The Pakistani government could not intervene openly. Instead, it encouraged a band of Afghan students studying in the madrassas (religious schools) run by the fundamentalist Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam on the border with Afghanistan to organise themselves for action.
About 2,000 students went to Kandahar and got the convoy back on the road. At the same time, the story now goes, they heard that two girls, refugees from Herat, were prisoners of a local cornmander, and were ill treated. They freed them. That may be part of the legend that has grown up around the people many Afghans see as their saviours. The fact is that the Taliban did then go on to capture Kandahar, Afghanistals's second largest city
The Zig-Zag to Kabul
Their arrival was welcomed by most of the city's people. The Taliban were themselves mostly Kandaharis; the man who had been in charge of the place, a member of Mr Masoud's party, was corrupt and detested. The locals enthusiasm doubled when they saw how this latest lot of gunmen behaved. They cleared the bandits off the roads and, instead of slaughtering their opponents, merely disarmed them. Their message seemed simple and appealling: peace, order and Islamic law.
From Kandaliar thc Taliban moved north-eastwards, and in February 1995 they took Mr Hikmatyar's base outside Kabul, from which he had been attacking Mr Rabbani's government. That brought a pause in the shelling and a brief respite for the Kabulis. Mr. Hikmatyar evenutally moved into alliance with his former enemies. The Taliban failed to take Kabul, and moved on instead to the north-west. In September 1995, they took Herat.
They were less popular in Herat than in Kandahar. The Heratis are Persian-speaking sophisticates, and Herat is a trading city, a cosmopolitan place where many women have an education and work and dress fairly freely. The arrival of the Taliban was regarded as an invasion by Pathan peasants. The sophisticates were shocked when the city's men were summoned to the City's sports stadium. A young man said to have shot two members of the Taliban was hanged from a crane while loudspeakers blasted out Koranic slogans.
In August this year, the Taliban moved on Kabul again. Bringing truckloads of well-equipped men from over the Pakistani border, they captured Jalalabad on September 11th and in the last week of September attacked Kabul. Mr Masoud seems to have pulled his men out when it looked as if the Taliban were about to cut the last road to his base in the Panjshir valley.
How, from a band of 2,000 students, did the Taliban grow strong enough to take over the country within a mere two years? They did not start off with much of an armoury; they had little more than the usual Kalashnikovs when they first came over the border from Pakistan. They had the good fortune to capture one of Mr Hikmatyaf's ammunition dumps near Kandahar, soon after they began their campaign. But their chief source of arms was most Afghans' hostility to the local warlords. In town after town, armed men deserted their leaders and joined the Taliban. Desertions brought weapons: the Russians had left behind a heavily-armed country. As the Taliban went along theypicked up guns and mortars, tanks andeven aircraft.
They have not yet, it is true, been put to a serious military test. The country has for the most part fallen into their hands. Nowhere have they been required to fight a major battle against a really modern sort of army. Nor have they yet developed a nationwide political structure. When they take a town, they set up a shura (assembly), made up of the most senior Taliban members in the area plus any ex-enemies they have done deals with and any religious or tribal figures important enough to warrant inclusion. Each shura makes laws and collects taxes locally: there has been no co-ordination at a national level. The Taliban have now set up a provisional government for the whole of Afghanistan, but it has yet to impose its authority on the local shuras.
The Taliban's Ieader, Mohammed Omar, is a mullah from Kandahar who lost an eye during the war against the Russians. In 1995, the shura in Kandahar declared him to be amir ul-momineen, "leader of the faithful", a title which gives him huge authority over dutiful Muslims. His men made one thing brutally clear as soon as they entered Kabul, when they strung up the mutilated body of ex-President Najibullah, a man who used to run the place for the Russians, whose United Nations protectors had abandoned him. In other towns whereTaliball rule has been established the shuras have taken a similar attitude towards justice. They are both accuser and judge; hands and feet are chopped off for fairly minor offenses; executions are carried out in public.
Other things have got tougher, too. Television, and the public playing of music, are banned, as is playing football in shorts. Since taking Kabul, the Taliban have declared that all government employees must grow a full beard within six weeks, and that anybody wtho does not pray five times a day is an infidel. And strict purdah is enforced everywhere the Taliban go. Women have been banned from working or from going out of their houses unless accompanied by a male relative. Girls' schools have been closed. By comparison, neighbouring Iran is relatively liberal, and people in Flerat are sending their daughters over the border to get an education.
These rules are not ones that most Muslims would support. They have emerged from the laws of the Pathan tribes that live along the mountainous Pakistani-Afghan border, where most of the Taliban come from. Pathans are governed by a strict code, the pakhtunwali. Imposing Pathan traditions by law may be acceptable among Afghanistan-s Pathans (who make up around 60% of the country's population) but it sits ill with the often better-educated Persian speakers in Kabul and the north and west of the country.
There may also be problems between the Taliban and Afghtinistani's Shia Muslims. The Taliban arc fiercely Sunni (the more orthodox version of Islam followed by most Muslims), but Afghanistan has many Shias. One Shia leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, has already died at Taliban hands. It is not easy to assume even inter-Muslim tolerance from the Taliban.
The Pakistani Connection
Two main questions arise out of all this. Are the Taliban an indigenous or a foreign product? And will the consequences of their success be limited to Afghanistan, or will its effects spread abroad? The Taliban have a better claim to widespread local roots than either the Soviet backed governments of 1979-92 or the decrepit regime that has just been ejected from Kabul. But they might never have come into existence had it not been for the Soviet occupation and the West's reaction to it. And they have undoubtedly had a helping foreign hand. No attempt has been made to prevent them getting supplies from Pakistan, or moving armed men to and from across the border.
Fuel, on which the Pakistanis are supposed to have imposed an embargo, seems to be no problem for them. There are reports that trained Pakistanis have been helping them to use some of the more sophisticated ex-Soviet arms that fell into their hands. And they have remarkably smart satellite telephones, which somebody paid for.
Why would Pakistan want to support them? Well, backing the Taliban was the best available way to undermine the government of Mr Rabbani, which Pakistan's rulers disliked because they suspected his people of acts of terrorism in Pakistan. The Taliban's loudest supporter in Pakistan, its interior minister, Naseerullah Babar, happens to be, like most of them, a Pathan.
But the largest part of the explanation for Pakistan's support was the prospect that the Taliban would reopen Afghanistan's roads. Pakistan's businessmen want to get into the expanding markets of central Asia. They fear that Iran, which has been busily signing up joint ventures with central Asian countries, has been stealing a march on them. The Taliban, they hope, will bring the order that lets them get on with their business. And, so far, the Taliban seem to be doing just that. In most of the areas they have taken over, roads are opening, trade has returned, tax collection has been regularised by the situra, business has picked up and prices have fallen.
Pakistan is also keen on an American Saudi'scheme to build an oil-and-gas pipe-line fiom Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan. Unocal, a Los Angeles based oil company, and Delta oil, a Saudi Arabian group, had proposed a pipeline that would follow the Herat-to-Kandahar road and cross into Pakistan near Quetta. So long as Afghanistan's civil war went on, nobody was going to put money into that. Now, perhaps, it is a serious project.
It is less clear what the United States feels about the Taliban. One argument says that, since Pakistan has long been America's friend in the region, its allies must be America's allies, too. The Americans are worried about Iran, not only because Iran is said to help assorted terrorist groups but also because it competes with Pakistan for influence in central Asia; and so they would like to assist Pakistan to expand its sphere of influence into Afghanistan, thereby helping to hold Iran in check.
The Americans also raise an eyebrow about the fact that Russia had been arming Mr Rabbani's government (yes, the one-time resistance movement against the old Soviet-backed regime: the ironies are endless).
There is no known evidence that the Americans have helped the Taliban. Still, for a bunch of people who advertised their takeover with public hangings, and threaten to confine half the population to their homes, the Taliban have been given a polite American welcome. The State Department says it wants early talks with Taliban leaders, and admits "on-going contacts for the past couple of years". A Taliban delegation has already met Robin Raphel, the assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. The State Department says the Taliban do not seek to "export Islam", just to "liberate Afghanistan". Blithe words, still to be tested by events.
The Spillover Risks.
Which raises the second question: can the Taliban bring peace to Afghanistan without causing trouble for other coutitries? They do not yet control the whole of Afghanistan. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a general who used to work for the communists, still controls a stretch of land up to and including the Salang tunnel, which gives Kabul access to the roads to central Asia. Neither Mr Masoud nor Mr Hikmatyar tried to unseat Mr Dostum, whose well equipped troops get help from Uzbekistan: Having seen what the Taliban can do to ex-communists, Mr Dostum and his men will not be in a hurry to put down their weapons. There is also Mr Masoud, in the Panjshir valley. The Taliban say they plan to attack him; but even the Russians never managed to force their way into the Panjshir.
The Taliban, still groping for some sort of all-Afghanistan organization, may anyway not present a united front for very long. History suggests that when Pathans are not fighting an outside enemy they fight each other. The Pathans are a people divided into many tribes, and these tribes sub-divide into clusters of smaller clans. Cohesion does not come easily to them. If cohesion now fails again, the Taliban's moment of power could prove to be brief.
If a Taliban government does survive, on the other hand, Pakistan may have cause to worry about what it has helped to create. The glue that holds Pakistan's various provinces together is far from strong, and Pakistan's own Pathans may start to think they are more at home with Afghanistan's Pathans than with Sindhis or Punjabis.
The Taliban may also worry Pakistan on religious grounds. their anti-Shia sectarianism could worsen the Sunni-Shia enmities that have broken out in Pakistan over the past couple of years. The world's journalists virtually ignored a particularly brutal Sunni-Shia fight that took place last month among Pakistan's Pathans, near Parachinar in the North-West Frontier Province, started by a row between Sunni and Shia schoolchildren. The fighting, says the Pakistani government, killed 105 people; local reports say that 500 people died.
The Taliban are trying to calm such fears. "We do not want to send people to make trouble in other countries," said Mohammed Stanakzai, the provisional government's deputy foreign minister, on October Ist. But the Taliban's convictions may collide with their interests. They have said, for instance, that their Islamic beliefs require them neither to use drugs nor to profit from them. But Helmand, an area they have had under their control for over a year, is a poppy-growing centre, and there is no sign that they are preventing the farmers there from growing their usual crop; they have, indeed, standardised the opium tax, at 10%.
The United Nations Drugs Control Programme, which monitors heroin production, estimates that Afghanistan will produce 2,248 tonnes of raw opium this year, compared with 2,066 last year. If the Taliban want money, here is one way of getting it that could lead to arguments with the outside world.
There are other possible causes of contention. "They're expansionist," says a journalist who has travelled extensively among the Taliban. "They often talk of their desire to spread their beliefs to Pakistan, Central Asia, the Middle East." That will worry Russia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; their leaders called a meeting about it for this Friday. It will also cause alarm in largely Shia Iran, and one band of Muslim revivalists will find itself glaring at another for purely intra-lsiamic reasons.
The United States has learned the dangers of taking Islamic warriors finder its wing. The "Afghanis' - the Afghans and other Muslims who were trained to fight against the Soviet occupation of Arghanistan have come back to haunt America. A forthcoming book by John Cooley, an American journalist, points out that Afghanis tend to turn up wherever a guerrilla war with Muslim connections is being fought. They have joined the fight in Bosnia as well as the civil wars in Egypt (where a group of them are currently on trial), Algeria, Kashmir and the Philippines; in that country, an Islamist guerrilla movement is called Abu Sayyaf, after one of the Afghan guerrilla leaders. The World Trade Centre bombers, and those convicted in Saudi Arabia of a bombing in Riyadh last year, had Afghani connections.
Many of the Taliban came out of the camps where the Afghanis were trained. Maybe an uncommonly ferocious civil war has taught them to value peace. It would be unwise to take that hope for a fact.
October 5, 1996