Understanding the Taliban

By Kaiser Bengali

Images of the rubble of the World Trade Centre in New York reminds one of the rubble of thousands of buildings and houses in Kabul. The Afghan Mujahideen - recruited, organized, trained, financed and armed by the US - created this rubble with US-supplied weaponry after the departure of the Soviet army. Now massive bombing by the US is reshaping that rubble.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghan men, women and children had died when the rubble was first created. Thousands were maimed on account of US-supplied land mines planted liberally across Afghanistan by the Mujahideen. Most of these maimed men, women and children had taken shelter in the rubble of Kabul. As US missiles and bombs turn this rubble upside down, hundreds of them have died. For them there is perverse mercy. They will no longer crawl on the streets of Kabul on empty stomachs.

The treatment being meted out to Afghanistan shows how little the world understands the unfortunate war-ravaged country or the Taliban. The Taliban may be the bad boys in the eyes of the West and the drawing room liberals in Pakistan, but they have to be credited with imposing absolute peace in the 90 per cent of the country under their control. They have also to be credited with abolishing the cultivation of poppy and eliminating the sources within Afghanistan of heroin production and smuggling to the West. One may not agree with Taliban laws, but they have to be acknowledged for instituting the rule of law. Despite widespread hunger, robberies and holdups are rare.

Truckers can drive from one end of the country to another without anyone accosting them for money or any favours. The Taliban regime is also egalitarian in many respects. Ministers' offices are modest and they sit on the floor and share their meals with their chauffeurs, the head of Kabul airport commutes to work on a bicycle, and so on. Most of all, women are safe. They can walk alone on the streets, albeit in a burqa, without any fear of being harassed. None of these claims can be made for the territory controlled by non-Taliban forces.

There are significant minuses, however, in the Taliban account. Internally, no serious attempt has been made in the last half a decade of their rule to rebuild the infrastructure. The only buildings that have been repaired are mosques and government offices. The continuing civil war is a reason for diversion of resources.

But no effort, whatsoever, has been made towards national reconciliation. Their abject rigidity in the face of mass starvation and deprivation of their people is unforgivable. Their apparent egalitarianism is contradicted by policies in key areas. They have reversed the land reforms of the 'communist' era and the lands distributed to poor peasants have been reverted to the feudal lords and tribal chiefs.

Their treatment of women has been harsh and inhuman. For a war-ravaged country, where one in seven households does not have any adult male or an able-bodied male, the ban on women's work amounts to condemning these families to starvation. Externally, the Taliban violated every law of civilization by providing safe haven to mafroors (absconders from law) from sundry Muslim countries, including Pakistan. All one had to do to qualify for Taliban hospitality was to sport a beard, don a turban and profess to fight for Islam.

Even by nineteenth century standards, the Taliban are an anachronism. It is, however, necessary to see where they have come from and how the Taliban phenomenon has come about. The US decision to engage the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by mobilizing the Islamic clergy in Afghanistan and Pakistan ordained death and destruction for millions of Afghans. Millions more streamed as refugees into neighbouring countries. Amongst them were hundreds of thousands of orphans.

These orphans were collected in scores of madrassahs in Afghan refugee camps and in Pakistani cities run by the same clergy. These orphans grew up through childhood, adolescence and youth in an environment completely devoid of women. They have never known the love and care of mothers and elder sisters. They have never seen the benign smiles of grandmothers or aunts. They have never played with younger sisters or female cousins.

These products of the madrassahs - the Taliban - are thus a unique breed of men. Their harshness towards women, towards their opponents and, indeed, towards themselves should be seen in this context. They are the byproducts of the human destruction wreaked by the US-USSR clash in Afghanistan. They are certainly not men who will be cowed down by the American display of its awesome firepower.

The Taliban phenomenon was also facilitated by socio-cultural conditions in Afghanistan. Prior to the outbreak of conflict in 1979, Afghanistan was a dual society. Whatever semblance of modernization there existed was limited to the city centres of Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. The modernized elite, who wore western dresses and sent their daughters to universities, was narrowly centred around the royal family and the military officer class. Outside this island of relative modernity, Afghanistan existed in the medieval age. Mountain tribes had no experience of electricity or telephones or of education or health facilities.

In the world that they knew of, girls never went to schools and women never went to hospitals because there never ever had been to any school or clinic in their village or in any of the villages that they knew of. A lot has been made of the women being forced to observe purdah. However, 99.9 per cent of the women were already purdah-observing and Taliban edicts did not affect their lives in this respect at least.

When these mountain tribesmen gained the reins of power in Kabul, they could not but impose a social and political order that they were aware of and familiar with. What really occurred was that the Afghan hinterland arrived in and took over Kabul. Since these tribesmen were madrassah "educated", it was natural that they would operate under the banner of Islam. In reality, what has actually happened in Afghanistan is not Islamization but tribalization. Many or most of the policy actions of the Taliban have little to do with Islam. The fact that several of Taliban edicts are not rooted in Islamic tenets is borne out by the fact that some of them have been changed to conform to the exigencies of the modern world.

An account circulating among the UN community in Kabul a year ago was about hospital reforms. At the time the Taliban took over Kabul, they drove out all the women from hospitals, including those who had undergone surgery only days earlier. Several must have failed to survive. That consideration did not then register with the Taliban authorities. Several months later, a hospital epidemic killed scores of children in a matter of days. Shocked, the Taliban sought WHO assistance. In the process, they not only allowed women back into the hospitals, but also unofficially allowed male doctors to treat women patients.

The same year, the UN conducted a house-to-house sample survey in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif to assess food needs. The survey was conducted by ten Afghan women in each city under the supervision of male expatriates. When explained about the necessity of training, the Taliban actually allowed the supervisory team to enter the women's quarter in the UN office to train the women surveyors in administrating the questionnaire. During the survey, six armed Taliban guards accompanied the survey team. One of their tasks was to ensure that the male supervisors and the women surveyors only communicated in the presence of an English-speaking Afghan and that there was no social conversation.

Needless to say, there were several occasions where tensions arose, particularly because some of the English-speaking Afghan women were curious about the world outside. At the end of the survey, the guards warmly embraced the supervisors. One of the Urdu-speaking guards sheepishly apologized to the team leader for their strictness, adding that they were merely following orders. It dawned on the team that the Taliban are human too!

The Taliban leadership may consist largely of 11th century-minded tribals, but there are significant elements within who are painfully conscious of the poverty and suffering of their people. They are cognizant of the need to reform and reconstruct their ravaged country. They do not approve of the extremism and militancy of their colleagues, do not relish the pariah status in world, and are aware of the need to be accepted by the world community.

The destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan province had much more to do with the internal battles between hardliners and moderates than with a display of Islamic zeal. However, sanctions and missile attacks have only served to compromise the moderates and strengthen the hardliners. The latest US attack has sunk the moderates altogether.

Pakistan was the Taliban's only real ally. Pakistani authorities were correctly opposed to UN sanctions and were trying to explain to the world the need to engage the Taliban instead. Such a course would have strengthened the moderates and brought about the kind of positive change that has occurred in Iran. These arguments are known to have been bandied about in the US State Department and the Pentagon as well. For unexplained geopolitical reasons, however, a conscious decision appears to have been taken several months ago to strengthen the hardliners. Such a course allowed the US to demonize the Taliban and demolish them whenever an opportunity arose. September 11 provided that opportunity.

US expediency in world affairs is a known reality. So is the subservience of the Pakistani ruling establishment to US interests. Yet, however, the complete somersault by Islamabad in a matter of less than 100 hours from being the most loyal supporter of the Taliban to the most loyal agent of the US against the Taliban is shockingly dishonourable. This is the second time in less than a quarter of a century that Pakistan has lent its hands to the US to shed Afghan blood. Pakistanis will not be able to look an Afghan in the eye for a long time to come.