The Taliban

The Taliban has been so thoroughly demonized in the minds of most Americans
that I am presenting here some of the references Michael Scheuer mentioned
in endnote 25 to Chapter 15 of his Through Our Enemies’ Eyes
(all dated 2000 or 2001),
together with a few related articles.
But first, here is the main text from which those references originated,
from paragraph on page 252 of the original, 2002, edition of TOEE.


[M]any American experts ... have ignored
the very real accomplishments and popular acceptance
of the Taliban government in Afghanistan—

the documentation of which is full and easily accessible—

and have ...
equated the fall of Kabul with the liberation of Dachau,
thereby obscuring for their countrymen
the genuine possibility of a Taliban rebound.


A Cause Unveiled
Hollywood Women Have Made the Plight of Afghan Women Their Own --
Sight Unseen

by Sharon Waxman
Washington Post, 1999-03-30

Last August [1998]
the compassionate, concerned, dedicated women of the Feminist Majority --
a small group of activists based in Hollywood and Washington --
were utterly miserable.

It had been eight months since Mavis Leno,
wife of Jay and member of the board,
had declared her intention
to take on the cause of Afghan women.
Eight months of letter-writing,
of networking, of power-lunching,
and she’d gotten plenty of sympathy but no real action.

The average American remained blissfully unaware that
women half a world away were being repressed by the Taliban,
the ultra-conservative Islamic group
that had swept to power in 1996
and dragged the country back several centuries.
The Taliban decreed that
women were to be hidden beneath full-length shrouds in public
and denied them education, freedom of movement and the opportunity to work.
Women who resisted were beaten.
Women suspected of offenses like adultery were stoned. To death.

“It was clear to me,”
says Mavis Leno, sitting in her West Hollywood headquarters,
“that if women in the West didn’t do something pretty spectacular,
these women were lost.”
She is dark-haired and articulate,
with a vague resemblance, strangely, to her famous husband.
She goes on,

“It would be like the German and Polish Jews,
like the peasants under Stalin.
They’d be swallowed by history.
And I didn’t want that to happen while I was alive.”

So Mavis and Jay Leno dug deep
and handed over $100,000 to get the movement rolling.

And roll it has.
In six months the Taliban’s “war on women”
has become the latest cause celebre in Hollywood.
Tibet is out. Afghanistan is in.
The Lenos hosted a briefing for insiders at their home.
The media showed up in force at their news conference last October.
Even President Clinton got on board.
Ten days ago,
he spent an hour talking with a Feminist Majority delegation
about the plight of Afghan women.
The latest twist is that
Clinton pal and veteran TV producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason
produced a media event tonight at the Directors Guild
that was the official coming-out of the Afghan women’s cause.

It was a must-attend happening,
gathering perhaps the largest number of celebrities for a single cause
since the “We Are the World” campaign 14 years ago.
Some 70 household names --
everyone from
Vince Gill to Marlo Thomas to Lionel Richie to Paula Abdul to Christine Lahti
[at least some households]--
were on the guest list.
Richie sang an anthem he donated, “Love, Oh Love,”
and Naomi Judd and Gill also performed.
Alfre Woodard, Gillian Anderson and Lily Tomlin were among the speakers.

At the Feminist Majority offices,
the adrenaline rush from this rising momentum is unmistakable.
Leno is charged, if somewhat weary.
“For a human rights situation this is unusually simple,” she says.

“The Taliban are spectacularly villainous.
They are so uneducated,
they don’t have the wit to disguise their villainy.
That’s a rarity.
You can’t write it off to culture or religion.
It’s so inhumane.
So unaccepted.
This is not a decent way to treat human beings.”

Her colleague, national coordinator Kathy Spillar, nods in agreement.
She repeats what other Feminist Majority board members have already noted:
“There is no ‘other side’ to this issue.”

But it turns out that there is another side to this issue.

There is no question that
there has been severe persecution of women under the Taliban,
the Sunni Muslim militia that controls 90 percent of the nation
and is an offshoot of the rebels funded largely by the United States
after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.
the question of women’s oppression in Afghanistan --
like most problems in that troubled part of the world --
is intensely complicated.

Several specialists on Afghanistan
disputed some aspects of the picture painted by the Feminist Majority,
notably about access to health care and education.
They expressed concern that the Hollywood activists are
distorting the reality of the current conditions,
exaggerating abuses,
taking them out of a critical historical context.

Worse, some international relief officials fear that
if the Feminist Majority’s campaign is successful,
it may end up harming those who most need help
by encouraging donor nations to reduce their aid or cut it off completely.

“Those who are speaking out now are well-intentioned
but they don’t have the full story,”
[So what else is new?]
says Andrew Wilder,
director of the Afghan relief operation of Save the Children,
in a phone interview from Pakistan.
“It’s misleading to the point where
there’s more and more of a movement
from human rights groups and the Feminist Majority
to say cut off all aid,
which is a real misunderstanding of the situation and
will only hurt the very groups these women want to help.”

“This is a terrible snow job,”
says Judy Benjamin,
head of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children,
who returned a couple of weeks ago
from visiting Afghan refugee camps on the border with Pakistan.
“It’s amusing almost, but sad.
With the Jay Leno connection
they have struck it rich and gained Hollywood,
but trust me, they’re terribly misinformed.”

In testimony before Congress earlier this month,
Leno noted that
the Taliban has “banned women from being treated by male doctors,”
and that
“the few female doctors who are permitted to work are often harassed.”
During two days of interviews at the Feminist Majority offices,
the impression left on a reporter is that
health care is virtually unavailable to women in Afghanistan.

But Benjamin and Wilder and a U.N. official,
who spoke on the condition that his name not be used,
all confirm that there are segregated women’s wards in many Afghan hospitals,
and that the Taliban has rescinded restrictions on women’s health care.
A much larger problem, they note,
is the lack of medicine throughout the country and medical personnel,
particularly in rural areas.

Education for girls is formally banned by the Taliban.
But nearly a dozen nongovernmental groups
are conducting schooling for boys and girls,
and home schooling is widespread in the capital of Kabul.

Where the abuses strike most viciously,
it seems, is in cities like Kabul,
which was increasingly Westernized,
particularly under the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Under the Soviets, women were free to work and pursue an education,
and many gained prominent roles during the civil war in the ‘80s and ‘90s
as men were siphoned off to fight.
For these women,
the ban on employment and the deprivations of the burqa,
the full-length shroud women are required to wear by the Taliban,
are particularly demeaning.

But sweeping statements
like those in the Feminist Majority’s media advisory for tonight’s event --
“In Afghanistan today eleven and a half million women and girls
are prisoners in their own homes” --
are largely inaccurate, according to those familiar with the country.

Says Zalmay Khalilzad,
a Reagan administration expert on Afghanistan now at the Rand Corp.,
“In the rural areas, what the Taliban is seeking to impose
is not very different than what the norm has been.”

Leila Helms, a Westernized, Afghan-born woman who is pro-Taliban,
has just returned from a two-week tour of Afghanistan
where she says she filmed six hours of interviews with women in five provinces.
The burqa, she said, is not widespread in the countryside,
and she met many women moving freely about,
without male relatives as chaperons.

Says Helms:
“I met 150 women.
I asked every one if they were beaten or knew someone who had been. . . .
There was one woman who’d been beaten once on her shoulders two years ago because her face was showing and she was talking to a man she didn’t know.
Every single other one hadn’t been beaten,
and did not know someone who had been beaten.”

These prickly issues aside,
the reason why Helms -- a secular, pro-abortion American --
favors the Taliban is because
for six years she witnessed the country’s devastation
when she and her husband
worked in Afghan refugee camps at the Pakistani border from 1988 to 1994.
For Helms,

the admittedly repressive Taliban
at least brought peace to the country,

and Hollywood’s sudden concern for Afghan women angers her.

She explodes:
“Where were they when all these women were being raped,
when women were being killed
because they were not following the Muslim Brotherhood,”
the faction that ruled Afghanistan after the expulsion of Soviet troops.
“Where were they before the war when women didn’t have rights?
Where were they throughout the war
when women were rotting in the refugee camps?”

She continues:
“For nearly 20 years in Afghanistan there has been no law, no order.
We lost almost 2 million people to the Russians.
The women don’t want to be saved by the Feminist Majority.
Finally they have peace,
and people in America find religion on the issue of women in Afghanistan?”

Lastly, there is Abdel Hakim Mujahed,
the Taliban’s representative in the United States,
who calls the entire campaign
“negative propaganda made against us intentionally,”
which is true enough.
He says:
“There is no doubt that
we cannot make our society like American society,
but I can tell you that
the situation existing there
is far more better than what it was.”

Back at the Feminist Majority,
there is some softening of the line
when confronted with these points of view.
President Eleanor Smeal agrees that
the Taliban’s repression is unevenly enforced
but denies that her group has exaggerated the abuses.

“One of the biggest frustrations is
you cannot get the exact same fact from any one person.
It’s very complicated -- you have to listen very closely,” she says.
“We don’t have to exaggerate this.
If only one-tenth of this is happening --
we’re not trying to exaggerate,
we’re trying to say what people have told us,
and to go with eyewitness accounts.”

Smeal also emphasizes that the campaign
is not designed to squeeze humanitarian aid to the country,
which goes directly to relief agencies
and does not pass through the Taliban.
Rather, she wants pressure on the government
to lift quotas for refugees and
to restrict support for economic and agricultural programs in Afghanistan.

She urges,
“The big picture is what we’ve got to keep in mind.
We’re trying to call attention to horrific conditions.”

So how did this come to be Hollywood’s new cause of the day?
Why not “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo?
Or mutilation in Sierra Leone?
Or slavery in Mauritania?

Mavis Leno got involved with Afghanistan
the way things usually happen in Hollywood --
through a tight network of acquaintances.
The longtime feminist heard about the Feminist Majority
from group co-founder Peg Yorkin,
who sat next to her at a lunch for the New Yorker’s “Women’s Issue” in 1997.
Then she found out that she lived across the street
from another board member, Lorraine Sheinberg,
wife of producer Sidney Sheinberg.

“I realized --
Oh, this is everything I want,
a small group,
a short line from recognizing an issue to taking action,”

recalls Leno,
who had been looking for a charitable outlet.

The group was already involved in protesting conditions in Afghanistan
when, at the January board meeting last year,
Leno -- who up to now has not been a public personality --
offered to lend her name and abilities.

Recalls Smeal,
“I said,
‘Are you willing to do this? This will change things.’
She said,
‘We can’t abandon those women. We’ve got to try everything.’ “

But for the first eight months or so of her involvement,
Leno “came close to popping a blood vessel,” she says.
“I couldn’t get anything rolling.”
part of a huge oil consortium that was considering investing in Afghanistan,
pulled out of its pipeline project;
that was good.
But apart from that, she recalls,
“Nothing. Zip. No interest. No nothing.”
She testified in Congress before a foreign appropriations subcommittee;
one media outlet, Afghan radio, showed up.
Stories would air on shows like “20/20,”
and there would be no bounce.
“No one could get anyone to raise the visibility of this one-eighth of an inch,”
she says.

Finally Leno decided that the economics of the movement had to change.
She and her husband decided
to use the proceeds from Jay’s pay-per-view wrestling match with Hulk Hogan
to fund the campaign.

Says the late-night host:
“At some point you have to do something good with your life.
God didn’t seem particularly impressed
with my collection of cars and motorcycles,
he’s not an enthusiast when it comes to material possessions.
So I figured that at some point you have to do something good,
especially in terms of what you make.”

Armed with the seed money,
the Feminist Majority completely revamped its strategy.
It adopted a symbol, put together political action mailers.
It set up a toll-free number.
It held a press conference that was scheduled -- serendipitously --
a day after the United States had attacked
Islamic militant Osama bin Laden’s alleged terrorist bases in Afghanistan;
the media showed up this time.

Bloodworth-Thomason and Leno have focused the campaign with a vengeance.
They now have a symbol --
a piece of blue mesh that is the peephole for the Afghan shroud --
a logo
and a name, “gender apartheid.”

Bloodworth-Thomason brought a burqa with her to the White House
when she visited the Clintons at Thanksgiving.
The president, Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea all
were “astounded by the oppressiveness of the garment,”
she reports.

Then the activists decided to “go bigger,” as they put it,
deciding to put together a major media event,
to gather as many celebrities as possible to raise the profile of their campaign.

For three months
Leno, Bloodworth-Thomason and others have been working the phones,
and the huge response is in itself a lesson in the
no-degree-of-separation world of Hollywood.
Lorraine Sheinberg called
Gillian Anderson, Candice Bergen, Lily Tomlin and Marlo Thomas, among others.
Yorkin called Janet Leigh, Mary Tyler Moore, Julie Andrews.
Yorkin’s daughter writes for “Chicago Hope” -- hence Christine Lahti.

Mavis Leno ran into music producer David Foster who got hold of Vince Gill.
Another friend knew Lionel Richie
and got him to donate a song to tonight’s event.
Cybill Shepherd heard from a friend.
Bloodworth-Thomason’s assistant called Naomi, Wynonna and Ashley Judd’s assistant and arranged for them to attend.

“At the beginning we thought,
`If we get two or three celebrities on board’ --
and I don’t even know what happened.
All of a sudden it just blew up,” Leno says.

Another unexpected windfall:
Leno called Abigail Van Buren to participate.
Dear Abby couldn’t make it but suggested Leno write a letter to her column.
It has yielded some 30,000 phone calls so far.
Leno went on “Larry King Live,”
and recently was a guest on her husband’s “Tonight” show.

For the Feminist Majority, this must be the beginning of the road to success.
Says Yorkin:
“When Hollywood got interested in apartheid in South Africa,
that was the beginning of the end.
We want the same thing here.”

Is the lack of women’s rights in Afghanistan
the most pressing human rights abuse in the world?

“It is an urgent situation,” affirms Sheila Dauer,
director of the women’s human rights program for Amnesty International.
“The event they’re holding is very important.
I would congratulate all the celebrities taking part in this Afghan action.”

But others say
the dismal situation in Afghanistan is tied just as closely to
the economic devastation brought on by 20 years of savagery.

Says Benjamin,
“Definitely women in Afghanistan are suffering tremendous abuses,
their human rights are not being respected.
But you need to put this in the context of
what’s happened to the country in the past two decades.
Much of the grief and poverty is a result of conflict and war,
not a result of the Taliban.
There is suffering and poverty, but
in most of Afghanistan
people will say the Taliban have brought peace and security.”

This very notion makes some Afghan women,
in touch with the Feminist Majority, desperate.
“Everything you hear is true, is real,”
pleads Zieba Shorish-Shamley, the Afghan-born director of
the Women’s Alliance for Peace and Freedom in Afghanistan.
“I think some of these international organizations
are minimizing the atrocities being committed
because they want to continue to work, pay their mortgage,
send their children to school.
These people are beginning to minimize in order to please the Taliban,
so they are able to work.”

But Jay Leno has the final say on this matter:
“They’re shining a light on the problem.
If this all turns out to be wrong, if it’s a huge mistake --
and there seems to be an awful lot of proof in the other direction --
nobody did anything for the wrong reasons.”

[For a historical look at
the problem of Americans meddling in other people’s culture,
see my 2004-04-23 [!] post to Slate’s Fray,
“The Ugly Feminist”.]

Taliban Explains Buddha Demolition
New York Times, 2001-03-19

[Paragraph numbers and emphasis are added.]

With outrage still fresh around the world over
the destruction of two giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan,
a Taliban envoy says
the Islamic government made its decision in a rage after
a foreign delegation offered money to preserve the ancient works
while a million Afghans faced starvation.

“When your children are dying in front of you,
then you don’t care about a piece of art,”

Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi, the envoy, said in an interview on Friday.

Mr. Rahmatullah is in the United States on a mission
to improve ties and ease the Taliban’s isolation.
A main focus of his visit, he said, will be
to find a way out of the impasse surrounding Osama bin Laden,
the terrorist suspect
whose presence in Afghanistan has prompted international sanctions.

Still, Mr. Rahmatullah expressed no remorse
over the demolition of the two giant Buddhas,
carved from a cliff in central Afghanistan 1,400 years ago
and considered one of the world’s artistic treasures.

An adviser to the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar,
Mr. Rahmatullah
gave for the first time here
the Taliban’s version of events:
how a council of religious scholars ordered the statues destroyed
in a fit of indignation.

The destruction, according to his account, was prompted last month
when a visiting delegation of mostly European envoys and a representative of
the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
offered money to protect the giant standing Buddhas at Bamian,
where the Taliban was engaged in fighting an opposition alliance.

Other reports, however, have said
the religious leaders were debating the move for months,
and ultimately decided that the statues were idolatrous
and should be obliterated.

At the time the foreign delegation visited,
United Nations relief officials were warning that
a long drought and a harsh winter
were confronting up to a million Afghans with starvation.
Mr. Rahmatullah said that when the visitors
offered money to repair and maintain the statues,
the Taliban’s mullahs were outraged.

“The scholars told them that instead of spending money on statues,
why didn’t they help our children who are dying of malnutrition?
They rejected that, saying, ‘This money is only for statues.’ ”

“The scholars were so angry,” he continued.
“They said, ‘If you are destroying our future with economic sanctions,
you can’t care about our heritage.’
And so they decided that these statues must be destroyed.”

The Taliban’s Supreme Court confirmed the edict.

“If we had wanted to destroy those statues,
we could have done it three years ago,”

Mr. Rahmatullah said.
“So why didn’t we?
In our religion, if anything is harmless, we just leave it.
If money is going to statues while children are dying of malnutrition next door,
then that makes it harmful, and we destroy it.”

“What do you expect from a country
when you just ostracize them and isolate them and send in cruise missiles
and their children are dying?”

he said,
referring to the sanctions and
American attacks against Mr. bin Laden’s base in Afghanistan
after the bombing of two American embassies in Africa in 1998.

“You don’t recognize their government,” Mr. Rahmatullah added.
“It is a kind of resentment that is growing in Afghanistan.”

At the same time, he said
the Taliban would not destroy statues actually being worshiped,
and would not touch the Hindu temples still left in Afghanistan.

Mr. Rahmatullah is due to meet officials of the State Department
and National Security Council on Monday in Washington,
where he will also speak next week at
the Council on Foreign Relations,
the Atlantic Council of the United States and
the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

He would not disclose details of
a possible new proposal
for a way out of the standoff over Mr. bin Laden,

the Taliban’s fourth,
saying he needed a signal from Washington first.

But there are reports in Pakistan that one option might be
turning Mr. bin Laden over to a special tribunal, perhaps in The Hague,
for trial by a panel of Islamic judges.

The Clinton administration had rejected an Afghan trial,
international monitoring of Mr. bin Laden —
whom Mr. Rahmatullah described as a nobody the Americans made into a hero —
or exile in another Muslim country.

Mr. Rahmatullah’s visit and the wide hearing he is getting
have provoked criticism in Congress,
particularly from supporters of India,
which along with Russia
has begun to give military help to the Taliban’s opposition.
He was given an American visa because
he falls below the rank of the highest officials in the Taliban government,
who are barred from traveling under an embargo.

Throughout a long interview on a range of subjects,
Mr. Rahmatullah maintained the fiercely independent attitude of the Taliban,
who have demonstrated repeatedly to the United Nations
that they will cooperate with the world only on their own terms.

“They want to change our policies through economic sanctions,”
he said of the United States and other nations
that pushed an embargo through the Security Council.
“That does not work. For us,
our ideology is first, then the economy.
To try to change our ideology with economic sanctions is ridiculous.”

Mr. Rahmatullah, who is 24 —
Mullah Omar, at 40, is the oldest of the Taliban’s leaders —
grew up in a refugee camp near Quetta, Pakistan,
and was educated in an Islamic religious school there.
He learned to speak almost flawless English in a class for refugees.

On his first trip to the United States,
he said he liked Americans more than he expected
because he found them more open-minded than Europeans.
He has been speaking at universities on the West Coast.

Mr. Rahmatullah said the Taliban
were in fairly desperate need of agricultural help
to supply farmers who once planted opium
and to teach them to grow other crops.
The United Nations narcotics control program has told the Taliban
it has no money for seeds,
and drug-control officials wonder
if the new ban on poppy cultivation can be sustained.

Mr. Rahmatullah said the Taliban
were making strides in health and education
with very little foreign help.
He said medical or nursing schools for men and women
had now opened in Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Mazaar-i-Sharif.

A curriculum for the first seven years of general schooling had been prepared,
he said,
combining religious and secular subjects in separate schools for boys and girls.

The Taliban has come under criticism for its treatment of women,
who must be shrouded head to toe,
cannot leave home unaccompanied by a male relative and
have been removed from some jobs and schools where they might mix with men.

Mr. Rahmatullah and his wife, Jamila, another former refugee,
have just had their first child, a daughter. They named her Soriya.
“It means the Pleiades — you know, the stars,” he said.

Did he want her to go to school?

“Of course,” he said. “She will not be a good mother if she is not educated.”

Taliban's Ban On Poppy A Success, U.S. Aides Say
New York Times, 2001-05-20

The first American narcotics experts to go to Afghanistan under Taliban rule
have concluded that

the movement’s ban on opium-poppy cultivation
appears to have wiped out the world’s largest crop
in less than a year,

officials said today.

The American findings confirm
earlier reports from the United Nations drug control program that Afghanistan,
which supplied about three-quarters of the world’s opium
and most of the heroin reaching Europe,
had ended poppy planting in one season.

But the eradication of poppies has come at a terrible cost to farming families,
and experts say it will not be known until the fall planting season begins
whether the Taliban can continue to enforce it.

“It appears that the ban has taken effect,”
said Steven Casteel, assistant administrator for intelligence
at the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington.

The findings came in part from a Pakistan-based agent of the administration
who was one of the two Americans on the team just returned
from eight days in the poppy-growing areas of Afghanistan.

Mr. Casteel said in an interview today that
he was still studying aerial images
to determine if any new poppy-growing areas had emerged.
He also said that some questions about
the size of hidden opium and heroin stockpiles
near the northern border of Afghanistan
remained to be answered.
But the drug agency has so far
found nothing to contradict United Nations reports.

The sudden turnaround by the Taliban,
a move that left international drug experts stunned
when reports of near-total eradication began to come in earlier this year,
opens the way for American aid
to the Afghan farmers who have stopped planting poppies.

On Thursday,
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced
a $43 million grant to Afghanistan in additional emergency aid
to cope with the effects of a prolonged drought.
The United States has become the biggest donor to help Afghanistan in the drought.

“We will continue to look for ways to provide more assistance to the Afghans,”
he said in a statement,
“including those farmers who have felt the impact of the ban on poppy cultivation,
a decision by the Taliban that we welcome.”

The Afghans are desperate for international help,
but describe their opposition to drug cultivation purely in religious terms.

At the State Department, James P. Callahan,
director of Asian affairs at
the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
who was one of the experts sent to Afghanistan,
described in an interview how the Taliban had applied and enforced the ban.
He was told by farmers that
“the Taliban used a system of consensus-building.”

They framed the ban “in very religious terms,”
citing Islamic prohibitions against drugs,

and that made it hard to defy, he added.
Those who defied the edict were threatened with prison.

Mr. Callahan said that in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand,
where the Taliban’s hold is strongest,
farmers said they would rather starve than return to poppy cultivation --
and some of them will, experts say.

In parts of Nangahar province in the east,
where the Taliban’s hold is less complete,
farmers told the visiting experts that
they would flee to Pakistan or risk illegal crops
rather than watch their families die.

The end of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan
has come at a huge cost to farmers, Mr. Callahan and Mr. Casteel said.
The rural economy, especially in the usual opium-poppy areas,
had come to rely on the narcotics trade.
“The bad side of the ban is that
it’s bringing their country -- or certain regions of their country --
to economic ruin,”
Mr. Casteel said.
“They are trying to replace the crop with wheat,
but that is easier said than done.”

“Wheat needs more water and earns no money until it is sold,”
Mr. Casteel said.
“With the opium trade they used to get their money up front.”

The Taliban,
who used to collect taxes on the movement of opium,
is also losing money,
adding another layer of difficulty
for a government that is already isolated
and not recognized diplomatically by most nations.

Afghanistan is now under United Nations sanctions,
imposed at the insistence of the United States
because the Islamic movement will not turn over Osama bin Laden for trial
in connection with attacks on two American Embassies in Africa in 1998.

American experts and United Nations officials say
the Taliban are likely to face political problems
if the effects of the opium ban are catastrophic and many people die.

[Cf. 2007-04-25-Costa.]

Letter from Afghanistan: “Across the Divide”
by William T. Vollmann
The New Yorker, 2000-05-15

[This was cited in endnote 25 to Chapter 15 of
Michael Scheuer’s Through Our Enemies’ Eyes]

Descending the Khyber Pass from Pakistan,
one enters a tan-colored desert
that resembles the tough interior membrane of a pomegranate-
a wearying, lifeless place.
Emerald wheat fields, trees shining with figs and oranges,
and armies of snowy hills present themselves from time to time,
but the region is mostly sand, pebble heaps, and drum-hard earth,
tramped down by glaciers and soldiers.
I remember gazing into that desert from Pakistan, back in 1982.
The Afghan insurgents I was travelling with had shown me a Soviet sentry box
and the road behind it that went on into infinity.
It was a reasonably good road then.
By the time I returned, last January,
hardly a scrap of asphalt remained on its bomb-cratered, potholed track.

I had never driven down it before.
In 1982, my companions had led me over the mountains
from the Pakistani town of Parachinar
in order to avoid the Soviet garrison.
Now this border crossing was open.
After eighteen years,
I was going back to a country that had been my symbol of heroism-
a place where poor peasants
had risen up against arrogant and cruel invaders
and washed them away with their own blood.
Those invaders had been gone for a decade.
The new government,
run by members of the fundamentalist Islamic movement known as the Taliban,
was literal-minded and stern,
like the freedom fighters who’d inspired me years before.
It was despised by much of the Western world,
but I wanted to know what the Afghans, who had to live with it, thought.

My translator and I changed money in the border town of Torkham,
got a taxi, and rattled down into Afghanistan.
For scenic attractions,
we had the stumps of a razed orange grove, wrecked Soviet tanks,
and refugee mud villages, abandoned now and crumbling into dust.
There were warnings of land mines, and once in a great while
a listless-looking man could be seen far off on the dreary plain,
dragging a golf-club-shaped mine detector through the rocks.
I saw virtually no usable habitation, not even a tent.
Nevertheless, every few hundred yards
there’d be a dirty boy or girl waiting by the side of the road.
As our taxi approached,
the child would sink a shovel just far enough into the dirt to collect a few clods,
then dribble them into the nearest pothole,
pretending to improve the road for our journey,
hoping for payment.
A burning stare, a shout, and then we were on our way to the next beggar.

If I stopped and gave money to a child, others came running.
I slipped one boy five thousand afghanis-about ten cents-
and when I looked back in the rearview mirror it seemed that
the other boys were practically tearing him to pieces.
On a road bend where no other beggar could see,
I gave a twenty-dollar bill
to a boy who stood beside the carapace of a Soviet armored personnel carrier,
and he took it and held it as if he were dreaming.
I wanted him to hide it before anybody else came or the wind took it from him,
but the last I saw of him he was still standing there
with the banknote dangling from his hand.

It was like this most of the way to Kabul,
some hundred and twenty miles from the border.
Inside the capital’s war-pocked walls,
beggar women and children would wait outside the windows of restaurants,
crowding against the glass and drumming on it desperately.
If I sent a plateful of food out to them,
they’d fall on it in the same way that skates and manta rays
occlude their scavenged prey-guarding it with their own flesh while they eat.
When I left the restaurant and got into a taxi,
the children would try to climb in, too.
I couldn’t bring myself to slam the door on their hands,
so the taxi would roll down the street with the door open,
gradually increasing speed until they had to let go.
Once I went out alone at dusk, and an army of children fell upon me,
clawing at me for money, shouting obscenities,
and laughing that the Taliban would kill me
because I wore bluejeans instead of the stipulated shalwar kameez-
a long shirt and baggy pantaloons.
They were the children first of war and then of poverty,
growing up hungry and ignorant
(although some of the boys claimed to go to school),
with not much either to amuse them or to make them hopeful.

But I must have been missing the point:

in Pakistan,
where I’d spent almost three weeks waiting for an Afghan visa,
people had rhapsodized about the quality of life in Afghanistan.
Several Afghan women teachers I met in a refugee camp
expressed admiration for the Taliban-
even though under Taliban rule they wouldn’t be allowed to teach.

A Pakistani government official in Islamabad said that he adored the Talibs.
And in the border city of Peshawar, where I stayed in a six-dollar hotel,
the clerk, a gentle, bad-complexioned boy,
who came to my room every evening to answer questions about the Koran,
told me,
“Afghanistan is now the most perfect country in the world.”
Times had changed.
In 1982, every Pakistani male I met had wanted to be photographed.
But although this boy trusted me, he refused to let me take his picture,
because the Taliban had decreed that doing so broke the rules of Islam.

Section 1
In Afghanistan’s deserts, plains, and valleys
live many ethnic groups-
the Pashtuns, the Tajiks, the Hazaras, and others-
who greet strangers with a welcoming hand on their hearts
and devote themselves with equal zeal to blood feuds.
The mountains stand sentinel between them,
and each group tends to keep to itself.
Thanks to Islam, each sex likewise keeps itself apart from the other.
So Afghans live both separately and inwardly,
whether they sleep in tents or wall themselves away in fortresses of baked mud.
They are watchful, hospitable, yet withdrawn,
magnificent and vindictive, kind and lethally factional,
untiringly violent.
In the fierce stewardship of their honor,
Afghans sometimes remind me, despite their religious differences,
of the Serbs.
But, unlike the Serbs, they are repelled by the concept of nationality.
Each group tells its own stories-
the Caucasian-looking Pashtuns bad-mouthing the Asiatic-looking Hazaras,
and vice versa-
and “government” operates in a distant dreamland where
houses have electricity, women can read, and
officials flaunt the money they’ve extorted from the people.
What unites the Afghans, if anything,
is the monitory, glorious religion of Islam.

It follows, then, that those who do not pray, or who pray to other gods,
must stay forever beyond the pale,
while those who believe as the Muslim does,
no matter what their color, language, or nationality,
are his brothers and sisters.
This is why Muslim zealots call for a worldwide Islamic state,
and why the Iran-Iraq War was infinitely more distressing to Muslims
than any conflict between two Christian nations
would be to us in our easy secularity.
(So ingrained is this notion of Muslim kinship that
the very few secret Christians of Afghanistan,
who risk imprisonment to hold clandestine Bible readings at home,
unfailingly embraced me and called me “brother.”)
Therefore, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, in December, 1979,
fighters came at once from Saudi Arabia, and, to varying degrees,
from Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Tajikistan, and other Muslim regions.
There may have been some thirty-five thousand of these
nominally foreign volunteers.

Afghanistan had been far from stable before the invasion.
The long-standing Afghan monarchy had been overthrown in 1973,
in a military coup led by a cousin of the king, Muhammad Daoud.
Then, after five years in power,
Daoud and seventeen members of his family
were killed by pro-Soviet Afghan leftists,
who planned to achieve their own form of utopia by
forcibly de-Islamicizing the countryside.
By the time the first Russian troops arrived, a year later,
those Communist Afghans had been largely discredited among the masses,
who resented their atheism and cruel vanguardism.

the Soviet invasion did much to unite Afghanistan.
The country’s many tribes and factions banded together
to proclaim a jihad, or religious war, against the Soviet infidels.
And the United States helped to arm these insurgents.
In those days, they were “freedom fighters” to us, not “terrorists.”
They called themselves mujahideen, or holy warriors,
but to the C.I.A. the religious aspect of the jihad was irrelevant-
the war was “strategic,”
a good way to get back at the opposing chess team in Moscow.

When I went to Afghanistan in 1982,
I supported the struggle in every way that I could,
because it seemed one of the clearest cases I had witnessed
of good versus evil.
The mujahideen were certainly not guiltless then, but
the deeds of the Soviets were unspeakable.
They raped women in the name of emancipating them.
In the defense of national security,
they machine-gunned illiterate peasants
who couldn’t have found Moscow on a map.
They burned people alive and drowned them in excrement.
They razed villages, slaughtered livestock, and destroyed harvests.
They even scattered mines disguised as toys,
to lure people to their own maiming.
In 1982, I saw several of these mines lying, unexploded, on the ground.
Between a million and two million Afghans were killed in that war,
ninety per cent of them civilians.

(Of the more than six hundred thousand Soviet soldiers sent to Afghanistan,
fewer than fifteen thousand were killed.)
[Cf. the “Casualties and losses” figures in the right side-bar here.]
The Afghans I met at that time were bright-eyed with fervor.
Sick refugees said, “Tell America not to send medicine. Send guns.”
In the secret insurgent base where I stayed, not far from the Pakistani border,
a commander told me,
“I am not fighting for myself or even for Afghanistan.
I am fighting only for God.”

On February 15, 1989, to the world’s amazement,
the Soviets marched out of Afghanistan.
The Afghans had won the war!
Within a few years, they had ousted the Russians’ last show ruler,
President Muhammad Najibullah,
and installed in his place
a white-bearded Islamic scholar named Burhannudin Rabanni.
But, instead of putting war behind them, the mujahideen-
who had now organized themselves into seven factions,
constituted, in customary Afghan style,
along geographical, tribal, and sectarian lines-
trained their weapons on one another.
Each camp struggled for supreme power in Kabul,
some supported by puppetmasters in other countries-
Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and, perhaps, the United States-
transforming the war for liberation into a bloody and protracted civil war.

With the factions locked in battle like fighting beetles in a jar,
five years went by and, according to one estimate,
twenty thousand people died.
Then, in 1994, the residents of Kabul heard a rumor from the south.
It seemed that a group of young men-Islamic students, or taliban-
had risen up in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city,
which was then proverbial for its lawlessness.
In the name of Allah the Beneficent, these Taliban,
as members of the movement came to be known,
had slain, captured, or driven off every criminal.
Then they had confiscated all weapons,
promising that they themselves would provide protection for the citizens.
The streets secured, they applied Islamic law as they saw fit:
they banned photographs, education for girls, and music.
They demanded that women cover their faces in the street
and leave home only in the company of a close male relative.
All men found themselves required to grow beards
and could be sent to prison for ten days if they shaved.
In keeping with the Koran, the Taliban amputated the right hands of thieves.
Kandahar was now so safe, it was said,
that anyone could leave a bar of gold in the street
and it would be there three days later.

The origins of the movement are murky.
It reportedly began with forty Talibs,
but no one could tell me how quickly other Afghans decided to join them.
Their leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, who’d lost an eye in the jihad,
was reputed to be a quiet, simple man,
although it was also said that he enjoyed a legal complement of three wives,
one of whom was rumored to be as beautiful
as any princess in the Arabian Nights.
The fact that almost nobody was allowed to meet him
enhanced his mythic stature.
Some claimed that Mullah Omar and his followers
were soldiers of the old king, Zahir Shah,
who’d been deposed more than two decades before and was now in exile in Italy.
Others suspected that they might be fanatics
who meant to take away what scant freedoms remained in Afghanistan.
But they were not rapists or wanton murderers like the other fighters,
and most Afghans, paralyzed by decades of war, withheld judgment,
as the Taliban spread to other cities and provinces,
calling upon each man in their path
to lay down his weapons in the name of Allah.
For the most part, they were received with respect, even love:
they brought peace.
“I was proud to give up my arms,” a tea-shop proprietor I met told me.
“I started my jihad for an Islamic Afghanistan, and so we succeeded.”
Every time the Taliban disarmed others, their own arsenal grew.

In a few places, however, they encountered significant opposition.
It took the Taliban cadres several attempts
to conquer the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif,
which was then occupied by a former mujahideen general.
The first time, the Taliban were invited in and then betrayed,
thousands of them killed in cold blood.
Their second attempt to take the city was repulsed.
The third succeeded,
at which point the Taliban are said to have murdered a thousand civilians.
(I heard this figure go as high as five thousand.
In central Asia, as in every other part of the world,
atrocity statistics are always suspect.)
A Hazara former civil servant told me that after the massacre
he had seen stray dogs eating human flesh in the streets,
and stacks of corpses, “like piles of firewood.”

[Wikipedia description here and here.]

The Taliban also encountered resistance in Kabul,
which, when they arrived in 1995,
was still under the control of President Rabanni
and his most famous general, Ahmed Shah Masoud,
a brave and brutal Tajik fighter.
The resistance that Masoud mounted against the Talibs in Kabul,
together with the city’s perceived decadent cosmopolitanism,
made the Taliban especially harsh on the people there,
once they had won control.

Still, by 1998,
the Taliban had conquered about ninety per cent of Afghanistan.
Despite their frequent attempts to complete the takeover-
which are said to have caused as many as forty thousand casualties-
the other ten per cent, a swath of land in the northeast of the country,
remains under the control of Masoud, Rabbani, and their supporters,
who call themselves
the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan,
and are also known as the Northern Alliance.

Who are the Talibs who are running Afghanistan now?
They are Muslims, only a little more so.
At five-thirty every morning,
they don black, white, or green turbans
and go to the mosque like other Afghans.
(The muezzin, whose beautifully quavering song calls everyone to prayer,
is now most often a Talib.)
They come home and read the Koran or the hadiths-
the recorded sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad-
until sunrise.
Afterward, they take tea.
They go to work.
Some Taliban are shopkeepers.
Some work at the
Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Fifteen minutes after I arrived in Kabul,
I met one of these worthies
(my translator, awed and anxious, warned me how powerful he was).
He was walking down a snowy street,
across from a park in which children were playing.
Kabul is high and cold-a ruin surrounded by mountains-

so poverty is more lethal there.
Men struggle to support their families,
selling their belongings for a little food.
They lurk on corners, looking for buyers.
When I greeted the Talib, he instantly invited me home for tea.
His responsibility at the Ministry was
to police the front lines for anti-Taliban sentiment and
to insure that all the soldiers wore beards and refrained from smoking opium.
He also investigated cases of Talibs who misused the signature turban
in order to extort money.
He and three colleagues who shared his house-
two young men, one shy older man-
sat with me on the floor of a bleak concrete room.
They treated me with the usual Afghan politeness-
handshakes, the most comfortable cushion, hands on their hearts.
Even when they learned my nationality, their courtesy did not flag.

Diplomatic relations between our countries were suspended in 1998,
when the United States bombed bases in Afghanistan
that it claimed were run by Osama bin Laden,
a Saudi-born former mujahid,
who United States officials believe was responsible for
the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
when the Taliban refused to hand bin Laden over to American justice,
the United Nations imposed sanctions.
Now most of the Afghans I met hated the United States,
and they withdrew from me a little in dignified sadness,
but they still, like these four Talibs,
spoke with me and invited me into their homes.

The concrete walls of the Talibs’ room displayed nothing but cracks;
all emblems were prohibited.
Even their Korans were wrapped lovingly out of sight.
When I unclothed mine, in order to ask them some textual questions,
tears started in one man’s eyes.
They wanted to help me learn.
A space heater waxed and waned,
according to the vagaries of that day’s electricity.
As we sat and chatted, they scrupulously filled my tea glass.
We passed the time.
I asked how I might go about interviewing a woman,
and they said that they could arrange a conversation through a black curtain,
but once I pressed them they retreated,
and after some discussion they concluded that to speak with any female
I would first need to get permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I told them not to trouble themselves further in this matter,
and their spirits lifted.

We talked about the jihad.
All four had been mujahideen.
The three younger men
had spent their childhoods wandering in and out of Pakistan,
as their families changed refugee camps
according to the latest military reverse or factional split.
When they were about ten years old,
their fathers had enrolled them in madrasahs, or religious schools,
the only remaining institutions of learning in the country.
(This was, and is, the way to become a member of the Taliban.)
There they were taught Islamic law without ambiguities:
Cut off the thief’s hand.
The woman must cover herself. How much of herself must she cover?
The Koran doesn’t tell us exactly, so make her cover everything!
Such an edict is easy to enforce.
This is army life, and these boys were soldiers.
Every summer, they would take up their Kalashnikovs
and shoot at Soviet tanks or gunship helicopters.
They were taught that if they fell in battle they’d go to Heaven.
After the war, they returned to their religious studies,
and, when they heard about the corruption of the former mujahideen
and the emergence of the Taliban movement,
they travelled to Kandahar to enlist.

“Were you feeling happy, or did you simply feel compelled to do your duty?”
I asked the man who’d invited me to tea.

“So happy! We volunteered,” he replied.

“What was the first thing you did in Kandahar?”

“We instituted Islamic law.”

“And were the people pleased?”

“They gave us flowers and money.”

Later, a little awkwardly,
he pulled up the baggy cotton legs of his shalwar kameez
and showed me the scars on his legs from fighting for the Taliban.
He had spent a month in the hospital.
Smiling, half proud, half ashamed, he gazed down at his wasted purple flesh.

On my innumerable trips between Peshawar and Islamabad
to obtain an Afghan visa,
I had travelled through the little Pakistani town of Akora Khattak,
the site of the most famous madrasah, Darul Uloom Haqqania,
where the three younger Talibs had studied.

The madrasah stands right on the main road,
and an armed guard lazes outside its high white walls.
About thirty per cent of the current Taliban leadership,
including the Ambassador to Pakistan and the Foreign Minister,
have passed through the school’s spiked iron gate.
The rank and file study there by the thousand.

The head of the school was in Libya on the day of my visit,
so I met with his son, Rashid ul Haq,
the editor-in-chief of the militant Islamic monthly Al-Haq.
If anyone could help me
understand the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah,
I thought, it was he.
We sat on the carpet of an inner room,
attended by bearded, shining-eyed men in prayer caps or turbans.

“What makes the Taliban government different from that of other Islamic states?”
I asked.

“You have seen the other countries,” ul Haq replied,
“but the others are living not according to the Koran
but according to their own choice.”

“Why have the Taliban made beards compulsory for men?”

“All prophets have beards,” he said. “So we want to have beards.
Some of the people, you know, live their lives according to the hadiths.”

I wondered if he knew how unpopular this edict had become.
As slang for “I left Afghanistan,” some Afghan men had begun to say
“I shaved the beard.”
Surgeons especially hated the rule,
because in their own compulsory beards
dwelled their patients’ worst enemies: microbes.

“And why is music forbidden?” I asked.

“Islam does not permit it.
People who sing create the thing that causes cowardice.
And when a person spends his time in singing he loses his time.”

“And what about the prohibition on images of people and animals?”

“In the hadiths, the picture is forbidden for the man,”
ul Haq said, and later added,
“But Islam allows it when there is a need,
as for visa photographs and pictures on currency.”

I had just interviewed two Afghan brothers in a nearby refugee camp
who loved the Taliban, except for one thing.
Their father had been martyred in the jihad,
and all they had to remember him by was a small photograph.
They told me that if the Taliban ever found it
they might tear the picture into pieces.

“And exactly why does Islam say that such pictures are forbidden?”

“We do not want to see the logic of this talk,”
one of the other Taliban interjected.
“What the Koran says is right. The logic is present.”

The Western notion
that the Taliban imposed themselves by force on an unwilling population
is less than half true.

Six years after that first unexpected uprising against the bandits of Kandahar,
when one might well expect the Afghans to be heartily sick of
any regime in whose name their misery continued,

many people I spoke with expressed contentment with the Taliban.
Why? Quite simply, because
they could not forget how bad it had been before.

Afghanistan was never rich.
During the war with the Soviet Union,
men used to fight over the scrap iron of Russian bomb casings
even as other bombs fell upon them;
one entrepreneur actually posted mujahideen slogans in the desert
so that the Soviets would bomb them and he could collect the metal.
And, by the time the Taliban marched onstage,
the civil war had made matters worse.

In a long, thick-walled teahouse in the Abrishini Gorge,
on the main road between Jalalabad and Kabul,
I sat cross-legged on a concrete platform and ate oiled chicken and bread
while a middle-aged former taxi-driver told me
how it had been in that vacuum of years between the Soviets and the Taliban.
Pointing down at the gray-green river, he said,
“That was where they took my two passengers.”

Back then, in this part of the country,
ex-mujahideen gunmen had established roadblocks every kilometre or two,
where they would extort money from the taxi-driver’s passengers.
One night, when the taxi-driver reached one of these roadblocks,
the men gestured with their rifle butts
and summoned two men from the back of his car.
The driver watched them being frog-marched into the gorge,
and then the gunmen told him that he could go.
His remaining passengers urged him to resist, but he was terrified.
Fortunately, the two kidnapped men were released,
although, of course, they’d been stripped of their possessions.
The driver never forgot his helpless fear and shame.
That was why he revered the Taliban.
Not a single one of those checkpoints remained in the Abrishini Gorge:
now Talibs sat tranquilly beside machine guns,
gazing down at the road from their stone forts.

“You know how hard it is to take the weapon from Pashtun people,”
one Talib had said to me proudly.
“Ninety per cent of the Afghan people now live in weapon-free areas.”

“If things keep getting safer,” the former taxi-driver said,
“I don’t care about not being allowed to listen to the radio.”

“My two sons were both martyred by Masoud,”
an old beggar woman in Kabul had told me-
illegally, since it was against the law for her to talk to me.
“One lay for forty-seven days in a well.
My husband was also martyred when the Masoud people stole his car.
Now I’m looking for food in the streets.
At least the Taliban won’t kill me.”

“They are better than everyone,” another beggar woman said.

How many Afghans truly felt as those women did?
Predictably, when the happiness over the restoration of peace wore off
and the poverty and hardship remained, some of the gratitude soured.
On the street in Kabul, late one cold evening,
I met an old night watchman with a long snowy beard.
All five of his sons had died in the jihad, he told me.
To lose five children-I can hardly even understand the grief,
and one must understand it, or at least try,
if one wants to come close to experiencing [or understanding]
the terrible reality of Afghanistan’s misfortunes.
One must also consider the plight of the homeless orphans-
there are so many of them-and of the hungry widows and the brideless boys.
“I have given my children and my brothers for this country,”
the night watchman added.
“Now look at me.
I am doing this job for my food only, and it is very cold.
What kind of life is this?”

His words were not quite an indictment of the Taliban.
I’ve met many human-rights advocates who,
exasperated with the regime’s judicial and extrajudicial abuses,
rushed to lay blame on Mullah Omar’s cadres for everything else-
the short life expectancy in Afghanistan,
the extraordinarily high infant-mortality rate, and so on.
The fact is that the Afghan countryside was always unclean and unhealthy;
people have always died young.
To me, it is indicative of the regime’s popularity
(or, in some cases, of the fear that it inspires)
that more Afghans do not denounce its turbaned agents of perfection.

But some do.
Whereas the jihad and the civil war
had harmed the population almost indiscriminately,
Taliban policy has created a smaller, more specific class of victims.
More than two-thirds of Mullah Omar’s cadres are Pashtuns,
who make up about fifty-five per cent of the general population,
and several of the other ethnic groups feel a certain chill in the air.
Some were victimized during the Taliban takeover.
Many of the civilians killed by the Taliban in Mazar-i-Sharif, for instance,
were Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Hazaras.
Some are discriminated against by the Taliban for religious reasons;
the Hazaras, who comprise about eight per cent of the population,
tend to belong to the minority Shia sect of Islam,
whereas most Pashtuns are Sunnis.

Women, particularly urban, educated women,
have suffered some of the most painful consequences
of the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law.
Many who had lost family members in the jihad or civil war
then lost their jobs under the Taliban-
along with their freedom of movement and dress-
and now have no means of supporting themselves;
most are forced to beg.

In the opinion of a Kabuli boy, who resented this strictness-
he could not get enough work
and was the sole source of money and food for the women in his family-
forty per cent of the people support the Taliban now,
but only five per cent are true members.

“How can they keep control?” I asked.

“They have Kalashnikovs,” he said.

Section 2
Jalalabad, a city forty miles west of the Khyber Pass,
has a rural feel,
with long strings of laden camels on the main streets
and packed-earth dikes curving crazily through the wheat fields
just outside town.
Amid the city’s wide, slow streets of rickshaws, bicycles, and very occasional cars,
I saw boys bearing metal trays of eggs on their prayer-capped heads.
The ringing of bicycle bells, the tapping of hammers,
the splash as a man emptied a pot of water in the street,
the clip-clopping of horses-
all these sounds enriched the air,
as did the scent of the fresh oranges
and the fat, nearly scarlet carrots that lay everywhere on venders’ tables.
Here came a woman in a green burka-
the head-to-toe veil required by the Taliban-
holding a dirty little boy by the hand.
A woman in a blue burka,
whose pleated wake streamed behind her as she walked,
carried a baby girl wrapped in a blue blanket.
Nothing seemed wrong; it could have been Peshawar,
except that the air was less sulfurous
and the rickshaws were not adorned with the faces of Indian movie actresses.

To be sure, the scene was overwhelmingly male;
after the two women had passed,
I saw only men on bicycles, with white prayer caps and brown or gray blankets.
But maybe in this, too, Jalalabad was not so different from Peshawar.
The wife of my driver in that city
never went out except to visit her close relatives;
her husband and sons did all the shopping in the bazaar,
because (her husband explained) once or twice nothing would happen,
but if she went a thousand times alone, why,
sooner or later she might cross glances with some bright-eyed young boy
and wonder how his kisses would taste.

One Tajik Afghan woman I met in Peshawar spoke for herself.
She had fled the capital for Pakistan the year before.
“The first day the Taliban entered Kabul,
all the people were in a state of panic, especially us women,” she told me.
“The first announcement was that
all women must cover their faces with a black cloth.
Later, they decided that we should use the national burka.
The teachers went to school just to sign their attendance sheets,
then went straight home.
I was formerly in charge of the literary programs of Radio Kabul.
For about six months, I stayed at home.”

On the subject of female employment, the Koran clearly states,
“For men is the benefit of what they earn.
And for women is the benefit of what they earn.”
The Taliban got around this by continuing to pay male and female schoolteachers
the same munificent three or four dollars a month they got before
but prohibiting the women from working in exchange for their salaries.
With the exception of doctors and nurses,
professional women in Afghanistan
were no longer allowed to exercise their vocations.

“And after six months what did you do?” I asked.

“As the Taliban didn’t have qualified workers,
they had to use some of the former employees, even some women, to help them.”
She gave me a bitter flash of teeth.
“They had to, because they were not fully literate.”

“What’s the worst thing they did?”

“My worst memory is of when they beat a poetess, a friend of mine.
I was not the eyewitness.
My friend went shopping one day and wanted to buy some fruit.
When she needed to pay the fruit seller,
she lifted the burka to see the money in her purse,
and suddenly a Talib began beating her with a whip.
For about one week, she was in very critical condition.”

“What did the fruit seller do?”

“Nothing. He could do nothing. No one defended her.”

“And what incidents of this kind did you personally see?”

“Well, I went together with another lady to get our salary from Radio Kabul,
and one of my female friends, when she got the salary,
thought no one would hurt her,
and she opened her burka to count the money in the yard.
Then suddenly a Talib whipped her.”
She cleared her throat and added,
“The person distributing the salary was an old man.
So they took him into the street and beat him also, two or three times.
He kept silent.
They asked him, ‘Why do you let the ladies show themselves like that?’ “

In the most orthodox galaxies of the Muslim universe,
the admiration of women’s faces is thought
to distract men from their duty,
to tempt them to fornication, adultery, and rape,
and, in cases of obsessive love,
to cause them to ascribe, blasphemously, divine qualities to their beloved.
“Say to the believing men that they lower their gaze
and restrain their sexual passions,” the Koran warns.
“And say to the believing women that they lower their gaze
and restrain their sexual passions
and do not display their adornment except what appears thereof.
And let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms.”

In Malaysia, a head scarf is often considered sufficient to obey this edict.
In Pakistan, however, as you move north and west
the weight of seclusion falls more heavily on overt femininity,
until by the time you reach the North-West Frontier Province,
where the Khyber Pass leads to Afghanistan
and the Pashtuns live in mazelike compounds of plaster and baked mud,
almost every woman one sees on the street
is a generic ghost in a burka or a shroud.
In Afghanistan,
a man may speak with a strange woman under almost no circumstances.
If a beggar woman on the sidewalk stretches out her hand,
he may put money in it,
but looking directly at her
or communicating with her for more than a second or two
is indecent.
Should any friend invite him home-
and Pashtuns are the most hospitable people I’ve met-
then sweets and tea will be presented by the host himself,
who brings them from behind a closed door.

Travelling in this area,
I often thought of the words of an old major general,
a kindly, respected, and powerful Pashtun,
who took me into his household in 1982.
After I had stayed with him for some weeks,
he brought me from the guesthouse into the sanctum,
where I met and even conversed a little with his wife and daughters.
He was still alive when I returned to Peshawar this year.
Since I’d seen him last, he had endowed a hospital with separate entrances for men and women, a boys’ high school, and a girls’ high school.
He said to me,
“A woman is a housewife.
She raises your children, she gives you food, she keeps everything in order.
Can you do as much? Of course not. That is why you must respect her.”
On another occasion, when we were talking about the Western custom of dating,
he said,
“How can a boy be so cruel?
He takes a girl and he uses her like a football.
Then he kicks her away to the next boy. Poor girl!”

Fatana Ishaq Gailani,
a politician
and the wife of a famous mujahideen leader
detested the Taliban,
but when I asked her
how she felt about the sura, or Koranic verse, regarding head-covering
she replied, her voice rising,
“It is for the safety of the woman.
It is kindly for the woman.
We are so happy we are a Muslim woman.”

“The Taliban are giving rights to the woman,” Rashid ul Haq had insisted.
“That right is to live safely in their homes.”
He added, “Right now,
if a single woman wants to go anywhere in a village without fear,
she is free to do so.”

That was true, I suppose,
if we discounted the fact that doing so alone was illegal.
But ul Haq did not see this as a contradiction,
perhaps because in the countryside
the Taliban’s edicts are almost unenforced.
Just outside Jalalabad, one sees raised paths
subdividing wheat fields into arcs and polygons
in which men and women work together
and the women rarely wear the burka;
indeed, since they are sweating and stooping so much,
their heads often remain uncovered.
The Taliban has scarcely altered the lives of uneducated women,
except to make them almost entirely safe from rape.

A baffled and angry Talib asked me
why the American media worry so much about the tiny number of Afghan women
who had actually belonged to the educated labor force.
And from a practical point of view he had reason to be mystified.
But the aspirations of those Afghan city women
he dismissed had been utterly dashed.

According to a 1997 United Nations report,
less than a quarter of the women in Pakistan can read,
whereas almost half the male population is literate.
Women receive twenty-one per cent of the national income.
We can assume that in Afghanistan the figures are even more skewed.
In Kabul, I looked through the shattered windows
of a girls’ school that had closed long ago, during the civil war.

“Why don’t they open it now?” I asked a Talib.

“Because the war is not yet over,” he explained.
“We need to protect the ladies.”

“If a Talib sees a woman wearing a head scarf but no burka,
what will happen to her?”
I asked a man in Kabul.

“She will be whipped.
If they see girl and boy talking together,
they will take them to the stadium and lash them.”

“How many times have you seen that happen?”

“One. She was speaking with boyfriend.
And they punish her in the stadium. They lash the woman.
Make her sitting down, and lash her through the burka.”

“How many days afterward was she likely to remain injured?”

“For two, three months. Some die from this action.”

“Do they punish boys or girls most often?”

“Mainly girls. Boys can run-boys can escape from them,” he said, adding shyly,
“I have heard that in America the girls can walk uncovered even above the knee.
It is true?”

It was strange to think that in the seventies,
before the Soviets and the Afghan factionalists destroyed it,
there had been a Kabul University,
that some of the students there were female,
and that some of them even wore miniskirts.

In Peshawar, I met one of those former cosmopolitan girls from Kabul.
She had been a member of
what the Soviets would call the “possessing classes”-
she had a baccalaureate in electrical engineering
and had been an employee of the Ministry of Civil Aviation.
One might imagine that a person with such advantages
would enjoy some protection from war.
But by the time I met her she was a beggar and a prostitute.
She was twenty-three and looked forty.
She told me that, six years before, she had been walking home
when troops commanded by a former mujahideen general, Rashid Dostam,
entered Kabul.
By that time, more than half the city had been destroyed by bombs,
and the ruined houses resembled
the jagged undulations of the mountain peaks around the city.
As the girl was crossing a bridge, four armed men rose up.
To save her honor, she pounded on the door of the nearest house
and was sheltered by the man who lived there, at great risk to him.
After some hours,
she assumed that the soldiers had found somebody else to rape,
but the moment she appeared on the street
they fired a rocket-propelled grenade that wounded her in both feet.
Luckily, the man took her back in, and she later returned home.
I said that her family must have been relieved to see her.
Staring at me wide-eyed, she replied that
her father had been killed a year or two before that.
Her mother died later, in the fighting between Masoud and the Taliban.
The girl had hung on
until the edict against female employment ended her government job,
and she was forced to beg and prostitute herself to survive.

It was a sharp-edged and pointless story no matter how it ended.
A silence ensued, and then the woman remarked that
at one time she had known how to speak a little English and Russian.
Exhaustion and hunger had injured her memory. She was half broken.
She was one of thousands.

In the ruined parts of Kabul, I spoke with a number of other beggar women.
For the most part, these interviews were quick and almost sordid,
like acts of prostitution.
The taxi waited with the motor running;
if any Taliban came, I could always speed away.
“What if I were to bring one of those women back for tea?”
I asked my translator once.
“You cannot,” he said.
“First of all, look at these Taliban behind us.”
(I looked and suddenly saw a whole squad of them, long-bearded and dark-eyed,
in their green turbans.)
“And, second of all, it’s illegal.”
Every single time (except in the case of one Hazara woman),
the woman would say that she supported the Taliban regime
because it was better than any other in recent memory.
Then I’d give her money, and we’d flee our separate ways,
for fear of the Taliban.

In Jalalabad, a man told me that a beggar woman had come up to him and wept,
“Don’t you recognize me?”
She turned out to be his elementary-school teacher.
Then he, too, had burst into tears and given her all the money he had.
She was almost inexpressibly sad and furious at the Taliban.
The beggar women I met in Kabul, though, either were not educated
or had suffered terrible things at the hands of previous factions.
Or perhaps they just feared to tell me the truth.
I will never know how they really felt.
But they spoke to me without shame
and let me photograph them through their burkas as much as I liked,
and even see their faces if I asked to.

On the sidewalk beside a destroyed department store in Kabul,
a blue burka stood looking at me, and I heard a young girl’s laughter inside it.
Next to the blue burka, a yellow burka was begging, its inhabitant also young,
or so I guessed by the speed and mobility of the movements within it.
Side by side they stood chatting, their faces shining vaguely through the mesh.
It was a chilly day, and a steam of pure-white breath came from them.
What were they saying?
They gestured within their shrouds, then sat down on the sidewalk,
and suddenly their burkas flowed together,
forming a tent beneath which the girls could meet face to face.
To the girls, no doubt, what they were doing was quite ordinary.
To me, it was nearly a revelation.
Now the one in blue separated herself,
then raised her burka over another girl, maybe her little sister,
who was so young that she could go about with her face uncovered.
I could see, within the warm and secret tent,
the two heads moving together, maybe whispering-
no, they were sharing food!
Remembering the story of the Tajik woman’s friend
who’d been beaten for raising her burka to count money,
I realized that this must be the only way for women to eat in public.
There was something mysteriously amoebalike
in the way the blue tent rippled as the two heads touched beneath it,
the mouths tearing at bread or a scrap of chicken.

This transitory zone of female privacy struck me as ingenious.
Perhaps, under the best of circumstances, it might become an actual shelter,
like the red-carpeted rooms into which Afghan men retreat to sit on soft cushions,
unwrapping themselves from their tawny blankets.
In those rooms, the men hatch business schemes
and tell tall tales about their deeds as mujahideen,
while outside the plastic-sheeted windows
prayer songs emanate from loudspeakers.
If the men are not Taliban,
they boast about the women they’ve spoken to on the telephone-
human nature being what it is, men and women court as they can.
A young man in Kabul gleefully pointed out to me
how a woman in a blue burka showed her ankles; she was wearing fancy socks.
He said, “When you are living in a society with the burka,
when you see even her hand, you think maybe she is beautiful.”
Another young man said,
“Some of my friends have girlfriends, if the girls’ parents are democratic.
They talk to them by telephone.
Taliban cannot listen, because our phone system is primitive.
So it goes like this:
She will come to the corner at such and such a time.
That way, she will see the boy, although of course the boy cannot see the girl.
But if she likes his face, then maybe some go-between can bring him her photo.”
And a taxi-driver proudly confided that
he was carrying on an affair with a beautiful beggar woman;
he’d pick her up in his car as if she were a passenger, and no one suspected.

So much of Afghan life occurs in secret.
A young woman I met in Jalalabad
had, in defiance of the edict against female education,
taught herself English by book and radio.
Now she was thinking of organizing an illegal home school.
I’m told that women often smuggle heroin and other contraband
because they feel immune from search-
no women are still employed by customs to search them.
What other dreams, successes, and business dealings
take place in that world beneath the burka?

I have promised not to say where I met the brave girl, or who she was,
but I can tell you that she lived in Kabul
and that her family was cosmopolitan and affluent.
They had chairs in their apartment,
and they seated me at a table laden with pastries, apples, and oranges.

The brave girl’s father had given me permission to meet her,
and I asked her how she had felt when the Taliban came.
She said, “At that time, I thought they were mujahideen.
Then when I learned that they hated people, especially women,
I knew that they understood nothing about civil rights,
especially human rights.
When a person hits a woman on the street, what must that person be thinking?
It is against humanity.”

“And have they improved at all?”

“I never used to go out even to the bazaar,” she said.
“But now I think their behavior has been affected by humans.
Really, I don’t have any clear idea about them.
Of course, they started a hospital for us,
but what about the other women who stay at home without anything to eat?”

She and I were, of course, not alone together.
Her father sat on the sofa beside her, listening with increasing disapproval.
Her husband sat across the room;
he was angry at me for seeing his wife,
whose dark hair and eyes were not covered.
There were also two male cousins, my translator, and me.
By now, they were all shouting furious interjections at her,
and the thought crossed my mind that
perhaps they had never really put themselves in their own women’s shoes.
She bit her lip and lowered her head whenever she contradicted her father.

“Do you believe that the Koran requires you to wear a burka?” I asked her.

“No, I think there is no need to wear the burka,” she said bitterly.
“I myself don’t like it, because I think I’m a human.
Because I have my human rights.
And it’s difficult to see, especially for the girls who wear glasses-
all my friends agree.”

“Do you have anything else to say about the Taliban?”

Twisting her hands in her lap, she said,
“Peace is the most important thing in our country.”

“Can you tell me about something you have experienced that might-”

“But she cannot go anywhere!” her father interrupted testily.
“She has seen nothing until now.”

“May I take your photo?”

“No!” they shouted-all of them except her.
She smiled sadly.
When I thanked her, she covered her face and went back behind the closed door.

Section 3
Again and again, I was faced with contradictions,
with the question of how to balance the feelings of the people
for whom the new regime was a welcome kind of peace
against the rights of those for whom it was a form of oppression.

I remember a sallow boy who hated the Taliban
and whispered hideous details of
punishments he’d witnessed in the stadium at Mazar-i-Sharif:
a thief’s right hand severed with a scalpel
(by a doctor; it took ten minutes);
the shooting of murderers.
He claimed to have seen about thirty executions over the last two years-
not because he had to but only “to see something new.”
Without music or movies or magazines,
one might as well go to watch the punishments.
Once he had seen a couple stoned for adultery.
“They were in one bed, and Taliban see them.
First, judge begin with one stone,
then all of the people hit them with stone.
They cry-they cry! Very high cry.”

“How long did it take?”

“I think for one hour or one and a half hours, maybe two hours.”
He went on, “It’s too bad, in my opinion. I feel the Taliban are wild.
Please, I never tell any other foreigner these things.
You are my brother.
Please, dear brother, you will not tell them what I say?
Because they will cut off my head!”

He went to the door of his room to see if anybody might be listening.
No one was.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

“I don’t know what to think,” I said.
“I’m only a Christian.
Those punishments you speak of, they’re all here in the Koran.
What do you think?”

He took my Koran in his hands and began kissing it, agonized, whispering,
“Koran is a very, very good book.”

Afghans insist upon the Koran’s absolute legitimacy in all walks of life-
as an ethical guide, a primer on hygiene and food preparation,
a marriage manual, a tax code, a dress code, a body of criminal law.
In that last capacity, it clearly conflicts with
several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
which Afghanistan signed in 1948.
The stoning of adulterers presumably falls under the category of
“cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment”;
the constraints on relations between the sexes
violate the declaration’s
“right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association”;
and so on.
But if a believing judge sentences a believing thief to lose his right hand
it is none of my business.

There are times, however, when the Taliban rulers winnow from the hadiths
the most punitive interpretations of Islam.
In the Koran, we read over and over that
the compassion of Allah forgives transgressions in emergencies.
A man in Kabul, who had just served a prison sentence
for having defied the prohibition on images,
told me about a scene he had witnessed:
a thief whose right hand had already been cut off had stolen again,
and so the Taliban cut off his left foot.
Afterward, when they were beating him in prison, he shouted,
“If you cut everything off I will continue stealing with my teeth!
Because I have nothing to eat!”
Yet the punishment was still carried out.
And why was it that the boy who told me those tales of public penalties
enforced on legally convicted criminals
found it necessary to scutter to the door every minute or two,
terrified that someone might be listening?

“They misuse the Koran,”
the woman who had worked for Radio Kabul insisted.
“In the Koran,
it is not written that even for pilfering you must cut off the hand.
No, the real meaning of that verse is
metaphorically cutting the hand from robbery,
for instance through imprisonment.”
Her argument is somewhat plausible;
the Koran explicitly warns against literal interpretations.
I assume that the allegorical suras are not the laws.
Otherwise, why not say that
the requirement to pray five times a day or to keep Ramadan
can be satisfied metaphorically?

I am not a Muslim; I have read the Koran only twice.
I needed to question a Talib whose authority allowed him
to take some responsibility for legal questions of right and wrong.
The Minister of the Interior, Mullah Abdul Razzaq,
was kind enough to see me without advance notice.

After being searched by Kalashnikov-adorned young cadres
at the entrance to the Ministry building,
I was conducted upstairs and through halls
where Talibs flurried around my foreignness.
When the interview was over,
I gave a chocolate bar to the dirtiest, hungriest-looking one of them.
He was wearing a T-shirt that said “Oakland Raiders.”
When I told him that the Oakland Raiders were American,
he was crestfallen, and the others all laughed at him.
He did not seem to know what the chocolate bar was,
although I had bought it in Kabul,
at one of the few fancy stores still in existence.
He peeled off the foil wrapper with a filthy thumbnail,
then stared at the chocolate in amazement,
while the other Talibs gathered around, crowding so tightly against me
that I could hardly breathe.

In the inner offices, however, a glacial decorum reigned.
Ten farmers involved in a land dispute
sat silently around a stove, wrapped in blankets,
while the official to whom they’d referred their case
was seated at a low coffee table, his great desk swept clean behind him.
Beyond them lay an unheated conference room,
and then a sanctum with carpets, cushions, and a little bed,
where perhaps the Minister of the Interior took catnaps
when he had to work all night.
I took off my shoes and sat down on the floor to wait for him.

Mullah Abdul Razzaq is said to have been
one of the founders of the Taliban movement.
Of course, he’d fought bravely in the jihad and attended the madrasah.
He’d been captured by Dostam during one of the battles for Mazar-i-Sharif.
I had heard that he could be very emotional,
but he and his colleagues entered the room calmly.
His turban was white, and his black beard was very long.
The other Talibs in the room bowed and nodded when he spoke,
and his hands gestured slowly, serenely, in his lap.

“Why did you decide to become a Talib?” I asked him.

“It is said in the Holy Koran that
when there is crying and corruption
the people should fight against that,”
he said.

“As Minister of the Interior, you are in charge of security.
Who controls crime in the streets, the police or the Taliban?”

“We control the crime,” he said. “We control every department.”

“What is the most frequent crime against the Shariah?” I asked.

“The Taliban have full control,” he replied. “Right now, there is no crime.”

A police officer I met in Kabul, a twenty-seven-year veteran,
had written a letter for me to smuggle to distant relatives in California, and he whispered that the Taliban had robbed the police of their power.
Possibly he and his colleagues had been corrupt before,
as is frequently the case in Third World countries
where the salaries of officials are so low that
their only hope for survival is graft.
If so, then Taliban rule might have been a change for the better.
On the other hand, one can easily imagine
the impatiently righteous graduates of the madrasahs
preferring lampposts to courtrooms.
There had been highly publicized instances of this already:
on the night that the Taliban entered Kabul,
Afghanistan’s former President, the pro-Soviet Najibullah,
was plucked from the United Nations compound, in which he had been cowering,
and was tortured, castrated, shot, then hanged outside the palace.
A similar fate befell his brother.
(I was told by a reliable source-
the same person had informed me that Osama bin Laden had a kidney complaint
a day before the international media picked up the story-
that Razzaq had personally ordered these executions.)
No Afghan I’ve met has ever lamented these two men,
but the speed of their killing,
which was carried out within a couple of hours of the Taliban’s arrival,
not to mention the absence of judge, jury, and other formalities,
occasioned some brief international embarrassment.

“Is it true that the penalty for beardlessness is ten days in jail?”
I asked Razzaq.

“Yes, that is true.”

“And why not nine or seven days?”

“That is the job of the Department of Religion. Only security is our job.”

“Why is a burka better than a chador?” I asked.

“A burka covers all, so it is the real thing for women.”

Razzaq became glum at this mention of the Taliban’s treatment of women,
much as he did when I later raised the question of Osama bin Laden,
and we moved briefly to other subjects.
“Sir, do you have any special message for the Americans?”

“We fought against Russia for years, and the Americans helped us,” Razzaq said.
“And we ask them and their government to help us again.
As Afghanistan is destroyed, we expect help in reconstruction,
and facilities for widows and orphans.”

The matter of widows and orphans had particularly weighed on me.
I felt that the Taliban government had no Islamic justification
in its treatment of them.
Since Razzaq had brought the subject back around to women again,
I asked him,
“Who is helping those widows now?”

“The Minister of Religion has promised some programs.
And also the N.G.O.s”-nongovernmental organizations, or charities-
”have done something.”

“Does Islam permit widows with no other resources to go out and beg?”

“We are trying our best to prohibit them from this,
and we are trying to give them facilities.”

“But if they have no such facilities, if they are hungry, is it permitted?”

“It is still prohibited.”

Section 4
The Minister’s answer gave the Taliban a pitiless public face indeed,
scorning the needs of the literally faceless.
In truth, though, this regulation did not seem to be enforced.
The beggar women plied their trade quite openly, even when Taliban passed by.

Afghans are no less pragmatic than other people,
and continued exposure over the years to
the realities of government and society
seemed to be helping these Taliban children of war to mature.
Year by year, even in Kabul, the theocracy was growing more moderate.
As the brave girl had told me, the behavior of the Taliban has been
“affected by humans.”

When the Taliban first came to Jalalabad, in September, 1996,
they searched house to house,
for televisions, videocassettes, and other irreligious items.
They used the confiscated televisions for target practice.
They required stores to remove labels from shampoo bottles
wherever a human face was shown.
But this February a retired professor there told me that
the searchers had quickly tired of their unpopular investigations.
Originally, he said, they’d believed that all urban dwellers were corrupt,
but now they’d begun to realize that most citizens were not so bad;
or perhaps some of the Taliban were growing corrupt themselves.
(The Talib who worked the reception desk of my guesthouse in Jalalabad
kept hitting me up for film in a most un-Islamic manner.)
The professor watched television every day now-
an activity that, in 1996, would have meant a fifteen-day jail sentence.
Now the Taliban would not bother to come to his home
unless someone proffered eyewitness testimony against him,
and even in such a case they would merely confiscate his television-
and possibly keep it for themselves, he said, laughing.
He felt safe, and pleased to have the Taliban in power.
They didn’t care anymore if women went out alone, he told me.
(I myself had verified this:
when I visited the Talib dignitary from
the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,
he had tried to persuade me that women didn’t have it so bad in Afghanistan.
At one point, he and his three friends
had called out excitedly for me to come and look at the street.
“Look, look! Do you see?
A lady, and her face is not covered, and no one is caring!”)

In Kabul, I discovered in store windows one or two soap labels
that bore the likenesses of women.
And there was even a photograph of people (with no faces showing)
mounted on the door of a taxi.
Outside the cities, my taxi-drivers always listened to music,
lowering the volume when they approached Taliban checkpoints,
but not troubling to turn the radio off.
In Pakistan, I’d met a doctor who had emigrated
when the Taliban banned the possession of anatomical diagrams.
But a doctor who’d stayed told me that things were not so bad now.
“Before, we saw them beating women in the street.
Now for a long time I don’t see these beatings anymore.
And now we have a camera in my operating room, and even projectors.
I’ll tell you a story.
One Talib brought his wife to me.
I refused to treat her without a letter of authorization,
because that is what they make everybody else do.
So he brought his wife to Pakistan.
And I think he started to wonder about this policy.”

One United Nations official, speaking of the Afghans, told me,
“What they need is more outsiders, more exchange of ideas.”
Thanks to the United Nations,
that is precisely what they aren’t getting.
The sanctions have begun their strangling work.
Gasoline and wheat are smuggled in from Pakistan
(and duty-free appliances and cars
are smuggled from Dubai through Afghanistan and out to Pakistan),
but the price of bread is rising in Kabul,
and hungry families blame the Americans.
An Afghan rug merchant told me,
“First you created one Osama. Now you are creating many, many Osamas.”

Americans worry that Afghanistan has become a petri dish in which
the germs of Islamic fanaticism are replicating-
soon Afghans will be hijacking American planes and bombing embassies everywhere.
And their fears are not necessarily unfounded.
The Taliban are unemployed war veterans,
ready and even eager to return to the battlefield.
“In the nineteenth century, we beat the British more than once,”
Afghans often told me.
“In the twentieth century, we beat the Russians.
In the twenty-first, if we have to, we’ll beat the Americans!”
Sarwar Hussaini,
the director of a Peshawar-based human-rights organization called
the Cooperation Centre for Afghanistan,
told me that Afghanistan was full of terrorist-training camps,
that Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks, and Arabs were there,
learning to fight for Islamic supremacy in their own countries.

But is Afghanistan the puppet-master or the puppet?
Masoud is said to receive money from Russia and Iran.
Pakistan, a patron of all seven factions during the jihad,
is now closely allied with the Taliban.
The Iranians have financed some Hazara groups in Afghanistan.
China is also dabbling, for fear of Muslim power invading its own territory.
And Saudi Arabia has broken off diplomatic relations with the Taliban,
and therefore is suspected of aiding
either Masoud or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another former mujahid.
The Afghans themselves blame neighbors and superpowers
for everything that has befallen them.

The Taliban could have come to power in any war-torn Islamic country.

They gained supremacy in Afghanistan because
all other leaders and movements there
had discredited themselves through
selfishness, vanguardism, gangsterism, and, above all, factionalism.

Barring further mischief on the part of the superpowers,
the Taliban may defeat Masoud and win their civil war.
And it’s entirely possible that as rulers
they are preferable to any of the competition.

“I think Afghan people should choose neither Taliban nor Masoud,”
Hussaini told me.
“Masoud is not a good alternative-he’s proved that by his corruption.
And the Taliban are not the kind of people one should like.”
But whom should the Afghans choose instead?
A few old-timers long for the King to come back,
but most people just say flatly that no good leader exists.

Should the Taliban fall apart,
it seems likely that
the political and educational vacuum in Afghanistan
will remain.

In Kabul, I stood in a grimy, unheated bookstore,
some of whose books had been Islamicized,
the faces on the jackets blacked out with splotches of Magic Marker.
The bookstore seemed to have been subjected to this process randomly,
though, as if the morality police
had got tired or wandered off to look for something to eat.
In the corner stood a rack of postcards from before the war,
the faces depicted on them untouched.
Dusty travel posters of “exotic” tribesmen remained on the wall.

As I talked to the bookseller, three Talibs entered the store,
with black turbans wrapped around their faces like coiled cobras.
Slowly, with wide eyes, whispering each word,
they began to sound out the titles of the books.
Soon, another joined them,
whether searching for vice or merely passing the time I didn’t know,
and neither did the bookseller, who hung his head in breathless silence.
They were looking for something-they seemed suspicious and disapproving-
but perhaps they doubted their ability to find what they sought.
Or maybe they were just cold. We could all see our breath condensing.

With the frightened bookseller translating,
I asked one of them to tell me his happiest and saddest memories, and he said,
“In my twenty-eight years of life, there’s been nothing but war.
Of course I have never been happy.”

“Not even when you took Kabul?”

“That one day,” he conceded without interest.

The Taliban asked me where I was from, and when I told them
they fixed me with looks of rage.

“Tell the Americans that we believe their government
is responsible for all our problems,
and that they must stop this terrorism against us,”

the leader said curtly.

But they meant well.
What they really wanted to do was to invite me into Islam.
I showed them my Koran, and, as all their comrades had,
they took it eagerly into their hands, kissed it,
and slowly and silently began reading from it, their lips moving in a rapture.
They promised me that if I became a Muslim
they would take care of me forever.
They’d feed and shelter me for the rest of my life.
They’d find a special teacher for me. I’d become their brother.
They gazed at me from across the divide, waiting.

Afghanistan: As Bad as Its Reputation?
by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly, September 2000

[This was cited in endnote 25 to Chapter 15 of
Michael Scheuer’s Through Our Enemies’ Eyes]

While only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates
(and the breakaway Chechen government)
recognize the Taliban state,
the self-styled Islamic Emirate is a fact of life.
The Taliban rule began in 1994, when
students from madrasa s (Islamic seminaries) in Pakistan and Afghanistan
took up arms to end civil strife and restore order
to an increasingly anarchic country.
In September 1996, they captured Kabul,
and reports reached the West of harsh new restrictions against women
and public executions of criminals.

The Taliban (Arabic for religious students) have now ruled southern Afghanistan for almost six years and have been in Kabul for nearly four.
So how goes life in the Islamic Emirate?
Are Hollywood entertainers and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright accurate
when they declare
the Taliban have driven the country back into the thirteenth century?

To find out, I went to Afghanistan in March 2000.
Three months earlier I had met
the Taliban’s representative in New York,
Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, at a Middle East Forum event.
I expected him to rebuff my request for a visit,
and so was pleasantly surprised by
his invitation to visit Afghanistan
and see the situation for myself.
The Taliban permitted me to travel
unescorted and without a translator
in their territory during a two-week period.
I had the opportunity to speak to government officials and the man on the street.
I visited major towns and cities:
Jalalabad, Kabul, Ghazni, and Kandahar
(the last being the seat of the Taliban leadership).
This was my second trip to the country, having been there in May 1997,
when I guest lectured at Balkh University in Mazar-i Sharif,
one of Afghanistan’s last co-educational institutions,
and was forced to leave when the Taliban attacked the city.

Section 1
Through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan
The two sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border provide a sharp contrast.
The former is patrolled by armed officers;
the latter relaxed with no weapons in sight.
Pakistanis assign foreigners an armed guard
to protect against banditry in their tribal territories,
banditry has all but disappeared on the road to Kabul
since the Taliban’s rise to power.

Driving through the Khyber Pass from Peshawar, Pakistan, toward the border,
the Afghan driver kept pointing out people on the hills above the road
whom he identified as Pakistani Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agents
taking down license plate numbers of cars heading to the frontier.
(The Pakistani intelligence agency is often accused of
supporting the Taliban regime.)
At the border post of Torkham, Pakistani soldiers mingled among
the hundreds of people walking each way through the border,
stopping those who looked obviously Western.
I was ushered into a Spartan office to process my visa,
and my passport was passed back and forth until, some twenty minutes later,
it was stamped and I was allowed to proceed.

On the Afghan side of the border, in contrast,
there were no soldiers and no weapons in evidence.
The Afghan passport office, basically an empty room with a table and ledger,
was about 100 yards down the road.
The officer—a jovial, elderly man—
stamped the passport with hardly a glance at the visa, welcomed me,
and let me continue on my way.
(When I left Afghanistan, the office was unlocked and unattended;
I ended up having to go to his apartment to interrupt his breakfast.)
The Afghan half of Torkham bustles, though it is basically a one-road town.
Money-changers have stalls openly stacked with piles of currency—
local afghanis, Pakistani rupees, U.S. dollars, Iranian rials,
and United Arab Emirates dirhams—
displaying an openness unmatched even by money markets
in other relatively crime-free Muslim countries like Kuwait.
Despite dire poverty,
the money-changers clearly are not afraid of snatch-and-grab robberies.
Although on January 13, 2000,
thieves stole approximately $200,000 from Kabul’s money market,
all indications point to an inside job, perhaps by the Taliban guards,
rather than a random act of violence. Note-3
Other shacks along the road served meat, bread, and tea.
Many shops operate out of old American truck trailers and train cars.
A dusty field had become
a parking lot for taxis, trucks, and buses, drivers and their friends
each seeking out passengers to fill their vehicle
before the ride onward to Jalalabad and Kabul.
Perhaps Afghanistan doesn’t have a strong government, but
first impressions indicated at least a functional status quo.

Jalalabad, forty-six miles from the border,
is the first major Afghan city along the road to Kabul.
The seat of many international and Afghan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs),
it is the capital of the subtropical Nangrahar province
and an important trading center.
Prior to the arrival of the Taliban,
the road from Torkham through Jalalabad and onward to Kabul
was infamous for its various warlord and bandit robberies and checkpoints;
now the ride was surprisingly smooth.
Huge trucks, laden with petrol, tires, and smuggled hardwood
rumble through town.

Section 2
While U.N. anti-narcotics programs flourish inside the towns,
bright red opium blossoms bloomed outside.
In October 1999, the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention
released a finding that
Afghanistan would produce 75 percent of the world’s opium in 1999,
although Taliban officials hotly deny this.
According to U.S. anti-drug officials interviewed in Peshawar,
the Taliban benefit from the opium production in two ways:
The first is direct trade,
smuggling the dried opium gum
through Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Iran to Europe and the Middle East,
where it is converted into heroin.
The second way is by taxing farmers,
who gladly grow opium because it is a far more lucrative crop than wheat.
While some label Afghanistan a failed state,
its efficient taxation suggests that perhaps Western governments
should not allow such a designation and
should instead hold the Taliban accountable for activities in the country.
the Taliban have brought stability to Afghanistan
and recreated a central government,

capable of taxation, infrastructure improvement, and war.

But this year’s drought in Afghanistan
has had a severe impact on the opium crop,
especially in the south where production is reportedly greater.
It has been so severe that Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar
closed the Kandahar bazaar on the morning of March 7
so that the population could go to the mosques and pray for rain
(but much of the population instead seemed intent on drinking tea in the shade).
The poor prospects for the opium crop combined with
allegedly uncontrolled currency printing by the United Front opposition
have caused the currency to plunge
from 54,000 afghani to the dollar in mid-March
to 75,000 a month later;
although the rate has since rebounded to 63,000.
Oddly enough,
the lack of a functioning national bank and state economic policy
means that a currency black market does not exist,
and Afghans (except, I am told, in Khost),
accept their own currency alongside Pakistani rupees and U.S. dollars.

Section 3
Mercenaries and Terrorists
Much of the opium grown in Afghanistan
does not directly affect the United States.
However, the revenue raised has a corollary impact.
Afghanistan is a desperately poor country engaged in a brutal civil war
that, according to Doctors Without Borders,
has cost 1.8 million lives over the past two decades.
Of the more than 100 Afghans I interviewed inside the country,
I found not a single person who thought the civil war would end soon.
The most optimistic answer I got was, “maybe in four years.”
[Note that Rubin was writing in mid-2000.
By September 2001, according to Michael Scheuer,
the Taliban had control over most of the country;
note especially ih-2.4.2-taliban-stood-victorious and ih-2.4.2-Omars-regime;
cf. the 2000-10-05 report by Robert Marquand and Wikipedia.]

It is opium money that helps fund the Taliban’s war effort.
While Iran reportedly donates equipment
to ethnic Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Mas`ud’s forces in the north,
and Pakistan’s ISI allegedly supplies the Taliban,
there is always a need for more equipment and more men.

In particular, Arab mercenaries are important to the war effort.
I did not go to the front line,
but I was on the lookout for
non-Afghan mercenaries and foreign soldiers among the Taliban.
Guarding the foreign ministry, I found,
were Taliban soldiers who were clearly foreign.
They did not speak Dari nor, according to Afghan friends, Pashto,
but rather Urdu, the language of Pakistan.
Unlike Afghan Taliban who were perfectly polite and hospitable,
these were condescending and rude,
spat out orders at passers-by
while making a point of waiving their weapons around.
(Afghan frustration with foreign mercenaries resident in the country was clear.)
I also made a point of talking to money-changers.
In Jalalabad especially, they dealt in Arab currency,
and Arabs in kafiya were wandering around the Jalalabad market,
many more than
could possibly be employed by a nongovernmental organization.

Clearly, the Taliban not only receive funds from Islamic radicals overseas
but also use foreign volunteers to press their cause.
When a friend sought a visa in Pakistan a week before I did,
he met five Sudanese heading into the country;
they did not appear to be educated enough
to be working for the U.N. or any of the other NGOs.
Storekeepers in Kabul told me about the foreigners—mostly Punjabi Pakistanis
coming to fill out Taliban ranks.
Julie Sirrs, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official,
visited Mas’ud’s territory in March
and interviewed foreign prisoners-of-war (POWs) held by the north,
mostly Pakistanis, but also some Yemenis and Chinese Uighurs.
Afghans would point out Pakistani Talibs along the road.
Most said there were fewer around than during the previous year,
although they added that their numbers were on the increase again.
Rumors circulated in March that
5,000 Pakistani religious students and volunteers had just crossed the border
to supplement Taliban ranks along the front line.
Most likely, the rumors were exaggerated but had a basis in reality.
These mercenaries may not be an effective fighting force
compared with Western troops,
but they are gaining practical experience and skills
that they can perhaps sell after their time on the Afghan front is over.
[Wonder if they ever found an opponent to use their war-fighting skills on?]
As Lebanon found with Palestinian fighters in the 1970s and 1980s,
flirting with foreigners for short-term military gains
can haunt domestic stability and international relations for years afterward.

Terrorist training camps are a more serious issue than mercenaries.
It is difficult for the Western media to address this issue
since journalists by law are not free to travel unescorted
and few Afghans
willingly answer questions honestly within earshot of a government translator.
However, my unescorted snapshot of the country convinced me the issue is real.
In Kabul, I asked shopkeepers about foreigners they encountered.
One bookseller said he regularly saw
French, Swedes, Arabs, Pakistanis, and Filipinos.
When I asked him what the French were doing in Afghanistan,
he said they were doctors.
When I asked him what the Filipinos were doing,
he said they were in the country for a jihad.

A few kilometers outside Kabul is Rish Khor,
reportedly a base for the Harakat ul-Mujahidin (HUM),
a militant Pakistani group
dedicated to wresting Kashmir away from Indian control.
In December,
members of the group allegedly hijacked an Indian airways flight to Kandahar,
killing a hostage, winning the release of their leader from an Indian jail,
and escaping. Note-4
Kabul residents in the neighborhood of the camp could attest to
strict checkpoints and continued activity at the camp,
in sharp contrast to Taliban denials.
The camp reportedly shut its doors in June,
but it is anyone’s guess for how long;
or the Taliban may simply have moved its occupants
to locations where they will draw less attention.

Many Afghans also talked about Usama Bin Ladin’s homes in Jalalabad,
though on my last day in Kabul,
one friend insisted his father had just returned from Kandahar
and was “100 percent sure” that Bin Ladin had been there the previous week.
In reality, Bin Ladin probably does not stay in the same house twice,
but the fact that
so many Afghans believed they knew where he was
and always placed him near the populous eastern cities
indicates that Bin Ladin is not nearly so isolated as the Taliban claim.
while the Taliban regime refuses to extradite him to face charges in the West,
Taliban Information Minister Mawlawi Qudratullah Jamal declared,
when demanding Iran return escaped anti-Taliban figure Isma`il Khan,
“When somebody commits a crime and escapes to somewhere else,
he should not be given shelter.” Note-5

Section 4
Rebuilding a Ruined Land
More than a decade after the Soviet withdrawal,
red rocks still mark mine fields,
some within a meter of the roadside outside of Jalalabad and around Kandahar.
Afghan and British NGOs
continue to make slow progress in their struggle to clear mines,
but 700 square kilometers of minefields still remain.
Contrary to popular belief,
most of the remaining mines are not the result of the Soviets,
but rather of the mujahidin themselves,
who scattered anti-tank and anti-personnel mines
without recording locations
during the internecine warfare that followed the Soviet withdrawal.

After leaving Jalalabad, the road progressively worsened.
Kabul is less than 100 miles away and more than 4,000 feet higher.
A 1977 guidebook advised leaving two and a half hours for the trip
but today it takes almost six hours.
Past Kabul, the road deteriorates even more.
Bridges are destroyed, the road washed out, and rocks strewn
across what was once an American-built masterpiece.
Along the roadside can be spotted
rusting hulks of tanks and armored personnel carriers,
some ironically now sporting stenciled advertisements for
“Duckhams Motor Oil.”
Men, women, and children
make a show of shoveling dirt and pebbles into potholes
when any vehicle approaches.
As cars pass, they drop their shovels
and hope for a 500 or 1000 afghani note (a cent or two).

However, not everything in Afghanistan was destroyed,
and the Taliban are making some effort to improve infrastructure.
While sections of Kabul were heavily damaged,
these have been photographed by international reporters
far out of proportion to the total destruction.
Much of Kabul is undamaged, save for some bullet-pock marks in the facade.
The Kabul Museum has been looted and destroyed,
but the National Archives, housed in a former palace more than 100 years old,
remains unscathed.
I arrived in Kabul on March 3 [2000] in the midst of a snowstorm.
Opening the curtains of my hotel room for my first view of Kabul,
I was surprised to see lights flickering to the horizon.
While electricity is not available for a full twenty-four hours a day,
it was consistent
(for example, in Ghazni,
electricity would work between 6:30 p.m. and 5:15 a.m.).
People rely on citywide systems rather than individual generators;
Kabul is largely powered by
a hydroelectric plant several kilometers outside the city.
While store fronts promise satellite phone services
even in small towns like Mukur (halfway between Kabul and Kandahar),
people in Kabul mention
the resumption of international phone service to the city through land lines.
New buildings in Kabul
are identified by local men as commercial centers and hotels,
and, between Ghazni and Kandahar,
the Islamic Emirate is actively smoothing portions of the road
and building a new bridge.
In Kandahar, a huge new mosque is being built in a main square
to replace a cinema, since razed.

The Taliban alone are not responsible for all development.
Water largely comes from pumps built by a Danish NGO.
Tens of other NGOs manage and supply
hospitals, schools, and emergency relief.
Various United Nations agencies
such as the U.N. Development Program and U.N. Children’s Fund,
are active
but aid workers contend that with the exception of the World Food Program,
they are inefficient and ineffective;
many foreign U.N. workers do not even speak the local language.
Foreign aid does have an impact,
and organizations like the women’s issue-oriented and American-run
Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan (PARSA),
and Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA),
with low overhead and large staffs of practitioners
have immediate pay-off in health and education.
Afghans are aware of European aid because
Swedish, British, and Danish names are attached
to many visible and practical projects
like demining operations, well-digging, and medical clinics,
but the United States gets little if any public credit
for its donations to the United Nations.
Unfortunately, the European Union
may slash funding to NGOs in the Taliban-controlled portion of Afghanistan
in protest against Taliban policies.
The bureaucrats in Brussels are misguided
if they believe that European funding for the SCA girls’ schools
allows the Taliban to divert money to the war effort;
closed girls’ schools will, unfortunately, not receive funding from the Taliban.

Markets are filled with produce, meat, tea, rice, and other goods.
Canned tomato sauce comes from Iran and Coca-Cola from Turkmenistan.
Merchants told me their rice was from Pakistan and their tea from Sri Lanka. Electronic goods come from Pakistan.
While some might label the trade smuggling,
border guards and Taliban check posts along the road
to extract taxes and tolls.
Subsidized bread stands and bakeries dot the cities.
Hunger and supply are separate issues, though.
In a culture without supermarkets,
each seller is not considering whether they should price their own product
so that someone can get a complete meal.
Accordingly, meals become either potatoes or rice or beans
or, on rare occasions, meat.
Merchants complain that business is bad and that
many people cannot afford to take advantage of the availability of foodstuffs.
In Jalalabad, I bought a liver, bread, and tea lunch
for the equivalent of 17 cents, but most Afghans can no longer afford meat.
When Afghans expected me for a meal,
I ate rice, meat, yogurt, turnips, and oranges.
When they did not, I had greasy potatoes and bread.

Section 5
Human Rights
The Feminist Majority
exaggerates the pre-Taliban progress of Afghan women
by using pre-Taliban Kabul
as an example of women’s progress throughout Afghanistan.
Using pre-civil war Afghan numbers
to describe the demise of women’s rights by nature is inaccurate,
since the former communist regime massaged statistics
to demonstrate its progressive achievements.
Kabul was always more progressive and cosmopolitan
than the rest of Afghanistan.
For example, the Feminist Majority’s “Stop Gender Apartheid” campaign
still reports that
women cannot leave their house unless accompanied by a close male relative.
women in every city I visited walked around in pairs.
While the Feminist Majority
claims that women have been banished from the workforce,
this is only partially accurate.
Even in the countryside,
I saw rural women working in the fields and with livestock.
The situation is bad,
perhaps worse than anywhere else in the Muslim world,
but it should be addressed with precision.

While the Taliban have prevented vast numbers of girls and women
from receiving an education,
a token Taliban-funded medical school class for women has opened in Kabul.
The question then should become
why classes have not opened in other towns and cities.
Restrictions continue to occur,
but NGO-operated girls’ schools are not truly clandestine,
as they are often described.
Some foreign employees
helping to coordinate girls’ schools both in and outside of Kabul
told me
not only of obstacles placed in their way
by specific Taliban authorities,
but also of assistance they have received
from other Taliban government officials.
The problem is that
there are not enough schools (for men and women) to satisfy demand
while Taliban government money continues to be wasted on a war effort.
while the Taliban regime as a whole must be held accountable for its actions,
it would be a mistake to portray the movement as monolithic.
Rather, the Taliban include
uncompromising radicals, more pragmatic radicals,
and bureaucrats whose adherence to the movement’s beliefs
extends not far beyond the ends of their beards.

It is also untrue that all women wear burka’s all the time
to cover themselves from head to foot.
They do so largely in urban areas but, even in cities,
older women and girls up to young teens show their faces
and, sometimes, a bit of hair.
(The more religious among the Taliban men also cover their face,
clutching their cloaks in their teeth like religious women in Iran.)
During my previous trip to areas in Afghanistan not yet controlled by the Taliban,
many women dressed the same way,
although in the university, women did not cover their heads or faces.
The problem should not be simplified to
the fact that in Afghanistan the women wear the burka,
for many would choose to anyway;
the problem is that they are forced to do so.
The situation of women in Afghanistan
is perhaps worse than it is anyplace in the Middle East
(though Saudi Arabia and Yemen are close),
and the Taliban should be confronted,
but exaggeration allows the Taliban regime
to dismiss all Western complaints as based on propaganda.
the Taliban do have a point when they ask
why few Western governments or celebrity wives
went out of their way to condemn the rapes and assaults
which characterized the streets and checkpoints
before the Taliban disarmed gangs and warlords,
including those affiliated with the government then in power.

The same holds true for executions.
Human Rights Watch, for example, commented in their 1999 World Report that,
“Every Friday,
thousands were pressured to witness public executions and punitive amputations
in Kabul’s stadium.” Note-6
Afghans (including self-described opponents of the regime) said that
while the Taliban does carry out public executions,
sometimes with shocking cruelty,
they are not conducted regularly
and probably occur less frequently than in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Massacres which mandate further investigation did occur
in 1997 when the United Front took Mazar-i Sharif
after a brief occupation by the Taliban
and in 1998, when the Taliban took and held the northern city.
However, they by no means occur regularly.
And while the front-line mirrors an ethnic divide between
primarily Tajik, United Front-held areas, and
the Pushtun-dominated south,
Afghanistan has not become polarized to the extent that Kosovo has.
Even in the south,
Tajiks and Shi’i Hazaras live and work among Afghans of other nationalities.

In general,
life has relaxed a bit since the initial onslaught of the Taliban.
One NGO worker explained that
the Taliban officer in charge of “Prevention of Vice” forces
and responsible for the worst excesses of the Taliban’s restrictions in Kabul
had been sacked for watching a pornographic videos in his office.
In contrast to just a few years ago,
young boys and girls play together in playgrounds, boys fly kites,
and men play volleyball and soccer in parks.
I watched teenage and younger girls
marched around a city block in Ghazni playing drums,
something not imaginable in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Yemen.
One Afghan man explained, “Girls are children, too.”
I heard banned music, even in Kandahar
(though I was in a taxi
that had its cassettes confiscated and destroyed days later):
in Ghazni, I learned how to buy an illegal television.
While men have to wear beards,
many do illegally trim them, albeit extremely carefully.

Section 6
Is the Honeymoon Over?
The Taliban were initially welcomed in many of the towns they occupy.
They promised security against warlords and rampaging bandits
and an end to war.
In the short-term, they delivered enough
to win them a hesitant welcome from people in areas they came to occupy.
However, there are signs the honeymoon is over.
Without prompting,
people in Kabul complained of burglaries perpetrated by the Taliban.
Taliban patrols zoom through Kabul streets scattering pedestrians.
One woman related how
her husband was killed by a Taliban pick-up truck
that did not even bother to stop.
As war continues
(there was a surface-to-surface missile strike in Kabul when I was there,
and I saw tanks heading north toward the end of my trip),
the economy worsens, and people become more desperate,
such a traffic accident could easily set off a rebellion.
After all,
it was a car accident that sparked the intifada in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

[Well, there was a lot of Israeli aggresion and repression
that preceded that.]

Already, there are signs that the Taliban’s grip is becoming more precarious.
People still speak of an armed uprising against the Taliban in Khost,
put down only when Mullah ‘Umar sacked the governor.
Parts of Nimruz province,
in the southwest of the country near Iran,
are no longer under Taliban control.
In late March, there were rumors of an aborted uprising in Jalalabad.
By and large,
Afghans want peace, education for their children, and food on the table.
Many Taliban officials realize this and advocate a more pragmatic line,
although one often obstructed by the uncompromising Mullah ‘Umar.
The more pragmatic among the Taliban realize that
if they cannot deliver peace and economic growth,
then the population may decide that the Taliban’s restrictive pronouncements
are not worth their patience.
People can be expected to trade freedoms for only so long
before deciding that
the Taliban cannot deliver the peace and security people crave
and the economy requires.
As one Kabul resident explained,
“We’ve already had twenty years of war.
Who can wait another twenty years?”

Section 7
Afghans I met across all levels of society
were hungry for freer expression of culture.
Upon finding out that I taught at a university in America,
a book store owner ushered me into his backroom
(posters and postcard racks obscured the doorway)
to show me his collection of used books
about all sorts of history, literature, and art.
When the caretaker of the National Archives
learned I wanted to see his collection of old documents,
he arranged a meeting between myself and the minister of culture
to secure permission
and then proudly guided me around the now-deserted, but largely intact repository.

Across the country, Afghans of all ethnicities and religious bents
regularly tune into an education soap-opera sponsored by
the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Afghan Education Project.
However, these same Afghans are suspicious of Voice of America (VOA),
interpreting the allegedly different slants of the Pashto and Dari news services
as evidence of an American plot to divide Afghanistan ethnically.

The thirst for knowledge opens an opportunity
for more moderate Middle Eastern states.
Despite their dislike of VOA,
Afghans remain starved for education and news,
while the Taliban thrive on ignorance.
The same Talibs enforcing religious law
receive their only education in madrasa’s
where they absorb anti-Western ideology
in the name of a narrow and extreme interpretation of Islam.
[I really think we Westerners should be a little careful in deciding
what interpretations of Islam are “extreme.”]

If moderate Middle Eastern states created a “Voice of Islam” radio
to broadcast debates with real Islamic scholars discussing
the role of religion and the state,
the place of women in Islam, and
the nature of jihad,
then perhaps earnest but uneducated religious students would learn that
adhering to Islam and accepting the Taliban’s edicts
are not necessarily one and the same.
The Qatar-based hard-hitting, independent al-Jazeera television network
has demonstrated that independent and pan-Islamic media can exist, [!]
at least in some parts of the Middle East.

Section 8
U.S. Policy Considerations
Traveling not long ago through Iran and Tajikistan,
everyone I met believed that the United States supported the Taliban.
Inside Afghanistan, though,
Taliban officials accused the U.S. government of supporting the other side.
With all factions convinced that the United States supports their enemy,
the traditional friendliness of the Afghan people
toward America and Americans

(a friendliness reinforced by
U.S. aid to the mujahidin during the Soviet occupation)
cannot be expected to last.

In part, the muddled and often contradictory interpretations of U.S. policy
reflect the nature of politics in the Middle East,
but they also follow from
a public diplomacy vacuum among U.S. policymakers.
The muddle-through approach to Afghanistan
of the Bush[-41] and Clinton administrations
has failed.
Only after the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
attributed to the Taliban-hosted Saudi financier Usama Bin Ladin
did the Clinton administration pay more than cursory attention
to the Afghan problem.
However, despite a five-hour visit to Pakistan by Clinton
and a longer May visit to Pakistan
by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering,
Islamabad has little reason to bow to U.S. pressure or fulfill any pledges
knowing that the Clinton administration will soon end.
It will be up to the new administration
to decide on an approach to Afghanistan.

The issues that divide Americans and the Taliban are many and are real.
On April 28, 2000, Pickering identified
four American concerns in Afghanistan:
terrorism, narcotics, human rights, and ending the civil war.
(While the Taliban may pose a long-term threat to a failing Pakistani state,
Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent Ahmed Rashid’s thesis that
the Taliban pose a long-term threat to Central Asia
is alarmist and not particularly realistic
given the cultural differences between
former Soviet Central Asia and
the largely Pushtun Taliban.)
Pickering’s concerns were reflected in
the State Department’s 1999 Patterns of Global Terrorism report
which concluded that
“the locus of terrorism directed against the United States
continued to shift from the Middle East to South Asia”
and accused the Taliban of exacerbating the problem
by sheltering international terrorists like Usama Bin Ladin.
So what can the United States do?

For the United States, Usama bin Ladin is perhaps the outstanding problem;
the August 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania,
and subsequent efforts on his part,
present an obstacle the U. S. government cannot ignore.
The Taliban can perhaps be pressured to send Bin Ladin to a third country.
After all, the precedent been set
with the Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing
and, more successfully, with the Kurdish terrorist leader Abdullah Öcalan,
who had long been sheltered by Syria
until Turkey put firm resolve behind its demands.
But it must be remembered that
the Taliban receive substantial benefit from hosting Bin Ladin.
His troops support the Taliban’s fight against Ahmad Shah Mas`ud in the north.
While they number perhaps only in the hundreds,
interviews with prisoners-of-war held by Mas’ud indicate
Usama bin Ladin controls the most dedicated fighters
and the only ones who are in practice willing to fight at night.
The loss of Bin Ladin’s financial support and men
could put the Taliban at an immediate disadvantage
among portions of their frontline.
This means that

Kabul will not sacrifice such a benefit
if the U.S. government then treats other issues (such as human rights)
as an impediment to relations.


Washington, then, must decide
whether it is willing to do business with the Taliban
once the Bin Ladin obstacle is removed;
if so, this must be made clear to Taliban officials.


Washington may feel that
the Taliban’s oppressive restrictions upon women and
their collusion in the opium trade
merit their remaining an international pariah.

If so, Washington should pressure the Pakistani government
to end its adventurism in Afghanistan
or risk isolation.
Pakistan must stop its citizens and the refugees it hosts
from returning to Afghanistan to continue the Afghan civil war.
Such a policy will not be easy for Washington—
the sacrifice of long-term interests for short-term stability
is always a temptation,
even if it has regularly proven to be a failure
(as in the case of using Syria to impose stability in Lebanon).

If the decision is made to oppose the Taliban,
then Washington must decide
whether to do business with the Iranian- and Russian-backed Mas`ud.
On many issues, especially counter-narcotics and security issues,
U.S., Iranian, and Russian interests converge;
there is good reason to cooperate with former enemies.
a cooperative relationship with Iran in Afghanistan
may do more for advancing U.S.-Iran rapprochement
than high-profile political initiatives
and a so-far largely rhetorical dialogue of civilizations.

The worst option for American policymakers would be
to allow the Afghan quagmire to continue without any clear direction.
The 1998 embassy bombings and
recent attempted terrorist operations
allegedly perpetuated by operatives loyal to Usama bin Ladin
indicate that Afghanistan cannot be forgotten,
for in an age of globalization,
isolation does not contain chaos within a country.

Michael Rubin is a Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

1 Sharon Waxman, “A Cause Unveiled; Hollywood Women Have Made the Plight of Afghan Women their Own— Sight Unseen,” The Washington Post, Mar. 30, 1999.
2 Eric Malnic, “Albright Decries Low Status of Women,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 6, 1999.
3 The New York Times, Mar. 5, 2000.
4 Anthony Davis. “Pakistan Defensive over Terrorism Link.” Jane’s Intelligence Review, Mar. 1, 2000.
5 Taliban ask Iran to deny sanctuary to escaped rival leader.” Agence Presse France, Mar. 30, 2000.
6 1999 World Report, Human Rights Watch, at http://www.hrw.org/worldreport99/asia/afghanistan.html.

Neighbors warming up to Taliban
By Robert Marquand
The Christian Science Monitor, 2000-10-05

[This was cited in endnote 25 to Chapter 15 of
Michael Scheuer’s Through Our Enemies’ Eyes]

With important battlefield victories for the ultra-orthodox Taliban regime
in the past month,
the prospect of Afghanistan coming under a single authority
for the first time in 20 years could be weeks or days away.

The ragtag Army of opposition commander Ahmad Shah Masood,
the fabled “Lion of Panjshir”
known for outwitting Soviet invading forces in the 1980s,
was pushed last week into a tiny pocket of northeast Afghanistan.
Facing defections and a lack of crucial helicopters,
Mr. Masood himself is in Dushanbe, the capital of bordering Tajikistan.

Now, with the on-the-ground realities of
a Taliban regime that controls as much as 97 percent of the country,
a new “let’s see” strategy of engagement with the Taliban
is being explored by neighboring countries, as well as Russia and China.

Since capturing Kabul 1996 and
bringing a strict “law and order” regime
to a country loaded with squabbling warlords,

the Taliban have become famous for pleasing diplomatic envoys
and making promises that later do not materialize.

Still, it appears for the first time that
a calculation has been made in several regional capitals
that the Taliban are here to stay,
and that
an exploratory process of give and take
could be more beneficial in dealing with Kabul
than perpetual isolation.

Iran, for example, whose products pepper the markets of Afghanistan,
two months ago canceled military resupplies to Masood,
aid workers in Pakistan say.
Last week, a Taliban envoy was invited to Moscow;
a similar invitation was given by Paris.
Russian envoys broke a long hands-off policy with Pakistan
by visiting Islamabad last month.
The chief of the Pakistani secret service -
a group considered largely responsible for
facilitating the rise of the Taliban in the early 1990s -
spent two weeks in Moscow in late August.
Last week a Taliban delegation met in Washington with
two high US State Department officials, Karl Inderfurth and Thomas Pickering,
with little result.
However, the two sides agreed to further talks.

This week, in an abrupt U-turn,
the government of neighboring Uzbekistan stated
it had no fear that a Taliban regime would foment terror in the region.
“Uzbekistan emphasizes that we are ready to cooperate with
any government in Afghanistan that has the support of the Afghan people,”
said Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov,
shortly after meeting the Taliban ambassador.

Even China, worried about rising Islamic feeling and nationalism
among its far-western Muslim populations,
has allowed a Chinese firm to begin installing a mobile-phone system in Kabul.
Next month,
interior ministers from Russia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan’s neighbors
will meet to discuss
regional stability and
how to deal with training centers for Islamic militants in Afghanistan.

Former US diplomats like Zbigniew Brzezinski have warned that

turning “Islamic fundamentalism” into an enemy
is a “dangerous intellectual shortcut.”


“Islam is one of the world’s great religions, and
if there is a tendency to try and find partners
to unify against an ‘Islamic threat,’
you are going to have a self-fulfilling prophesy,”

Mr. Brzezinski told an audience in New Delhi this week.

“It seems a reasonable attitude to engage the Taliban,”
says Frederic Grare, an Afghan expert and French diplomat in New Delhi.
“If the Taliban can’t win, they might implode....
But the idea that the Taliban can move into Central Asia is pure fantasy.
A new situation ... reflects the fact that the Taliban are there.
It’s the reality right now.”

Yet some Washington strategists feel a Taliban-led Afghanistan
creates a staging area for terror groups and extremism in Central Asia.
“We don’t think the Taliban are targeting us,” says a US official.
“But they allow training camps for terrorists to exist within their borders.
In the past 10 years,
the focus of terrorist training has shifted
from the Middle East to Afghanistan.”

Moscow says Afghanistan is a transit and rallying point
for Islamic fighters heading to Chechnya.
The Taliban’s medieval policies toward women,
their virtual sanctioning of poppy harvests,
and their harboring of Osama bin Laden last year
brought additional UN sanctions and an embargo.

In the summer of 1998,
Taliban forces clinched a position as the dominant force in the country.
That victory set off a great wave of enthusiasm for Muslim identity politics
and Islamic enthusiasm in South Asia, particularly Pakistan.
It also forced the last opponent in Afghanistan,
Masood’s United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan,
or Northern Alliance,
into their Panjshir Valley stronghold.

In recent weeks,
Taliban forces have cut off a main supply route into the Panjshir Valley,
bottling up the export of emeralds from mines in the valley,
one source of Masood’s financing.
Reportedly, only two rugged footpaths out of the opposition-controlled area
are still in use, with snows ready to fall.

The Taliban Islamic theocracy blends two powerful orthodox strains of Islam:
the Wahhabi from Saudi Arabia and
the hard-line Deobandi school
that predominates in the popular madrassas, or Islamic schools, of Pakistan.
The Taliban themselves are mostly Pashtun,
the proud peoples that inhabit northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.

For this reason, Pakistan itself is finding it
difficult to deal with its complex neighbor to the north.
Experts and former Pakistani officials openly admit that
Pakistan was instrumental in supporting the Taliban,
yet Taliban leaders have refused to take orders from Pakistani officials.

There are steady rumblings from secessionist movements among the Pashtuns,
a group in Pakistan that often complains
they get treated as second-class citizens.
Particularly in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province,
many ordinary people
do not recognize a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Pakistan feels as much a threat from the Taliban as many other neighbors,”
says one US official.
“But it is something that doesn’t get discussed as much.”

A slide into chaos
by Luke Harding
Guardian (UK), 2001-12-10

[This was cited in endnote 25 to Chapter 15 of
Michael Scheuer’s Through Our Enemies’ Eyes]

If western strategists were to ask themselves
whether the new [post-American invasion] Afghanistan
looks better than the old one:
the answer would have to be no.

In Kabul’s football stadium yesterday,
two teams were slugging it out on the grassy pitch.
A modest crowd had turned out to watch; and from a loudspeaker in the stands,
a once banned pop song drifted across the terraces.
Football matches did of course take place here during the dark Taliban years -
but there were a few differences.
The players, for example, were not allowed to wear shorts.
They had to make do with baggy trousers -
one of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s many eccentricities.
And the bearded spectators were never quite sure
whether they were going to watch their favourite sides compete -
or observe a group of Taliban empty their Kalashnikovs into a criminal.

“I don’t think people will miss the Taliban,”
Hanibullah Neizi, a member of Afghanistan’s Olympic committee said yesterday,
as we wandered past the kick-off spot
where the Taliban used to chop off the hands of thieves.
Mr Neizi is right: few people in Afghanistan want the Taliban back.
Three weeks after their departure, Kabul has reverted to a normal city.
TV antennae have sprouted from the rooftops,
and music blares from every corner.
Shops now sell posters of female Indian film stars.

Women, still in blue burkas, have even been spotted buying ghetto blasters.
Kabul has become more free and, in a perverse way, more boring.
The regime that transformed the Afghan capital
into the most joyless place on earth
is rapidly vanishing into history.

The Taliban’s surrender of Kandahar four days ago means that
the movement no longer has a presence in any of Afghanistan’s major cities.
Osama bin Laden may be able to elude his American pursuers for a bit longer.
And his Arab fighters
will continue to cause trouble from the bleak mountains of Zabol province.
But the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -
a utopian experiment that went wrong -
is effectively finished.

Amid the general rejoicing, however,
western strategists should perhaps now ask themselves
whether the new regime will be better than the old one.

The uncomfortable answer is possibly not.
Afghanistan now looks pretty much like it did in 1994,
when Mullah Mohammad Omar and a handful of like-minded provincial clerics
decided to free the country from the excesses of mojahedin rule.
Kabul may now be enjoying itself again,
but Afghanistan as a whole is in danger of
sliding back into the chaos
that characterised the mojahedin years between 1992-1996.
When the Taliban first swept into Kabul in September 1996
they too were initially welcomed as liberators.
Some 50,000 people had died in the previous four years,
as warring mojahedin factions
shelled the city from the surrounding snow-covered mountains.

Even their most grudging critics conceded that
the Taliban had one major virtue:
they brought peace to a country wracked by warlordism and disorder.

After two months of American bombing,
Afghanistan has gone back to where it was seven years ago.

In the now frozen north,
the Uzbek warlord Gen Rashid Dostum once more controls his own mini-state.
Last week he rejected
the Bonn agreement establishing a new interim authority for Afghanistan,
an ominous development.
The Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance again occupies Kabul.
A Jalalabad shura or council controls the country’s strategic eastern provinces.
And in Herat, the ancient city’s former governor, Ishmael Khan, is back.
All the old warlords have returned from exile,
and Afghanistan is experiencing its own deja vu.

Were it not for Mullah Mohammad Omar’s
disastrous decision to allow foreign volunteers to join his Islamist revolution,
the Taliban would almost certainly still be in power.
That is why the regime collapsed.
It was a very big mistake to make, Mullah Mohammad Khaksar,
the Taliban’s recently defected former interior minister, reflected yesterday.
The regime also failed because,
like most revolutionary movements,
it overestimated its capacity to change human nature.

Five years of Taliban rule had transformed Kabul into a miserable, gloomy place;
everybody was fed up.
With music and TV banned, and a 9pm curfew,
the city’s terrified population crept into bed soon after dark.
But during the Taliban years
it was possible to take a yellow Toyota taxi from Kabul to Jalalabad,
through the twisting mountains and the Kabul river,
without being robbed.
Now the Taliban have gone,
bandits have taken up residence in the hills above Sarobi.

Even the mayor of Jalalabad now only travels with a heavily armed convoy.
On the rough 420km-long road between Kabul and Kandahar
it is the same story.
Local villagers armed with Kalashnikovs have set up their own roadblocks;
robbery has become a new cottage industry.
Non-allied Pashtun militias and former Taliban soldiers
have seized control of their own areas.
Suddenly southern Afghanistan has become a very dangerous place indeed.

And if American spy-planes were to hover over the eastern Nangarhar province,
or the fertile southern Helmand valley,
they would spot villagers planting opium seeds once again.
Last year

Mullah Mohammad Omar
outlawed opium production in Afghanistan

on the grounds that it was unIslamic.
It is not clear whether his motives were genuine or cynical.
But either way his edict was ruthlessly enforced.
Farmers using cows and tractors
ploughed up their small holdings of poppy and planted wheat.
Afghanistan, previously the world’s largest exporter of heroin,
produced virtually no opium last year.

With the Taliban gone,
Afghanistan’s farmers are going back to their old, lucrative ways.
In the tribal areas of Pakistan, where most of the opium is processed,
prices have plummeted in expectation of a bumper crop.

Few people feel much nostalgia for the Taliban and their totalitarian methods.
But their departure has left a vacuum,
which at the moment is being filled by
megalomaniac warlords,
local bandits,
drug barons and
opportunistic crooks.


Here is an excerpt from Holy War, Inc. by Peter Bergen, published in 2001.
Most of the emphasis is added.

[This was cited in endnote 25 to Chapter 15 of
Michael Scheuer’s Through Our Enemies’ Eyes]

[pages 14–15]

Despite the ferocious reputation of the Taliban,
we were able to stay in Jalalabad for several days
without any official asking us why we were there.
Either the Taliban were incompetent, I thought,
or they knew of our mission
and had sanctified the interview at the highest level.
Like so many things in Afghanistan, this was never really clear.

The Taliban were pariahs on the world stage.
Because of their antediluvian treatment of women in particular
and their dismal human rights record generally,
only three countries recognized their government.
But even the Taliban’s harshest critics
could not deny their one remarkable achievement:
they had restored order to much of the country.

During the early 1990s,
Afghanistan had become a patchwork of fiefdoms held by competing warlords.
On a visit in 1993 I witnessed the anarchy in the country at first hand.
Kabul, the capital, a once lovely city nestling in a vast valley,
was then being destroyed by religious and ethnic militias.
At a post manned by a Shia militia unit,
the soldiers laughingly urged me to get in the seat of an anti-aircraft gun
and let off some shots.
They did not seem to appreciate, or perhaps care,
that the rounds would eventually have to land somewhere in the crowded city.

A good number of the foot soldiers in these militias were boys.
I have a photograph I took of three child soldiers.
One boy holds a grenade;
another self-consciously holds up a rocket launcher.
The third boy holds his rifle nonchalantly to his side
as he looks unblinkingly into the camera, ready to meet his obligations.
He appears to be ten.

[Please permit the author of this blog to interject a comment here.
Some in the American media/political establishment
have attributed the difficulty in forming an Afghan Army
to literacy problems among the recruits.
But I think the above suggests that
literacy is hardly a requirement for the ability to fight.
I would suggest further that
far more important than literacy to fighting ability is motivation,
and that is something the forces opposing America seem to have in spades.]

The fighting had left whole neighborhoods in ruins.
Ancient palaces were pockmarked by shells.
The Kabul Museum, which once housed masterpieces of Buddhist art,
was now open to the sky, its ceiling blown off by mortar shells.
A 1930s Rolls-Royce that had once belonged to the king of Afghanistan
lay in a heap of twisted metal on the grounds of the museum.
The runway at Kabul airport was littered with burnt-out aircraft.

It was as if the Afghans were applying
the demented logic of their national passion, buzkashi,
a distant and violent cousin of polo, to their capital.

Buzkashi is played by horsemen
who compete to grab hold of the headless carcass of a calf [or goat].
As a book on the sport observes:
“The calf is trampled, dragged, tugged, lifted and lost again
as one competitor after another tries to gain sole control.”
Now the carcass was Kabul.

[More buzkashi images;
a YouTube video; or
google it.]

It was out of the sort of anarchy I witnessed in 1993
that the Taliban emerged in the southeastern Afghan city of Kandahar.
Local residents had been angered for years
by the payoffs demanded by the various militias
at check points on the roads around town.
The final straw was a perhaps apocryphal story—
the kind journalists say is “too good to check”:
in 1994 two local warlords, competing for the favors of a young boy,
had waged a full-scale tank battle in Kandahar’s bazaar.
To much local applause, a small group of religious students
under the leadership of a shadowy, one-eyed cleric
named Mullah Mohammed Omar
took over the city.
Within two years
Mullah Omar and his men had taken control of most of the country,
partly by paying off local commanders [Saudi and Pakistani money?] and
partly because of their dynamic tactics,
based on fast-moving fleets of pickup trucks,
each carrying eight or so heavily armed fighters.

[I.e., Unarmored Personnel Carriers (cf.).]

And certainly the Taliban had made the country safer.
The road between Kandahar and Quetta, Pakistan,
had once been a gauntlet of militia checkpoints
whose occupants would “tax” and rob you at will.
But when I traveled it in January 2000,
the only untoward obstacle was
a pair of camels copulating in the middle of the road.

Indeed, all types of crime and socially unacceptable behavior
had fallen precipitously under the Taliban.
This could be partially explained by
the brutal punishments meted out by the religious warriors:
convicted robbers have their hands amputated,
adulterers are stoned to death, and
murderers can by personally executed by male members of the victim’s family.
The amputations and executions are the only public entertainment
in a country starved of diversions.
So when knife-wielding surgeons and executioners
perform their grisly duties in Kabul’s soccer stadium on Fridays,
thousand have filled the stands to cheer on the proceedings.
when I visited the stadium on a random Friday afternoon in December 1999
a soccer game was in progress.
According to locals,
the number of executions had declined over the years.


An Opium Market Mystery
By Antonio Maria Costa
Washington Post, 2007-04-25

In 2001, [opium] prices surged tenfold from 2000, to a record high, after
the Taliban all but eliminated opium poppy cultivation
across the Afghan territory under its control.

[Cf. 2001-05-20-NYT-Crossette-Opium.]


Insurgents Share a Name, but Pursue Different Goals
New York Times, 2009-10-23


As it devises a new Afghanistan policy,
the Obama administration confronts a complex geopolitical puzzle:
two embattled governments, in Afghanistan and Pakistan;
numerous militias aligned with overlapping Islamist factions;
and hidden in the factions’ midst,
the foe that brought the United States to the region eight years ago,
Al Qaeda.

But at the core of the tangle are the two Taliban movements,
Afghan and Pakistani. They share an ideology and a dominant Pashtun ethnicity,
but they have such different histories, structures and goals that
the common name may be more misleading than illuminating,
some regional specialists say.

[Michael Scheuer has made so many accurate forecasts
as to the future conduct of America’s conflict with the Taliban
that I really regret that
he was not one of the “regional specialists” consulted and quoted by the Times.]

“The fact that they have the same name causes all kinds of confusion,”
said Gilles Dorronsoro, a French scholar of South Asia
currently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

This week, Mr. Dorronsoro said,
as the Pakistani Army began a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban,
many Americans thought incorrectly that
the assault was against the Afghan Taliban,
the force that is causing Washington
to consider sending more troops to Afghanistan.

At stake is not just semantics.
Grasping the differences between the two Taliban forces,
and their shifting relationships with Al Qaeda,
is crucial to understanding
the debate under way in the White House situation room.
Though both groups threaten American interests,
the Afghan Taliban — the word Taliban means “religious students” —
are the primary enemy,
mounting attacks daily against the 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan.
Washington’s biggest fear is that if the Afghan Taliban overrun the country,
they could invite Al Qaeda’s leaders back from their Pakistani hide-out.

Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Dutch researcher who lives in Kandahar,
in the heart of the Afghan Taliban’s power base, said that
while leaders of the two Taliban groups
might say that they share common interests,
the two movements are quite separate.

“To be honest,
the Taliban commanders and groups on the ground in Afghanistan
couldn’t care less
what’s happening to their Pakistani brothers across the border,”
said Mr. Strick van Linschoten,
who has interviewed many current and former members of the Afghan Taliban.

In fact, the recent attacks of the Pakistani Taliban
against Pakistan’s government, military and police,
in anticipation of the army’s current campaign
into the Pakistani Taliban’s base in South Waziristan,
may have strained relations with the Afghan Taliban,
said Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence officer
who tracks Al Qaeda and the Taliban for the United Nations.

The Afghan Taliban
have always had a close relationship with Pakistani intelligence agencies,
Mr. Barrett said recently.
“They don’t like the way that the Pakistan Taliban
has been fighting the Pakistan government
and causing a whole load of problems there,” he said.

The Afghan Taliban, whose group is by far the older of the two forces,
have been led by Mullah Muhammad Omar
since he founded the movement in 1994.
They seeks to regain the power they held over most of Afghanistan
before being ousted by the American invasion of 2001.

In an interview this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity,
an Afghan Taliban commander expressed sympathy for the Pakistani Taliban,
but said, “There will not be any support from us.”
He said the Afghan Taliban
“don’t have any interest in fighting against other countries.”

“Our aim was, and is,
to get the occupation forces out
and not to get into a fight with a Muslim army,”

the commander added.

Before 9/11, the Afghan Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden
and the other leaders of Al Qaeda,
but the groups are now separated geographically,
their leaders under pressure from intensive manhunts.
On jihadist Web sites, analysts have detected
recent tensions between Al Qaeda, whose proclaimed goals are global,
and the Afghan Taliban,
which have recently claimed that their interests lie solely in Afghanistan.

Mr. Dorronsoro, the French scholar, said
the Afghan Taliban were a “genuine national movement”
incorporating not only a broad network of fighters,
but also a shadow government-in-waiting in many provinces.

By comparison, he said,
the Pakistani Taliban were a far looser coalition,
united mainly by their enmity toward the Pakistani government.
They emerged formally only in 2007 as a separate force led by Baitullah Mehsud
under the name Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,
or Students’ Movement of Pakistan.

After Mr. Mehsud was killed by an American missile in August,
a fellow tribesman, Hakimullah Mehsud,
took over after a period of jockeying for power in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Another complication for regional terminology:
most leaders of the Afghan Taliban are based in Pakistan,
directing their forces from hide-outs across the border.
Mullah Omar and his top deputies are believed to be
in or around the southern Pakistani city of Quetta.
Two other major factions in the Afghan insurgency
are led by veteran Afghan warlords,
Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,
who are in Pakistan’s tribal areas,
where the Pakistan Taliban is strongest.

Al Qaeda’s leaders, including Mr. bin Laden,
are believed to be hiding in the same tribal areas of Pakistan.
While it has been weakened by American missile strikes,
the terrorist network nonetheless is believed to have provided support
for the Pakistani Taliban’s strikes against the Pakistani government.

For the United States, regional experts say,
the long-term challenge is to devise policies that
peel away as many militants as possible from both Taliban forces,
isolating Al Qaeda and other hard-liners
and strengthening the Pakistani and Afghan governments.
But for a non-Muslim superpower, widely resented in the region,
that is a tall order.

“At the moment the ground isn’t very well prepared
for splitting the militant groups,”
said Stephen Biddle, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations,
who spent a month last summer in Afghanistan.
“The security trends are running in their favor.”

Of course, if the United States’ enemies in the region are complicated,
so are its allies.
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai is seen as
unwilling to take on corruption and tainted by fraud in the recent election,
though he has now agreed to a runoff.

In Pakistan, with 172 million people,
a population at least five times as large as that of Afghanistan,
power is divided among
the army, the intelligence service and two rival political parties —
“four actors,” Mr. Biddle said,
“each of which sees the threat from the others as bigger than
the threat from the militants.”

Polls show that Americans,
frustrated by the United States’ supposed allies and confused by the conflict,
are losing their fervor for the fight.
“The complexity of all this is hard enough for experts to understand,”
said Paul R. Pillar,
a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at Georgetown University.
“It’s not surprising if it baffles a lot of ordinary people.”

In Taliban Country
by correspondent Sami Yousafzai and photographer Ron Moreau
Newsweek.com, 2009-12

Taliban shadow officials offer concrete alternative
By Griff Witte
Washington Post, 2009-12-08

Many Afghans prefer decisive rule to disarray of Karzai government

Va. middle school cancels mock U.N. debate on Taliban
Topic a 'bad choice,' educators say in e-mail
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post, 2009-12-15

A principal in Arlington County announced Monday that she will call off an assignment that asked students to represent the views of the Taliban during a mock United Nations after some parents called it inappropriate.

An e-mail sent to parents of eighth-graders at Swanson Middle School from Principal Chrystal Forrester and two teachers said the assignment was “clearly a bad choice for a debate topic.”

“Recognizing the pain that has touched many of our families and neighbors due to the terrorist attacks on the United States and acknowledging the sensitive nature of the conflict in Afghanistan involving many of our dedicated members of the U.S. armed forces, we have eliminated this topic as part of the U.N. unit of study effective immediately,” the e-mail said.

Forrester said in an interview that she did not want controversy to undermine an opportunity for students to learn critical skills, such as how to build a persuasive argument, support it with solid research and present it in a public forum.

Chris Wilson, parent of an eighth-grader at Swanson, said he was pleased with the decision. His daughter was one of the students asked to represent the Taliban’s views and pose solutions to the conflict in Afghanistan, where the Islamic fundamentalist group is trying to reassert its authority and oust U.S. troops.

The assignment “seemed like . . . an abuse of the academic freedom that we cherish,” Wilson said. He found it morally questionable to ask students to represent the Taliban’s views about the United States and was uncomfortable about the idea of his 14-year-old daughter trolling the Web for pro-Taliban sites and information.


The Rape of the Afghan Boys
by Kelley B. Vlahos
Antiwar.com, 2010-04-13


The Taliban reportedly banned these practices
when it was in power.

Today, clerics we would consider radical
openly and regularly condemn bacha bazi and sex with children.
“Under Islamic law,
those who practice this would be stoned to death,”

Mawllawi Mohammaed Sadiq Sadiqyar,
a prayer leader and scholar in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif,
told Reuters.

Nothing is ever black and white, and Taliban soldiers
certainly don’t always “practice what they preach,”
as one source pointed out to me.
But the Western mission sure gets complicated under these conditions.
As usual, there are more questions than answers.

If the U.S. mission is to kneecap the Taliban,
a radical [??] religious movement that at one point
managed to ostensibly restrain
the cruel and morally abominable activities of creepy pimps/masters

who liked to dominate and play with boys
when they weren’t warring with one another
and shaking down the weakest among them,
what in the end, does it all mean
for the Afghans whom President Obama has vowed to uplift?
If Hamid Karzai sits on the top of this worm-infested confection without one word about prosecuting these crimes or protecting the children of his country,
what does it say about the billions of dollars
we have poured into his government to assist him?

What do we really know about the former mujahedin commanders
we view as allies against the Taliban?
What do they do at night while their wives wait patiently at home?
Does it turn your stomach to think that American money went to train the police
who now stand shoulder-to-shoulder each night
with Afghan men gaping at underage boys dancing in silk with bells on their feet?

Are we the world’s biggest chumps or the world’s biggest enablers?

Is Afghanistan the Right War?
by Paul R. Pillar
National Interest, March/April 2010

[The full article is a debate between Paul R. Pillar and John Nagl;
the excerpt here is by Mr. Pillar. The emphasis is added.]

[T]he archenemy, al-Qaeda, isn’t even [in Afghanistan]—
except, National Security Adviser James Jones tells us,
for fewer than a hundred members.
we have adopted the Afghan Taliban as a surrogate enemy.
This surrogacy might seem to make sense given that
the Taliban has shared an extreme ideology and a past alliance
with al-Qaeda.
the Taliban is not a transnational terrorist group.
Its goals are not those of Osama bin Laden.
It is one of the most insular bands
ever to get international attention.
It cares about the political and social order in its own country.

It does not care about the United States
except insofar as we get in the way of
its aspirations for the domestic ordering of Afghanistan.

If the Taliban was to return to power,
it would see little or no advantage
in again harboring a significant presence of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
Its previous host-playing led directly after 9/11 to
the biggest setback the Taliban ever suffered.
Bin Laden and his partner Ayman al-Zawahiri also would see
little to be gained in restoring the previous arrangement.
They have successfully hidden in Pakistan for nearly a decade;
a return to Afghanistan would only expose them, or their underlings,
to uninhibited U.S. firepower, even if U.S. troops were not on the ground.

The counterproductive aspects
of applying U.S. military power in Afghanistan
also have become all too clear.
The foreign military occupation
has helped to unite, motivate and win support for
the disparate elements we have come to label the Afghan Taliban.
The occupation and the inevitable collateral damage and civilian casualties
have drained much of what had been—remarkably so for a Muslim country—
a reservoir of goodwill toward the United States.
Now more Afghans have taken up arms against coalition forces.
Many of those who have joined the fight
have no sympathy for the Taliban’s ideology
and do not even warrant the label.

Labels: , , , ,