Internal and external factors explaining the failure and collapse of the Taliban

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After enduring almost two months of American bombing, the sudden and almost total collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan last month left many Muslims deeply disappointed, especially in Pakistan. The retreat from the north of the country, after the withdrawal from Mazaar-e Shareef, without being attacked and without firing a single shot, was followed by the evacuation of Kabul and the Taliban’s consolidation in the area around Qandahar. The discussion of whether this was a military blunder or (as the Taliban claimed) a “strategic retreat” before posing a serious challenge to Northern Alliance-US forces ended very soon after the fall of Qandahar. The shame was that, while non-Afghani mujahideen were willing to fight and die on every front, ordinary Afghan Taliban were busy negotiating their surrenders.

On the last day, December 6, while Mullah Umar was exhorting all the Taliban to fight to the last man, he himself was busy planning his escape. Both Mullah Umar in Afghanistan and Mullah Abdus-Salaam Zaeef, Afghan representative in Pakistan, in a press-conference in Pakistan on December 7, conceded that the Taliban movement is finished and that they will cooperate with the US-imposed interim government.

The question, in a country and terrain where any faction or militia can resist domination for years, waging intermittent guerrilla warfare from hideouts in the mountains, is why the once-formidable Taliban collapsed so suddenly. The causes of the Taliban debacle lie in their origins and history: who created and dominated them, and whose interests they were really serving. So comprehension of the historical, political and military conditions of Afghanistan, the evolution of US interests, and of US-Taliban relations is necessary in order to understand their collapse.

Seeds of anarchy and civil war during the Afghan Jihad

In Afghanistan’s recent history, changes of fate and fortune of the Afghan people and of the region generally can be seen to have corresponded roughly to changes in US interests in the region. For three or four years after the Soviet invasion in 1979, ordinary Afghans fought bravely with their small and antique arms against the invaders, with little or no outside help. The so-called “free” and “civilized” world contributed little but talk and a few Stingers, mostly for propaganda purposes. The fatal mistake that the Afghan mujahideen made was of handing over the management of their jihad to the CIA, through the US’s local proxy, Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence agency (ISI). The major US interest, of course, was to bleed the Russians in vengeance for its defeat in Vietnam.

But another long-term interest of the US was to ensure that the mujahideen remained divided, and that no group would be large and powerful enough in military and political terms to provide a unified and stable Islamic government if the Soviet Union were defeated (a very remote possibility at that time). Through the ISI, the CIA took over the management and planning of the jihad, and implemented its policy of division by various means: by controlling and manipulating the supply of arms and ammunition, by dividing the mujahideen into small groups that then formed their own political parties, by dictating who would fight in which area, and by interfering with logistical support, supplies of food and clothing, and exchanges of information between the mujahideen. All this prevented the mujahideen from unifying and consolidating their struggle. The US ensured that it would reap the fruit of the mujahideen’s efforts while sowing the seeds of future anarchy and civil war.

The mujahideen failed completely to differentiate between a friend and an enemy of Islam pretending to be a friend and well-wisher for its own selfish reasons. Accepting help in a desperate situation from dubious, self-interested allies is one thing; handing over complete management of the jihad is another thing altogether. This mistake proved fatal. What the US had planned was exactly what happened after the victory of the mujahideen against the Soviet Union. Various mujahideen groups first fought against and defeated the remnants of the communist regime, and then went on fighting among themselves. They suffered in the fire of anarchy and civil war, while the US watched from a comfortable distance.

Even today, analysts and commentators regard this as a time when the US “lost interest” and “washed its hands”of Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat. Not at all: it was the calculated and deliberate policy of the US to let anarchy and civil war continue, in order to prevent the unification of mujahideen groups and the formation of any stable, broad-based and representative Islamic government.

Two unanticipated consequences of this policy emerged, however, which worked against the US. The first was that, after the victory over the Soviet Union, many battle-hardened foreign mujahideen, who had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with their Afghan brothers, returned to their homelands and started fighting against their own illegitimate and oppressive US-puppet governments. From Egypt to the Philippines, individuals and organizations became serious threats to their local governments and to US interests worldwide. Late in 1993 a bomb exploded in the basement of the World Trade Centre in New York, a symbol of capitalist America. The fire started by the Americans in Afghanistan had reached their own soil and started to burn there as well.

This caused panic among the US elites. They re-evaluated their policy of letting anarchy and civil war continue in Afghanistan. US interests now took a totally different direction. The Americans now wanted to create another militia or organization large enough to dominate the Afghan landscape and quell the civil war. Most of the mujahideen groups and factions had already been discredited; it was necessary to create a new group that could command the respect of the Afghans, and that was large enough militarily to dominate the political scene and provide relatively stable government. This would supposedly end the use of Afghanistan as a training-ground for mujahideen from other Muslim countries.

Additional pressure for a relatively stable government was provided by American oil and gas companies, who by 1994 were not only extremely interested in dominating and exploiting the oil and gas fields of Central Asia but also wanted to secure access-routes in the form of pipelines to world markets (particularly to the rapidly expanding Asian markets). Afghanistan lies on one such route (linking Turkmenistan to Pakistan, India and China), which is the shortest distance to Asian markets and hence offers significantly higher profits. However, this dream could not be realised while there was still fighting in Afghanistan. So American commercial and political interests compelled their government to change the policy of fostering continual civil war. To pursue this changed interest the US charged Pakistan’s ISI with the task of raising a military group capable of achieving the goals of stable government and securing oil and gas pipelines on favourable routes.

The establishment of the Taliban

The CIA-ISI partnership created the Taliban, who first came on the scene in September 1994 and were supported fully. The ISI did a superb job of raising a band of Taliban which eventually spread throughout Afghanistan and dominated it completely. Former ISI officials have subsequently revealed that they had to decide between mobilising a force of religious Pashtuns or secular ones. Eventually they decided to use religious Pushtuns because of a number of advantages they offered over the secular Pushtuns. They had motivations of their own and were supported by religious parties, groups and madrassas in Pakistan. Sectarianism became a principal tenet of the Taliban’s religious ideology; the worst elements of sectarianism on both side of the border combined forces. One unfortunate consequence of this was that Shi’as were branded kuffar. Sectarian terrorism took a dramatic turn for the worse, especially in Pakistan, where open warfare was conducted in mosques and imambaras. The most-wanted culprits in Pakistan, with millions of rupees of reward-money on their heads, took refuge in Afghanistan. This also damaged the cause of Usama Bin Ladin to rid the Arabian Peninsula of American occupation forces.

The CIA-ISI Taliban first came on the scene in September 1994. Suddenly teenage Afghan students in Pakistan were flying MIGs, driving tanks and becoming experts on heavy artillery (which requires months, if not years, of training). Even if one stretches one’s imagination to its limit and assumes that somehow the Taliban got all their arms from Soviet era and civil-war left-overs, the Taliban still needed thousands of gallons of petrol daily to drive all these gadgets. Afghanistan is not known to have been producing oil and gas in significant quantities. The supporting hands of the US and Pakistan were evident from the earliest days of the Taliban.

Similarly, the military victories of the Taliban were equally astonishing. It was unbelievable that the mujahideen that defeated the forces of the Soviet Union were suddenly running away as fast as they could, or accepting Taliban domination with little resistance. Each militia had its own value; once the price was paid they did as they were told. The ISI controlled and manipulated almost all the rival militias, so they either bought or threatened the smaller militias into submission, paving the way for the Taliban’s victories. Retired military and ISI officials actively supported and conducted military missions for the Taliban, who sat on tanks and trucks and were figureheads at the entry of any captured city. Even western reporters pretended to be amazed at how little resistance was being offered by the anti-Taliban militias in the country. The ‘glorious victories’ of the Taliban were won on the shoulders of the CIA-ISI partnership, and looked much bigger than they really were. They ‘captured’ Kabul in September 1996 and gradually took control of almost the whole country, against little resistance.

This fulfilled the major US objective of replacing a large number of smaller militias and groups fighting each other with a single militia dominating the entire country, cunningly disguised with Islamic credentials. While itself cleverly not recognizing the Taliban, the US propped up the “sunni Islamic government” of the Taliban while labelling Islamic Iran a “shia” State. By creating a sectarian “sunni Islamic State” in Afghanistan in contrast to and in competition with a “shia Islamic State”, the US was cleverly killing two birds with one stone. The US’s hope was that sunnis worldwide would turn to the Taliban’s sectarian sunni model of an Islamic State, rather than to Iran’s model of a revolutionary Islamic State. The two neighbours came close to war when, after the capture of Mazaar-e Shareef in 1998, the Taliban killed about a dozen diplomats from Islamic Iran during massacres of the city’s population.

Rupture in the US-Taliban relationship

From 1996 the US government had a good working relationship with the Taliban regime, who made considerable efforts to promote their master’s interests. There were no issues on which the US and the Taliban leadership had any major differences, despite the west’s usual rhetoric about women and human rights.

Once the Taliban had consolidated their grip on the country, the issue on which tension grew in an otherwise friendly atmosphere was Usama Bin Ladin, who took refuge in Afghanistan after being forced out of Sudan at the US’s insistence. Usama had a more international agenda than the narrow-minded Taliban. His moving to Afghanistan, perhaps the only place of refuge available to him, was a convenient arrangement both for him and for the Taliban.

With Usama and his financial resources, Afghan foreign policy became more independent of the ISI and CIA. Usama also provided the Taliban’s leadership with a broader, more internationalist understanding of the Islamic movement and the Taliban’s place in it, an understanding which would have had a significantly anti-Western element. The US-Taliban friendship was strained significantly when the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up in August 1998. The US accused Usama Bin Ladin of masterminding both incidents, without offering any evidence or proof. In frustration and anger the Clinton administration attacked Afghanistan and Sudan with hundreds of cruise missiles to kill Usama and destroy his alleged training-camps. The US demanded that the Taliban hand Usama over to them, but they refused.

Two events, which took place almost simultaneously in autumn 2000, resulted in an almost complete rupture of relations between the Taliban and the US. The first was the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada, which began on September 28 after a visit to al-Aqsa Masjid by Ariel Sharon, then defence minister, now prime minister of Israel; after almost a year of oppression and the killing of hundreds of civilians, Israel was to find that it had failed to subdue the intifada and needed to divert the world’s attention from its atrocities by declaring that the intifada is terrorism. The second was the attack on an American navy ship, the USS Cole, in Aden harbour in October 2000: 19 sailors were killed and the ship nearly sank. This is why the US decided to respond to growing Muslim assertiveness, and the destruction of the World Trade Centre provided a perfect opportunity to blame Usama, to blame the Taliban for giving him sanctuary, and so to attack Afghanistan, regardless of who was actually responsible, which may never be known.

Having decided to replace the Taliban with a more friendly government, the US forced General Pervez Musharraf to cut all ties with the Taliban and provide access and bases for the US military by threatening to send Pakistan back to the “stone age” – the chilling phrase first used in the context of the US’s attack on Iraq in 1991. The General had often said that supporting the Taliban was in Pakistan’s “national interest”, but the combination of threats and promises of aid for his military government, and of a potential economic windfall, persuaded him to change his stance. For the westernised Pakistani ruling elites, when ‘personal interest’ is at stake ‘national interest’ is always sacrificed. Without consulting his people, neighbouring countries or the OIC, Musharraf acceded immediately to every US demand. It was obvious that an effective defence of Afghanistan could have been mounted only from Pakistan. Once Pakistan opened the gate, the wolf ate all the lambs; there is now a growing sense in Pakistan that it is looking hungrily at the gatekeeper.

The Taliban withstood the US’s aerial attacks for a month, raising hopes that they would follow the Islamic and Afghan tradition of struggle against all odds, thereby making Afghanistan a graveyard for both superpowers. Even the US was concerned that it had nothing to show its people for a month of carpet-bombing of civilians, and was resigned to having only a toe-hold in Mazaar-e Shareef before winter set in. All reports suggested that they were thinking of restarting the military campaign next spring.

But after Mazaar-e Shareef fell on November 9 under heavy US bombardment, it appears that the Taliban panicked and decided to vacate almost the whole country, consolidating their strength in the southern region centred on Qandahar and hoping to fight on from there for a long time. Without being attacked by the Northern Alliance and without firing a single shot, they retreated so fast that even the US was surprised, and their supporters, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, were deeply disappointed. The main reason for this collapse was that the Taliban’s CIA-ISI crutches were abruptly pulled, which had propped them up since the mid-1990s, and on which they had looked as if they were standing tall. The old Soviet-style ground war that they and everyone else had been waiting for never materialised.

Instead of fighting directly, the US kept tightening the noose around the Taliban by NA forces on the ground and carpet-bombing from the air. The main difference between the Soviet attempt to occupy Afghanistan in the 1980s and the brutal US-imposed war now is that then the Zionist/US-government bought, bribed, threatened and browbeat almost all the factions, tribes and militias within Afghanistan to focus and fight with a single enemy, the Soviet Union. Similar support was extracted this time by repeating the same process internationally. However, this time the focus and target of the US and its allies was the Taliban, a rag-tag militia. To be fair, the Taliban may have been a force within Afghanistan, but to expect them to fight any conventional army was unrealistic, much less fighting the US forces with their high-tech weapons and enormous logistical support. The crucial difference is that then the Soviet forces were defending the status quo in the form of a communist regime, while the mujahideen were fighting at any time and place convenient to them, with worldwide support. This time the Taliban were defending the status quo and a worldwide coalition was against them. However, in Allah’s scheme any outcome is possible no matter how weak and small a group is, if its conduct is according to His guidance.

The Taliban’s own limitations

Another misfortune was that the Taliban had made no friends and were completely isolated because of the failure of their diplomacy, and because of their intolerance of anybody’s criticism, no matter how positive, constructive or well-meant. Before and during the war, Taliban supporters listened to news from around the world but discovered that not one country or government was supporting them. The only country to oppose the US’s attacks on Afghanistan was Islamic Iran. On hearing the Iranian government’s statements of opposition to the US’s attacks, the Taliban and their sectarian friends in Pakistan should have been bowed down with shame. It was too embarrassing to acknowledge that their only friend was the one against whom they had never got tired of raising the slogan of “shi’as are kafirs“.

The difference between a true Islamic leader and one who puts on an Islamic garb temporarily has also become clear. On the last day, December 6, while Mullah Umar was exhorting other Taliban to fight to the last man, he himself was busy planning his own escape. After handing command over to a shura he quietly slipped away, probably making a separate deal with the Northern Alliance. This left all the ordinary Taliban and their foreign supporters to the dubious mercies of the savage Northern Alliance and US forces. Muslims of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent proudly remember the 18-century Tipu Sultan as a symbol of courage, whose uncompromising stand against the devouring English army in the face of defection and intrigue made him a hero. Mullah Umar, when the time for shahadah came, exposed his true colours by running away.

Such is the fate of those who come to power not on the promise of Allah but on the shoulders and tanks of the CIA, ISI or other agency of Islam’s enemies, and who build the foundations of a government or state on sectarianism. Many Muslims are disappointed by the Taliban’s defeat because they confuse the issue: opposing US policies and its attack on Afghanistan does not automatically mean support for the Taliban, just as opposition to US occupation of the Arabian peninsula does not necessarily mean support for the illegitimate Saudi monarchy. It is the Muslims’ continuing tragedy that those who raise the banner of Islam to fight against taghuti powers and oppressors are themselves generally suborned by them.

Despite all this, there are signs all over the world that Muslims are becoming more assertive and imbued with the spirit of jihad, no matter how much the West tries to equate it with terrorism, as the only way to liberate Muslim lands and (more critically) Muslim minds from the clutches of the West. But we need to remember that jihad is not limited only to active warfare; its other components, particularly the intellectual, are equally important, indeed critical, to mount an effective challenge to western hegemony and exploitation of our our thoughts and perceptions. Hence events in Afghanistan and Palestine serve to differentiate genuine Islamic movements, causes, leaders and supporters from the ones who for opportunistic purposes try to put on Islamic garb. This refining process will insha’Allah gradually strengthen the Islamic movement everywhere.

Dr. Perwez Shafi is associated with the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought in Karachi, Pakistan.

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