The Talibs

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Assuming the war with the Soviets would be a long drawn out one, CIA funded many of the Madrassahs through the ISI in the 80s as a future source of recruits. The Soviets packed up from Afghanistan far earlier than anticipated, Talib detachments with the various Mujhahideen factions went home or back to the Madrassahs to continue their education. Pakistan did not really try convincing the Americans about their post-war responsibilities. Having seemingly defeated a Superpower by themselves, the then ISI bosses did not want the US to disturb their vision of a crescent of Pan-Islamic Countries. This naked individual ambition has contributed to the problems of this region today, the perpetrators still hiding behind “Islamic” garb and unbridled rhetoric as a convenient smokescreen. Only too happy to oblige, the Americans abdicated as paymasters in further financing the war or the peace to follow. Our then military rulers were not unduly worried, after all the muslim world, led by the rich Arabs, would move in with massive funding, or so they thought! The net result, no post war plan for Afghanistan, arrangements for economic aid and / or political rehabilitation, even in the pre-planning stage.

During the Junejo civilian interregnum, the Foreign Office took Afghanistan back from the ISI and signed the Geneva Accords, but Gen Zia frustrated his own “civilian experiment” by unceremoniously showing PM Junejo the door in 1988. The ISI were then trapped into attacking Jalalabad, a vain attempt at obtaining military glory on the cheap, sending others to their death for “the cause”. Maj Talat, an ISI cover officer in Kabul, had gone to Jalalabad to arrange for the burial of Bacha Khan (Wali Khan’s father) who wanted to be buried there. The large movement of troops and heavy equipment he saw on the road to (and in) Jalalabad alarmed him enough to flash a message to HQ ISI. The large garrison at Samarkhel having surrendered earlier, HQ ISI was on a high and not listening. A majority of the hard core Mujhahideen veterans of the Afghan War were decimated. Has anyone ever enquired about this bloody debacle and the man responsible? Ahmed Shah Masood, veteran of many “private” cease-fires with the Soviets, kept his Tajiks out of harm’s way and struck a deal with mercenary Uzbek Rashid Dostum, whose “Jumbish” militia (from Mazar-i-Sharif) was already in Kabul propping up Najibullah, to take control in Kabul, de-facto seat of government. The Mujhahideen had literally fallen apart, fighting each other as fiercely as they had fought the Soviets, the commanders becoming warlords in the territories they ruled over e.g. Ismail Khan became Governor Herat, Mullah Naqib Kandahar, Mullah Rabbani Jalalabad, etc. Lesser commanders simply became brigands, blocking roads and imposing “taxes” at will. Absolute lawlessness ruled the land, rape, loot and pillage became the order of the day.

The new Afghan Armed Forces became an amalgam of elements of the Soviet trained Afghan Army and lateral entries from the Afghan Mujhahideen. Most of those inducted were Tajik and Uzbek loyalists of Defence Minister Ahmed Shah Masood (the actual man in power), this alienated the majority Pashtuns. Holding the major cities and the military bases around the country, Masood abandoned the countryside to the Mujhahideen-turned-bandits. The withdrawing Soviets left a vast surplus of defence material, particularly tanks, fighter aircraft, helicopters and ammunition of all kinds, greased and packed in crates.

With Masood increasingly hostile, his troops stood by as a mob set the Pakistan Embassy on fire, the Benazir Government in 1994 mandated the ISI to help the traders secure a route for Central Asia through Kandahar and Herat to Turghundi. Unwittingly Ms Benazir acted as a midwife to the birth of the Talibaan. A convoy of Pakistan trucks was intercepted by the local Mujhahideen Commander in Hilmand alongwith the accompanying ISI operatives. When the Governor Kandahar Mullah Naqib expressed his helplessness, ISI requested Mullah Zakiri, who was in Quetta, for help. A small group of Talibs led by a relative obscure religious preacher Mullah Umar, who had lost an eye during the Afghan War, freed the convoy. Welcomed as saviours, the Talibs replaced Mullah Naqib. Hundreds of Talibs from all over rushed to join the Talibs in Kandahar. With Kandahar in their control Mujhahideen from the other factions and even entire units of the Armed Forces defected to the Talibs. The world could not believe that these country yokels, now known as the Talibaan, could handle sophisticated weapons. They concluded these were Pakistani skilled personnel despite the fact that Soviet origin equipment (except for MI-8 helicopters) is not in use in Pakistan. For their own individual selfish purposes some ISI officers, started the myth that Pakistan created the Talibaan, this damaged Pakistan no end. True that Pakistan has been giving money and material support, far cheaper than to have refugees costing many times more for their upkeep.

The Talibaan restored law and order by clearing the roadblocks of all bandits and disarming everyone not in the new militia. Fed up of years of lawlessness and atrocities, the population welcomed the cleanliness of Talibaan governance. Provinces fell without firing a single shot when the local commanders came over to the Talibaan side. Fully 90% of those called Talibaan were not Talibs and have never been Talibs, many have never been to any school or Madrassah. The Talibaan ultimately took over control of Kabul in 1996 from Masood, his forces withdrawing to the safety of his native Panjsher Valley. Masood was brave but parochial in looking only after the Tajik interest. This myopic vision created anarchy in all of Afghanistan except Kabul, a set-piece environment for takeover by the Pashtun-dominated Talibaan. Mazar-i-Sharif changed hands a couple of times before Rashid Dostum fled.

Enter Osama Bin Laden in 1996! A rich kid, educated well and sophisticated in his ways. Osama is in sharp contrast to Mullah Umar, a rustic, brought up by a stepfather, ignorant of the world outside Afghanistan, in fact outside of Kandahar. In awe of Osama, Mullah Omar was ripe to be “cultivated”, it seems Osama did exactly just that, pandering to Mullah Omar’s ego by raving about his “holy” qualities, proclaiming him as the “Chosen One”. To strengthen the bonds, he married Mullah Umar’s sister, marrying his own son to Mullah Umar’s daughter. He took control of Mullah Umar’s personal protection, using Arabs almost exclusively as a form of Praetorian Guard. He stroked Mullah Umar’s ego as well as his fears. Every time the world accused Osama Bin Laden about terrorism, this “western lie” further strengthened his standing as “a muslim among muslims”. History is replete with such instances, the most famous being Rasputin. The Talibaan fluctuated between extreme and moderation when they came to power, their radicalization into absolute obscurantism began only after 1998 when Osama acquired almost absolute power in Kandahar, engineering what amounts to a palace coup. About the only ones left with some independence to air some dissent were the old Mujhahideen commanders like the late Governor of Jalalabad, Mullah Rabbani (he died of cancer in March), most were commanding field troops: far away from Kandahar. The Talib technocrats controlling the centres of power and administration are mostly from Kandahar, some like Foreign Minister Mullah Mutawakil have not even seen the Afghan war.

Mullah Umar, and by extension Osama Bin Laden, has complete control. This absolute authority of Mullah Umar is tailor-made for Osama Bin Laden to exploit, to radicalize Islam at his will and make his distorted version official (and in doing so distort the western world perception of Islam). He has cleverly and neatly dovetailed anti-Americanism into religious protest. Osama has hijacked an entire nation and as his cult power in the streets grows, not only aspires to hijack our entire religion, he threatens as well to hijack the entire future of 1.8 billion muslims on this earth.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).

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