In the two-month period from October 7 to December 7, the Taliban’s world has been turned upside down; from controlling more than 90 percent of Afghanistan’s territory they were forced to surrender their last stronghold of Qandahar to tribal elders on December 7. Whether the Taliban survive in any form at all is not critical; what is important from the Islamic movement’s point of view is to examine the Taliban phenomenon and what lessons can be derived from their experience.
It would not serve much purpose to go over details of the military conflict; these are well known and incidental to our discussion. What we need to consider are the circumstances leading to the emergence of the Taliban, why they appealed to some Muslims – at home and abroad – and what lessons can be derived from their experience as they went about trying to build a state structure. First, we must be clear about one basic point: regardless of the events of September 11, the US attack on Afghanistan was expected. Enough information has emerged to establish that the US had planned much earlier to attack Afghanistan; only a pretext had been lacking. It has more to do with US geostrategic and economic objectives than the alleged crimes of Usama bin Ladin or his Taliban hosts. A recent book (Bin Ladin: La Verite Interdite; ‘Bin Ladin: The Forbidden Truth’), by two French writers with close links with French intelligence, sheds light on this.
While the US has not provided convincing evidence of Usama bin Ladin’s involvement in the attacks on September 11, it continues to act as if its self-serving allegations constitute proof of his guilt. The Taliban were even more removed from the event, since not one of the alleged perpetrators of the September 11 attacks was an Afghan: so there is and was no justification under any law – western or other – for the US to attack Afghanistan. The US-led attacks constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the words of Francis Boyle, professor of International Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US. Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT has also given a similar opinion.
Theoretically all this sounds good, but the world obviously does not really operate on the basis of legality; as far as the US government is concerned, only might is right. Who is going to pursue America’s rulers to bring them to justice, and which court of law in the world will entertain a case against them? In 1984, when Nicaragua won a case at the World Court against the US mining of its harbours, Washington simply refused to accept the court’s authority. With no warships or cruise missiles at its disposal, the court could not enforce its verdict. So, regardless of the merit of the Taliban’s case against the US, there is little they can do under the present world order. Similarly Israel, India and Russia continue to brutalize the Palestinians, Kashmiris and Chechens respectively without any constraints – legal, moral or military. All this is well known. East Timor gained “independence” from Indonesia because it is a Christian majority area and the West wanted to cut Indonesia down to size. No such help has been forthcoming for the Achehnese, who have suffered far more at the hands of successive Indonesian regimes.
But we need to consider the Taliban from another perspective. Were they a government or a movement, or both? They were certainly not a political party in the conventional sense, as many Islamic parties in the Muslim world are; their “backwardness” had made them immune to such divisive constructs of the West. The Taliban emerged at a peculiar time in Afghan history: the failure of various Afghan factions to establish even a modicum of stability in the country after the defeat and retreat of the Red Army from Afghanistan. They fought bloody feuds against each other until the Taliban emerged to sweep them away. The much-touted Northern Alliance was bottled up in the North, from where they shelled the outskirts of Kabul but posed no serious threat to the Taliban’s hold on power. The Alliance’s disparate groups are also not united by anything but their hatred of the Taliban. Along came the US in search of mercenaries; the Northern Alliance were more than willing to oblige.
When they first emerged from their base in Qandahar in late 1994, the Taliban made impressive territorial gains, but much of their success was owed to their ability to appeal to various commanders, rather than fighting them. But it must be said that, not being a political party, the Taliban also enjoyed a certain degree of flexibility. As a government they were not very successful, concentrating on the small things (beards and burqas) rather than understanding issues of good governance by providing relief to their traumatized people, but such failures did not cause their misfortune directly. For instance, it would have made not an iota of difference how they treated women, provided they had been willing to become pawns in America’s geostrategic and economic plans. After all, Saudi Arabia treats women just as harshly, yet it is a trusted US ally (or was until recently ).
The Taliban had other qualities as well; their simple down-to-earth lifestyle appealed to many Muslims around the world. As a movement, they were open, hence willing to accommodate others in their midst. Since the Taliban had little to offer materially except hospitality, those who came from outside, especially from the Middle East, Pakistan and as far afield as Indonesia, did not do so for a free ride; rather, they were motivated by ideals of Islamic brotherhood and defending an “Islamic Emirate”. In fact many of them, especially from the Middle East, had gone there during the war against the Soviets. Their own governments (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait etc.) were glad to get rid of these troublesome young Muslims and thought most of them would get killed there; they also believed that the war in Afghanistan would never end, at least not with the defeat of the Soviet Union.
Depending on how much the Taliban have maintained themselves as a movement – their leader, Mullah Omar, did not abandon his base in Qandahar throughout the Taliban’s five-year rule – they may yet emerge from the coils of their current predicament. This depends partly upon their ability to exercise influence on a significant number of people. If this happens, they will be a source of trouble for any future government installed by outsiders. Few Afghans take kindly to outside meddling in their affairs. Nor would the disparate groups, brought together under US prodding to form an interim government, last very long. They have been bribed into agreeing to a future arrangement that is tenuous at best.
But the Taliban phenomenon can only be properly understood with reference to their origins in the Pakistani madrassas and their links with the Pakistani military establishment. While trained in madrassas, their activities were financed by the Saudis and Kuwaitis, and blessed by America and Britain. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) acted as coordinators for this enterprise. The Americans had despaired of the various mujahideen groups because they failed to restore peace and stability in Afghanistan, not because the Americans cared for the Afghans but because it frustrated their designs to build a pipeline from the Caspian Sea/Central Asia to bring oil and gas to South Asia. At first the Taliban were not only welcomed, but US congressional records for 1997 and 1998 show that Washington actively cultivated them, hoping that Afghanistan under the Taliban would become another Saudi Arabia. It was only after the Americans realized that the Taliban were not so pliant that they decided to destroy them.
The Taliban’s madrassa upbringing gave them a degree of independence lacking in western-educated Muslims, yet they suffered from a major weakness: sectarianism. True, all Muslims are the product of sectarianism of one form or another, but not everyone remains its prisoner; some are able to transcend these barriers to see a larger vision of Islam. The madrassas of Pakistan are not equipped to provide that kind of enlightenment. It is not only their outlook on women, but also their attitude towards other Muslims who do not share their particular interpretation of Islam, that is at the root of this problem. The narrow mindset nurtured in Saudi Arabia, with rigid interpretations of Islamic principles, have led to their denunciation of other Muslims as kafirs (unbelievers, infidels). It is not surprising, therefore, that a nexus developed between the Saudis and the Taliban through the madrassa system in Pakistan.
Equally worrying was the Taliban’s reliance on the ISI. Within Pakistan, there is great reluctance to address this issue openly. The ISI and the military establishment as a whole are treated as sacred cows. No discussion of their role, or of the great influence the US exerts on Pakistani affairs through them, is allowed. Even when Pakistan-US relations were at an all-time low, contacts between their militaries continued almost normally. There were frequent visits by senior US Central Command officers to Pakistan. It is important to note that upon assuming power in Pakistan, one of the first persons general Pervez Musharraf contacted was general Anthony Zinni, then chief of the US Central Command.
As a creation of the ISI, the Taliban could only operate at their pleasure. There is something to be said for the Afghans’ spirit of independence, but their close links with the ISI, and therefore the US, have been primarily responsible for their present plight. Indeed, one could go a little deeper into history: the mujahideen’s close involvement with and reliance upon the US during their struggle against the Soviets was ultimately responsible for their undoing as well. The Northern Alliance and the southern Pashtoon tribal leaders currently doing America’s dirty work in Afghanistan will also soon discover that Washington cannot be trusted as a friend or ally. In fact, US policy is predicated on the extreme cynicism with which it uses others as cannon-fodder to advance its own agenda, and then abandons them. Unfortunately, many Afghans are not averse to being bought and used by outsiders.
For the Islamic movement, the Taliban experiment yields important lessons. First, a movement must transcend sectarian, tribal and nationalist barriers in order to be called Islamic. Some of the opposition the Taliban faced within Afghanistan from the disparate groups could have been neutralized if the minorities – Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Turkmen – had been accommodated in some kind of a dispensation. This the Taliban failed to do. More counterproductive was their sectarian outlook. This is something their friends and supporters in Pakistan must also share the blame for. Sectarianism is a scourge like tribalism and nationalism: it is easily exploited by outsiders. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the most heartening examples of non-sectarian behaviour are demonstrated by Hizbullah in Lebanon and by Islamic Iran. Both have won praise from Muslims worldwide for this quality.
And now to the more touchy subject of getting involved with military establishments in the Muslim world. One must distinguish between being a Muslim and being committed to Islam; the two are not necessarily the same thing. The rank and file of all the armies in the Muslim world are Muslim, but it is simplistic to assume that they are automatically committed to the goals of Islam. The military establishments are in fact the most pernicious purveyors of secular values in Muslim societies because of their greater contact with the outside world and their need for western-manufactured weapons. The Muslims’ experience with their armies is grim: in Egypt, for instance, the Ikhwan were used by the Free Officers to seize power, but then decimated once they (the Free Officers) had achieved their objective. The armies in Turkey and Algeria have been used to crush the legitimate aspirations of Muslims. In Sudan, Muslims have had a similarly unfortunate experience. The list goes on.
In Pakistan, the higher echelons of the army are staffed by officers who invariably have Washington’s approval. If an Islamically-inclined officer reaches anywhere near the top, he is soon isolated and weeded out before he can influence the thinking of the military establishment. The Afghans in general and the Taliban in particular have found this out at great cost. The Taliban experience is particularly instructive: they were abandoned at the most critical juncture by those whose policies they had advanced since their emergence on the scene. And this was done for the sake of a country, the US, whose policies have caused great harm to Muslims in the last 50 years.
The most crucial test for the Taliban will be whether they are able to survive as a movement now that they have been eliminated as a government. Muslims are required to live in an Islamic state, but if it is destroyed then their Islamic identity must find expression in the movement. The Taliban may be able to appeal to a core group of supporters, but this may no longer be on the basis of Islam; rather, tribal affiliation is likely to be the motivating factor. This is clearly a weakness, as it will divide them from the non-Pashtoons. Even among the Pashtoons, however, there are tribes that have been bribed by Washington to fight against the Taliban. Equally powerful will be the desire of the Pashtoons in Pakistan to avenge the Taliban’s defeat, for they will see this as a personal slight. The rebirth of tribal nationalism will surely prove costly for Pakistan once Washington washes its hands of Afghanistan and its quarrelsome tribal leaders.