On a gun and a prayer

The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan

by Peter Marsden

Oxford University Press, Karachi/Zed Books, London & New York, 1998

pp x+162, PKR 395

ISBN 1 85649 522 1

Peter Marsden's book on the Taliban helps unravel some of the chaos in Afghanistan, and provides lessons for a Subcontinent awash in jingoism.

After two decades of conflict, Afghanis wanted peace, and some security. It was hardly surprising then, that in the October of 1994, "a small group of students from religious schools decided to rise against these leaders in order to alleviate the sufferings of the residents of Kandahar Province". There was no lack of recruits for the cause, as the Taliban marched onwards. Before the appearance of the young, fervent warriors in white turbans, a typical Taliban recruit would have been attempting to eke out an existence on a farm, and hoping that Allah or a miracle would intervene to alleviate his miseries. Put a gun and a cause in a man's hand, combine it with a promise of regular food and hope, and you have a winning combination.

The mujahidin government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, which came to power after the Soviet troops withdrew, was itself a minority government purporting to replace the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Because of the constant power struggles within the mujahidin, they lost face with the people, especially in the Pushtun belt, leaving the way open for the Taliban to create a popular movement.

Despite the stability the Taliban brought to lawless provinces like Kandahar, they are regarded as extremists because their views on how women should live are considered radical by Western standards, and indeed by much of South Asia's. It is little consolation to a young Afghani girl who wants to grow up to build bridges and dams to know that the Taliban has banned female education until such time as a "suitable curriculum" is developed

Their time-line depends on how quickly they can rule the entire country, because that is their primary objective. It has taken the Taliban more than four years to form an Islamic state with law and order, and they have no illusions regarding the difficulty of the venture. Their ambitions lie only within Afghanistan's borders. The movement is clearly puritanical in nature, and this has served to alienate some of the international community, mainly for its treatment of women and their obsession with destroying television sets and video tapes.

Peter Marsden's book on the Taliban helps unravel some of the chaos in Afghanistan. With clarity and precision, backed by a masterful rendering of the country's chequered history, he shows us the Taliban as they are seen by international agencies, by regional powers, by rural Afghanis and urbanites in Kabul and Herat.

Drawing no great conclusions, or predictions for what lies ahead, the author presents a balanced analysis of the current situation. He discusses the divergence of perspectives on gender and other issues, both within the Taliban and the humanitarian agencies interacting with them, and shows that inconsistencies from both sides have intensified the sufferings of this beleaguered population.

Marsden lays out very clearly the choices that humanitarian aid agencies have faced during the past few years. As Unicef did with their education programme, the aid agencies can stop their activities. Or, as Save the Children Fund (UK) did in Herat, they can suspend them. But, they can also, after expressing concern about and drawing attention to the human rights violations, continue to operate on the grounds of severe humanitarian need. There are grave implications to be drawn from each course of action. When dealing with a force like the Taliban, who are preoccupied with military matters, the aid agency needs to realise that the authorities may not particularly care whether it stays or not.

The temptation will be there,  given the obvious extreme intolerance, for an agency to pull out, and divert its resources to a population which might appreciate its efforts more. But at the end of the day, if the   situation is so bad that the aid agency cannot make things better for the suffering population by pulling out, then the agency should stay.

International media coverage of the situation in Afghanistan was mixed in the 1980s, they fed us a diet of simple stories of the glorious freedom fighters: the mujahidin always made it to the evening news as they mauled the Soviet army. In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet government, the mujahidin became power hungry and fratricidal reactionaries. Things got more complex. Then, as often happens, the media lost interest. Now, largely due to their extremist puritanism and simple aims, the Taliban have succeeded in gaining back Afghanistan's share of international media spotlight. The Taliban have also gained all the positives and negatives that go along with increased and constant scrutiny of a conflict.

Newspapers in neighbouring South Asian countries usually report on the Taliban in one of several ways. Pakistani newspapers lament the "gun culture" that was perpetuated two decades ago by the conflict in Afghanistan and which supposedly has now turned Karachi into gangsta paradise. They also laud the "Warriors of God" for their efforts towards changing the face of the next generation of Muslims, who will be brought up by mothers in hejab. Indian coverage, on the other hand, tends to exhibit a thinly veiled paranoia regarding Pakistan's supposed ambition to create an Islamic bloc which would stretch from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan all the way to Central Asia.

Given such prejudices in reporting, this book becomes essential reading for media, academia and the general public. Furthermore, it is a good case study of the self-fulfilling prophecy of the "clash of civilisations" Jingoism and extremism in the Subcontinent, we now know, has an equal and opposite reaction. It is contagious and spreads across borders to polarise societies that have already enough and more problems to cope with.

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