Madrassa to madness. Revenge of the Pashtuns.

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid
Yale University Press, US & UK, 2000
ISBN 0-300-08340-8
USD 27.95

How did a ragtag bunch of madrassa students, largely reared in Pakistan, come to dominate over 80 percent of Afghanistan and essentially create the world´s most bizarre, brutal and backward Islamic state? Ahmed Rashid, who has covered Afghanistan for over 20 years, expertly recounts just how the Talibs, or religious students, were catapulted into the Afghan void of ethnic cleansing and religious persecution–and quickly proceeded to carry out their own ethnic cleansing and religious persecution.

With their one strategic victory after another, largely backed by Pakistan´s ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), the Taliban set about establishing a state that to date has none of the trappings of a state. Rashid illustrates how the Taliban, largely ignorant of Islamic and Afghan history, knowledge of the Sharia, the Quran or the modern Islamic world, are "caught between a tribal society which they try to ignore and the need for a state structure which they refuse to establish".

We learn, for example, that Afghanistan´s treasury is run out of tin trunks which the supreme leader, Mullah Omar, apparently keeps under his bed. The Taliban´s capture of Kabul, punctuated by the violent humiliation, castration and execution of the former puppet president Najibullah, led to the rapid transformation of the large, multi-ethnic city into an underdeveloped terrorised village. By replacing the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara bureaucrats with mostly unqualified Pashtuns, Rashid notes how government ministries largely ceased to function. Meanwhile, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, under a variety of charismatic and equally brutal commanders, continued to forge, break and re-forge alliances against the Taliban. As the battleground shifted to Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997, then to Bamiyan in the ensuing years, the grisly details of battle, and the slaughter of soldiers and innocent civilians alike are retold in harrowing detail.

The ongoing chaos came to symbolise the Taliban´s largely "secretive, dictatorial and inaccessible" decision-making process. Aside from recounting the seemingly endless public amputations, executions, and beatings, Rashid reproduces a number of Taliban decrees, particularly those relating to women, and other cultural issues. The Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, at the centre of this misogynist regime, not only forces women to cover themselves up from head to toe in the burqa and to remain indoors, but literally removed any remaining scrap of dignity from their miserable lives. It banned all forms of entertainment, including singing and dancing at weddings, flying of kites, and hanging of paintings, portraits or photographs in homes. Most recently, a group of visiting Pakistani football players was subjected to public humiliation and the shaving of their heads for the odious crime of wearing shorts at the game!

In retrospect, Mullah Omar´s rare public appearance in Kandahar in April 1996, where he appeared wrapped in the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed (an obscene gesture to many Muslims), seemed to firmly cement his position as Command of the Ignorant. Nor, given 20 years of civil war in Afghanistan, did it come as a surprise to learn that several of the leading Talibs were young, crippled, inexperienced and dumb. Or that they could break all previous records for carnage, particularly when attacking the inhabitants of Mazar-e-Sharif and the Hazarat. The Taliban additionally proved  themselves   iconoclasts extraordinaire when they blew apart parts of the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan in 1998, reducing 2000 years of Afghan heritage largely to rubble. The Sharia, it seemed, could explain everything, even why hashish (consumed domestically) must be forbidden, but why opium (consumed abroad by unbelievers) could rightfully become their most valuable cash crop.

Rashid, also the author of the acclaimed The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? has much to say about the Central Asian players, the multinational oil conglomerates, and the roles of the United States and Russia. For, the stability of the entire region, from war-ravished Chechnya to Tajikistan, from Iran to Pakistan, hinges upon Afghanistan. The Shiite Hazara, the Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostom, the Tajik Northern Alliance Commander Ahmad Shah Masud as well as the other Muslim jihadists and the wily Osama Bin Laden, are seen promoting their own self-interests, all of course in the name of Islam.

Indeed, the chapters on dictators pad oil companies chronicle how the best for pipeline routes led to Afghanistan becoming "the fulcrum of the first battle of the new Great Game", and reveal fascinating minutiae about the players, Unocal and Bridas, which adroitly manipulated governments on their own behalf, yet ultimately failed to construct the pipelines due to the continuing civil war. Oh yes, and the annoying fact that Western media eventually exposed the thuggish Taliban´s twisted and inhumane treatment of women, which in turn finally sparked US government concern.

Rashid neatly summarises the distinct phases of US policy (or  lack thereof) towards the Taliban, characterised, not surprisingly, by lack of focus and coherence. Meanwhile, as Pakistan grew more unstable, General Zia-ul Haq´s great dream of a "Pakistan-led bloc of nations" in Central Asia instead meta-morphosed into a military dictatorship abutted by Pashtun pockets of Taliban-like repression in the NWFP and Balochistan—with cinemas being burnt and satellite dishes smashed in Quetta. Rashid´s comprehensive analysis and extraordinary level of access to officials in Pakistan make it clear that, with its lethargic economy and complicated ethnic and religious mix, Pakistan too seems ripe "for a Taliban-style Islamic revolution".

Now that the Taliban´s current summer offensive against the Northern Alliance is well underway, Russia and the United States, at the time of writing, have called for new sanctions. Will the flow of arms into Afghanistan ever cease? While journalists, high-ranking UN emissaries, diplomats and oil barons continue to observe the endless forays, the malnourished wretches of Afghanistan suffer anew, with little hope of receiving desperately needed food relief before winter.

Much of the country´s impossible geography prevents distribution of supplies during the snowy season, and so the next few months are critical to the survival of both the last vestiges of resistance, and the population under the Northern Alliance.

Lack of humanitarian relief, largely hindered by the Taliban, has reduced most women in urban areas to veiled beggars, little more than black shifting shapes perpetually roaming the streets in search of food. Although the miserable statistics on education, hunger, and infant mortality are too depressing to print here, at least one can congratulate the Taliban for cracking down on highway robbery; after all, it is far better to live in terror and possess nothing than to live in terror and fear that something may be stolen. The stakes in Afghanistan are so great, the players are so numerous, that it seems hardly likely that stability will come to the region any time soon.

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