On 8 April, the United Nations Security Council condemned the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan for a whole host of misdemeanours—for continuing its military offensives in the country’s north with Ahmad Shah Massoud, for not handing over Osama bin Laden to the United States, for the deteriorating humanitarian situation within the country, for promoting drug cultivation and trafficking, for its “unacceptable” human rights record, and in particular the “continuing grave violations” of the rights of Afghan women and children.
Sitting in New York, the Security Council threatened more sanctions against Kabul, in addition to the freezing of Taliban assets and the embargo on the national airline Ariana, which were imposed in November. The current President of the Council, the Canadian foreign minister, went so far as to call the Taliban a “criminal gang”.
If more proof was required to confirm Afghanistan’s pariah status beyond the fact that the Taliban government is recognised by all of three countries, this action by the world’s most powerful security body was it. Propelled by American displeasure over the refuge provided to bin Laden, who stands accused by the US for the bombing of two of its embassies, the Taliban regime does indeed have an image problem. This problem is intensified by an international media biting at the regime’s heels, focussing on the Taliban as representative of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’.
And yet, whether the outside world likes it or not, the authority of the Taliban leadership within Afghanistan has for a few years been a fait accompli. The fact is that more than 90 percent of the territory of a country that was exploited by the cold-warriors and ravaged by civil war is firmly under the control of the Taliban mullahs. A modicum of calm and security prevails in the devastated land. However, the religious leadership which has found itself at the helm of affairs of this historically fractious land now faces the daunting task of delivering ‘governance’ whereas till now their focus has been military victory and internal security.
As the Taliban authorities try to begin to address themselves to the difficult task of socio-economic development, the world—overwhelmingly critical—must try and go beyond the caricatures to understand who the Taliban are, what they represent, and the context within which they operate. This is something that neither the international nor the regional media has been up to. The land and people of Afghanistan deserve a better audience than they have received thus far.
Like most realities, the Taliban phenomenon manifests the complex with the simple, the positive with the negative. Hidden behind the veil of censure of numerous governments, human rights organisations and sections of the international media, who the Taliban are and how they rule is mostly an untold story. Having created, in its earlier days, a generally harsh and inhospitable environment for visitors and having adopted the policy of banning television, among other things, the Taliban’s posture amounted to self-imposed isolation. Matters have since improved. Yet inevitably, extremely negative perceptions remain. Meanwhile, in the war of air-waves, a voluntary walkover is handed to the critics.
Today’s internal Afghan reality is a cumulative outcome of that of yesterday’s. Undoubtedly, the 1979 Soviet invasion triggered all that was to follow to this day, but many others contributed to the process of making a political pariah out of Afghanistan. Most of those who contributed to this have, of course, walked away—some to the safety of distant shores or to that world we know nothing about. Some are busy making Afghanistan more misunderstood still, but the rest—and this means the bulk of the Afghan people—yearn for normal times.
The country’s recent history needs no recall. Back in the 1980s, prompted by a mix of blatant power-play compulsions, inorganic ideological considerations and geo-strategic calculations, the Soviet Union and the United States dedicated full attention and immense resources to various anti-Kabul groups. Pakistan, too, placed itself in the triple role of the beneficiary of US military and economic support, the benefactor of the Afghan mujahideen groups fighting Kabul, and the host for millions of Afghan refugees. In the 1990s, an unravelling began.
Defeated, the Soviets exited from Afghanistan and their beneficiary, Dr Najibullah, too made his departure after ruling Kabul from 1989 to 1992. (When the Taliban finally stormed the city in 1996, the communist Najib was dragged from his UN refuge and publicly hanged from an electric utility pole.) The fall of Najib’s government in 1992 was marked by a phase of destruction, devastation, social anarchy and inter-mujahideen betrayal which wreaked havoc on the Afghan people. If the 1979 Soviet invasion had triggered defiance among the Afghans, now there was only revulsion.
While spoils were being fought over in Kabul, the Taliban were consolidating their presence in the Kandahar region to the south. In their first major mission in 1994, they captured an arms-ammunition depot belonging to Hezb-i-Islami chieftain Gulbadin Hekmatyar, at Spin Boldak, a town near the Pakistani town Chama. In November of the same year near Kandahar, the Taliban again made news when they released a Central Asia-bound Pakistani convoy from the grasp of local warlords. By 5 November, they had taken over Kandahar. The Taliban were now charting their own territory, different from the other mujahideen factions along with whom they had fought the Soviet-backed Kabul governments. Among the fractious political-cum-military clusters which made up the mujahideen, the Taliban constituted the one united grouping.
The fact that the Taliban were welcomed in many provinces, by locals as well as commanders, points to an estrangement from the mujahideen rulers. Such was the psychological impact of the Taliban’s easy advance from Kandahar towards Paktia, Gardez, Logar, Sarobi and Kabul, that some people believed that these fighters of Islam had the ability to bodily deflect bullets. In other areas, like Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban gained control through both fighting and defection of opposition commanders.
The current post-Soviet, post-mujahideen phase has left only two effective political forces in Afghanistan: the Taliban and the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud. While both generally enjoy people’s goodwill, they are vastly unequal. Besides the seat of power in Kabul, the Taliban controls up to 90 percent of Afghan territory, whereas Massoud has retreated to the Panjsheer Valley, controlling about 10 percent of the countryside. He remains a force to consider mainly due to his skills as a guerrilla commander, the backing of locals, and external military and economic support.
Massoud was unable to maintain his ethnic combine called the Northern Alliance, and he has lost disenchanted commanders to the Taliban. On the other hand, there have been only minor dissensions in the Taliban ranks since they started out from Kandahar. Despite the domination of Kandaharis within the Taliban leadership, in the provinces it has managed an ethnic collage that has enabled it to extend and retain influence in even the far-flung non-Pushtun provinces.
Absurdly, the United Nations continues to recognise the Jamiat-i-Islami leader Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani as the president of Afghanistan. A search would locate Rabbani today in Tajikistan, Iran, or his hometown of Faizabad in the Tajik-speaking Afghan province of Badakhshan, bordering Pakistan.
Whatever the international community’s stance on who should be ruling Afghanistan, it is the Mullah Umar-led Taliban government that controls and administers the country. The exasperation of Kabul’s rulers with the international community’s refusal to recognise their legitimacy is reflected in the outburst of Mullah Jaleel Akhund, Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister and an influential member of the Kabul shura by which major decisions are made. He says: “I think the world’s faulty understanding of Afghanistan and its inability to fully understand our problems is perhaps the biggest factor that is preventing the government of Afghanistan from solving the problems of the people. Does the world not know that the government of Afghanistan controls 95 percent of the territory and the capital Kabul is also with us? How then can 5 percent people, the opposition, be confronting us?”
The Taliban government faces the tough task of administering a state that has rarely, beyond four or five provinces, boasted of a Western-style state structure. Instead, the Afghans have always lived with central administrations which delivered minimal social services but guaranteed peace and stability. Authority and legitimacy of this organic system has derived from tribal traditions and practices.
The present-day government, too, has earned its staying power from this particular Afghan context, which is buttressed by five factors. They are: the continuing hold of tradition; the exit of the majority of Western-educated elite; a largely-destroyed physical infrastructure; an invasion and war-triggered reactive socio-political mindset of the overwhelming majority of the Afghans; and, an economic situation that has virtually no institutional link to international capital and structures. For these reasons also, it has been possible for the Afghanistan regime to remain outside the internationally-certified norms of ‘acceptable’ state behaviour. The absence of an aid-dependent mindset allows the Afghan leadership the freedom of not linking key decisions to donor receipts and goodwill. At the same time, this inward-looking attitude keeps the government from generating some succour for a cash-starved, poverty-struck people.
It is true that the men who control about 90 percent of Afghanistan today seem to be largely content with the fundamentals of their own traditional and madrassa-tutored worldview and with the kind of government they have given the population. This worldview is not acceptable even to Afghanistan’s Islamic neighbours, who regard the banning of women from the workplace and from educational institutions as un-Islamic. As for much of the West and the Afghan expatriates living overseas, the Taliban may as well be cave-men.
However, the fact is that the Taliban authorities have changed their conduct in certain areas and have indicated that they are not as violently fixated on extreme social conservatism as has been made out by world media. The adjustments that have been made are those which do not violate the Taliban’s interpretation of underlying Afghan traditions and Islam. These changes, while provoked by necessity, have also been presented with some backing of logic.
For example, the move away from the position of banning television is presented as “starting television in Afghanistan when enough good quality programmes can be produced”. Despite reports of extreme rigidity, there has been movement in the very gradual easing of controls on women, the granting of diplomatic immunity to UN staff, permission for head-to-toe burqa-clad women to drive cars, acceding to the UN demand for placing human rights monitors in Afghanistan, and in the replacing of antagonistic rhetoric against the countries hostile towards it with a proclaimed readiness for dialogue and peace.
Being in government, it could not have been otherwise that the Taliban’s views and practices would become gradually moderated. And more opening up is inevitable, due first and foremost to the internally secure situation and also to external influences. The only factor that would put Afghan society once again in reverse gear is another major military or political upheaval.
On the move
The Taliban seem now to be actively seeking constructive engagement with the world. Although not as ‘Government of Afghanistan’, the Taliban do sign and honour agreements with UN agencies for humanitarian work. They have been regularly sending ministerial-level delegations to various countries, conferring with the representatives of international aid agencies inside and outside Pakistan, and are also beginning to open up to the international media. According to the external information cell in the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the last 12 months, 330 journalists visited the country. Says a foreign office official, “We go and tell them of our present reality and hope that they will understand us better.”
For a group that is considered reticent and xenophobic, Afghan officials have been on the move, attending an increasing number of seminars and conferences away from home. The Chief Justice recently went to Budapest for a 19-day conference on organised crime, while officials of the Ministry of Water and Power went to the United States for meetings with the UNOCAL consortium (Union Oil Company of California). In March, the Deputy Minister for Public Health, Mullah Abbas Stanakzai, went to Nepal for a conference on public health. Mullah Rabbani, the president of the Council of Ministers, recently visited the Gulf states, while the minister and his deputy in the Foreign Ministry have visited numerous European as well as regional countries including China. While international travel need not itself be an indicator of more openness, in the case of Taliban Afghanistan, it is.
The Taliban authorities maintain that their willingness to engage critics extends to even the most complex of questions. They mean, obviously, the “Osama” matter, for the presence of the belligerent Saudi, Osama bin Laden, in a hideout in Afghanistan has seen unprecedented and unrelenting media interest over the past few years. And it is not as if the Afghans have their head in the sand—more than half a dozen direct talks have been held in Pakistan (mostly in Islamabad) between the Americans and the Taliban on the Osama issue over the last four years. There has been at least one visit to Afghanistan by a US Congressman.
The Taliban have asked the Americans for evidence against Osama, upon receipt of which they have given the undertaking of having him tried in their shariah court. No breakthrough is presently imminent, because the Taliban government will never accede to the one-point American demand that Osama be surrendered to Washington. It is unlikely that any government in Kabul—let alone Taliban—will give in to such a demand given the extra premium that Afghan tradition places on ‘hospitality’ and ‘loyalty’. Says Mawlawi Abdul Raqeeb, Minister for Repatriation, Martyrs and Disabled, “It is not a personal matter, it is a matter of our principles—religion, faith, jihad and hospitality. No one dare violate any of these.”
The Afghans realise, of course, that there is a price tag attached to their position on Osama. According to Deedar, a prominent Taliban commander and a former captain in the army of the late Sardar Mohammad Daud (king Zahir Shah’s cousin and brother-in-law, who deposed him in a bloodless coup in 1973), the Osama problem has been of no help to them, leading to American sanctions as it did. But he nevertheless defends the government’s position: “We told the US that Osama will not create any problem against the Americans but the US has not understood what is to their own advantage. If Osama goes to any other country he can do whatever he wants, but here we have stopped all his activities and he can carry out no operations.”
Mullah Jaleel, the deputy foreign minister, had more things to say on the Osama matter: “Osama is, I guess, here. Osama’s whereabouts were known to Saudi Arabia and America all along. We made a commitment to the world that from our territory Osama will never undertake any terrorist act. Today he is under our complete control. He has no wireless system, he has no telephone and has therefore no communication with the outside world. He is a helpless, harmless man. The US should be thankful to us. They had themselves encouraged and practically helped him to engage in jihad.”
On the US demand that the Taliban simply hand over Osama, the minister is categorical, “The Americans have unilaterally declared him a criminal and so cannot give him a just trial. Handing over Osama to the Americans goes against our tradition, religion and spirit of hospitality.”
Mullah Jaleel then gives the argument a twist: “I ask the West what justice is it that they have kept a saitaan in their own country, made him their special guest and turned him into a hero for his crime of blasphemy.” Bending forward, the minister says, “You know, I am talking about Salman Rushdie.”
When outsiders superficially accuse the Taliban of imposing alien ways on the Afghan public, especially religious extremism and ethnic exclusions, they fail to realise that it is the Taliban’s very ability to understand, accept and assimilate the organic ways of administering Afghanistan that has made them such a sustained success. The Taliban’s influence and control over a majority of the provinces is directly linked to their ability to keep the population and especially the tribal leadership satisfied. The success has been in maintaining peace and security, and providing livelihood opportunities to the population (in agriculture), without disturbing the tradition-bound practices.
The significance of social peace and security for the Afghans must be understood against the backdrop of the 20-year war. Outsiders fail to fathom what it means to the average Afghani that their country has a semblance of stability after so many years of mayhem and terror.
It is also important to note that the Taliban leadership has demonstrated an ability to correct its mistakes in matters both large and small. For example, in February, under great public pressure, the governor of Paktia province (southeast of Kabul, bordering Pakistan) Abdullah Aga Kandhari was replaced by Mullah Shafiq, another Kandahari. Abdullah Aga had failed to appreciate the local traditions including the power of the jirgas (tribal councils) and their khans (chieftains), and had started distributing state land in Khost to outsiders. Intelligence reports were despatched by representatives of the Ministry of Interior to Kandahar, and Aga was removed. He now heads the Afghan Red Crescent Society.
It is true that the traditional consideration shown to women was replaced in many instances by the exploitative attitude of some mujahideen fighters, but there are also examples of correctives applied by the authorities. When a widow refused to allow a mujahid fighter marry her young daughter, he did so forcibly, saying, “We fought a 11-year jihad for your safety and you won’t let me have your daughter!” He married her, only to leave her after a week. Three years later, the mother got permission from the local Taliban leader to remarry her daughter, a decision that an outsider would not normally ascribe to those who rule Kabul today.
Ministers and soldiers
Having managed over the last three years to bring relative calm to the countryside and security to the people, the Taliban authorities are now confronted with the challenge of long-term governance. The population requires the government deliver on multiple fronts: rehabilitation of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced refugees; reconstruction of infrastructure destroyed during the years of warfare; rehabilitation of the agricultural system; revival of whatever minimal industry possible; and, the provision of basic amenities like food, water and health services.
There are also a vocal few who are calling for the introduction of quality contemporary education. They want an end of the government-dictated curriculum and restoration of higher studies. Although girls up to the age of eight can avail of education, it remains generally banned for women, and the 2000 women sent packing from the Kabul University by the victorious Taliban want to return.
There are also subdued voices making the forceful case that the authorities need to focus on objectives more consequential than the size of a man’s beard and the strict enforcement of the full-length burqa as opposed to the head-covering chador. Although some women working in the health sector have been allowed to return to a segregated work environment, many working women still sit at home receiving a percentage of their previous salaries.
The public’s expectation, combined with the context within which the Taliban government is now operating, pose a four-dimensional challenge to the government. There is the ongoing land battle with Ahmad Shah Massoud in the north; the need for social, economic and political reconstruction of state and society; the need to confront international demands and pressures; and, finally, to entice the skilled and resourceful Afghans who have gone into Western exile to return. These challenges require a skilled and sophisticated response, and the big question is whether the Taliban government has it in itself to respond.
To seek an answer, it helps to recall that the Taliban government is made up of a rag-tag army of devoted madrassa-educated Talibs, led by men who are in ministerial chairs one day and in battle-front-bound Hilux trucks the next. It is difficult to imagine these battle-hardened men having the skills to govern the country in the long run, in peacetime. To provide perspective, it amounts to the same as getting a few hundred people, completely unexposed to either the world of governance or television, from a remote village of North West Frontier Province or Balochistan, and asking them to run Pakistan. At the very least, Pakistan would have a bureaucratic system that is not war-ravaged as is the one in Afghanistan. The fact is the Taliban leadership has no experience in managing modern institutions, nor in engaging with hard-core economic and social development issues, or foreign policy.
It was during the Soviet invasion that these (at that time-) young men of Afghanistan began streaming into madrassas in Pakistan, in cities like Karachi, Akora Khattak, Faisalabad, Multan and various parts of the NWFP. This was made possible as a result of a conscious decision by General Zia-ul-Haq, who guided the establishment of even more madrassas so that more religiously-motivated men would emerge to fight the jihad against the Russians. The madrassa syllabus included learning the Quran by rote, interpretation of the Quranic scripture, Islamic jurisprudence, life of Prophet Mohammed, philosophy, mathematics and a weak smattering of modern subjects.
All the madrassa graduates sport long beards and wear shalwar-kameez. (None speak English, and the interviews with the leaders for the purpose of this article were done in Urdu and Pushtu.) They have virtually no experience in interacting with women outside the immediate family. They have been taught that the dictates of Islamic morality and social peace require the shariah to be enforced and sunnah, the way of the Prophet, be followed. Photography is un-Islamic and photographers are haraam, which is why the camera-based world of television and movies are to be strictly avoided. So also for music. They believe that it is the state’s responsibility to enforce hadood punishments for theft, adultery and killing. Riba (the interest or usuary forbidden in shariah), too, must be banned. Above everything, however, the Taliban believe that the state must provide for the poor and the destitute in society. All this broadly constitute the worldview of the Taliban—forged as it was in what the Taliban see as the moral decline and suffering that accompanied the mujahideen resistance against the Soviets.
Many among the Taliban leadership are unable to contextualise ‘power’ using conventional measures: they comprehend it simply with reference to their level of personal courage and determination to engage an adversary. In keeping with their own exposure, they have a curiously straightforward and uni-dimensional view of politics and people, issues and events. For example, in August 1998 when the danger of an Iranian military offensive died down, a Taliban commander Amin Qudrat was heard to exclaim, “Thank God, He saved the Iranians from our wrath!” Such a sentiment, of course, was completely oblivious to the reality on the ground: Iranian forces were heavily massed along the Iran-Afghan border from Nimroz to Herat, in response to which the Taliban had to transfer 30,000 soldiers then engaged on the frontline with Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The ingenuousness of the Taliban fighter was also illustrated at the height of the Pakistan-US problem over the delivery of F-16 fighter-bombers, which had been held back due to sanctions. An earnest Talib leader told a Pakistani diplomat that Islamabad had been extremely patient: “Look, America had taken so much money from you and still you have not got your planes. If they had done this with us we would have attacked them by now.” It was clear that he had no comprehension of what his suggestion entailed—not even of the physical distance between his country and North America.
When the US fired guided missiles over Pakistani territory, aimed at Osama bin Laden’s retreat in Afghanistan, a Pakistani diplomat in Jalalabad went to inform Maulvi Abdul Qabeer, the acting president, that the missiles had landed near Khost. The bewildered maulvi responded, not understanding that the missiles had been meant for Osama, “What does America want from me?” Deciding to retire for the night, he added, “Anyway I will think about it in the morning, I must sleep now.”
The lack of exposure to worldly matters was obvious in a decision taken by the governor of Jalalabad, Maulvi Kabeer. When he took over the town, he asked someone what went on at the engineering university in Jalalabad. Upon being told that it was “Engineer Hikmatyar’s place”, he decided that it must be producing his followers and so ordered the place to be shut down. It was only when he later learnt about the university’s educational priorities that the maulvi ordered its re-opening.
Another anecdote has a Pakistani official telling a Talib leader that the world had congratulated Islamabad for its nuclear tests, but there had been nary a word from Kabul. To which the Talib leader responded, “We do not believe in empty congratulations. You tell us when you are going to liberate Kashmir and you will find us marching ahead of your forces”.
In Delhi or Washington DC, such verbal aggressiveness may become the basis for academic and policy conclusions that the Taliban are fighting the Kashmiri jihad, or even a global anti-Western jihad. But that would be analytical overkill, for the Talib leader, like so many of his colleagues, is informed by sentimentality, loyalty, a sense of injustice, and even unsullied anger. Before reading excessive motivation into their statements, outside analysts would do well to understand that the Taliban world is largely defined by their need to respond to Afghanistan’s internal social and political crises. In power, the obsession of the Taliban leadership is nationalism and reconstruction, not the CIA-ISI tutored global jihad. If the world continues to demonise the Afghan rulers as perpetrators of political, diplomatic and economic aggression, then it may well become party to bringing about that reality—of the Taliban living up to that image, and dangerously.
The kathak dancers
And so the world watches agog as news reports emerge from Afghanistan of street-level Talibs producing diplomats at police stations for being clean-shaven, objecting to women occupying the front seat in UN vehicles, confiscating newspapers carrying imagery, or removing cassettes from cars and unwinding them around the nearest poplar trunk.
But the fact is that the caricature of the Taliban is often true. In Kabul, certainly, there is some amount of compulsion at work in the harshness of the dictates, apparently used to demonstrate government control in the seat of power—a firmness required to keep the battle ranks intact. The Talib authorities feel the need to maintain religious fervour as a pre-requisite to keep alive the zest for martyrdom among the young Talibs who battle against Massoud in the trenches.
But behind this apparently harsh morality, there is also the traditionally fun-loving, quintessentially rural individual, whose personality is lost in the caricature. The guards stationed outside an embassy in Kabul regularly play the flute. In a small suitcase parked in the guardroom are stored Indian song cassettes, and videos of Naghma, the famous Afghan crooner. Recently, when some visitors wanted to see the movie Titanic, it was the Taliban guard who produced the video! At another location, after dinner time, a couple of Taliban guards were entertaining themselves performing the Kathak dance! Upon being discovered, they dashed behind a nearby bush. During our journey south from Kabul to Logar district, a government official urged us to play the cassette recorder lest we conclude there was no music in Afghanistan.
Shades of leniency have begun to extend into the public arena. When I walked about with a video camera, the people did not frown, but smiled. Most were more than willing to be filmed. Most ministers smiled when requested to pose for photographs, even though this was clearly against the orders of the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. The ministry’s representative at the Kabul Police Department allowed the photographing of police officials. Elsewhere, when a female reporter walked along the street with a young woman, the people barely noticed. While it would be ludicrous in other societies to try and give a sense of relative normalcy with examples such as these, such is the image of a ‘Talibanised’ Afghanistan that they do serve a purpose to deny the simplicity of the standard image.
The average Afghan, meanwhile, lives a life and awaits a better day. Driving from Jalalabad towards Kabul, incongruous scenes flash past—Kalashnikov-wielding Taliban soldiers rest by the wheat and poppy fields, while the village men, women, little boys and girls bend their back weeding.
Holy book as constitution
The struggle for Afghanistan remains a three-party dispute: the Taliban occupies centre-stage; Massoud is at the margins; and expatriate Afghans reside, a little loud, at the outer limits. In power now for five years, the Taliban leadership has to manage the dual task of keeping the Talibs flowing to the war front while at the same time administering the country as a whole. Mullah Umar, the Ameer-ul-Mumineen (Leader of the Faithful) of the Taliban, directs an elaborate government machinery with the help of two of his most trusted men, Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, the foreign minister, and Mullah Jaleel Akhund, his deputy. Sitting in Kandahar, he controls the area under the regime through the intermediary of his nominees. They variously occupy positions in a number of bodies: a six-member Kandahar-based shura, a six-member Kabul-based shura, a 23-member national Council of Ministers, around 40 deputy ministers, 27 governors for the provinces, and six corps commanders.
The Holy Quran is the Constitution of Afghanistan. Assisted by his Kandahar and Kabul-based shuras, Mullah Umar takes all the major decisions related to policy, administration and war matters. His farmans are the equivalent of presidential ordinances and are promptly implemented. All postings and transfers, from ministers down to director-general level, are ordered by Mullah Umar. Ministers whose performance is considered unsatisfactory, based on Mullah Umar’s information sources, are demoted to deputy minister or director-general. In military matters, too, based on advice from his commanders, Mullah Umar takes the final decision on strategic moves. All advances and retreats are based on his orders relayed to the front.
Given this system of governance under Mullah Umar, it can be said that, in its essence, the mode and structure of government operations in Afghanistan have not changed since earlier regimes. If earlier it were the kings or the Soviet-Union backed presidents whose diktats were the law, it is now Mullah Umar assisted by his shuras who exercise the authoritarian prerogative. While ministerial orders may be overlooked by local commanders, Mullah Umar’s word is law.
Despite all the destruction that it has suffered, and a partial and seasonal state of war, the Afghan state is a functioning one. There is a structure, and there are the line ministries, some of which certainly work better than the others. Three categories of staff run the government: at the top are the Taliban leaders, the middle are mostly the bureaucratic leftovers from the communist era, and at the third and lowest rung are the support staff. The Council of Ministers is said to meet weekly, and routine performance checks are conducted on functioning service outlets like health centres and primary schools by ministers and director-generals themselves. Decisions taken are relayed through the passing of orders known as tehreerat.
If the collection of duties on imports is seen as a sign of an active state, then the Taliban government collects duties at the centre as well as in the provinces. Passports are issued by the Ministry of Interior, and driving licenses by the traffic police headquarters—obvious enough for any country but deserving mention in the case of Afghanistan. Kabul’s highly-organised traffic system is manned by policemen in pants and shirts. The Ministry of Interior manages the police as well as a highly efficient intelligence network.
To enable state functionaries and the Taliban leadership to move around in Kabul during the curfew hours, a new password is issued every night by the Ministry of Interior. There are numerous Taliban-manned check posts and toll-tax booths along the road from the Khybher Pass via Torkham to Kabul. Meanwhile, efforts, though slow, are underway to inject academic life into the war-ravaged Kabul University. The main problem seems to be an acute lack of money.
The state continues to be the largest employer in Afghanistan. The Ministry of Education employs around 32,000, while the Ministry of Works and that for Communication have 12,000 and 4000 employees, respectively. With little in the form of income, the government salaries are very low, with the payscale ranging from as low as 100 to 3000 Pakistani rupees monthly. The obvious result is an unmotivated bureaucracy. As one mid-level official in the Ministry of Education says, “Can anyone survive on this? How will we feed our children, our families?”.
But whether it is at the Education Ministry, The Kabul Times newspaper, the Kabul University or the Kabul Police department, the atmosphere is thoroughly unprofessional. According to one aid agency representative who regularly interacts with the government, the ministries are working only at “5 percent efficiency”. Part of the reason is that the ministers and deputy ministers have to spend a significant amount of time up at the front.
There is clearly some realisation among those in power that demands of administration and public service are not being met. In order to address these problems, much of which emanate from the lack of funds, the obvious advance has to be in terms of more openness towards the donor community. Prompted by pragmatism, in this area at least, the change of attitude is abundantly visible. The Taliban now regularly invite representatives of international agencies to business luncheon meetings at the Kabul Inter-Continental—quite a departure from the old days when the same individuals would maintain that foreign agencies and ngos were not at all required. Some of the ministers have even gone so far as to receive women delegates from foreign donor agencies. Even the more reluctant ones such as the Deputy President of Council of Ministers, Mullah Hasan, have been convinced by his deputies in the Ministry of Repatriation and Planning to meet with the lady director of the agency CARE, who came by recently. In agreeing with the entreaties, Mullah Hasan laid the condition that there would be no other exception to the rule.
The Kabul government’s decision to celebrate 8 March 2000 as International Women’s Day illustrates the Taliban’s resolve to adjust to new realities so that at least they will be able to engage the donor community. The order that women may not leave their homes on their own is no longer operative. The men from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, now keep a low profile compared to the past when they would regularly check, and beat men with short beards and harass women without the appropriate burqa or the dark-coloured socks. Meanwhile, to protect female chastity, Talib guards sit armed in small vans monitoring male movements in the women-packed bazaars around Kabul’s Bagh-i-Omoomi.
Only three countries have recognised the Taliban government—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But it is only with Pakistan that the Kabul government has anything close to normal relations. However, Islamabad’s ability to support them is circumscribed by its own bleak economic situation and increasing political isolation. Some military support from Pakistan must also be going to the Taliban, but the fact that they have not yet been able to defeat the Massoud forces indicates the extent of this support. There are around two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan (another one million in Iran), and thousands of Afghans have by now been assimilated into the Pakistani economy.
As for Taliban’s equation with India, relations can be described in three letters: n-i-l. India, like the UN, recognises the deposed president Rabbani, while the former president Najibullah’s family is believed to be living in India. The Taliban leadership believes that India militarily supports their rivals like Massoud and Uzbek Commander General Rashid Dostum. For a brief moment, during the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight and the extended standoff at Kandahar, there was some indication that India might engage diplomatically with the Taliban. However, it is clear that that expectation has not carried through.
The old private sector Afghan-India trade ties continue, but at a much depleted level. A Delhi-based Indian who was waiting for some papers at Kabul’s Foreign Ministry said he continues to import dry fruit from Afghanistan via Pakistan and Dubai. “Of the two to three hundred licensed Indian traders, I am the only one left. Others got scared and withdrew,” he says. He notes that the Taliban government did not cancel the trade licenses when it came to power, and that UN sanctions forbidding the national airline Ariana from flying abroad made the trade extremely difficult.
Overall, the Indian government seems to believe that the Taliban may not have the staying power, which is why it is not engaging the Kabul government. At the same time, it could also be that New Delhi will not be able to sustain its allegations of Islamic terrorism, which the strategists in New Delhi use, if there were a rapprochement with Kabul.
The Taliban’s onward journey as the government of Afghanistan is bound to be a precarious one. Faced with the unfinished battle with Massoud, political skirmishes and minor uprisings, acts of attempted sabotage in Kabul, and an unabating propaganda war in the international press, the Taliban leadership has not been able to open up its top ranks to the skilled expatriate Afghans whom it so desperately requires for the skills they have.
The wave of migration to the West began with the ouster of Najibullah in 1992 and the subsequent closure of educational institutions. While the mass of destitute refugees are holed up in camps in Pakistan and Iran, skilled Afghans have found easy sanctuary in the West, with the US and Germany having been particularly generous in granting asylum. According to an official with the UNHCR, the refugee agency, at least 200 Afghans continue to fly out every week from Karachi and Islamabad in their onward journey to the West. The first problem in returning for this capable category of expatriate Afghan professional is political, but it is compounded by the problems of social conservatism and lack of economic incentive.
There is, then, the critical battle-front with Massoud. He has refused the Taliban’s offer of a cabinet position if he accepts Mullah Umar as the head of government. Massoud gets his military support from Russia, Iran, India and also minimally from Tajikistan. He also gets some help from the Tajiks in the Panjsheer area. Meanwhile, the support of ethnic groups like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras for the Taliban is limited.
The challenges before the Taliban government—of social progress, economic development and fighting a war—are daunting. However, perhaps because of their religion-fronted zeal, a sense of pessimism or frustration is absent, and the officials appear zealous in tackling the colossal tasks of reconstruction and rehabilitation. As one minister told a UN Special Rapporteur, “We had our own priority, our country was to be divided into various parts, and our first priority was to ensure our country’s unity. Now we will work in other areas.”
Principally, the Taliban are now engaged in a security maintenance operation. But on the more complex task of governance, of delivering basic amenities to the people and ensuring an environment within which they can earn a livelihood, the government is crippled because of lack of funds and skilled hands. The support being provided through the humanitarian UN agencies and foreign ngos is extremely limited in comparison to what is required.
The state functions at a rudimentary level, mainly because the modern institutions of higher education, of science and technology, of business and commerce, of judiciary, and so on, have been destroyed. In the area of judiciary or basic trade, some institutions continue to work along traditional lines, capable of undertaking simple and uncomplicated tasks like holding jirgas, implementing shariah edicts—or importing cars from Japan.
Given the sociological upbringing of the Taliban, their adjustment to the world of governance will be nothing short of radical. But, for the Taliban government to truly evolve, the external pressure upon it has to ease, even as the Taliban themselves have to streamline and loosen their orthodox systems. The Taliban are necessarily a transient phenomenon; they are as relevant for today’s Afghanistan as they will be irrelevant to a future rehabilitated Afghanistan. At least in their present form and texture.