Lifting the Veil on Afghanistan
Bumping along in a dilapidated bus on a dusty road in October 1997,I could barely see through the mesh of the all-concealing Afghanburka I wore. But I was at least as excited to be enteringAfghanistan as my companions, some Afghan-American friends who werereturning to their native country to visit family. Unlike them,however, this was my first trip inside, for even as a U.S.government analyst specializing in Afghanistan, I had neveractually been able to visit the country. I was doing so now only bytaking annual leave and spending several thousand dollars of my ownmoney to sneak across the border from Pakistan.
Yet even for my Afghan friends, this trip was a new experience, fortheir family had only recently returned to Paghman, a westernsuburb of the capital, Kabul, from a Pakistani refugee camp. Theyhad been prompted to move back because they were pleased by theTaliban militia's capture of the area in September 1996. Theyclaimed that the reason for their cheer was that the Taliban hadrestored order, in contrast to the "chaos" that had prevailed underthe previous mujaheddin government. But the real reason for theirhappiness was revealed in the gleeful gesture one of them wouldfrequently make, blowing on his open hand to emphasize how deftlythe Pashtun Taliban had ousted the largely Tajik government fromthe capital. His joy had little if anything to do with the way thecity and country had been governed by the former rulers, andeverything to do with his euphoria over his own Pashtun ethnicgroup being back in charge.
Even more telling, perhaps, was that this friend and his family hadbased their perceptions of pre-Taliban rule not on first-handexperience, but on what they had heard from others. Their attitudesalso obscured their vision of the present, so that they seemed notto notice the teenage Taliban soldier who boarded our bus midwaythrough the journey and ordered the passengers around to his whim;or the bribes we paid along the way; or the informant network setup by the Taliban secret police, so pervasive that we had to cutshort our visit once word got out that the family was hosting aforeigner.
In this way, my friends were like so many others, including today'spolicymakers, whose view of Afghanistan is based more on mythscirculating outside Afghanistan's borders than on the realityinside. This favoring of fiction over fact has not only caused thesituation in Afghanistan to go from bad to worse, it has alsorepeatedly misled American policymakers. Perhaps nowhere else dosuch myths prevail as strongly as on the subject of Pashtuns inAfghanistan, related particularly to the legends surrounding theTaliban, bin Laden's involvement there, Pakistan's role, and apost-Taliban future for the country.
The Taliban Myth and Afghan Realities
Chief among these legends is the how-and why-of the Talibanmovement itself. Briefly, the story of the Taliban's rise goessomething like this: after ousting the Afghan communist regime frompower in 1992, a government of mujaheddin-some of whom are now inthe opposition United Front-took over and promptly fell to fightingamong themselves. An era of lawlessness ensued throughout theentire country, characterized by widespread looting, rape, murderand general mayhem. Out of this chaos emerged the Taliban, a bandof religious students and teachers (Taliban means "religiousstudents" in Arabic), including some former mujaheddin, in theKandahar area of southern Afghanistan.
At around the same time, so the story goes, the Taliban's leader,Mullah Mohammed Omar, had a dream in which God instructed him tobring order across Afghanistan. The Taliban's ranks rapidly swelledas people-weary with lawlessness and war-rallied to the militia'sside, or at least did not resist its advances. The Taliban thenmade rapid gains across Afghanistan, spreading order through theirstrict and uncompromising interpretation of the Quran, their onlyobstacle being a band of ethnic and religious minorities holdingonto a mere sliver of the country.
Mullah Omar may well have had such a dream, but the rest of thestory is wild exaggeration that warps attitudes toward Afghanistanto this very day. What really happened is at the same time lessdramatic and more germane to the country's future.
Prior to the Taliban's rise, various regional administrations withconsiderable autonomy held power throughout Afghanistan: that ofIsmail Khan in western Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostam in thenorth, the Shi'a Wahdat party in central Afghanistan, the IslamicState's government in Kabul and the northeast, and the EasternCouncil in the four eastern provinces. Almost immediately after thecollapse of the Afghan communist regime in 1992, these variousgovernments began to provide services, particularly in the area ofeducation, that the Taliban have never been able to match.Certainly none of them introduced the draconian, delphic and oftenbizarre edicts that typify Taliban rule.
The main areas of disorder in pre-Taliban times were relativelyfew. These included the roads linking the Pakistani border withKabul and Kandahar, the city of Kandahar itself, and occasionallythe city of Kabul. Even in Kabul, however, the worst disorderstemmed from the constant barrages of rockets supplied by Pakistan,often launched in salvoes of hundreds per day, first by the forcesof Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and then by the Taliban. This, combined witha siege by the same forces, made it difficult for the Kabulgovernment to devote sufficient resources to internal security andestablish stronger links with other Afghan regional governments.Yet despite such difficulties, schools and offices inside Kabulcontinued to function throughout this period, with the activeinvolvement of females.
Furthermore, the mujaheddin who took power after 1992 realized thatthe lawlessness that prevailed, especially around Kandahar, wasunacceptable. Then-governor of the western provinces, Ismail Khan,for instance, tried to resolve this problem as early as 1993, andthen-Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Masood provided funds to theTaliban in 1994 when the militia claimed that its only purpose wasto restore law and order. It is particularly significant that theseefforts were made even though the billions of dollars in foreignsupport that had aided the mujaheddin in war had almost completelydisappeared once they attempted to make peace. Their Talibanopponents, however, have been consistently well-funded fromnumerous foreign sources, particularly from Pakistan and pro-binLaden sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf.
Once in power, the Taliban established only a façade of security.Although murder and rape had occurred in Afghanistan prior to theTaliban's arrival, UN and U.S. State Department human rightsreports indicate that such atrocities increased dramatically inscale and organization after the Taliban took control. Thesedocuments relate that the Taliban separated women and girls fromtheir families "by the truckload." A woman who escaped severalmonths after she was kidnapped reported that she had beenimprisoned by Taliban soldiers and repeatedly raped. A recentdefector from the Taliban has reported that pro-Taliban mullahsinside Afghanistan would issue Taliban soldiers "temporary marriagecertificates" to encourage them to rape women during battle.
By contrast, an American journalist who lived in Kabul during muchof the reign of the mujaheddin from 1992-96, relates that the lawand order situation invariably improved when front-line pressuressubsided and soldiers could be tasked with keeping order instead offending off invaders. Indeed, far from bringing peace, the Talibanhave brought war to areas of Afghanistan that had been relativelyuntouched, such as the city of Mazar-e Sharif. And this is not tomention the Taliban's wanton destruction of the 1,400 year-oldBuddha statues in Bamiyan province.
The Pashtun Stew
So if not through the establishment of much-desired order, how thenwere the Taliban able to convince others to join their movement?How did its leaders facilitate defections from within opponents'ranks? Though the Taliban are best known outside Afghanistan fortheir harsh ideology and for their harboring of Osama bin Laden,the movement capitalized initially on the fact that its members arepredominantly Pashtuns. But not all Pashtuns are created equal inthe land of the Taliban. They do not comprise a homogeneous group;they are more like a boiling ethnic stew.
The Taliban are primarily-almost solely-a movement that draws itsleadership from among the Pashtun tribes of southern Afghanistan. Acommon complaint from Pashtuns elsewhere is that the Taliban uselocals to gain territory and then push them aside in favor ofoverlords from the south, especially from the Taliban's Kandaharheartland. Thus, while Pashtuns in other parts of the country,including in such northern areas as Mazar-e Sharif and Konduz,proved crucial to the Taliban's victories in those places, theyhave not fared particularly well under Taliban rule. Fortunatelyfor the Taliban, the movement has proven successful in crushing theresultant dissatisfaction, for instance, by assassinating thePashtun governor of Kunduz province and arresting other commandersand their men on the verge of defection.
Even southern Pashtuns, however, have not always willingly joinedthe Taliban. The same Taliban defector mentioned earlier relatesthat he and many others he knew from the Kandahar region werecoerced into joining the Taliban. In his case, the Taliban hadarrested and refused to release his grandfather until the familyagreed to send a man to join the Taliban's ranks. In my own travelsthrough non-Taliban areas of Afghanistan, I have met numerousPashtuns who have suffered under the Taliban's rule and fled fromit. These people report that the Taliban are not the pro-Pashtunparty they expected, but instead are increasingly dominated anddriven ideologically by foreign extremists, particularly Pakistanisand Arabs who care little more for Afghanistan's Pashtun populationthan they do for any of the country's other ethnic groups.
Yet disaffected Pashtuns have been unable to overthrow the Talibanfor a variety of reasons. For instance, when the Taliban take overan area, they make it a top priority to disarm the population. Andwhile some dissident Pashtuns from the south have journeyed to theUnited Front's northern stronghold seeking weapons, their effortsare stymied by the opposition's own chronic supply problems. Whenuprisings have occurred, the Taliban have been able to quickly moveadditional soldiers into the area to crush them. Finally, would-bedefectors were deterred in the days immediately following U.S. airattacks because Washington failed to send a clear message that theTaliban would be overthrown. It conducted few strikes at targetsthat could have seriously weakened the Taliban's forces on theground.
While Pashtuns comprise the largest single ethnic group inAfghanistan, they make up only 38 percent of the population. Tajikscome in second with approximately 25 percent. The remainingpopulation includes Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkomen, Pasha'i, Nuristanisand others. To argue that it is natural that Pashtuns shoulddominate all the others-a situation possible only by dint ofrepression-ignores the ethnic realities of the country. Itparticularly ignores the realities of the last two decades, whenthese other groups learned to enjoy considerable autonomy andacquired the capability to defend themselves. Also relevant is thefact that the United Front, in terms of party composition, hassignificant Pashtun representation, with two predominantly Pashtunfactions, but only one each of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.
Osama bin Laden's Role
Even before the Taliban's pro-Pashtun image had begun to fade, themovement found a powerful ally to redirect its outlook beyondAfghanistan. In June 1996, Osama bin Laden returned to Afghanistanfrom Sudan and initially settled in Nangarhar province, a region ofthe country that was neutral in the war between the Taliban and theKabul government. The Taliban first established contact with binLaden in September of that year when the militia took overNangarhar. Taliban officials evidently forged close ties with binLaden, for the ex-Saudi soon moved to the Taliban's headquarters inKandahar.
From that point forward, the Taliban became increasingly lessinterested in southern Pashtun domination of Afghanistan and moreoriented toward extremist international Islam. A case in pointoccurred in 1997, when Taliban leader Mullah Omar forced a planecarrying the leader of Tajikistan's Islamic resistance, AbdulloNuri, to land in Kandahar. Nuri was returning to Tajikistan inorder to form a coalition with members of the former communistgovernment with whom he had been at war since 1992. Omar encouragedNuri not to compromise, but instead to establish a base inTaliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan in order to continue thebattle for the establishment of a "pure" Islamic state inTajikistan.
Nuri demurred, but other Central Asian opposition groups readilyaccepted similar offers from Omar, particularly the IslamicMovement of Uzbekistan (IMU). (The State Department has designatedthe IMU as a foreign terrorist organization because of itsinvolvement in several hostage incidents, including one involvingfour American citizens.) Many of the Taliban's foot soldiers alsoexpress internationalist aspirations. A Pakistani prisoner-of-warheld by the United Front has stated that although he harbors nopersonal hatred toward the people of the United Front, theirresistance must be eliminated in order for the Taliban to establisha "secure base for jihad", including operations against the UnitedStates and Israel. Even Osama bin Laden has become more radicalduring his time with the Taliban, issuing in 1998 his most extremefatwa urging his followers to kill Americans everywhere.
The Taliban leadership has also echoed elements of bin Laden'sideology, calling on U.S. forces to leave Saudi Arabia, for Israelto receive a "tooth breaking response", and threatening,pre-September 11, that if the United States again struck at binLaden targets, the Taliban would "retaliate with full force." Thusthe Taliban are not "harboring" bin Laden out of the Pashtun codeof hospitality to a former enemy of the hated Soviets. After all,others fitting that description, such as a former Wahdat partyleader, have been killed while under the "protection" of theTaliban. Instead, the Taliban are sheltering bin Laden first andforemost because of a shared worldview, best exemplified by themutual assistance they provide one another: safe haven for binLaden, money and men for the Taliban.
The aspect of contemporary Afghanistan that is perhaps the mostdangerously misunderstood concerns Pakistan's role as a perceivedAmerican ally in the region. In fact, Islamabad's involvement hasbeen so contrary to Washington's interests in Afghanistan that Iranhas become America's most practical ally against bin Laden, becauseit aids the only active resistance to his forces. Pakistan, on theother hand, has been the chief supporter of bin Laden's Talibanbackers. Without Pakistani support in the form of money, militarysupplies, advisors, fighters and even some regular troops, theTaliban could not have achieved power, nor would bin Laden have hadthe sanctuary from which to plot against Americans.
Islamabad has consistently tried to install governments inAfghanistan that not only protect its interests, but would also bethe most malleable to them. It has taken pains to ensure, forinstance, cheap transit routes for Pakistani trade links-for bothlegal and smuggled goods-to Central Asia, and to create thestability that the laying of lucrative pipelines for Central Asianenergy resources requires. Most of all, however, Pakistanifundamentalist groups and their sympathizers within Pakistan'sgovernment, particularly its military and intelligence services,share bin Laden's and the Taliban's ideology, including itsanti-Americanism. Typical of this was a conference held innorthwest Pakistan in January 2001, in which members of theseparties and former Pakistani high government officials openlychanted "long live Osama."
Additional proof of Pakistani government sympathies are revealed bythose whom Islamabad has consistently supported for over twodecades in Afghanistan: the extremists. Notably, Afghan Pashtunmoderates have historically received little support from thePakistanis. Yet Pakistan's military dictator, General PervezMusharraf, has repeatedly claimed that his government wassupporting the Taliban because of their shared Pashtun ethnicity.The foreigners fighting within Taliban ranks paint a much differentpicture, however. A survey of Pakistanis captured by the UnitedFront shows that nearly 70 percent of such fighters arenon-Pashtun, and therefore must be motivated by a cause other thanethnic solidarity. When I interviewed them, these POWs (who alsoinclude Arabs and Chinese) claimed that they came to help theTaliban in order to acquire skills that would be helpful in a jihadoutside of Afghanistan, both against their home countries andagainst the United States.
The key to defeating an enemy is understanding him. In this, binLaden and his Taliban allies have already proven helpful. The CIAadmits that it was bin Laden who was behind the assassination ofUnited Front leader Ahmed Shah Masood just two days before theSeptember 11 attacks on the United States. Bin Laden likelycalculated that murdering Masood would decapitate the Afghanresistance just when the United States would need it the most. ButWashington has been slow to heed bin Laden's message: that thegreatest threat to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network-at least insideAfghanistan-lies with those who can physically oust it. The peopleof the United Front have been suffering from the atrocities of binLaden and the Taliban for years. They may be the only people in theworld who hate bin Laden more than Americans do. While only agenuinely broad-based coalition government representing all ethnicgroups, including southern Pashtuns, will be able to govern in apost-Taliban Afghanistan, one thing is certain: as long as theUnited Front is allowed to play a strong role, no foreign Islamistmilitants will be allowed on Afghan soil.
That the U.S. government has so much difficulty grasping this factshows that Washington has been listening a little too closely tothe Taliban's and bin Laden's allies in Islamabad. This is notsurprising given that Americans officials stationed overseas whoare tasked to monitor Afghanistan are based primarily out ofPakistan. Not coincidentally, the most negative media stories aboutthe United Front tend to come from the same place. Yet if wecontinue along this path of willful ignorance in the wake of morethan 5,000 dead Americans, it will likely prove fatal to many moreof us. Instead, we must strain to peer through the mists cloudingour vision of Afghanistan, lest we view that country no moreclearly than I first did through the veil of a burka on that busride many years ago.