On the first floor of the dank, dark and frayed Ministry of Foreign Affairs here is a huge poster of a group of Afghan tribesmen playing buzkashi, the country’s wild national game in which horsemen skirmish for possession of a headless goat carcass.
Today, after 17 years of war in which more than a million people have been killed, six million have fled and the country has been reduced to shambles, Afghanistan faces its own “buzkashi scenario.” Many observers fear that the country’s militia factions, riven by seemingly intractable tribal and religious differences, will fight on indefinitely toward an uncertain finish – with the hapless nation itself becoming the goat’s carcass.
Once the fulcrum on which the final great battle of the Cold War was fought, Afghanistan and its vaunted mujahideen, the holy warriors who forced the former Soviet Union to quit the country ignominiously in 1989 after ten years, never paused to savor their triumph.
The nine mujahideen factions representing different tribes and regions of the country who had united to drive out the mighty Russians, promptly fell to annihilating each other in a civil war that has reached new depths in recent weeks.
Now the United States and the West, which largely ignored the civil war with an Afghans–will–be–Afghans attitude, have focused attention on Kabul as a mysterious tenth militia faction, the Taliban, has emerged from obscurity in the last two years to take control of two–thirds of the country, including the capital in late September.
The Taliban preach an almost medieval brand of Islam that sanctions on–the–spot executions for murderers, amputations for thieves and forbids women from working or girls from going to school. It started as a reformist movement led by religious students from the country’s dominant Pushtun tribe. It moved against various mujahideen factions that long ago had lost their holy warrior halos and become corrupt warlords. Along the way, however, the Taliban sacrificed much of the moral authority it initially accrued, with months of indiscriminate rocketing of Kabul and, recently, the wholesale destruction of villages under its control.
While seizing the capital enabled it to project an air of legitimacy and gain world attention, the Taliban seems to have reached its limits – ethnically, culturally and militarily. Firmly ensconsed in the northern third of Afghanistan are militia groups representing the country’s Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara minorities, which generally want to keep the nation on the road to modernization under a more benign form of Islam.
Meanwhile, the emergence of the Taliban has startled the region and made Afghanistan the venue for a new round of the “Great Game” – originally waged by Great Britain and Czarist Russia, then by the US and Soviet Union – fought by neighboring Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia and the new Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The Taliban’s success also has underscored a perennial danger in Afghanistan: that the country will be split, de facto, along a natural ethnic, linguistic and geographic fault line, with Pushtu speakers to the south and Farsi–speaking Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras to the north of the forbidding Hindu Kush mountain range. Such a dissolution of the Afghan state would further destabilize an already volatile region.
“What concerns me is that the country is in great danger of breaking up along ethnic lines,” says Theodore Eliot, former dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and US ambassador to Afghanistan from 1973–1978. “Aside from the tragedy that’s befallen the people of the country, the most worrisome factor is the possibility that the country may never be put back together again...It’s still possible, but it’s going to take an awful lot of diplomatic work, and a level of tolerance that doesn’t seem to now exist in Afghanistan.”
In Kabul these days, the temperature is getting lower as winter approaches, and the misery index is getting higher, if that is possible. The combined forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Rashid Dostum, leaders of the main factions opposing the Taliban, have massed just north of the city and are shelling it regularly, perhaps as the precursor to an all–out attack.
But much of the capital already has been destroyed, reduced to rubble by rocket attacks from one faction or another, mostly over the past four years. United Nations workers here say the scale of destruction is much worse than in Sarajevo or Beirut. At least 25,000 families out of Kabul’s 1.2 million people are headed by war widows, officials say.
It is a brown city, with barren hills and mud houses. The streets are still filled with people, but most are sullen. Beggars work with an uncommon sense of urgency. The air reeks with the smell of dust, burning wood, backed–up sewers and exhaust fumes from cars running on cheap diesel fuel.
A few traffic cops are visible, but no policemen as such. The Taliban is the law, as evidenced by the ubiquitous, speeding patrols of Taliban soldiers. They are packed into the backs of pickup trucks, dressed in full battle regalia, fingers on the triggers of their AK–47s, bandoliers filled with bullets slung over their shoulders. Few look older than 18.
Markets are busy and goods are bought and sold with a hyperinflated, largely worthless currency. Twenty–five years ago, one dollar was worth 100 Afghanis; today it is worth 15,500. The Taliban gets some credit from Kabulis for increasing the supply of basic foodstuffs at the bazaar and reducing prices somewhat. Others praise it for restoring a measure of stability and security to the country. “They stopped the stealing from the people,” said Mohammed Arif, 45, a shopkeeper. “We can’t call the other factions mujahideen. They were burglars.”
But more residents seem fatalistic about the probability of continued war or are sharply critical of the Taliban.
“Peace will never come to this country,” said Habibullah, a 23–year–old cigarette vendor who, like many Afghans, uses one name. “They will keep fighting forever.”
Shir Mohammed, 55, a cook and waiter whose son was killed by a rocket while walking down a Kabul street three years ago, said: “There are so many problems in this country, anyone with any money wants to leave and go abroad. At first, people welcomed the Taliban. They stopped looting and restored order. But now people have turned against them. They come into houses and snatch boys for their army. They won’t let girls go to school. Women can’t work. Many women have no husbands because they’ve been killed. How will they live?”
Added Khalid Muftoon, a 19–year–old student: “The people here have no life...We are living in the computer century, but the Taliban want to take us back to the dark ages. We can’t be modern. We have nothing but disgust for the Taliban.”
At Kabul University, which has been “suspended” by the Taliban after being closed most of the last three years by heavy shelling and fighting, Chancellor Amir S. Hassanyar is worried about the future.
“It’s a very crucial time for our country,” Hassanyar said. “Kabul University is so important to our future that if the university dies, so will the country. The university has been the symbol of intellectual development and the symbol of national unity.”
During the Cold War, part of the university identified with the Soviet Union, the other part with the United States. The American–educated Hassanyar said he has resisted pressure from various militia factions to change the curriculum and separate men and women. But it’s hard to run a university in a war zone, especially one now straining under a new brand of intolerance.
“When we opened again in March of 1995, we had to start everything from scratch. Everything had been destroyed and looted because the university was on the front line of the fighting. We had classes outside and on the floor. But we built things back little by little; 4,000 students showed up when we opened last year. This year we had 10,000, 40 percent girls...This war–torn country needs reconstruction and rehabilitation. Afghan expatriates are not coming back, so we intellectuals have to build our own intelligentsia again. That means Kabul University must play a key role. We must participate in the 21st century. We can’t afford the university to be closed long. For Islam, education is a must.”
At the city’s hospitals and its orphanage, the scenes of pain and anguish are more raw.
Hallways are filthy and the stench of urine overpowering at the Darlatum Orphanage, which houses 300 boys and girls aged 1 to 18. Most have lost one, or both, parents, either in the war against the Soviet Union or the civil war.
Bashir Ajmal, 6, lost his father two years ago in a rocket attack on Kabul. Nasrallah, 10, was only a year old when his father was killed by the Soviets. On the girls’ side of the facility, Swita, 12, told of her father being killed by a rocket as he was buying bread in the bazaar at their home in Badakhshan province. “He was just minding his own business buying bread,” Swita said. “Why did he have to die?”
At the Indira Gandhi Hospital across town are the children who have been wounded in the war. Dr. Noor Arzoie, the hospital’s acting president, said the facility constantly must make do with rationed electricity, as well as insufficient drugs, fuel and wood for heating. “Last winter many patients froze to death,” said Arzoie, who like other physicians at the hospital is paid $ 10 a month. “We’ve seen so much suffering and pain here.”
On the third floor is 6–year–old Fawad, his leg shattered during a rocket attack north of Kabul eight days earlier. Flies swarm across his face, but he doesn’t bother to brush them away.
“I was working in the yard when all of a sudden there was a loud explosion,” said Fawad’s mother, Mazy, 30. “My sister and three of her children were killed. Her son lost his arms. I don’t know what to think. The rocket came and my family was gone.”
In the next bed, Zamanudin, a 10–year–old shepherd from Bagram, north of Kabul, was recovering from leg surgery. Three months ago he stepped on a mine.
“It’s been a terrible situation here,” said Dr. Marouf Niazi, who has worked at the hospital for nine years. “These halls have been filled with patients injured by rocket fire and mines, mostly. I just have to work, and can’t let my emotions get in the way. That’s my job. When the job is finished, I’ll let it bother me.”
The Taliban, the movement that has brought Afghanistan to its latest crossroads, is a product of the failures and corrupt excesses of various mujahideen factions. Unable to sustain a sense of national purpose after the wihdrawal of the Soviets, most militia commanders, lacking a cohesive political vision, reverted to their tribal, parochial roots and became, in essence, warlords prone to crime and corruption.
In the southern Pushtun heartland of Kandahar, the most conservative city in the country, factions were especially brazen, stationing themselves along the main road to Pakistan, where they would stop motorists, then extort money or hijack cars.
In July 1994, a warlord in Kandahar was said to have raped and murdered three women. Mohammed Omar, a religious teacher and former mujahideen who lost his right eye fighting the Soviets, rounded up a group of like–minded mullahs and killed the warlord. This group of about 30 men became the core of the Taliban, which in Pushtu means “seeker” offered safe passage for Pakistani truck convoys on the 550–mile road linking Pakistan and Turkmenistan, via Kandahar and the western Afghan city of Herat. That would give Pakistan valuable trade links to the emerging Central Asian states, especially a proposed oil pipeline that a Saudi and American consortium wants to build from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan into Pakistan. The proposed deal is with Los Angeles–based Unocal and Delta Oil of Saudi Arabia. Babar saw the Taliban as a means to ensure stability and economic prosperity for Pakistan.
The first Pakistan convoy was stopped by bandits, but freed by the Taliban. In October 1994, the Taliban captured its first territory, the town of Spin Buldak, on the Pakistan border. Next, it took Kandahar, with hardly a shot being fired.
At this stage, the Taliban was leading a genuinely popular uprising, filling a vacuum among war–weary Afghans disgusted with the mujahideen. With their call for Islamic rule and a government of national consensus, Taliban leaders also picked up defectors from rival mujahideen factions, though many were lured by bribes. While it began to accumulate fighters and military hardware, the Taliban movement was based less on political ideology and military power than on moral and religious outrage.
Within a few months, the Taliban had gained control of 10 of Afghanistan’s 30 provinces, all in the southern region, and all with little or no fighting.
For all its quick successes, the Taliban had some weaknesses. It was a regional, not a national, movement. It was powered, in part, as an expression of Pushtun pride that had been shaken by the fact that the presidency of Burhannudin Rabbani, a guerrilla leader installed in 1992, marked the first time in 250 years that Afghanistan had not been ruled by a Pushtun.
Most Taliban followers represent the dominant Durrani branch of the Pushtun tribe, about half of the population, but they are not firmly grounded among tribal elders. “There has always been a sharing of power in the Pushtun social structure between the mullahs and the tribal khans,” said Selig Harrison, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and co–author of a book on Afghanistan. “The Taliban is real, and represents a political and military assertion by the Ulema mullahs and their students, but it doesn’t cancel out the tribal structure that has existed for hundreds of years.”
In its rise to power, the Taliban also received important help from Pakistan, which wanted Pushtuns in control of Kabul to contain Pushtun nationalism and prevent it from spilling into Pakistan. Less likely, but significant assistance also came from President Rabbani himself, who saw the Taliban as a check on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a rival militia leader then threatening Kabul.
But by February 1995, it was the Taliban that had displaced Hekmatyar at the gates of Kabul. Rabbani’s men attacked and the Taliban forces stalled south of the capital, then failed to advance farther that year. They regrouped and took Herat, near the Iranian border, in September 1995, and by September of this year captured Kabul.
The Taliban’s success in disarming areas it controlled and implementing strict law and order was widely popular after a long period of lawlessness, and tended to overshadow the group’s harsh social and religious agenda. This was especially true in the conservative southern part of the country, where fewer women work and hardly any venture from their homes without wearing the purdah, a veil that shrouds them.
“The Taliban are a genuine reflection of something in Afghan society,” says Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and author of two books on Afghanistan. “They represent a reaction of a traumatized younger generation against what they see as the corruption and disorder of the previous generation. They also symbolize a whole generation of young Afghan men who have grown up largely in exile, and mostly without fathers...Finally, they represent a desire to use an extreme form of Islam to reunite the country and reassert Pushtun dominance in Afghanistan.”
But since taking Kabul, a relatively modern pocket of the country where most women hold jobs and had shed the purdah long ago, the Taliban has found that its policies – which include public hangings and floggings, as well as the banning of movies and television, and even soccer, chess and kite–flying – are widely despised.
In Kabul, the Taliban has modified its no–work ban for women to allow doctors and nurses to continue doing their jobs, though they can treat only other women and cannot talk with male doctors. A bathhouse in the capital, that for many women and girls was the only place they could wash with warm water, has been closed.
Islamic scholars say the Taliban’s edicts on women have no basis in the Koran, but are an attempt to cloak cultural norms of the south under the blanket of Islam.
As for men, the Taliban has ordered them to grow beards, herded passersby into mosques for prayer by literally cracking whips and raided homes to enlist recruits.
Beyond the narrow application of Islamic law, the Taliban seems to have no actual program for governing. Mohammed Omar, who is 35 and apparently the movement’s Khomeini, wields absolute power, but he is a reclusive figure who rarely leaves his compound in Kandahar. He has never given an interview or been publicly photographed.
Meanwhile, with dozens of journalists from around the world here to refocus attention on Afghanistan, Taliban officials in Kabul have consistently refused opportunities to give interviews and put the best face on their movement.
Most speak no English, have little education and appear to be having difficulty adapting their rural mores to city life. One UN official told of a meeting he and his colleagues had with a newly appointed minister in the Taliban government. They conducted the meeting over tea, as is customary. When the barefooted minister, who spent part of the session picking his toenails, was finished with his tea, he forgot he wasn’t outside and flung the remnants over his shoulder at the window, where they dried slowly on the screen.
Said the UN official: “The Taliban are not ready for prime time.”
Here and in the region, the United States is wiy perceived to be backing the Taliban, together with Pakistan, to which Washington delegated broad authority in administering CIA support for the mujahideen in the war against the Soviets. But US officials insist they are providing no aid to the Taliban and are neutral in the Afghan conflict. They say they maintain contacts with all factions and support UN efforts to secure a cease–fire and a broad–based government.
According to one State Department official, far from supporting the Taliban, the United States, like most of the rest of the world, is still trying to determine what the Taliban is. “We don’t know much about these guys,” the official said.
From what US diplomats do know, their opinions about the group are mixed. Washington appreciates that the Taliban, which adheres to the Sunni branch of Islam, is a source of worry for Iran, populated by Shiite Muslims. The United States, which closed its embassy in Kabul in 1989 after the Soviet withdrawal, also approves of the Taliban’s efforts to disarm much of the country, curb corruption, improve security and close or disrupt the terrorist training camps for Islamic fundamentalists that had sprung up during the war against the Soviets.
Cutting against the Taliban, in the US view, are its policies toward women, as well as the fact that it has apparently made no concerted effort to curb heroin trafficking. Afghanistan is the world’s second largest producer of opium, much of it exported to the West via Russia.
The emergence of the Taliban has caused considerable concern among Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan and Iran, each of which accommodates about 3 million Afghan refugees.
Pakistan, though avowedly neutral, has clearly provided the Taliban with assistance, even some soldiers who have been captured. Interior Minister Babar has eclipsed the UN of late in several rounds of shuttle diplomacy, trying unsuccessfully to get a cease–fire by the Taliban, Massoud and Dostum. The latter two sides are aware of Pakistan’s past aid to the Taliban and don’t trust it as a broker.
Iran wants to defend Afghanistan’s minority Shiites, thought to comprise about 20 percent of the population. Teheran funds an Hazara militia faction aligned with Dostum and Massoud, and views the Sunni Taliban as a Pakistan–US proxy.
To the east, India has voiced support for the anti–Taliban forces, mostly on the grounds that any enemy of Pakistan is a friend of New Delhi’s. To the north, Russia, and the new Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have all provided support, in varying degrees, to the Massoud–Dostum coalition, alarmed by what they view as the Taliban’s potential to project radical Islamic fundamentalism into their areas.
The Taliban, which insists it is a nationalist movement with no Pan–Islamic pretensions, already has crossed swords with Russia. Last year, Taliban jets intercepted and grounded a Russian transport plane carrying 3.4 million rounds of ammunition for the Massoud forces. The crew members were taken to Kandahar, where they escaped earlier this year.
Thus, with each surrounding state playing an active role in Kabul’s affairs, the potential for spontaneous combustion rises.
“The country that really lost the Cold War – Afghanistan – is now in danger of becoming the victim of a new proxy war,” warned Rubin of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Many Afghans are convinced that the root of their problems is outside interference.
“If outside countries stopped helping various factions, they could not fight more than one week,” said Syed Ishaq Gailani, director of the Council for Understanding and National Unity of Afghanistan, one of several think tanks operated by Afghans across the border in Peshawar. “Everyone wants their own puppet in Kabul. This is not truly an Afghan fight. Only a few people who want power sell themselves to foreigners.”
Rasoul Amin, a former Kabul University political science professor who runs the Writers’ Union of Free Afghanistan in Peshawar, agrees. He says Pakistan and the United States now expect Afghanistan to be a client state because of all the assistance they provided the mujahideen against the Soviets. “They think Afghanistan is their due,” he said.
Harrison thinks Afghans overstate the case on foreign meddling without taking enough responsibility themselves, but “the role that outside powers have been playing since the late ’70s seriously aggravates the differences that exist, because it gives everyone supplies and no incentive to quit.”
Last week, Iran hosted a regional conference on Afghanistan in an effort to cool some of the tension. Pakistan pointedly declined to attend.
With the Cold war over, Afghanistan has lost much of its geopolitical significance. But it still appears to be the linchpin for regional stability and an important venue for the future supply of energy, as in the case of the US–Saudi pipeline venture.
However, Afghanistan’s prospects are grim. Millions have left the country and may never return; those who remain are impoverished and exhausted by a generation of war; the economy is in tatters; 10 million mines are still honeycombed through the landscape; there is no functioning government recognized by the outside world; and long–simmering ethnic and sectarian splits could widen.
Moreover, even if the United Nations or other parties were to succeed in getting a peace agreement and forming what is wishfully called a “broad–based” government, many here worry that each faction comprising it would still be susceptible to entreaties from their foreign supporters or other mischief.
But some analysts find cause for hope. Afghanistan, they note, has now been cleared of most of the phony mujahideen factions that had no popular base. Those who remain – the Taliban, Dostum, Massoud and the Hazara factions – represent important constituencies. Despite their seemingly intractable feuds, leaders of all the factions voice strong nationalistic sentiments, which probably mitigate against Afghanistan fragmenting like Yugoslavia.
But most experts think the chances for lasting peace and a functioning national government anytime soon are remote.
Said Harrison: “I think they’ve reached a permanent stalemate on the ground. I don’t think any faction can prevail militarily. But when this will become apparent to the factions involved, or whether Humpty Dumpty can ever be put back together again is another question...Next year is the last reasonable chance for an agreement. Without one, I think it will settle down to a de facto partitioning of the country.”