Reaping the whirlwind: the taliban movement in Afghanistan. (The tragedy of Afghanistan).
"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography."--Ambrose Bierce
Afghanistan is further confirmation of Bierces pithy observaion. This country was thought to be so distant from the United States -- even after the Soviet invasion when the CIA was running a covert war there--that some journalists came up with the term "Afghanistanism" to refer to stories that were too remote from American lives.
Not anymore. After September 11, books about Afghanistan and the Taliban are flying off the shelves. Ahmed Rashid's Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia has reached the top of The New York Times paperback bestseller list. Its print run has expanded from an initial 2,000 in March to a current 200,000. Maps of Afghanistan are visible everywhere, from local newspapers to Mapquest.com. The one center of Afghanistan studies in the country--located at the University of Nebraska at Omaha--has been receiving almost nonstop requests for interviews. People with fluency in Afghan languages such as Pashto and Dari, which almost no one in this country knew existed, are now greatly in demand by U.S. intelligence services.
The people of South Asia know that being in the global headlines is not necessarily a good thing, as the Indian scholar Partha Chatterjee pointed out in a recent conference held in Madison, Wisconsin. But at least Americans are beginning to educate themselves about Afghanistan. These two books should be helpful in that regard.
Rashid has a huge advantage over Michael Griffin, author of Reaping the Whirlwind, in that Rashid is a native of Pakistan, as well as a Muslim, and has for two decades covered Afghanistan for Pakistani and Western publications. He has an intricate knowledge of the country and its politics, and a strong grasp of Islam and its various forms, including the extreme variant that the Taliban practice. Griffin, a freelance journalist and associate editor of Index on Censorship, has spent three two-month stints in Afghanistan and is not a scholar of Islam.
Griffin tries to tell the story of the Taliban in the style of a yarn to please the Western reader. He strains to include Western cultural references, and these are sometimes a bit of a stretch, as when he writes: "If Kabul was Afghanistan's Sarajevo in early 1994, Kandahar could lay reasonable claim to being its South Bronx." Or, "Mad Max. Meet the motorized mullahs."
However, Griffin begins his book with words that are uncannily prescient in light of September 11.
"The accession in the U.S. of President George W. Bush, a man with a strong political interest in disinterring the secrets of his predecessor, may shed yet fresh light on at least two of the central mysteries of the Taliban which this book attempts to address," Griffin writes. "The first is the extent to which the Administration of Bill Clinton actively encouraged its former Cold War allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to assemble and finance a tribal military force to end the misrule of the mujahedeen in the post-Soviet years. The second--of greater sensitivity--is to provide a coherent explanation for the studied incompetence of the FBI, CIA, and other American intelligence agencies in addressing the alleged threats posed to the U.S. by Osama bin Laden and his network."
Rashid does a good job of providing a brief history of Afghanistan. Contrary to what many Westerners believe, the country has a rich heritage, including the Kushan Dynasty from the first to the third century A.D., which presided over "the only known fusion between European and Asian cultures," and the mighty Mughal Empire, which ruled the Indian subcontinent from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Rashid observes that Afghanistan's position at the crossroads of various civilizations has also been its bane, since it has often been reduced to a pawn in the hands of greater powers.
The saga of the CIA arming and training the mujahedeen in the 1980s, in cahoots with the Pakistanis, is well known. Rashid, however, adds further details by pointing out how CIA money, through the Pakistanis, reached the most hardline Islamicist groups:
"Prior to the war, the Islamicists barely had a base in Afghan society, but with money and arms from the CIA pipeline and support from Pakistan, they built one and wielded tremendous clout," he writes.
Rashid also underscores the international community's complete neglect of Afghanistan once the Soviets went home. "The moment the Soviets withdrew their troops in 1989, Afghanistan dropped off the radar screen of world attention," he writes. "The ever-dwindling aid from wealthy donor countries, which did not even meet the minimum budgetary requirements of the humanitarian aid effort, became a scandal."
And Rashid's knowledge of Islam in the region serves him well in his description of Afghan religious traditions, which defy Western ideas of a homogenized Islamic culture:
"Traditionally, Islam in Afghanistan has been immensely tolerant--to other Muslim sects, other religions and modern lifestyles," he writes. "Afghan mullahs were never known to push Islam down other people's throats, and sectarianism was not a political issue until recently.... Before the Taliban, Islamic extremism had never flourished in Afghanistan."
Both Rashid and Griffin note that the strain of Islam that Osama bin Laden practices--Wahabbism--originated in, and has been propagated by, Saudi Arabia. As Pakistani--born scholar and activist Tariq Ali has observed elsewhere, bin Laden and Al Qaeda are just the tentacles of this octopus. The head is sitting in Saudi Arabia, guarded by U.S. troops.
Both Rashid and Griffin do a good job of explaining the reason for the initial support for the Taliban among many Afghans: the widespread looting and rapes carried out or condoned by the regime in power, which included elements of the current U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. In fact, the Taliban began as a thirty-member fighting force in a revolt against a commander who had abducted two girls and was repeatedly raping them. The Taliban bolstered their reputation when they rescued a young boy whom two commanders also wanted to rape. To a lot of Afghans (especially Pashtuns), the well-disciplined Taliban promised a rescue from such depredations.
The two books, relying on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, recount the vicious human rights violations perpetrated by the Taliban against women and against ethnic minorities. In the 1998 Taliban retaking of Mazar-e-Sharif, for instance, Taliban troops killed at least 5,000 residents and eleven Iranian diplomats and journalists, an act that almost brought them to war with Iran.
"A Taliban commander later said that Mullah Omar had given them permission to kill for two hours, but they had killed for two days," Rashid writes.
The Taliban's edicts hit women the hardest. Rashid devotes a whole appendix to the repressive fiats issued by the Taliban. Several hundred women were severely beaten by the Taliban religious police in their first few months in power for violating one or more of these edicts, according to Griffin.
As Rashid points out, this was quite in contrast to women's status in Afghanistan before 1996. "Forty percent of Kabul's women worked, both under the communist regime and the post-1992 mujahedeen government," he writes. "Women with even a smattering of education and a job exchanged their traditional clothes for skirts, high heels, and make-up."
And Griffin adds, "Tens of thousands of working women, from social workers and secretaries to office cleaners and engineers, were sent home, paralyzing a government in which 25 percent of the staff was female."
Nor was the Taliban's zeal restricted to women. They stopped all forms of entertainment and culture, including cinema, music, painting, and photography.
Rashid explains the bewildering Taliban mindset. "They were literally the orphans of the war, the rootless and the restless, the jobless and the economically deprived with little self-knowledge," he writes. "They admired war because it was the only occupation they could possibly adapt to. Their simple belief in a messianic, puritan Islam, which had been drummed into them by simple village mullahs, was the only prop they could hold on to and which gave their lives some meaning."
As for their misogyny, he writes, "Many, in fact, were orphans who had grown up without women--mothers, sisters, or cousins. Others were madrassa students or had lived in the strict confines of segregated refugee camp life, where the normal comings and goings of female relatives were curtailed.... They had simply never known the company of women."
Most Americans may not know that the United States originally backed the Taliban, as these books demonstrate.
"Between 1994 and 1996, the USA supported the Taliban politically through its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, essentially because Washington viewed the Taliban as anti-Iranian, anti-Shia, and pro-Western," Rashid writes. "Some U.S. diplomats saw them as messianic do-gooders--like born-again Christians from the American Bible Belt. U.S. diplomats believed that the Taliban would meet essential U.S. aims in Afghanistan--`eliminating drugs and thugs.' ... There was not a word of U.S. criticism after the Taliban captured Herat in 1995 and threw out thousands of girls from schools."
Within hours of the Taliban's capture of Kabul, the State Department said that it found "nothing objectionable" in the Taliban's imposition of Islamic law. "The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament, and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that," one U.S. diplomat said.
Both books reveal the power of U.S. oil interests in setting policy. U.S. oil companies working in the region got out a veritable Who's Who including Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski--to influence the Clinton Administration's policy.
Unocal wanted approval of a huge pipeline project through the country, so it used all of its influence to try to get its way. It greased the wheels in Washington, and it brought a Taliban delegation over to the United States and paid for its air travel and stay and sightseeing. Unocal Vice President Marty Miller had the group over for dinner at his house. To a large extent, it was Unocal's interest that was formulating U.S. policy. "Between 1995 and 1997, U.S. support was even more driven because of its backing for the Unocal project," Rashid observes.
Osama bin Laden makes an appearance halfway through both books. Bin Laden's first stint in Afghanistan was in the 1980s as a mujahedeen whom the Saudi royal family had sent over as a kind of emissary. Like other "Arab Afghans," bin Laden was set up by the CIA and the Pakistanis. "The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis," Rashid quotes bin Laden as saying.
Bin Laden's second sojourn in Afghanistan has been as the infamous head of the Al Qaeda network. The books provide details of his growing anger with the West, his return to Afghanistan after being expelled from Sudan, his close financial and personal ties with the Taliban, the 1998 U.S. attack on his camps, and the various U.S. maneuverings to get him out of Afghanistan.
Rashid chronicles the growing influence of bin Laden on the Taliban. "Increasingly, bin Laden's world view appeared to dominate the thinking of senior Taliban leaders," he writes. "All-night conversations between bin Laden and the Taliban leaders paid off. Until his arrival the Taliban leadership had not been particularly antagonistic to the USA or the West."
A major fault with both the books is their failure to give a more complete picture of life in Afghanistan either prior to or under the Taliban. There are almost no interviews with ordinary residents in both the books, a surprising omission, especially in the case of Rashid, a journalist who has covered the area for years. And the voices of women are absent. This makes the books top-heavy, with detailed, sometimes tedious, renderings of the names and goings-on of the various fighting factions. The authors seem to have forgotten the "history from below."
The two books also don't do a very good job of explaining the causes and consequences of the Soviet invasion, an event that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. And they don't provide a good comparison of life under the Soviets and in subsequent years with that prior to the invasion. I got much more of a sense of life in pre-Soviet Afghanistan out of a chat with a friend of mine, Avinash Singh Bhati, who lived as a child in Kabul for four years in the late 1970s (his father was with the Indian embassy). "As non-Muslims, my family and I always felt welcome, never threatened," he told me. He remembers the city and the Afghan countryside as being friendly, hospitable places with at least a basic, albeit not very sophisticated, infrastructure.
Now all that has vanished. The history of Afghanistan over the past two decades is so sordid as to bring despair to the most inveterate optimist. And the misery in that land grows deeper with the current U.S. bombing campaign.
Amitabh Pal is Editor of The Progressive Media Project.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2001|
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