Afghanistan and the Emergence of the Taliban: Reviewed Works

A previous article on this site quoted sections of Ahmed Rashid’s TALIBAN: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), a partial copy of which is available here. The following is a  review by M. Jamil Hanifi published in The Middle East Journal, with details of the history of the emergence of the Taliban, and the early support they received from the U.S.

Source: Middle East Journal, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Spring, 2002), pp. 329-332

Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan, by Michael Griffin. London: Pluto Press, 2001. xxi + 257 pages. Notes to p. 277. Index to p. 283. Map. Chron. $27.50.

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. xi + 216 pages. Appends. to p. 247. Notes to p. 265. Index to 279. $27.50.

Reviewed by M. Jamil Hanifi

The Taliban movement is intimately grounded in the Cold War, the Islamic Revolution of Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the decision of the United States to embarrass and dishonor its Cold War adversary and, when that was accomplished, to depart the region leaving behind a collapsed state structure in Afghanistan and a paranoid government in a destabilized Pakistan. After the Soviet army left Afghanistan in winter 1989, the United States government abandoned the country and the tens of thousands of Afghans and non-Afghans (mostly Arabs recruited by Usama Bin Ladin, a CIA conduit) whom it had recruited, trained, and armed for the so-called “jihad” against the infidel Russians. In April 1992, when these US-sponsored gangs entered Kabul, the state structure of Afghanistan collapsed, causing the disappearance of its weakened national market and the fragile center-periphery relationship.

The Taliban movement emerged in 1994 in Southwest Afghanistan in the context of a bloody civil war, devastation, lawlessness, and warlordism, conditions that made wide-spread smuggling a common feature of the Afghan landscape. By September 1996, the Taliban had captured Kabul, and, by early September 2001, they were on the verge of totally defeating the last pockets of resistance in Northeast Afghanistan. Had it not been for the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the Taliban would still be dominant in Afghanistan and the United States government would be negotiating with them on matters dealing with the construction of energy pipelines and curtailment of drug production. The reconstruction of Afghanistan and human rights would not be at the top of the agenda in these negotiations.

Michael Griffin and Ahmed Rashid, both journalists, provide useful accounts (each in 16 chapters and about the same number of pages) of the emergence of the Taliban in Southwest Afghanistan, and their rapid success and domination of the country. Both books start from the fall of the revolutionary government of Afghanistan in April 1992; Rashid’s coverage ends in mid-1999, before General Pervez Musharraf’s coup in Pakistan, while Griffin’s account runs to the end of 2000.

The books provide a brief sketch of the various US/Saudi-subsidized factions that opposed the Soviet presence and the Afghan central government. We read at length about the role of the Pakistani Intelligence Services (ISI) in creating and subsidizing these factions. The United States government was the major force behind the creation of the “freedom fighters” or the “mujahedin.” The CIA recruited tens of thousands of these would be terrorists from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan in the 1980s and provided the ideology, funding, arms, and training for them. Frank Anderson of the CIA’s Afghanistan Task Force has recently stated that the Afghanistan “war was fought with our [US] goal and their [Afghan] blood.” Within a few years of entering Kabul in 1992, these groups and the devastation they wreaked on Afghanistan spawned the Taliban. Although Pakistan was the midwife at the birth of the Taliban, the authors provide some of the ample evidence of the approval of this role by the United States. And both governments nourished the baby to its feet before deciding to kill it.

The chaotic conditions surrounding the fall of the revolutionary government of Afghanistan in 1992 and the collapse of its soft state structure are narrated in both books. At every major turn in the narrative, the question comes up as to why the United States would encourage such a rag-tag collection of proven terrorist groups to take charge of Afghanistan? By then, the Soviet Union had been discredited and defeated; before the fall of Kabul, the government of Afghanistan had enjoyed a reasonable degree of popular legitimacy, was prepared to work with the opposition groups, was adamantly and openly in opposition to a Wahhabi presence in Afghanistan, and was even willing to allow Muhammad Zahir, the exiled king, to return to the country and assume power. All these elements, implicitly or explicitly, constitute the framework within which the Interim Government of Afghanistan was created by the United States in Bonn in December 2001. Soon after the disruption of the patron-client relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and the various mujahedin factions, especially those led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan center collapsed, creating a free-for-all in which every Afghan faction and its external sponsor attempted to acquire territory and advantage. Both books provide vivid descriptions of the predictably bloody cycle of violence between the various ethnic and sectarian groups operating in a framework of frequently shifting alliances. From April 1992 to September 1996, anarchy and lawlessness reigned throughout the country.

Out of this chaotic environment, the Taliban movement emerged in Qandahar in late 1994. Griffin and Rashid provide somewhat similar descriptions of the local political conditions from which the Taliban arose. Many in their upper ranks were veterans of the US-subsidized jihad during which several of them had lost eyes and legs (Rashid, pp. 5-6). Their supreme leader, Mulla Muhammad Omar, had lost his right eye while fighting with one of the freedom fighter bands. In both accounts, from the start, the Pakistani ISI emerges as the prime supporter and mover of the Talibs. From the outset, the Jama’at-i Islami party of Pakistan and the trucking interests of that country offered substantial ideological and material support. The Saudi-supported madrasa system of Islamic schools in Pakistan provided a continuous flow of manpower for fighting. Shortly after their birth, the Taliban found themselves hosting arrangements for Pakistan-sponsored truck convoys moving through Western Afghanistan to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In due course, Afghanistan became a haven for international smugglers and the home for a “criminalized economy” (See Barnett R. Rubin, “The Political Economy of War and Peace in Afghanistan,” World Development, 28:10 (2000) pp., 1789-1803). In early 1995, Saudi Arabia and the United States had signed an agreement with the government of Turkmenistan for the construction of an energy pipeline in Western Afghanistan to connect Turkmenistan with Pakistan. In mid-March 1995, Senator Hank Brown, a member of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, visited Qandahar and invited the Taliban to send representatives to the hearings his committee was to hold later that year (Griffin, p. 82). In April 1998, Bill Richardson, then-US Representative to the United Nations (three months later, confirmed as US Secretary of Energy) visited Afghanistan (Rashid, p. 71), ostensibly to iron out political differences between the Taliban and their local opponents. Subsequent to these talks, the American oil company UNOCAL undertook extensive negotiations with the Taliban for the construction of the pipeline through Western Afghanistan. (Zalmay Khalilzad, George W. Bush’s personal representative to the current US-installed Interim Government of Afghanistan, worked with UNOCAL in these negotiations).

Each book devotes a chapter to the introduction of thousands of non-Afghans, mostly Arabs, into the CIA campaign against the Soviet Union and the government of Afghanistan. The person who spearheaded the recruitment of these international terrorists was Usama Bin Ladin. Griffin’s treatment contains more detail about this “Nest of Vipers” in Afghanistan and the United States’ responsibility for creating it. There is an eerie premonition in the pages of these books about the dangers that lay ahead for Bin Ladin and his erstwhile patron who abandoned Afghanistan and let him and his recruits loose in the caves of Afghanistan.

Throughout both books, the United States appears as ignorant and uninformed about Afghanistan, and capricious, uncertain, and contradictory in its objectives in Central and South Asia. Likewise, both books suggest that exaggerated fear of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism deprived the United States of the confidence and clarity of purpose required to deal effectively with the Taliban and other regimes in the area. However, the authors say little about the objectives of Saudi Arabia. It can be reasoned, however, that the Saudis initially agreed to match United States’ dollars for the subsidy of the terrorist freedom fighters in the 1980s because they saw in Afghanistan an opening for the introduction of Wahhabism. Their continued support of Usama Bin Ladin was couched in the latter’s mentoring of the Taliban leadership in draconian Wahhabi doctrines. Now that Bin Ladin and Al-Qa’ida are being swept from Afghanistan, it is likely that the Saudis’ interest there will wane as evidenced by their cold reserve towards post-Taliban political developments in Afghanistan.

Griffin and Rashid should be judged as journalists, not as social scientists. Both appear unacquainted with the social science literature dealing with Afghanistan. However, both have spent time in Afghanistan and exhibit command of a vast and complex body of raw information. Occasionally, they both leap to conclusions that lack ethnographic and historical foundations. They both make the mistake of considering the Taliban as an exclusively Pashtun movement, overlooking the fact that the movement was Wahhabi inspired, had little to do with the Pashtun social structure, and contained large numbers of non-Pashtun Afghans as well as Punjabis and Sindhis from Pakistan, as well as thousands of Arabs and hundreds of Muslims from other countries. The Taliban appear to be truly an international multi-ethnic Sunni neo-fundamentalist movement. The authors uncritically accept the thesis that the pre-1978 rulers of Afghanistan were Pashtuns. The fact is that during this period the country was ruled by people who did not speak or practice Pashtu. The exiled King Muhammad Zahir, most of his family, and much of his governmental bureaucratic elite did not speak that language. Ahmed Rashid makes a crucial mistake in concluding that “[in] the past the (provincial) governors and senior local officials were usually drawn from the local elite, reflecting the local ethnic make-up of the population” (p. 99). In reality, it was the policy of past Afghan central governments to have non-local provincial and district governors. The Taliban did not break new ground in appointing outsiders as provincial governors.

The books under review are well written and contain extensive notes. It would have been appropriate to provide page numbers in the footnotes; why should one have to read a whole book or an article to find the specific page for an important quotation or idea? Overall, as journalists, Michael Griffin and Ahmed Rashid have produced two timely and informative books on a topic that is certain to fire the imagination of both scholars and elements in the news and entertainment media.

Reviewer’s Note:

In Western discourse the neo-fundamentalist Taleban (rendered Taliban in this journal) movement, its multitudes and individual members are awkwardly, often incorrectly, syntaxed. In Paxtu (Pakhto, and, in this journal, Pushtu) the movement is rendered da talebano ghorzang and in Dari (Afghan Farsi), jonbesh-e taleban. In Paxtu and Dari usage, the noun taleb (student, seeker of knowledge) is gendered, and the second vowel in the noun is the short e, not the long i. The correct local contexts use taleb for singular male, taleban for plural male and the movement and, theoretically, taleba for singular female, taleban (Dari) and talebanay (Paxtu) for plural female. In English renditions, it would be correct to say “Taleban” for the movement and plural male (as locally used), “Taleb” for singular male and “Talebs” for plural male. Thus, we can correctly say: The Taleban (or Talebs’) movement included thousands of Pakistani Talebs, hundreds of Tajiks, many Uzbeks, and one Taleb from the United States. Every Taleb was required to grow a beard. Some, not all, Talebs (Taleban) were Paxtuns. The movement’s Supreme Council included a number of one-eyed and one-legged Talebs. The Taleban are no longer in control of Kabul.

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5 thoughts on “Afghanistan and the Emergence of the Taliban: Reviewed Works

  1. Maximilian Forte

    Jamil, looking back at this article, do you still feel comfortable using terms like “fundamentalist” and “terrorist”? I noted use of the terms “neo-fundamentalist,” which given how vague and caricatured “fundamentalism” is, the “neo” prefix only makes it cloudier. “Terrorist” is a notoriously disputable term. I would say that since the time of Ronald Reagan, when the U.S. was found guilty of state-sponsored terrorism by the International Court of Justice, and yet promoted the Contras as “freedom fighters” (even when they executed civilians and prisoners), that the term “terrorist” is polluted almost beyond remedy.

    1. M. Jamil Hanifi

      When I wrote this piece I had in mind a general conception of terrorism as “acts that inflict indiscriminate violence or impose the threat of violence and fear on non-combatant bystanders and unarmed citizens by state and non-state actors” (AN September 2005, p. 7). The definition was meant to accommodate in one lump Tim McVeigh, those who flew the planes in the NY towers, and those state actors who had perpetrated the mass killings in Dashte- Laili, Falluja, Haditha, and Sabra and Shatila refuge camps in Beirut. All the subsequent atrocities committed by the United States and its coalition partners in Afghanistan and Iraq and by Israel in Palestine qualify as acts of terrorism and crimes against humanity. In fact, the overall NATO military presence in Afghanistan is an act of terror. This vulgar asymmetry of military power, highlighted by the round-the-clock presence of B-52 and B-1s in the skies of Afghanistan, perpetrates continuous terror–fear and the threat of violence– against all citizens of Afghanistan—armed and unarmed.

      By fundamentalism I had in mind a militarized political process anchored in fixed textual ideas housed in state or non-state locations. The “neo” in my use was meant to capture the current, most recent, post-state variant of the Taleban movement as resistance to Western imperial presence (not any particular state) in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This movement cycled out of opposition to state power in Afghanistan (1992-1996) followed by the soft state format in the country controlled by the Talebs during 1996-2001.

      Ideas and suggestions for updating and refinement are welcome.

      1. Maximilian Forte

        Thanks very much Jamil, I asked mindful of anyone who might come and take your words out of the context of how you meant to use them. As it happens extremely frequently, I thought it best to make sure it was clarified before anyone dreamt of coopting the statements made.

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