Afghan stereotypes.

Philosophy: Concise History of the Taliban


In 1992, after the fall of the Communists, Kabul, traditionally a Pushtun city, fell under control of Tajiks Rabbani and Massoud and an Uzbek Doustum. This immediately provoked a new war — this time between the mujaheds themselves — when Pushtun Hikmetyar besieged Kabul. Since nobody could realistically win that war, the situation ran into a dead end, and the country was divided between the warlords.

Doustum controlled six provinces in the North. Three western provinces around Herat belonged to Ismail Khan. Rabbani governed Kabul and North-East. Jalalabad was managed collectively by the local warlords. Hikmetyar seized a small region near Kabul and also controlled some Pushtun areas near the Pakistani border. The center of the country belonged to the ethnic group of Hazaras.

Kandahar area got the worst deal — there was no single controlling force there, and the region was torn apart by the feuding warlords and plain gangsters. The city itself was divided between hostile groups.

Birth of the Taliban

Afghan refugees did not rush to return to their homeland from Pakistan after the Soviet troops had been withdrawn. The Taliban was born exactly there, among the mujahed veterans, many of whom studied in theological schools at the time. The name itself means “students”. When the international community almost completely forgot Afghanistan, the talibs thought they could be the only force that could still bring peace to their home. After prolonged discussions, they created a program with clear goals and yet unclear means. They were going to restore peace, disarm the population, and realign the social life with the Islamic customs. Muhammed Omar was elected as the leader of the movement. He was 35 at the time.

They got lucky with the means, however. Pakistani authorities had their own reasons to support the Taliban. Trade with Central Asia was seriously disrupted by the impossibility of sending goods overland through Afghanistan. Hikmetyar controlled the border crossings in Southwestern Afghanistan and forced the goods being reloaded from Pakistani trucks to the Afghan ones. And gangsters would then hijack the trucks along the route. The Pakistanis were ready to support any force that could guarantee safe passage of the shipments.

From Words to Actions

The Spring of 1994 was when the first action by the Taliban happened. A Kandahari warlord abducted two girls and kept them at his military base where they were being gang-raped. Thirty talibs — with 16 automatic rifles — attacked the base, freed the girls, and executed the warlord by hanging him on a tank barrel. And they got a lot of arms from that raid.

A few months later, still in Kandahar, two other warlords had a shootout on the account of not a girl but a boy this time, whom they both wanted to rape anyway. A few passersby were shot in the process although they did not want to rape anybody at all and just happened to be in the vicinity of the duel. The talibs freed the boy.

In October of 1994 the Taliban captured a border city of Spin Boldak, which was controlled by Hikmetyar's forces before that. Along with the city, the talibs got a weapons dump with 18 thousand Kalashnikov rifles.

Two weeks later the Pakistanis sent a truck convoy with medicine to Central Asia. The convoy was hijacked near Kandahar, and the Pakistanis asked the Taliban to intervene. The talibs attacked three days later, released the trucks, and killed the hijackers. The very same evening they attacked Kandahar itself and captured it in two days of fighting. Now they had their own air force with six fighters and six helicopters. None of them operational yet, however.

Paths of Glory

Within two months the Taliban had over 10,000 people in its ranks, who were inspired by its goals and achievements.

In three months the talibs controlled 12 provinces out of 31 and reached the outskirts of Kabul and Herat. Destroying Hikmetyar's forces, they opened access to Kabul for the food trucks that were turned away by Hikmetyar. Massoud, however, stopped the Taliban's advance towards the capital, and they turned their attention to Herat, capturing Shindand near it.

Massoud joined forces with Ismail Khan, using his aviation to bomb the talibs and to airlift 2,000 of his warriors to Herat. By the end of summer of 1995 Ismail Khan even began a counteroffensive against the talibs and captured back some of his territory.

The Taliban, however, by that time had reorganized its command and control system, not without help from Pakistan, and rearmed its soldiers. The Pakistanis also convinced Rashid Doustum to support the talibs and bomb Herat using his air force. On September 3, 1995 the Taliban recaptured Shindand, and on the fifth Ismail Khan surrendered Herat and fled to Iran, just as he had done in 1979.

The next year was spent in unsuccessful attempts to capture Kabul, which was defended by Ahmad Shah Massoud. Rabbani, the official president of Afghanistan, began building a political alliance with the groups that did not quite support him before: the Uzbeks, the Jalalabadis, and the Hazaras. Russia and Iran also helped him as the least of two evils. Even India joined in from a simple desire to obstruct Pakistan in everything. Trying to gain the initiative, the Taliban suddenly attacked Jalalabad in the end of August of 1996 and captured it in two weeks. Without any stops, the talibs advanced at Kabul and took it on September 26.

Chasing Massoud and reaching Salang Pass, the talibs stopped because the pass was guarded by Doustum forces, and his position was not quite clear. It did become clear soon enough, though. He wanted autonomy under the talibs, and the Taliban never negotiated with warlords. The next target, therefore, was Mazar-i-Sharif, which now could be attacked from two directions simultaneously, from Herat and Kabul.

Ismail Khan airlifted 2,000 of his warriors to Mazar-i-Sharif from Iran. But Malik, one of the Doustum's generals, switched the sides and joined the Taliban. On May 19, 1997 Mazar-i-Sharif fell. Doustum fled to Uzbekistan.

Second to Last Failure

In nine days, during the disarmament of the population of Mazar-i-Sharif, an uprising began. Six hundred talibs were killed, another thousand captured. Malik switched the sides again, and his forces recaptured four of the lost provinces. Massoud reached Salang Pass and blew the tunnel up to block the Taliban, then captured Bagram airbase and stopped within 35 km from the capital. Even the Hazaras restored access to their Bamiyan valley and pushed the talibs back to Kabul.

The total Taliban losses were 6,600 people. Two thousand captured talibs were executed by Malik. 1,250 of them were chocked to death in steel containers, some were thrown into wells, sprinkled there with hand grenades and buried alive by bulldozers.

The Taliban Strikes Back

By the Summer of 1998 the Taliban was rearmed by the Pakistani and Saudis, Iran finished airlifting military supplies to the Hazaras in Bamiyan, and Russia stockpiled tons of weapons in Kulyab for Massoud.

The talibs' advance at Mazar-i-Sharif began on July 12, 1998. By August 1 they captured Shiberghan, Doustum's headquarters. He himself again fled to Uzbekistan. On August 8 Mazar-i-Sharif fell.

Most Hazaras found in the city were executed, part of them through the containerization, as a revenge for the talibs' deaths a year ago. Eleven Iranian diplomats who worked in the consulate there were killed, as a result of which Iran began preparations for a full scale invasion of Afghanistan and moved its troops to the border.

On September 13 the talibs entered Bamiyan.

The next year was spent in a positional war with Massoud who united all the forces willing to fight the Taliban under the name of the Northern Alliance. On September 5, 1999 his forces left Taloqan, Massoud's headquarters, and withdrew to Badakhshan. By now the Taliban controlled 90% of the country, and the Northern Alliance — one province out of 32.

Ideological Warfare

In fighting for minds the Taliban was as successful as in fighting for territory.

The talibs could be seen as liberators in Kandahar with its absolute lack of security before their appearance, but in non-Pushtun areas they were perceived as a foreign element that imposed a strange culture and definitely overdid it in terms of Islam.

The talibs, it must be noted, did not introduce anything new when they outlawed shaving beards, watching TV, or making photographs. Prophet Muhammed was quite clear on these issues, “Trim your mustache but do not touch the beard”, and it is prohibited in Islam to make images of living objects, the idea being that only god can make anything that looks alive.

They were somewhat unorthodox in prohibiting music, dances, kites, and drums on the pretext that these things distracted people from working on becoming better Muslims and productive members of society. The very same idea was behind the demand to visit a mosque for all five daily prayers, as a Muslim can usually pray in any place except on Friday noon when it is highly recommended to come to a mosque for a congregational prayer.

These innovations were seen by the population as inconvenient, to say the least, and quite not everybody was happy with the suddenly appeared Taliban with its religious enthusiasm. Quite not everywhere the security situation was horrible to the extent that people were ready for any change for good at any price.

But with women the Taliban definitely overdid it, giving foreign politicians an easy way to turn the Western public opinion against it.

The thing is, in Islam women are considered to be a specially protected social group, kind of like children are in our societies. Obviously, children are different, but in the Western civilization their legal or economical freedoms are severely limited until they are about 18, even if they are business geniuses or something like that. Women are different, too, but in Islam it is believed that they all should be protected from external troubles and given a maximal opportunity as housewives. At the time when Koran was written, women could not do much in terms of economical, political, or military development of society anyway.

The Taliban took this principle of protection to the extremes, and with sad consequences for all parties involved, including itself.

Women could go outside their houses only with a male relative. They had to wear a burqa — a dress that completely covered their body, including face. On the other side, even now you will hardly see a woman without a burqa in an Afghan city. This was not a Taliban invention either; a burqa was a sign of sophistication, demonstrating the fact that a woman did not have to work by hands, kind of like long nails in the West. But now it was obligatory for everybody, but just as long nails it was not convenient for all.

Women were prohibited from having jobs. By the time of the Taliban's appearance, 98% of Afghan women did not work anyway, thus the talibs thought it would not be a big loss to retire the remaining two percents. But it looked very bad from abroad. And those two percents were mostly school teachers, and after the resulting lack of qualified personnel, schools for girls were temporarily suspended, with the Taliban declaring that they would be reopened when the country is cleansed of the “so-called mujaheds” and the new study programs are developed. Here, too, they remembered the fact that 90% of girls were illiterate during the mujaheds' reign, but once again it looked very bad in the eyes of the international community.

Russia and Iran, concerned with a new foe on their borders, and the US, quite upset about Bin Laden having a safe haven in Afghanistan, used these tactical screw-ups to demonize the Taliban and build up a negative public perception of it. Naturally, women's rights or containerization of the Hazaras were not the real issues — tons of people protest daily against war in Iraq, or napalmization of the Chechens, or constant genocide by some Africans of some other Africans, but nobody in these governments listens to these protests.

Practically every mention of the talibs on TV included the same video of an Afghan woman in a burqa being publicly executed. Well, she was a convicted murderer, she was tried and got a death penalty, and this was the court order being carried out, but none of this, naturally, was disclosed to the viewers. All they saw was that the Taliban killed women.

The talibs had no chance. When they completely stopped production of opium — for the first and the last time in Afghan history — nobody paid attention to this. When they ordered non-Muslims to wear yellow armbands so that the religious police would not not harass them about the beards and other Islamic stuff, the journalists had their field day by drawing parallels with the Nazis and the yellow stars the Jews had to wear.

The Taliban, while getting the idea that it was intentionally demonized, did not help itself either. In an idolatry fighting campaign, which was provoked a Japanese tourists praying to a Buddhist relic, they destroyed the Buddhas in Bamiyan. They began obstructing the UN/NGOs, eventually forcing them to leave the country. Gradually, the talibs ended up in almost complete international isolation.

Bin Laden And His Friends

From the very beginning of the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan encouraged foreign Muslims to join the Afghan mujaheds. Saudi Arabia financed this program, and the CIA joined it in 1986. About 35,000 foreign volunteers fought in Afghanistan.

The Saudi part of this groups was headed by Osama Bin Laden, a construction company owner. He first got in touch with the mujaheds in 1980, when he was 23. Since 1982 he lived in Peshawar, conducting construction work in Pakistan for the needs of the guerilla war. In 1986 he teamed up with the CIA and built a network of tunnels in Afghan mountains for weapons dumps, hospitals, training camps, and so on. By the way, this is where they tried to catch him 16 years later.

In 1989 Bin Laden founded Al Qaida, “The Military Center”, which at that time was a social support organization for the ex-mujaheds of Arabian descent and their families. In 1990, however, when the mujaheds began fighting among themselves, he came back to Saudi Arabia to continue working in his construction business and supporting the Arab veterans.

After the first US invasion of Iraq, American troops were permanently stationed in Saudi Arabia. This was the reason Bin Laden's relationship with the Saudi authorities went sour by 1992. He saw the presence of foreign troops in the land of Prophet Muhammed as blasphemous.

Bin Laden was evicted from Saudi Arabia and settled in Sudan. Because he was not going to close his mouth and began gathering similarly minded “Afghan Arabs” around, he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship altogether, and in 1996 the Americans forced the Sudanese government to ask Bin Laden to leave. He went to Afghanistan and declared a war on the United States.

In August of 1998 two US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up. Bin Laden was accused of organizing that and tried in his absence in New York. His training camps in Afghanistan were subjected to a cruise missile attack, resulting in seven dead Arabs, seven dead Pakistanis, and twenty dead Afghans — about a missile for each one. Bin Laden himself was not there at the time.

Beginning of the End

On September 2001 two Arabian journalists came to interview Ahmad Shah Massoud. The bomb hidden in their video camera killed Massoud; they did not survived it either. The Taliban started its last offensive against the Northern Alliance.

Two days later the well-known thing happened. Bin Laden was immediately accused of it, although a day before nobody knew anything about his plans, but anyway — the US had irrefutable proof of Bin Laden's involvement, and only for security reasons refused to disclose anything of that to the public.

The End

The US demanded surrender of Bin Laden from the Taliban. It refused. After building up the pressure, the talibs first offered to try Bin Laden in Afghanistan, should the US have any proof of his guilt, and then offered to extradite him for a trial to a third country like Saudi Arabia. This is a normal way these extradition things are handled — the requesting party has to proof its position, and then the national court decides what to do, — but not for people like Bin Laden or the Taliban, so the US attacked Afghanistan. They mostly conducted aerial strikes and special operations, but in the situation of a stalemate that existed between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban this was enough to tip the scales.

The talibs were crushed within two months. Bin Laden again left with no trace behind. The Northern Alliance captured all Taliban-controlled territories. In Mazar-i-Sharif the last round of containerization was carried out by chocking to death about 700 talib prisoners. That was also the place of the second to the last Taliban battle in December of 2001. Doustum promised that all Pakistani and Afghan talibs who surrender would be disarmed and let go home. They surrendered. He changed his mind with a little help from American friends. The talibs were held in a prison and interrogated by CIA agents. Then they began to tie them up. When the talibs realized that they were not going home but would probably go to a container, judging by being tied up, they revolted, overpowered prison guards, managed to kill one CIA agent, and defended the prison for three more days under American bombardment.

The last battle of the Taliban was in Kandahar. Eight wounded soldiers, forgotten in a local hospital, barricaded there with one pistol and a box of grenades. Two — of Chinese origin — were lured out by doctors. The remaining six — Arabs — stayed there for two more months. The locals were smuggling food and water to them. After a couple of failed attacks, the good guys flooded the hospital with water from fire engines, planning to electrocute the bad guys, but then managed to do that in a more ordinary way. The six are buried in Kandahar, at the so-called “Al Qaida cemetery”, and the locals come there to eat some dirt from a hero's grave when they are sick — the already created legend claims it helps.

New Old Times

Tribal chiefs, warlords and the like elected a new president, Hamid Karzai. He was immediately ignored by any self-respecting warlord and limited in real power to Kabul only. Doustum was offended by the fact that he was not appointed a Minister of Defense. He came back to Mazar-i-Sharif with his usual ideas of autonomy, and even managed to continue printing his own money. Ismail Khan, avoiding any open confrontation, reincarnated as a sole ruler of Herat and environs. The Minister of Defense was on so bad terms with the president that Karzai chose to replace his own bodyguards with American special forces. In Khost a former warlord who was not appointed as a governor went into mountains and began missile warfare against his ungrateful former subjects.

The five billion dollars promised to the Afghans by the international community did not materialize. The UN/NGO personnel stationed in the country burns through a third of a billion dollars per year for salaries and other allowances — not a cent of it goes toward any help to the Afghans.

The drug industry, destroyed by the talibs, immediately returned to the pre-Taliban volumes, making Afghanistan one of the biggest producers of raw opium in the world.

Pushtun South has been occupied by the Northern Alliance forces who began looting and killing the civilians. The peacekeepers went into hiding in their sandbagged bases, being mostly interested in hunting Bin Laden down than anything else. Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, who had devoted a lot of efforts to keeping his organization underground, survived this change of power and, as usual, began his trademark war “me against the world”.

Afghanistan became a normal Central Asian country.

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