Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia

Ahmed Rashid
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000
279 pp., $14.95 pb

Linda M. MacCammon
Moral Theology
Carroll College

Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, has written a fascinating and often disturbing book that is indispensable for anyone interested in learning about the historical, cultural, and social background of the civil war in Afghanistan, and the sudden emergence of the Taliban in that war-torn country. Originally published in 2000, Rashid's painstaking investigation of the Taliban is eerily prophetic, shedding light on the inner workings of a renegade movement that makes the tragic events of September 11, 2001, understandable and almost inevitable. As America's "War on Terrorism" unfolds, the insights of Rashid's book are even timelier and are ignored at our peril.

As a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and other magazines, Rashid has covered Afghanistan for over 20 years, witnessing first-hand the disintegration of the country and its people. Rashid's "Introduction" sets the context for his analysis, presenting the various ethnic groups (Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks), foreign powers (Britain, Russia, the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran), and international organizations and corporate interests (the United Nations, Unocal, Bridas Corporation) that have played a part in Afghanistan's bloody history of imperial invasion, conquest, and civil war.

A new chapter in this history began at the end of 1994, when the Taliban (aka the students of Islam) made a sudden and dramatic appearance in the region, crushing opposition groups and providing peace and security to the principal city of Kandahar and to the neighboring provinces. In taking the reins of power, the Taliban espoused and implemented a radical form of Islam that appalled and alienated many Afghans and Muslims. In reporting on the "Taliban phenomenon," Rashid was interested in "trying to get to grips with who they were, what motivated them, who supported them, and how they had arrived at this violent, extreme interpretation of Islam" (3). The book thoroughly explores these questions in three parts, presenting an absorbing journalistic account of the history of the movement, its relationship to Islam, and the politics that enabled the Taliban to come to power. This review will focus on the main points of Rashid's investigation and their significance in light of September 11, 2001.

"Part I: History of the Taliban Movement" traces the early roots of the movement after the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan in 1989. Twenty years of civil war and conflict with the Soviets had killed 1.5 million Afghans and had left the country and its people culturally, economically, and spiritually shattered. Although the Mujaheddin (holy warriors) had succeeded in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the fighting was far from over. In Kandahar--a city with the dubious distinction of being one of the most heavily mined cities in the world--two rival factions emerged: Traditionalists, who valued traditional Islamic ideals and tribal structures, and Islamicists, who rejected tribal structures and who espoused a radical Islamic ideology that was used as the basis for a political and religious revolution in Afghanistan. Rashid notes that the fighting between these two groups was so merciless and intense that "by 1994, the traditional leadership in Kandahar had virtually been eliminated, leaving the field free for the new wave of even more extreme Islamicists--the Taliban" (19).

The majority of Taliban were young men of the madrassas (Islamic schools). According to Rashid, these young men did not join the fight merely to grab power; rather, they saw themselves "as the cleansers and purifiers of a guerrilla war gone astray, a social system gone wrong and an Islamic way of life that had been compromised by corruption and excess.... [F]rom their madrassas they learnt about the ideal Islamic society created by the Prophet Mohammad 1,400 years ago and this is what they wanted to emulate" (23).

The leader of these young idealists was Mullah Mohammed Omar--a name that is all-too-familiar these days. Rashid provides a fascinating account of Omar's life, from his humble family beginnings to his legendary exploits as a warrior against rival Kandahar warlords. With the aid of the Pakistani government (which was trying to secure trade routes to northern countries in Central Asia), Omar eventually captured the city with the loss of just a dozen men. By December of 1994, some 12,000 Afghan and Pakistani students joined the Taliban in Kandahar to continue the struggle across Afghanistan and to capture the capital of Kabul (29). Thousands more streamed across the border from refugee camps in Pakistan to join the fight.

Rashid's account of the struggle for Kabal and of the eventual triumph of the Taliban is rich in historical detail, frontline interviews, and biographies of the major Mujaheddin and Taliban leaders (the book's many appendices are helpful and informative). It also details the complex power politics between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States as they tried to aid and then to control the Taliban movement--inept maneuverings that eventually led to the Taliban's murder of Afghanistan's former President, Najibullah, who had been living in Kabul under the protection of the UN. Underestimating the Taliban was a common mistake among the major powers and the UN, showing an across-the-board ignorance of the movement's radical ideology that would cost the world dearly.

In "Part 2: Islam and Taliban," Rashid explores the Taliban's ideology and the devastating effects it's had both at home and abroad. One of the most striking characteristics Rashid uncovers is the Taliban's lack of schooling in the complex histories of Afghanistan and Islam, and their ignorance of the Koran and Islamic law. Rashid notes that "While Islamic radicalism in the twentieth century has a long history of scholarly writing and debate, the Taliban have no such historical perspective or tradition.... Their exposure to the radical Islamic debate around the world is minimal, their sense of their own history is even less. This has created an obscurantism which allows no room for debate even with fellow Muslims" (93). Thus, what started out as an Islamic reform movement in Afghanistan was transformed by the Taliban into a secret society of under-educated, inflexible militants led by Mullah Omar and his Kandahar cronies, a society that was "vehemently opposed to modernism" and that had no desire to "adopt modern ideas of progress or economic development" (ibid.). It is no wonder that Rashid compares the Taliban to the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia or Saddam Hussein's Iraq (98).

The effects of such an ideology on the people of Afghanistan--particularly the Taliban's treatment of women--are well-known. But Rashid's book reveals other effects that are less well-known but every bit as disturbing, such as the Taliban's harsh treatment of men, the recruitment of boy soldiers, the public executions of homosexuals, the purging or flight of the educated, professional classes, and the extreme restrictions on every conceivable form of entertainment, from music and dance to radio, television, and movies. Rashid aptly sums up the situation when he observes that the Taliban simply "did not recognize the very idea of culture" (115). What they did recognize, however, was the dollar value of heroin and the smuggling trade.

Under the Taliban, Afghanistan became a major supplier of heroin in the region and expanded its smuggling routes, bringing social, economic, and political instability to neighboring states. For example, the last few years have witnessed a sizeable jump in the number of heroin addicts in both Pakistan and Iran. On a more global scale, the friendship between Mullah Omar and the exiled Saudi, Osama Bin Laden, established Afghanistan as a sanctuary for Islamic extremists and Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network. In his safe haven, Bin Laden called for a global jihad--not only against the West, but also against Muslims and Muslim nations that did not ascribe to the Taliban's extreme ideology.

In "Part 3: The New Great Game," Rashid shifts his focus to the Machiavellian machinations of Asian, European, and American governments and competing oil companies as they struggled for control of oil and natural gas production, projected pipeline projects, and the Taliban leadership--none of which succeeded. The Taliban proved to be uncooperative, erratic, and dangerous, murdering diplomats, harboring Bin Laden, supporting the network of militant madrassas, and making negotiations and investments in the region impossible. Eventually, even the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, who were major supporters of the Taliban, came to view them as a political and economic liability. For the Afghans, the Taliban were more than a liability, as Rashid's mind-numbing description of life in Afghanistan attests:

The entire Afghan population has been displaced, not once but many times over.... There is no semblance of an infrastructure that can sustain society--even at the lowest common denominator of poverty. In 1998 the ICRC [Red Cross] reported that the number of Afghan families headed by a widow had reached 98,000, the number of families headed by a disabled person was 63,000 and 45,000 people were treated for war wounds that year alone. There was not even an estimate of those killed. The only productive factories in the country are those where artificial limbs, crutches and wheelchairs are produced by the aid agencies.... The economy is a black hole that is sucking in its neighbours with illicit trade and the smuggling of drugs and weapons, undermining them in the process.... The tribal hierarchy that once mediated conflicts has been killed or is in exile. The old, educated, ruling elite fled after the Soviet invasion and no new ruling elite has emerged in its place which can negotiate a peace settlement. (207-08)

In the "Conclusion" to the book, Rashid speculates on the future of Afghanistan and it is here that the prophetic nature of his work comes through with haunting force. He places much of the blame for the destruction of Afghanistan and the resulting regional instability at the door of "outsiders who continue to back their proxies in an ever-increasing spiral of intervention and violence" (208). The U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Islamic extremists, oil companies, the United Nations--all have contributed to making the region a "powder keg of unresolved conflicts" (209). Rashid has particularly harsh words for U.S. policy-makers who, after the Soviets left, "refused to help bring peace or feed a hungry people," leaving a political vacuum that was eventually filled by the Taliban.

As we now know all too well, the powder keg exploded on September 11, 2001. The U.S. and many other nations have paid dearly for their self-interested meddling, their cultural ignorance, and their indifference toward the people of Afghanistan. Given Rashid's insights, we would do well to listen to his suggestions on how to bring peace and stability to the region, especially since his suggestions assumed the continued presence of the Taliban--disruptive players that have since been effectively eliminated from "The New Great Game."

Essentially, Rashid calls for neighboring states to agree to an arms embargo on Afghanistan and for each state "to recognize not only its own national security needs, but also those of its neighbours. Outside influence cannot now be eliminated in Afghanistan, but it must be contained and limited with mutual agreement to acceptable levels" (214). Negotiations among the nations would be mediated by the UN and the international community--provided there was a genuine commitment to peace on the part of broker nations. Domestically, the various factions inside Afghanistan would retain their own regional autonomy while working toward building a strong central government. The major incentive for a cessation of civil war would be a generous aid package that would be developed by the World Bank, international donors, and other humanitarian agencies. The funds for reconstruction would be disbursed and monitored by the central authority. Rashid's suggestions are practical and doable and should be seriously considered as our government and the international community struggle to develop foreign policies and programs for a post-Taliban world. Given the stakes in the game, Rashid's book should be mandatory reading for anyone studying or working in government, international relations, and public policy, for the lessons contained in its pages transcend the particularities of regional politics and provide a clear and necessary warning to us all.

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