Sunday, January 28, 2007

Taliban eyes on the Pakistani prize

Afghanistan’s foreign minister accused Pakistan on Friday of not doing enough to fight the Taliban and “using terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy”. Rangeen Dadfar Spanta said “Pakistan doesn’t do enough” to combat terrorism and “from our point of view [are] part of the problem — they have to stop interference ... in Afghanistan”. His exasperated call comes as the Taliban shore up support in the border regions of Pakistan ready for a renewed assault on Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has been long prized through history due to its strategic position on the caravan routes between the Mediterranean and India to the south and China to the north. The Achaemenids of Persia ruled the area in the 6th c BC. Cyrus II the Great established satrapies in Herat, Kandahar and Bactria. Alexander the Great overthrew the Persians on his way to India in 327BC. The Seleucids ruled after he died before being overwhelmed by Parthian invaders. A transplanted Buddhist culture thrived leaving many stupas and monasteries. Finally Islamic armies arrived in 642AD leading to a long line of various dynasties. Genghis Khan and Tamerlane both conquered the country on their long way west. Tamerlane’s descendents ruled Kabul and Kandahar before conquering India to give rise to the Moghul empire.

Afghanistan was united in its modern form in 1747 when a group of regional rulers appointed a shah over the entire country. Britain, worried about Russian encroachment of India, brought pressure to bear on Afghanistan which resulted in the Anglo-Afghan wars of 1839-1842 and 1878-1880. In the first war, British troops occupied Kabul before withdrawing. The second war was costly and inconclusive. Finally Russia and Britain concluded a treaty in 1907 that recognised Afghanistan as a buffer state. Britain retained de facto foreign control. They would fight one more war there in 1919 after the shah attempted complete independence but that too was inconclusive. Afghanistan was allowed to go its own way after this time. It remained neutral in World War II and the regime lasted until 1973 when it was overthrown by the Soviet-trained Afghan army.

The Great Saur Revolution of 1978 saw a soviet-style government imposed as the only legal political party with the support of the USSR. This new Marxist state was immediately opposed by Muslim tribal communities. When the government could not quell the rebellion, the Soviets sent in an invasion force of 30,000 troops, executed the president and installed a new man, Babrak Karmal, at the helm. The force was increased to 115,000 as opposition grew. The rebels were known as the “Mujahideen” (holy warriors) but were far from united. Their strength lay in the remote mountainous regions near the Pakistani border and they were supplied by US and Chinese arms through Pakistan.

The war meandered on through the 1980s with the Russians gradually losing the will to fight. Meanwhile Karmal was overthrown by General Najibullah who tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the Mujahideen. The UN brokered a Soviet withdrawal in 1988-89. But the fighting continued until the Mujahideen took Kabul in 1992. They proclaimed an Islamic state but remained fractionalised and sporadic fighting continued. By 1994, the peace accord had collapsed and fighting between rival Mujahideen forces escalated. Around this time the Taliban emerged, quickly capturing Kandahar and Charasiab in the south. They eventually took Kabul in 1996 to take de facto control of the country.

The word Mujahideen means 'strugglers' and is derived from jihad, a Quranic term denoting the battle against Allah’s enemies. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan was preceded by a cultural Islamic revivalism in the 1970s. Muslim intellectuals saw Marxism and secularism in general as a threat to traditional values. The Afghan Mujahideen had between eight to ten factions who fought with each other as much as they fought the alien infidels. The Taliban movement was a new demonstration of the Islamic faith. They announced their task was to purify the country from the stains of hypocrisy due to Mujahideen internal conflicts.

Their religious theology ultimately derives from the Hanafite school of Islam. The 8th century theologian and jurist Imam Abu Hanifah acknowledged the primacy of the Koran and the Hadith but crucially allowed for personal opinion to prevail in the absence of precedence. Hanifah’s school was a breakaway from tradition, was linked with Shi’ite theology and most importantly in the Taliban context, he was Persian with cultural links to Afghanistan.

The word Taliban is Arabic for “students”. They studied not only the works of the Hanafites but were also strongly influenced by Wahhabism, a highly puritanical and orthodox Islamic strain. Wahhabism emerged from Arabia in the mid 18th century and its basis was a condemnation of what were considered polytheistic practices such as praying to saints, making pilgrimages to tombs and mosques, venerating tombs and sacrificial offerings. It promoted the oneness of God and purifying religion. The movement revived in the newly independent Saudi Arabia of the 1920s and earned the sobriquet of “Muslim Calvinists”. Wine and tobacco were forbidden, modest dress was prescribed for men and women and music, dancing, loud laughter and excessive weeping were all condemned.

When the Taliban took Kabul they took little time to institutionalise their own form of Wahhabism in Afghanistan. Even with civil issues such as the economy, they handled them within an Islamic framework. The US claimed poppy cultivation for opium and heroin skyrocketed under Taliban rule, though this was denied by Taliban leaders who maintained they would eradicate the crop once they brought the entire country under their rule. And their prediction was borne out. By 2001, UN drug control officers said the Taliban had nearly wiped out opium production in Afghanistan since banning poppy cultivation the previous summer.

But it was their treatment of women which attracted most attention. When they took Kabul, they shut down all girls schools claiming the curriculum was against the tenets of Islam. They claimed the move was temporary until they found an appropriate system to replace it. Women in Mazar-e-Sharif and elsewhere were ordered through loudspeakers to stay indoors and only be allowed out in the company of a close male relative and wearing the all-over burqa. According to the Attorney-General’s office “the face of a woman is a source of corruption for men who are not related to them”. In Kabul 225 women who defied Taliban edicts on clothing were punished by being lashed on the back and legs. Another woman was stoned to death for adultery in Laghman province in 1997.

Along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Pakistan was the only country in the world to recognise the Taliban administration as the government of Afghanistan. Russia accused Pakistan of sending troops to fight with the Taliban militia. Many Pakistani politicians called for the introduction of Taliban style rapid justice in their own country. The Pakistani government were happy to see a stable administration next door. But all that changed with Osama Bin Laden.

Bin Laden had called for a holy war against the Americans "who are occupying the land of the two shrines.” The shrines were Mecca and Medina in his own native land, Saudi Arabia. Throughout the eighties he was a major financier of the Afghan Mujahideen and he participated in the battles for Jalalabad in 1986. The Saudis cancelled his passport in 1991 when he left the country for good. He moved to Afghanistan where he declared a fatwa against the US. He was alleged to be behind the attacks of US military personnel in Riyadh, the USS Cole, and the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Taliban refused to hand Osama over to the Clinton administration after the US uncovered evidence he had acquired WMDs and chemical weapons. The Taliban defended Osama saying the US charges were unfounded.

The 9/11 attacks gave the new Bush administration the chance to take out Osama and remove the Taliban in the process. By December, Kabul was in the hands of the old Northern Alliance, backed by the power of the US. They retreated to the inhospitable hilly wildernesses of the Pakistan border where they regrouped as a guerrilla fighting force. While the US lost interest in the attempt to unseat Saddam’s regime in Iraq, the Taliban began to mount a revival boosted by Afghan corruption, US interference and an influx of Pakistani volunteers. Sheltered by tribal leaders in Pakistani border enclaves, they are now the defacto ruling group in many parts of Waziristan and threatening the North West Frontier Province capital of Peshawar.

Afghan foreign minister Spanta is right to be concerned by Islamabad’s inaction. However Pakistan’s President Musharraf may find his own regime’s understated tolerance of the Taliban backfires if they take a major prize such as Peshawar. It could unleash demons in the country that would be difficult to put back into the bottle.

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