Afghanistan: June 19, 2001


The Taliban Time Bomb- While the Taliban movement rules most of Afghanistan, their rule is shaky and threatened by internal divisions as well as regional and ethnic animosities. The Taliban (the organization of Talibs) began as a religious movement. Talib means religious student. Just how Afghan religious students came to rule Afghanistan is one of those "truth is stranger than fictions" tales. 

Normally the Afghans are not very religious, but they are very attached to their customs and traditions These include loyalty to family and clan, protecting the women, owning a gun and knowing how to use it, blood feuds and considering outsiders fair game for a little grand larceny, kidnapping or extortion. More than a few Afghans, watching Russian troops roll into the country during 1979, could only think, "look at all that loot."

The Afghan's have a well deserved, and ancient, reputation of resisting invaders no matter what the cost. Fighting the Russians proved to be very expensive. Two million Afghans died and over three million fled to Iran and (mostly) Pakistan. The Afghan refugees in Pakistan were treated quite well. This had a lot to do with politics. India was an ally of Russia, Pakistan was an enemy of India. Thus there was a lot of Pakistani support for the Afghan struggle against the Russians. Moreover, Pakistan has stayed on good terms with the United States over the last few decades. This made Pakistan a natural base for the billions of dollars of economic and military aid America and the wealthy Persian Gulf states were sending to the Afghan mujahadeen (holy warriors) fighting the Russians. By 1989, the Russians left Afghanistan and everyone thought that was that. It wasn't.

While the Russians were gone, their communist government still existed and continued to fight on until 1992. Then the various mujahadeen factions in Afghanistan began fighting each other. But in 1994, something quite unexpected arrived on the scene, a militia composed of religious students (Talibs). The Taliban had enormous popular appeal, because people knew they were pious and honest. Since nearly every Afghan had a gun, the Taliban provided a worthy cause for many Afghans to get behind. By 1996, most of warring mujahadeen militias had been destroyed, won over or run out of the country. 

But the Taliban only controlled some 80 percent of the country. And five years later they are still unable to conquer the last ten percent. Moreover, the Taliban themselves have made themselves increasingly unpopular. This slide goes back to the origins of the Taliban in the Pakistan refugee camps. Pakistan army intelligence (ISI) got behind the Taliban movement, feeling that it was Pakistan's only chance of getting some control over the chaotic situation in Afghanistan. The religious schools were originally backed by pious Moslems from Saudi Arabia. Afghan clerics exiled in Pakistan took the money and ran the schools. There a lot of young men and boys among the refugee population who saw life as a Talib as an attractive alternative to drab and pointless camp life. Parents also approved, feeling that it was a choice between the kid being a Talib, or a drug addict or bandit. When the Russians left and the refugees saw Afghanistan slip into violent anarchy, it didn't take too much encouragement for the Talibs to get behind the idea of a religious government in their homeland. The ISI approved, provided weapons and transport and the Taliban went to war. 

Quite by chance, the key leaders of the Taliban were mostly from the southern Kandahar region of Afghanistan. This was no problem at first. But once the Taliban were in control of most of the country, and the fighting continued, resentment began to appear. This was made worse the insistence of the Kandaharis that their local customs become the accepted interpretation of Islamic law. The majority of Afghans didn't care for the mandatory beards, no entertainment and shutting up the women in the home. But no one wanted another civil war either. And the Taliban wisely called for foreign volunteers (religious students preferred) to fill out their armies. Actually, the fighting in Afghanistan over the last few years has been pretty small stuff. The average fighting units was a few hundred guys rolling along the few roads in a motley collection of trucks, cars and armored vehicles. Casualties have also been low. 

But losses among civilians because of a record breaking drought are much larger than from the fighting. And the Taliban's insistence on providing sanctuary to terrorist kingpin Osama Bin Laden, and harassment of foreign aid agencies has not won it any points among the Afghan population. The foreign aid is desperately needed, and the Taliban appear to be getting in the way. And then there is also the ethnic angle. The largely Pushtuns Taliban are not the majority in the country, merely the largest minority (about 40 percent of the population.) The opposition Northern Alliance is mostly Tajik (25 percent of the population), Hazara (19 percent) and Shia Moslem (15 percent, spread among several ethnic groups.) 

While the Taliban's use of foreigners (Pakistanis and Arabs for the most part) to do the fighting is appreciated, there is also resentment about all those armed foreigners running around and giving orders in the name of the Taliban.

It's an unstable situation, and Taliban firepower and fanaticism is not likely to calm things down.


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