Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
Afghanistan is once again in the news, following the US attacks against 'terrorist' targets. The Taliban recently strengthened its control of the country as its army marched into the northern city of Mazer-i- Sharif last month. For many in the west this symbolises the continuing horror and tragedy that have afflicted Afghanistan since the Russian invasion in 1979.
The Taliban is perceived to be an irrational force that is dedicated to unleashing its own brand of Islamic fundamentalism across the country. An Amnesty International report stated 'a reign of terror' had struck Kabul when Taliban forces entered the city in 1996. The exclusion of women from public life, denying them education and jobs, forcing them to wear the full burqa as well as the prohibitions on music, films, kite flying and chess, is taken as further proof of an Islamic terror that democratic forces must guard against Western perceptions seem to mirror the Taliban's own mythology of its rise to power, its so called Islamic invincibility and mass support.
In order to understand the rise of the Taliban it is necessary to go back to 1992 when the hated Najibullah regime was beaten by mujahideen guerrillas. The civil war that ensued meant that not one of the victorious factions was capable of forming a national government.
The levelling of Kabul and other cities left over 3 million refugees across the border in Pakistan and the country decimated. The Taliban army grew out of this carnage. It seemed to be the only group capable of restoring order. It was welcomed in some areas where the mujahideen had failed to stop the fighting. The origins of the Taliban lie in the refugee camps of Pakistan where its members were recruited. Most of the cadre are far too young to remember the Russian invasion.
These young militants believe in egalitarian principles because they reject the feudal nature of Pakistani society, which is why they can command support from various tribes. Yet they have also been brought up with their own version of radical Islam in which they view the Shi'ite Muslims as unbelievers. This explains why Saudi Arabia became the Taliban's principal financial backers in July 1996. It fits very well with Saudi enmity towards Iran which has tried to challenge Saudi Arabia's role as the leader of the Muslim world.
Liberals and feminists attack the Taliban for its views on women, seen as highly oppressive. The Taliban has, however, been singled out for these opinions. little mention is made of the violence against women by the mujahideen in terms of rapes and assaults. Also the wen is silent on gender Issues in other Islamic states-notably Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In fact, the Taliban's rejection of women in public places is more attributable to Pushtan 'monastic' and rural puranitism than radical Islam. Even here there are contradictions: the Taliban want women to have a leading role, just so long as they are veiled. This is total anathema to the House of Saudi
As Clinton bombs Afghan villages in an attempt to destroy Osama bin Laden the 'terrorist', we should remember that bin Laden joined the mujahideen freedom fighters in the 1980s to drive the Russians from Afghanistan. Pakistan also has its own reasons for supporting the Taliban. It provided stability in the area and Pakistani leaders could not afford war on its borders. The Tallban's rise was very coordinated and at times quite calculated by the Pakistani secret service. President Zia of Pakistan gave the bulk of US military aid to the Pushtan groups from which the Taliban emerged. Benazir Bhutto's government also supported them. Throughout the 1990s US weapons and the training of military cadets has been provided by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence Directorate which has turned the Taliban into a military machine rising from 100 men in 1994 to an estimated 35,000 troops by late 19%. This does not mean that there is a conspiracy to sponsor Islamic groups. The Taliban has its own agenda, as is becoming evident. Its interests will not automatically coincide with the rulers of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or the United States. What the episode does demonstrate is how opportunist and hypocritical western leaders are in their dealings with Islamic groups.
The real tragedy of Afghanistan is that its strategic position, bordering as It does on the central Asian republics with their oil pipelines, means that the country will continue to be a battleground for our rulers and regional powers. These are problems to which the Taliban has no answers.
Fundamentalism Reborn? (ed: William Maley, published by Hirst, £14.95) contains a number of useful articles about the Taliban.