A Warning Too Late

Taliban, Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in

Central Asia

By Ahmed Rashid, (New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, Yale University Press, 2002).

A Book Review



“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that ye might have…. torture, mass murder, tyranny and unrelenting war.” Strange, it seems, that words invoked by millions as an expression of religious devotion can be so easily converted into travesty.  For some of us, the shock rendered to our religious sensibilities by such an expression may strain the limits of what the conscience will accept. Nevertheless, this book by Ahmed Rashid shows why such an unwelcome twist on the scriptures may still hold insight. This study of the Taliban, a once powerful group of Islamic fundamentalists who, during the mid-1990s, seized power in Afghanistan, may be one of the more important books of our time.  Through more than four years of ruthless civil war, Taliban leaders such as Mullah Mohammed Omar terrorized their own country, and then, having allied themselves with Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization, aided the group that destroyed the New York World Trade Center and set America on the course of its current war.

More than a portrait of a single movement or set of individuals, Rashid’s Taliban is a complex study of an entire epoch in the life of the many peoples of Central Asia. The Taliban’s bloody regime is placed in a broad geographic and historical context, which includes discussion of the foundations of the modern institutions of Afghanistan, the diverse array of ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian influences that shaped the country, as well as the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in the twentieth century.  Born out of war in the 1990s, the Taliban was a movement of Islamic students whose uprooted lives, conditioned by exile and the hardships of life in refugee camps and Koranic schools along the Afghan-Pakistani border, made them the likely followers of an extremist leadership.

As Rashid’s book strongly suggests, the spectacle of religious perversion that has occurred in Afghanistan is important to our understanding of the modern reality that warfare has become.  But it is also part of a narrative of American leadership and identity.  For those whose attention is still fixed on the nightmare saga of the century’s two world wars and the 1936-1945 Holocaust aimed at world Jewry, it may be tempting to regard this book as no more than a sideline to recent history.  But the scale of the destruction in Central Asia, as well as its implications for the United States, reminds us that should we fail to understand it, we may do so at our peril.

For Western readers, such books as Erich M. Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Franz Nauman’s The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, or even The Diary of Anne Frank, have given us images of horror, persecution, mass death, and state coercion under totalitarian regimes which broaden our understanding of human depravity and injustice in the act of war.  If we have already learned how modern science has transmogrified war into the unspeakable reality of mass death, and how modern forms of government, even democracy itself, can be so altered both in substance and appearance that its institutions are transformed into engines for genocide, we may still need Rashid’s study of the Taliban for the additional insights it provides. The product of the author’s more than twenty-one years of direct experience as a reporter throughout the region, Rashid’s study opens a window into the hell of one of the longest ongoing civil wars in recent history, a war so devastating that it all but destroyed a culture and the people who made it.  This is all the more important for American readers, since we are reminded that from the beginning of this conflict, our involvement, both through covert and overt means, has been a decisive factor in the life and death of a people and their way of life.

Rashid shows little interest in the polemics of interpretation, yet does make pointed reference to Samuel Huntington’s much heralded thesis, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). This book views America’s conflict with Islamic radicalism as a chapter in a new Cold War between East and West, a conflict between civilizations on a global stage rooted in religious sensibilities that are ancient.  The stress that is laid by Rashid upon the Taliban as an aberrant creation, a fundamentally misguided application of Islam, even a perversion of religion as such, seems to suggest that America’s conflict with Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia must require another paradigm.  Even further perhaps, to view this conflict from a perspective conditioned by Cold War assumptions and imperatives, may be to miss the point and botch the potential for constructive involvement in a world whose interests are still linked directly to ours.

Anxious to reveal the tangled threads by which Taliban religion grew out of the legitimate strains of Islamic practice, Rashid is no apologist for this murderous trend within the religions of Central Asia.  Ranked by Rashid as the world’s second largest producer of opium in the 1990s, the Taliban’s leaders briefly offered to abolish the drug trade in exchange for international recognition, but found that the profits generated by the trade were irresistible. Relying on Koranic interpretation which supposedly permits the sale of intoxicants to kafirs (nonbelievers), the production of opium in Afghanistan increased by twenty-five percent through 1997, with Afghani farmers taking in over US$100 million in sales, a mere one percent of the total estimated profit generated by the drug trade. With a domestic economy shattered by years of war, and a growing humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions, more and more of the people became economically dependent upon warlords allied with drug producers, who routinely trafficked with Russian mafia and as many as forty other major heroine syndicates. Rashid exposes Taliban involvement in the trade, but along with it shows that the US Central Intelligence Agency also demonstrated a willing tolerance of the drug traffic going back into the 1980s, when the agency, at the behest of the Reagan presidency, funded the supply of weapons which enabled the Afghani Mujaheddin to wage war against the Soviet Union.

Here Rashid’s complaint is most telling. In the wake of the Soviet collapse from 1989-1991, the US leadership basked in its victory with a vindictive zeal held over from Vietnam, but turned its back upon the people who had suffered most severely from the war that dealt the final blow to Soviet militarism. While civil war in Afghanistan raged on, the death toll rising to over 1.5 million by the early 1990s, the successive administrations of Bush I, and then Clinton, ignored the tempest brewing in the wilderness. The traffic in drugs and weapons grew, while a pattern of outside interference threatened to plunge Afghanistan into a major regional war involving Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the surrounding Central Asian republics. Once in control of the majority of the Afghan population, the new Islamicist leadership imposed a brutal reign on a country so long at war that a whole generation came of age in the midst of ruins, with little recollection or understanding of the world that had existed before it.

Instead of an inevitable clash between civilizations of East and West to create a new Cold War, Rashid tells us this latest conflict is more likely the result of the geography, history, and the political economy of Central Asia. Decisive for Afghanistan is its geo-strategic location, “on the crossroads between Iran, the Arabian Sea and India, and between Central Asia and South Asia.” In a region where conquerors “swept through like shooting stars,” what is novel is defined not only by modern weapons and the perverse manner in which religion is adapted to the purposes of contemporary players, but also by what Rashid describes perceptively as, “the Great New Game.” Once utilized as a buffer state between the nineteenth-century colonial empires of Russia and Great Britain, Afghanistan today has become the focal point of the struggle of contemporary players in a race to develop the transportation of oil and natural gas from its origin, to the diverse points of distribution across markets throughout the world.

Useful to American interests in the final stages of the Cold War against communism in the 1980s, Afghanistan became, in the “Great New Game” of the 1990s, a proving ground for American companies such as Chevron, Mobil, Exxon, and especially the Texas based firms Unocal and Enron, which were locked in fierce competition with competing interests from South America, Russia, Iran and elsewhere. Backed up by its allies, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, the CIA for a time actually aided the Taliban and nourished it on its pathway to power as a means to secure the development of a natural gas pipeline that would link the opening fields of Turkmenistan to western markets through Pakistan. In close cooperation with Pakistani intelligence (ISI), the CIA had funded the training camps and the Koranic madrassas (religious schools), which, in the 1980s, brought together tens of thousands of Islamic radicals from all over the Muslim world to support the jihad against the Soviet Union. Among these thousands of recruits was Osama Bin Laden, a young and impressionable student from Saudi Arabia whose limited understanding of Islam added fuel to a deepening hostility toward the West. By the 1990s, this outlook was shared by many of those who had participated in the war against the Soviets, who now felt the sting of American betrayal, and dreamed that a second superpower might prove vulnerable to jihad.

Although Rashid’s development of a sequence of events is at times obscure, he does maintain that CIA and US corporate interests aided the Taliban at least from 1994 up to at least 1996, when Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan.  While their interest in the Taliban was based upon the need for a stable regime to support the development of a natural gas pipeline, the Clinton administration attempted to remain neutral in the war that continued between the Taliban and the older Mujaheddin warlords who had fought the Soviets.  What truly defined the Taliban according to Rashid was the manner in which it adapted the traditional Afghani Islam, with its spirit of nonsectarian charity, tolerance, and equality, to suit its own purposes. Under the influence of Bin Laden by 1996, this radicalized leadership soon condemned America as the real source of terrorism in the world, but had all along scorned western values such as religious freedom and equal rights for women, and imposed a harsh religious code, which fell hardest upon women and minorities.  Under the Taliban’s extreme interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law), women were forced behind the veil, were forbidden to work and required literally to remain behind closed doors with windows blackened.

The ongoing war in the 1990s also meant that thousands of Taliban opponents who belonged to Shia and Sufi religious orders, along with Hazarat, Tajik, and Uzbek minorities were tortured, arbitrarily jailed, or massacred in numerous episodes, which culminated in the killing frenzy in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, where 6,000 to 8,000 were murdered in July and August of 1998.  With its radical Islamicist regime drawing support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and for a time, even the CIA and American oil companies, the Taliban created a secretive theocratic regime in which Mullah Omar became the Amir-ul Momineen, or Commander of the Faithful.  But as the regime degenerated into drug traffic, sectarian bigotry, ethnic cleansing, and male chauvinism, in which religious police regulated everything from the code of dress, haircuts, and religious worship, to the toys that children played with, the clash with western leaders became more evident. The savage punishment of capital crimes or petty theft brought public spectacles in which thousands witnessed firing squad executions, public floggings for men and women and other forms of harsh punishment.  With condemnation growing from western human rights groups, as well as American feminists and others, the US finally divorced itself from the Taliban, which came with US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s ringing denunciation in November 1997. The bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania then followed in August of 1998.

In this book, Ahmed Rashid stops short of telling us that we have seen in the Central Asian conflict only what we wanted to see, that our actions have been motivated out of simple prejudice or stultifying self-interest, or even that we are guilty of more than passivity in the tangled circumstances that led to the Taliban’s reign of terror.  But implications here are everywhere apparent.  Published through the months that brought the September 11, 2001 terrorist assaults on New York and Washington, D.C. and the subsequent US reaction, Rashid’s book might have provided some warning that the region he describes as “a powder keg of unresolved conflicts,” might once again explode in America’s face.

Although Rashid’s book was a warning too late to make a difference in America, we may assume it would have fallen on ears deafened by the noise of a bitter political partisanship in the 1990s. Rashid’s Taliban, nevertheless provides a clear perspective on a complex world shattered by war and extreme hardship to which America is now inextricably linked. It raises questions about the relationship between US corporate interests, government based intelligence operations, and the sequence of events leading to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US that remain at the center of the most important national security debate since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The failure it confirms for the conduct of US foreign policy, along with questions that it raises about our role within the United Nations during the 1990s, and the larger relationship between religious practice and human rights, also make this an important sourcebook for those who have an interest in the U.S. role in the Middle East.  It should be read by every American.



From The People’s Civic Record

Vol. 2, No. 7, August 2002


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