The Taliban: Ahmed Rashid and his passion for Afghanistan

Ahmed Rashid
Ahmed Rashid (Wikipedia Commons)

By the turn of the century, Afghanistan had been at war for nearly two decades. The Afghans first took up arms to oust the Soviet occupiers and then the conflict descended into civil war. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has been doggedly covering the war in Afghanistan and developments elsewhere in Central Asia for the past 20 years. Despite a lack of interest in the region, Ahmed Rashid remains passionate about Afghanistan, and he recently published a book on the Taliban, which literally means students, who emerged out of nowhere in 1994 and captured the capital, Kabul, two years later.

[The uncut interview can be found at the end of the post.]

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: October 8, 2000


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The Taliban”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Afghanistan has become an extremely unstable state, which is basically exporting now not just drugs but also Islamic radicalism, weapons and the kind of extremism that the Taliban themselves adhere to.

As a kid, I watched the Cold War being played out on my television. The media portrayed it as the powerful West waging a righteous war against the communist menace. Over the years, I’ve gone to some of those far-away battlegrounds like Angola and Nicaragua and discovered the staggering human cost of this ideological conflict. Afghanistan is another one of those places that’s been virtually forgotten. After the Soviets invaded the country, the mujaheddin – a collective name for a ragtag group of Afghans – took up arms with support from the United States to liberate their country. The fighting has continued for the past two decades. It now pits the ultra orthodox Taliban authorities against another Islamic group. I was going to Afghanistan as part of a series on forgotten wars. Before travelling there, I met with Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, who for the past 20 years has been doggedly covering the war in Afghanistan and developments elsewhere in Central Asia. Despite a lack of interest in the region, Ahmed Rashid remains passionate about Afghanistan, and he recently published a book on the Taliban, which literally means students, who emerged out of nowhere in 1994 and captured the capital, Kabul, two years later.

Most of them grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan during the 1980s when their fathers were fighting the war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many of them are orphans from the war. Many of them are destitute. Many of them studied in Pakistani madrassas or religious schools, which were adjacent to these refugee camps in these border areas, the Pashtun tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. They emerged really as very frustrated young men who were fed up with the internecine fighting going on Afghanistan, wanting to cleanse society, Islamisise society and initially bring peace to Afghanistan. So when they came out of their madrassas and captured the southern city of Kandahar in 1994, they were seen as a messianic force, a cleansing force. They were initially extremely popular. They disarmed the population. They cleared the roads of the bandits and the small petty warlords who were extracting toll taxes on the roads and harassing the public. And then they embarked on a campaign of conquest basically which, as long as it was in the Pashtun belt – the Pashtuns are the majority of Afghanistan’s population, the largest ethnic group, about 45% of the population. They predominate in the south and the east. As long as they were in the Pashtun belt, they were popular. The problems really arose when they took Kabul in 1996 and then tried to move north into the non-Pashtun belt occupied by the non-Pashtun minorities. Their policy of conquest and assimilation and a very severe interpretation of Islam did not rally fit with any of the kind of aspirations of the north. EB: Who was supporting the Taliban? Where did they get their arms from? Where did they get the funds to go ahead and wage this campaign to take over ultimately 90% of the country? The first linkages were with the Pakistani Islamic parties because they were running the madrassas where a lot of these Taliban were studying. Then, at the same time, they were very quickly picked up the Pakistani military. Then, at the same time, the Taliban were supported by a whole host of other players: the transport mafia who wanted to open the roads to Central Asia, so that a very lucrative smuggling business could expand into Central Asia; the drugs mafia who wanted to promote the export of opium outside which could only be done again if the roads were cleared and there was relative peace and security. So there were a whole host of people who initially supported the Taliban. EB: Why is Pakistan’s influence so great in Afghanistan? Pakistan’s influence has been very large ever since the Soviet war. Pakistan was a base for the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets. It was a base for all the Western aid, the American aid that was coming for the mujaheddin. It was the centre for the distribution of weapons, ammunition, humanitarian aid, etc. Secondly the military has seen… strategically it sees Afghanistan as a potential ally against the military’s conflict with India. It wants to secure what it calls “strategic depth” in Afghanistan vis-à-vis India. So it has been adamant that any government that is formed in Kabul should be a very close ally of Pakistan.

EB: In your book, you also point out that the CIA and the United States were involved initially in supporting the Taliban. The trajectory of American policy in Afghanistan, I think, has been very tragic and one of enormous neglect in the sense that once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Americans basically walked away and allowed the regional countries to do whatever they wished. Given that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were two of the most important allies of the United States in this region, they allowed the Saudis and Pakistan to sponsor whichever group they wanted, which after 1994 was the Taliban. The Americans were also banking on a Pakistani perception that the Taliban would be victorious very quickly. I don’t think the Americans gave material aid to the Taliban, but they certainly encouraged Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to back the Taliban, to fund the Taliban and give military aid to the Taliban. It is only after the fall of Kabul in 1996, when the Taliban capture Kabul and they impose their very strict Islamic regimen in Kabul, it attracts a lot of media attention – that there is a very negative fallout in the United States. Of course, this is followed by the arrival of Osama bin Laden, the whole terrorism issue and the very strong feminist lobby in America, which is very anti-Taliban because of its policies towards Afghan women. EB: Actually, the Taliban are best known for their restrictions – in the West at least – that they’ve imposed on women. Many of the measures that they’ve taken actually have very little to do with Islam and the Qu’ran. Where do these policies come from? There are many elements to these policies. I think the first element is an interpretation of Islam by the Deobandi sect, which is generally extremely conservative and very restrictive towards women. Deobandism is a sect that arose in British India in the late 19th century, and it did tend to isolate women from public life. The Taliban, of course, have taken Deobandism to a very far extreme. The second factor, I think, has been the Pashtun tribal code, which regulates the life of the Pashtun tribes, and what they have done is they have amalgamated a lot of the restrictions in Pashtunwali within their so-called Islamic measures against women. The third element is the Taliban’s own background. These are boys, many of them orphans, who grew up without women, who grew up living in these boarding schools, these madrassas. They never saw women. They never had any contact with women. Many of them did not even have a female family member. So there’s a background of living in a totally all-male society and wanting to try and recreate that in Afghanistan.

EB: You speak of the Taliban as a monolithic organisation or movement, but actually there are wide differences within the Taliban. You have some people who are far more orthodox, and some who are far more liberal. How do the Taliban actually make decisions if they have these wide differences within the movement itself? I was in fact initially very impressed by the fact that their decision making appeared to be much more democratic in the tribal sense of the word. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, would sit with commanders and mullahs and local clan leaders and tribe leaders and take decisions hearing everyone’s point of view. What we have seen subsequently, certainly since 1996 and their capture of Kabul, they set up a government in Kabul, but Mullah Omar has become now completely autocratic. There is very little consultation in the decision-making process. Rather than being surrounded by commanders and clan leaders and, if you like, members of civil society, he’s surrounded almost entirely by the mullahs, especially from Kandahar, who are extremely old, very conservative, never been outside Kandahar, never seen the outside world, are very distrustful of foreigners and Westerners in particular. So the decision-making process hardly exists. It’s a very autocratic system. There’s a lot of opposition now from the public, even from within the Pashtun areas, to the Taliban, to their measures. The Taliban are probably the most isolated movement in the world, and they’ve made Afghanistan into the most isolated country in the world, condemned by the entire world, having U.N. sanctions because of hosting bin Laden and other such measures. So you have a two-faced phenomenon: you have the leadership becoming more autocratic, more exclusive, less taking into consideration the opinions of their fellow members, and at the same time, you have the Taliban’s great isolation, which is in fact making them more xenophobic, more chauvinistic and much more anti-Western. EB: It actually seems like the Taliban is almost seeking out confrontation with the international community, with the United Nations. There are clashes frequently over a wide variety of subjects. Why are the Taliban so insensitive to what the outside world says? I think this has by now almost become a Taliban policy. Given that they have so little other assets to be able to keep the tribes and the movement together. I think in the last couple of years what we’ve seen is that especially Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership genuinely believe that confrontation with the West and expanding the war is the only way in which they can keep themselves united. I very firmly believe that there is no question of the Taliban ever agreeing to any kind of ceasefire in the war because as long as the war continues, they can maintain that there is an enemy to be destroyed. There is an army to be maintained. There is a religious jihad to be carried out, and that is one of the major ways that they can keep their rank and file troops united. And one of the aspects of this of course is to develop this very anti-Western confrontationist stance against the West, to keep the movement united and to demonstrate to their rank and file, who are largely very simple tribesmen who’ve just been through this very restrictive religious education in madrassas, who are barely literate, who have not studied at all any of the secular subjects such as history or geography, who have not studied the outside world, who have not met foreigners, to be able to convince their rank and file that the whole world is against them and they have to stand up for Islam.

EB: Is it also a way of masking the fact that the Taliban have no vision for their country? They have no policy for the future. Well, I think that’s very true. They have no vision for the future economic development of Afghanistan. And the second aspect, of course, of this is that they are now so enmeshed within the smuggling business, the drugs business. The only business in Afghanistan is criminal or illegal. The Taliban in particular have really absolved themselves of any kind of commitment to feeding the public, providing health care, providing any of the kind of basic amenities to the public or developing any kind of economic plan, saying that the very fact of imposing a very strict Islamic regime will bring about some sustenance to the people, which frankly has not been enough for the Afghan population.

EB: Not only to do the Taliban seem to have a complete disregard for their people, they have also committed massive human rights violations against their own people. You documented in your book two months of killings in the north of the country in retaliation for the defeat of the Taliban in Mazar. Thousands of people were killed, and these human rights violations are continuing on a systematic basis. Well, what you are seeing is really that the civil war has become an ethnic war. It has become a war between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtuns. Consequently it has become much more bloody and brutal. Both sides have conducted massacres against the other. But certainly the Taliban treatment of the non-Pashtuns has become extremely brutal. This is not something Afghanistan has ever experienced before. Afghanistan, even in the brutal fight against the Soviets or the wars against the British in the 19th century, there’s never been this level of sectarian and ethnic conflict. This is what makes a lot of people extremely depressed. The roots of hatred are so deeply entrenched. The blood that has been spilt is now in such huge quantities. Every family wants to take revenge against somebody else on the other side. How peace can come and how this war could end and how some  kind of a reconciliation could take place…the last two or three years of fighting and the kinds of human rights violations by the Taliban, the massacres, have made resolution of the conflict much more difficult.

EB: What makes your book so fascinating is that you put Afghanistan in the context of the war in Afghanistan in a regional context. It’s very important to go back into history. Afghanistan, the fact was during the Soviet war, it was a frontline state against the Soviet Union. The war in Afghanistan was an international war in that sense. All the West was supporting it. So it has always been an international issue. What happened after the withdrawal of the Soviets and the withdrawal of the interest of the Western countries was basically it become a regional war. It became a war of conflict between Iran and Pakistan, and then with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the emergence of the five Central Asian republics, the Central Asian republics all have ethnic groups or ethnic brothers inside Afghanistan. So that led to a further expansion of this regional rivalry, regional conflict, with the Central Asians backing one or another faction. And that has really intensified. So now you have a situation where the Taliban and clandestinely Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states are backing the Taliban, where you have Russia, Iran, the Central Asian states, India backing the anti-Taliban alliance. The other reason for the internalisation is the Taliban policies: one, of course, the drugs trade. The export of opium takes place through Iran, through Central Asia, Russia, Pakistan and Dubai in the Gulf. Afghanistan is kind of the centre of this spider’s web of drug exports. The second major factor is the Taliban harbouring of Islamic radicals such as Osama bin Laden, the wanted Islamic terrorist. What we are seeing is Afghanistan becoming the centre of Islamic movements and radical movements who want to overthrow their regimes from right across the region now. There are currently insurgencies going on in Central Asia, in three Central Asian republics. Most of these insurgents are based in Afghanistan. Thousands of Pakistani radicals have fought in Afghanistan. Several hundred Arabs are fighting for the Taliban and also Arabs under the leadership of bin Laden. So the Taliban’s own armed forces now are increasingly made up of Islamic mercenaries from more than a dozen different countries who are fighting for them and who are getting training and experience and then exporting this experience into their own countries. So Afghanistan has become an extremely unstable state, which is basically exporting now not just drugs but Islamic radicalism, weapons and the kind of extremism that the Taliban themselves adhere to.

Afghanistan has always been at the crossroads of the Middle East to the south, Central Asia to the north, and south Asia to the east. And it has been even more strategically important since the development of oil and gas resources in Central Asia. The fact is that these resources are basically trapped. These are land-locked republics, both in the Caucases and in Central Asia, and getting the oil out whether it’s Russia to the west or whether it’s China to the east or south through Iran or Turkey or Pakistan, Afghanistan is very difficult. The shortest route for the Central Asians is through Afghanistan and to Pakistan, to Karachi and the sea to be able to export that oil out from the Gulf. Now, there has been an enormous interest by the oil companies – European and American oil companies. So given the American Pakistan strategic link for so many decades, it was natural that the Americans would support pipelines through Afghanistan if Afghanistan could achieve some kind of stability. What we saw in 1994 was several rival bids to build pipelines through Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan, and the oil companies became very big players inside Afghanistan, bribing the warlords, wooing the warlords, trying to sign contracts with the warlords in the hope that the Taliban would conquer all before them and then establish some modicum of peace which would allow these pipelines to be built. So, you still have an enormous effort by the regional countries wanting to build these pipelines, simply that they will create revenue for them. But it is inconceivable in my opinion that anything can happen or any of these pipelines can be built unless there’s peace in Afghanistan. And now that the war in Afghanistan has extended into Central Asia, that many of these Central Asian radicals are now based in Afghanistan and are taking their wars and religious beliefs into Central Asia, trying to topple the Central  Asian regimes, you have even greater instability and an even greater unlikely chance that these companies are going to succeed.

EB: You started covering Afghanistan right before the Soviet invasion in 1979. You’ve been following events in Afghanistan for the past two decades and also what is happening in the neighbouring countries. What makes the story so compelling for you? I think primarily the Afghans. They are an incredible people, a wonderful people, a very fascinating people. It’s a mosaic of ethnic groups, of languages and cultures, and it’s a very beautiful country. I think any journalist, aid workers, diplomats, anybody who has worked for any length of time and with the Afghans is hooked completely. It’s like an addiction. It’s a never-ending story. The war has gone on for 20 years. This is a war that’s still seeing no signs of ending. EB: You’ve also followed this story sometimes at great personal risk. In the book, you talk about interrogations, for example, that you were subjected to. Perhaps the worst period was the civil war or after 1992 when there were all these warlord groups. When you travelled by road in Afghanistan, you were stopped ever 10 or 15 miles, guns were poked into your taxi. You were asked to pay bribes. You were asked who you were, where you were going, and you never knew quite who the other guys were. There were many incidents where one was caught, dragged out of taxis and kind of interrogated very intensely. There were some very bad moments during the Communist regime. I was arrested by the Communist regime in Kabul for being a spy, and at times, one was harassed a lot by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who for one year issued a death sentence on me. So there have been moments of extreme tension over the past 20 years.

EB: In your book, you said that at many different points over the past 20 years, you wanted to write a book about Afghanistan. Why have you decided to do it now? I think there was a much bigger need to get the story out about the Taliban, to get the story of the regional involvement, to get the story out of the growing instability in the region that has been created by Afghanistan and to make people aware that unless Western countries in particular address this issue, it’s not going to end very quickly and it’s going to be very devastating for the whole region. It’s an appeal to outside countries to take an interest in Afghanistan and get involved, and to make ordinary people much more aware that there is this forgotten war going on, which needs to be addressed because it’s affecting their lives as well, whether it’s opium arriving in western Europe or whether it’s religious extremism, Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, blowing up Western embassies. So it is affecting people’s lives and this book is an attempt to try to make ordinary people aware that they should be I think mobilising pressure on their respective governments to try and play a role to end this war.

EB: You describe Afghanistan as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. I think if most people were to think about tragedies in the 20th century, they would think about the First and Second World Wars, Stalinism, etc. Why do you describe Afghanistan as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century? What is often forgotten is that during the 9 year war against the Soviets, a country with a population of about 16, 17 million in 1979 lost perhaps a 1.5 million people, an enormous proportion of their people. In the civil war since 1992, they’ve lost several hundred thousand more people. So first of all, you’ve got losses of population, which are almost of a Holocaust type of proportion. You have a country which is utterly, utterly devastated in every kind of humanitarian aspect of that whether it’s infrastructure, agriculture, industry, at whatever level you like. You have an economy that is now totally criminal. And you have an impact of this war which has now spread throughout the region: south Asia, the Middle East and Central Asia. The tragic element, I think, has been that the Afghans were used. They fought the Soviet occupiers for themselves because they had never allowed the occupation of their country. But at the same time, they were used by the West as this frontline state against the Soviet Union. And certainly the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, in my opinion, was one of the major factors leading to perestroika, the Gorbachev era and the undermining of Soviet authority and Communist power within the Soviet Union. So the Afghans have a lot to say for themselves, that they were a major factor in ending the Cold War. Yet, the tragedy has been totally ignored. It has not attracted the kind of attention, for example, that is presently being given to Yugoslavia or for example East Timor, where you also have very major tragic situations. But I think the particular tragedy of Afghanistan is the fact that it has been so ignored by everyone.

EB: You said you want the Western world, the outside world to pay more attention to Afghanistan. Is there anything that the outside world can actually do at this particular time to improve the situation in Afghanistan? I think the most important thing is for the Western countries to put pressure on all the neighbours to basically pull out of Afghanistan. Stop arming the factions, stop sending ammunition and fuel and food and support to the factions. Once you get really heavy Western pressure, particularly American pressure, on the regional countries to pull out, what I see happening is basically a drying up of the war. The fact is that this war is being fuelled from outside. The Afghans do not have the ammunition or the fuel to continue this fighting indefinitely. They will dry out in 3 months, 6 months. Once some development or movement can take place on this front, you will then get several developments. You will get a much greater public movement within Afghanistan against the factions. You will get pressure on the Taliban and Masood inside Afghanistan to end the war. Already I think, even though the public is devastated and exhausted and there’s no real civil society in Afghanistan which is expressing anger against the factions, there is a growing tendency of tribal leaders, urban leaders even to express anguish against the war. The second aspect of this is the West has to mobilise some kind of reconstruction package. And this reconstruction package of Afghanistan, what I am advocating, would not be given to anyone now. It would be held over the factions as a kind of bribe. If the West was able to amount say 100, 200 million dollars and say to the people of Afghanistan and to the warlords that this money would be available if you set out these conditions: a ceasefire, some kind of negotiations, some kind of reconciliation between the factions that this reconstruction money would be made available, you would then get a much stronger base for a civil movement in Afghanistan, a civil society movement in Afghanistan for ending the war, much greater pressure on the warlords to end the war. EB: But even if the war were to end, you said that so much blood has been spilt in Afghanistan that people would find it difficult to reconcile with the other ethnic groups. Despite the ethnic bloodshed, the sectarian bloodshed, the diversity, the anti-Taliban feeling amongst people in the north, nobody in Afghanistan is advocating fragmentation. Nobody in Afghanistan wants to set up an ethnic enclave. When we look at other parts of the world, for example, especially Yugoslavia, the death of Tito, everyone wants their own ethnic enclave in Yugoslavia. And in Yugoslavia you had a much more developed, a much more educated society which had seen the benefits of unity. Here you have basically a very underdeveloped, illiterate society, but the pride of the Afghans, the sense of honour, the sense of national unity is remarkably strong and resilient. This should be one of the major factors to encourage outside mediators. Afghans want to stay as one country. So I’m not underestimating the difficulties and problems, but I think that after 20 years of war, devastation, enormous losses of population, etc., this is a country that wants to stay together and wants to rid itself of outside interference of any shape or kind and has an enormous sense of national honour, national respect. So I think all these would be very positive factors in a serious attempt at mediation.

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of “The Taliban” in conversation with Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Peter de Haan. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.