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Part I: Afghanistan and the Taliban

by Jeff Elliott and Ahmar Khan

Why They Hate Us

Sorrow, disbelief, fear, anger. We saw mothers clutching pictures of their missing or dead children, heard promises of swift and terrible vengance from officals.

Those were the themes in America in the days following the terrorist attacks that destroyed the twin towers of New York City. But those are also familiar themes in much of the Muslim world, where they view us as cowardly murderers.

The creation of Israel more than a half-century ago created a political divide between the Muslims and the West, but it's hardly the only issue. More damaging has been the decades of bumbling U.S. foreign polices which have earned their mistrust. And there's no better example of our mistakes than what we did in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 90s; should we go to war, it will be against an enemy of our own making.

Pawns in a Moscow - Washington chess game
 + The Taliban's rise
 + Who is Osama bin Laden?
 + Looking for Fuel in all the Wrong Places
 + Taliban Defiance on Buddah Statues Will Hurt Afghanistan
 + R.A.W.A.
Today no nation in the world has fewer friends than Afghanistan, which has been controlled since 1996 by the radical Taliban (more accurately, the Taliba'an). Only three countries recognize the regime, and the UN has passed sanctions against them for human rights violations. In almost all of the Islamic sphere, their name is anthema; clerics of both Sunni and Shite branches of Islam denounce their version of the religion as disgraceful.

The Taliban defy sympathy. Under their rule, men (or boys) can attack a woman if they believe she is breaking Islamic law. Music is forbidden, cameras are forbidden, as are children's dolls, the flying of kites, owning of parakeets, and applause.The Taliban made news earlier this year when it destroyed giant statues of Buddha using tanks and rockets, although the UN and world leaders begged them to save the ancient carvings. In Afghanistan today a person charged with a crime can be stoned to death, buried alive by a bulldozer, or hanged from building cranes used just for that purpose. It is as if a society were handed over to the savage "Lord of the Flies" children.

The Taliban were among the rebels who were used by the Reagan and Bush (senior) administrations as a pawns in a game of Cold War chess after the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was Washington realpolitik at its most cynical: A recently-published study of the Taliban quotes Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. National Security Adviser: "What was more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?"

During the 1980s, the U.S. dumped over $3 billion into Afghanistan to fight a surrogate war with the Soviets. In what was to become the Agency's largest project, the CIA turned to the traditional Mujahideen tribal chieftans, who were already experienced fighters from generations of feuding with neighboring tribes. What happened next has been often compared to the U.S. debacle in Vietnam; the Soviets troops found themselves on the losing side of a war they could not possibly win against a nimble guerilla army. The Soviets withdrew from the country in 1989 and their puppet government fell three years later.

Once the Red Army pulled out, Afghanistan dropped off Washington's radar. A Mujahideen government was formed, but the fractious tribes couldn't find a power-sharing formula. The feuds resumed -- except now all sides were armed with state- of- the- art weapons; instead of shooting at each other with broken Kalashnikovs amd WWI-vintage rifles, every side had surface- to- air missles and armories full of ammunition. After several years of this chaos, a new, almost unknown group quickly moved in and seized control of the government: The Taliban.

The Taliban was -- and remains -- a youth movement. It started as a student group in neighboring Pakistan, where the only education many of the refugee childen received came from "madrassahs," religious schools funded by the Saudis. Uneducated except for indoctrination into fundamentalist religion, these radicalized kids were honed to die in a holy war, but woefully unprepared to run a nation -- much less one with the severe problems of Afghanistan.

The country that they inherited bordered on chaos after enduring nearly two decades of war. Their society was utterly corrupt: robbery and other crimes were commonplace, and their agricutural economy relied heavily on production of opium. Although Islam strictly forbids narcotics, the Mujahideen justified these sales were an article of faith -- since the West was invading Muslim societies through porn, sex and alcohol, it was no harm in sending drugs back to them as a means to even the score. The Mujahideen even forced farmers to plant poppies and then pay them a revolutionary tax in opium. Give them credit for this: In their radical reforms, the Taliban have absolutely destroyed the opium trade in their country.

1 in 4 face starvation
The misery of Afghanistan today is enormous. Besides this political/ religious/ economic/cultural upheaval of the long civil war and the Taliban's determination to recreate the Dark Ages, the country has endured a four-year drought that has brought famine. Five million Afghans -- 1 in 4 -- face starvation. Much of the ruined countryside is strewn with landmines, which continue to kill and maim. A state of civil war still exists, with the Taliban now fighting a loose coalition of guerillas called the Northern Military Alliance that is funded mainly by Iran and Russia.

To our disgrace, the U.S. recognized the Taliban's government until three years ago, despite the their well-known human rights abuses. Why did we wait so long?

One reason is that multinational oil companies, led by Unocal, wanted to build a 1000+ mile pipeline across Afghanistan to carry oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea region to seaports in Turkey. The Caspian Sea region is considered to have the second-richest oil deposits remaining on earth, and getting to it before the Russians was trumped an important goal for American interests.

The pipeline was a priority for the Clinton administration, and passage through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was a round-about route to bypass troublespots like Iran and Chechnya. But in August, 1998, terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa. After we lobbed a few Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan and boasted that we had disabled his "terrorist network," Unocal abandoned the plans for a route through the country.

As cruel and irrational as the Taliban seems to the rest of the world, we seem just as bad to them. When diplomats were begging them to not destroy the Buddah statues, the Taliban were angered that the world cared more about artifacts than aiding their starving people. "Why is the world so upset about this? If they are destroying our future with sanctions, then they shouldn't worry about our past," a Taliban spokesman told the SF Chronicle. Characteristically, they showed their contempt for us by harming themselves -- they rejected a $100 million offer from UNESCO to save the statues, although the much-needed cash and tourist trade would have gone far to stave off hunger. Nor do they understand why the West is so critical of their religious state; we embrace other nations that are theology-based, particularly Israel. And they certainly hate the U.S. for turning away after the Soviet war, although it was the hundreds of thousands of their youth fighting under the Mujahideen that won the war for us.

We also can't blame Afghan citizens if they resent the U.S. (although most apparently do not). In the chaotic years after the ouster of the pro-communist government, the U.S. State Department could have helped stabilize Afghanistan -- if the CIA could forge an alliance with the fractious Mujahideen warlords, surely Madeleine Albright could have helped them build a coalition government. And now the Taliban are in place, we have done nothing to oust them or force them towards reform. And like with Iraq, we have imposed sanctions that only increase the tremendous suffering of the people, witholding even humanitarian aid since 1997.

NEXT: America And Iran: Burning Bridges, Igniting Hatred

Jeff Elliott is editor of the Albion Monitor. His last article was The Making of Timothy McVeigh

Ahmar Khan is a Pakistan-born journalist who is living in the U.S. His last article for the Monitor was Malir: Pakistan's Toxic Site

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor September 17, 2001 (

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