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October 26, 2006

The Taliban Resurgence

Long before the attacks of 9/11 and the attack on Afghanistan, I had followed the difficulties of the Afghans and knew the country had not had much peace since 1973.  One of the greatest tolls of the Iraq war and occupation has been the unfinished business in Afghanistan.  And now, reports seem to show that the country is sinking into increasing violence again with a strong likelihood of a Taliban resurgence.

I expected to point readers immediately to this very long article in the NYT Magazine last Sunday by Elizabeth Rubin on the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan but then I got carried away with setting the story in the bigger picture of recent Afghan history.  It’s a great article if you wish to go directly there.  Otherwise come with me for a brief history of the last 35 years in Afghanistan and then head off to the article.

A Recent History of Violence

In 1973 King Zahir Shah was overthrown non-violently by his brother-in-law, Sardar Mohammed Daoud, after decades of stability  and some gentle westernization.  Then Daoud was overthrown in 1978 by the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and his family was slaughtered.

Pretty much it’s been escalating violence ever since.  Conflict between parties.  Soviet intervention and occupation.  Then an escalating war between the Soviets and the Muslim mujahideen, funded by the US, with money and requests funneled through the ISI, the discontented Pakistani secret service agency.  Stray Arab nationalists, like the young Osama bin Laden, found their way to the Pakistani-Aghanistan border region and received training and arms from the CIA.  The 10-year effort ended in 1989 with the withdrawal of the Soviets. 

The US applauded and patted itself on the back for helping to fund the expensive war that helped bankrupt and break up the Soviet Union. Then, the Americans went home. 

The Conditions that led to the Rise of the Taliban

The mujahideen transformed into nasty warlords, first exacting a horrible retribution on the people in Kabul who had supported the Soviets and then establishing fiefdoms in various parts of the country.  They were corrupt; they fought; the Western educated and the elite left leaving a vacuum.   This vacuum was eventually filled by the Taliban, a rag-tag bunch of religiously conservative peasants from the Pashtun regions in the south.

The Taliban were disciplined and they brought stability to a land that longed for it.  The Taliban took over first in the countryside and then took Kabul in 1996.  They finished eradicating the communists and imposed strict Sharia law. They shut down the lucrative production of opium.   


In times of turmoil, women do not do well.  Middle and upper class women in Kabul women had been able to go to school and hold jobs during the stable times of the Afghan state prior to the overthrow of the King.  In the years since, all that had been badly compromised.

That was nothing compared to what they had to deal with under the Taliban. Women were not allowed to work, had to be covered top to toe when they went out, faced severe violence for any infraction of the rules and couldn’t eat ice cream or get their hair done or much of anything else.  Women without husbands, and their were many widows after years of war, were destitute and unable to do anything about it except to beg.

During the seven years of Taliban rule, western nations tried to get Afghanistan to loosen up, particularly on women.  To no avail.  But then they didn’t try really hard either.

I remember thinking during that time that a foreign policy based on what is right for women would be a very good basis for a peaceful world.

Post 9/11

After the Afghan War and the dispersal of the Taliban in late 2001, Hamid Karzai was first appointed and then elected to the post of the President of Afghanistan. He either was unable or unwilling to reign in the warlords.  Most of them had helped the US or at least pretended to help the US.  Women again had more freedom and were able to walk about without their burkas on.  The country was relatively peaceful for a couple of years but the underlying problems of poverty and a decrepit infrastucture could not be addressed properly once the Iraq War took the attention and money of the US away from Afghanistan again.  The warlords, continue to rule in their various corners of the country.  The people struggle with the world’s largest number of unexploded landmines and other ordinance and a huge heroin trade that represents 30% of the economy.

And Now the Taliban Return to Power

There is significantly more violence in Afghanistan now than at any time since the Afghan War ended.  The 40,000 NATO and US troops are taking a pounding everywhere outside of Kabul and recently Kabul has been targeted as well.

Elizabeth Rubin, a journalist who has followed events and people in Afghanistan, has just written the first of a two-part article for the New York Times Magazine.  The second will be printed next Sunday.

The prospects for a Taliban-less Afghanistan are not good.  Rubin has traveled in the area and written about it earlier for the Times.  Traveling in western Pakistan and Afghanistan this year she found conditions quite changed.  The Taliban are able to organize quite openly in parts of Pakistan and enjoy increasing public support in southern Afghanistan, their earlier stronghold.  Videotapes are sold freely in the bazaars of Kabul showing American atrocities in Afghanistan (remember those mistakes where weddings were bombed?) and exhorting Afghanis to throw out the Americans as they threw out the Russians.

The Taliban are far more sophisticated than they were the first time around.  About those videotapes I mentioned above:

The films sold in the markets of Pakistan and Afghanistan merge the Taliban story with that of the larger struggle of the Muslim umma, the global community of Islam: images of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Israelis dragging off young Palestinian men and throwing off Palestinian mothers clinging to their sons. Humiliation. Oppression. Followed by the same on Afghan soil: Northern Alliance fighters perching their guns atop the bodies of dead Taliban. In the Taliban story, Special Forces soldiers desecrate the bodies of Taliban fighters by burning them, the Koran is desecrated in Guantánamo toilets, the Prophet Muhammad is desecrated in Danish cartoons and finally an apostate, Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who was arrested earlier this year for converting to Christianity, desecrates Islam and is not only not punished but is released and flown off to Italy.

The lack of security makes people nostalgic for the time of the Taliban.  As does the corruption and brutality of the warlords. And, the attempts at eradication of the poppy fields by the American and British forces.  That’s 30%, at a minimum, of the national GDP.

The Taliban, in contrast, are working with the poppy growers and smugglers this time around, using the money from the sale of heroin to fund their resurgence.

Now the Americans are leaving, entrusting the security of Afghanistan to NATO forces.  Rubin says:

Qayum Karzai, the president’s older brother and a legislator from Kandahar, seemed utterly depressed when I met him. “For the last four years, the Taliban were saying that the Americans will leave here,” he said. “We were stupid and didn’t believe it. Now they think it’s a victory that the Americans left.”

With the Americans on their way out and the NATO force not yet in control, the Kandahar Police were left on the front line: underfinanced, underequipped, untrained — and often stoned.

That’s stoned as in drugged.  I had to read it twice to get it.

Then, since the Taliban-backed smugglers have so much money and the Afghan government has so little, they are able to bribe Afghan government officials at every level and so are able to live quite freely.

Waiting Patiently to Return

After the dispersal of the Taliban when the Americans invaded, the Talib leaders began to prepare for their return.

Funds were raised through the wide and varied Islamic network — Karachi businessmen, Peshawar goldsmiths, Saudi oil men, Kuwaiti traders and jihadi sympathizers within the Pakistani military and intelligence ranks.

Mullah Omar named a 10-man leadership council, A. explained. Smaller councils were created for every province and district. Most of this was done from the safety of Pakistan, and in 2003 Mullah Omar dispatched Mullah Dadullah to the madrasas of Baluchistan and Karachi to gather the dispersed Talibs and find fresh recruits. Pakistani authorities were reportedly seen with him. Still, neither Musharraf nor his military men in Baluchistan did anything to arrest him.

Arabs have again come to help the jihadists.  In 2004, Iraqis, Palestinians, Saudis and others came to teach the Afghans about I.E.D.’s and suicide bombings. The Afghans are fast learners and don’t need that outside help for long.

Former Enemies Unite

Former competitors are coming together to fight the Karzai government and the Americans and NATO forces that support him.  Factions led by Mullah Omar’s council in Quetta, Pakistan; Jalaluddin Haqqani, a hero of the jihad against the Soviets; and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another anti-Soviet fighter who has once been a strong ally of the Americans, all now consider themselves Taliban.  They are all fighting to rid the country of the Americans and between them, they have ties to all parts of Afghanistan.  They are formidable.


The Pakistanis are generally supportive of the Taliban, whatever the government says publicly.  Students from the hundreds of Pakistani madrasas often go directly to fight for the Taliban just as they did in the 90’s.

The Taliban generally don’t trust the ISI, which is most supportive of them.  They believe the Pakistanis want to have a client state in Afghanistan and hope to hold sway with a new Taliban government that is more pliable than the Karzai government.

Not looking Good

The future of Afghanistan is not looking good.  The Rubin article presents an organized picture of what is happening in the country.  We hear bits and pieces but generally Afghanistan is not being covered.  It’s possible it will be shortly if the implications written about in this article are borne out.

What a mess we’ve made of it. 

Posted by Lynn Allen on October 26, 2006 at 10:48 AM in National and International Politics | Permalink


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