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The Taliban

This article is over 22 years, 9 months old
Bush and Blair present the Taliban as evil fanatics. The US wants to bomb Afghanistan to get rid of them. Who are the Taliban and how did they grow from a group of 30 guerillas?
Issue 1769

GEORGE BUSH is making the people of Afghanistan suffer for actions he blames on their government, the Taliban. The Taliban head an awful regime. But they do not have the support of the mass of Afghans, who are already bearing the brunt of the US war threat.

Nor is the regime the logical outcome of the Islamic religion, as racists and right wingers in Europe and the US claim. The Taliban are a product of the immense misery visited upon Afghanistan by the world capitalist system of which it is a minor part.

The movement is seven years old. Those seven years have meant terrible hardship. But the previous 15 years saw, almost incredibly, even greater suffering. By 1994, the year the Taliban emerged as a group of 30 guerrillas, Afghanistan had been devastated by invasion, war and civil war.

‘Taliban’ means students. The movement originated in schemes by the US and Saudi Arabia to prevent Afghan refugees in Pakistan falling under the influence of the Islamic regime in Iran, then hated by the US. Saudi money was used to build hundreds of religious boarding schools, madrassas, in and around the refugee camps in north western Pakistan. They taught a version of Islam similar to the ultra-puritan Wahhabist creed of the Saudi royal family.

The madrassas took in thousands of poor young men from the camps. They had only recently been uprooted from their villages, and hurled into the uncertainty and misery of refugee life. The only continuity for them, and for many people in Afghanistan, was religion. Pakistani military intelligence saw the Taliban, graduates of these schools, as a force that could impose order on Afghanistan and bring it under Pakistani domination.

Pakistan’s ally, the US, went along with the plan. US backing, Pakistani military support and Saudi money followed. The Taliban pledged to deal with the ‘bad Muslims’ who had reduced much of the country to banditry.

After they seized Kabul in September 1996, the US oil multinational Unocal entered discussions with the Taliban about building an oil pipeline through the country. But by the end of 1997 it was clear the Taliban could not conquer all the country and make the pipeline possible. Now Western governments want to blame their own Frankenstein’s monster for the whole tragedy of Afghanistan.

Responsible for famine?

SUPPORTERS OF the US like Peter Hain say the Taliban alone are to blame for a famine that means five million people in Afghanistan are starving. But there was famine in the country 30 years ago under the king, Muhammad Zahir Shah.

He refused to open up grain stores to help the famine victims. Around 100,000 people starved to death. This is the same man that the Western powers have talked about bringing back to power.

Today’s famine is the result of 20 years of devastation caused by wars sponsored by the superpowers. A pro-Russian government collapsed in 1979 after 18 months in power, and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent in troops. They occupied the country, took over the government and fought a colonial-style war against the armed Islamic opposition groups, the Mujahadeen.

US president Ronald Reagan seized on the chance to intensify a second Cold War with Russia. He poured arms and cash into the Mujahadeen. The US threw its weight behind various Afghan forces ranged against Russia. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader favoured by the US, shelled Kabul with the heavy weapons it had given him.

There was an ‘Afghan day’ in the US. Representatives of the Mujahadeen and of King Zahir Shah (deposed in 1973) were invited to Republican and Tory conferences. The US provided $3 billion of weapons in the 1980s. Food production per farmer in Afghanistan at the end of the war was half what it had been at the beginning.

The superpowers kept the war going until 1989, when Russian troops were finally forced to leave. Afghanistan was left in ruins. Between 1.2 million and four million Afghans had been killed.

Around six million had been forced to flee to refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan and Iraq. The superpowers wanted nothing to do with a country that was no longer a pawn in their Cold War battle. Before the Taliban took power, the UN requested $124 million of aid from rich governments for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. By the end of 1996 it had received only $65 million.

The UN asked for $133 million in 1997, but received only $56 million-42 percent. Last year the UN dramatically scaled back its request. But again it was not met, even as the threat of famine grew.

Production of heroin

THE US claims that the Taliban are ‘forcing peasants to grow opium’-from which heroin is extracted. This is a staggering lie. There is opium production in Afghanistan. It took off in 1979 as the country descended into war and the whole economy collapsed. Afghanistan outstripped Burma as the world’s largest producer of opium in the mid-1990s-before the Taliban controlled most of the country.

Ahmed Rashid, one of the most knowledgeable journalists about Afghanistan, writes, ‘Ever since 1980, all the Mujahadeen warlords had used drugs money to help fund their military campaigns and line their own pockets. ‘They bought houses and businesses in Peshawar, new jeeps, and kept bank accounts abroad.’

The CIA knew about this and undermined the efforts of the US’s Drug Enforcement Agency to counter the trade. Officers in Pakistani military intelligence grew rich on the proceeds of the drugs trade. So did state officials in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north of Afghanistan.

In 1994 former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif admitted that the army chief of staff and the head of military intelligence had proposed ‘large scale drug deals’ to raise funds for their favoured groups in Afghanistan.

Only three years ago the Western media showed pictures of Taliban units destroying some opium poppy fields. But for peasant farmers in a shattered economy there is no other way to survive.

Oppression of women

SUDDENLY WESTERN liberals like Guardian writer Polly Toynbee are arguing that the war is to free women from oppression in Afghanistan. Life for women under the Taliban is appalling. It will not improve by dropping bombs on men, women and children.

The Taliban’s treatment of women reflects both the underdevelopment of the villages the Taliban had come from and the trauma of the war years. Like every other guerrilla group, they were composed of men who had spent years in fighting units.

Taliban leaders feared that their soldiers would behave as some previous Mujahadeen groups had on taking a city. The war years had seen repeated abuse and rape of women. They said that forcing women into seclusion was a means of protecting them. Of course, it meant appalling oppression.

But the oppression is copied from the Western-backed regime in Saudi Arabia. It too is a viciously oppressive society towards women. Women are excluded from the vast majority of jobs, they are forced to study seperately from men in universities, and are not allowed to study abroad. They are not allowed to drive or to travel alone. They are only considered half as worthy as a man in the eyes of local courts.

Their treatment of women does not stop Bush and Blair seeing the Saudis as an important part of their ‘coalition’ today. Bush is not a champion of women’s rights. He is a right wing bigot backed to the hilt by anti-abortionists.

When his father went to war against Iraq last time to ‘save Kuwait’ there were no qualms about defending a regime that does not allow women to vote.

The Northern Alliance-who are they?

THE MEDIA and Western governments are playing up the Northern Alliance, the Mujahadeen factions that control about 15 percent of Afghanistan, as some kind of better alternative to the Taliban. This is the very force which until recently the US and Pakistan sought to destroy because it was backed by Iran.

The man who is now the main leader of the Northern Alliance, Abdur Rasheed Dostum, has proven that he is interested only in pillaging what he can. He fought alongside Russia and its puppet government right up to 1992. He was for a time in alliance with the pro-American Hekmatya, and very briefly did a deal with the Taliban.

He has been consistent in one thing only-preserving his power base among the Uzbek minority in north western Afghanistan. He has used that position to enrich himself, not least through the drugs trade.

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