The Afghanistan imbroglio
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
June 29, 2011
Until now there has not been a single Taliban bomb exploded in the West. The Taliban’s agenda is domestic. There was a time when they gave refuge to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda but they never got their hands dirty abroad. There was also a time- before 9/11 - when they had a businesslike attitude towards the West. In December, 1997, Washington approved the visit of a Taliban delegation to the Texas headquarters of Unical, the big oil company, to discuss the construction of a trans-Afghan gas pipeline.
The Taliban emerged in the south of Afghanistan as recently as late 1994. It was in reaction to the chaos that followed the retreat of the invading Soviet army when for five years the mujahideen - who were made up of many separate elements - vied for supremacy, killing over a hundred thousand in the process.
The Taliban had three main aims- the stop the violence, to stabilize the country, to restore the practice of Islamic law, albeit at the less tolerant end of the spectrum, and to wipe out the trade in opium. They had no trouble in welcoming both domestic and foreign NGOs.
But the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, made a dreadful mistake- he gave sanctuary to bin Laden when he fled Sudan. But there is nothing to suggest this was a popular decision. Most Pathans- the tribe from which most Taliban are drawn- had no inkling of this decision until 9/11. They were not radicalised into their profound anti-Americanism until President George W. Bush authorized a massive attack on Afghanistan. Only then did the Taliban consolidate its tenuous hold on the country. Only then did ordinary Pathans rally behind the Taliban leadership.
Left to itself the Taliban, as it did before 9/11, would have continued to consolidate its influence over Afghani society. There would have been little question about insisting on veiling women and not sending girls to school but the development of the country would have been a priority. When I was a guest of a group of Pathans, earnest about economic development in the villages and supporters of a marvellous idea, the “Motorbike Bank”, where trained agricultural advisors drove around the villages dispensing credit and advice, the leadership told me they wanted female bike riders so that women could be helped too.
It was not our social system, nor was it the interpretation of Islam practised in the six countries that contain an overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims- Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia and India. Afghanistan was an Islamic backwater. So what. That was their problem. Left alone, over time, the Taliban might well have become more liberal.
If the West had been clever it would have used its intelligence services to tack down Osama bin Laden and then sent in special forces to grab him. There would have been little reaction among rank and file Afghanis. There would have been no Anti- Americanism from a society which, if anything, was pro-American since the Americans had provided arms, funding and advisors to drive out the Red Army.
Ironically, after a very few of us had argued this position for years, the government of President Barack Obama finally did this eight years later.
Now it’s done the Americans and their allies in Nato should be getting out fast. Indeed, it seems that American public opinion is coming to the same conclusion, even though it has been badly educated in the post-Soviet history of Afghanistan. Even two of the prominent presidential contenders for the Republican nomination are arguing for a large-scale withdrawal.
Besides, Afghanistan is not short of aid just meant for butter not guns. The programmes of Western and foreign Islamic NGO’s, the UN, Islamic governments and even some Western governments have done a tremendous job in sharply lowering the infant mortality rate, building schools and health clinics and raising agricultural output.
What the Afghani government has not done - and not even tried since the US and its allies don’t want them to - is to try and quash the opium business. The Americans - probably the most militant anti-drug country in the world - have encouraged by their hands-off policy the growing of poppies. Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s heroin. The US knows it brings badly needed funds to poverty stricken villages which have no other cash crop. (When the Taliban ruled they outlawed poppy growing.)
The war continues. Obama is withdrawing some troops, but extremely slowly, even though, according to the CIA, there are only 50 Al Qaeda fighters left there. Taliban rule continues. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and comrade-in-arms of George W. Bush, said not so long ago “I think they [the Taliban] think they can wait us out. That their will is stronger than ours. They are probably right”.
Or as the wags say, “The Americans have watches, but the Taliban has time.”
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
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