End Games

A Review of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia"

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and

“Turkestan, Afghanistan, Transcaspia, Persia–to many these words breathe only a sense of utter remoteness, or a memory of strange vicissitudes and of moribund romance. To me, I confess they are pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the domination of the world.”

–Lord Curzon, later Viceroy of India

Not long after they captured Kabul and took control of Afghanistan, the notoriously reclusive Taliban began doing some serious traveling. In February 1997, one group headed for Washington, D.C., while another departed for Argentina, where they managed to fit in a side trip to the mountains along with business in Buenos Aires. On their way home, both contingents met up in Saudi Arabia. Later that same year there would be more trips–again to Argentina and the United States. This time the Taliban visited Houston, where they enjoyed the sights and one of the mullahs had a little medical work done at the same time.

Sponsoring their travels were two competing oil companies, Bridas of Argentina and the California-based Unocal. Both were engaged in what Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid describes as “romancing the Taliban,” part of a larger geo-political battle he calls “The New Great Game.” In the late nineteenth century, the British and Russian empires played power games in Central Asia, with Afghanistan as the designated buffer zone. This time around the name of the game was oil and gas–and the pipelines necessary to bring them to faraway markets. Bridas had gone on a hunting expedition right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Argentine company obtained the rights for gas exploration in Turkmenistan; it also thought it had locked up the rights to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and into Pakistan. Unocal also thought the pipeline project was a good idea. So did the U.S. government, which was not only anxious to further the interest of U.S. companies abroad, but also to look for ways to keep Iran out of the picture. The pipeline projects attracted a stable of former U.S. officials, from former National Security Council chief Al Haig (lobbying for Turkmenistan) to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (an advisor to Unocal) to former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley (working for a Saudi company that teamed up with Unocal in a consortium to build the pipeline). In retrospect, the very idea of building a pipeline across a country that had been in a constant state of war for nearly 20 years, whose population had been displaced several times over, whose once cosmopolitan capital had been reduced to ruins and was now in the hands of a band of men whose first order of business was to ban music and kite-flying, require men to grow beards and women to shroud themselves in a head-to-toe cover known as the burqa, might have seemed more about pipedreams than pipelines.

Indeed, neither the Bridas nor the Unocal project ever got off the ground. But as Rashid makes painfully clear in Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, unless we talk about the politics of the pipeline projects and the enormous cast of players in the New Great Game, (including those who appear on the periphery–”transport mafia,” “drugs mafia,” “Russian mafia”), we won’t even be able to begin to understand the news from Afghanistan.

Ahmed Rashid is a man with an uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time. In 1978 he was in Kabul when a palace coup occurred, toppling the government that had itself toppled the former Afghan king, Zahir Shah, and dispatched him to exile in Rome. In 1979, Rashid was in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, sipping tea in the market, when he spotted Soviet tanks rolling into town, triggering a war that would go on for nearly a decade, claim 1.5 million Afghan lives and some 20,000 Soviet troops. Fighting against the Soviets were the men known as the Mujaheddin, a term Rashid defines as “Holy warriors fighting jihad or holy war.” Many of the Mujaheddin commanders were Islamic fundamentalists, but the roots of their beliefs are different from those of the Taliban, which emerged years later, led by younger men who did not fight in the war against the Soviets. (Moreover, the Mujaheddin commanders Rashid got to know over the years were members of the various ethnic groups of northern Afghanistan, adherents of the Shia form of Islam; the Taliban, like the Saudis, are adherents of the Sunni form of Islam, members of the Pashtun ethnic group, most of whom live in southern Afghanistan).

The United States was involved in the war from the start. As Rashid documents in Taliban, many of the decisions that had long-range repercussions were made in 1986, when CIA director William Casey pumped up the volume on the Afghan war. For the first time, Casey convinced Congress to provide the Mujaheddin with U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and U.S. advisors. (According to Rashid, the CIA provided Afghanistan with some 900 Stingers in 1986-87; after the war against the Soviets the CIA launched “an unsuccessful buy-back operation to try and retrieve the Stingers not utilised.”) Casey also convinced the CIA to plan, along with British and Pakistani intelligence services, a series of guerrilla operations in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The ISI (Pakistani Intelligence Service) chose a Mujaheddin general with a particularly brutal record to carry out the attacks, setting the stage for years of revenge killings after the war against the Soviets. Finally and most importantly, Casey committed the CIA to supporting former Pakistani President Zia’s efforts to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to fight in Afghanistan. The ISI had been touting the idea for several years, writes Rashid, “and by now all the other players had their reasons for supporting the idea. President Zia aimed to cement Islamic unity, turn Pakistan into the leader of the Muslim world and foster an Islamic opposition in Central Asia. Washington wanted to demonstrate that the entire Muslim world was fighting the Soviet Union alongside the Afghans and their American benefactors. And the Saudis saw an opportunity both to promote Wahabbism [the ultra-conservative form of Islam found in Saudi Arabia, including the implementation of religious “thought” police and the seclusion of women] and get rid of its disgruntled radicals. None of the players reckoned on these volunteers having their own agendas, which would eventually turn their hatred against the Soviets on their own regimes and the Americans.”

For their part, the Saudis pumped money into the war machine and also opened countless new madrassas–Islamic schools for boys that offered no secular subjects (and the only form of education for many of the young men who years later would lead the Taliban)–in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. What the ISI really wanted was a member of the Saudi royal family to fight for the Afghan cause. But none was forthcoming. “Only poorer Saudis, students, taxi-drivers and Bedouin tribesmen had arrived so far to fight,” Rashid explains. “No pampered Saudi Prince was ready to rough it out in the Afghan mountains.” Enter Osama bin Laden, who was a real find: “close enough to the royals and certainly wealthy enough to lead the Saudi contingent. Bin Laden, Prince Turki [head of the Saudi intelligence service] and General Gul [head of the ISI] were to become firm friends and allies in a common cause.” The wealthy Saudi was put to work building the Khost tunnel complex in Afghanistan, which the CIA had planned as a weapons storage, medical and training center. (It was the same locale bin Laden would choose years later to launch his “International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.”)

The war ended with U.N.-sponsored negotiations in Geneva and the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, but the fighting continued. The years 1989-1992 were marked by protracted battles against the Afghan Communist government in Kabul, followed by years of bitter infighting among the Mujaheddin and local warlords that paved the way for the Taliban to re-conquer Kabul in 1996.

Rashid’s reporting of events and personalities in Pakistan is minutely sourced, with references to conversations with countless intelligence and military officers, as well as U.S. diplomatic sources and documents. In contrast, the sourcing of his portrait of bin Laden seems rather discreet–based on conversations with bin Laden “friends” in London and Saudi Arabia. Rashid doesn’t add much to the chronology of bin Laden that has emerged in the media so far–except he manages to place him in almost constant contact with both the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services from the time he arrived in Afghanistan. Disillusioned with the infighting among the Mujaheddin, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia and the family construction business in 1990. Rashid recounts a fiery meeting between bin Laden and the Saudi Interior Minister over the stationing of U.S. troops during the Gulf War. Soon after, bin Laden departed Saudi Arabia for the Sudan, but Rashid notes that he still had allies in the royal family who also had their quarrels with the Interior Minister, and he maintained his ties with both the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services. He returned to Afghanistan in 1996, with assistance from the ISI, which introduced him to the Taliban. Pakistan had its own agenda, increasingly based on the Kashmir conflict with India. And bin Laden continued to receive funding from various factions in Saudi Arabia. During the war against the Soviets, bin Laden and the rest of the contingent Rashid refers to as the “Arab-Afghans,” had been somewhat isolated from the Shia Mujaheddin commanders. But with bin Laden’s return and his increasing influence over the Taliban, they had taken center stage. “The USA was now paying the price for ignoring Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996, while the Taliban were providing sanctuary to the most hostile and militant Islamic fundamentalist movement the world faced in the post-Cold War era,” Rashid concludes. “Afghanistan was now truly a haven for Islamic internationalism and terrorism and the Americans and the West were at a loss as to how to handle it.”

At times overwhelming in its complex detail, Taliban is a brave and chilling book that occasionally reads like Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad or Ryszard Kapuscinski. In fact, an excerpt of Kapuscinski’s, describing his coverage of war in Africa, would seem apt: “We are in a world in which misery condemns some to death and transforms others into monsters. The former are the victims, the latter are the executioners. There is no one else.” In contrast to several American journalists enamored of the late Northern Alliance Commander Shah Massoud or other commanders from the Northern Alliance currently battling the Taliban, Rashid finds no heroes except the Afghan people themselves, subjected to decades of unimaginable violence. All sides have resorted to ethnic cleansing, the use of “boy soldiers,” drug crops to fund the war machine and human rights violations that defy our meager vocabulary. (For example, the author relates his first encounter with General Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek commander in northern Afghanistan. Noticing bits of flesh and blood in the yard, he innocently asked if a goat had recently been slaughtered, only to be told that the General’s troops had caught an unfortunate soldier in the act of stealing. The soldier had been strapped to the tracks of a tank and driven around and around.)

In describing the origins of the Taliban–literally, “the students”–who rose to power and promised to put an end to the violence, Rashid delivers one of the most haunting passages of the book: “These boys were a world apart from the Mujaheddin whom I had got to know during the 1980s–men who could recount their tribal and clan lineages, remembered their abandoned farms and valleys with nostalgia and recounted legend and stories from Afghan history. These boys were from a generation who had never seen their country at peace… They had no memories of their tribes, their elders, their neighbours nor the complex ethnic mix of peoples that often made up their villages and their homeland. These boys were what the war had thrown up like the sea’s surrender on the beach of history… Their simple belief in a messianic, puritan Islam which had been drummed into them by simple village mullahs was the only prop they could hold on to and which gave their lives some meaning… Many in fact were orphans who had grown up without women–mothers, sisters or cousins. Others were madrassa students or had lived in the strict confines of segregated refugee camp life, where the normal comings and goings of female relatives were curtailed. Even by the norms of conservative Pashtun tribal society… these boys had lived rough, tough lives… This male brotherhood offered these youngsters not just a religious cause to fight for, but a whole way of life to fully embrace and make their existence meaningful.”

Rashid first wrote about the dueling pipeline projects in a 1997 cover story for Far East Economic Review, and soon after the term “New Great Game” began to be bandied about in Washington. Former Secretary of State Strobe Talbott quipped that talk about Great Games in Central Asia should be put on a shelf, along with Rudyard Kipling. But as Rashid points out throughout Taliban, the projects were symptomatic of something gone dreadfully wrong with Central Asia in general and with U.S. policy in Afghanistan in particular. The United States seemed to have either no policy or a policy that operated on an ad hoc basis to respond to single issues: women, pipelines, terrorism. The region was becoming dangerously polarized around a dizzying line-up of Taliban and anti-Taliban forces, and the veteran Pakistani journalist was intent on finding out why. But searching for answers was like “entering a labyrinth, where nobody spoke the truth or divulged their real motives or interest. Even gaining access to the real players in the game was difficult.” What he finally pieced together in the superbly researched and elegantly written Taliban was a story that goes far to explain the dismal situation we all face today. “Although Washington’s broad-brush policy was to support a widely based, multi-ethnic government in Kabul, the USA for a time believed in the Taliban and when it ceased to do so, it was not willing to rein in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.”

There is something doubly disturbing about reading Taliban in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, and the onset of bombing in Afghanistan. It is as if we were reading the past, present and future at the same time. In his concluding chapter, Rashid recalls a phrase of former U.N. Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali, who once referred to the war in Afghanistan as one of the West’s orphan wars. An orphan war is Something Bad That Happens Someplace on the Map, Far, Far Away. It is written about–if at all–in 200-word wire dispatches. Afghanistan is no longer an orphan war and Ahmed Rashid is no longer the writer of a scholarly journalistic book with modest sales. He has been interviewed for NPR and ABC and has met with representatives of Tony Blair–the British Prime Minister, who has reportedly been reading Rashid, as have Pentagon officials. Taliban is a best-seller in Japan, is on a “Most Wanted List” of books in India, and has recently been released in paperback in the United States, where it inevitably shows up in lists of Books Americans Should Read to Find Out What’s Going on in the World.

We read Rashid because of his extensive knowledge of the Taliban–so detailed that the book includes a list of ministers, their education (predominantly the Saudi-sponsored madrassas, or Islamic s
hools in Pakistan
r Afghanistan) and their numerous war injuries–and his analysis of Pakistani politics and society. We want him to interpret the tea leaves when Pakistan reshuffles its military or intelligence services or there is talk about the connection between Pakistan’s long-term support for the Taliban and its support of militants in Kashmir, when there is talk about long-suppressed need for reform in Saudi Arabia, when there is a statement from the Taliban or reports of “coalition building” and a new role for the octogenarian king, still living in exile in Rome. And most of all, we read him because we are dying to find out how this New Great Game is going to end.

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Published at 12:00 am CST