Afghanistan A Dangerous Place

A scenic aerial view of Afghanistan's rough terrain

A scenic aerial view of Afghanistan's rough terrain

by Robert Young Pelton

Somehow the stalwart brave mujahedin of Afghanistan have gone from lusty freedom fighters to Amish with AK's. The same fundamental drive that pushed the Russians out of this impoverished land has created the Taliban.We didn't really care when we dumped billions worth of cheap Russian and Chinese armament on Hekmatyar in the '80s. Even if he did call us evil and corrupt.

We didn't mind when he closed the cinemas and made the burqa mandatory. Even when the Talibs called Hekmatyar a Western puppet and used those same arms to take over 90 percent of the country. We forgot about the rapings, murders and mayhem the out-of-control muj factions brought on their own people. Suddenly peace broke out and a different breed of journos entered. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) flew 120 journalists into the Kabul to see if the Talibs would begin executing everyone in sight. Nothing happened.

Then, with the unparalleled safety of a oddly peaceful Kabul, more timid journalists entered to do human interest stories. For some reason the Talibs would allow NGO-sponsored journos but not let independent journalists in. Every journalist had to have an angle. Prohibitions about talking to women and a crackdown on what the Talibs considered lax morality piqued the interest of scribes.

The highlight of this access to Kabul was the UN's Emma's and CNN's Christiane's little bitch-slap tussle with the Talibs for filming "nekkid wimmin" and entering a sterile operating room. The UN had declared war on a country at war. The "gender junkets" began. Emma and her private UN planes began disgorging notebook-wielding females intent on documenting the lack of women's rights while rockets rained down.

The Taliban (literally "religious students" or "seekers of truth") who once appeared as God-fearin', upstandin', rag-headed Gary Coopers suddenly appeared as cross-eyed, brutal, morose and wacky Ike Clanton boys. These are the same Afghans who kicked out the Russians, who were armed by us (via the Pakistan ISI) and still wonder why the United States doesn't like them.

Gone were the network war hogs who hiked in from Peshawar and wrote stirring tales of muj bravery. Now sleek white UN turboprops off-loaded female journalists in waiting chauffeur-driven black Mercedes. Over lunch and dinner at the UN mansion (with exercise room, satellite television and bar) they chronicled the horrors of the lack of health care, the treatment of women and generally how life sucked and apparently just for women. There was even a standard journo junket. The first stop was to see Mullah Qalaamuddin, the deputy head of the Religious Police (the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice), where every writer was assured to get a few giggles from the latest fatwah: no paper bags, no white socks, four fingers of beard and no picture-taking. Then off to a barber for a little humor, a clandestine visit to a girl's school, pack a lunch for the Friday executions and then back to Peshawar to file. The object of their journalist lust? The dreaded burqa, a garment worn by every women outside of cosmopolitan Kabul for centuries but suddenly held up as being a sign of the devil in Kabul. Not many paid attention when Hekmatyar made it mandatory long before the Talibs showed up. The writers never really mentioned that they were in the most destroyed city on earth, a militarily occupied zone with a war raging 15 kilometers to the north, rockets raining into the city and young men are pressganged. Somehow in their zeal to create women's rights in a country staggering to its knees, they forget to mention the complete lack of jobs, housing, medical care, health services and education for men (who must provide for their women and children) let alone women. The articles inflamed the world and shut down any aid to the wartorn region. How did the Taliban get lynched on women's rights? It's akin to taking the KKK to task for not providing minority scholarships.

The Taliban started as collection of 40-something-year-old mullahs and eager religious students from Kandahar. The Taliban is neither a political party, army or puppet-of-the-month splinter group. It is the most orthodox (and some Muslims say, most over-the-edge) Islamic movement ever to learn how to run a country from scratch. Devoid of press agents or even graphic designers, they have raised their white flag across Afghanistan, leaving tiny pockets of resistance in the Hazari and occupied cities and the forbidding mountainous north. The Northern Alliance's "minister of defense," Ahmed Shah Massoud, still holds the forbidding Panjshir Valley (his old stomping ground against the Russkies) and it looks like he will be experiencing deja vu as he battles a much larger army from his mountain strongholds. Massoud has been fighting wars in Afghanistan since the '70s, so he is a good long shot if his Iranian and French supporters will add a few zeroes to their checks.

Despite the Northern Alliance's lack of alliance, money or territory, they are still the recognized government of Afghanistan-something that will probably change when the Talibs welcome Hooter's franchises, Marilyn Manson concerts and martini bars. The Taliban don't have a lot of friends. Only three countries recognize their control (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE) and everyone else just mumbles and keeps walking. Unocal desperately wants to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan to the south but the State Department has been dangling it as bait for women's rights and Osama bin Laden's head. For now the Taliban have brought peace and stability to the areas they have conquered-something that has never happened in the last twenty years. They also bring a draconian form of sharia or islamic law that fills the stadium (rebuilt with UN money) in Kabul every Friday at 3:30 P.M. to cheer as thieves are amputated, killers are shot and bad people are flogged. Hey there's nothing on the television or at the theaters, anyway.

Modern Afghan misery began in 1978, when Noor Taraki attempted to import communism into Afghanistan with the aid of the Soviet Union. His successor, Babrak Karmal, asked Moscow for troops, thus signaling the beginning of the conflict. Marxism was met with mortars, machine guns and the primitive flintlock rifles of the mujahedin, or holy warriors.

Eighty-five-thousand Soviet soldiers invaded Afghanistan. Their pretext was that the puppet ruler, Karmal, needed help. The official demand for this intervention was sent from Kabul and signed by Karmal, who could not have been in the Afghan capital at the time because he was riding into Kabul with a Soviet army convoy. Meanwhile, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar spent the Russian war safely in Peshawar, squirreling away the massive arms shipments, while Massoud was fighting in the mountains of the Panjshir.

The conservative Muslim mujahedin put up an unexpected and bitter resistance to the new government. Soviet troops, armed to the teeth with Moscow's most modern materials of doom, were picked apart on the ground by elusive rebel mujahedin guerrillas, employing antiquated weapons that had been state of the art when Janes first started publishing their guide to all the world's blunderbusses. Later, the rebels, backed by the CIA and supplied through Pakistan, began picking Soviet gunships out of the sky with a couple of thousand U.S.-supplied Stingers and other surface-to-air rockets. The Stingers soon shut down the Russian gunships and supply aircraft. Convoys were easily ambushed. Russia had its very own Vietnam, but without the cool antiwar songs and concerts back home. More importantly, the seed of the Taliban was planted by the United States.

Say what? you exclaim. The Taliban, an American idea? When Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviets in 1979, President Jimmy Carter provided the mujahedin with US$30 million in covert aid. This manifested itself in the form of the Pakistani secret service, or ISI, supplying selected rebel commanders with old Soviet arms procured from Egypt. The Pakistanis carefully chose southern commanders who were Pushtun and had ethnic ties with Pakistanis across the border. Many of these commanders, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were virulently anti-American and hard-line Islamics. They knew that the Russians would be gone and then there was going to be a power grab. He and others kept brand-new weapons in their original containers in large storage yards waiting for the day. The Russians would leave.

As covert military aid to the mujahedin increased under the Reagan administration, so did the carnage and the number of refugees. By 1985, the Afghan rebels were receiving US$250 million a year in covert assistance to battle the by now 115,000 Soviet troops. This figure was double 1984's amount. The annual amount received by the guerrillas reached a whopping US$700 million by 1988. There were even shipping Tennessee mules to Afghanistan to carry all the weapons in the hills. Even today Afghanistan is littered with the abandoned one-way shipping containers used to bring all that weaponry into the country. In all, the Soviets lost with 14,453 dead (the real number is closer to 35,000). Probably the most expensive funerals the United States ever created. Even after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the spook bucks kept flowing. In 1991, anywhere from US$180 million to US$300 million was funneled into Afghanistan by the CIA via the ISI. In all, the CIA spent about US$3.3 billion in rebel aid over the course of the war. Traditionally each region elected a leader based on his social contacts and ability to defend their region. Now the system was out of kilter. Small-time commanders now controlled massive arsenals and large numbers of paid "volunteers." These commanders began to consolidate trade, smuggling and businesses under their control. Traditional law enforcement or tribal control was in disarray. By 1988 there was no law in afghanistan except the gun.

An initial agreement to end outside aid was signed in April 1988, by Afghanistan, the USSR, the United States and Pakistan. The accords were signed on the condition that the USSR pull out its troops by the end of the year. The Soviets' withdrawal occurred in February 1989. Another agreement, signed between the Soviet Union and the United States in September 1991, also sought to arrange the end of meddling into Afghanistan's affairs by the two superpowers. By the middle of April 1992, mujahedin guerrillas and other Islamic rebels moved in on Kabul and ousted President Najibullah. A 50-member ruling council comprised of guerrilla, religious and intellectual leaders was quickly established to create an Islamic republic. It fell apart in violent warfare and factional squabbling. After all, this was Afghanistan, a place where even minor personal disagreements can lead to gunfire and blood feuds. Politics and unlimited access to weapons just added gasoline to the fire.

The fighting had created large numbers of refugees in Quetta and Peshawar. In mountainous Kabul it was traditional for students to be educated in warmer Peshawar and then return to work in the summer. These Afghans were educated in madrassahs, or religious schools. Now with millions of refugees stuck in Pakistan where they were treated roughly, the religious teachers, or mullahs, urged the young men, or Talibs, to return to Afghanistan to drive out the corrupt Western leaders.

This patchwork of Westernized and armed warlords with no wars to fight had become despots, thieves and drug lords. They became greedy and violent, mocking the initial purpose of jihad.

The Talibs began during a small border incident in Spin Boldak under the leadership of Mullah Omar and Mullah Rabbani. They came from the poor south, all had fought the Russians and most had been severely victimized. They had known no traditional schooling, media or education and many had fought against the Russians to make a new Afghanistan. The Taliban was a small group from the Maiwand district of southern Afghanistan, led by a group of 30 former religious students who had studied together in the provincial madrassahs from Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Their leader was one-eyed, 35-year-old Mullah Muhammad Omar. The uprising began when they attacked the highway checkpoints manned by their followers-extortion, robbery and rape were daily occurrences. These atrocities not only angered the common people but they cut into the business of influential traders based in Quetta, Pakistan, and in Kandahar. These traders financed the initial campaigns of the Taliban to clear Kandahar of the warlords.

Starting small with donations from Pakistani and Saudi businessmen they swept like a dust devil from the south all the way to the foothills of the Panjshirs. They used bribes, tanks, suicide charges and discussion to win over region after region. Businessman and former mujahedin Usama bin Laden donated around 2,000 Toyota Hiluxes and worked with the Taliban to create a new form of blitzkrieg. The flat arid south was perfect for rapid movement of self-contained lashkars of Talibs. He counseled Mullah Omar on tactics, government and even policy. Afghanistan was destined to become an emirate and an Islamic state with shariOah as its law.

In the summer of 1998 they finally pushed Uzbek warlord Dostum all the back to Ankara (for the second time), scared Hekmatyar back to Tehran and had walled up Massoud in the Panjshir mountains. Many will say that their rapid drive to Kabul was funded and planned by the Pakistani ISI. It is plainly obvious that once they entered Kabul they had overextended their support base and are now fraying at the edges as Massoud plays a seesaw war across the Shomali plains just north of Kabul.

The Taliban's power base still remains in the Durrani and Pushtun provinces of southern Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban has effectively created a Pushtun power base that represents a group of 15 to 17 million people, of which 10 million live in Afghanistan and the rest in Pakistan. The urban and northern Hazaris (who are Shiite) and the northern Tajiks do not see eye to eye with the Taliban. The Uzbeks are frantic and have locked down their borders and invited in the Russians. Tajikistan has began supporting Massoud covertly by allowing him to move supplies and people across their border. Iran has mobilized troops but will not spark a war like the eight-year war they had with Iraq. Turkmenistan is playing it cool. It is still (along with Iran) a porous border for drugs, people and contraband.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: © Robert Young Pelton’s, The World’s Most Dangerous Places, Harper Collins. Reproduced with the permission of

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