Barnett Rubin is the author of several books on Afghanistan, including The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) and The Search for Peace in Afghanistan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). In this interview with Asia Society, he discusses the conditions under which the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the long-term implications of the proxy war there. Professor Rubin also explains the origins of the Taliban, who emerged much after the Soviet withdrawal, and suggests that they in fact represent a "generational revolt against the mujahideen."
Professor Rubin was formerly the Director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is now Director of Studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.
In order to provide some context to events now unfolding in Afghanistan, I would like to begin by talking about the Soviet invasion in 1979. The Soviets came in ostensibly to quash a growing Islamic and nationalist resistance movement known collectively as mujahideen. Could you provide a brief overview of the conditions obtaining in Afghanistan at the time?
Actually the Soviets did not come in to quash the mujahideen; they sent the wrong military deployment for that. The Soviets came in to provide security for a change of government, from one faction of Afghan Communists to another. There was going to be a manipulated, peaceful change of government from Hafizullah Amin to Babrak Kamal.
The Afghan Communist Party came to power through a military coup in 1978. Although the Soviet Union did not sponsor this coup, once the Communists were in power, they had the full backing of the Soviet Union. The Afghan Communist Party was highly factionalized along several lines, but the most radical faction eventually took over and tried to push through a very poorly thought-out (and radical) transformation of Afghan society, solely through violence and coercion, without any participation by the Afghan people. (While it would be incorrect to say that the Afghans were totally conservative and did not want any changes, they certainly did not want changes at gunpoint that had been thought up by a small group of people who were not representative and were backed by a foreign power).
Along with their attempt to implement various policies, like land reform, literacy programs and so on, the Communists had a massive campaign of terror to eliminate groups that they thought were rivals, which included first of all other factions of the educated elite. This is very important to keep in mind because this is a process that has been going on in Afghanistan from 1978 till today, i.e. one group after another eliminating more and more of Afghanistan’s educated elite. According to official figures, released after the Khalq faction was overthrown by the Soviets in December 1979, in the 19 months that faction was in power, they killed 12,000 people just in the principal prison in Kabul. When they went into the countryside, they killed the local Islamic leaders and the local tribal leaders or landlords (not everywhere, but in many places). According to unofficial estimates, they may have killed as many as 50-100,000 people.
This, combined with their attempt to impose changes by military force, generated revolts in various parts of the country. However the romantic history of the Afghan resistance movement implies that the people took up arms everywhere and the Soviets came in to try to suppress this revolt. Actually the people taking up arms didn’t bother the Soviets that much (when a bunch of Nuristani tribesmen took over a sub-district in Nuristan it scarcely caused waves at the Kremlin).
What really disturbed the Soviets was that, beginning in March 1979, portions of the Afghan military started to revolt. In March 1979 there was a major uprising by the garrison in Herat led by Major Ismail Khan and Major Allauddin Khan, probably with some assistance from Iran (this was just one month after the Iranian revolution). In that uprising, Soviet advisers in Herat were killed as well as many of their families and some civilians from the Eastern Bloc, and it was put down with great difficulty.
Subsequently, throughout the rest of the year, there were uprisings in virtually every Afghan military garrison in the country, including in the Bala Hisar, the main garrison in Kabul itself in August 1979. In addition to which, with the melting away of the military, the provincial officials in the capitals were also losing their security, many of them were defecting (this did not mean of course that they were running to the Islamic fundamentalists and taking up arms; they would start by going back home, to their family, clan, tribe, and some of them would subsequently leave for Pakistan).
Because the army was disintegrating, they started drafting people by force, so then young men started running away to avoid conscription. This heralded the beginning of the disintegration of the state structure, particularly of the army, and the Soviets stepped in to prevent that from happening. The Soviets thought that if the state were to dissolve in this way, it would create a power vacuum that the United States would try to fill, since they had just lost their most important ally in the region, the Shah of Iran. With typical paranoia, the Soviets overestimated what the US was doing, just as the US, also in a paranoid way, thought that the Soviets planned to seize Afghanistan and then march on to the Persian Gulf. Neither of these perceptions was true, of course.
The Soviets put into power another faction led by Babrak Karmal, which was supposed to be more moderate. But any government that is put in to power by a foreign army in Afghanistan (especially a foreign army of atheistic, white people) is obviously not going to be very popular. They quickly lost legitimacy, large portions of the rest of the army subsequently defected, and the state structure began to melt away. Then the students in Kabul started demonstrating so they began arresting a lot of students; more educated people were arrested and killed. So these were the beginnings of the process that continues till today.
According to some reports, when Moscow intervened militarily in Afghanistan, there were several secular and nationalist Afghan groups opposed to the Soviet-backed Communists (who had, as you indicated, seized power 19 months earlier in a military coup). Washington had the option of bolstering these groups but instead, chose to support the three fundamentalist organizations then in existence. This was allegedly part of Brzezinski’s [Carter’s National Security Advisor] attempt to export a composite ideology of nationalism and Islam to the Muslim-majority Soviet republics with a view to destroying the Soviet Union. Do you agree with this claim, and could you comment on it?
This implies the existence of a great deal more coherence, discipline and purpose among both Afghans and Americans than I believe existed at the time, and it also omits the role of Pakistan.
First of all, there were secular and nationalist groups in Afghanistan; but if any of them exceeded 500 people in number, I would be surprised. Organized politics of this sort was completely confined to cliques of educated people in the capital city; there were no organized political parties in the country. Afghanistan had had three national elections to a consultative parliament in which almost no political party leaders were involved at all. The people who were elected were tribal leaders and ulama. Some times educated people who claimed they were political leaders would get elected but usually they would be elected from their native town or village by those who belonged to their tribe or clan. Some of the Parchami leaders (for instance, Babrak Karmal) were elected from Kabul.
So there were no political parties that had the capacity to mobilize people in Afghanistan. Another thing to bear in mind is that the old elite who ran the country prior to this could be swept away so easily precisely because Afghanistan did not have political parties and an autonomous political structure through which it could mobilize people.
The old elite controlled the country by controlling the state, and by controlling the state, they were able to get revenues from natural gas and foreign aid and a few taxes, and use those to redistribute them to buy off a few leaders. It used that to support a clique because half of the ruling elite of Afghanistan (if you define the ruling elite as consisting of cabinet members and top generals) came from the Muhammadzai lineage. So the government in Afghanistan was like a club for Muhammadzais and a few of their allies. This is why so many other newly educated elites who were not Muhammadzais resented them and became Islamists or radical nationalists or communists or Maoists. Still all this political contention was in a very small circle.
However, there were networks of tribal leaders, religious leaders, and so on, connected to the royal regime and they tried to constitute an image of that regime in exile through the mechanism of loya jirga (people say this institution is traditional; I don’t know what the word ‘traditional’ means) which was an institution that had been created by the Afghan state on the basis of certain Pashtun tribal practices. Loya jirga is a state practice, not a tribal practice, but it is based on the tribal ideology that the Afghan state should represent.
Some exiles sympathetic to the national idea of the old regime tried to hold such a loya jirga a couple of times in Pakistan in order to constitute a kind of national resistance. However, the tribal-based state in Afghanistan had made territorial claims against Pakistan, and was the only state that voted against Pakistan’s admission to the United Nations, and had also launched covert wars against Pakistan using the Pashtun border tribes. The Pakistan government and military (not necessarily in that order; they were actually the same thing at the time) refused to allow this loya jirga to meet and used the religious parties as their channels of influence with the Afghans. They would not let the ex-king or his family come to Pakistan because they were associated with the demand for Pashtunistan. They also liked to have different parties so they could manipulate them against each other; their nightmare would be the formation of an Afghan state in exile in Pakistan Pashtunistan.
Within the Pashtun tribes there were and are two different competing elites, the tribal elites and the religious elites, with different ideologies and different bases of power. The tribal elites were strengthened and were relied upon by the Afghan government whereas the religious elites were marginalized. Who were these religious elites? The Taliban. The religious elites were tribal, rural ulama, and every government since Amir Abdul Rahman Khan in the 1880s, has tried to marginalize these people and keep them from declaring jihad. They even created a new class of religious elites based on state madrasas some of whom were also sent to al-Azhar (like Rabbani) to try to marginalize those old rural elites who subsequently became the Taliban. But they were very important, along with other groups like the new Islamists, to the Pakistani strategy of undermining not only the Communist government but also the tribal nationalist forces within Afghanistan that had tried to undermine Pakistan and had allied with India.
The ranks of the Afghan mujahideen were, from the outset, complemented by non-Afghan volunteers eager to join the anti-Soviet jihad. One of the first to do this was Osama bin Laden, who worked very closely with the CIA to collect funds from affluent Saudi citizens. Is this correct?
There are two points here: first, the volunteers really did not come in significant numbers until the late-1980s, particularly after the Soviet withdrawal, which is when they became important. The operation, which is often characterized as a CIA operation, was not in fact just a CIA operation; it was a joint operation among the CIA, the ISI and Al-Istakhbara al-‘Ama (General Intelligence) of Saudi Arabia. The Chinese were also involved (although they were and are still rather discreet about this). There were four intelligence agencies who met every week in Islamabad. A lot of weapons from China went into Afghanistan as well but they were not paid for by the Chinese. There was a division of labor between these groups.
The foreign volunteers (particularly the Arabs) were organized by the Saudis, at least at the official level. Osama’s family was very closely linked to the Saudi elite and at that time he still had good relations with them. He knew Prince Turki bin Abdul, the head of the Saudi intelligence agency. Osama came as a young man to Afghanistan and he started collecting money and bringing volunteers (he wasn’t fighting straight away).
Volunteers became more important after 1989. The private Arab money was important because sometimes the official money would run out and this was what saved the system, as Brig. Yousaf says in his book, The Bear Trap. There was a lot of money required to keep the system moving, and of course, a lot of the money went through the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). That was part of the whole set-up.
The volunteers became important after 1989 because after the Soviets withdrew a lot of the Afghans stopped fighting. I knew there were Arabs in Peshawar but it wasn’t until after the Soviet withdrawal had started, that news of the Arab volunteers spread.
The Communists were still in government but they changed their name; they weren’t trying to change the society, they weren’t killing the mullahs or anyone except the people who were fighting against them. They were paying them, this was their new strategy. There is some monetary data from this period which shows this trend.
Many Afghans just put down their weapons, but the CIA and the ISI still wanted to overthrow Najibullah. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was important. Hekmatyar and Sayyaf were still fighting and were also making a lot of use of these volunteers. They were on an ideological quest much more than other Afghans were.
These people got military training in Pakistan as well as to a certain extent in Afghanistan as well. The camps that the US bombed in 1998 date from that period. They gained military skills but, perhaps more important than that, they were able to link into a transnational network; the Islamic movement had always been a series of national Islamic movements. At that time, there were all these people from different nationalities who came together in Afghanistan and developed this transnational movement. So what we see now with Osama bin Laden and company is completely different from the Islamic movement that existed before.
Osama has a somewhat Saudi focus (he is concerned primarily with the US troops in Saudi Arabia which is why he broke with the Saudi government in 1990). Nonetheless he has got people from all nationalities there and they are just looking at US targets everywhere. The movement is now entirely transnational, denationalized, and this area serves as an important focus, but you need infrastructure to build up such a network, and the Afghan war provided it (although now it is more or less self-sustaining).
The war had numerous long-term implications, the effects of which are still visible today. Could you discuss some of these? For instance, you mention in one of your books that from 1986-90, Afghanistan was the 5th largest importer of arms in the world. Other consequences, such as the refugee crisis and the destruction of what little infrastructure existed at the time (health, education facilities, etc.) presumably still have an effect today.
What the war did, including the political conflict and the repression associated with the war, is it destroyed or greatly damaged everything in Afghanistan that supported governance and development. I say governance because I don’t only mean formal government; the war also destroyed social structures that enabled people to run things by themselves.
So first of all, the state. As I mentioned, the army disintegrated from the very beginning although the Soviets managed to keep it together to a certain point. When the Soviet Union dissolved, and Najibullah fell, all the security forces that had been built up by the Soviets during the war, also dissolved and split up into ethnic factions and became allied with different mujahideen groups basically along ethnic or opportunistic lines.
The other problem of course was that there was no government in place and everyone was armed. This is worse than having simply an oppressive regime, because then at least there is someone who can make a decision to improve the situation, if you change the incentives, change the structure, etc. But when there is no one in charge, and everyone is armed, no one can make a decision.
To make a state run effectively, you need people who are educated and respected, who have resources and wisdom. It is precisely for these reasons that when political groups are fighting, they target these sorts of people. Anyone who has talent, leadership, integrity, for the past 20 years in Afghanistan, has been a target. The human capital needed to run any society has been massively destroyed.
With regard to economic infrastructure: if you want to deny things to the enemy, you want to deny mobility, you put landmines in farmlands or on roads, you blow up bridges, you blow up pipelines, you explode electricity pylons. The Pakistanis even tried to get the mujahideen to blow up a huge dam near Kandahar and flood the city but the mujahideen refused and sent guards to guard the dam from Pakistani agents.
People from both Massoud’s side and the Taliban’s side have said that they were told that if they blew up the bridges they would be rebuilt later. They did blow up a lot of bridges but nobody is rebuilding them.
There was also a massive outflow of people.
Much of Afghanistan’s agriculture is dependent on irrigation, the most productive part, which in Afghanistan is fruit production. Afghanistan was a major raisin exporter. The irrigation works require constant maintenance and when people leave, the irrigation works aren’t maintained. There is a huge amount of capital that probably can’t even be measured, that has been destroyed. Whole orchards were cut down, a lot of trees have been destroyed, for military purposes. Also, as a survival strategy, people cut down trees to sell them to Pakistan because that whole area of eastern Afghanistan is still in monsoon area, up until the Hindu Kush. There are very good forests there, and there has been terrible deforestation.
With regard to social structures: first of all there are hardly any teachers, doctors, nurses, or health-care professionals left. Most of the ones remaining by the end of the war were women because the men were all involved in military activities. (The Taliban initially banned the women from working both in the health and the education sectors but now they can work in the former though not the latter). Many of the facilities were also destroyed.
The roads are in terrible condition. Roads are incredibly important. I was in Farah in 1998 which is a regional town in southwest Afghanistan and there are no paved roads apart from the main one which goes through the country there - the road from Kandahar to Herat and there is still some paving left but generally smugglers’ trucks prefer to drive through the desert because it’s smoother than the roads. The dirt road to Farah is so badly pitted and the roads in Farah are so pitted that when it rains, the farmers can’t bring their goods to market. These are very basic things that have to do with survival that have been destroyed.
Do you agree with the claim that the Taliban were successful in Afghanistan in 1994 largely due to the widespread discontent among the population (combined of course with backing from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) with the years of what one commentator has referred to as "mujahideen tyranny" following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Najibullah government in 1992 (shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union)?
The situation in the country and the response to the Taliban differed by the region of the country. The Taliban are like any other foreign aid project; of course you do need the foreign funding, but it only works if the local people feel they have some ownership. There was foreign funding of other armed groups too but they weren’t as successful as the Taliban for various reasons.
The Taliban come from southern Afghanistan, the area you might call Kandahar, but it is the old Kandahar, which includes several present-day provinces. That was the region where there was really no government after 1992. In Kabul there was civil war but there was a little bit of structure. There were some structures in different parts of north Afghanistan. Herat, under Ismail Khan, actually was running rather well. Jalalabad in the east was under a kind of a shura [council], which was pretty chaotic and the security situation was not very good. But in Kandahar the security situation was really terrible, that’s where the warlordism was the worst. It’s also where the mujahideen parties were the weakest because there are no Kandaharis whatsoever in the leadership of the mujahideen in Peshawar. This was always an issue during the war.
Then two things came together. There was always a clerical structure separate from the mujahideen parties in that area. There was an Islamic Court of Kandahar which was actually more important than any of the mujahideen parties and essentially some of the ulema who were organized around that Islamic court turned into the Taliban in order to try to attack the problem of warlordism and chaos. Some of them had been involved in mujahideen parties.
At the same time Pakistani strategy was shifting because they were getting frustrated: Hekmatyar wasn’t delivering and they wanted to get a corridor to Central Asia. They were thinking Peshawar, Jalalabad, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Tashkent but that road was blocked by the civil war in Kabul. Hekmatyar was supposed to take over Kabul but that wasn’t working. After Benazir Bhutto was elected, General Babar started thinking that maybe a stable government in Afghanistan would not be possible but there was another route: Quetta, Kandahar, Herat, Turkmenistan, and not only is that a road route, but there’s a very logical gas project in that area which international companies will become interested in. It is the Dawlatabad gas field in Turkmenistan, which is very close to the Afghan border and could be easily connected through a pipeline to the Baluchistan gas fields in Pakistan and linked up to the Pakistan gas network (Pakistan needs energy very badly). That still is economically rational.
So you had a convergence of interest in that region, which is where the Taliban were. Therefore, Pakistan shifted its support to this group in a region which Hekmatyar did not even have access to (he could not even go to Kandahar; the one time he tried, they shot at his convoy and he had to leave).
The first convoy the Pakistanis sent was a trading convoy which was led by Colonel Imam, an ISI officer, one of the top people running the Afghan war who is today the Consul General for Pakistan in Herat. He led the first convoy that was freed by the Taliban when the Taliban took Kandahar at the end of October 1994.
The Taliban then went on clearing the area and at this time they were very popular with the local people. They cleared out the warlords and of course the Taliban were local people: they were Kandaharis taking over Kandahar, bringing order in a way people there understood. Also their political goals were very unclear; they did not say, "We are going to take over the country and establish a narrow-minded dictatorship."
They said, "We are going to collect weapons, establish an administration, implement sharia, and then go home. Maybe we will even bring back Zahir Shah."
But then their ambitions grew.
Is it not the case that the Taliban movement comprises more than just students from madrasas; its leadership is drawn from former Mujahideen? Could you discuss this?
Students and teachers from madrasas were one of the components of the mujahideen from the beginning. The taliban (literally, students) from Deobandi madrassas were generally in two parties, Harakat-i Inqilab-i Islami of Mawlawi Nabi Muhammadi and, to a lesser extent, the faction of Hizb-i Islami led by Mawlawi Yunus Khalis. They both attended Haqqaniya madrasa in Akhora Khattak, NWFP, and were friendly to Jamiat-I Ulema Islami, especially the Fazlur Rahman group. Muhammadi studied with Fazlur Rahman’s father. Harakat was the largest, least effective, and most corrupt party. It faded away over the years. Most of the Taliban leaders who are old enough were in one of these two parties. But most of them are too young to have been in the jihad. Mulla Umar is only 41, I think. Wakil Ahmad, the foreign minister, is in his early 30s, so he was barely 20 when the Soviets withdrew. In fact the Taliban partly represent a generational revolt against the mujahideen. This young generation was raised to regard the mujahid as the highest form of human being, but then these mujahideen became warlords, robbing, raping, and killing. It was a shame on Islam and a shame on Afghanistan. The Taliban fought to restore the honor of Islam and Afghanistan.
It has been apparent that Pakistan (with Saudi assistance) has backed the Taliban from the outset. You have insisted that although there is some speculation that the US has backed the Taliban, this is not the case. Why do you give the US the benefit of the doubt? Especially given American oil interests in Central Asia? (ref. Unocal oil company wanting access to Central Asian oil through Afghanistan and Pakistan, not Iran)?
In 1994, before the Pakistanis embarked on this venture, I believe that somebody, I don’t know who (ISI, General Babar, I don’t know), had a conversation or several conversations with the US Embassy in Islamabad. Perhaps with the CIA station chief, maybe the Ambassador, I’m not sure. In all likelihood, they got a nod of approval. The US gave some political support to the effort, though not financial or military support.
We should not rewrite history however. When the Taliban got into Kandahar, Abdul Rashid Dostum sent technicians to help them repair their aircraft. President Rabbani made supportive statements about them because what the Taliban were doing was defeating Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. At that time, many people were focused on Hekmatyar as the problem and the Taliban got rid of the Hekmatyar problem. In fact, they were welcomed by many people, including Massoud and Rabbani for that reason. They all thought that the Taliban could be the Pashtun interlocutor that Afghanistan had lacked.
There was a problem because Afghanistan could not be run without any Pashtuns in the government. At the same time, the Pashtuns were not organized politically in a way that allowed others to negotiate with them very effectively. So they thought the Taliban could be that, but of course, things turned out rather differently.
At that time, the Americans were also much more interested in the oil and gas pipelines that you mention, and Unocal was involved in that. The State Department did not really know what to do at the time, whether to strengthen the government in Kabul or to try to replace it; they were being torn in different directions, and basically, nobody really cared all that much.
It came to a head when the Taliban took Kabul in 1996 because then the Unocal representative said something positive he was not supposed to say, and the State Department also speculated about whether this was a positive development. When the Taliban kicked all the women out of jobs and schools, and the UN and NGOs protested, particularly when this happened in Kabul, it received a lot of attention. So that led to the growth of this protest movement (for instance, the American feminist opposition to the Taliban, which is an important constituency for the Democrats, more so probably than Unocal).
When I say the US did not support the Taliban, what I have in mind is that I do not believe that the United States ever gave any material support, financial support or military training to the Taliban. I think they went along with what the Pakistanis were doing.
You have also suggested that the ’98 bombing of Afghanistan marked a shift in US policy. Can you briefly tell us what policy had been in effect prior to that and what it has been since? Do you think the bombing made the Taliban more intransigent vis-à-vis any proposed concessions to the West?
This was more of a symbolic shift that sealed a process that had been underway for some time. The relations with the Taliban were frozen and were going downhill at that point. Madeleine Albright had already gone to Pakistan and called the Taliban “despicable” on the front steps of the Pakistan Foreign Ministry while standing right next to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Ayub, who had said how wonderful the Taliban were and had gone to Mazar-i-Sharif to recognize them.
Meanwhile the Osama issue was developing. He left Saudi Arabia in 1990 (where he had returned in 1989 from Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal) after he broke with the Saudi government over the issue of the invitation to American and Western troops during the Gulf War. He went to Prince Turki and offered to raise an army of mujahideen to defend Saudi Arabia instead of relying on the Americans. Of course, he was refused. He then left Saudi Arabia and went to Sudan. In Sudan he built up his businesses, he gathered all his friends from Afghanistan around him, and he was starting his various objectionable activities. The United States put a lot of pressure on the government of Sudan to get rid of him, and finally Sudan agreed to expel Osama. But then the question was what to do with him. Somehow it was decided that he should go to Afghanistan.
How did Osama get to Afghanistan? Isn’t that an interesting question? Afghanistan is a landlocked country, so he had to get there through Pakistan, and he is a fairly well known figure to the security services in that area. I don’t know if he went overland, some people say he flew over Pakistan, but he did it with the knowledge and approval of somebody, certainly of Pakistan, maybe of the United States, because they had to send him somewhere where he would be out of harm’s way.
Where did he go? He did not go to the Taliban, he went to Jalalabad, which was controlled by Haji Abdul Qadir who is now with Massoud and the other freedom fighters and holed up in the mountains there. He was then introduced to the Taliban by the ISI and he helped pay for the capture of Kabul in 1996, according to Ahmed Rashid.
Then the US became more concerned about the activities of Osama bin Laden but in fact he hadn’t done anything very high-profile until these bombings. There were still low-grade discussions with the Taliban, which were focusing on various issues, but when these bombings took place and they traced it back to Osama, which they did very quickly, rightly or wrongly, it was clear that the Taliban were harboring an anti-American terrorist. This was extremely serious. The Taliban were already seen as bad, as people who could not be recognized, but this meant that the Taliban were now shielding the enemy. They weren’t quite the enemy themselves (George Tenet, the Director of the CIA, said that the US does not in fact believe that the Taliban themselves are engaged in anti-American terrorism). The more they shield Osama, the more they get lumped into that camp, and the more others who want to be in that camp feel justified in their course of action.
In recent coverage of the Bamiyan episode, there has been some speculation that the Taliban is deeply divided, with moderate and hard-line factions vying for control. Could you comment on this?
First of all, outsiders know very little of what goes on within the structure of the Taliban. Although there have been some detailed reports now indicating that within their governance structure there have been sharp disagreements among some individuals. I don’t know if those differences are organized in such a way that they can be called factions; but there are clearly individuals within the Taliban who have different points of view. That is very evident when you talk to the Taliban; they talk very differently.
Furthermore, who is in the Taliban? It depends on what you mean. The core of the Taliban, they have their leadership shura, their shura of ulema, those are actual Taliban. But the Taliban are now in fact the government of most of Afghanistan; they have something called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Everybody working for the Islamic Emirate is not a talib or a member of the Taliban movement. The Secretary of Education in Paktia province is not necessarily a member of the Taliban movement.
Certainly within that structure, there are people who have much more conventional Afghan views.
The Taliban are in a dilemma now. They started out with what was essentially a national agenda, which was to rebuild Afghanistan on the basis of their version of sharia. This requires on the one hand adhering to their ideology but it also requires engagement with and integration into the international community, because they need aid for reconstruction. Along the way, they met up with the Osamas of the world, whom they did not know before because they were not involved in all this during the jihad. The foreigners were not involved with the parties the Taliban were a part of; the foreigners allied themselves with parties led by Islamic intellectuals, so-called revolutionary parties.
At the same time, the Taliban were developing more of a conflict with the West, the US, the UN, and so on. Then they met these people who were very supportive. They became educated through them about the outside world. My own personal experience with this was in January 1997 when they sent their first delegation to New York. They spoke at Columbia; I chaired the meeting. Wakil Ahmed, who is now the Foreign Minister, said, “We will help the United States fight against international terrorism.” And then the Imam of the students of Columbia University got up and attacked him for accepting the West’s definition of terrorism. Wakil Ahmed was rather taken aback by this. But this is something that they started hearing more of and it is something they hadn’t heard before.
So now they are torn between those two agendas, and I think the question for those outside who are trying to influence them is how to strengthen the tendency within the Taliban, which might be within a single person (not necessarily different factions) to want to engage and integrate, as opposed to the tendency to keep themselves separate and become even more radical. And as a first step, they have to know that there is another alternative available; something must be on offer for this completely devastated country, apart from more threats, apart from bombing a place which has already been bombed into oblivion, apart from economic sanctions against a country whose economy, if it hasn’t disappeared, is already entirely illegal. And that is what is lacking in the international approach to Afghanistan.
Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.