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Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia
by Ahmed Rashid

16 Jun 08


Introduction: Afghanistan’s Holy Warriors
Part 1: History of the Taliban Movement
Chapter 1 Kandahar 1994: The Origins of the Taliban
Chapter 2 Herat 1995: God’s Invincible Soldiers
Chapter 3 Kabul 1996: Commander of the Faithful
Chapter 4 Mazar-e-Sharif 1997: Massacre in the North
Chapter 5 Bamiyan 1998-2000: The Never-Ending War

Part 2: Islam and the Taliban
Chapter 6 Challenging Islam: The New-Style Fundamentalism of the Taliban
Chapter 7 Secret Society: The Taliban’s Political and Military Organization
Chapter 8 A Vanished Gender Women, Children and Taliban Culture 105
Chapter 9 High on Heroin: Drugs and the Taliban Economy 117
Chapter 10 Global Jihad: The Arab-Afghans and Osama Bin Laden

Part 3: The New Great Game
Chapter 11 Dictators and Oil Barons: The Taliban and Central Asia, Russia, Turkey and Israel
Chapter 12 Romancing the Taliban 1: The Battle for Pipelines 1994-96
Chapter 13 Romancing the Taliban 2: The Battle for Pipelines 170 1997-99
Chapter 14 Master or Victim: Pakistan’s Afghan War 183
Chapter 15 Shia and Sunni: Iran and Saudi Arabia
Chapter 16 Conclusion: The Future of Afghanistan

Preface and Acknowledgements

This book has been 21 years in the writing-about as long as I have covered Afghanistan as a reporter. The war in Afghanistan has taken out a good chunk of my life even though as a Pakistani journalist there was enough going on at home to report on and later there was Central Asia and the collapse of the Soviet Union to cover.

Why Afghanistan? Anyone who has been touched by an Afghan or visited the country in peace or in war, will understand when I say the country and the people are amongst the most extraordinary on earth. The Afghans have also been affected by one of the greatest tragedies of this century-the longest running civil war in this era which has brought untold misery.

Their story and their character involve immense contradictions. Brave, magnificent, honourable, generous, hospitable, gracious, handsome, Afghan men and women can also be devious, mean and bloody-minded. Over the centuries, trying to understand the Afghans and their country was turned into a fine art and a game of power politics by the Persians, the Mongols, the British, the Soviets and most recently the Pakistanis. But no outsider has ever conquered them or claimed their soul. Only the Afghans could have been capable of keeping two empires-Britain and the Soviet Union at bay in this century. But in the last 21 years of conflict they have paid an enormous price over 1.5 million dead and the total destruction of their country.

For me, luck has also played a role in my relationship with Afghanistan. Many times I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I watched as army tanks blasted their way into the Kabul palace of President Mohammed Daud in 1978, a coup that was to set off Afghanistan’s disintegration. A year later I was sipping tea in Kandahar’s bazaar when the first Soviet tanks rolled in. As I covered the Soviet Union’s war with the Mujaheddin my family urged me to write a book, as so many journalists were doing at the time. I abstained. I had too much to say and did not know where to start.

I was determined to write a book after spending several months in Geneva covering the excruciating UN sponsored negotiations in 1988, which ended with the Geneva Accords and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Packed in with 200 journalists I was fortunate enough to be privy to many of the internal stand-offs between diplomats from the UN, the USA, the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. That book never got written as my first love, the Afghans, drove straight from Geneva into a bloody, senseless civil war that still continues today.

Instead I went to Central Asia to see the ancestors of the Afghans and became a witness to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which I wrote book about from the perspective of the newly independent Central Asian states. But Afghanistan always drew me back.

I should have written another book in 1992 when I spent a month dodging bullets in Kabul as the regime of President Najibullah collapsed and the city fell to the Mujaheddin. By then the Afghan saga had taken me to Moscow, Washington, Rome, Jeddah, Paris, London, Ashkhabad, Tashkent and Dushanbe. Ultimately it was the unique nature of the Taliban and the lack of literature about their meteoric rise, which convinced me I had to tell their story as a continuation of the last 21 years Afghanistan’s history and my history.

For years I was the only Pakistani journalist covering Afghanistan seriously, even though the war was next door and Afghanistan sustained Pakistan’s foreign policy and kept the military regime of General Zia ul-Haq in power. If there was another abiding interest, it was my conviction as early as 1982 that Islamabad’s Afghan policy would play a critical role in Pakistan’s future national security, domestic politics and create Islamic fundamentalist backlash at home. Today, as Pakistan teeters the edge of a political, economic and social abyss while a culture of drugs, weapons, corruption and violence permeates the country, what happens in Afghanistan has become even more important to Pakistan.

Pakistan’s policy-makers did not always agree with what I wrote. It not easy to disagree with Zia. In 1985 I was interrogated for several hours by Zia’s intelligence agencies and warned not to write for six months because of my criticism. I continued to write under pseudonyms. My phones were constantly tapped, my movements monitored.

Afghanistan, like the Afghans themselves, is a country of contraditions that are constantly played out for any reporter. Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, the extremist Mujaheddin leader sentenced me to death for being a communist sympathiser-along with George Arney of the BBC-and for a year published my name in his party newspaper, like a wanted ad. Later, in Kabul, a crowd chased and tried to kill me when I arrived moments after a rocket fired by Hikmetyar had killed two small boys in the Microyan housing complex. The Afghans thought I was a Hikmetyar agent
checking out the damage.

In 1981 when Najibullah was head of the notorious KHAD, the Afghan communist secret service modelled on the KGB, he personally interrogated me after KHAD officers arrested me for reading a banned copy of Time magazine at Kabul’s Post Office. After he became president and I had interviewed him several times, he thought I could carry a conciliatory message from him to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. I told him she would not listen to me, and she did not.

And many times I have been caught in the contradiction of crossfires, between Afghan communist troops and the Mujaheddin, between rival Mujaheddin warlords and between the Taliban and Ahmad Shah Masud’s tank-gunners. I have never been the warrior type and mostly ducked.

My interest in Afghanistan could not have been sustained without the help of many people, above all the Afghans. To the Taliban mullahs, the anti-Taliban commanders, the warlords who went before them, the warriors on the battlefield and the taxi-drivers, intellectuals, aid-workers and farmers-too many to mention and mostly too sensitive to mention-my many thanks.

Apart from the Afghans I have received the greatest help from Pakistani ministers, diplomats, generals, bureaucrats and intelligence officers, who either wanted to take me on or were sincerely sympathetic to my views. Many of them have become firm friends.

Over the years the UN agencies and the non-governmental aid organizations have provided a home for me all over Afghanistan and have given me ideas, information and support. At the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan I owe many thanks to its successive chiefs, Martin Barber, Alfredo Witschi-Cestari and Erick de Mul and to Brigette Neubacher, who has been in the Afghan business almost as long as I have. At the UN High Commission for Refugees I thank Robert Van Leeuwen, Shamsul Bari, Sri Wijaratne, Jacques Muchet, Rupert Colville and Monique Malha. At the World Food Programme the indefatigable Adan Adar understood the Taliban better than any other UN officer.

At the UN Special Mission for Afghanistan many thanks are due to Francis Okelo, James Ngobi, Hiroshi Takahashi, Arnold Schifferdecker and Andrew Tesoriere and at the UN in New York, Benon Sevan and Andrew Gilmour. At the International Committee of the Red Cross, Thomas Gurtner and Oliver Durr, at Acted aid agency Frederick Rousseau.


On a warm spring afternoon in the southern city of Kandahar, Afghan shopkeepers were pulling down their shutters in preparation for the weekend. Heavy-set Pashtun tribesmen with long beards and black turbans tied tightly around their heads made their way through the narrow, dusty alleyways to the city’s football stadium just beyond the main bazaar. Children, many of them orphaned and in rags, ran up and down the alleys, gesticulating and shouting with excitement at the thought of the spectacle they were about to witness.

It was March 1997 and for two and a half years Kandahar had been the capital of the fierce Taliban Islamic warriors, who had conquered two-thirds of Afghanistan and were now battling to conquer the rest of the country. A handful of Taliban had fought the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s, more had fought the regime of President Najibullah who had hung on to power for four years after Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, but the vast majority had never fought the communists and were young Koranic students, drawn from hundreds of madrassas
(Islamic theology schools) that had been set up in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.

Since their dramatic and sudden appearance at the end of 1994, the Taliban had brought relative peace and security to Kandahar and neighbouring provinces. Warring tribal groups had been crushed and their leaders hanged, the heavily armed population had been disarmed and the roads were open to facilitate the lucrative smuggling trade between Pakis tan, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia which had become the mainstay of the economy.

The Taliban, drawn from the majority Pashtun ethnic group which accounts for some 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s 20 million people, had also galvanized Pashtun nationalism. The Pashtuns had ruled Afghanist for 300 years but had recently lost out to the country’s other small ethnic groups. The Taliban victories revived hopes that once again Pashtuns would dominate Afghanistan.

But the Taliban had also implemented an extreme interpretation of thr Sharia or Islamic law that appalled many Afghans and the Muslim world! The Taliban had closed down all girls’ schools and women were rarely permitted to venture out of their homes, even for shopping. The Taliban had banned every conceivable kind of entertainment including music, TV, videos, cards, kite-flying and most sports and games. The Taliban’s brand of Islamic fundamentalism was so extreme that it appeared to denigrate Islam’s message of peace and tolerance and its capacity to live with other religious and ethnic groups. They were to inspire a new extremis form of fundamentalism across Pakistan and Central Asia, which refused to compromise with traditional Islamic values, social structures or existing state systems.

A few weeks earlier in Kandahar the Taliban had lifted their long-standing ban on football. The United Nations (UN) aid agencies-seizing a rare chance to do something for public entertainment-rushed in rebuild the stands and seats of the bombed out football stadium. But on this balmy Thursday afternoon-the beginning of the Muslim weekend-no foreign aid-workers had been invited to watch the stadium’s inauguration. No football match was scheduled. Instead there was to be a public! execution and the victim was to be shot between the goalposts.

I had just got off a UN plane arriving from Pakistan and was told about the execution in hushed tones by depressed and embarrassed foreign aid-workers. ‘This is not exactly going to encourage the internatic community to give more funds for aid projects in Afghanistan. How do we explain the use the Taliban are putting our renovation of the football stadium to?’ said one Western aid-worker.

They also looked nervously at my colleague Gretchen Peters, an American journalist. A tall, lanky blonde with a broad face and chiselled features, she was dressed in a one-size-too-small shalwar kameez-the local dress comprising baggy cotton pants, a long shirt that extended to below the knee and a long scarf that covered her head. But that did not hide her height or her striking American looks, which posed a threat to every; concept the Taliban held-that women should be neither seen nor heard because they drove men away from the proscribed Islamic path and into wild temptation. Whether it was a fear of women or their abhorrence of femininity, Taliban leaders had frequently refused to give interviews to female journalists.

Ever since the winter of 1994, when the mysterious Taliban first emerged to conquer Kandahar and then swept north to capture Kabul in September 1996, I had been reporting on the Taliban phenomenon, making more than a dozen trips to Taliban strongholds in Kandahar, Herat and Kabul. I was even more interested in trying to get to grips with who they were, what motivated them, who supported them and how they had arrived at this violent, extreme interpretation of Islam.

Now here there was another Taliban surprise, both a nightmare and a gift to any reporter-a horrific event that made me tremble with both fear and anticipation. I had witnessed much death during the years of war, but that did not make it any easier to be a spectator at the execution of a fellow human being. And to view it as an entertainment, shared with thousands of people and as an expression of Islamic justice and Taliban control, was harder still.

At the stadium the Taliban first resisted our entry but then allowed me in if I stood quietly at the touch-line and promised not to talk to anyone. Gretchen Peters slipped in, but she was quickly ousted by a posse of panic-stricken armed Taliban guards who nudged her in the back with their kalashnikov automatic rifles.

By mid-afternoon every seat in the stadium was taken as more than 10,000 men and children packed the stands and overflowed on to the sandy football pitch. Children played games of dare by running on to the pitch before they were pushed back behind the touch-line by angry guards. It seemed as though the whole city’s male population had turned up. Women were banned from appearing at any public events.

Suddenly the roar of the crowd subsided as two dozen armed Taliban, wearing plastic flip-flop sandals, black turbans and the male version of the shalwar kameez, came charging onto the pitch. They ran alongside the touch-line pushing the playful children back into the stands with their gun barrels and yelling to the crowd to be silent. As the crowd quickly obeyed, the only sound was the Taliban’s flip-flops.

Then, as if on cue, several Datsun two-door pick-ups-the Taliban’s favourite mode of transport- drove onto the football pitch. One pick-up sprouted a tinny sounding loudspeaker—the kind seen on thousands of mosques in Pakistan and Afghanistan. An elderly man with a white beard stood up in the vehicle and began to lecture the crowd. Qazi Khalilullah Ferozi, a judge of the Taliban’s Supreme Court of Kandahar spoke for over an hour, extolling the crowd on the virtues of the Taliban movement, the benefits of Islamic punishment and a full history of the case.

Abdullah Afghan, a young man in his early 20s had allegedly stolen medicines from Abdul Wali, a farmer who lived in their common village near Kandahar. When Wali resisted, Abdullah had shot him dead. After several weeks of searching for him, Wali’s relatives tracked Abdullah down, arrested him and bought him to the Taliban for justice. Abdullah was tried and sentenced to death, first by the Islamic High Court of Kandahar and then on appeal by the Taliban Supreme Court. These were trials without lawyers where the accused is presumed guilty and expected to
defend himself.

The Taliban’s interpretation of the Sharia or Islamic law demanded the execution of the murderer by the victim’s family, but not before a last minute appeal is made by the judge to the victim’s relatives to spare the murderer. If they granted mercy the victim’s family would receive blood money or monetary compensation. But how much of this interpretation of Islamic law by the Taliban is owed to the Sharia and how much is owed to the Pashtun tribal code of behaviour or Pashtunwali, is what is disputed by many Muslim theologians, both inside Afghanistan and beyond.

By now some 20 male relatives of the victim had appeared on the pitch and the Qazi turned to them. Raising his arms to the sky, he appealed to them to spare the life of Abdullah in exchange for blood money. ‘You will go to Mecca ten times if you spare this man. Our leaders have promised to pay a huge sum to you from the Baitul Mai [Islamic fund] if you forgive him,’ he told the relatives. As the relatives all shook their heads in refusal, the Taliban guards pointed their guns at the crowd and warned that they would shoot anyone who moved. There was silence in the stands.

Abdullah, who had been seated throughout the proceedings in another pick-up guarded by armed Taliban, was now let out. Wearing a bright yellow skullcap and new clothes, his feet shackled with heavy manacles, his arms chained behind his back, he was told to walk to the goalposts at one end of the stadium. His legs visibly shook with fear as he shuffled across the pitch, his chains clanking and glinting in the sunlight. When he reached the goalposts, he was made to kneel on the ground with his face turned away from the crowd. A guard whispered to him that he could say his last prayer.

A guard handed a kalashnikov to a relative of the murdered victim. The relative swiftly stepped up to Abdullah, cocked the automatic and from a few feet away shot him three times in the back. As Abdullah fell on to his back the executioner moved alongside his twitching body and at point-blank range pumped three more bullets into his chest. Within seconds his body was thrown into the back of a pick-up and driven away. The crowd quickly and silently dispersed. As we drove back into town thin slivers of smoke arose from the bazaar as tea stalls and kebab stands lit up for their evening trade.

A mixture of fear, acceptance, total exhaustion and devastation after years of war and more than 1.5 million dead have forced many Afghans to accept the Taliban ways of justice. The next day in a village near Kabul, a woman was stoned to death by a baying crowd after being sentenced for trying to flee Afghanistan with a man who was not her blood relative. Amputations of either one hand or one foot or both are common Taliban punishments for anyone caught stealing. When they captured Kabul in September 1996, to be initially welcomed as liberators, many Kabulis and the world turned away in disgust after the Taliban tortured and then publicly hanged former President Najibullah, the ex-communist strongman who for four years had been living in a UN compound under UN protection.

Since the end of the Cold War no other political movement in the Islamic world has attracted as much attention as the Taliban in Afghanistan. For some Afghans the Taliban created hopes that a movement led by simple Islamic students with an agenda of bringing peace to the country might succeed in finally disposing of the warlord factions which had devastated people’s lives since the communist regime in Kabul had been overthrown in April 1992. Others feared that the Taliban movement would quickly degenerate into one more warlord faction, determined to thrust despotic rule upon the hapless Afghan people.

The Pashtun Taliban have also brought the question of inter-ethnic relations in a multi-ethnic state to the forefront, as well as other issues including the role of Islam versus clan, tribal and feudal structures and the question of modernization and economic development in a conservative Islamic society. Understanding the Taliban phenomenon is made even more difficult because of the excessive secrecy that surrounds their political structures, their leadership and the decision-making process within the movement. The Taliban do not issue press releases, policy statements or hold regular press conferences. With their ban on photography and television, nobody knows what their leaders even look like. The one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar remains an enigmatic mystery. After the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Taliban are the most secretive political movement in the world today.

Yet the Taliban have inadvertently set a new agenda for Islamic radicalism in the entire region, sending shock waves through Afghanistan’s neighbours. Not surprisingly, Iran, Turkey, India, Russia and four of the five Central Asian Republics-Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan-have backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance with arms and money to try and halt the Taliban’s advance. In contrast Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have backed the Taliban. In the post-Cold War era, this has created unprecedented polarization across the region. The Taliban victories in northern Afghanistan in the summer of 1998 and their control of over 90 per cent of the country, set in motion an even fierce regional conflict as Iran threatened to invade Afghanistan and accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban.

At the heart of this regional stand-off is the battle for the vast oil and gas riches of landlocked Central Asia-the last untapped reserves of energy in the world today. Equally important has been the intense competition between the regional states and Western oil companies as to who would build the lucrative pipelines which are needed to transport the energy to markets in Europe and Asia. This rivalry has in effect become a new Great Game a throwback to the nineteenth century Great Game between Russia and Britain over control and domination in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Since late 1995, Washington had strongly backed the US company Unocal to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan across Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. But there was another, unexpected player in this new Great Game. The day after the execution I arrived at the mansion of Mullah Mohammed Hassan, the Governor of Kandahar, to interview him. As I walked up the drive past the heavily armed Taliban guards, I froze. Coming out of the Governor’s office was a handsome, silver-haired business executive dressed in an impeccable blue blazer with gold buttons, a yellow silk tie and Italian loafers. With him were two other businessmen, both as impeccably dressed and carrying bulging briefcases. They looked as though they had just concluded a deal on Wall Street, rather than holding negotiations with a band of Islamic guerrillas in the dusty lanes of Kandahar.

The executive was Carlos Bulgheroni, Chairman of Bridas Corporation, an Argentinean oil company which since 1994 had been secretly negotiating with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance to build the same gas pipeline across Afghanistan. Bridas were in bitter competition with Unocal and in a court case filed in California, they had even accused Unocal of stealing the idea from them.

For a year I had been trying to discover what interests an Argentinean company, unknown in this part of the world, had in investing in such high-risk place as Afghanistan. But both Bridas and Unocal had kept discreet silence. The last thing Bulgheroni wanted was to be seen by journalist coming out of a Taliban leader’s office. He excused himself and said his company plane was waiting to fly him to the Northern Alliance’s capital in Mazar-e-Sharif.

As the battle for pipelines from Central Asia intensified, the Islamic world and the West were also concerned whether the Taliban represent the new future of Islamic fundamentalism—aggressive, expansionist uncompromising in its purist demands to turn Afghan society back to imagined model of seventh-century Arabia at the time of the Prophet Mohammed. The West also feared the repercussions from the expanding drugs trade from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s harbouring international terrorists such as the Saudi extremist Osama Bin Laden whose group Al’Qaida carried out the devastating bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998.

Moreover, experts wondered whether the Taliban’s back-to-basics Islamic ideals fulfilled the dire predictions of some American intellectuals that in the post-Cold War era, a new militant Islamic world would oppose the West and create another version of the Cold War in a new clash of civilisations.(1)

For Afghanistan to be at the centre of such conflict is nothing new. Today’s Taliban are only the latest in a long line of conquerors, warlords, preachers, saints and philosophers who have swept through the Afghan corridor destroying older civilizations and religions and introducing new ones. The kings of the ancient world believed the Afghanistan region was the very centre of the world and this view has persisted to modern times. The famous Indian poet Mohammed Iqbal described Afghanistan as ‘the heart of Asia’, while Lord Curzon, the early twentieth-century British Viceroy of India called Afghanistan ‘the cockpit of Asia’.(2)

For few countries in the world is it more true that geography determines history, politics and the nature of a people. Afghanistan’s geo-strategic location on the crossroads between Iran, the Arabian Sea and India and between Central Asia and South Asia has given its territory and moun- tain passes a significance since the earliest Aryan invasions 6,000 years ago. Afghanistan’s rough, rugged, deserted and arid terrain has produced some of the best fighters the world has ever seen, while its stunning scenery of gaunt mountains and lush green valleys with fruit-laden trees have proved to be an inspiration to poets.

Many years ago a wise old Afghan Mujahed once told me the mythical story of how God made Afghanistan. ‘When Allah had made the rest of the world, He saw that there was a lot of rubbish left over, bits and pieces and things that did not fit anywhere else. He collected them all together and threw them down on to the earth. That was Afghanistan,’ the old man said.

Modern Afghanistan encompasses 245,000 square miles. The country is split by a north-south divide along the massive Hindu Kush mountain range. Although there was much intermingling of races in the twentieth century, a rough division shows that to the south of the Hindu Kush live the majority of Pashtuns and some Persian-speaking ethnic groups, to the north live the Persian and Turkic ethnic groups. The Hindu Kush itself is populated by the Persian-speaking Hazaras and Tajiks. In the far north-east corner, the Pamir mountains, which Marco Polo called ‘the roof of die world’, abut Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.(3) The inaccessibility of Ae Pamirs means that there is little communication between the myriad of diverse and exotic ethnic groups who live in its high, snow-bound valleys.

In the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush lies Kabul; the adjoining valleys are the most agriculturally productive region in the country. Western and southern Afghanistan marks the eastern end of the Iranian plateau-flat, bare and arid with few towns and a sparse population. Much of this region is just called ‘registan’ or desert by local Afghans. The exception is the oasis town of Herat, which has been a centre of civilization for more than 3,000 years.

North of the Hindu Kush the bare Central Asian steppe begins its long sweep, which stretches thousands of miles north into Siberia. With its extremes of climate and terrain the north’s Turkic peoples are some of the toughest in the world and make the fiercest of fighters. In eastern Afghanistan lie smaller mountain ranges including the Suleman range which straddle the border with Pakistan and are populated on both sides by the Pashtun tribes. Passes through these mountains such as the famous Khyber Pass have for centuries given conquerors access to the fertile Indian plains.

Only 10-12 per cent of Afghanistan’s terrain is cultivable and most farms, some hanging from mountain slopes, demand extraordinary amounts of labour to keep them productive. Until the 1970s nomadism-the grazing of goats and the fat-tailed Afghan sheep-was a major source of livelihood and the Kochi nomads travelled thousands of miles every year in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan in search of good pasture. Although the war against the Soviets destroyed Kochi culture and livelihood in the 1980s, animal herding is still vital in sustaining impoverished
farmers. Yesterday’s Afghan nomads are today’s traders and truck-drivers, who are a crucial support base and revenue generator for the Taliban by running trucks along the smuggling routes across Afghanistan.

Roads and routes have been at the centre of Afghanistan since the dawn of history. The landlocked territory was the crossroads of Asia and the meeting place and battleground for two great waves of civilization the more urbane Persian empires to the west and the Turkic nomadic empires to the north in Central Asia. As a result Afghanistan is immensely rich in archaeological remains.

For these two ancient civilizations, which ebbed in greatness and conquest according to the momentum of history, control over Afghanistan was vital for their survival. At other times Afghanistan served as a buffer keeping these two empires apart, while at other times it served as a coridor through which their armies marched north to south or west to east when they desired to invade India. This was a land where the first ancient religions of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeanism and Buddhism flourished. Balkh, the ruins of which are still visible a few miles from Mazar-e-Sharif is according to UNESCO one of the oldest cities in the world and it was a thriving centre of Buddhist, Persian and Turkic arts and architecture.

It was through Afghanistan that pilgrims and traders working the ancient Silk Route carried Buddhism to China and Japan. Conquerors swept through the region like shooting stars. In 329 BC the Macedonian Greeks under Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan and Central Asia and went on to invade India. The Greeks left behind a new, vibrant Buddhist-Greek kingdom and civilization in the Hindu Kush mountains-the only known historical fusion between European and Asian cultures.

By 654 AD Arab armies had swept through Afghanistan to arrive at the Oxus river on the border with Central Asia. They brought with them their new religion of Islam, which preached equality and justice and quickly penetrated the entire region. Under the Persian Saminid dynasty which lasted from 874 to 999 AD, Afghanistan was part of a new Persian renaissance in arts and letters. The Ghaznavid dynasty ruled from 977 to 1186 and captured north west India Punjab and parts of eastern Iran. In 1219 Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes swept through Afghanistan destroying cities such as Balkh and Herat and piling up mounds of dead bodies. Yet the Mongols contributed too, by leaving behind the modern day Hazaras-who were the result of inter-marriage between the Mongols and local tribes.

In the next century Taimur, or Tamerlane as he is called in the West, a descendent of Genghis Khan, created a vast new empire across Russia and Persia which he ruled from his capital in Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan. Taimur captured Herat in 1381 and his son Shah Rukh moved the capital of the Timurid empire to Herat in 1405. The Timurids, a Turkic people brought the Turkic nomadic culture of Central Asia within the orbit of Persian civilization, establishing in Herat one of the most cultured and refined cities in the world. This fusion of Central Asian and Persian culture was a major legacy for the future of Afghanistan. A century later the emperor Babur, a descendent of Taimur, visited Herat and wrote, ‘the whole habitable world had not such a town as Herat’.(4)

For the next 300 years the eastern Afghan tribes periodically invaded India, conquering Delhi and creating vast Indo-Afghan empires. The Afghan Lodhi dynasty ruled Delhi from 1451 to 1526. In 1500 Taimur’s descendent Babur was driven out of his home in the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan. He went on to conquer first Kabul in 1504 and then Delhi. He established the Mogul dynasty which was to rule India until the arrival of the British. At the same time Persian power declined in the west and Herat was conquered by the Uzbek Shaybani Khans. By the sixteenth century western Afghanistan again reverted to Persian rule under the Safavid dynasty.

This series of invasions resulted in a complex ethnic, cultural and religious mix that was to make Afghan nation-building extremely difficult. Western Afghanistan was dominated by speakers of Persian or Dari as the Afghan Persian dialect is known. Dari was also spoken by the Hazaras in central Afghanistan, who were converted to Shiism by the Persians, thereby becoming the largest Shia group in an otherwise Sunni territory. In the west the Tajiks, the repositors of Persia’s ancient culture also spoke Dari. In northern Afghanistan the Uzbeks, Turcomans, Kyrgyz and others spoke the Turkic languages of Central Asia. And in the south and east the Pashtun tribes spoke their own tongue Pashto, a mixture of Indo-Persian languages.

It was the southern Pashtuns who were to form the modern state Afghanistan at the historical conjuncture when the Persian Safavid dynasty in the west, the Moguls in India and the Uzbek Janid dynasty were all in a period of decline in the eighteenth century. The Pashtun tribes were divided into two major sections, the Ghilzai and Abdali who later called themselves Durrani, which frequently competed against each other.

The Pashtuns trace their genealogy to Qais, a companion of Prophet Mohammed. As such they consider themselves a Semitic race although anthropologists consider them to be Indo-Europeans, who have assimilated numerous ethnic groups over the course of history. The Durranis claim descent from Qais’s eldest son Sarbanar while the Ghilzais claim descent from his second son. Qais’s third son is said to be the ancestor of other diverse Pashtun tribes such as the Kakars in and the Safis around Peshawar. In the sixth century Chinese and Indian sources speak of the Afghans/Pashtuns living east of Ghazni. These tribal began a westward migration to Kandahar, Kabul and Herat from the teenth century. By the next century the Ghilzais and Durranis were already fighting each other over land disputes around Kandahar. Today the Ghilzai homeland lies south of the Kabul river between the Safed Koh and Suleman range on the east to Hazarajat in the west and down to Kandahar in the south.(5)

In 1709, Mir Wais, the chief of the Hotaki tribe of Ghilzai Pashtun in Kandahar rebelled against the Safavid Shah. This was partly a result of the Shah’s attempts to convert the fervently Sunni Pashtuns into Shias-a historical animosity that was to re-emerge with the Taliban hostility towards Iran and Afghan Shias three centuries later.

A few years later Mir Wais’s son defeated the Safavids and conquer Iran. But the Afghans were driven out of Iran in 1729. As Ghilzai powerebbed, their traditional rivals in Kandahar, the Abdalis, formed confederation and in 1747 after a nine-day Loya Jirga or meeting of tribal chiefs, they chose Ahmad Shah Abdali as their king. The tribal chiefs wrapped a turban around his head and placed blades of grass in it, signifying loyalty. The Loya Jtrga was to become the traditional legal instrument which legitimized new rulers thus avoiding a hereditary monarchy. The rulers themselves could claim that they were elected by the tribes represented in the Jirga. Ahmad Shah changed the name of the Abdali confederation to Durrani, united all the Pashtun tribes and began a series of major conquests, quickly taking control over much of modern day Pakistan.

By 1761 Ahmad Shah Durrani had defeated the Hindu Mahrattas and captured the Delhi throne and Kashmir, thereby creating the first Afghan empire. Considered the father of the Afghan nation, Ahmad Shah Durrani was buried in an ornate mausoleum in his capital Kandahar, where Afghans still come to pray. Many Afghans have conferred a kind of sainthood on him. His son Taimur Shah moved the empire’s new capital from Kandahar to Kabul in 1772, making it easier to control the
newly conquered territories north of the Hindu Kush mountains and east of the river Indus. By 1780 the Durranis had concluded a treaty with the Amir of Bukhara, the principal Central Asian ruler, which designated the Oxus or Amu Darya river as the border between Central Asia and the new Pashtun state of Afghanistan. It was the first border delineation that marked the northern boundary of the new Afghanistan.

In the next century the Durranis were to lose their territories east of the Indus river while feuds between various Durrani clans dissipated their power. However, one or another Durrani clan was to rule Afghanistan for over 200 years until 1973, when King Zahir Shah was deposed by his cousin Mohammed Daud Khan and Afghanistan was declared a Republic. Meanwhile the bitter rivalry between the Ghilzai and the Durrani Pashtuns was to continue and intensify in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent emergence of the Taliban.

The weakened and bickering Durrani kings had to hold off two new empires, the British in the east and the Russians to the north. In the nineteenth century, fearful of an ever expanding Russian empire in Central Asia which might covet Afghanistan for a thrust against Britain’s Indian empire, the British made three attempts to conquer and hold Afghanistan until they realised that the intractable Afghans could be bought much more easily than fought. The British offered cash subsidies, manipulated the tribal chiefs and managed to turn Afghanistan into a client state. What followed was ‘the Great Game’ between Russia and Britain, a clandestine war of wits and bribery and occasional military pressure as both powers kept each other at a respectful distance by maintaining Afghanistan as a buffer state between them.

The feuds amongst the ruling Durranis which were fuelled by British intelligence officers ensured that Afghan kings remained weak and dependent on British largesse to make up for their inability to raise revenues. As a consequence the non-Pashtun groups in the north exercised increasing autonomy from central control in Kabul. The Pashtuns were also weakened by the British conquest of north-west India, which for the first time divided the Pashtun tribes between British India and Afghanistan. This partition of the Pashtuns was formalised by the Durand Line, a formal border drawn up by Britain in 1893.

After the second Anglo-Afghan war, the British supported Amir Abdul Rehman’s claim to the throne. The ‘Iron Amir’ (1880-1901), as he was called, received British support to centralize and strengthen the Afghan state. The Amir used British subsidies and arms supplies to create an effective administration and a standing army. He subdued rebellious Pash tun tribes and then moved north to ruthlessly end the autonomy of the Hazaras and Uzbeks. Using methods that were to be closely followed a century later by the Taliban, he carried out a nineteenth-century version of ethnic cleansing, massacring non-Pashtun opponents and transporting Pashtuns to settle farms in the north thereby creating a loyal Pasht population amongst the other ethnic minorities.

Abdul Rehman crushed over 40 revolts by the non-Pashtuns during his reign and created Afghanistan’s first brutal secret police force, a precursor to the communist Khad in the 1980s. Although these moves integrated Afghans of all ethnic groups and solidified the Afghan state as never before, much of the subsequent ethnic tensions in northern Afghanistan and the inter-ethnic massacres after 1997 can be traced back to the Iron Amir’s policies. His other legacies, which were to indirectly influence the Taliban, included the isolation of Afghanistan from Western or modernizing influences including education, his emphasis on Islam by enhancing the powers of the Pashtun mullahs and introducing the concept of a divine right to rule rather than the traditional concept of election by the Loya Jirga.

The successors of the Iron Amir in the early part of the twentieth century were by and large modernizes, who established full formal independence from Britain in 1919, established the country’s first constitution and set about creating a small urban educated elite. Nevertheless the fact that two Afghan kings were assassinated and that there were periodic tribal revolts demonstrated the difficulties rulers faced in turning a multi-ethnic tribal society into a modem state.

The end of the Durrani dynasty came when King Zahir Shah, who ruled since 1933 was deposed by his cousin and brother-in-law Sardar Mohammed Daud who sent Zahir Shah into exile in Rome. Afghanistan was declared a Republic and Daud ruled as president. Daud was helped by leftist officers in the army and the small, urban-based Parcham party led by Babrak Karmal, to crush a nascent Islamic fundamentalist movement. The leaders of this movement fled to Peshawar in 1975 and were backed by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to continue their opposition to Daud. These leaders, Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masud were later to lead the Mujaheddin.

Daud turned to the Soviet Union for aid to try and modernize the state structure. From 1956 to 78 the Soviet Union gave a total of US$1.26 billion in economic aid and US$1.25 billion in military aid to Afghanistan, as the Soviets welded the country into their sphere of influence at the height of the Cold War. During the same period, the US gave Afghanistan US$533 million in total aid, much of it in the 1950s after which Washington lost interest. By the time Daud seized power Afghanistan had become a rentier state with 40 per cent of state revenues coming
from abroad. Yet Daud, like his royal predecessors failed to build institutions. Instead, a loose centrally administered bureaucracy was laid over the existing society with little public representation except in the now largely nominated Loya Jirga.(6)

Just five years later in April 1978, Marxist sympathizers in the army, who had been trained in the Soviet Union and some of whom had helped Daud to power in 1973, overthrew him in a bloody military coup. Daud, his family and the Presidential Bodyguard were all massacred. But the communists were bitterly divided into two factions, Khalq (the masses) and Parcham (the flag) and their lack of understanding of Afghanistan’s complex tribal society led to widespread rural revolts against them. As mullahs and khans declared jihad or holy war against the infidel communists, the communist ruling elite were themselves trapped in internecine violence. The first Khalqi communist President Nur Mohammed Taraki was murdered, while his successor Hafizullah Amin was killed when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and installed the Parcham leader Babrak Karmal, as President.

Within a few short, dramatic months Afghanistan had been catapulted into the centre of the intensified Cold War between the Soviet Union and the USA. The Afghan Mujaheddin were to become the US-backed, anti-Soviet shock troops. But for the Afghans the Soviet invasion was yet another attempt by outsiders to subdue them and replace their time-honoured religion and society with an alien ideology and social system. The jihad took on a new momentum as the USA, China and Arab states poured in money and arms supplies to the Mujaheddin. Out of this conflict, which was to claim 1.5 million Afghan lives and only end when Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, would emerge a second generation of Mujaheddin who called themselves Taliban (or the students of Islam.)

1. Huntington, Samuel P, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the New World Order, Simon and Shuster, New York 1966.

2. Verrier, Anthony, Francis Younghusband and the Great Game, Jonathan Cape, London 1991.

3. Polo, Marco, The Travels of Marco Polo, Dell Publishing, New York 1961.

4. BabuX’Nama, translated by Nette Bevendge, Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore 1979.

5. Noelle, Christine, State and Tribe in Nineteenth Century Afghanistan, Curzon Press, London 1997.

6. Rubin, Barnett, ‘Afghanistan the forgotten crisis,’ Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol 15 No.2, UNHCR 1996.

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