Early American Support for the Taliban
First published in Spring 2002
Article by Olivier Roy
Back when Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan, it may have seemed like a good idea for the US to sow the wind of the Islamic Mujahidin opposition in the country. The result, however, was the whirlwind of the fundamentalist Taliban and terrorist network al Qaeda—especially after the US lost interest and left on-the-ground engagement to the Pakistani secret service.
Osama bin Laden and the Taliban have one thing in common. At certain times both enjoyed American support, for the same reasons—blind faith in Pakistan’s policy of playing the fundamentalist and Pashtun cards in Afghanistan simultaneously. This blindness (or indulgence) toward Pakistan, which came to an abrupt end last September 11, still remains something of an enigma.
No doubt there were a number of complex reasons for the policy. The first was a desire to delegate responsibility and not get directly involved. The second was the all-too-close link between the United States Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI), from which the Pakistanis benefited more than the Americans. The third was probably the hope of finding “good fundamentalists,” both to oppose the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan and as a card in the Moslem world.
The al Qaeda organization does indeed have its roots in a network of volunteers who had been sent by the Americans, Saudis, and Pakistanis in the 1980s to fight in Afghanistan. The organization became alienated from its first two sponsors during the Gulf war, but it maintained ties with Pakistan until the attacks of September 11. At the time, the Americans wanted to mobilize radical Islamists against communism, while the Saudis were more interested in promoting a conservative fundamentalism–strictly Sunni and thus anti-Shia–that could be calculated to weaken the importance of Iran. The Pakistanis had yet another objective, installation of a friendly regime in Afghanistan—Sunni, fundamentalist, and Pashtun—that would enable it to form a bridgehead to Central Asia and set up a “volunteer corps” for the struggle in Kashmir.
In 1989 the Soviet troops left Afghanistan. The Americans withdrew their experts and left the Pakistanis to pursue a policy of their own, consisting of bringing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to power with the support of the “Islamist Legion.” This policy failed in two respects, however . On the one hand, the communist regime remained in power until 1992; on the other, it was Ahmed Shah Massoud and the Northern Alliance who conquered Kabul in April, 1992. In addition, the Arab networks became, above all, anti-American, while the Americans themselves failed to perceive this transformation.
The radical anti-Americanism developed in 1990/91 at the time of the Gulf war. It was indicative of the chasm between the pragmatism of states, including even Iran, and the radicalization of a militant non-governmental network. In February 1993 the attempt to blow up the World Trade Center ended in failure. The main suspect, Egyptian sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, was in the Pakistani border town Peshawar; his two sons had fought in Afghanistan. He is one of the founders of the radical Egyptian movement “Gamaat Al-Islamiye,” and he is known to have approved of the murder of President Anwar as-Sadat. The other two accused, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, a Pakistani trained in Kuwait, and the two Palestinians Mohammed Salameh and Ahmed Ajjaj have also spent time in Afghan military camps.
In 1993 the Pakistani Mir Aimal Kansi had opened fire on CIA operatives after gaining entry to the agency’s headquarters in Langley; Ramzi and Kansi were “picked up” by the FBI in 1995 and 1997 respectively in Pakistan. After Kansi was sentenced in the United States, four American employees of a petroleum company in Karachi were murdered on November 11, 1997 in retaliation. The organization “Harakat al Mujahidin” was one of several to claim responsibility for this attack. Mehat Mohammed Abdel Rahman, the alleged leader of the group that carried out the attack on European tourists in Luxor in September, 1997, is also an “Afghan.”
However, it was only after two American embassies in East Africa were blown up in August 1998 that the Americans pointed a finger at the al Qaeda organization run by Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan. In October 2000 the American destroyer USS Cole was attacked in the port of Aden in Yemen, and in September 2001 the World Trade Center was destroyed. Bin Laden became Washington’s public enemy no. 1—but he was being sheltered by the Taliban. A complex game therefore began. Washington decided to treat bin Laden and the Taliban regime separately; it pursued one sole objective in Afghanistan—securing bin Laden’s expulsion. This goal was not achieved, a failure that can be explained by the way the Taliban movement developed.
Rise of the Taliban
The Taliban’s assumption of power from 1994 to 1996 occurred in accordance with two principles. First, ethnic polarization after twenty years of war created a divide, generally speaking, between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns. Second, the initially very conservative Islamic fundamentalism became increasingly more internationalist under the influence of the Arab militants led by bin Laden.
After the Northern Alliance took Kabul in 1992, the Pashtuns felt excluded from power, and after 1994 they gave their broad support to the Taliban, who at this time undoubtedly represented the ethnic legitimacy of the Pashtuns. The Taliban were composed almost entirely of Pashtuns; in the early years of their rise to power they had been joined by Pashtuns who, far removed from sharing their ideology, included monarchists and former communists. As other Pashtuns saw it, the Taliban represented the idea of a new state founded on strict application of Sharia law; this reference to Islam made it possible to overcome ethnic and tribal differences, reactivate the spirit of the jihad against the Soviets, and offer an alternative to the state of anarchy Afghanistan had been plunged into following the toppling of the communist regime in April 1992.
The Taliban’s rise to power documented this dual logic. The Pashtun areas rapidly came under Taliban control from 1994 to 1996, but there was stubborn resistance in the north, where the Northern Alliance led by Commander Massoud had entrenched itself in its positions in the northeast, while the territory of the Shiite Hazaras in the heart of the country was the scene of brutally suppressed rebellions.
Taliban rule was characterized primarily by strict application of Sharia law in a form greatly influenced by the Saudi Wahabis. Between 1996 and 2001 the Taliban took increasingly restrictive action against women, the activity of non-governmental organizations, and what they considered to be negative social habits—while at the same time paying precious little attention to the economic and social situation. The ban on poppy growing issued in autumn of 2000 went in the same direction; although this step had been demanded by the West, the measure did not have the desired effect of improving relations with the international community—and did lead to a worsening of the economic situation, since it left thousands of seasonal workers unemployed.
From 1994 to 1997 the United States was well-disposed toward the Taliban. In October 1994 US Ambassador to Pakistan John C. Monjo, accompanied by Pakistan’s interior minister, visited Taliban-controlled Kandahar without informing the official Afghan government, led at the time by Burhanuddin Rabbani. In September, 1996 American Undersecretary of State for Southern Asia Robin Rafel called the Taliban conquest of Kabul a “positive step.” To be sure, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright condemned the Taliban’s policy toward women in November 1997, but no sanctions were threatened. Washington obviously accepted a power that appeared to guarantee stability by taking up the tradition of a state founded on Pashtun tribes. The embassy of the anti-Taliban government in Washington was closed in 1998.
Bin Laden’s Expulsion
The pressure that the Americans brought to bear on the Taliban after 1998 was obviously intended not to topple the regime, but to have it break with bin Laden. The sanctions against the Taliban that the Americans proposed in the United Nations Security Council in December 2000 had one objective alone: bin Laden’s expulsion. They made no mention whatever of the Taliban’s policies. The implicit deal on offer was a trade of bin Laden’s extradition or simple departure from the country in exchange for acquiescence in the Taliban’s policies in Afghanistan and the tacit promise of international recognition to satisfy the Taliban and their Pakistani backers. Indeed, the Americans, intent on keeping their dispute with the Taliban separate from the conflict between India and Pakistan, took care not to exert pressure on Pakistan.
These policy strands, however, were soon to prove incompatible. The Taliban took the United Nations sanctions as an occasion for prohibiting all contact with international organizations. Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar consistently refused to meet with non-Muslims, and so the West had no access to the Taliban’s center of power. As the Pakistanis refused to bring pressure to bear on Kabul—or rather on Kandahar, where Mullah Omar resided—a total impasse set in by summer of 2000. In 2001 Taliban policies took a critical turn. The giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan were destroyed; the Hindus of Kabul were forced to wear special badges; Western aid workers were arrested in August 2001 for allegedly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity; and there were lesser bans, on import of ties and tie-pins, for example, that indicated the state of mind of the Taliban rulers.
Nationalism or Internationalism
The sudden hostility to other religions represented a sharp break from the Taliban’s beginnings—but it was entirely consistent with the ideology of bin Laden, who had founded a front against “crusaders and Jews” in 1998. This radicalization went hand in hand with the isolation of the Taliban leadership and—to the detriment of the work of government—concentration of power in the hands of a small group around Mullah Omar. Foreigners also joined the inner circle, among them Osama bin Laden, Ayman Zahawiri, the former leader of the Egyptian jihad, and Juma Namangani, the military chief of the Islamist Uzbeks. The Council of Kabul, formally responsible for managing the business of government, no longer convened. Bin Laden’s al Qaeda became completely independent of the power of the Taliban; volunteers from abroad reached his training camps in Afghanistan directly with the help of Pakistani couriers.
At this point Mullah Omar seemed to have made a choice between the goals of building an Afghan state or espousing the theories of bin Laden, who considered it unnecessary to create an Islamist state in a particular country as long as the world-wide Muslim community continues to be oppressed. Internationalism triumphed over nationalism.
On September 9, 2001 Massoud was murdered by two Arabs who had been recommended by a pro-bin Laden Islamist association based in London. This loss of a charismatic leader seemed to herald the collapse of the bizarre Northern Alliance made up of the very different and rival ethnic components of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaris.
Yet two days later the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon altered the situation yet again. The Americans were forced to get involved directly. Massoud was succeeded by General Mohammed Fahim Khan, Dr. Abdullah, and Yunus Quanuni; their group signed an agreement with the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, in Rome at the end of September.
When Washington named bin Laden as the person responsible for the terrorist attacks and issued an ultimatum to the Taliban to extradite him, the latter adhered to their previous position: he could not be extradited and could only be brought to justice under Islamic law.
This time, however, the situation was different. Washington went to war against the Taliban and, in an action it had always wanted to avoid, conducted a military offensive against the Taliban. In refusing to give reasons of state precedence over Islamic solidarity, the Taliban regime practically committed suicide.
For the first time Washington decided to give itself the wherewithal to act. As a first step, the Americans exerted visible pressure on Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf, who overnight had to renounce the Taliban and allow American use of Pakistani territory. To be sure, this weakened the Americans, who underestimated the importance of the Afghan question for Pakistanis; every piece of information would now come from sources that were potentially hostile and could still covertly help the Taliban, whatever the expressions of loyalty voiced by General Musharraf to the Americans.
At an ethnic level, the prospect of Kabul being taken by forces of the Northern Alliance caused unrest among the Pashtuns in the south. And on a religious level the network of Koran schools (madrassas) in Pakistan mobilized public opinion against the Americans and General Musharraf. Mobilization in Pakistan remained largely confined to Pashtuns in the northwest provinces in Quetta and Karachi, however; the rest of the country and the Muslim world showed little sign of mobilization.
So far the US campaign has worked surprisingly well. The Northern Alliance did take Kabul without igniting civil war, and Musharraf has fired top pro-Taliban officials of the ISI without destabilizing Pakistan. A multi-tribal provisional government has been established in Kabul. It remains to be seen whether Afghanis are by now so exhausted by war that they will lay down their weapons after two decades of fighting.
Olivier Roy, Directeur de Recherche, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris.