A little reality-check

16 May 2007 / 26 Saur 1386

Imagine life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, who ruled Kabul and most of the country from September 1996 to October 2001.

Okay, now let me contest that vision. Yesterday I met a fellow who is specialized in information technology. We chatted for a bit, and he said that he had worked in IT support in the offices of the Municipality during the Taliban. That’s right: dealing with Microsoft Windows, and networks, and whatnot to keep the city government computers working.

What was life like in Kabul under the Taliban? Well, the economy was very bad, and they passed a number of “stupid” (I quote) laws by decree, but it was stable.
Let me put that in context. The US-supported mujahideen pushed out the Soviets in 1989, but the communist government persisted in Kabul until 1992. When the mujahideen took Kabul in 1992, there was a brief period of government under Sighbatullah Mojaddedi, and then the civil war started. This was a war between mujahideen factions, and it took place in Kabul. Before that, there had not been military combat in Kabul itself. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the city between 1992 and 1994, as hundreds of thousands fled. Since the factions were no longer fighting atheist communists but rather other Muslims, it was no longer appropriate to call them mujahideen; from that point forward they were just commanders. Law and order broke down between 1992 and 1994, and remained collapsed until the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. As the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan point out, women became effectively housebound under the commanders, because women who were out alone at midday were seized and raped daily in Kabul.

So the Taliban were welcomed into town like the Magnificent Seven. They were very heavy-handed, and their forms of public discipline were similar to what the Romans, French, and British used to maintain law and order (Public executions make quite an impression). The Taliban required that women be accompanied by a male relative outside the house. Grossly sexist, yes; but also a way of engaging the populace in assisting with policing, because they could not protect the honor of every woman everywhere in Kabul. And honor and public morality were very important to the Taliban. In that sense, I think The Kite Runner and the film “Osama” misrepresent the Taliban.

The arrival of the Coalition Forces, the Northern Alliance, and Karzai into Afghanistan have brought a lot of money. Although it is very unevenly distributed, the economy has generally improved in Kabul since 2001. But we cannot evaluate a new regime only by getting the urban population above starvation-level. There is a question of legitimacy. Has rule of law improved in Kabul since 2001? Rapes are on the rise again. Prostitution–including the trafficking of Chinese prostitutes into Kabul–has become a major new phenomenon, as has AIDS. And now that land is valuable, land seizures are a serious problem in Kabul and in the provinces.

We need to remember that the Taliban were pro-business. They were initially backed by the Afghan trucker’s guild, who were tired of losing an unpredictable amount of their cargo to ‘taxes’ at scores of checkpoints across Afghanistan in the early 1990s. As Ahmed Rashid points out in Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad and Unocal even began negotiations with the Taliban for a pipeline that would bring gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.
Government revenue was a chronic problem for the Taliban. The Soviets has scorched the countryside, the commanders had traumatized the capital, and a drought had set in. It seems that bin Laden was able to buy the Taliban state by replacing scandalous opium-revenue with donations from himself and other hard-line Gulf Arabs. Unfortunately for the Taliban, bin Laden had a broader agenda that brought the Americans down on their heads.

At Bonn in December 2001, the US legitimized the commanders and most of the spots at the negotiation table were given to them. But now that you know this bit of history outlined above, did the US just let the foxes back into the coop? Furthermore, how do we understand the transition from the Taliban to the Karzai government? Perhaps the official-name transition is more accurate: from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Not night and day.
Did the US have to reinstate the commanders? The apologist reply has been: Who else could run this devastated country? Implicit in that rehetorical question is the assumption that the Taliban (and now Karzai) are the whole state. That is why I began with that little anecdote about the IT specialist. There was an administrative apparatus in Kabul and the provinces. That continues to be the apparatus which runs the day-to-day business of the government. The presentation of the Taliban period as some surreal suspension of all government justifies the reinstatement of a thin layer of very corrupt leadership at the top of the state. The US did this at Bonn in December 2001.

Other bits and pieces of information challenge the prevailing Western view. Refugees started returning to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, because the Taliban had finally reestablished stability and security, even if they did not manage economic recovery. Afghans who had fled to the West also began to return and reclaim the houses they had abandoned in the 1980s and early 1990s. And apparently there was land-grabbing and certainly plenty of land-occupation of abandoned houses. So disputes and reclamation of property began under the Taliban, and only accelerated under Karzai. The implication of a ‘break with the past’ in 2001 has nothing to do with the reality on the ground in Kabul.

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