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The Afghan Tragedy

There were fewer such problems in the rural areas, where women, confined to looking after their families, appeared part of the pre-modern moral order Mullah Omar apparently wished to recreate. You sensed that there was paradoxically a slightly greater freedom available to the women you saw traveling in the same buses as men, if in segregated rows, than to the women in Kabul, where the lines were clearly drawn.5

UNESCO had supported the Communist literacy campaign which was opposed by many Muslims; and during the anti-Communist jihad in the Eighties many UN agencies and other NGOs carried on, among other development projects, the tasks of women’s education and empowerment in Communist-controlled Kabul. When the UN agencies argued that the Taliban had to allow Afghan women to work—particularly as nurses and doctors, since under the Taliban women could not be treated by men—the hard-line leaders of the Taliban interpreted such insistence as further proof of the UN’s complicity with the various forms of Western imperialism—cultural, social, military—that they imagined were arrayed against them. The consequences for keeping women confined to their homes included cases of severe depression and suicide.6

This is where some earlier exposure to the outside world might have helped—one can’t overestimate the value, in these circumstances, of the small educated Afghan middle class that twenty years of war dispersed across the world. But the Pashtun village mullahs who formed the central leadership of the Taliban knew little else besides the Koran. This is why the Taliban, unlike such radical Islamist groups as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Pakistan’s Jamiat-i-Islami, offered no coherent ideology or doctrine—as distinct from the fatwas that emanated randomly from Kandahar against women, idolatry, kite-flying, football, music, dancing, squeaky shoes, and American hair styles.

Their aggressive puritanism—which includes a distrust of Shiite Muslims, hundreds of whom were massacred by Taliban soldiers in the last five years—is far from the twentieth-century modernist ideologies of Islam that influenced an earlier generation of Afghan Islamists: Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, the president of Afghanistan for two years in the early 1990s, was a graduate of the al-Azhar university in Cairo, while Mullah Omar doesn’t have the basic educational qualifications you need to call yourself a mullah.

The harsh arbitrariness of the mullahs in Kandahar and the religious police went under the name of “true Islam,” but it sought for the most part to reconfigure the old Pashtun dominance over Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities—a new alignment of power that imposed Pashtun tribal ways over nearly all of Afghanistan and made unassailable the Pashtun religious elites in the villages that for the last century were continuously threatened and undermined by the modernizing rulers of Afghanistan in Kabul.

The obstinacy and destructiveness of the Taliban are part of the history of Afghanistan’s calamitous encounter with the modern world. Afghanistan missed the nineteenth century, which was a period of new beginnings for many old societies in the region. No country was less equipped to deal with the twentieth-century ideologies of communism, anticommunism, and radical Islam. No country was less prepared for the assortment of strategists and adventurers, people alien to and uncomprehending of Afghanistan, who managed to enlist the country’s already great inner turmoil—the tragic violence and disorder of a near-primitive society modernizing too fast—into the wider conflict of the cold war; who managed to introduce more effective means of destruction and left behind a ruin more extensive than any the Afghans had known in their war-weary history.

In retrospect the Taliban may seem as much a consequence of a brutalized society as the warlords they had once supplanted, and who as I write are seeking to replace them. The undereducated young men and former Mujahideen and village mullahs who made up what we know as the Taliban never seemed to be offering any coherent idea of the state or society during the last five years of drift and arbitrary cruelty. Still, their vengeful attitude toward women and ethnic minorities alone couldn’t have caused their international isolation. What initially helped to further isolate the Taliban was their refusal to extradite Osama bin Laden to the United States, where he was wanted for, among many other crimes, the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.


During the anti-Communist jihad about 35,000 to 40,000 Muslim volunteers from the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thousands of them were given military training at camps set up by Pakistani intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), with CIA and Saudi money, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These volunteers, from whom have emerged the majority of the world’s Muslim militants in the last decade, were part of a joint Saudi-Pakistani-American plan to organize a global jihad against the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia, which was the first Islamic fundamentalist state in the world, was the prime sponsor of this jihad. Private and official donors in Saudi Arabia had long been bankrolling new madrasas in Pakistan, where an extreme Saudi version of Islam, Wahhabism, was preached.7 The Saudis now matched dollar for dollar the American assistance to the jihad.

Osama bin Laden was one of the men assigned by Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence until this year, to help mobilize the foreign volunteers. Bin Laden’s family owned one of the largest construction companies in Saudi Arabia, which was entrusted with the renovation of the holy Islamic sites at Mecca and Medina. The head of the family established two fellowships in Islamic studies at Harvard University in the early Nineties. Among the recent high-profile guests to the family’s headquarters in Jiddah were former President George H.W. Bush and James Baker.

Bin Laden’s early years don’t much hint at his later interests. His Syrian mother wore Chanel suits without a burqa; his playmates were sons of Saudi princes. A recently excavated photograph shows him in Sweden at the age of fourteen, wearing bellbottoms and leaning against a Cadillac. Apparently he frequently got into fights over women in Beirut’s tony clubs.8 The profile matches that of the many rich Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent who turn to an austere form of religion after a listlessly decadent early youth. Such transformations often take place in countries where secular ideologies like nationalism, socialism, and liberal capitalism are seen to have failed, and where a shared faith appears to offer the only sense of political and cultural community. It is not clear when and how bin Laden’s conversion happened but the Soviet invasion of a Muslim country certainly seems to have given him a sense of purpose.

Contrary to the legend bin Laden encouraged about himself, he did not throw himself into jihad immediately after the Soviet invasion in 1979, the year he took his engineering degree, and he was not much around on the Afghan battlefields. At first he traveled across Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries where he raised funds for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. When in 1984 he traveled to Peshawar, the Pakistani city closest to the border with Afghanistan, and a front-line city for the CIA-backed jihad, he brought his own construction equipment into Afghanistan and built roads and hospitals and tunnels for the Mujahideen.

Ahmed Rashid, a respected Pakistani journalist, writes in his book Taliban of bin Laden’s intellectual insecurity and need for mentors.9 In Pakistan, he became a follower of Abdullah Azzam, a charismatic Palestinian Islamist who first set up the worldwide network of Muslim militants that bin Laden is so often credited with having directed. Azzam, who in the early Seventies had broken with the PLO on the grounds that it was not Islamic enough, had first met bin Laden at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, where Azzam was a teacher and bin Laden a student of civil engineering. Azzam had moved to Pakistan soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and set up Makhtab al-Khidmat, or Services Center, in Peshawar. The organization received money flowing in from Saudi Arabia and channeled it toward Muslim volunteers and their families. During the 1980s, Azzam made twenty-six fund-raising trips to the United States; his organization had offices in Detroit and Brooklyn, and his activities were encouraged by the Reagan administration.10

By 1989, the year the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, Azzam, as a founding member of Hamas, had already turned his attention to the Occupied Territories, where the first intifada had erupted the year before. In 1989, a few months after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Azzam and his two sons were assassinated in Pakistan by a car bomb. No one knows who killed him—Peshawar in those days was a city of intelligence agencies and a whole lot of unexplained murders—although the locals I spoke to earlier this year mentioned Mossad and the CIA among the possible suspects.

After Azzam’s death, bin Laden took over Makhtab al-Khidmat and set up an organization called al-Qaeda, or the Base, which continued Azzam’s work: receiving money from private and government donors in the Gulf, helping volunteers for the jihad and their families, and coordinating their activities in Afghanistan, where they had bases and military camps constructed by the ISI with CIA and Saudi money. A lot of the Muslim extremists arrested around the world confessed to learning how to use explosives and light arms at these camps, which remained open after the Soviet Union had withdrawn from Afghanistan. In 1989 or 1990, bin Laden went back to his family business in Saudi Arabia, disappointed, he told journalists later, by the infighting among the Mujahideen. This may be one of his fictions, since the infighting did not start in earnest until well after 1990.

His political vision until this time seems to have been limited to expelling the infidel Russians from Afghanistan. In Saudi Arabia, which in the early Nineties was experiencing unemployment and political unrest after the end of the oil boom, bin Laden found new causes and mentors. He came under the influence of two militant clerics who were part of the fast-growing Islamist opposition to what was widely perceived—even in the US State Department annual reports—as a corrupt, incompetent, and brutal Saudi regime. He was already critical of the Saudi royal family when, as it turned out, another cause presented itself to him. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Bin Laden immediately offered to raise an army of Arab volunteers—the kind he had been part of in Afghanistan—for the defense of Saudi Arabia. Much to his shock, the Saudi royal family ignored him and invited half a million American troops into Saudi Arabia.

This was the beginning of a new phase in bin Laden’s career. According to Ahmed Rashid, he claimed to be outraged by the proximity of American soldiers, some of them women in un-Islamic dress, to the holiest sites of Islam. To him, it was no less offensive than the presence of Russian infidels in Afghanistan. That thousands of American troops stayed in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War ended in 1991 offended bin Laden more. He began to openly denounce the Saudi royal family, and eventually was declared persona non grata after he accused the Saudi interior minister of being a “traitor to Islam.” In 1991 or 1992 bin Laden moved to Sudan, where an Islamist regime had come to power in the early Nineties and which had become a sanctuary for Muslim militants from Tunisia, Algeria, Iran, Palestine, and Egypt.

  1. 5

    The NGO workers I spoke to attested to a relatively lax atmosphere in the countryside. See also Chapter 11, “Hostages,” in Michael Griffin, Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan (London: Pluto, 2001).

  2. 6

    More than two thirds of the female respondents in a survey conducted in Afghanistan in 1998 said they had contemplated suicide. See Women’s Health and Human Rights in Afghanistan: A Report by Physicians for Human Rights, www.phrusa.org.

  3. 7

    See S.V.R. Nasr, “The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan,” Modern Asian Studies, Issue 34, 1, pp. 1329–1380 (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

  4. 8

    See Mary Ann Weaver, “The Real bin Laden,” The New Yorker, January 24, 2000.

  5. 9

    See Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2000).

  6. 10

    See “Making a Symbol of Terror,” Newsweek, March 1, 1999. The blind Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, who was later convicted for the bombing in 1993 of the World Trade Center, was assisted by the CIA in his recruiting trips to the US in the Eighties. See “The Road to September 11,” Newsweek, October 1, 2001.

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