It is hard to imagine now, but for students at Kabul University, 1968 was no less a hectic year than it was for students at Columbia, Berkeley, Oxford, and the Sorbonne. A king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, had been presiding over the many ethnic and tribal enclaves of Afghanistan since 1933. But he knew enough of the world elsewhere to attempt, cautiously, a few liberal reforms in his capital city, Kabul. The university had been set up in 1946; a liberal constitution was introduced in 1964; the press was technically free; women ran for public office in 1965. By the Sixties, many students and teachers had traveled abroad; and new ideas about how to organize the state and society had come to the sons of peasants and nomads and artisans from their foreign or foreign-educated teachers.

In the somewhat rarefied world of modernizing Kabul, where women were allowed to appear without the veil in 1959, communism and radical Islam attracted almost an equal number of believers: to these impatient men, the great Afghan countryside with its antique ways appeared ready for revolution. It was from this fledgling intelligentsia in Kabul that almost all of the crucial political figures of the next three decades emerged.

Less than five years after 1968, King Zahir Shah was deposed in a military coup by his cousin, the ambitious former prime minister Mohammad Daoud.1 Daoud initially sought help from the Communists, whose influence in the army and bureaucracy had grown rapidly since the 1960s: together, they went after the radical Islamists, many of whom were imprisoned or murdered for ideological reasons. But when Daoud, wary of the increasing power of the Communists, tried to get rid of them, he was in turn overthrown and killed. In April 1978, the Communists—themselves divided, confusingly, into two factions, Khalq and Parcham, that roughly corresponded to the rural–urban divide in Afghanistan—assumed full control of the government in Kabul, and in their hurry to eliminate all potential opposition to their program of land redistribution and indoctrination—an attempt, really, to create a Communist society virtually overnight—inaugurated what two decades later still looks like an ongoing process: the brutalization and destruction of Afghanistan.

Within just a few months, 12,000 people considered anti-Communist, many of them members of the country’s educated elite, were killed in Kabul alone; many thousands more were murdered in the countryside. Thousands of families began leaving the country for Pakistan and Iran. Many radical Islamists of Kabul University were already in exile in Pakistan by 1978; some of them had even started a low-intensity guerrilla war against the Communist government. Several army garrisons across the country mutinied, and people in the villages, who were culturally very remote from Kabul, began many separate jihads, or holy wars, against the Communist regime.

Earlier this year, in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, I met Anwar, whose father and uncle were among the earliest Afghans to take up arms against the Communists. They weren’t Islamists. Anwar’s father, a farmer, lived in a village north of Kabul, near the border with what is now Tajikistan, and, although he was a devout Muslim, knew little about the modern ideologies of Islam that had traveled to Kabul University from Egypt, Pakistan, and Iran. It was Anwar’s uncle, an officer in Zahir Shah’s finance ministry in Kabul, who was a bit more in touch with them. He was friendly with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the prominent radical Islamists at Kabul University, who sought refuge in Pakistan in the mid-1970s after a failed uprising against Daoud and the Communists.

In the beginning, the Russians were busy with consolidating the Communist hold over Kabul and securing the country’s main highways, and they seemed very far from rural Afghanistan, which in any case had had for years relative autonomy from the government in the capital city. But later, with the aggressive campaigns of land reforms and Marxist indoctrination emanating from Kabul, resistance built up swiftly throughout the country. Anwar’s father and uncle joined one of the Mujahideen groups that, though equipped only with .303 Lee Enfield rifles, managed to keep their region free of Communist influence. Then, in December 1979, the Soviet army entered Afghanistan in order to protect the Communist revolution, which was also being threatened by factional fighting among Afghan Communists and rebellions by the army; and the position of Anwar’s family became more precarious.

In 1983, Russian planes bombed the villages Anwar and his relatives lived in, in retaliation for attacks on Afghan army convoys by the Mujahideen. Although Anwar’s father and uncle stayed back to fight and look after the animals and fields, there was no choice for many of the women and children but to leave.

Anwar, who was seven years old at the time, couldn’t recall too many details of the long walk that brought him and his mother and young brother to Pakistan. He did remember that it was very cold. There was snow on the ground and on the hills, and Anwar and his family walked all day and rested at night in roadside mosques. The 350-mile-long road to Pakistan swarmed with thousands of refugees, but they had to avoid moving in large groups, which the Russian helicopters buzzing ominously overhead liked to fire upon. They also had to stay as close as possible to the main road, for there were mines in the fields and on the dirt tracks—these were the tiny “butterfly mines” that floated down from the helicopters and then lay in wait for unmindful children and animals.


I still heard about the mines when I traveled this past spring on the road that links Kabul to Pakistan, through Ningrahar province.2 Dust-spattered refugee families from northern Afghanistan stood hopefully by the side of the eroded tarmac, where the Toyota pickups of the Taliban—young turbaned men and guns crammed in the back—were the new sources of fear. The land seemed vacant, the high surrounding mountains concealed behind a haze, and the stubborn bareness of rock and desert was relieved only occasionally by a green field and a black-tented encampment of nomads.

There is emptiness now, but in the days of Zahir Shah this land was reclaimed, with Soviet assistance, for cultivation; and orchards and fields, watered by broad canals, sprang up. In a half-abandoned village, rusty padlocks hanging from the doors of bleached wood set into long mud walls, an old Afghan was startled when I mentioned that time. Rasool had been in his late teens then; had known some of the prosperity that came to the region; and could even, with some prompting by me, remember the white men—Russian experts—traveling through the fields.

Unlike Anwar’s father and uncle, Rasool wasn’t a Mujahideen: he hadn’t revolted against the Russians or the Communists; he had been content to tend his land. The jihad had almost bypassed him; and he had known hard times only when, sometime in the mid-1980s, Russian planes bombed the canals that brought water to his land. There had been another recovery after the Russian army withdrew in 1989, when white men, this time from the UN, came and supervised the repair of the canals. By then, the local Mujahideen commanders were in charge. They taxed all the traffic on the roads; they took over the land which once belonged to the Afghan state and made the farmers grow high-yield poppy.

There was no point for Rasool to defy the commanders; he wouldn’t have got any cash credit from the traders in the town for anything other than opium. Not that the poppy-growing had improved his circumstances. It was the Mujahideen commanders who had grown very rich from converting the poppy into heroin and then smuggling it across the border into Iran and Pakistan.

And then, suddenly, before he had even heard of them, the young soldiers of the Taliban arrived from the southern provinces, chased out the Mujahideen commanders, and took over the checkpoints. They supervised, and profited from, the drug business until 1999, when they abruptly banned the cultivation of poppy, leaving most farmers with no sources of livelihood, and the option only of migrating to Pakistan.

Rasool lived in the vast, now arid land, after being taken, in just three decades, through a whole fruitless cycle of Afghan history. The long reign of Zahir Shah was no more than a faint memory. All the slow, steady work of previous generations was canceled out; Afghanistan was even further back from its tryst with the modern world.


But then, like many Muslim countries suddenly confronted in the nineteenth century with the rising power of the West, Afghanistan’s route to modern development could only have been tortuous. The Afghan empire of the eighteenth century had reached as far as Kashmir in the east and up to the Iranian city of Mashhad in the west. Like present-day Afghanistan, it contained many different ethnic groups, the dominant Pashtun tribes in the east and south, Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north and west, and the Shia Hazaras in the central provinces. Almost all of them were Sunni or Shia Muslims. Fiercely autonomous and proud, they had successfully resisted the British attempt to extend their Indian empire up to Kabul; but after two Anglo-Afghan wars, 1838–1842 and 1878– 1880, the Afghans had been subdued enough to serve as a buffer state between the expanding empires of Britain and Russia.

The British were content to exercise influence from afar without troubling themselves with direct rule. It was under their supervision that the present-day boundaries of Afghanistan were drawn, leaving a lot of Pashtun tribes in what is now Pakistan. The British also subsidized the Afghan army. Until 1919, when the Afghans won complete independence from the British, the ruler in Kabul reported to Delhi in matters of foreign policy, which essentially involved keeping the Russians out of Afghanistan.


The British-backed rulers of Afghanistan in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were insecure and ruthless, obsessed with protecting their regime from any local challenges as well: Afghanistan’s continued isolation was in their best interests. During the twenty-one-year rule of Amir Abdur Rahman (1880–1901), one of Afghanistan’s more pro-British rulers, only one school was built in Kabul, and that was a madrasa (theological school). Condemned to playing a passive part in an imperial Great Game, Afghanistan missed out on the indirect benefits of colonial rule: the creation of an educated class such as would supply the basic infrastructure of the post-colonial states of India, Pakistan, and Egypt.

Afghanistan’s resolute backwardness in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was appealing to Western romantics: Kipling, who was re-pelled by the educated Bengali, commended the Pashtun tribesmen—the traditional rulers of Afghanistan, and also a majority among Afghans—for their courage, love of freedom, and sense of honor. These clichés about the Afghans—which were to be amplified in our own time by American journalists and politicians—also had some effect on Muslims themselves.

One of them was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a polemicist of the nineteenth century, who sought to alert the Muslim peoples to their growing subjugation to the imperial powers of the West. The radical Islamists I spoke to didn’t remember that in 1968—while student groups at Kabul University were organizing large demonstrations against one another, distributing fiery pamphlets, and fighting one another on the streets—a huge mausoleum for al-Afghani went up inside the campus, to honor someone who, although born in Iran and educated in India, adopted the pen name “al-Afghani” and even began to tell other people that he was from Afghanistan.3

The increasing influence of the West, and the related undermining of Muslim power, was the inescapable event of al-Afghani’s lifetime; he witnessed it more closely than most Muslims during his long stints in India, Iran, Egypt, France, England, and Turkey. But Afghanistan had hardly been affected by the lifestyles and new knowledge of Europe, by the passion and energy of white men from the West that were transforming old worlds elsewhere in the nineteenth century. This resistance to Western-style modernization would have impressed al-Afghani, who, while stressing the need to modernize Muslim societies, disapproved of the wholesale adoption of European ways of the kind Kemal Atatürk would impose upon Turkey just two decades after al-Afghani’s death in 1897.

Al-Afghani failed to see how even small but strategically placed countries like Afghanistan were being drawn into the great imperial games of nineteenth-century Europe, and then sentenced to isolation and backwardness as buffer states. Behind his romantic attachment to Afghanistan lay fear and defensiveness—his painful awareness, shared by many other educated people in once-great Asian societies, that they had fallen behind, and that they not only had to catch up with the West, but also had to keep in check its increasing power to alter their lives, mostly for the worse.

For many educated people in pre-modern societies, communism offered a way of both catching up with and resisting the West; and the ideology had a powerful, and often generous, sponsor in the Soviet Union. But the hasty, ill-adapted borrowings from Soviet communism—the simplistic notion, for instance, of Afghans as feudal people who had to be turned into proletarians—more often than not imposed new kinds of pain and trauma on such a traditional society as Afghanistan; and helped to push the country even further away from the modern world.

The Soviet Union had supported the Communist coup of 1978 in Kabul, and so had grown concerned about the clumsy and brutal way in which the Khalq faction of the Afghan Communist Party, led by the fanatical ideologue Hafizullah Amin, a one-time student at Columbia University, had hijacked the coup, and then had tried violently—and, as spontaneous revolts across the country proved, dis-astrously—to weld the incoherent ethnic-tribal worlds of Afghanistan into a Communist society. As the records of Politburo conversations reveal, the aging leaders of the Soviet Union at first resisted military intervention in Afghanistan. But they feared that the United States, unsettled by the fall of the Shah of Iran, was trying, with the help of the wily Amin, to find an alternative anti-Soviet base in Afghanistan. They suspected Amin of being “an ambitious, cruel, treacherous person” who “may change the political orientation of the regime.”4

This sounds like cold war paranoia. It wasn’t softened by the mutinies against the Communist regime by Afghan military garrisons, one of which, in the city of Herat, ended in the killings of several Soviet and East European advisers. In the last days of 1979, when the Communist regime looked close to collapse, a contingent of Soviet soldiers flew into Kabul, stormed Amin’s palace, and killed him. A more moderate leader, Babrak Karmal, who belonged to the urban-based Parcham faction, took his place and attempted to avert the collapse of the Afghan state and bring an end to the brutalities.

Karmal was only partly successful in restoring order to Afghanistan. In 1986, the Soviets replaced Karmal with Mohammad Najibullah, the head of KHAD, the Communist intelligence agency. Najibullah, known so far for his role in the execution and torture of anti-Communists, tried even harder to win the Afghans’ support. He toned down the Communist rhetoric, emphasized his faith in Islam, and began reaching out to the refugees and Mujahideen, speaking all the time of compromise and national reconciliation. But his government couldn’t possibly acquire legitimacy among Afghans while being beholden to a foreign power. And in any case, things were out of his control: Afghanistan had already begun fighting in a new proxy war that would kill a million or more Afghans over the next decade, many of them from Soviet bombing of civilians, including fleeing refugees.


By the late Seventies, proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union were already being fought in Angola, Somalia, and Ethiopia. That is why the revelation made three years ago—by Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter—that small-scale American aid to the Afghan Islamists based in Pakistan had begun some months before the Soviet army arrived in Afghanistan is not surprising. In July 1979, President Carter signed the first of the directives for the clandestine aid that Brzezinski later said had the effect of drawing the Russians into “the Afghan trap.” “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene,” Brzezinski said, “but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” This secret operation explains his exultant tone in the letter he claims to have sent to President Carter on December 27, 1979, the day the Soviet army entered Afghanistan. “Now,” he said, “we can give the USSR its Vietnam War.”5

Brzezinski’s enthusiasm was shared by William Casey, a veteran of the OSS and the director of the CIA under President Reagan. In the mid-1980s, Casey committed CIA funds to the even grander plan of organizing the Muslims of the world into a global jihad against Soviet communism. By the mid-1980s, the CIA office in Islamabad, Pakistan, had become second in size only to the headquarters in Langley, Virginia; and American assistance to the Afghan Islamists, channeled through the CIA and the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, was running into billions of dollars.6

The military dictator of Pakistan, General Zia ul-Haq, was more than eager to place his country in the avant- garde of the jihad. Since April 1979, two years after his coup and after he had hanged his former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he had been urgently seeking both money and respectability from the United States. By promoting radical Islamists in Pakistan and Afghanistan he also hoped to suppress Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party, and the intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists agitating for the restoration of democracy. Somewhat similar local reasons prompted President Sadat of Egypt to offer cheap arms to the CIA for use in Afghanistan. The most generous support of the jihad among other pro-American governments came from the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, which was concerned about the growing influence of its traditional Shia rival, Iran, since its Islamic revolution.7

The Saudis saw the jihad in Afghanistan as a way of exporting Wahabism—an especially austere Saudi version of Sunni Islam, whose founders in the early nineteenth century attacked Mecca and Medina and purged them of the Sufi-style venerations which involved idolatry as well as dancing and music. They matched the American assistance to the Afghan Islamists dollar for dollar. Prince Turki, the head of the Saudi intelligence agency, worked closely with the CIA and the Pakistani ISI, and sent a rich Saudi businessman, Osama bin Laden, to organize the thousands of poor Arabs from the Middle East and North Africa who, attracted by promises of food and money, had traveled to Pakistan to enlist in the CIA-backed jihad against communism.8

Thus many separate ambitions and strategies powered the Afghan struggle against communism. The diverse agenda of its sponsors and prime agents meant that little attention was paid to organizing the highly fractious Afghans into a cohesive resistance movement that in time could replace the unpopular and discredited Communist government in Kabul—which by Najibullah’s own admission had lost control over 80 percent of the Afghan countryside.

One of the few things that united the five million Afghans in Pakistan and Iran and millions more in Afghanistan itself was their resentment of the Afghan Communists and their Russian backers. Seven Afghan resistance “parties” came forward to receive the millions of dollars’ worth of arms and humanitarian aid that started flowing into Pakistan in the early 1980s. The parties represented the ethnic, linguistic, and tribal divisions within the Afghans; but many of their members had little or no connection with the Mujahideen commanders and soldiers in Afghanistan who were fighting a sporadically intense guerrilla war against the Soviets.

The CIA avoided direct contact with the Afghans in order to maintain the fiction of American noninvolvement; it used Pakistani intelligence (the ISI) for the important logistical tasks: the distribution of aid, the military coordination between Mujahideen outfits. But the officers of the ISI had their own favorites; they wanted to promote the pro-Pakistan men within Afghanistan’s majority ethnic community, the Pashtuns. As a result, one of the most effective fighters who was neither led by the CIA nor coordinated by the ISI, the brilliant Tajik Mujahideen commander in northern Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Masoud, received hardly any assistance. Masoud fought the Taliban for six years, until he was assassinated last month, two days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, by two suicide bombers posing as Arab journalists, who were in all likelihood sent by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. The largest beneficiary of foreign aid was the Pashtun Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who amassed a huge ar-senal in southern Afghanistan and most of the time avoided the battlefield.

Then there were the obvious instances of corruption produced by a prolonged war effort, bankrolled covertly with unaudited money, and controlled through several intermediaries: the proof of unrestrained plunder is all there in the mansions of ISI officers and Afghan resistance leaders you see in Pakistan. A large number of sophisticated weapons ended up in an arms bazaar near Peshawar or traveled elsewhere in Pakistan, stoking the various ethnic and sectarian conflicts that ravaged the country in the late 1980s and 1990s. Mujahideen leaders like Hekmatyar, indulged by the ISI, branched off into opium cultivation—for years a small-scale business in Afghanistan—and smuggling, and began a turf war against other Afghans.9


The Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in early 1989, three years after Mikhail Gorbachev had declared the decade-long losing war there a “bleeding wound” for his country. In a matter of months, the Soviet Union began to fall apart; the cold war seemed at an end; and although the Communists still held Kabul and would hold it until 1992, American assistance to the Afghans dwindled.10

On the day the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan, William Webster, the new director of the CIA, hosted a champagne party in Langley, Virginia. Aside from the Soviet withdrawal, there wasn’t much to celebrate in Afghanistan itself. The destruction of roads and agricultural land and the flight of more than five million people (the largest refugee population in the world) created a political and economic void which the Mujahideen commanders filled. Long subsidized by the United States and Saudi Arabia, they now had to be “self-financing.” It was around this time that Afghanistan became the biggest producer of opium in the world. Farmers forced by local Mujahideen commanders to cultivate poppy, however, received only a fraction of the wealth that the cash crop created as it moved along the supply line.

Smuggling was rampant: Pakistani military trucks that brought supplies to the Mujahideen during the jihad often went back loaded with drugs or consumer items. In Ningrahar province, the local Mujahideen commander operated his own airline: planeloads of TVs and air conditioners arrived from Dubai and were then trucked by him into Pakistan. Much money was to be made in controlling key trading routes and checkpoints; and so little battles kept erupting between different Mujahideen groups, whose leaders became known as “warlords.” In the early 1990s, many of them were running clashing opium and smuggling empires across Afghanistan.

An economy built around predation could only lead to a moral breakdown, especially in the rural areas where the institutions of the Afghan state had barely existed, and where traditional codes of honor and justice, enforced by tribal and religious leaders, had so far governed daily life and conduct. There was at least a semblance of administration and law in the western and northern provinces controlled by the Mujahideen commanders Ismail Khan and Ahmed Shah Masoud. But things were very bad in the southern provinces, where the old tribal and religious elite had been rendered impotent by many different warlords who exacted toll taxes from traders and smugglers, fought with each other, and raped young children and women at will.

One day in early 1994—so the Taliban claims—in a village near the southern city of Kandahar, a Pashtun man in his thirties called Mohammad Omar heard about two women who had been abducted and raped by some local commanders. Like many young Pashtuns from his village, Omar, the son of landless peasants, had participated in the jihad against local and foreign Communists. He had been wounded several times and had lost his right eye. After the Soviet withdrawal he had gone back to teaching at his village madrasa. He was deeply aggrieved by the degenerate Mujahideen and the anarchy around him, and often spoke with his friends in the village about ways to deal with them and establish the law of the Koran.

The Taliban’s version has it that the news of the raped women incited Omar into action. He went out to the local madrasas and raised a band of thirty Talibs, or students, for a rescue mission. The students mustered about sixteen rifles among themselves. They then went and freed the girls and hanged the commanders from the barrel of a tank. A few months later, there was another incident in which two commanders fought a gun battle in the streets of Kandahar over a boy both wished to rape. Once again, Omar showed up with his students and freed the boy and executed the commanders.

This is the romantic legend surrounding the rise of the Taliban and their reclusive, one-eyed supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. It goes on to describe how the young, motivated students had in just two years brought most of Afghanistan under their control (Herat in 1995, Kabul in 1996), captured the arsenals of the warlords, done away with their terror, and made secure the life and property of ordinary Afghans.

Such accounts are also meant to make the Taliban seem like the Muslim armies of early Islamic history pacifying the intransigent tribes of Arabia. They are part of the careful self-presentation of their leaders, who have been at pains to distinguish themselves from the previous generation and to justify the drastic restrictions imposed on the dress, movements, and education of women. They go with the stylish new black turbans, the beards with the mandatory length of eight centimeters, the freshly designed flag, and the grander name—the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—for the country.

The stories almost conceal the fact that the Taliban—consisting mainly of students, former Mujahideen like Omar, and the rural clergy—have come from the Pashtun tribes in the east and south of the country. The secretive leadership consists almost entirely of Mullah Omar’s friends and associates in Kandahar. As such they have been regarded with suspicion by the ethnic minority groups in the northern, central, and western provinces, the Persian-speaking Tajiks and the Shia Hazaras—a distrust that settled into animosity after the repeated massacres of them by the Taliban in their continuing war against the Hizb-e-Wahdat (Islamic Unity Party), a Shia Hazara party, in the central highland region of Afghanistan.11 Though militarily underequipped, the Shia Hazara party and the forces of the late Ahmed Shah Masoud, which control the northern Tajik-majority province of Badakhshan, are, with ethnic Uzbeks, the main components of the northern alliance against the Taliban, whom they accuse, not inaccurately, of imposing a backward-minded Pashtun dictatorship over the ethnic mosaic of Afghanistan. In the last five years, this civil war has flared up every summer, after the snows in the high mountain passes melt, but petered out in late autumn, with little territory gained or lost on either side.

What the legend leaves out is the contribution to the Taliban’s early military success by traders and smugglers in Pakistan and Afghanistan who were fed up with paying endless toll taxes on Afghan routes controlled by the Mujahideen warlords and welcomed the Taliban. Disaffected former Mujahideen and even officials of the former Communist regime helped the Taliban take on the warlords, and tens of thousands of Pashtun students in Pakistan joined them as the news of their victories spread.

Most importantly, the Taliban received a lot of support from Saudi Arabia and from Benazir Bhutto’s government in Pakistan. The Saudi royal family had fallen out with Osama bin Laden by then; but they gave money and support to the Taliban independently of the private charities and donations that went from Saudi Arabia, some through Osama bin Laden, whose Arab fighters gave strong support to the Taliban. Bhutto and her ministers expected the student militia to bring stability to Afghanistan, and open up the possibility—which inspired the early, if brief, American approval of the Taliban—of trade routes and oil and gas pipelines to the newly created Central Asian republics. Bhutto and her colleagues also wanted to diminish the sinister power that the ISI and its officers had acquired over the Pakistani state during its collaboration with the CIA.12

The Taliban’s connection with Pakistan went even deeper. Just as Kabul University had in the 1960s supplied the ideologists and activists of the next decades, so the theological schools in Pakistan known as Deobandi madrasas had in the 1990s produced among its refugees many of the young soldiers and leaders of the Taliban.

The name “Deobandi” came from the original madrasa that had been set up in 1867 in a small Indian town near Delhi called Deoband. The madrasa came out of an insular Indian Muslim response to British rule in the nineteenth century: the work of men who feared that Western-style education of the kind proposed by the British, and embraced by the Hindus, was going to uproot and fracture Muslim culture, and who were convinced that training in the fundamentals of the Koran and the sharia would shield Indian Muslims from the corruptions of the modern world. The Deoband madrasa has issued about 250,000 fatwas on various aspects of personal behavior.

In the early twentieth century, the missionaries of Deoband had begun to set up madrasas close to what was then the Indian border with Afghanistan. In the 1980s and 1990s, among the two to three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the poorest had gone to these madrasas. Some of the most senior leaders of the Taliban had been educated at the Darul Uloom Haqqania near Peshawar, which still follows the Koran-oriented curriculum created at Deoband in India a hundred and fifty years ago.

Although it is the biggest of the Pakistani madrasas near the border with Afghanistan and quite famous, the madrasa had, when I visited it in April this year, the somewhat lowering appearance of a poorly financed college in an Indian small town: peeling paint, dust-clogged stairs, broken chairs, unfinished buildings bristling with rusting iron girders, and shabbily clad students. In one corner of the compound was a separate hostel for boys between the ages of eight and twelve—a courtyard lined with curious fresh faces under elegant white caps—who read nothing but the Koran, which they were expected to memorize. In one tiny room at the hostel for older students, many of whom were from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, there was the unexpectedly moving sight of six young men sleeping on tattered sheets on the floor, their turbans respectfully arranged in a row next to the door.

The kitchen consisted of two dingy rooms, their walls stained black from the open wood fires; almost an equal number of flies hovered over the stagnant yellow curry in exposed drains and the freshly chopped mutton on a wide wooden table. Things were no better in the smaller madrasas. But food and lodging were free. And the orphans and sons of poor Pashtuns in the refugee camps—members of a powerless majority of rural Afghans—who went to the madrasas in the 1980s and early 1990s wouldn’t have had many options, as opposed to the many CIA-sponsored Mujahideen leaders, who lived in style in a posh suburb of Peshawar. Living amid deprivation and squalor, and educated only in a severe ideology, a new generation of Pashtun men developed fast the fantasies of the pure Islamic order that they as the Taliban would aggressively impose upon a war-ravaged country.

—October 17, 2001

This is the first of two articles on Afghanistan.

This Issue

November 15, 2001