In Afghanistan in 1996 the Taliban inherited a profoundly damaged country; and five years later, the tasks of reconstruction and healing were more urgent, even before the US bombing began. The Taliban government’s budget for the last year of their regime amounted to $82 million—and the meagerness of this sum for a country geographically bigger than France only tells part of the story. More than half of the income was expected to come from the semi-extortionate toll taxes imposed by their Mujahideen predecessors and continued by the Taliban; and more than half of those revenues were swallowed by the contingency fund to support the wars against the Tajiks in northern Afghanistan, formerly headed by Ahmed Shah Massoud, and against the Shiite Hazaras in the central highlands. The outlay for development was only $343,000, while the ministry that looked after the madrasas, religious schools, received $14 million, which in turn was five times more than the allocation for the Ministry of Health.1

In a country seething with endemic disease, and with the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world, these priorities look nothing but skewed. The outlay for the powerful Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—which punished those whose beards were not the prescribed eight centimeters long, and those who did not observe prayers and fasts, and worked hard to ensure that male minds remained free of the sinful thoughts incited by the presence of unveiled women—was three times as much as that for development. For Mullah Omar and his advisers from the rural clergy, it was enough to be pious and virtuous, and a healthy Islamic society would be created by itself. And the punishment for those who strayed from virtue was draconian: adulterers were stoned to death, women were known to have the tips of their thumbs cut off for wearing nail polish. Not surprisingly, such cloud-cuckoo-land ideas—partly the result of their limited madrasa educations—and their brutal consequences made the Taliban increasingly unpopular among even the Pashtuns in the countryside who, oppressed by the Mujahideen, had initially welcomed them as liberators.

In the derelict Pashtun village I visited east of Kabul last spring, five months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in an area heavily bombed and mined by the Soviet military, people talked, as they did elsewhere, of the irrelevance—indeed the nonexistence—of the Taliban government and the good deeds of the white men from the foreign NGOs and the UN, who were active all through the last two decades of war, supplying seeds, food, and health care, and who—like the aid workers arrested for allegedly preaching Christianity—worked in constant danger of being kidnapped and beaten up by the Taliban.

There were three Afghans sitting on the floor of the bare, low-roofed room, all of them in their late forties, variously disabled during the anti-Communist jihad, and prematurely aged, even the dim light from the lantern seeming harsh on their sunburned wrinkled faces and wiry gray beards. The village now had only some disabled and elderly-seeming men like these. The soldiers in black turbans I had seen hurtling around the dirt roads in the back of Toyota pickups came regularly to look for fit young men. Those young men who had escaped the draft had fled to Pakistan, where many of their relatives already lived in the much worse conditions of the refugee camps.

The conversation inside the room was of the quality of seeds, the lack of fodder and drinking water for the livestock, and the refugees from the war in the north, who, turned away at the border with Pakistan, were now draining away the already meager supply of food and water in the province. The three-year-long drought had created, along with the continuing civil war, more than half a million internal refugees. It wasn’t as severe here as in central and northern parts of Afghanistan; but most of the land was still uncultivated. The harvest from last year’s seeds had been poor; it had been just enough to feed a few families. The news had come of white men—most probably volunteers of the World Food Program—distributing new seeds in a nearby town. The news was good; but there remained the complicated negotiation about how to divide the harvest from the seeds; there remained the long journey to the town, on foot and on trucks, past many checkpoints where the bribes—corruption, despite the draconian Islamic punishments, flourishing as usual—could be very steep.

Outside, in the courtyard, where tufts of grass grew wild in the cracks of the mud walls, an emaciated cow slumped on the ground; and somewhere inside the rooms around it I could sense the presence of women, could hear occasionally the rustle of thick cloth and the clink of pots and pans. Later one of them hurried across the courtyard to throw some leftovers of the dry bread served to us to the cow: a brisk, silent figure in the dusk, whose shapeless heavy chadori, with the narrow mesh across her eyes, seemed in that brief moment like the habit of a viciously persecuted medieval sisterhood.


But it was the outsider’s vision: according to Nancy Hatch Dupree, a distinguished writer on Afghan issues, the chadori has usually been worn by village women as a status symbol—a sign of their husband’s education or employment—and was more common in the towns and cities. Under the Taliban you could still glimpse women without it in the villages, where everyday life has been traditionally autonomous of what goes on in the cities. As Dupree saw it, women in rural Afghanistan, where 90 percent of the country’s approximately 20 million people still live, were less vulnerable to the Taliban’s arbitrary brutality. Dupree mentions instances of women being beaten and killed outside Kabul, but on the whole they weren’t as much affected by the restrictions and controversies arising out of the Taliban’s harsh gender and other policies as women in the cities. Of the minuscule 3 percent of school-age Afghan females who went to school during Communist rule, the majority came from the urban areas. It is the women in the cities, encouraged into education and employment by Zahir Shah, the Communists, and, most recently, the UN agencies, who suffered most.2

The rural–urban divide has always complicated the process of change in Afghanistan, as it has in many underdeveloped countries. So have the heavy-handed ways in which change has often been imposed upon the countryside from above, by the country’s tiny, Westernized, and mostly non-Pashtun, Persian-speaking urban elite in Kabul. The rural elite of religious and tribal leaders has tended to respond to their efforts at modernization by going back even further into time. In 1929, conservative mullahs bullied women back into thicker chadoris and sacked museums and libraries after overthrowing the liberal-minded King Amanullah, who had abolished the veil, opened coed schools, and ordered Afghans in Kabul to wear Western clothes. Not until 1959 did women appear without the chadori on the streets of Kabul, and this continued for over thirty-five years, until they faced the cruelest restrictions yet on their freedom of movement and dress.

The Afghan Communists had encouraged women in Kabul to wear skirts and employed them in the government. This was part of their plan to modernize Afghanistan. New textbooks sent out to the villages carried an image of three men in European suits leading a traditionally dressed crowd to a glorious future. Volunteer teachers in the literacy campaign forced old men and girls to attend classes while at the same time, and often in the same villages, the Communists were arresting and massacring tens of thousands of young Muslim men.

Much of the chaos and violence suffered in Afghan villages during the Communist era was engineered by a Westernized elite at the head of an active government in Kabul—a city which, with its Persian-speaking population and apparently liberated women, was already alien to most Pashtuns. This may partly explain why the sons of Pashtun peasants and nomads who made up the Taliban imposed their harshest laws upon the women of Kabul soon after driving out the moderate Islamist Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud from this most Westernized of Afghan cities in 1996 and forcing him to the north. (Some 35 to 45 percent of the population is Pashtun. The majority is made up of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and others.) Suddenly, in yet another Afghan regression, women found themselves sentenced to the chadori and confined to their homes. They could neither educate themselves nor work—Dupree estimates that the prohibitions directly affected anywhere between 40,000 to 150,000 working women and about 100,000 girls at school. Women had to be accompanied by male relatives outside their homes, where the possibility of public humiliation—usually beatings with sticks but also harsher punishments—by the religious police was ever-present.3

The Taliban claimed they were shielding women from the sexual predation they had suffered in the days of the Mujahideen warlords. A Taliban official, who had studied at a madrasa in Pakistan, told me that he couldn’t trust his men with unveiled women; and in any case Mullah Omar, whose original mission had allegedly been to protect women from rapists and bandits, had to preserve at all costs the Taliban’s reputation as uncorrupted men who had brought peace and security and “true Islam” to Kabul.

The Taliban official wouldn’t be drawn into a discussion of what “true Islam” was or could be. But then what he really seemed to be articulating was the deep and longstanding fear and resentment of Western lifestyles, particularly the independence of women, among Pashtun men in the countryside—the modern ways that the Communists had brutally imposed upon Afghanistan, and that Kabul, with the presence of foreign aid workers there, represented. Mullah Omar expressed his contempt by staying away altogether from what remained the official capital of Afghanistan and living in Kandahar. For the rural men who dominated the Taliban, the women in Kabul and other Afghan cities, the relatively modern Shiite and Persian-speaking minorities, the Communists of the past, and the foreign aid workers of today were part of the same large, undifferentiated threat to the Pashtun dictatorship that they, with some help from the sharia, or Islamic law, wished to maintain.4


These complex social and economic resentments help to explain why the Taliban, while ruthless with the Shiites and NGO workers, did not curtail the religious practices of the five thousand or so mostly poor Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan, even though the latter were briefly required—to avoid harassment from the religious police, the Taliban claim—to carry yellow identification badges at all times. They also help to explain the many incidents such as the one in which the religious police, who were answerable only to Mullah Omar in Kandahar, closed down an Italian-funded hospital in mid-May after they caught women workers dining with the male staff. In June, the UN closed down a food program for 300,000 people in Kabul because the Taliban refused to let Afghan women work for it.

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.

In Sudan bin Laden established himself as a businessman but also began to gather around himself some of the Muslim militants, also known as “Arab Afghans,” he had met during the jihad in Afghanistan. Among them were refu- gees from Hosni Mubarak’s crackdown on radical Islamists in Egypt, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, who allegedly ranked second to bin Laden in al-Qaeda, and other Muslims who were enraged by America’s military humiliation of Iraq, the continuing presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and the pro-American attitudes of the Arab ruling elites. They either worked in his businesses or allied themselves with the militant groups in various Muslim countries bin Laden is believed to have funded. The difficulty of separating business from political interests partly accounts for the persisting uncertainty about what al-Qaeda is, or was.

The Saudi royal family stripped bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994 and American and Saudi pressure on the Sudanese government led to bin Laden’s departure from Sudan in May 1996. He flew with his four wives, children, and supporters to Jalalabad, the Afghan city closest to Pakistan, and sought refuge there with an Afghan Mujahideen commander he knew from the days of the anti-Soviet jihad. In July 1996, bin Laden gave an interview to Robert Fisk of The Independent, and demanded the withdrawal of American, French, and British troops stationed in Saudi Arabia—a demand that remained at the top of his agenda.

It was in Jalalabad, a month later, that bin Laden first met up with the Taliban, who were then in the middle of the blitzkrieg that would bring almost the whole of Afghanistan under their control by the end of the year. Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist who interviewed bin Laden in 1998 and is probably the most reliable source of information about him, told me in Pakistan earlier this year that the leaders of the Taliban at first suspected bin Laden, on no clear basis, of supporting Massoud, the Tajik commander of the Northern Alliance, who still held Kabul at that point. The Taliban were won over probably by bin Laden’s wealth, estimated to be between $200 and $300 million, which, Ahmed Rashid claims, bankrolled the Taliban’s conquest of Kabul later that year. According to Yusufzai, the Taliban asked bin Laden to move to the southern city of Kandahar, where the reclusive Mullah Mohammad Omar was based. It is here that bin Laden was to spend the next five years in between spells at different hideouts across Afghanistan. During this time, bin Laden is believed to have provided the Taliban with financial and military support and, according to some unconfirmed reports, managed their money from the drug trade. The Taliban also allowed bin Laden to run the military camps in Afghanistan where thousands of Muslims from all over the world were trained.

In February 1998, bin Laden issued a manifesto for what he called “The International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” in which he denounced the United States for “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, and terrorizing its neighbors.” He also spoke of the US bombing and economic blockade of Iraq and accused the US of turning Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Sudan into “paper statelets” in order to “guarantee Israel’s survival.” The manifesto went on to declare that

to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.

In May 1998, bin Laden invited Pakistani journalists to Afghanistan and repeated this fatwa. Mullah Omar was reportedly furious with bin Laden for organizing the press conference without his permission, and told bin Laden that there could only be one ruler in Afghanistan. A few months later, bin Laden made a point of his loyalty to Omar in an interview with al-Jazeera, the TV station based in Qatar, praising the Taliban for attempting to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan. He also said that the Taliban did not permit him to operate against any other state and that his “inability to move out of Afghanistan” meant that he could only be an “instigator” in the jihad against America and Israel. However, the Muslims he had inspired were, he said, “largely active”; they were of “diverse nationalities” and had a “large margin of movement.”

On August 7, 1998, a few months after bin Laden’s fatwa, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, killing 226 people. In November 1998, a Manhattan federal court issued an indictment containing 238 charges of terrorism against bin Laden: it held him responsible, among many other crimes, for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, an assassination plot against President Clinton in 1994, and funding Islamist groups in New Jersey. It also identified bin Laden as a prime suspect in the bomb attack on American soldiers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996. In 1999, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning bin Laden for sponsoring international terrorism and imposed sanctions on the Taliban.

The trial held early in 2001 in New York of the four men accused of involvement in the bombing of US embassies in East Africa offered the fullest public account of al-Qaeda. One of the defendants, Wadih el-Hage, a US citizen, had fought in the anti-Communist jihad in Afghanistan and then had become bin Laden’s private secretary in Sudan; he was not charged with the bombings but with participating in the global conspiracy that prosecutors said bin Laden had mounted against American lives and property. Two other defendants, a Saudi and a Tanzanian, who carried out the bombings, had trained in Afghanistan in the Nineties. The government’s chief witness was Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a Sudanese citizen, who defected from al-Qaeda in 1996 after taking commissions worth $110,000 from a business owned by bin Laden, and who claimed to have been informed about bin Laden’s attempt to acquire nuclear and chemical weapons. The portrait he provided of al-Qaeda made it seem unlike such tightly knit militant organizations as the Italian Red Brigades or the Palestinian Black September and more like a large clearinghouse which provided money, training, and logistical support to radical Islamist groups in Algeria, Yemen, Egypt, the Philippines, Russia (Chechnya), and many other countries.

Al-Fadl’s testimony showed that the links between radical Islamists in the Middle East and Southeast Asia and bin Laden had been made during the anti-Communist jihad in Afghanistan. Many of these “Arab Afghans” were political dissidents who were escaping from their home countries. Most of them were from Egypt, of which Mohammad Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, was a citizen, and where there had been a steady growth of radical Islamists in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Many of these Egyptian Islamists, such as bin Laden’s deputy, Dr. Zawahiri, who some analysts believe took control of many of bin Laden’s activities in al-Qaeda,11 moved to safer places in Afghanistan, Sudan, or even the West, where they could plan attacks against President Mubarak and his closest ally, the United States. Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, who entered the US in 1990 with the CIA’s assistance, had already established by 1993 an American network of sympathizers and donors for Egypt’s radical Islamic groups—just before the time when the first of the hijackers of September 11, 2001, enrolled in a flight school.12

Similarly, in Algeria, the military’s brutal suppression of FIS, the Islamist political party that swept the elections in December 1991, created extremist organizations like the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), one of whose sponsors is believed to be bin Laden, and whose members in December 1994 hijacked an Air France plane with a view to crashing it into the Eiffel Tower but failed because of their lack of piloting skills.13


The pronouncements of bin Laden, who has been the most visible of these militants, and certainly has the keenest instinct for publicity, served for some time as what Ahmed Rashid in Taliban calls a “simple, all-purpose explanation for unexplained terrorist attacks.” According to Rashid, Washington was “not prepared to admit” that the Afghan jihad against the Communists before 1989 had, with the support of the CIA, “spawned dozens of fundamentalist movements across the Muslim world which were led by militants who had grievances, not so much against the Americans [as against] their own corrupt, incompetent regimes.” But of the terrorism of radical Muslims in Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere, Rashid writes,

Bin Laden knew many of the perpetrators of these violent acts across the Muslim world, because they had lived and fought together in Afghanistan. His organization, focused around supporting veterans of the Afghan war and their families, maintained contacts with them. He may well have funded some of their operations, but he was unlikely to know what they were all up to or what their domestic agendas were.

In the last two years, bin Laden and al-Qaeda have also been linked by American authorities to the suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen; to Jordanians of Palestinian descent who were planning to attack Christian sites in Jordan during the millennium celebrations; and to an Algerian called Ahmed Ressam who was arrested at the US–Canadian border while carrying explosives in his car. Ressam was convicted earlier this year; facing a sentence of more than a hundred years in prison, he began to cooperate with the authorities and confessed to having trained in Afghanistan. He will be an important witness in the forthcoming trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent who is the first to be indicted among the hundreds of men arrested in connection with September 11.

A clear picture of these Muslim extremists in different countries, who had, in bin Laden’s own words, a “large margin of movement,” and the precise nature of bin Laden’s affiliations with them is only beginning to emerge. These extremists are commonly described by government officials and the media as al-Qaeda operatives; but it is not certain whether all of them have the kind of intimacy with and loyalty to bin Laden that, according to testimonies offered during the embassy bombings trial, are required for membership in al-Qaeda. For instance, there are not only Arabs among the foreign fighters in Afghanistan described as al-Qaeda forces but also Pakistanis sponsored and sent to Afghanistan by religious groups in Pakistan, about eight thousand of whom are currently missing in action. A lot of them are students from Pakistani madrasas, where many leaders of the Taliban were also educated.

According to The New York Times, Jean-Louis Bruguière, France’s chief antiterrorism judge, acting on information “from one of Osama bin Laden’s most important operatives in Europe,” arrested plotters preparing to bomb the US embassy in Paris. His office also uncovered a “cell of al-Qaeda active in Europe and Canada” and pressed a French court to convict seventeen cell members for plotting terrorist attacks. Nevertheless he suspects that “neither the demise of the Taliban nor the capture of Osama bin Laden would diminish the terrorist threat” since many of the new extremists “do not need orders from Osama bin Laden.”14

Bin Laden became the official prime suspect soon after September 11. Although the Bush administration backed out of its promise of publishing a white paper on the evidence against him, the British government produced, on October 4, three days before the beginning of the military campaign in Afghanistan, a detailed outline of the case against bin Laden, setting out his political views, modus operandi, and links with previous terrorist attacks.

The pages in the dossier about bin Laden’s background and methods followed closely the US government’s indictment against bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the embassy bombings trial; the dossier officially included the allegation that al-Qaeda participated in the killings of American soldiers in Somalia in 1993. While not citing specific sources, the last pages present the evidence related to September 11:

å? In the run-up to 11 September, Bin Laden was mounting a concerted propaganda campaign amongst like-minded groups of people—including videos and documentation—justifying attacks on Jewish and American targets; and claiming that those who died in the course of them were carrying out God’s work.

å? We have learned, subsequent to 11 September, that Bin Laden himself asserted shortly before 11 September that he was preparing a major attack on America.

å? In August and early September close associates of Bin Laden were warned to return to Afghanistan from other parts of the world by 10 September.

å? Immediately prior to 11 September some known associates of Bin Laden were naming the date for action as on or around 11 September.

å? Since 11 September we have learned that one of Bin Laden’s closest and most senior associates was responsible for the detailed planning of the attacks.

å? There is evidence of a very specific nature relating to the guilt of Bin Laden and his associates that is too sensitive to release.

But it is the video recording discovered in Afghanistan and released by the US government on December 12, and which shows bin Laden boasting about the success of September 11 before a legless former Arab Afghan fighter from Saudi Arabia and other supporters, that contains the most convincing evidence so far of his involvement. It is likely to have a much greater impact not only on the West but also on Muslim public opinion than anything so far made public. In this amateur recording, which was apparently made in Kandahar on November 9, bin Laden claimed considerable foreknowledge of the plot. On the tape he said that “we calculated in advance the number of casualties who would be killed, based on the position of the tower”; he named Mohammad Atta of “the Egyptian family” as having been “in charge,” and said that among the hijackers “those who were trained to fly didn’t know the others,” and that “we did not reveal the operation to them until they boarded the plane.” He said that he had turned on his radio on the evening of September 11 because “we had notification since the previous Thursday that the event would take place that day.” He claimed to have told his “overjoyed” supporters to “be patient” after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He said he was “more optimistic than the others…, thinking that the fire from the gas would collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it. That is all we hoped for.”

The fact that the videotape was acquired and released for public viewing by the US government led many Muslims who distrust Western governments to automatically doubt its authenticity. But the tape should eventually help to further undermine bin Laden’s status in much of the Muslim world, and give greater credibility to the military action in Afghanistan, which bin Laden in a recent video statement depicted as a “ferocious crusade campaign against Islam,” a view disturbingly close to the one held by many people outside the West, even those unsympathetic to bin Laden, who see the American intervention in Afghanistan as an overbearing display of imperial power, part of a long tradition of punitive Western expeditions in Asia and Africa. This view has been reinforced by incidents such as the one near Mazar-e-Sharif, where hundreds of Taliban soldiers held captive in a fort were killed by Northern Alliance forces and US air strikes during an attempted uprising. British and US governments refused to hold an inquiry despite strongly worded questions about the suspected use of disproportionate force from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN commissioner for human rights. In other incidents, which the Pentagon initially claimed did not occur, more than a hundred civilians were killed by air strikes directed at the Tora Bora mountain caves where bin Laden was believed to be hiding.


A large question for the future is how successful the strategy of splitting the Taliban will turn out to be. This strategy was promoted by, among others, Abdul Haq, the former Mujahideen commander who was captured and executed by the Taliban inside Afghanistan earlier this fall. With most of the Taliban leadership having survived the American bombing of Afghanistan, the strategy remains relevant, and has been taken up by Hamid Karzai, the US-backed Pashtun tribal leader from the south, who is now the prime minister in the UN-brokered new interim government of Afghanistan. It always had a good chance: for all their much-hyped fighting skills and religious fanaticism, the Taliban conquered most of Afghanistan through bribes paid to tribal chiefs and Mujahideen warlords. In fact, much of the Taliban’s military capacity rested upon conscription and bluster, and destroying it through an infinitely superior firepower, or forcing the Taliban’s hard-core fighters to retreat to the hills or to Pakistan, may prove much easier than meeting the challenge of social and political engineering that is thrown up by the formal collapse of the Taliban regime.

The students from the Afghan and Pakistani madrasas, and the Pashtun religious and tribal elites that organized themselves as the Taliban seven years ago, snatched power from the warlords, disarmed the population, and imposed a central authority upon much of Afghanistan for the first time in two decades, are not likely to go away. Pragmatism, rather than the desire for martyrdom, is likely to dictate the present attitudes of many of these Pashtuns, for whom the severe quasi-Islamic ideology of the Taliban has been primarily the means to power, and can be, in altered circumstances, as easy to trim as their beards. Certainly, American military might and the sudden empowering of anti-Taliban factions, Pashtun and non-Pashtun, alone don’t explain the relatively swift crumbling of the Taliban–al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and the defections of middle-ranking Taliban commanders amid desperate appeals by Mullah Omar to “stand and fight.”

What is becoming clearer is that the fanatical world view—the longing for a global jihad against America—was not very widely or profoundly shared among even the Pashtuns who had benefited most from the Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan—and many of whom were subsequently relieved and happy when the Taliban lost power. What seemed from afar a monolithic alliance was mostly built upon the much narrower and fragile base of bin Laden’s largesse and his personal friendship with and intellectual influence upon the hard-line leaders of the Taliban in Kandahar.

But to underestimate the power and influence of the rural Pashtun elites, to whom Mullah Omar and his advisers belong, just because the Taliban military appears to be in retreat, or to exclude Taliban members from any power-sharing arrangement in Afghan- istan would likely turn out to be a mistake. Hamid Karzai appears to recognize this in calling for a general amnesty for Afghans—from which he, under American pressure, later exempted Mullah Omar—and reaching out to former leaders of the Taliban and tribal chiefs in the south as part of the UN-sponsored drive to create a broad-based government in Afghanistan. As a representative of the dominant Pashtun community that has always produced, apart from two short-lived exceptions, the ruling class of Afghanistan, Karzai’s own credentials for coalition-building seem unusually broad-based, and further attest to the fluid nature of political identities in Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, Karzai, whose father headed the Pashtun tribe of the Po-palzais in the south, acquired a degree in political science from the univer-sity in Simla, India, and helped channel aid from the CIA and the ISI to the Mujahideen fighting in the anti-Communist jihad. For two years from 1992, he was the deputy foreign minister in the short-lived post-Communist government of Mujahideen leaders in Kabul. Like many Pashtuns, he welcomed the Taliban as they went about imposing Pashtun rule over Afghanistan. He and his brothers run a chain of Afghan restaurants in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and Baltimore; his familiarity with America led the Taliban government in 1997 to name him as their representative to the United States before Mullah Omar canceled the appointment on the grounds that Karzai did not have a Taliban-style beard. Two years later, his father was assassinated, allegedly on the orders of the Taliban.

Karzai, who has lived in exile in the Pakistani city of Quetta since 1994, renewed apparently longstanding links with the US government when he entered Afghanistan in October, at about the same time as Abdul Haq, in order to provoke an anti-Taliban rebellion in the south, during which attempt he once had to be—although Karzai denies this—rescued by American Special Forces. He has also apparently maintained friendly contact with officials in the Pakistani government, which, made anxious by the anti-Pakistan positions of most of the Northern Alliance leaders, is somewhat reassured by the presence of a Pashtun leader in Kabul.

But in Kabul Karzai faces a tough challenge. During the early Nineties, when Karzai was deputy foreign minister in the coalition government of Mujahideen leaders, real power in Kabul rested with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the late Tajik leader and then defense minister, while Pashtuns and other ethnic group leaders occupied largely ceremonial posts. Then, as now, the city was militarily controlled by the Tajiks, a fact resented by the Hazaras, the Pashtuns, and the Uzbeks, and which eventually led to the four-year-long civil war that left 50,000 people dead in Kabul. The Tajiks at present hold the important portfolios of defense, interior, and foreign affairs in the interim government, and have demanded that the UN multinational forces to be based in and around Kabul be limited to 5,000 soldiers. Karzai’s position vis-à-vis these well-placed Tajiks in Kabul will depend on how much support he gathers for himself in the Pashtun-dominated south, which has been overrun by a host of Mujahideen commanders-turned-warlords.

These warlords emerged as a separate, altogether new elite in Afghanistan during the anti-Communist jihad, when traditional elites in the villages were dispersed by war, and loyalties often formed locally around the men who managed to get the largest amounts of guns and cash from the CIA and Saudi Arabia. One of these warlords, who later controlled Afghanistan’s predatory economy of road tolls, smuggling, and opium cultivation, is Gul Agha Shirazi, who was the much-feared governor of Kandahar until his expulsion by the Taliban in 1994. Agha fought with American assistance against the Taliban in the recent battle for the city and was nominated to his old post by Karzai after a tense stand-off with a rival pro-Taliban mullah that almost erupted into a violent battle. It is hard to predict that the temptation of receiving foreign patronage—the billions of dollars that Western nations have promised to pour into Afghanistan if the conditions of a stable, broad-based government are met—would turn such war profiteers into moderate politicians, and how large a role the Northern Alliance, itself largely led by warlords, would allow them in the complicated process of governing Afghanistan. Some of them may well be content to reestablish the mini-empires of smuggling and opium and road tolls that the Taliban had broken up, and that in recent days are reported to be coming back.

As I write, Abdul Rashid Dostum, the notoriously ruthless leader of the Uzbek militia that controls the northern area around Mazar-e-Sharif, is hinting at going his own way and boycotting the interim government. Karim Khalili, who leads the Hazara Hizb-e-Wahadat party in the central highlands, is also reportedly dissatisfied with his role in the new arrangements in Kabul. However, both Dostum and Khalili are relatively secure in their own bases, unlike the Pashtun warlords in the south, some of whom have few or no affinities with the vil-lage mullahs and tribal chieftains who formed the social base of the Taliban in the countryside, and have even less support among the younger generation of Pashtuns in Pakistan which supported the Taliban. Subdued at present, the Pashtuns of the Taliban are likely to reemerge as strong players in the future, whatever new ideological banners they organize themselves under.

Much of what these and other supplanted Pashtuns do next will of course depend on the authority acquired by Karzai and his allies, and how they are treated in the country they have grown accustomed to ruling—the country which from their perspective is once again beholden to a foreign power, and in large part controlled by local warlords or the shaky coalition of the Tajik, Shiite Hazara, and Uzbek leaders, all of whom the Pashtuns of the Taliban see themselves as having comprehensively defeated in the past. For their part the non-Pashtun ethnic groups, who make up some 60 percent of the population, will resist any return to Pashtun domination.

In any case, humanitarian aid to Afghanistan seems a more urgent priority than political reconfiguration. The UN agencies have been warning of a human catastrophe: according to a statement by UNICEF in December, “Children are especially at risk. Almost 20 percent of the vulnerable population are children under the age of five. For them, hunger, illness, and cold conditions can easily lead to death. More than 100,000 Afghan children could perish in the next six months under the worst case scenario.” Up to 1.5 million more Afghans are expected to join the five million refugees in countries neighboring Afghanistan, particularly Pakistan, where the refugee camps are already full and seething with disease and disaffection.

Compared to the billions of dollars spent on the anti-Communist jihad, humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in the last five years has been meager: from 1996 to 1998 the UN received an average of $58 million from donor nations for its aid programs, less than half of what it asked for. Last year, even as news of famines and epidemics kept pouring in from Afghanistan, the fund-raisers got less than half of the $221 million they hoped to collect: the aid worked out to $5 per Afghan, in contrast to the $48 per capita allocation in Angola.

The bombing of Afghanistan that began in early October severely disrupted the supply of aid to Afghanistan from agencies based in Pakistan and Iran, leaving up to six million Afghans who were being fed by the World Food Project exposed to starvation. The opening of a new route from Uzbekistan may help more aid convoys to reach Afghanistan in time. But few of the hundreds of NGO staff members who, working invisibly in remote, dangerous areas, and braving the hostility of the Taliban, had helped the Afghans to cope with their devastated country have been available to distribute food and medicine. Things were expected to get better after the defeat of the Taliban, but the gratifying scenes of new social freedoms being experienced by Afghans in the cities have managed to obscure the increasingly bad news from the countryside, especially the northern provinces, large parts of which have been rendered inaccessible to aid agencies by lawlessness and banditry—conditions unlikely to be improved much by the arrival of UN multinational forces in Kabul. It is not clear whether the transitional government will have forces that will protect delivery of aid.

A report from Oxfam last year reported families in the remote western province of Badghis saying that “they would not leave their villages because they felt they had nowhere to go and, even if they thought there was an escape they felt they had no way of getting there.” When asked by the Oxfam representative what they planned to do, they said that “they expected to die.” Even a superhuman effort at humanitarian aid may not forestall this grim future for many Afghans as winter sets in and the hunt for bin Laden and Mullah Omar and the remaining al-Qaeda leaders goes on in the terrifying blankness of Afghanistan, among the derelict villages, the dried-up canals and wells, the rotting dead animals, and the barren fields and orchards which—still treacherous with tiny invisible mines, many of them dropped from Russian helicopters long ago—had been awaiting, until September 11, seeds and water.

December 20, 2001

This Issue

January 17, 2002