About two decades after the Taliban’s initial emergence, our mainstream narrative on Afghanistan still revolves around viewing them as the force that brought peace to that country when it was mired in a bloody civil war, and as the group that is resisting a foreign occupation today. Unfortunately, this narrative is badly flawed on several counts, and has been an important contributing factor in the confusion about our policy on Afghanistan and the problem of terrorism in Pakistan itself. The purpose of this piece is to offer some context in this regard.
Afghanistan was held together somewhat loosely by a weak centre but still enjoyed relative stability during the middle of the 20th century. However, things took a turn for the worse in the 1970s as both religious forces and communists started pushing to extend their influence. Both wanted to create their utopia by imposing their ideals on the nation. Apart from their challenge to the Afghan state, extremists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar also started carrying out atrocities like acid attacks on women who did not dress conservatively as per their wishes. Communists, on the other hand, were growing in their influence inside the armed forces and eventually grabbed power in 1978. In addition to their hostility towards religion, their imposition of land reforms and efforts to introduce education for women further alienated the conservatives, and as they resorted to a brutal crackdown on their opponents, more and more people joined the rebellion.
This situation sucked in the USSR, which was initially very reluctant to intervene, but then decided to do so in order to save the communist regime from a possible collapse. The Soviet Union hoped to quickly crush the uprising and pull out, but instead found itself caught in a long war. Eventually, it moved out without a negotiated settlement on a post-withdrawal ruling set-up as the US and Pakistan continued to egg on the Mujahideen to keep fighting instead of pursuing a peace deal.
The Russian exit, as we all know, did not result in peace. The Soviet Union continued to back the Mohammad Najibullah government, which they had left behind whereas Pakistan and the US went on supporting the Mujahideen in their bid to capture power. However, contrary to the predictions of an imminent fall of the Najibullah regime, the government was able to survive for a few years after the Soviet withdrawal. It only collapsed when the USSR broke up and stopped providing the annual support worth about $3 billion it had been extending to Najibullah. At that point, the Afghan forces started running out of basic supplies like fuel and money for salaries, and fell apart, with many soldiers even deserting to the Mujahideen. And then started a period of total anarchy in which there was barely any central authority as various Mujahideen factions fought each other instead of trying to bring peace to the country. Law and order completely broke down, warlords played havoc wherever they could, and there was rampant loot and plunder.
It was in this situation that the Taliban emerged from their madrassas. With the state having collapsed, they were able to quickly gain control of most of the country, and this way, there was finally some form of central authority and law and order. So if a truck carrying goods had to pay money in several different places to different groups of armed men while travelling from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and still face the danger of being looted, it would now only have to pay toll tax at one or two spots in the same journey and travel with relative safety when the Taliban came into power.
However, beyond this, the Taliban government was a complete disaster. It had no idea about state craft, and on top of it, the Taliban consisted of fanatics of the highest order who imposed very harsh punishments even for simple entertainment like watching TV, playing cards or listening to music. They let loose brutal vice and virtue squads on the people, and prevented girls from going to schools and women from leaving their homes unless accompanied by close male relations and covered from head to toe. So while they established central authority, the ‘peace’ they brought was essentially like that of a harsh prison. Even some of their most ardent apologists would never want to live under them.
To make matters worse, the Taliban started sponsoring militant groups including al Qaeda, as well as sectarian outfits in Pakistan. Instead of focusing on the reconstruction of their homeland, they eventually brought another war upon their country as the US invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, thus ending even the phase of prison-like peace they had established.
A lot has changed since then, and the shoe is effectively on the other foot today. Afghanistan does now have a government with some semblance of central authority, albeit an imperfect one. There is also a democratic process, even though it has its serious shortcomings and share of controversies like the one in the recently held presidential election. Human development indicators have improved too, and over 8.3 million Afghan children are enrolled in schools today, of which about 40 per cent are girls. In contrast, only about 1.2 million boys were enrolled in schools under the Taliban in 2001. Unlike the 1990s, when the Taliban established some ‘order’ in the midst of anarchy where the state had completely collapsed, today, they are the ones fighting to undermine the state and whatever hope of peace and prosperity it offers. Moreover, any gains for them would not only be disastrous for Afghanistan itself, but also create serious complications for Pakistan in its own struggle against terrorism, since Taliban-controlled areas in Afghanistan would inevitably serve as natural safe havens for TTP militants at a scale much larger than their current sanctuaries in that country.
Given this backdrop, it is about time we dumped the apologist narrative that the Afghan Taliban are the ‘good guys who brought peace to Afghanistan’ in the dustbin of history and start wholeheartedly supporting the constitutional set-up in Afghanistan. The Afghan people should not have to suffer another round of anarchy and state failure or a return to the savage rule of the Taliban they had to endure back in the 1990s.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 14th, 2015.