April 25, 2007.
I hear time and time again from the news media, and from those who parrot what they say, that before the Taliban rose to power Afghanistan was in a state of chaos and anarchy. In this Hobbesian “state of nature” (yes political philosophers, I acknowledge the popular misinterpretation of “Hobbesian”), brutality and misery abounded. But when the Taliban appeared out of “nowhere” the people rejoiced and basked in the security provided by the benevolent religious students. To sum up, with less sarcasm and hyperbole, many journalists and commentators believe that a war-weary population universally terrorized by warlords and militias throughout Afghanistan welcomed the Taliban and the security they provided.
However, the facts on the ground contradict this ridiculous lie. I call it a ridiculous lie because the “pre-Taliban chaos” myth is basically Pakistani ISI and Taliban propaganda. Furthermore, The US State Department actually helped promote this propaganda. William Maley notes “…the US State department had responded to the Taliban takeover of Kabul in a way which was frightening in its sheer naiveté” (Maley 2001: vi).
So what is my argument? It is the same argument that has a high level of consensus among those who have Afghanistan included in their claimed areas of expertise: that the vast majority of the country was not in a state of anarchy. I’m going make the argument and I’m going to do it with MLA style citations because I’m somewhat computer and wordpress illiterate.
So where was there anarchy? Actually just in Kandahar city and the surrounding area. According the Anthony Davis this was the only part of the south where chaos and anrchy were endemic (Davis 1998: 46, 51-2). Davis notes “the later tendency to portray the religious students as having swept the south on a wave of popular adulation with scarcely a shot being fired has strayed from the factual record” (Davis 1998: 55). Davis goes on to analyze the areas outside of the Kandahar region: “in most other areas the Taliban laid down ultimata and fought their way into regions that were at peace, and in many instances – Qari Baba’s Ghazni and Ismail Khan’s Herat – recognized as being relatively well administered. Ironically, administration, services and schooling in these regions were far in advance of anything delivered by the Taliban. Their energies were focused exclusively on war” (Davis 1998: 55).
What is indisputable is that Herat and western Afghanistan, Mazar-i Sharif, Kunduz, Taloqan and the entire north, Bamiyan and the Hazarajat, The Shomali Plains, the Panjshir, as well as many other cities and regions were not in need of “rescue” by the Taliban. And the Taliban rescue of many of these areas was quite strange indeed. In Mazar-i Sharif the Taliban raped and murdered thousands of civilians, with the Hazaras being specifically targeted, but with Tajiks and Uzbeks also being victimized (Department of State 1999). The Taliban commanders who took Mazar claimed that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had given them permission to take revenge and carry out massacre for two hours. They turned a couple of hours into several days (Goodson 2001: 86, 132). In general, during the northern campaigns Taliban soldiers targeted and killed Uzbeks and other civilians in what UN investigators say were ethnically motivated actions.
Before the arrival of the Taliban much of the north was run by Rashid Dostum (Rieck 1997: 125, 127). Before the Taliban invaded, the north was mostly unaffected by the civil war (Rasanayagam 2003: 154; Williams 2003). Dostum’s area of control in the northwest had commercial relations with Central Asia, functioning schools, as well as thriving local media (Shahrani 2002: 719). By 1997 Dostum was collecting taxes as well as operating a legal courts system (Maley 2002: 209). Dostum even printed bank notes between 1994 and 1996 (Rubin 2000 :1793) Dostum’s administration also operated health and educational systems, including the only functioning university in Afghanistan at the time (Rashid 2000a: 57). The administration was relatively effective because Dostum had left in place most of the administrative structures in its areas of control remaining from the Soviet era (Rieck 1997: 125, 127).
Conrad Schetter puts Dostum’s area of control in the same category as Ismail Khan’s. Dostum and Ismail Khan actually had administrative structures on a broad regional basis, albeit fragile. They were not just a city or valley stronghold (Schetter 2002: 113). Another stable area was Rabbani’s area of control in Badakhshan. But I won’t get into a discussion here since I am a little short on sources for the north-east.
So how about the Hazaras? I would argue that the Hazarajat was not in any state of anarchy. And according to Human Rights Watch, the Hazaras were most unappreciative of the benevolent Taliban rescuing them from anarchy. I guess that’s why the 2001 HRW report is titled “Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan.”
OK, so the Hazaras and Uzbeks had relative security before the Taliban and did not welcome the Taliban’s arrival. How about Tajiks? Well, stable and prosperous Herat has been dealt with. How about the Panjshiri Tajiks? They revere Massoud and hated/hate the Taliban. The only conflict in the Panjshir was when the Taliban would aerial bomb the place. And out in the Shomali plains the Taliban followed a “scorched earth policy.” Orchards and crops were destroyed, houses burned, irrigation bulldozed, people executed, etc… I’m not even going to bother to come up with a citation for this. It is a universally acknowledged fact that the Taliban destroyed the area.
But I will cite one story, the story of the Taliban’s sex-slave trade in girls, particularly Tajik girls from Shomali plains. It’s sickening (McGirk and Bloch 2002). According to the UN, The State Department, and other sources, Tajik girls from Taloqan and the Shomali plains as well as Hazara girls from Mazar were sold as sex-slaves to Pakistani and Arab brothels (Dubai in particular). There are also human trafficking NGOs who have “good” info on this.
Well, on to the more complicated issue of Kabul. Kabul was most definitely not in a state of anarchy as was Kandahar. But you will probably point out that there was factional fighting that claimed many lives in Kabul. This is true. However, it was less true by the time the Taliban arrived. The lines of control had mostly stabilized. We could argue over the meaning of “anarchy” until we are blue in the face. So I’ll move to the perception of the Taliban by Kabulis. Taliban fighters believed their own propaganda and were surprised and disappointed that Kabulis did not view them favourably as had Kandaharis. (Davis 1998: 56). The minorities strongly opposed the Pashtun Taliban (Goodson 2001: 124; Saikal 1998b: 119). The non-Pashtuns (and many Pashtun as well) viewed the Taliban’s idea of a state to be “extremely violent, intolerant and primitive” (Rais 1999: 6). So in a bid to win over Kabulis the Taliban rocketed Kabul’s civilian areas. “Long gone were the days of Taliban moral ascendancy when their leaders had vowed they would never rocket civilian populations” (Rais 1999: 64).
I’ll leave it to William Maley to sum up the Taliban’s campaign in a paraphrase of Tacitus: “While the Taliban attempted to legitimate their power by reference to their provision of ‘security’, with the passage of time it became clear that….they had made a wilderness and called it peace’ (Maley 2001: vi).
So why does this myth persist? I would guess it is a combination of several factors:
#1 Poor journalism.
#2 Deliberately deceptive journalism.
#3 Successful early Taliban and Pakistani ISI propaganda.
#4 Domestic political priorities in Europe, USA and Canada whereby people will use anything to attack their political opposition (i.e., “The Taliban delivered security but you can’t do that even after 6 years in the country).
#5 Islamists outside Afghanistan who champion the Taliban as a way of voicing protest against Western and Middle Eastern government’s policies.
#6 Intellectual laziness.
PS: Don’t take this blog entry as an apology for pre-Taliban leaders. They were a mischevious and incompetent bunch. And note that I do acknowledge the present poor security environment for the people of Afghanistan.
Davis, Anthony. 1998. ‘How the Taliban became a Military Force’, in William Maley (editor) Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. New York: New York University Press.
Department of State. 1999. ‘Afghanistan: Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999’, US Department of State. Available online at: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/1999/431.htm
Drumbl, Mark A. 2002. ‘The Taliban’s ‘other’ crimes’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 6, pp. 1121-1131.
Goodson, Larry. 2001. “Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban.” Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Human Rights Watch. November 1998. Vol. 10, No. 7 (C) ‘AFGHANISTAN: THE MASSACRE IN MAZAR-I SHARIF’, http://www.hrw.org/reports98/afghan/
Human Rights Watch. February 2001. ‘Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan’ online at: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/afghanistan/
Maley, William. 2002. “The Afghan Wars.” New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Maley, William. 1998 1st edition, 2001 2nd. ‘Preface: Afghanistan and the Taliban 1998-2001 ’, in William Maley (editor) “Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban.” New York: New York University Press. 2nd edition, 2001
McGirk, Tim and Hannah Bloch. 2002. ‘Lifting the veil on Taliban sex slavery’, Time magazine, February 10, 2002.
Rais, Rasul Bakhsh. 1999. ‘Conflict in Afghanistan: Ethnicity, Religion and Neighbours’, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1999), pp. 1-12.
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Rieck, Andreas. 1997. ‘Afghanistan’s Taliban: An Islamic Revolution of the Pashtuns’ in Orient, Vol. 38, No. 1.
Rubin, Barnett R. 2000. ‘The Political Economy of War and Peace in Afghanistan’, World Development, Vol. 28, No. 10, pp. 1789-1803.
Saikal, Amin. 1998. ‘The Rabbani Government, 1992-1996’, in William Maley (editor) “Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban.” New York: New York University Press.
Schetter, Conrad. 2002. ‘The ‘Bazaar Economy’ of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Approach’, in Christine Noelle-Karimi, Conrad Schetter and Reinhard Schlagintweit (editors) “Afghanistan - A Country without a State?” Frankfurt am Main, Germany: IKO- Verlag fur Interkulturelle Kommunikation.
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Williams, Brian Glyn. 2003. ‘Rashid Dostum: America’s Secular Ally in the War on Terror’, Terrorism Monitor. Vol. 1, Issue 6 (November 20, 2003). Available online at: