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Don't Touch That Dial, Central Asia Will Be Right Back

11.25.2001 | BOOKS

By Ahmed Rashid
Yale Univ Press, 2001

At the beginning of September, two books were creating buzz in political science circles. Henry Kissinger's Does America Need A Foreign Policy? and John J. Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics were both anticipated tracts from conservative scholars of international relations, and both dealt with classical questions of world politics. But in the days after September 11th, the books suddenly seemed hopelessly behind the times, if not outright irrelevant. With nearly the entire world signed aboard the US-led "war on terrorism", with Russia proudly proclaiming solidarity with the West, with China stunningly silent on the arrival of US troops in Central Asia--could it be that the world had changed so fundamentally as to make traditional power politics an anachronism? Briefly, anything seemed possible. Theoretical questions about NATO expansion and off-shore balancing were forgotten as everyone scrambled to get a foothold in territory formerly occupied by a handful of lonely specialists: the sects of Islam, the myriad ethnic make-up of Central Asia, the history of Afghanistan. The Taliban itself, despite heated US demands that it deliver Osama Bin Laden, was before September 11th little more than a footnote for many politicos and commentators, to say nothing of the average western newspaper reading public.

During the last weeks of the World Trade Centers' existence, the third edition of Ashmed Rashid's Taliban quietly appeared in bookstores. Although the book was well received when first published in 2000, not even the author--who has long implored the world to pay closer attention to the region--could have imagined its timeliness. But just as the Taliban was thrust hard into the spotlight and onto the world's front pages, it was just as quickly transformed back into a footnote: this time not of current events, but of History. After a month of US-led bombing raids on Taliban positions, the Northern Alliance ignored orders and stormed Kabul, shifting the focus away from the nature and survival of the Taliban and toward the creation of a new Afghan government instead. Pride truly comes before a fall; like a brash and transient celebrity, the Taliban were gone almost as soon as they had been discovered.

But this rapid re-focus does little to lessen the value of Rashid's book, as his subtitle--Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia--makes plain. The book addresses not simply the Taliban, but also the larger regional issues that will come into greater play in Central Asia the near future. The end of the Taliban regime does not mark the end of the social forces that created it, and understanding the Taliban remains crucial to understanding the future of Central and Southern Asia, and of the Islamic world generally. Defined to a large degree by the ongoing scramble for oil, any investigation of the region also requires background on the ambitions and regional interests of Russia and China. Indeed, as the shock of September 11th dissipated, it became clear that the world had not changed so much after all, and the great power rivalries at play in Afghanistan's neighborhood offer more continuities with the past than they do departures. No global terror network is likely to change this anytime soon.

Ashmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who has been covering Afghanistan and Central Asia since 1979, and brings impressive qualifications to the subject, including well-placed contacts in regional governments, intelligence bodies and the oil industry. He was present when Soviet tanks first rolled into Kabul; it is hard to imagine someone as intimate with a story as Rashid is with modern Afghanistan.

Before plunging into his story, the author is careful to emphasize one thing: the stark images associated with recent Afghan history--Stinger missiles, destitution, public executions, bearded youths with Kalishnakovs aboard pick-up trucks, masked women--have no deep roots in the history of this ancient land. These phenomena are the products of the longest running civil war of the modern era and represent a distinct period, which began with the Soviet invasion. Since then, over 1.5 million Afghans have died war-related deaths, and a proud nation has been reduced to rubble. The richness of Afghan history is hard to overstate. A crossroads between Persia and the nomadic Turkic peoples of Central Asia, it is home to some of the oldest living cities on earth. It was through Afghanistan's famous routes, Rashid writes:

...that pilgrims and traders working the ancient Silk Route carried Buddhism to China and Japan. Conquerors swept through the region like shooting stars. In 329 BC the Macedonian Greeks under Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan and Central Asia and went on to invade India. The Greeks left behind a new, vibrant Buddhist-Greek kingdom and civilization in the Hindu Kush Mountains--the only known historical fusion between European and Asian cultures.

In the 19th century Afghanistan became the contested buffer zone between expanding Russian and British empires in Asia; it was the center square of the so-called "Great Game" between the two powers for influence in region. Both empires valued the country's communication and travel links to the east, and fought low intensity battles for them until 1917, when the Soviet Union sealed off its borders with the South. Only in the last quarter of the 20th century did it unseal them, and then only to invade, subverting Afghan independence and shattering a long relative peace.

The spark for the invasion was a split between two factions of the Afghan communist leadership in 1978. The rift led the Soviets to invade a year later, to prop up their side in a messy, tribal war they did not understand. Popular reaction to the invasion led to the creation of a national resistance movement and religious jihad, uniting disparate domestic groups against what the Afghans saw as Slavic infidels.

Here the story gets both more familiar and more complicated. Russia's Cold War enemies viewed the Mujaheddin resistance as a dagger with which to stab the USSR's soft underbelly, and Muslim leaders saw it as a way to forward Islamic unity and simultaneously rid themselves of their own rabble-rousers. And so the US, China and wealthy Arab States poured funds, weapons and personnel into the Afghan jihad. The pipeline for these resources was a series of networks overseen by the CIA and the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency. These networks supported the recruitment and training of Islamic militants to fight the holy war in Afghanistan. Oppressive Arab states, many facing internal opposition from fundamentalist factions, used the war to send discontented radicals abroad, and Pakistani embassies were instructed to give out visas to any Muslim who wanted to join the Mujaheddin. A motley lot, these fighters came to be known as Arab-Afghans, even though many were neither Arab nor Afghan. (Ironically, Wahabbi--an extreme form of Islam that arose in the 18th century--was practiced by these outsiders and made them hated by most Afghans).

The CIA and ISI stepped up their recruitment of these radicals in 1986, the same year the CIA began overseeing provocative guerilla attacks into Soviet Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. (In hindsight, the audacity of these incursions is astonishing: imagine if the KGB had been supervising Sandinista military operations over the Texas border.) The numbers of these recruits steadily grew, and were ultimately drawn from 43 Muslim countries.

[Radicals from] the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East would pass their baptism under fire with the Afghan Mujaheddin. Tens of thousands more foreign Muslim radicals came to study in the hundreds of new madrassas that [Pakistan] was funding along the Afghan border. Eventually more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the jihad.

It was in the madrassas (religious schools) that the radicals interacted, studied Islam and developed the strange new culture that would later horrify the world. These schools continue to be based in the cramped refugee camps that dot the Pakistani-Afghan border, and it is here that children continue to grow up under the influence of Mujaheddin veterans from around the world. Beginning in the 1980s, young boys have been taught a peculiar version of Prophet Mohammed's ideal Islamic society, and the ennobling power of all-male brotherhood. Fifteen years ago many in the camps were orphans who never knew the company of women; they were trained to be Spartan warriors and bred on war stories, poverty and a hard-line reading of the Koran. Products of devastation (much like the children who later became the butchers of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia), they grew up and became the shock troops of the Taliban, which is simply the plural form of talib, meaning "a student of Islam."

The Taliban can thus be seen as a sort of mutant ghetto student's revolution. These young men were second generation Mujaheddin who gathered around a few conservative and charismatic mullahs who promised to cleanse their home country. Because they were ignorant of all but the most extreme form of Islam, as well as of the history of their own country, they saw nothing strange when later they herded Afghan women indoors and roamed the streets to enforce mandatory beard lengths. As Taliban forces conquered major cities and solidified their power base in the mid-90s, the sophisticated urban culture of Islam--which had blossomed for centuries in Afghanistan--was crushed and forced underground. Considering the progressive and refined ways of Persian-influenced cities like Herat, the harsh Sharia law (a traditional Muslim religous law, with many interpretations and versions) and social bans imposed by the Taliban were especially painful for observers like Rashid to watch. For others, however, the spectacle was apparently not painful at all. Few outside Afghanistan appeared to care about what was happening.

One government conspicuously uninterested in the Taliban's early success was the United States. Officially, the US viewed the Taliban as a potential stabilizing force that, if fully in power, could end the civil war and allow for the construction of oil pipelines south through Afghanistan, bypassing Iran and Russia. (This remains a US foreign policy priority.) The State Department was backing the US energy firm Unocal, and shared the view that a strong Taliban would be good for America's strategic interests. For oil industry realists in Washington, the Taliban's Afghanistan was just a black box, a movable chess piece. As for the brutality of its society, the venomous anti-western propaganda it spewed, and its harboring of terrorists--those details were not deigned important enough to warrant interfering with business. And business was not in fact interrupted until women's groups forced the Taliban into Bill Clinton's narrow political imagination, and until Osama bin Laden was linked to the US embassy bombings of 1998. At that point the Taliban was rightly condemned, but the change in policy was late in coming and for most of the decade the US line was represented by the statements of a senior diplomat quoted by Rashid. "The Taliban," said the US official, "will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that."

No doubt the State Department could live with it just fine. But it was a blind, willful fantasy to think Afghanistan's neighbors could do the same. The obvious factor the US failed to understand, says Rashid, was that the Taliban could never bring peace to Afghanistan, and was extremely destabilizing for the whole region. It was especially antagonistic to Iran and Russia, which remain the two key states to be mollified before any successful Central Asian pipeline project can be built. Uninterested in playing a sustained role in peace-making in the region, or of thinking through the ramifications of backing the hated Taliban--flooding the region with heroin, acting as a base for Islamic militants to threaten its neighbors, antagonizing local powers--the US should not have been shocked when it finally became painfully obvious that the regime was bad, bad news with no chance of bringing peace and stability to the country.

The last three powers to support the Taliban have each regretted their illusions. The Mujaheddin army and culture, a genie that granted wishes to Pakistan, the Saudis and the US, grew into a monster that could not be put back in the bottle. Neither the US nor the Saudis ever imagined the radicals they sent abroad and trained would regroup and target their creators--the so-called "blowback" effect that reached such a terrible climax on September 11th. Pakistan, or at least that part of Pakistan that does not favor a hard-line Islamic revolution, is also paying the price for fuelling the forces that led to the Taliban. "Ten years of active involvement in the Afghan war has changed the social profile of Pakistan to such an extent," writes Paul Kennedy, "that any government faces serious problems in effective governance. Pakistani society is now more fractured, inundated with sophisticated weapons, brutalized due to growing civic violence and overwhelmed by the spread of narcotics." Rashid documents how the border between the two states has all but disappeared, and smuggling through Afghanistan now threatens to undermine the Pakistani economy. As for drugs, Pakistan had close to zero heroin addicts in 1979, and now has over five million. (This trade was started under CIA-ISI auspices in the 1980s, and US DEA officers were told to back off the Central Asian smack trail for reasons of "national security." The same sad story was being played out in Central America at the time).

Together with drugs, the Taliban's training of Islamic militants is the second major "spillover" that continues to threaten regional security. Armies of heavily armed and uncompromising religious warriors are scourges on any healthy government. Only Pakistan remained ambivalent on this to the end; the Taliban hosted training camps for Kashmiri militants, and could thus be made a convenient scapegoat for Indian charges against Pakistan. But there were no other states with anything to gain from the harboring of Islamic radicals and declared terrorists in Afghanistan.

It is thus not surprising that most of Central Asia, by the early 1990s, was imploring the United States to pay closer attention of the Taliban. Nor is it not terribly surprising that the US chose not to do so until the African embassy bombings of 1998, when America finally realized the size of the threat posed by Bin Laden's Al Qaeda ("Military Base") network. Al Qaeda has reserved its most horrific and spectacular operations for American targets, but it would be a mistake to construe the organization as primarily a danger to the United States. It remains the countries on Afghanistan's borders that have more immediate reason to fear the Taliban and its ideology. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and especially Pakistan--home to 80,000 Taliban trained militants--all face neo-Taliban groups that reject any accommodation with moderate Islam or the west. Countries banking on oil wealth to pull them out of poverty, says Rashid, face only more war and instability so long as the fundamentalism that festered and spread from the Taliban is a force in the region.

Rashid closes his book with a frightening warning to the rest of the planet. Unless the pole-positioning of the great powers for Central Asian oil is matched by an ongoing commitment to social development and conflict resolution, the world faces a double-whammy. Not only will secure oil pipelines remain elusive, but the spillover of continuing war and poverty in the region will also have grave effects on international security. Unless a just and lasting peace is hammered out in post-Taliban Afghanistan, and unless the roots of fundamentalism are understood and snipped, then Pakistan will face a Taliban-style Islamic revolution, one that will further destabilize it and the entire region. Iran will remain on the periphery of the world community, and its eastern borders will continue to be wracked by instability. The Central Asian states will not be able to deliver their energy, and as their economies crash, they will face an Islamic upsurge. Russia will continue to bristle with hegemonic aims in Central Asia even as its own society and economy crumbles.

Central Asia is no longer a remote corner of the world. It is center stage for the most high stakes game of the new century. It holds nuclear states, failed states, and the world's last remaining untapped reserves of oil. It is also seething with the religious fervor of would-be revolutionaries who subscribe to the Taliban's style of no-compromise Islam. Unless the international community mobilizes its intellectual and financial resources to face this dangerous reality head-on, the road ahead will be even rockier. Fasten your seatbelts.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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