A war is taking place in Afghanistan, a country as mentally remote from most Americans as it is geographically distant. Already, this war has claimed American casualties—not directly on Afghanistan's battlefields but indirectly, by terrorists trained in that country. If the wrong side wins the war, the result could be the death of many more citizens of the United States and its allies.
The conflict is being waged by two sides: the Taliban and the United Front. The former, much the better known to Americans, is notorious for its draconian policies against females and ancient Buddhist statues, as well as its harboring of the U.S.-indicted terrorist Usama bin Ladin. The latter is an alliance of various groups, including Shura-ye Nezar, Jamiat-e Islami, Shura-ye Mashreqi, Wahdat-e Islami, and Jombush-e Melli, that represent all of Afghanistan's ethnic and religious groups; it controls about a quarter of the country's territory.1 Most of the United Front's leadership is made up of mujahidin (fighters of jihad) who had fought the Soviets in the decade after 1979; the head of the United Front's military wing is the noted Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Shah Mas‘ud.
Far from fighting a purely intra-Afghan civil war, the Taliban's goals and supporters extend far beyond the borders of Afghanistan. As such, thousands of foreign Muslim extremists have flocked to the movement's side. It is these radicals to whom the Taliban pander with the movement's most infamous acts—from destroying the famed Buddha statues, to striving to make women virtually invisible, to harboring terrorists. The Taliban is thus not merely a group that is a threat to Afghanistan but to the entire world, and one that the United States should take a more active and effective role in countering.
Profile of the Prisoners
To fight the United Front, the Taliban actively recruits non-Afghans. While Arabs and Pakistanis have been involved in Afghanistan's wars since the anti-Soviet campaign of the 1980s, today they are playing a more central role than in the past. This is evidenced by the fact that many more of them have lately been captured as prisoners of war than during the Soviet occupation.2
Afghans now view foreign fighters differently than in the past. In the 1980s, the Soviet invaders were foreign and so foreign allies were relatively more acceptable. Now that the Taliban target only Afghans, foreign assistance seems less justifiable. But, at the same time, Afghans waging war against Afghans is also seen as less acceptable and thus the Taliban is more reliant on its foreign volunteers.3
To find out more about these foreign soldiers, I traveled twice to Afghanistan, in October 1999 and March 2000. Since the Taliban do not make them available for interviews, I visited the 113 of them being held prisoner by the United Front. The following analysis is based on information gathered through direct interviews with many of these prisoners, as well as through prison records maintained by the United Front.
The foreign soldiers are recruited with the active support of several terrorist organizations, including bin Ladin's, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Harakat ul Ansar. Once inside Afghanistan, the recruits receive weapons training in Taliban camps and direct combat experience in fighting against the United Front.
There is a general belief that the Taliban's foreign supporters are young madrasa students. For instance, Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid, who has perhaps the most experience with the Taliban, writes in his book of how in 1997 and 1998 over a dozen madrasas in Pakistan closed to allow their students to fight for the Taliban.4 William Maley, in his comprehensive book on the Taliban, also identifies only Pakistani students as being sent to fight in Afghanistan.5 Students are only part of the picture; as Table 1 shows, slightly less than one-half of the prisoners report their profession as talib alim, or religious students. It bears noting that some of the prisoners were employed in professional fields.
||Number (Total Sample=103)
|Talib Alim or other student
|Other religious occupations
|Agricultural or manual labor
Further, the prisoners are not as young as one might expect from a group of so-called students (as reflected in Table 2). Even noting that most of these prisoners were captured more than a year ago, their average age (mid-twenties) is well above what one might expect.
||Number (Total Sample= 113)
|20 or younger
|21 - 25
All but four of the 113 foreign prisoners are Pakistanis; the others are from Yemen, Great Britain, and China. The very small number of Arab POWs compared to the thousands of them fighting for the Taliban inside Afghanistan is striking. Their zeal is probably the explanation; United Front commanders say that Arabs are difficult to capture because they often commit suicide when they realize they are surrounded.
Turning to the ethnicity of the Pakistani prisoners, it is noteworthy how wide a range of ethnic groups they include. Many reports assume that the Pakistanis are mostly, like the Taliban, Pushtuns. For instance, the Australian journalist Anthony Davis, who has reported on Afghanistan since the earliest days of the Soviet invasion, writes of "the Taliban's main recruitment base in the madrasas of Baluchistan and the Frontier Province"—Pakistan's two predominantly Pushtun areas.6 Ahmed Rashid, when identifying the madrasas as a primary source of Taliban volunteers, also implies their largely Pushtun student body when he describes how the curriculum in such schools is "heavily influenced by Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the Pashtuns."7 Pakistan's leader, Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf, has even defended Pakistan's policy of support for the Taliban on the basis of shared ethnicity between Pakistani Pushtuns and the Taliban's predominant Pushtun ethnicity.8
Most notable about the figures in Table 3, then, is that just 29 percent of the prisoners are Pashtun. One must conclude that there is something besides shared ethnicity that motivates the 71 percent of the foreign fighters who are not Pushtuns. What might that be?
||Number (Total Sample= 113)
Foreign Help: Pakistan
Many Western analysts note that the Taliban's battlefield victories would be impossible without substantial logistics and technical assistance from Pakistan's military.9 Western intelligence sources contend that in the fighting that took place in 2000, some regular units of Pakistan's army aided the Taliban in taking over the strategic city of Taloqan.10 The United Front has long alleged that regular Pakistani soldiers, disguised in civilian clothing, are fighting with the Taliban, and they have recovered a Pakistani military identity card from a Taliban corpse.
That the average prisoner is in his mid-twenties lends credibility to this charge. Although the prisoners I met all denied being a current member of the Pakistani armed forces, some of them did acknowledge that Pakistani officers trained them inside Afghanistan. One prisoner also asserted that he was directly recruited by Pakistan's military intelligence agency—the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate—to spy on the United Front.
In all, the thousands of Pakistani volunteers fighting on the Taliban's side, as well as the money and materiel the movement receives from Pakistan, have had a decisive impact on a war in which battles are frequently won on the basis of numbers alone. After some battles, United Front sources report that 40 to 50 percent of the corpses left behind by retreating Taliban have Pakistani civilian identity cards. And certainly Islamabad does nothing to stop the massive influx of its citizens into Afghanistan over borders which, at other times, the Pakistani government does a good job controlling. In November 1999, for instance, Pakistan instituted a crackdown on smuggling wheat into Afghanistan; it was so successful that the price of bread doubled in Kabul.
Foreign Help: Terrorist Organizations
Even more troubling than Pakistan's involvement is the open affiliation of the Taliban's foreign fighters with terrorist organizations. The Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan have become a magnet for terrorists seeking a safe haven, such as Usama bin Ladin, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad's Ayman Zawahiri, and those involved in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. The connections between these Afghanistan-based soldiers and terrorist groups around the world, taken together with their joint military training in Afghanistan, creates a network of contacts that spans the globe.
The prisoners I interviewed confirmed these terrorist affiliations. Nearly half their foreign fighters (as Table 4 shows) are affiliated with terrorist groups such as the Harakat organization, which includes the groups Harakat al-Ansar, Harakat al-Mujahidin, and Harakat al-Jihad. This organization has operated primarily in Kashmir where they have been fighting Indian troops and engaging in a variety of terrorism, some of it against Westerners. A subsidiary group of Harakat, al-Faran, was responsible for beheading a U.S. tourist in Kashmir in 1995 and its members likely also killed an additional American and several Europeans whom they took hostage in the same incident.11 Also, this network was behind the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane, on its way from Kathmandu to New Delhi, that resulted in the murder of one passenger. Ironically, the Taliban helped to negotiate the hijackers' demands with the Indian government when the hijackers directed the plane to land in Kandahar, the headquarters of the Taliban. After the hijackers' demands were met—in part because the Taliban refused to allow the Indians to launch a rescue effort—the Taliban soon "lost" the hijackers whom they were supposed to be escorting out of Afghanistan. So vital and integrated is Harakat in support of the Taliban, that the Taliban has given the group its own designated posts in front-line positions against the United Front, according to one prisoner's report.
|Harakat al-Ansar/ Mujahidin / Jihad
Foreign Prisoners Speak
I interviewed about two dozen of the mainly Pakistani prisoners; the following examples give a sense of the POWs' diversity:
Jawed Akhtar is typical in that he has Pakistani citizenship; he is atypical among the prisoners, however, in being forty-six years old and in speaking English relatively well. Unusual, too, is the story he tells. He says he was a teacher who came to Afghanistan just to "have a look." He was merely taking a sightseeing tour of the Taliban's front lines when his position was overrun by United Front forces. Prison records show that Jawed was carrying an AK-47 assault rifle when captured. When told that his tale is rather hard to believe, he replies firmly, "Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it."
‘Ubayd ‘Abd ar-Rahman is a Yemeni. Despite his three years as a prisoner of war, his kohl-rimmed eyes and cocky smile exude defiance. ‘Abd ar-Rahman says he was recruited to join the Taliban from his mosque in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, and the Pakistani-based group, Harakat al-Jihad paid for his travel to Afghanistan. After a brief training in small arms, ‘Abd ar-Rahman was dispatched to the front lines north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, and within months was captured. ‘Abd ar-Rahman was the most open of the prisoners in expressing violent sentiments; he told me that if he gets out of prison, he hopes to "kill Americans," even schoolchildren if that is what Islamic scholars order him to do.
Anwar Khan was born in Great Britain, and his Manchester accent contrasted oddly with his long, dark brown beard. According to Anwar, after he got into trouble with police in both Great Britain and Southeast Asia, his parents sent him to relatives in Peshawar, Pakistan, to "clean up his act." Soon after arriving in Peshawar, Anwar joined the terrorist group Harakat al-Ansar, which sent him to Afghanistan to fight the United Front. Pakistanis and Afghans trained him in the use of small arms and physical exercise at a camp in the Afghan capital, Kabul. But training bored him, and he left it early to join the fighting. Within months, he was captured by the United Front.
Nur Muhammad ‘Abdullah, an ethnic Uighur from the Kashgar region of China, reached the Taliban via a circuitous journey that began when the Islamic Party in China's Xinjiang province arranged for the twenty-eight year old ‘Abdullah to leave China and attend a madrasa (Islamic school) in Islamabad, Pakistan. After only a few months at the school, he joined the Taliban, and after a month's training in the use of assault rifles and heavy machine guns in a Kabul training camp, ‘Abdullah was sent to the front lines with several other Uighurs, where he was soon captured.
Though each of these men took a different path to their present condition as POWs, they share much in common. In particular, they are joined by their desire to enhance their extremist worldviews with military training. Most important, not one of the non-Afghan recruits plans to stay in Afghanistan for the long term; nearly all hope instead to take their new combat skills abroad in order to target their own governments, Americans, and Israelis.
Aims and Motives
The Harakat organization provides a good example of what attracts members of groups with seemingly diverse goals—from Palestinians to Filipinos—to the Taliban. Although the Harakat came into being in 1985 to fight Indian control of Kashmir, it has now expanded to include the struggle against the predominantly Sunni United Front in Afghanistan, because it needs Afghanistan as a secure rear base for its Kashmir struggle. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the current fighting in Afghanistan is that the United Front—an Islamic resistance movement—now finds itself the target of so-called Islamic militants who burn UF members' homes and kidnap their women, all in the name of Islamic purity.12 Yet the Afghans currently fighting against the Taliban still consider and refer to themselves as mujahidin. Muhammad Es'haq, the United Front's Washington, D.C. representative explains:
It's simple, really. The Taliban claim that they are fighting to establish Shari‘a [Islamic law], so, if we resist them, then we must be against Shari‘a. If we are against Shari‘a, then we are against Islam, and they can do whatever they want to our people.13
But are matters that simple? After all, the United Front resistance does implement Shari‘a—albeit in a more moderate version—in the areas it controls.For instance, though the authorities in United Front areas recognize that the Qur'an allows for the amputation of thieves' limbs, they do not enforce this punishment because much Islamic jurisprudence forbids such drastic measures when the thief could conceivably have committed the act out of necessity, as for instance, when there is such poverty as prevails throughout Afghanistan today. Es'haq shrugs. "Well, the Shari‘a is not the real reason the Taliban are fighting," he says.
Indeed, the Taliban's campaigns at times have had overtones of ethnic cleansing, targeting either non-Pushtun ethnic groups or Afghanistan's Shi‘a minority, in particular in a series of well-documented massacres in Mazar-e Sharif in 1998, in the Shamali region in 1999, around Taloqan in 2000, and in Bamiyan early in 2001. Yet the movement's main goal is the establishment of a radical Islamic state, one that provides safe haven for anti-U.S. terrorists from all over the world. This safe haven accounts for the foreign extremists' aid to the Taliban. The militants realize that the United Front represents the only viable threat to their security inside Afghanistan, (periodic ineffectual U.S. cruise missile strikes aside).
Several of the interviewed prisoners justified their involvement in Afghanistan by insisting that mosque imams or madrasa teachers had told them that Afghanistan had been invaded by infidel foreigners—Americans, Russians, or Indians. One prisoner said that he felt tricked and had no interest in fighting anymore. A handful of others, however, added that although they have no quarrel with the United Front, they still maintain a strong desire to take their jihad elsewhere. Afghanistan was not the first war for some, having fought in Kashmir and Tajikistan. With the military experience gained from Afghanistan, these prisoners stated, they fully intended to continue their jihad either at home or abroad, specifically against the United States and Israel.
Still others argued that their war against the United Front is justified because the Afghan opposition prevents the militants from establishing a secure base for their activities. One prisoner, for example, stated quite bluntly:
Afghanistan is the best base to establish our policies; for example, to do something about Palestine. We don't have the means to fight Israel at the moment, therefore we need a base where we can strengthen ourselves, but the United Front is creating problems for our future programs.14
Other foreign militants really do seem to believe that Afghans living in United Front areas are "bad Muslims." When probed on this assertion during my interviews, the prisoners stated that though their guards prayed five times a day and had beards, their beards were generally shorter than those of the Taliban. Furthermore, their captors spoke Persian and some wore Western-style pants, which the prisoners deemed to be "against the Qur'an." The prisoners noted that they had been told by "religious scholars" that "women had freedom" in United Front areas, a concept presumably alien to their idea of Islam.
It should not be surprising that these foreign fighters, though claiming to fight for Islam, are profoundly ignorant of their own religion. Few prisoners had more than a rudimentary primary education. It is difficult to measure their exact level of education since the prison records do not clearly state whether they studied at madrasas or some other type of school; it is also difficult to quantify their grade level with a Western equivalent.
What is known, however, is that the learning emphasized in Pakistani madrasas, which have trained not only many of these fighters but also much of the Taliban leadership, is primarily rote memorization.15 A true understanding of the Qur'an is not the purpose of these so-called schools, which seem to be successful only at churning out extremist-minded graduates. Because the overwhelming majority of these prisoners do not understand Arabic, they are especially vulnerable to their teachers' interpretation of the Qur'an. Moreover, their teachers are likely to have been educated in the very same system and thus be similarly lacking an educated knowledge of Qur'anic concepts and interpretation.One Chinese prisoner could understand neither the Arabic of the Qur'an nor the Urdu of his instructors and fellow students in an Islamabad madrasa. One wonders how he could have learned anything at all.
The combination of fanaticism and ignorance exemplified by these fighters makes for a mix that is welcomed—and shared—by Afghanistan's Taliban movement, firmly rooting it in the international network of Islamic extremism. Though Taliban envoys have been careful to hide their true sentiments when speaking with Westerners,16 their real opinions are becoming increasingly evident. Just one day before the terrorist suicide attack against the USS Cole, the Taliban embassy in Islamabad held a press conference during which the ambassador called on "other Muslim countries to wipe out the atrocities being meted out by the Zionist government" and denounced the United States for "harboring enmity with Islam."17 The Taliban's official newspaper, Shariat Weekly, shortly after the Cole attack and amidst rumors that the United States would again launch a missile attack against bin Ladin, defiantly urged that Israel "should be given a practical and tooth breaking response."18 The Taliban's foreign minister, Maulvi Abdul Wakil Mutawakkil, said that the Taliban would "retaliate with full force" if the United States were to strike again at bin Ladin.19
Although the Taliban and their supporters demonstrate an ignorance of Islam, they act with surprising sophistication on the international stage. For example, they have convinced the media to accept the claim that their government controls 95 percent of Afghanistan's territory, a claim that diminishes the United Front's viability. A map of Afghanistan, however, quickly shows that the Taliban controls less land than claimed, about three quarters of the country, though opposition fighters can roam freely even throughout much of this. Badakhshan province, for instance, is indisputably in the full control of the United Front, as is its link with the Panjshir valley approximately 100 kilometers north of Kabul. This area alone represents far more than 5 percent of Afghanistan's territory, and it does not include the portions of Takhar province and various central and western areas in which fighting is frequently taking place.
The Taliban have also cleverly manipulated the image of the Afghan mujahidin as lawless and incapable of orderly rule, arguing that while some of the Taliban's policies may seem harsh, at least they have brought an end to "anarchy." Yet several human-rights reports reveal that the Taliban commit atrocities—such as kidnapping women by the truckload—that exceed in scale even the supposedly chaotic period before the Taliban's rise.20 By contrast, visitors and inhabitants of the mujahidin areas prior to the Taliban's rule assert that the law and order situation in most areas was not nearly as bad as is commonly portrayed today. Moreover, a relatively good state of law and order prevails in areas held by the United Front today.
While the Taliban are quick to disassociate themselves from the behavior of the Afghan mujahidin during post-Soviet rule, they are quick to claim credit for the mujahidin's ousting of the Red Army in the first place. Taliban officials also frequently cite bin Ladin's minor role in helping fight the Soviets as the reason they shelter him, although they do not extend the same good will toward Afghans who did far more than bin Ladin to rid the country of Soviets, such as United Front leaders Ahmad Shah Mas‘ud and Isma‘il Khan.
The Taliban are in fact an internationally ambitious movement rather than a purely Afghan cause. Note that they continually complain about having insufficient funds to meet even the minimum humanitarian needs of their population, but they can still make a political gesture out of sending humanitarian aid to Iraq in violation of United Nations sanctions. (As it happens, that flight was aborted when Tehran refused to grant the Taliban permission to overfly Iran.)21 Even more telling is an incident related by Afghan expert Olivier Roy: When the Taliban forced Tajik opposition leader ‘Abdullah Nuri's plane to land in Afghanistan in 1997, Mullah ‘Umar urged Nuri to reject a power-sharing agreement with former communists. Instead, ‘Umar suggested that Nuri establish a base inside Afghanistan from which he could wage a war against the Dushanbe regime with the ultimate objective of creating a Taliban-like government in Tajikistan.22 Lastly, the Taliban's Foreign Minister has said that his movement's primary concerns and loyalties may not be with Afghanistan at all. For instance, he is outspoken in his belief that "the presence of American forces in the Gulf is unjustified" and has also noted that "Pakistan is our [the Taliban's] home."23
Even the ideological roots of the Taliban lie outside of Afghanistan. The movement's philosophy can be traced back to South Asia's version of Wahhabism, founded in Deoband, India, in the mid-nineteenth century. A puritanical and reformist movement, Deobandism flourished across South Asia, though its madrasas were not officially supported until the Pakistani government of Zia ul Haq. The schools did not begin to play a direct role in Islamabad's Afghan policy until the second administration of Benazir Bhutto and they were further strengthened under the subsequent regimes of Nawaz Sharif and Pervaiz Musharraf. Significantly, because such madrasas are sympathetic to the Wahhabi creed, they continue to receive ample financial support from Persian Gulf Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia.24
Usama bin Ladin's Role
The Taliban's increasing internationalism is particularly exemplified by its grant of safe haven to Usama bin Ladin. Bin Ladin had been active in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation but left after the Red Army's withdrawal. When he returned to the country in 1996, he first settled in an area neutral in the war between the United Front and the Taliban, though he and the Taliban quickly developed a mutual affinity, prompting bin Ladin to establish a new base for himself at the movement's headquarters in Kandahar. The Taliban have claimed that they have prevented him from playing any role in terrorism. (Contrarily, the U.S. government holds him responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa and likely the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.)
Yet it is certain that bin Ladin himself has become increasingly radicalized while with the Taliban. He issued his most notorious anti-American fatwa (decree) in 1998, calling on his followers to kill any American—civilian or military, adults or children—anywhere in the world. Also in 1998, it became known through an intercept of bin Ladin's satellite telephone calls, that he was linked to the embassy bombings in East Africa. The Taliban responded that they had taken away his communications equipment.
Apart from this, much has been rumored but little proven about bin Ladin's activities inside Afghanistan and the exact nature of his relationship with the Taliban. Taliban leader Mullah ‘Umar may have married one of bin Ladin's daughters. Pakistani papers at times have reported that bin Ladin visits Taliban troops on the front lines and the wounded in hospitals. He is also believed to have given money directly to the Taliban for their war and to have financed a so-called "bin Ladin brigade" of at least several hundred foreign fighters.25 He has also aided these fighters through the distribution of his "terrorist encyclopedia," which has been found on some of the Taliban killed or captured by the United Front.26 United Front military leaders claim that bin Ladin has offered rewards for their assassination.27
Bin Ladin's links also help the Taliban in other ways. For instance, it is conceivable that as Taliban leaders have become increasingly involved in the drug trade, bin Ladin's international network may have helped them in distributing these narcotics. Numerous terrorist-affiliated websites are certainly active in soliciting funds for the Taliban.28 As a symbol of defiance toward the United States and of adherence toward the cause of militant Islam, bin Ladin is also valuable to the Taliban as a source of donations from abroad, particularly from the wealthy Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.
Where the Taliban end and bin Ladin's Al-Qa‘ida organization begins is difficult to determine. Both the Taliban and Al-Qa‘ida are perhaps best viewed as links in the same chain of the international terrorist network. The Taliban have created an indispensable haven in Afghanistan, a base where extremists like bin Ladin and others can meet and plan future attacks in relative safety. The paramount importance of the Taliban's connection with bin Ladin is best described by the bin Ladin-affiliated website Azzam.com, which argues in a Taliban fundraising appeal that "the fall of an Islamic Afghanistan ... will be a calamity that will make other Muslim calamities look like nothing in comparison."29
Increasingly, the United States government is recognizing the integral role the Taliban play in the terrorist threat it faces. Washington spearheaded an effort to impose arms sanctions against the Taliban in January 2001. If implemented effectively, these sanctions could affect the Taliban's ability to make additional military gains against the United Front. But such sanctions are difficult to enforce given how deeply the Taliban already are involved in smuggling.30
What is needed therefore is a more comprehensive U.S. policy against the Taliban, one that correctly identifies the movement as an enemy of the United States. Since July 4, 1999, with then-president Clinton's executive order placing U.S. sanctions on the Taliban for harboring bin Ladin, the United States has made clear its displeasure with the Taliban.31 Yet this displeasure is not primarily aimed at the movement itself, but with its support for Usama bin Ladin. The 1999 sanctions require only that the Taliban cease their protection of bin Ladin—not any of its other activities in support of terrorism.32
Options for toughening U.S. policy against the Taliban include the following:
* Designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization. The Taliban are not cited as a state sponsor of terrorism because the United States does not wish to legitimize the movement as a state. Declaring the Taliban a terrorist organization, however, would avoid this obstacle while identifying its key role in support of terrorism, specifically aiding other terrorist groups such as Al-Qa‘ida, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Harakat al-Ansar/Mujahideen, Hamas, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Such a move would also help to frame overall U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and would prevent public relations tours of the United States such as that made in March 2001 by the Taliban foreign ministry official Rahmatullah Hashemi.
* Allow the United Front to reopen Afghanistan's Washington embassy. Currently, the United States joins such Taliban allies as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan in refusing to recognize the United Front's political arm, the Islamic State of Afghanistan (ISA), or permitting it to establish an embassy in Washington. The United States should instead follow the United Nations and its European allies in recognizing the ISA as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Doing so would end the ambiguity in Washington's policy toward the Taliban and boost the morale of the only Afghans currently fighting against the Taliban. It would also send a powerful message to the Taliban that Washington considers the movement to be an illegitimate representative of the Afghan people.
* Directly aid the United Front. To maximize the effectiveness of a policy against the Taliban, the U.S. government should provide the United Front with funding, perhaps from the more than $1 billion currently designated for counterterrorism.33 A relatively small fraction of this aid could have a significant impact in helping to reduce the territorial base of the Taliban and their terrorist allies. According to United Front commanders who were there, a major battle— the battle for Taloqan—was lost in September 2000 because of Taliban superiority in equipment and manpower. The lack of transport helicopters in particular played a vital role in the United Front's loss. At $1.5 million each, even a small increase in transport helicopter assets could turn the tide of the war in Afghanistan. It is also no secret that many of the Taliban's victories have been paved with dollars to purchase not only supplies, but also the loyalty of commanders who care little about who prevails, as long as they find themselves on the winning side.34
A more aggressive U.S. policy against the Taliban would demonstrate that Washington is serious about waging war on terrorism. This policy would also avoid the need to apply additional pressure on Pakistan for aiding the Taliban. Indeed, applying pressure to nuclear-armed Pakistan would only widen the growing rift between Washington and Islamabad and could have perilous consequences for regional stability. This is especially true given the growing Islamization of Pakistani society and the fragility of its government. By granting direct financial assistance to the United Front, Washington would not only roll back the gains of the terrorist sponsors in Kabul and Kandahar, it would also remove a serious destabilizing factor to Pakistan in particular and to the entire world in general.
At the memorial service for the crew members killed in the attack on the USS Cole, President Clinton vowed that those responsible for this act would be brought to justice, that they would find "no safe harbor." The Cole attack is particularly significant because it is arguably as much an act of war as an act of terrorism. The time has come for the U.S. government to declare war on the Taliban. Just as Washington worked with the Afghan mujahidin to help defeat the Soviet Union, so too could the United States now work with the Afghan opposition to defeat a new common enemy— terrorism.
Julie Sirrs, a former analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, made four trips into Afghanistan from 1997 to 2000, visiting both Taliban and United Front areas. She is currently vice president of Safehaven Productions as well as a consultant with Argus International.
1 Based on author's travels in the area; also Ahmed Rashid, "The Year 2000 in Afghanistan," The Nation, Dec. 27, 2000
2 E-mail communication with Olivier Roy, Jan. 15, 2001. author of several books on Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Political Islam who has traveled extensively in Afghanistan including during the Soviet occupation period
3 Testimony by Karl Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs before the U.S. Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, July 20, 2000, available at http://www.state.gov, archive.
4 Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 91-92.
5 William Maley, "Interpreting the Taliban," Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, ed. William Maley (New York: New York University Press, 1998), p. 12.
6 Anthony Davis, "How the Taliban Became a Military Force," Fundamentalism Reborn?, p. 60.
7 Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, p. 90.
8Ahmed Rashid, "Afghanistan and Pakistan's Pashtun Policy," The Analyst, June 3, 2000, at http://www.caci-analyst.org.
9 Davis, "How the Taliban Became a Military Force," pp. 69-71; Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, pp. 29, 39; Zalmay Khalilzad and Daniel Byman, "Afghanistan: Consolidation of a Rogue State," The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2000, p. 68.
10 Presentation by Olivier Roy, "Central Asia Caucasus Forum," Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., Oct. 19, 2000; Rory McCarthy, "Masood's Last Stand?" The Washington Times, Dec. 16, 2000
11 Patterns of Global Terrorism 1998 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 1999), p. 67.
12 U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report for Afghanistan, 1999 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Feb. 2000), pp. 2, 11-12, 19-20; United Nations' Commission on Human Rights Report for Afghanistan, 1999 (New York: United Nations, Jan. 2000), pp. 11-12.
13 Conversation with author, Rokha, Afghanistan, Oct. 1999
14 Pakistani prisoner Mohammed Khaled, in Panjshir prison, as seen on videotape
15 Jeffrey Goldberg, "Inside Jihad U.: The Education of a Holy Warrior," The New York Times Magazine, June 25, 2000
16 See, for example, the message from the Taliban leader to "the people of the United States of America" in November 1999, published in the Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 2000, p. 92-93
17 The Taliban's official website, at http://www.afghan-ie.com, Oct. 13, 2000
18 Shariat Weekly (Kabul), Oct. 24, 2000.
19 Tariq Butt, "Taliban to Retaliate If Attacked by U.S.," The News (Islamabad), Oct. 27, 2000
20 U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report for Afghanistan, 1999, pp. 19-20; United Nations' Commission on Human Rights Report for Afghanistan, 1999, p. 12; "Focus: Afghan Woman Tells of Torment, Seeks International Support," Kyodo Press, Jan. 12, 2001
21 "Taleban Say Iran Bars Afghan Flight to Iraq," Reuters, Oct. 1, 2000
22 Presentation by Olivier Roy, Johns Hopkins University's Central Asia Caucasus Forum, Washington, D.C., Oct. 19, 2000.
23 Tariq Butt, "Taliban to Retaliate If Attacked by U.S.," The News, Oct. 27, 2000
24 Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, p. 88-90.
25 Peter Bergen, "He Is Back ... Osama bin Laden Makes His Return," The Washington Times, Oct. 26, 2000
26 Reuel Gerecht, Talk, Sept. 2000; see also this issue.
27 Ahmad Shah Mas‘ud in a conversation with author, Bazarak, Afghanistan, Oct. 9, 1998; Mohammed Es'haq, the United Front's Washington, D.C. representative, in a conversation with author, Rokha, Afghanistan, Oct. 17, 1999.
28 See http://www.azzam.com; http://www.islamicjihad.com
29 At http://www.azzam.com, Jan. 9, 2001
30 Zalmay Khalilzad and Daniel Byman, "Afghanistan: Consolidation of a Rogue State," The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2000, p. 70.
31 "Taliban Pose a Danger to the United States," Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 1999, pp. 92-93.
32 "They [the Taliban] can choose to stop harboring bin Ladin, and these measures can be reversed." James B. Foley, State Department daily press briefing, Washington, D.C., July 6, 1999.
33 Ahmed Rashid, "The Year 2000 in Afghanistan," The Nation, Dec. 27, 2000
Related Topics: Central Asia, Radical Islam | Julie Sirrs | Summer 2001 MEQ
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing list
This text may be reposted or forwarded so long as it is presented as an integral whole with complete and accurate information provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.