Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Chapter 2)

Part 1 History of the Taliban Movement

Chapter 2

In March 1995, on the northern edge of the Dashte-e-Mango-the Desert of Death-plumes of fine white dust rose in the air above the narrow ribbon of the battered highway that connects Kandahar with Herat, 350 miles away. The highway, built by the Russians in the 1950s skirted through the brush and sands of one of the hottest and most waterless deserts in the world. After years of war, the highway was now rutted with tank tracks, bomb craters and broken bridges, slowing down the traffic to just 20 miles an hour.

The Taliban war wagons-Japanese two-door pick-ups with a stripped-down trunk at the back open to the elements-were streaming towards Herat laden with heavily armed young men in their bid to capture the city. In the opposite direction a steady flow of vehicles was bringing back wounded Taliban lying on string beds and strapped into the trunk as well as prisoners captured from the forces of Ismael Khan who held Herat.

In the first three months after capturing Kandahar, the Taliban had broken the stalemate in the Afghan civil war by capturing 12 of Afghanistan’s 31 provinces and had arrived at the outskirts of Kabul to the north and Herat in the west. Taliban soldiers were reluctant to talk under the gaze of their commanders in Kandahar so the only way to learn something about them was to hitch lifts along the road and back again. In the confines of the pick-ups where a dozen warriors were jam-packed with crates of ammunition, rockets, grenade launchers and sacks of wheat, they were more than eager to share their life stories.

They said that since the capture of Kandahar some 20,000 Afghans and hundreds of Pakistani madrassa students had streamed across the border from refugee camps in Pakistan to join Mullah Omar. Thousands more Afghan Pashtuns had joined them in their march northwards. The majority were incredibly young-between 14 and 24 years old-and many had never fought before although, like all Pashtuns, they knew how to handle a weapon.

Many had spent their lives in refugee camps in Baluchistan and the NWFP provinces of Pakistan, interspersed with stints at imbibing a Koranic education in the dozens of madrassas that had sprung up along the border run by Afghan mullahs or Pakistan’s Islamic fundamentalist parties. Here they studied the Koran, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed and the basics of Islamic law as interpreted by their barely literate teachers. Neither teachers nor students had any formal grounding in maths, science, history or geography. Many of these young warriors did not even know the history of their own country or the story of the jihad against the Soviets.

These boys were a world apart from the Mujaheddin whom I had to know during the 1980s-men who could recount their tribal and clan lineages, remembered their abandoned farms and valleys with nostalgia and recounted legends and stories from Afghan history. These boys were from a generation who had never seen their country at peace-an Afghanistan not at war with invaders and itself. They had no memories of their tribes, their elders, their neighbours nor the complex ethnic mix of peoples that often made up their villages and their homeland. The boys were what the war had thrown up like the sea’s surrender on the beach of history.

They had no memories of the past, no plans for the future while the present was everything. They were literally the orphans of the war, the rootless and the restless, the jobless and the economically deprived with little self-knowledge. They admired war because it was the only occupation they could possibly adapt to. Their simple belief in a messianic, puritan Islam which had been drummed into them by simple village mullahs was the only prop they could hold on to and which gave their lives some meaning. Untrained for anything, even the traditional occupations their forefathers such as fanning, herding or the making of handicrafts, they were what Karl Marx would have termed Afghanistan’s lumpen proletariat.

Moreover, they had willingly gathered under the all-male brotherhood that the Taliban leaders were set on creating, because they knew of nothing else. Many in fact were orphans who had grown up without women-mothers, sisters or cousins. Others were madrassa students or had lived in the strict confines of segregated refugee camp life, where the normal comings and goings of female relatives were curtailed. Even by the norms of conservative Pashtun tribal society, where villages or nomadic camps were close-knit communities and men still mixed with women to whom they were related, these boys had lived rough, tough lives. They had simply never known the company of women.

The mullahs who had taught them stressed that women were a temptation, an unnecessary distraction from being of service to Allah. So when the Taliban entered Kandahar and confined women to their homes by barring them from working, going to school and even from shopping, the majority of these madrassa boys saw nothing unusual in such measures. They felt threatened by that half of the human race which they had never known and it was much easier to lock that half away, especially if it was ordained by the mullahs who invoked primitive Islamic injunctions, which had no basis in Islamic law. The subjugation of women became the mission of the true believer and a fundamental marker that differentiated the Taliban from the former Mujaheddin.

This male brotherhood offered these youngsters not just a religious cause to fight for, but a whole way of life to fully embrace and make their existence meaningful. Ironically, the Taliban were a direct throwback to the military religious orders that arose in Christendom during the Crusades to fight Islam-disciplined, motivated and ruthless in attaining their aims.(1) In the first few months the sweeping victories of the Taliban created an entire mythology of invincibility that only God’s own soldiers could attain. In those heady early days, every victory only reinforced the perceived truth of their mission, that God was on their side and that their interpretation of Islam was the only interpretation.

Reinforced by their new recruits, the Taliban moved north into Urozgan and Zabul provinces which they captured without a shot being fired. The marauding Pashtun commanders, unwilling to test their own supporter’s uncertain loyalty, surrendered by hoisting white flags and handing
over their weapons in a mark of submission.

In the south the Taliban moved against the forces of Ghaffar Akhunzadeh, whose clan had controlled Helmand province and its lucrative opium poppy fields for much of the 1980s. Here they met with fierce resistance, but by propping up smaller drug warlords against Akhunzadeh and bribing others, the Taliban captured the province by January 1995. They continued westwards reaching Dilaram on the Kandahar-Herat highway and the border of the three western provinces controlled by Ismael Khan. At the same time they moved north towards Kabul, easily slicing through the Pashtun belt where they met with more mass surrenders rather than resistance.

The chaotic and anarchic Pashtun south, where there was only a mob of petty commanders, had fallen to the Taliban easily, but now they came up against the major warlords and the political and ethnic complexities that gripped the rest of the country. In January 1995 all the opposition groups had joined hands to attack President Rabbani’s government in Kabul. Hikmetyar had allied with the Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum in the north and the Hazaras of central Afghanistan who held portion of Kabul. Pakistan had helped broker the new alliance as Hikmetyar was still Islamabad’s clear favourite and at the beginning of the year he had received large quantities of Pakistani-supplied rockets to bombard the capital. But even Islamabad was surprised by the rapid Taliban advance. Although the Bhutto government fully backed the Taliban, the ISI remained sceptical of their abilities, convinced that they would remain a useful but peripheral force in the south.

Hikmetyar was clearly worried by this rival Pashtun force sweeping up from the south and tried to halt the Taliban while at the same time launching massive rocket attacks against Kabul, which killed hundreds of civilians and destroyed large tracts of the city. On 2 February 1995, the Taliban captured Wardak, just 35 miles south of Kabul and Hikmetyar’s bases around Kabul came under threat for the first time. The Taliban continued to advance in lightning moves, capturing Maidan Shahr on 10 February 1995, after heavy fighting which left 200 dead, and Mohammed Agha the next day. Hikmetyar was now trapped by government forces to the north and the Taliban to the south; morale among his troops plummeted.

On 14 February 1995 the Taliban captured Hikmetyar’s headquarters at Charasyab, creating panic among his troops and forcing them to flee eastwards towards Jalalabad. President Rabbani’s troops, under his sword-arm Ahmad Shah Masud, withdrew into Kabul city. The Taliban then opened all the roads, allowing food convoys to reach Kabul after the months of blockade imposed by Hikmetyar. It was a popular step, raising the Taliban’s prestige amongst the sceptical citizens of Kabul and fulfilled a key demand of the transport mafia backing the Taliban. Appeals for a cease-fire by the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, the Tunisean diplomat Mehmoud Mestiri, were ignored as Masud and the Taliban now confronted each other.

Masud had another problem even closer to home. Although Hikmetyar had been forced to flee, Masud still faced the forces of the Shia Hazaras under the Hizb-e-Wahadat party, which held the southern suburbs of the capital. Masud tried to buy time and met twice with the Taliban commanders, Mullahs Rabbani, Borjan and Ghaus at Charasayab. These meetings were the first time that the Taliban were to meet with their greatest rival, who was to persist in punishing them for the next four years. The Taliban demanded Rabbani’s resignation as President and Masud’s surrender—hardly a negotiating stance that would win them support. The Taliban also began negotiating with the Hazaras.

The Taliban also met with Mestiri, the UN mediator, setting down three conditions for their participation in any UN-sponsored peace process. They demanded that their units form a ‘neutral force’ in Kabul, that only ‘good Muslims’ form an interim administration in Kabul and that representation be given to all 30 provinces in the country. The Taliban’s insistence that only their forces dominate any new government in Kabul, obliged the Rabbani government and the UN to reject their demands.

Masud decided to deal with his enemies one at a time. On 6 March 1995, he launched a blitzkrieg against the Hazaras, sending tanks into Kabul’s southern suburbs, smashing the Hazaras and driving them out of Kabul. In desperation the Hazaras cut a deal with the advancing Taliban, yielding their heavy weapons and positions to them. But in the ensuing handover and melee, the Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari was killed while in Taliban custody. The Hazaras subsequently claimed that Mazari was pushed out of a helicopter to his death by the Taliban, because he tried to seize a rifle while he was being taken to Kandahar as a prisoner.

The death of Mazari, accidental or intentional, was to forever condemn the Taliban in the eyes of the Afghan Shias and their main patron Iran. The Hazaras were never to forgive the Taliban for Mazari’s death and took their revenge two years later, when the Hazaras massacred thousands of Taliban in the north. A bloody ethnic and sectarian divide, between Pashtun and Hazara, Sunni and Shia bubbling just below the surface now came into the open.

In the meantime Masud was not going to allow the Taliban to replace the Hazaras in southern Kabul. On 11 March 1995 he launched another punishing attack, pushing the Taliban out of the city after bloody street fighting that left hundreds of Taliban dead. It was the first major battle that the Taliban had fought and lost. Their weak military structure and poor tactics ensured their defeat at the hands of Masud’s more experienced fighters.

The Taliban had won over the unruly Pashtun south because the exhausted, war-weary population saw them as saviours and peacemakers, if not as a potential force to revive Pashtun power which had been humiliated by the Tajiks and Uzbeks. Many surrenders had been facilitated by pure cash, bribing commanders to switch sides-a tactic that the Taliban were to turn into a fine art form in later years and which was sustained by the growth in their income from the drugs trade, the transport business and external aid from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In their advance they had also captured massive quantities of small arms, tanks and even helicopters enabling them to deploy more troops. In the areas under their rule, they disarmed the population, enforced law and order, imposed strict Sharia law and opened the roads to traffic which resulted in an immediate drop in food prices. These measures were all extremely welcome to the long-suffering population. The defeat in Kabul came as a major blow to the Taliban’s prestige, but not to their determination.

The Taliban then turned their attention to the west in a bid to capture Herat. By late February 1995 after heavy fighting they captured Nimroz and Farah, two of the provinces controlled by Ismael Khan and advanced on the former Soviet airbase at Shindand, south of Herat. The Kabul regime was clearly worried by the Taliban advance and Ismael Khan’s failure to hold the line against them. Masud’s aircraft from Kabul began a bombardment of the Taliban front lines while he airlifted 2,000 of his battle-hardened Tajik fighters from Kabul to help defend Shindand and Herat. With no airpower, poor logistical support from their bases in Kandahar and a weak command structure, the Taliban began to take heavy casualties as they mounted assaults on government positions around Shindand.

By the end of March 1995, the Taliban had been pushed out of Shindand. They retreated losing most of the territory they had captured earlier, suffering at least 3,000 casualties. Hundreds of wounded were left in the desert to die because the Taliban had no medical facilities at the front and their lack of logistics made it impossible for them to provide water and food to their troops. “We have never seen such an inhospitable environment. Every day we are bombed, 10 to 15 times. There is no food or water and my friends have died of thirst. We lost communication with our commanders and we don’t know where our other troops are. We ran out of ammunition. It was a great misery,” Saleh Mohammed, a wounded Taliban told me, as he was transported back to Kandahar.(2)

The Taliban had now been decisively pushed back on two fronts by the government and their political and military leadership was in disarray. Their image as potential peacemakers was badly dented, for in the eyes of many Afghans they had become nothing more than just another warlord party. President Rabbani had temporarily consolidated his political and military position around Kabul and Herat. By May 1995 government forces directly controlled six provinces around Kabul and the north, while Ismael Khan controlled the three western provinces. The Taliban’s initial control over 12 provinces was reduced to eight after their defeats. But Herat continued to remain a tantalizing prize, not just for the Taliban, but for the Pashtun transport and drugs mafias who were desperately keen to open up the roads to Iran and Central Asia through Herat for their business.

Few Mujaheddin commanders had the prestige of Ismael Khan and few had sacrificed more than the people of Herat during the war against the Soviets. Ismael Khan was an officer in the Afghan army when the Russi-axis invaded Afghanistan and he had strong Islamic and nationalist leanings. When the Soviets occupied Herat, they viewed the Persian-speaking Heratis as docile and unwarlike and the most cultured of all Afghans. The last time the Heratis were forced into a fight had been more than a century earlier when they had resisted a Persian invasion in 1837. Fearing no resistance, the Soviets developed the Shindand airbase as their largest airbase in Afghanistan and allowed the families of their army officers to settle in Herat.

But on 15 March 1979, the population of the city rose up against the Soviets in an unprecedented urban revolt. As the population killed Soviet officers, advisers and their families, Ismael Khan staged a coup in the city garrison, killing Soviet and communist Afghan officers and distributing arms to the people. Hundreds of Russians were killed. Moscow, fearing copycat uprisings in other Afghan cities, sent 300 tanks from Soviet Turkmenistan to crush the revolt and began to bomb one of the oldest cities in the world indiscriminately. Fifteen years later, large tracts of the city still looked like a lunar landscape with rubble stretching to the horizon. More than 20,000 Heratis were killed during the next few days. Ismael Khan escaped to the countryside with his new guerrilla army and tens of thousands of civilians fled to Iran. For the next decade Ismael Khan waged a bitter guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation and set up an effective administration in the countryside, winning the respect of the population. This was to prove invaluable to him when he was to re-establish himself in Herat after the departure of Soviet troops.

Herat was the cradle of Afghanistan’s history and civilization. An oasis town, it was first settled 5,000 years ago. Its 200 square miles of irrigated farmland in a valley rimmed by mountains, was considered to have the richest soil in Central Asia. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus described Herat as the breadbasket of Central Asia. ‘The whole habitable world had not such a town as Herat,’ wrote the Emperor Babar in his memoirs. The British likened its beauty to England’s home counties. ‘The space between the hills is one beautiful extent of little fortified villages, gardens, vineyards and cornfields, and this rich scene is brightened by many small streams of shining water which cut the plain in all directions,’ the British adventurer and spy Captain Connolly wrote in 1831.(3)

For centuries the city was the crossroads between the competing Turkic and Persian empires and its population was an early convert to Islam. The main mosque in the city centre dates back to the seventh century and was rebuilt by the Ghorid dynasty in 1200. In medieval times it was both a centre for Christianity, under the Nestorian Church and a major centre for Sufism-the spiritual and mystical side of Islam. Followers of the Naqshbandi and Chishtyia Sufi brotherhoods became Prime Ministers and Ministers. Herat’s patron saint is Khawaja Abdullah Ansari who died in 1088, a celebrated Sufi poet and philosopher who still has a large following in Afghanistan. When Genghis Khan conquered Herat in 1222, he spared only 40 of its 160,000 inhabitants. But less than two centuries later the city had recovered to reach its pinnacle when Taimur’s son Shah Rukh and his Queen Gowhar Shad moved the capital of the Timurid empire from Samarkand to Herat in 1405.

The Timurids were the first to merge the Turkic nomadic steppe culture with the refinements of the settled Persian lands, importing artisans from Persia, India and Central Asia to build hundreds of magnificent monuments. Shah Rukh and Gowhar Shad turned Herat into a vast construction site building mosques, madrassas, public baths, libraries and palaces. Herat’s bazaars produced the finest carpets, jewellery, weapons, armour and tiles. Bihzad, considered the finest Persian miniaturist painter of all time worked at the court. ‘In Herat if you stretch out your feet you are sure to kick a poet,’ said Ali Sher Nawai, Shah Rukh’s Prime Minister, who was also an artist, poet and writer.(4) Nawai, who is buried in Herat and is the national poet of modern day Uzbekistan, is considered the father of literary Turkic for he was the first to write poetry in Turkic rather than Persian. The Persian poet Jami was also at court and is buried in Herat while Shah Rukh’s son Ulugh Beg, was an astronomer whose observatory in Samarkand monitored the movement of stars. His calendar and tables of the stars were published at Oxford University in 1665 and are still astonishingly accurate.

In 1417, Gowhar Shad, herself a builder of dozens of mosques, completed the construction of a magnificent complex on the outskirts of the city consisting of a mosque, madrassa and her own tomb. The tomb, with its panelled walls of Persian blue tiles bejewelled with floral decorations and topped by a ribbed blue dome with dazzling white Koranic inscrip tions, is still considered one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture anywhere in the world. When Byron saw it in 1937, he described it as ‘the most beautiful example in colour in architecture ever devised by man to the glory of God and himself.'(5) When Gowhar Shad died at the age of 80 after constructing some 300 buildings in Afghanistan, Persia and Central Asia, the inscription on her tomb read simply ‘The Bilkis of the Time.'(6) Bilkis means the Queen of Sheba. Much of the complex was demolished by the British in 1885 and the Soviets later mined the area to keep out the Mujaheddin.

When the Soviets bombed Herat in 1979, they inflicted more damage on the city than even the Mongols had done. “Herat is the most destroyed and the most heavily mined city in the world today, yet we get no help from anywhere,” Ismael Khan told me in 1993.(7)Despite the devastation around him, Ismael Khan had disarmed the population and established an effective administration with functioning health care and schools in the three provinces.

Short, shrewd and with an elfin smile that made him look much younger than his 47 years, Ismael Khan had 45,000 children studying in Herat’s schools, by 1993 half of them were girls-75,000 students in all across the three provinces. In 1993 he took me to see the Atun Heirvi school where 1,500 girls studied in two shifts, sitting under the open sky as there were no classrooms, desks, books, paper or ink-their desire to learn only re-emphasising Herat’s history of learning. In contrast when the Taliban took over Kandahar, the 45 working schools were closed down and only three remained. When the Taliban were later to capture Herat they were to close down every school in the city and disallow girls from even studying at home.

But by 1995 Ismael Khan faced immense problems. He had disarmed the population and created an unpopular conscript army. To face the Taliban, he needed to rearm the population while his conscript army was riddled with corruption, low morale and lack of resources. Official corruption and high-handedness towards civilians had become rampant in the city and customs officials charged trucks passing through Herat the exorbitant sum of 10,000 Pakistan rupees (US$300)-a sure way to make an enemy of the transport mafia. The Taliban were well informed of the problems he faced. “Ismael is weak, his soldiers will not fight because they have not been paid and he is widely discredited amongst his people because of the corruption in his administration. He stands alone and has to be propped up by Masud,’ Mullah Wakil Ahmad told me.[8]

Ismael Khan also made a serious military miscalculation. Believing the Taliban were on the verge of disintegration due to their defeat, he launched an ill-prepared and badly timed offensive against them. With a large mobile force, he captured Dilaram on 23 August 1995 and parts of Helmand a week later thereby threatening Kandahar. But his forces were overstretched in a hostile environment while the Taliban had spent the summer rebuilding their forces with arms, ammunition and vehicles provided by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and a new command structure created with the help of ISI advisers. The ISI also helped broker an agreement, never made public, between the Taliban and General Rashid Dostum. Dostum sent his Uzbek technicians to Kandahar to repair Mig fighters and helicopters the Taliban had captured a year earlier in Kandahar, thereby creating the Taliban’s first airpower. Meanwhile Dostum’s own planes began a bombing campaign of Herat.

To meet Ismael Khan’s threat, the Taliban quickly mobilized some 25,000 men, many of them fresh volunteers from Pakistan. Their more experienced fighters were deployed in mobile columns in Datsun pick-ups, which harassed Ismael’s supply lines. At the end of August at Girishk the Taliban decisively ambushed the intruders and Ismael Khan sounded a general retreat. Within a few days the Taliban pushed back his forces to Shindand, which he inexplicably abandoned on 3 September 1995 with-out putting up a fight. Then two days later, with his troops in a blind panic as the Taliban mobile columns swept through and around them.

Ismael Khan abandoned Herat fleeing with his commanders and several hundred men to Iran. The next day a pro-government mob in Kabul, incensed at the loss of Herat, attacked and sacked the Pakistan Embassy, wounding the Pakistani Ambassador as government soldiers looked on. Relations between Kabul and Islamabad sunk to an all-time low as President Rabbani openly accused Pakistan of trying to oust him from power through the Taliban.

The Taliban now controlled the entire west of the country, the sensitive border region with Iran and for the first time ruled an area which was not predominantly Pashtun. The Taliban treated Herat as an occupied city, arresting hundreds of Heratis, closing down all schools and forcibly implementing their social bans and Sharia law, even more fiercely than in Kandahar. The city was garrisoned not by local defectors, but hardcore Pashtun Taliban from Kandahar and the administration was handed over to Durrani Pashtuns, many of whom could not even speak Persian and therefore were incapable of communicating with the local population. Over the next few years not a single local Herati was to be inducted into the administration. For the sophisticated population, who were now ruled by what they considered gross, uneducated Pashtuns who had no idea of the past magnificence or history of the city, the only thing left was to go to Jami’s tomb and read his sad epitaph.

“When your face is hidden from me, like the moon hidden on a dark night, I shed stars of tears and yet my night remains dark in spite of all those shining stars.”(9)

The fall of Herat was also the beginning of the end for the Rabbani government. Bolstered by their victories, the Taliban launched another attack on Kabul during October and November, hoping to gain ground before the winter snows suspended further fighting. Masud counter-attacked in late November and pushed them back, resulting in hundreds of dead. But the Taliban were to persist and were now to try other means of conquering the city, weakening Masud’s front lines by bribes rather than tank fire.


  1. Seward, Desmond, The Monks of War, the Military Religious Orders, Penguin, London 1972. The great military orders, the Templars, the Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights, were founded in the twelfth century.
  2. Interviews with Taliban soldiers, Kandahar, March 1995.
  3. Sikorski, Radek, Dust of the Saints, Chatto and Windus, London 1989. 4- Byron, Robert, The Road to Oxiana, Macmillan, London 1937.
  4. Byron wrote on his first sight of the minarets, No photograph, no description, can convey their colour of grape-blue with an azure bloom, or the intricate convolutions that make it so deep and luminous. On the bases, whose eight sides are supported by white marble panels carved with baroque Kufic, yellow, white, olive green and rusty red mingle, with the two blues in a maze of flowers, arabesques and texts as fine as the pattern on a tea-cup.’ (Byron: The Road to Oxiana)
  5. Dupree, Nancy Hatch, A Historical Guide to Afghanistan, Afghan Tourist Organization, Kabul 1970.
  6. Interview with Ismael Khan, September 1993.
  7. Interview with Mullah Wakil Ahmad, Kandahar, May 1995.
  8. Dupree: A Historical Guide to Afghanistan.

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