Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Chapter 3)

Part 1 History of the Taliban Movement

Chapter 3

Travelling by jeep, truck and horseback hundreds of Afghan mullahs began to descend on Kandahar in the cool spring weather of 1996. By 20 March more than 1,200 Pashtun religious leaders from south, west and central Afghanistan had arrived in the city. They were housed and fed in government offices, the old fort and the covered bazaar, which were turned into enormous dormitories by the simple act of throwing hundreds of carpets on the floor so that the mullahs could sleep.

It was the biggest gathering of mullahs and ulema that had ever taken place in modern Afghan history. Significantly absent were local military commanders, traditional tribal and clan leaders, political figures from the war against the Soviets and non-Pashtun representatives from northern Afghanistan. Only religious leaders had been summoned by Mullah Omar to debate a future plan of action, but more importantly to legitimize the Taliban leader as the all powerful leader in the country.

The ten-month Taliban siege of Kabul had failed to crack the city and as Taliban casualties mounted, there was growing unrest in their ranks. During the long winter months, moderates in the movement openly talked of the need for negotiations with the Kabul regime. Hardliners wanted to continue the conquest of the entire country. There were also broad divisions within the Pashtuns. The Kandaharis grouped around Omar wanted the war to continue, while those representing Pashtun areas recently conquered by the Taliban wanted peace and an end to the conflict.

Everyone outside the country also realised that the Taliban were at a crossroads. “The Taliban cannot take Kabul nor can Masud take Kandahar. How will the Taliban evolve if they fail to take Kabul? Even if they do manage to take Kabul how will the rest of Afghanistan accept theiri type of Islamic system?’ the UN mediator Mehmoud Mestiri told me.(1) For more than two weeks the Shura continued with meetings lasting all day I and all night. Separate Shuras discussed issues such as the political and military future, how best to impose Sharia law and the future of girls’ education in Taliban-held areas. The discussions were all held in extreme secrecy and foreigners were banned from Kandahar for the duration. However Pakistani officials were there to monitor the Shura, including the I Pakistani Ambassador to Kabul Qazi Humayun and several IS1 officers such as Colonel Imam, Pakistan’s Consul General in Herat.

To patch over their differences, the core group of Kandaharis around Mullah Omar nominated him to become the ‘Amir-ul Momineen’ or ‘Commander of the Faithful’, an Islamic title that made him the undisputed leader of the jihad and the Emir of Afghanistan. (The Taliban were later to rename the country as the Emirate of Afghanistan). On 4 April 1996, Omar appeared on the roof of a building in the centre of the city, wrapped in the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed, which had been taken out of its shrine for the first time in 60 years. As Omar wrapped and unwrapped the Cloak around his body and allowed it to flap in the wind, he was rapturously applauded by the assembled throng of mullahs in the courtyard below, as they shouted ‘Amir-ul Momineen.’

This oath of allegiance or ‘baiat’ was a procedure similar to when Caliph Omar was confirmed as leader of the Muslim community in Arabia after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. It was a political masterstroke, for by cloaking himself with the Prophet’s mantle, Mullah Omar had assumed the right to lead not just all Afghans, but all Muslims. The meeting ended with a declaration of jihad against the Rabbani regime. The Taliban vowed not to open talks with any of their adversaries and declared that a final decision on allowing women to be educated could only be tackled ‘when there was a legitimate government in Afghanistan’. The hard-liners and Mullah Omar had won.(2)

But for many Afghans and Muslims elsewhere it was a serious affront to propriety that a poor village mullah with no scholarly learning, no tribal pedigree or connections to the Prophet’s family should presume so much. No Afghan had adopted the title since 1834, when King Dost Mohammed Khan assumed the title before he declared jihad against the Sikh kingdom in Peshawar. But Dost Mohammed was fighting foreigners, while Omar had declared jihad against his own people. Moreover, there was no sanction for such a title in Islam, unless all of the country’s ulema had bestowed it upon a leader. The Taliban insisted that their meeting constituted the Koranic requirement of ‘ahl al-hal-aqd’, literally ‘the people who can loose and bind’ or those empowered to take legitimate decisions on behalf of the Islamic community.

For Omar the title gave him badly needed legitimacy and a new mystique amongst the Pashtuns that no other Mujaheddin leader had acquired during the war. It would allow him to distance himself still further from day-to-day politics, give him an additional excuse not to meet foreign diplomats and allow him to be more inflexible in either broadening the base of the Taliban leadership or in talking to the opposition. Omar could now always retreat behind his title and decline to meet opposition leaders on an equal footing.

But the ulema meeting had deliberately not come to any decisions on the much more sensitive questions on how the Taliban planned to rule Afghanistan and what if anything they planned for the country’s economic and social development. Such questions were to remain permanently unanswered, even after they captured Kabul. “We have not gone public yet on our structure because we are not strong enough to decide who will be the Prime Minister or the President,” said Mullah Wakil, the aide to Omar. “The Sharia does not allow politics or political parties. That is why we give no salaries to officials or soldiers, just food, clothes, shoes and weapons. We want to live a life like the Prophet lived 1,400 years ago and jihad is our right. We want to recreate the time of the Prophet and we are only carrying out what the Afghan people have wanted for the past 14 years,” he added.(3) Another Taliban leader put it even more succinctly. ‘We can love our enemies but only after we have defeated them.’

Only a day earlier Taliban emissaries had told Mestiri in Islamabad that they were ready to talk to President Rabbani.(4) “If the Taliban are ready to talk and President Rabbani is ready to talk, then this is really some thing,” said Mestiri hopefully. The final result of the ulema meeting was a blow that neither Mestiri nor the UN peace effort was to recover from and in May Mestiri resigned from his job.

The ulema meeting had also been prompted by the regime’s growing political successes at wooing other opposition leaders and President Rabbani’s increasing international standing. Kabul’s military successes at seeing off Hikmetyar, the Hazaras and the Taliban attack had finally persuaded the regime that this was an opportune moment to try and gain greater political acceptability, by broadening the base of their support. President Rabbani began talks with other warlords, holding out the carrot that he was prepared to set up a new government which could include them. In January and February 1996, Rabbani’s emissary Dr Abdur Rehman met separately with Gulbuddin Hikmetyar at Sarobi, with General Rashid Dostum in Mazar-e-Sharif and the Hizb-e-Wahadat leadership in Bamiyan. In February all the opposition groups except for the Taliban agreed to set up a ten-man council to negotiate peace terms with Kabul, even as the Taliban continued to demand the surrender of the regime. A few weeks later the council of the Hizb-e-Islami gave Hikmetyar the power to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with Rabbani.

Pakistan was worried by Rabbani’s successes and attempted to woo the same warlords to join the Taliban and form an anti-Kabul alliance. The ISI summoned Hikmetyar, Dostum, the Pashtun leaders of the Jalalabad Shura and some Hizb-e-Wahadat chiefs to Islamabad to persuade them to ally with the Taliban. These warlords met with President Farooq Leghari and army chief General Jehangir Karamat as negotiations continued for week between 7 and 13 February. Pakistan proposed a political alliance and in private a joint attack on Kabul with the Taliban attacking from the south, Hikmetyar from the east and Dostum from the north.(5) To sweeten the Taliban, Babar offered to spend US$3 million to repair the road across southern Afghanistan from Chaman to Torgundi on the Turkmenistan border. But the Taliban refused to turn up to the meeting, spuming their Pakistani mentors yet again, despite personal appeals by Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar, the JUI chief Fazlur Rehman the ISI. The Taliban declined to have anything to do with the othe warlords whom they condemned as communist infidels.

Islamabad’s failure to create a united front against Kabul, emboldened Rabbani further. In early March, along with a 60-man delegation, he set off on an extensive tour of Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to lobby for international support and increased military aid. Iran, Russi, and India, who backed the Kabul regime, calculated that the conflict I now entered a crucial stage as another battle for Kabul could increase political instability and influence the spread of Islamic fundamentalism Central Asia. Iran was incensed by the fall of Herat to a Pashtun force that was vehemently anti-Shia and was backed by its regional rivals Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Russia considered the Kabul regime as more moderate and pliant than the Taliban, as it worried about the security of Central Asian Republics. Moscow also wanted an end to the four-year-old civil war in Tajikistan between the neo-communist government and Islamic rebels, which was being fuelled from Afghanistan. India backed Kabul simply because of Pakistani support to the Taliban.

All these countries stepped up military aid to the regime forces. Russia sent technical help to upgrade Bagram airport facilities for the regime while Russian transport planes from Russia, Tajikistan and Ukraine delivered Russian arms, ammunition and fuel to Kabul. Iran developed air bridge from Meshad in eastern Iran to Bagram, where it flew in supplies. Pakistani intelligence reported that on a single day, 13 Iranian flights landed at Bagram with supplies. The CIA suspected that Shia allies of the Rabbani regime had sold Iran five Stinger anti-air missiles for US$1 million each. (The US provided the Mujaheddin with some 900 Stingers in 1986-87 and after 1992 the CIA had launched clandestine but unsuccessful buy-back operation to try and retrieve those Stingers not utilised.)(6) Iran had also set up five training camps near Meshad for some 5,000 fighters led by the former Herat Governor Ismael Khan. Iran’s aid to the regime was significant because Tehran had to swallow its anger with Masud over the slaughter of the Shia Hazaras in Kabul the previous year. India meanwhile helped refurbish Ariana-the Afghan national airline now based in New Delhi-to provide the regime with a reliable arms carrier. India also provided aircraft parts, new ground radars and money.

In turn, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia stepped up arms supplies to the Taliban. Pakistan provided a new telephone and wireless network for the Taliban, refurbished Kandahar airport and helped out with spare parts and armaments for the Taliban’s airforce, while continuing to provide food, fuel and ammunition, including rockets. The Saudis provided fuel, money and hundreds of new pick-ups to the Taliban. Much of this aid was flown into Kandahar airport from the Gulf port city of Dubai.

The extent of outside interference worried the Americans: after a lapse of four years they were once again beginning to take an interest in trying to resolve the Afghan conflict. In early March, Congressman Hank Brown, a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Relations for South Asia, became the first American elected representative in six years to visit Kabul and other power centres. He hoped to call a meeting of all the Afghan factions in Washington.(7)

The US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel arrived in Islamabad to review US policy towards Afghanistan. Starting on 19 April 1996, Raphel visited the three power centres of Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif and later three Central Asian capitals. “We do not see ourselves inserting in the middle of Afghan affairs, but we consider ourselves as a friend of Afghanistan which is why I am here to urge the Afghans themselves to get together and talk. We are also concerned that economic opportunities here will be missed, if political stability cannot be restored,” said Raphel in Kabul.[8] Raphel was referring to a proposed gas pipeline to be built by the American oil giant Unocal to carry gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan. The US waited to make the pipeline acceptable to all Afghan factions and urged Pakistan to make up with the Rabbani regime and bring the Taliban and the Rabbani regime to the peace table.

The US moved on other fronts. During a UN Security Council debate on Afghanistan on 10 April 1996, the first to be held in six years, it proposed an international arms embargo on Afghanistan. Raphel wanted to use this as a lever to persuade all the involved regional countries to agree to non-interference in Afghanistan, while at the same time lending greater weight to UN efforts to convene a conference of all the Afghan factions.(9)

The Clinton administration was clearly sympathetic to the Taliban, as they were in line with Washington’s anti-Iran policy and were important for the success of any southern pipeline from Central Asia that would avoid Iran. The US Congress had authorised a covert US$20 million budget for the CIA to destabilize Iran, and Tehran had accused Washington of funnelling some of these funds to the Taliban-a charge that was always denied by Washington. Bhutto sent several emissaries to Washington to urge the US to intervene more publicly on the side of Pakistan and the Taliban, but despite a common antipathy to Iran, Washington resisted, refusing to take sides in the civil war. Raphel vehemently denied that the US was aiding the Taliban. “We do not favour one faction over another nor do we give any group or individual support,” she told me.

Moreover the US remained sceptical that the Taliban would conquer Kabul in the near future. Raphel described the Taliban as highly fractionalized, inexperienced, lacking strong leadership and inept at administration while their obstinacy had alienated other factions. “These weaknesses combined with Masud’s growing strength, appear to be shifting the balance against the Taliban somewhat, and will prevent them from achieving their stated goal of taking Kabul. While the Taliban appears to. have reached the limit of its expansion, its position in the Pashtun south is solid,” she said.(10)

Washington also courted the other warlords. Several visited Washington, starting with General Dostum who met US officials in Washington on 11 April 1996. Afghan leaders or their representatives from all factions participated in an unprecedented Congressional hearing in Washington held by Senator Hank Brown between 25 and 27 June. However in an American election year and with little enthusiasm for renewed involvement in the quagmire of Afghanistan, Washington’s aims could only be limited, even though the arms and drugs trade proliferating inside Afghanistan worried Washington.

US reluctance to support the Taliban was also influenced by Pakistan’s failure in creating an anti-Rabbani alliance. This proved even more embarrassing for Islamabad when, in May, 1,000 of Hikmetyar’s troops arrived in Kabul to support the government and defend the front line against the Taliban. On 26 June 1996 Hikmetyar himself entered Kabul for the first time in 15 years, to take up the post of Prime Minister offered by the regime, while his party accepted nine other cabinet posts in the government. In retaliation, on the same day, the Taliban launched a massive rocket attack on Kabul in which 61 people were killed and over 100 injured.

Rabbani followed up his political breakthrough with Hikmetyar with a visit to Jalalabad where he attempted to persuade the Jalalabad Shura to join his government. He said he was willing to step down in favour of any Afghan leader and proposed an all-party conference in Jalalabad to elect a new head of state. By August Dostum had also agreed to a truce and he reopened the Salang Highway which connected Kabul with the north of the country for the first time in over a year. Rabbani’s agreements had finally got his ‘intra-Afghan dialogue’ off the ground. “This alliance can be consolidated by bringing in more opposition figures to create a peace axis and I call on others to join the process so that a formula for an interim government can be found,” Rabbani told me in Kabul.(11) It was a significant achievement, which infuriated the Taliban who realized that they would have to move quickly against Rabbani before he consolidated these alliances.

Camped outside the capital, the Taliban had been rocketing Kabul mercilessly throughout the year. In April 1996 alone, the Taliban fired 866 rockets, killing 180 civilians, injuring 550 and destroying large tracts of the city-a repetition of Hikmetyar’s attacks in 1993-95. In July 1996 Taliban rockets fell close to the newly appointed UN mediator for Afghanistan, the German diplomat Norbert Holl who was visiting Kabul. Holl was furious. “This is no way to treat a peace emissary, by shooting at him. If you receive a guest in your house you don’t start spitting at him. It demonstrates a sort of contempt for my mission,” he told the Taliban.(12)

The Taliban’s rocket attacks were punctuated by frequent ground assaults against Masud’s front lines south and west of the city. At the end of May, I stood on a rain-swept hill with Masud’s troops outside Kabul and watched through binoculars as dozens of Taliban in pick-ups tried to punch through Masud’s lines along a road in the valley below under the cover of a Taliban artillery barrage. In return Masud’s Russian-made D-30 howitzers pounded the hidden Taliban artillery. The thud of shells shook the mountains, deafening the ears and making me sway at the knees. The gunners were stone-deaf due to the constant shelling and the lack of ear protectors.

Behind Masud’s lines, lorry-loads of fresh troops and ammunition ground their way up the hill through the mud to replenish supplies. “The Taliban have enormous supplies of ammunition and they shoot off thousands of shells but their gunners are very inaccurate. However they are making better use of their tanks and pick-ups than a year ago,” said a general from Masud’s army. “Their tactics are still poor, relying more on frontal assaults and there seems to be no effective chain of command,” he added. The Taliban were unable to concentrate enough firepower and manpower on one front to achieve a breakthrough into the city and Masud was constantly breaking up their formations. Although he could hold the line around Kabul, his forces, estimated at just 25,000 men, could not extend it and carry out offensives to push the Taliban further south.

The Taliban’s stubbornness in refusing to cut deals with other warlords frustrated the Pakistanis, but finally it appeared to pay off when the Taliban persuaded Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to back another major bid to capture Kabul before the winter. The Saudi Intelligence chief Prince Turki al Faisal visited Islamabad and Kandahar in July 1996 to discuss with the ISI a new plan to take Kabul, and both countries stepped up supplies to the Taliban. Within two months of Turki’s visit, the Taliban were on the move-not against Kabul but the eastern city of Jalalabad. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia helped engineer the surrender and eventual flight of the head of the Jalalabad Shura, Haji Abdul Qadeer. He was given a large bribe, reported by some Afghans to be US$10 million in cash, as well as guarantees that his assets and bank accounts in Pakistan would not be frozen.(13)

The Taliban launched their surprise offensive on Jalalabad on 25 August 1996. As the main Taliban force moved up on the city from the south, Pakistan allowed hundreds of armed Taliban supporters from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan to cross the border and move on Jalalabad from the east. There was panic in Jalalabad and the Shura fell apart. Haji Qadeer fled to Pakistan on 10 September and his replacement Acting Governor Mehmoud was killed along with six bodyguards a day later, while also trying to escape to Pakistan. That same evening a Taliban
mobile column of pick-ups led by Mullah Borjan drove into Jalalabad after a brief firefight in which some 70 people were killed.

Within the next few days mobile Taliban columns captured the three eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman and Kunar and on the night of 24 September 1996 they moved on Sarobi, 45 miles from Kabul and the gateway to the capital. Their lightning attack, which came from several directions, took the government’s troops by total surprise and they fled back to Kabul. The capital was now wide open from the east for the first time. The Taliban did not pause to regroup, but instead pursued Sarobi’s defenders back to Kabul. Other Taliban columns moved on Kabul from the south, while another column drove north from Sarobi to capture Bagram airport cutting off Masud’s only air link.

The speed of their offensive stunned the government. Taliban colums swept into Kabul on the evening of 26 September 1996, just a few he after Masud had ordered a general withdrawal to evacuate the city. Small units stayed behind to delay the Taliban advance and blow up ammunition dumps, while Masud escaped northwards with the bulk of his armour and artillery. Masud took the decision to abandon the city without a fight knowing he could not defend it from attacks coming from all four point of the compass. Nor did he want to lose the support of Kabul’s population by fighting for the city and causing more bloodshed. The Taliban victory was complete. ‘No Afghan force, either government or opposition, had ever carried out such a swift and complex series of operations over such a wide operation area. This was mobile warfare at its most effective.'(14)

The Taliban’s first and bloodiest act was to hang former President Najibullah, then aged 50, who had ruled Afghanistan from 1986 to 1992. Najibullah had been staying in a UN diplomatic compound in central Kabul since 1992, when a UN peace plan to set up an interim government fell apart. Just before the Mujaheddin were to capture Kabul, Najibullah was due to be taken out of Kabul by the UN mediator Benon Sevan, but they were stopped at the last moment. All the warring Afghan factions had respected the diplomatic immunity of the UN compound. Najibullah’s wife Fatana and three daughters had lived in exile in New Delhi since 1992.

Blunders by the UN were partly responsible for his death. On the day Sarobi fell, Najibullah had sent a message to the UN headquarters in Islamabad asking Norbet Holl to arrange the evacuation of himself and his three companions-his brother, Shahpur Ahmadzai, his personal secretary and bodyguard. But there were no UN officials in Kabul to take responsibility for Najibullah. Only Masud offered him a lift out of the city. On the afternoon of 26 September 1996, Masud sent one of his senior Generals to ask Najibullah to leave with the retreating government troops, promising him safe passage to the north, but Najibullah refused.
A proud and stubborn man, he probably feared that if he fled with the Tajiks, he would be for ever damned in the eyes of his fellow Pashtuns.(15)

There were only three frightened Afghan guards employed by the UN on duty inside the compound and they fled as they heard the guns of the Taliban on the outskirts of the city. Najibullah sent a last wireless message to the UN in Islamabad in the early evening, again asking for help. But by then it was too late. A special Taliban unit of five men designated for the task and believed to be led by Mullah Abdul Razaq, the Governor of Herat and now commander of the forces designated to capture Kabul, came for Najibullah at about 1.00 a.m., even before the Taliban had entered central Kabul. Razaq later admitted that he had ordered Najibullah’s murder.(16)

The Taliban walked up to Najibullah’s room, beat him and his brother senseless and then bundled them into a pick-up and drove them to the darkened Presidential Palace. There they castrated Najibullah, dragged his body behind a jeep for several rounds of the Palace and then shot him dead. His brother was similarly tortured and then throttled to death. The Taliban hanged the two dead men from a concrete traffic control post just outside the Palace, only a few blocks from the UN compound.

At dawn curious Kabulis came to view the two bloated, beaten bodies as they hung from steel wire nooses around their necks. Unlit cigarettes were stuck between their fingers and Afghani notes stuffed into their pockets-to convey the Taliban message of debauchery and corruption. Najibullah’s two other companions had escaped from the compound, but they were later caught trying to flee the city and were also tortured and hanged.

Najibullah’s execution was the first symbolic, brutal act by the Taliban in Kabul. It was a premeditated, targeted killing designed to terrorize the population. Mullah Rabbani, the newly appointed head of the Kabul Shura proclaimed that Najibullah was a communist and a murderer and that he had been sentenced to death by the Taliban. That was true, but the mutilation of Najibullah’s body was beyond the pale of any Islamic injunction, while the lack of a fair trial and the public display of the bodies revolted many Kabulis. People were further repulsed when the Taliban banned an Islamic funeral for Najibullah, even though funeral prayers were said for him the next day in Quetta and Peshawar where he was remembered by Pakistan’s Pashtun nationalists. Eventually the bodies were taken down and handed over to the ICRC, who drove them to Gardez, Najibullah’s birthplace in Paktia province where he was buried by his Ahmadzai tribesmen.

There was widespread international condemnation of the murder, particularly from the Muslim world. The Taliban had humiliated the UN and the international community and embarrassed their allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The UN finally issued a statement. “The killing of the former President without any legitimate judicial procedure not only constitutes a grave violation of the immunity UN premises enjoy, but also further jeopardizes all the efforts which are being made to secure a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict.” The Taliban were not deterred and they issued death sentences on Dostum, Rabbani and Masud.

Within 24 hours of taking Kabul, the Taliban imposed the strictest Islamic system in place anywhere in the world. All women were banned from work, even though one quarter of Kabul’s civil service, the entire elementary educational system and much of the health system were run bywomen. Girls’ schools and colleges were closed down affecting more than 70,000 female students and a strict dress code of head-to-toe veils for women was imposed. There were fears that 25,000 families which were headed by war widows and depended on working and UN handouts would starve. Every day brought fresh pronouncements. “Thieves will have their and feet amputated, adulterers will be stoned to death and those taking liquor will be lashed,’ said an announcement on Radio Kabul on 28 September 1996.

TV, videos, satellite dishes, music and all games including chess, football and kite-flying were banned. Radio Kabul was renamed Radio Sharia and all music was taken off the air. Taliban soldiers stood on main streets arresting men without beards. Unlike the capture of Herat and other cities, a large international press and TV corps were in Kabul and for the first time they reported extensively on the Taliban’s restrictions. The Taliban set up a six-man Shura to rule Kabul, which was dominated by Durrani Pashtuns and did not include a single Kabuli. Headed by Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, the Shura included Mullah Mohammed Ghaus as Foreign Minister, Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi as Information Minister, Mullah Syed Ghayasuddin Agha, Mullah Fazil Mohammed and Mullah Abdul Razaq.

None of the Shura members had ever lived in a large city, most had never even visited Kabul, but they were now running a vibrant, semi-modern, multi-ethnic city of 1.2 million people in which Pashtuns were only a small minority. As the newly formed Taliban religious police wentabout their business of enforcing ‘Sharia’, Kabul was treated as an occupied city. There was little understanding that governing a large city was not the same as ruling a village. It appeared that all that lay in the way of a total victory for the Taliban was Ahmad Shah Masud.

Masud was one of the most brilliant military commanders and charismatic personalities to emerge out of the jihad. Dubbed the ‘Lion of Panjshir’ after his birthplace in his Tajik homeland of the Panjshir valley north of Kabul, he eluded and then fought to a standstill seven huge Soviet offensives against the Panjshir in the 1980s. Soviet generals termed him unbeatable and a master of guerrilla warfare. His army of some 20,000 men adored him and his reputation was at its peak when he took over Kabul in 1992, foiling Hikmetyar’s attempt to do the same, as the com munist regime crumbled. But four years in power in Kabul had turned Masud’s army into arrogant masters who harassed civilians, stole from shops and confiscated people’s homes which is why Kabulis first welcomed the Taliban when they entered Kabul.

Born in 1953 into a military family, Masud studied at the French-run Lycee Istiqlal in Kabul. He became one of the young Islamic opponents of the regime of President Daud and fled to Pakistan in 1975, after he led a failed uprising in the Panjshir. In exile in Peshawar, Masud fell out with his colleague Gulbuddin Hikmetyar and their rivalry for the next 20 years was a determining reason why the Mujaheddin never united to form a coalition government. His bitterness against Pakistan for first supporting Hikmetyar and then the Taliban became an obsession. During the jihad Masud argued that the strategic direction of the war should be left to the Afghans to decide rather than the ISI. But Pakistan was supplying all the US-provided weapons, which created an enmity which still lasts today. Islamabad was taken by surprise when in 1992 Kabul fell not from the south to the Pashtuns, but from the north to the Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Peacemaking always eluded Masud. He was a poor politician, incapable of convincing other Pashtun warlords who hated Hikmetyar that a Tajik-Pashtun alliance was the only feasible way to bring peace. Masud may have been a masterful military strategist but he was a failure at building political alliances between different ethnic groups and parties. His major problem was that he was a Tajik. Except for one abortive uprising in 1929, the Tajiks had never ruled in Kabul and were mistrusted by the Pashtuns.

In Kabul he remained aloof and refused to acccept government posts, declining the post of Defence Minister in President Rabbani’s government even though he commanded the army. “There is an old Persian saying: When everyone is looking for a chair to sit on, it is better to sit on the floor,” he told me in May 1996, just a few weeks before the Taliban were to drive him out of Kabul. “Pakistan is trying to subjugate Afghanistan and turn it into a colony by installing a puppet government. It won’t work because the Afghan people have always been independent and free,” he added.

Working 18 hours a day with two military secretaries, who took it in shifts to keep up with him, he would sleep four hours a night and because of fears of assasination never spent two nights in the same location. He slept, ate and fought with his men and invariably in the midst of a major battle he could be found on the frontline. In the next few months he was to face his greatest challenge as the Taliban swept him out of Kabul and appeared to be on the verge of conquering the entire country. He survived, but by 1999, aged 46 years old, he had been fighting virtually non-stop for 25 years.

Masud’s forces now retreated up the Salang highway to his base area in the Panjshir. As the Taliban pursued them, Masud’s men blew up the mountains, creating landslides to block the entrance to the valley. The Taliban launched an abortive attack on the Panjshir but failed to make headway. They pushed up the Salang highway capturing towns along the way until they were blocked at the Salang tunnel by Dostum’s forces, who had advanced south from Mazar-e-Sharif. It was still unclear whose side Dostum would take and his forces refrained from engaging the Taliban.

Mullah Rabbani met with Dostum on 8 October 1996 in a bid to try and neutralize the Uzbeks while the Taliban went after Masud, but the talks broke down. The Taliban refused to allow Dostum autonomy and power in the north. Pakistan also launched a diplomatic shuttle in abit to break Dostum away from Masud. However, Dostum realised that, despite his differences with Masud, the Taliban posed the real threat to non-Pashtuns. On 10 October 1996, deposed President Rabbani, Masud, Dostum and the Hazara leader Karim Khalili met in Khinan on the highway and formed a ‘Supreme Council for the Defence of the Motherland’ to counter the Taliban. It was the beginning of a new anti-Taliban alliance that would perpetuate the civil war.

In their rapid advance northwards, the Taliban had spread themselves too thin and Masud took advantage of this, launching a major counterattack along the highway on 12 October 1996. He captured several towns, killing and capturing hundreds of Taliban soldiers as they fled back to Kabul in panic. On 18 October 1996, Masud’s forces recaptured the Bagram airbase and began to shell Kabul airport, even as Dostum’s airforce bombed Taliban targets in Kabul. The heavy fighting resulted in thousands of civilian casualties and forced 50,000 people to flee their homes in villages along the Salang highway. As these destitute refugees arrived in Kabul, tens of thousands of Kabulis-mostly Tajiks and Hazaras-were trying to escape in the other direction-eastwards to the Pakistan border to escape Taliban reprisals and mass arrests which had begun in the city.

Faced with rising casualties the Taliban began to suffer from manpower shortages and they started conscripting young men from Kabul into their army, entering mosques and seizing worshippers. Thousands more volunteers arrived from Pakistan where some Pakistani ukma closed down their madrassas so that students would have no choice but to enlist en masse with the Taliban. Thousands of Pakistani students and Afghans from the refugee camps began to arrive daily in Kandahar and Kabul on buses hired by Pakistan’s Islamic parties. Pakistan waived all passport and visa requirements for them.

Bolstered by this fresh support, the Taliban launched an attack in western Afghanistan, moving northwards from Herat into Baghdis province. By the end of October 1996 Ismael Khan and 2,000 of his fighters, who had been in exile in Iran, were flown into Maimana on Dostum’s aircraft to defend the front line against the Taliban in Baghdis. Iran had rearmed and re-equipped Ismael Khan’s forces in a provocative and deliberate attempt to bolster the new anti-Taliban alliance. As heavy fighting took place in Baghdis during November and December, with considerable use of air power by both sides, another 50,000 displaced people fled to Herat. This added to what was now a catastrophic refugee crisis for UN aid agencies as winter, heavy snows and fighting prevented the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Despite heavy snowfall, the Taliban pushed Masud back from the outskirts of Kabul. By the end of January 1997, they had recaptured nearly all the territory they had lost along the Salang highway, retaking the Bagram airbase and Charikar. Masud retreated into the Panjshir as the Taliban pushed up the highway to confront Dostum. The fall of Kabul and the intense fighting that followed created serious apprehensions in the entire region. Iran, Russia and four Central Asian Republics warned the Taliban not to move north and publicly declared they would help rearm the anti-Taliban alliance. Meanwhile Pakistan and Saudi Arabia sent diplomatic missions to Kabul to see what help they could offer the Taliban. Appeals from the UN and other international bodies for a cease-fire and mediation failed to receive any hearing from the belligerents. The region was now deeply polarized with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia allied to the Taliban and the other regional states backing the opposition. The Taliban were still not to receive the international recognition they so desperately wanted. “We don’t have a friend in the world. We have conquered three quarters of the country, we have captured the capital and we haven’t received even a single message of congratulations,” said a wistful Mullah Mohammed Hassan.(17)

Yet it appeared that Mullah Omar’s refusal to compromise with the opposition or the UN, along with his unshakeable faith and his determination to achieve a military victory, had finally paid off. Kabul, the capital of Afghan Pashtun kings since 1772 which had been lost for the past four years to Tajik rulers, was back in the hands of the Pashtuns. The student movement, which so many had predicted would never be able to take the capital had done just that. Despite their enormous losses, the Taliban’s prestige had never been higher. The cost of their victory however was the deepening ethnic and sectarian divide that was clearly dividing Afghanistan and polarizing the region.

“War is a tricky game,” said Omar, who remained in Kandahar and declined to even visit Kabul. “The Taliban took five months to capture one province but then six provinces fell to us in only ten days. Now we are in control of 22 provinces including Kabul. Inshallah [God willing] the whole of Afghanistan will fall into our hands. We feel a military solution has better prospects now after numerous failed attempts to reach a peaceful, negotiated settlement,” he added.[18] Northern Afghanistan now appeared ready for the taking.


  1. Interview with Mehmoud Mestiri in Islamabad, 2 February 1996. See also Rashid, Ahmed, ‘Masud ready to launch offensive says Mestiri’, the Nation, 4 February 1996.
  2. AFP, ‘Ulema declare Jehad against Rabbani’, the Nation, 4 April 1996.
  3. Interview with Wakil in Kandahar, March 1996.
  4. Interviews with Pakistani diplomats and intelligence officials, Islamabad, February 1996.
  5. AFP, ‘Talibai ready to legotiate’, the Nation, 3 April 1996.
  6. Interviews with US and Pakistan diplomats, Islamabad, February 1995. See also Rashid, Ahmed. Afghanistan: Proxy War is back’, the World Today, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, March 1996.
  7. AFP, Kabul, ‘Senator Hank Brown meets Masud in Kabul’, the Nation, 8 April 1996. For a fuller discussion of the US role in the rise of the Taliban, see Chapter 13.
  8. AFP, Bagram, ‘Raphael says US interest in Afghanistan increasing’, the Nation, 20 April 1996.
  9. Interview with Robin Raphel, Islamabad, 18 April 1996.
  10. APP, Washington, ‘US wants peace, stable Afghanistan’, the Nation, 11 May 1996. Raphel spelled out US policy in a Testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington.
  11. Interview with Rabbani, Kabul, August 1996.
  12. AFP, Kabul, ‘Holl flays Taliban for rocket attacks’, the Nation, 31 July 1996
  13. Interviews with several Pakistani and Afghan sources. See also: Rubin, Barnett, Afghanistan the forgotten crisis’, Refugee Survey Quarterly Vol 15 No.2, UNHCR 1996.
  14. Davis, Anthony, ‘How the Taliban became a military force,’ in Maley, William (ed.) Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, C. Hurst, London 1998.
  15. This account is based on several interviews with UN officials and Masud himself in 1996 and 1997. There are also reports that Najibullah was hoping to do a deal with the Taliban because of their common ethnic origins and that he left the compound voluntarily.
  16. Khan, Behroz, ‘Taliban commander admits ordering Najib’s killing’, the News, 16 February 1998. Mullah Razaq admitted ordering Najibullah’s execution in an interview. “We had asked our soldiers to kill Najib then and there. It was necessary because he was responsible for the massacre of thousands of Afghans,” Razaq said. Mullah Omar appointed Razaq commander of the Taliban forces that captured Kabul in 1996. He was captured by Dostum’s troops in Mazar in May, 1997 and later freed.
  17. Bums, John, ‘With sugared tea and caustic rules, an Afghan leader explains himself, the New York Times, 24 November 1996.
  18. Yousufzai, Rahimullah, ‘The leader nobody knows’, the News, 30 March 1997

2 Responses to “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Chapter 3)”

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