The capture by Taliban guerrillas of the Afghan capital, Kabul, however short- or long-lived, has come after two years of one of the most obnoxious interventions by one state in the affairs of another in many years. Reported in the West as an indigenous struggle, in fact Pakistan set up the Taliban as a semi-regular fighting force in 1994, recruiting the leaders from religious schools, or madrasas, in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and providing them with the guns, money, fuel and technical support to conquer first the western part of Afghanistan and now much of the rest of the country. Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has harbored the goal of dominating its northern neighbor, and its desire to do so has increased all the more since the Central Asian republics declared their independence from Moscow in 1991. Now Pakistan believes that it can not only achieve this strategic goal but also monopolize trade, and the export of oil and gas, from Central Asia, thereby cutting other contenders–Russia, Iran, Turkey–out of the game.

The Taliban fighters claim to be simply “religious students,” followers of Islam. But the claim crumbles upon examination. The religious schools they originated from in Pakistan are part of a tendency known as the Deobandi, named after an antimodern theological college established in India in the nineteenth century that opposed the more liberal, reform-minded college at Aligarh. When Pakistan was established as a Muslim state, the Deobandis at first refused to recognize it. But, tactical as ever, they soon changed their minds and have worked ever since through the Assembly of Islamic Clergy (a conservative political party currently allied with Pakistan’s ruling People’s Party) to gain as much influence as possible. Like many Christian fundamentalists in the United States and the ultra-orthodox haredim in Israel, they understand the importance of controlling social behavior and education, and of forming tactical alliances with the military. In Pakistan this includes the Interservices Intelligence Directorate, the main security body responsible for running arms to Afghanistan during the eighties, and Home Affairs Minister Gen. Naseerullah Babar, who is, like the Taliban, from the Pathan ethnic group.

Once established and armed, the Taliban have been able to recruit widely among the Pathan tribes of Afghanistan, who represent about half the population. Of the six members of their ruling council, five are mullahs from the Pathan city of Kandahar, while the sixth is from a breakaway faction of Tajiks, or Persian speakers, in the northeast province of Badakhshan. It is this ethnic character of the Taliban that has alarmed so many others in Afghanistan, leading nearly a quarter-million Tajiks and Uzbeks to flee an already battered Kabul (which is far more badly damaged than Sarajevo, as Jonathan Steele recently reported in the London Guardian). The Pathan identity of the Taliban also explains, in part, the alliance that grew up against it, which involves Uzbeks under the semi-independent warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum; Tajiks under former defense minister Ahmad Shah Massoud; and the Shiite Muslim Hazara, who make up about 20 percent of the country’s population.

The Taliban interpretation of Islam, which claims to derive all its authority from the Koran alone, without reference to any other sacred text or source, is open to doubt. One of their first acts was to ban images of living beings. They have carried out public “executions” of television sets and have banned photography. But the trend within Islam that is against images–strongly influenced by early Christianity and Judaism–is based not on the Koran at all but on the supposed sayings of the Prophet, the hadith. It is in one of the hadith that Mohammed reportedly said that no angel will enter a house in which there is either a dog or a painting. Another says that on the day of judgment the worst punishment will be reserved for artists. For the tribal authoritarians this contradiction does not matter, any more than does the fact that their ban on women’s education and employment is an attempt to impose tribal custom, not Islamic law, on Kabul and other cities. Patriarchy with guns is the reality, not piety or theological consistency.

The secret of the Taliban’s success involves a further dimension, one that ties them into the whole recent history of Afghanistan: They have also received support from some military elements associated with the most hard-line wing of the former Communist regime. A former defense minister, Lieut. Gen. Shahnawaz Tanai, who fled Kabul for Pakistan after a failed coup in 1990, and a former Interior Minister, Gen. Sayed Gulabzoy, now living in Moscow, have aided the Taliban, providing some of the tank crews and pilots needed in their campaign.

The Taliban have not hesitated to settle scores from the Communist period. One of the first things they did when they entered Kabul was to seize former Communist president Najibullah, who had ruled Afghanistan from 1986 to 1992 and played a key role in the process that led to the Soviet withdrawal. He gave up power in April 1992 on the understanding, underwritten by the U.N., that he could leave the country. But the new government reneged on that deal, so Najibullah remained cooped up in the U.N. compound in Kabul. The Taliban had told him they were willing to work with him, so he declined offers from the fleeing regime to take him with them. Only a few hours before his death he telephoned his family in Delhi to assure them that he had good relations with the Taliban. He soon learned the truth: They took him to the former presidential palace, beat and castrated him, and then, when he asked to make a final statement for posterity, shot him in the side of the head and hung his body, alongside that of his brother, from a traffic control tower. In an interesting reflection of old intra-Communist feuds, neither Gulabzoy, who worked with Najibullah for several years, nor Babrak Karmal, the Communist leader he replaced in 1986, attended the mourning service at the Moscow mosque at which the local Afghan community had gathered.

Since taking Kabul the Taliban have not only killed associates of the former Communist and Islamist regimes but have banned women from appearing in public without a veil and (in marked contrast to Iran) from education and working outside the home. The worst fate befalls women in need of medical attention: Men are not allowed to treat them, but neither are women allowed to work in most clinics or hospitals. Although this has aroused international outrage, three states in the U.N. Security Council–China, Indonesia and Egypt–opposed a motion condemning the Taliban for their policies on women. Pakistan, of course, immediately recognized the new government. From the private sector, the California-based oil company Unocal also voiced its support: Unocal has been involved in planning a pipeline from Central Asia through western Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean.

Others, however, have not been so welcoming. Pakistan’s ambitions in Central Asia have long caused alarm in Iran, in Russia and in the majority of Central Asian states. Within days of the Taliban seizure of Kabul, the leaders of the Central Asian countries, plus Russia, met in the Kazakh capital, Almaty, to work out a response. They called for noninterference in Afghanistan’s affairs, but this is the last thing that will happen. While Pakistan is busy reinforcing the Taliban, Iran, which sees them as a branch of what the Ayatollah Khomeini called islam-i imrikai, “American Islam,” has denounced them for their retrograde policies. Iran also blames the Taliban for murdering a Shiite leader last year after they invited him to join them in discussions. Tajikistan fears that the Taliban will back the fundamentalists in its own country. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are more ambivalent: The Turkmenians hope to export gas through western Afghanistan and keep the Taliban from interfering in their affairs; the Uzbeks have been exploring an alliance with Pakistan that would enable them to trade via Indian Ocean ports and so lessen their dependence on Russia.

Despite what was said in Almaty, interference in Afghanistan will continue. The new anti-Taliban coalition is receiving aid from Iran, Russia and India. Only if Uzbekistan forces its Uzbek ally in Afghanistan, General Dostum, to make a deal with the Taliban will some solution be found. But Dostum has other backers, and with his autonomous region in northern Afghanistan, site of gas, gold and uranium, he has little reason to give in. When asked why he opposed the Taliban, he replied that it was because of their ban on music and alcohol. If Dostum does make a deal–something the Taliban were urgently seeking at press time–it will involve a de facto partition of the country into different ethnic areas, with the Taliban holding the Pathan regions and the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara forces controlling their own.

It is easy to exaggerate the extent to which events in Afghanistan correspond to some broad game plan involving great-power rivalries. Despite Pakistan’s interference, much of the impetus for these recent developments lies in the disruption of Afghan society over nearly two decades of war, the growth of an arms trade and a narcotics trade that no one controls, and the pull of different ethnic groups. The street value of Afghan heroin exports is reckoned to be $80 billion–a strong source of independence for the Afghan growers and Pakistani middlemen handling the trade. (Although they publicly denounce the drug trade, the Taliban have used it to finance their operations.) Yet international agendas, stretching across the Asian continent and the former U.S.S.R., of course will play a part in the country’s future.

For Moscow, the calculation and fears are clear enough. A fundamentalist regime in Kabul would threaten the stability of the Central Asian post-Communist regimes. Short of that it would encourage those regimes to trade through Pakistan, thus depriving Russia of important economic influence in formerly dependent republics. This new Central Asian threat is subsumed under a broader pattern of geopolitical anxiety: In the West, NATO is pressing inexorably nearer the Soviet border, and Moscow cannot stop it; in the Far East, China is a rising economic and military power, whose interests challenge those of Russia; now, in the middle, there has emerged this third challenge, complicated by echoes of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan in the eighties.

Washington, for its part, is working farther west, in the Caspian, to reduce links between Russia and the Transcaucasian republics, and at the same time to contain Iran and cut it out of oil and gas transit deals. “Anything the Iranians can do, we can undo,” one senior State Department official recently said of Iranian policy in this area. The U.S. Central Asian policy has a similar logic. For this reason alone, leaving aside its links to the Pakistani intelligence services or the role of Unocal, Washington is seen as sympathetic to a Taliban victory. American officials have already talked to the new leaders, thereby granting them a measure of legitimacy. While Washington may criticize the Taliban on select issues, the fact remains that Pakistan, a U.S. client, is behind them; that they are opposed by Iran may enhance their position.

American responsibility for recent events in Afghanistan is greater than Administration officials pretend. The United States in fact sabotaged the prospects for a peaceful settlement in the late eighties. The U.S.S.R. agreed to pull out its forces in return for a cessation of U.S. and Pakistani aid to the anti-Communist Islamist forces fighting Najibullah. Confident that Moscow could do nothing about it, Washington ignored that agreement and continued to arm the guerrillas. His regime survived much longer than most had anticipated, but in the end, following the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow, Soviet financial and military aid to Kabul ceased and the government collapsed. It was then that the fundamentalists came to power in a coalition, and a new round of chaos and destruction began. Much of the responsibility for that, and for the military and patriarchal terror that has followed, lies with Washington. One would like to think that as they watch reports of the Taliban victory in Kabul, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, Robert Gates and their ilk will lose a little sleep. It does not seem very likely.