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.