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Page last edited on 12 March, 2003

Taliban Afghanistan: Image and Governance

By Nasim Zehra
Ms. Nasim Zehra is an analyst of Pakistani affairs based in Islamabad. The present article is an edited version of a longer article published in the monthly Himal South Asian magazine of April 2000. 

Summary: In this article, Nasim Zehra argues that after successfully taking power, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan will have to adjust its policy to continue its rule and to lessen international isolation.

On April 8, the United Nations Security Council condemned the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan for a host of misdemeanors. These included continuing its military offensives in the country’s north with Ahmad Shah Massoud, refusing to surrender Osama bin Laden to the United States, promoting drug cultivation and trafficking, deteriorating an already "unacceptable" human rights record, and in particular "continuing grave violations" of the rights of Afghan women and children. Sitting in New York, the Security Council threatened more sanctions against Kabul, in addition to the freezing of Taliban assets and the embargo on the national airline Ariana that were imposed earlier in November. The current President of the Council, the Canadian foreign minister, went so far as to call the Taliban a "criminal gang."

If more proof was required to confirm Afghanistan’s pariah status beyond the fact that the Taliban government is only recognized by three countries, this action by the world’s most powerful security body was it. Propelled by American displeasure over the refuge provided to bin Laden, who stands accused by the US for the bombing of two of its embassies, the Taliban regime does indeed face an image problem. This problem is intensified by an international media biting at the regime’s heels, focusing on the Taliban as a representative of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. And yet, whether the outside world likes it or not, the authority of the Taliban leadership within Afghanistan has for a few years been a fait accompli. In fact, more than 90 percent of the territory of a country that was exploited by the cold-warriors and ravaged by civil war is firmly under the control of the Taliban mullahs. A modicum of calm and security prevails in the devastated land. However, the religious leadership which has found itself at the helm of affairs of this historically fractious land now faces the daunting task of delivering ‘governance,’ whereas until now their focus has been on military victory and internal security. As the Taliban authorities begin to address themselves to the difficult task of socio-economic development, the world—overwhelmingly critical—must try and move beyond the caricatures to understand who the Taliban are, what they represent, and the context in which they operate. This is something that neither the international nor the regional media has yet accomplished. Indeed, the land and the people of Afghanistan deserve a better audience than they have received thus far.

Like most realities, the Taliban phenomenon manifests the complex with the simple, the positive with the negative. Hidden behind the veil of censure of numerous governments, human rights organizations, and sections of the international media, who the Taliban are and how they rule is mostly an untold story. Having created, in its earlier days, a generally harsh and inhospitable environment for visitors and having adopted the policy of banning television, among other things, the Taliban’s posture amounted to a self-imposed isolation. Matters have since improved. Yet inevitably, extremely negative perceptions remain. Meanwhile, in the war of airwaves, a voluntary walkover is handed to the critics. Today’s internal Afghan reality is a cumulative outcome of that of yesterday’s. Undoubtedly, the 1979 Soviet invasion triggered all that was to follow to this day, but many others contributed to the process of molding a political pariah out of Afghanistan. Most of those who contributed to this have, of course, walked away—some to the safety of distant shores or to that world we know nothing about. Some are busy making Afghanistan more misunderstood still, but the rest—and this means the bulk of the Afghan people—yearn for a degree of normalcy.

The country’s recent history merits some review. Back in the 1980s, prompted by a mix of blatant power-play compulsions, inorganic ideological considerations, and geo-strategic calculations, the Soviet Union and the United States dedicated full attention and immense resources to various anti-Kabul groups. Pakistan, too, placed itself in the triple role of the beneficiary of US military and economic support, the benefactor of the Afghan mujahideen groups fighting Kabul, and the host for millions of Afghan refugees. In the 1990s, an unraveling began.

Defeated, the Soviets exited from Afghanistan, and their beneficiary, Dr Najibullah, departed after ruling Kabul from 1989 to 1992. (When the Taliban finally stormed the city in 1996, the communist Najib was dragged from his UN refuge and publicly hanged from an electric utility pole.) The fall of Najib’s government in 1992 was marked by a phase of destruction, devastation, social anarchy, and inter-mujahideen betrayal that wreaked havoc on the Afghan people. If the 1979 Soviet invasion had triggered defiance among the Afghans, now there was only revulsion. While spoils were being fought over in Kabul, the Taliban were consolidating their presence in the Kandahar region to the south. In their first major mission in 1994, they captured an arms-ammunition depot belonging to Hezb-i-Islami chieftain Gulbadin Hekmatyar at Spin Boldak, a town near the Pakistani town Chama. In November of the same year near Kandahar, the Taliban again made news when they released a Central Asia-bound Pakistani convoy from the grasp of local warlords. By November 5, they had taken over Kandahar. The Taliban were now charting their own territory, different from the other mujahideen factions with whom they had joined against the Soviet-backed Kabul governments. Among the fractious political-come-military clusters that made up the mujahideen, the Taliban constituted the one united grouping. The fact that the Taliban were welcomed in many provinces, by locals as well as commanders, points to an estrangement from the mujahideen rulers. Such was the psychological impact of the Taliban’s easy advance from Kandahar towards Paktia, Gardez, Logar, Sarobi, and Kabul, that some people believed that these fighters of Islam had the ability to deflect bullets. In other areas, like Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban gained control through both fighting and defection of opposition commanders.

The current post-Soviet, post-mujahideen phase has left only two effective political forces in Afghanistan: the Taliban and the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud. While both generally enjoy the people’s goodwill, they are vastly unequal. Besides the seat of power in Kabul, the Taliban controls up to 90 percent of Afghan territory, whereas Massoud has retreated to the Panjsheer Valley, controlling about 10 percent of the countryside. He remains a force mainly because of his skills as a guerrilla commander, the backing of locals, and external military and economic support. Massoud was unable to maintain his ethnic combine, called the Northern Alliance, and has lost disenchanted commanders to the Taliban. On the other hand, there has been only minor dissension in the Taliban ranks since they started from Kandahar. Despite the domination of Kandaharis within the Taliban leadership, it has managed an ethnic collage in the provinces that has enabled it to extend and retain influence in even the far-flung, non-Pushtun provinces. Absurdly, the United Nations continues to recognize the Jamiat-i-Islami leader Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani as the president of Afghanistan. A search today would locate Rabbani in Tajikistan, Iran, or in his hometown of Faizabad in the Tajik-speaking Afghan province of Badakhshan, bordering Pakistan. Regardless of the international community’s stance on who should be ruling Afghanistan, it is the Mullah Umar-led Taliban government that controls and administers the country. The exasperation of Kabul’s rulers with the international community’s refusal to recognize their legitimacy is reflected in the outburst of Mullah Jaleel Akhund, Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister and an influential member of the Kabul shura by which major decisions are made. He stated: "I think the world’s faulty understanding of Afghanistan and its inability to fully understand our problems is perhaps the biggest factor that is preventing the government of Afghanistan from solving the problems of the people. Does the world not know that the government of Afghanistan controls 95 percent of the territory and the capital Kabul is also with us? How then can 5 percent people, the opposition, be confronting us?"

Acceptable Behavior

The Taliban government faces the tough task of administering a state that has rarely, beyond four or five provinces, boasted of a Western-style state structure. Instead, the Afghans have always lived with central administrations that delivered minimal social services but guaranteed peace and stability. Authority and legitimacy for this organic system have derived from tribal traditions and practices. The present-day government, too, has earned its staying power from this particular Afghan context, buttressed by five additional factors. They are: the continuing hold of tradition; the exit of the majority of Western-educated elite; a largely-destroyed physical infrastructure; an invasion and war-triggered reactive socio-political mindset of the overwhelming majority of the Afghans; and, an economic situation that has virtually no institutional link to international capital and structures. Due to these foregoing reasons, it has been possible for the Afghanistan regime to remain outside the internationally-certified norms of ‘acceptable’ state behavior. The absence of an aid-dependent mindset offers the Afghan leadership the freedom of not linking key decisions to donor receipts and goodwill. At the same time, this inward-looking attitude prevents the government from generating some succor for a cash-starved, poverty-stricken people.

It is true that the men who control 90 percent of Afghanistan today seem to be largely content with the fundamentals of their own traditional and madrassa-tutored world view and with the kind of government they have sustained. However, this world view is not acceptable even to Afghanistan’s Islamic neighbors, who regard the banning of women from the workplace and from educational institutions as un-Islamic. As for much of the West and Afghan expatriates, the Taliban may as well be cavemen.

However, the fact is that the Taliban authorities have changed their conduct in certain areas and have indicated that they are not as ardently fixated on the extreme social conservatism that has been portrayed by the world media. The adjustments that have been made do not violate the Taliban’s interpretation of underlying Afghan traditions and Islam. These changes, while provoked by necessity, have also been presented with some backing of logic. For example, the gradual softening of the ban on television is presented as "starting television in Afghanistan when enough good quality programs can be produced." Despite reports of extreme rigidity, there has been an easing of the controls on women, including the allowance of head-to-toe burqa-clad women to drive cars. Additional developments include granting diplomatic immunity to UN staff, acceding to the UN demand for placing human rights monitors in Afghanistan, and replacing antagonistic rhetoric against the countries hostile towards it with a proclaimed readiness for dialogue and peace. Being in a governmental position, it could not have been otherwise that the Taliban’s views and practices would become gradually moderated. And more opening up is inevitable, due to the internally secure situation and also to external influences. The only factor that may propel Afghan society in reverse gear is another major military or political upheaval.

On the Move

The Taliban appear to be actively seeking constructive engagement with the world. Although not as ‘Government of Afghanistan,’ the Taliban do sign and honor agreements with UN agencies for humanitarian work. They have been sending ministerial-level delegations to various countries on a regular basis, conferring with representatives of international aid agencies inside and outside Pakistan, and are also beginning to open up to the international media. According to the external information cell in the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the last 12 months, 330 journalists visited the country. Says a foreign office official, "We go and tell them of our present reality and hope that they will understand us better."

For a group that is considered reticent and xenophobic, Afghan officials have been on the move, attending an increasing number of seminars and conferences away from home. The Chief Justice recently went to Budapest for a 19-day conference on organized crime, while officials of the Ministry of Water and Power went to the United States for meetings with the UNOCAL consortium (Union Oil Company of California). In March, the Deputy Minister for Public Health, Mullah Abbas Stanakzai, went to Nepal for a conference on public health. Mullah Rabbani, the president of the Council of Ministers, recently visited the Gulf states, while the minister and his deputy in the Foreign Ministry have visited numerous European as well as regional countries, including China. While international travel does not always indicate increased openness, in the case of Taliban Afghanistan, such an argument may be convincingly made.

Complex Questions

The Taliban authorities maintain that their willingness to engage critics extends to even the most complex of questions. They mean, obviously, the "Osama" matter, for the presence of the belligerent Saudi, Osama bin Laden, in a hideout in Afghanistan has seen unprecedented and unrelenting media interest over the past few years. And it is not as if the Afghans have their head in the sand—more than half a dozen direct talks have been held in Pakistan (mostly in Islamabad) between the Americans and the Taliban on the Osama issue over the last four years. There has been at least one visit to Afghanistan by a US Congressman. The Taliban have asked the Americans for evidence against Osama, upon receipt of which they have given the undertaking of having him tried to their shariah court. No breakthrough is presently imminent, because the Taliban government will never accede to the one-point American demand that Osama be surrendered to Washington. It is unlikely that any government in Kabul—let alone Taliban—will give in to such a demand given the extra premium that Afghan tradition places on ‘hospitality’ and ‘loyalty.’ Says Mawlawi Abdul Raqeeb, Minister for Repatriation, Martyrs and Disabled, "It is not a personal matter, it is a matter of our principles—religion, faith, jihad and hospitality. No one dare violate any of these." The Afghans realize, of course, that there is a price tag attached to their position on Osama. According to Deedar, a prominent Taliban commander and a former captain in the army of the late Sardar Mohammad Daud (king Zahir Shah’s cousin and brother-in-law, who deposed him in a bloodless coup in 1973), the Osama problem has been of no help to them, leading to American sanctions as it did. But he nevertheless defends the government’s position: "We told the US that Osama will not create any problem against the Americans, but the US has not understood what is to their own advantage. If Osama goes to any other country he can do whatever he wants, but here we have stopped all his activities and he can carry out no operations." Mullah Jaleel, the deputy foreign minister, had this to say on the Osama matter: "Osama is, I guess, here. Osama’s whereabouts were known to Saudi Arabia and America all along. We made a commitment to the world that from our territory Osama will never undertake any terrorist act. Today he is under our complete control. He has no wireless system, he has no telephone and has therefore no communication with the outside world. He is a helpless, harmless man. The US should be thankful to us. They had themselves encouraged and practically helped him to engage in jihad."

On the US demand that the Taliban simply hand over Osama, the minister is categorical: "The Americans have unilaterally declared him a criminal and so cannot give him a just trial. Handing over Osama to the Americans goes against our tradition, religion and spirit of hospitality." Mullah Jaleel then gives the argument a twist: "I ask the West what justice is it that they have kept a satan in their own country, made him their special guest and turned him into a hero for his crime of blasphemy." Bending forward, the minister says, "You know, I am talking about Salman Rushdie."

Public Support

When outsiders superficially accuse the Taliban of imposing alien ways on the Afghan public, especially religious extremism and ethnic exclusions, they fail to realize that it is the Taliban’s very ability to understand, accept and assimilate the organic ways of administering Afghanistan that has made them such a sustained success. The Taliban’s influence and control over a majority of the provinces is directly linked to their ability to keep the population, and especially the tribal leadership, satisfied. The success has been in maintaining peace and security, and providing livelihood opportunities to the population (in agriculture), without disturbing the tradition-bound practices. The significance of social peace and security for the Afghans must be understood against the backdrop of the 20-year war. Outsiders fail to fully understand what it means to the average Afghani that their country has a semblance of stability after so many years of mayhem and terror. It is also important to note that the Taliban leadership has demonstrated an ability to correct its mistakes in matters both large and small. For example, in February, under great public pressure, the governor of Paktia province (southeast of Kabul, bordering Pakistan) Abdullah Aga Kandhari was replaced by Mullah Shafiq, another Kandahari. Abdullah Aga had failed to appreciate local traditions, including the power of the jirgas (tribal councils) and their khans (chieftains), and had started distributing state land in Khost to outsiders. Intelligence reports were dispatched by representatives of the Ministry of Interior to Kandahar, and Aga was removed. He now heads the Afghan Red Crescent Society.

It is true that the traditional consideration shown to women was replaced in many instances by the exploitative attitude of some mujahideen fighters, but there are also examples of correctives applied by the authorities. When a widow refused to allow a mujahid fighter to marry her young daughter, he did so forcibly, saying, "We fought a 11-year jihad for your safety and you won’t let me have your daughter!" He married her, only to leave her after a week. Three years later, the mother got permission from the local Taliban leader to remarry her daughter, a decision that an outsider would not normally ascribe to those who rule Kabul today.

Ministers and Soldiers

Having succeeded over the last three years in bringing relative calm to the countryside and security to the people, the Taliban authorities are now confronted with the challenge of long-term governance. The population requires the government to deliver on multiple fronts: rehabilitation of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced refugees, reconstruction of infrastructure destroyed during the years of warfare, rehabilitation of the agricultural system, revival of whatever minimal industry possible, and provision of basic amenities like food, water, and health services.

There are also a vocal few who are calling for the introduction of quality contemporary education. They want an end to the government-dictated curriculum and restoration of higher studies. Although girls up to the age of eight can avail of education, it remains generally banned for women, and the 2000 women sent packing from Kabul University by the victorious Taliban want to return. There are also subdued voices making the forceful case that the authorities need to focus on objectives more consequential than the size of a man’s beard and the strict enforcement of the full-length burqa (as opposed to the head-covering chador). Although some women working in the health sector have been allowed to return to a segregated work environment, many working women still sit at home receiving a percentage of their previous salaries.

The public’s expectation, combined with the context within which the Taliban government is now operating, pose a four-dimensional challenge to the government. There is the ongoing land battle with Ahmad Shah Massoud in the north, the need for social, economic and political reconstruction of state and society, the pressure to confront international demands, and finally, the task of enticing skilled and resourceful Afghans who have gone into Western exile to return. These challenges require a skilled and sophisticated response -- the question is whether the Taliban government has such ability to respond.

To seek an answer, one should remember that the Taliban government is comprised of a rag-tag army of devoted madrassa-educated Talibs, led by men who are in ministerial chairs one day and in battle-front-bound Hilux trucks the next. It is difficult to imagine these battle-hardened men having the skills to govern the country in the long run, or in peacetime. Indeed, the Taliban leadership has no experience in managing modern institutions, engaging with hard-core economic and social development issues, or developing foreign policy. It was during the Soviet invasion that these (at that time) young men of Afghanistan began streaming into madrassas in Pakistan, in cities like Karachi, Akora Khattak, Faisalabad, Multan and various parts of the NWFP. This was made possible as a result of a conscious decision by General Zia-ul-Haq, who guided the establishment of even more madrassas so that more religiously-motivated men would emerge to fight the jihad against the Russians. The madrassa syllabus included learning the Quran by rote, interpretation of the Quranic scripture, Islamic jurisprudence, life of Prophet Mohammed, philosophy, mathematics and a weak smattering of modern subjects. They have virtually no experience in interacting with women outside the immediate family. They have been taught that the dictates of Islamic morality and social peace require the shariah to be enforced and sunnah, the way of the Prophet, to be followed. Photography is un-Islamic and photographers are haraam, which is why the camera-based world of television and movies are to be strictly avoided, as is music. They believe that it is the state’s responsibility to enforce hadood punishments for theft, adultery, and killing. Riba (the interest or usuary forbidden in shariah), too, must be banned. Above everything, however, the Taliban believe that the state must provide for the poor and destitute in society. This broadly constitutes the world view of the Taliban—forged in what the Taliban viewed as the moral decline and suffering that accompanied the mujahideen resistance against the Soviets.

Holy Book as Constitution

The struggle for Afghanistan remains a three-party dispute: the Taliban occupies center-stage, Massoud is at the margins, and expatriate Afghans reside at the outer limits. In power for five years, the Taliban leadership needs to manage the dual task of keeping the Talibs flowing to the war front while at the same time administering the country as a whole. Mullah Umar, the Ameer-ul-Mumineen (Leader of the Faithful) of the Taliban, directs an elaborate government machinery with the help of two of his most trusted men, Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, the foreign minister, and Mullah Jaleel Akhund, his deputy. Sitting in Kandahar, he controls the area under the regime through the intermediary of his nominees. They variously occupy positions in a number of bodies: a six-member Kandahar-based shura, a six-member Kabul-based shura, a 23-member national Council of Ministers, around 40 deputy ministers, 27 governors for the provinces, and six corps commanders. The Holy Quran is the Constitution of Afghanistan. Assisted by his Kandahar and Kabul-based shuras, Mullah Umar makes all the major decisions related to policy, administration, and war matters. His farmans are the equivalent of presidential ordinances and are promptly implemented. All postings and transfers, from ministers down to the director-general level, are ordered by Mullah Umar. Ministers whose performance is considered unsatisfactory, based on Mullah Umar’s information sources, are demoted to deputy minister or director-general. In military matters, too, based on advice from his commanders, Mullah Umar makes the final decision on strategic moves. All advances and retreats are based on his orders relayed to the front. Given this system of governance under Mullah Umar, in essence the mode and structure of government operations in Afghanistan have not changed since earlier regimes. If earlier it were the kings or the Soviet-Union backed presidents whose dictates were the law, it is now Mullah Umar, assisted by his shuras, who exercise the authoritarian prerogative. While ministerial orders may be overlooked by local commanders, Mullah Umar’s word is law.

Despite all the destruction that it has suffered, and a partial and seasonal state of war, the Afghan state is a functioning one. There is a structure, as well as line ministries, some of which certainly work better than others. Three categories of staff run the government: at the top are the Taliban leaders, the middle consists of bureaucratic leftovers from the communist era, and at the third and lowest rung are the support staff. The Council of Ministers meets weekly, and routine performance checks by ministers and director-generals are conducted on functioning service outlets like health centers and primary schools. Decisions taken are relayed through the passing of orders known as tehreerat. If the collection of duties on imports is seen as a sign of an active state, then Taliban meets this standard, as the Taliban government collects duties at the center as well as in the provinces. Passports are issued by the Ministry of Interior, and driving licenses by the traffic police headquarters—obvious enough for any country but deserving mention in the case of Afghanistan. Kabul’s highly-organized traffic system is manned by policemen in pants and shirts. The Ministry of Interior manages the police as well as a highly efficient intelligence network. To enable state functionaries and the Taliban leadership to move around in Kabul during the curfew hours, a new password is issued every night by the Ministry of Interior. There are numerous Taliban-manned check posts and toll-tax booths along the road from the Khybher Pass via Torkham to Kabul. Meanwhile, efforts, though slow, are underway to inject academic life into the war-ravaged Kabul University. The main problem seems to be an acute lack of money.

The state continues to be the largest employer in Afghanistan. The Ministries of Education, Works, and Communication employ around 12,000, 32,000 and 4,000 employees, respectively. With little in the form of income, the government salaries are low, with the pay scale ranging from 100 to 3,000 Pakistani rupees monthly. The result is a unmotivated bureaucracy. As one mid-level official in the Ministry of Education says, "Can anyone survive on this? How will we feed our children, our families?" But whether it is at the Education Ministry, The Kabul Times newspaper, the Kabul University, or the Kabul Police department, the atmosphere is thoroughly unprofessional. According to one aid agency representative who regularly interacts with the government, the ministries are working only at "5 percent efficiency." Part of the reason is that the ministers and deputy ministers spend a significant amount of time at the front. There is clearly some realization among those in power that the demands of administration and public service are not being met. In order to address these problems, much of which emanate from the lack of funds, the obvious advance has to be in terms of increased openness towards the donor community. Prompted by pragmatism in this area at least, the change in attitude is abundantly visible. The Taliban now regularly invite representatives of international agencies to business luncheon meetings at the Kabul Inter-Continental—quite a departure from the old days when the same individuals would maintain that foreign agencies and NGOs were not at all needed. Some of the ministers have even gone so far as to receive women delegates from foreign donor agencies. Even the more reluctant ones, such as the Deputy President of Council of Ministers, Mullah Hasan, have been convinced by his deputies in the Ministry of Repatriation and Planning to meet with the female director of the agency CARE, who visited recently. In agreeing with the entreaties, Mullah Hasan stipulated the condition that there would be no other exceptions to the rule.

The Kabul government’s decision to celebrate March 8, 2000 as International Women’s Day illustrates the Taliban’s resolve to adjust to new realities so that they will at least be able to engage the donor community. The order that women may not leave their homes on their own is no longer operative. The men from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue now keep a low profile, compared to the past when they would regularly check, and beat men with short beards and harass women without the appropriate burqa or the dark-coloured socks. Meanwhile, to protect female chastity, Talib guards sit armed in small vans monitoring male movements in the women-packed bazaars around Kabul’s Bagh-i-Omoomi.

International Relations

Only three countries have recognized the Taliban government—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But it is only with Pakistan that the Kabul government has anything close to normal relations. However, Islamabad’s ability to support them is circumscribed by its own bleak economic situation and increasing political isolation. Some military support from Pakistan must also be received in Taliban, but the fact that they have not yet been able to defeat the Massoud forces indicates the extent of this support. There are around two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan (another one million in Iran), and thousands of Afghans have by now been assimilated into the Pakistani economy. As for Taliban’s equation with India, relations can be described in three letters: n-i-l. India, like the UN, recognizes the deposed president Rabbani, while the former president Najibullah’s family is believed to be living in India. The Taliban leadership believes that India militarily supports their rivals, including Massoud and Uzbek Commander General Rashid Dostum. For a brief moment, during the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight and the extended standoff at Kandahar, there was some indication that India might engage diplomatically with the Taliban. However, it is clear that such expectation has not carried through.

The old private sector Afghan-India trade ties continue, but at a much depleted level. A Delhi-based Indian who was waiting for some papers at Kabul’s Foreign Ministry said he continues to import dry fruit from Afghanistan via Pakistan and Dubai. "Of the two to three hundred licensed Indian traders, I am the only one left. Others got scared and withdrew," he says. He notes that the Taliban government did not cancel the trade licenses when it came to power, and that UN sanctions forbidding the national airline Ariana from flying abroad made the trade extremely difficult. Overall, the Indian government seems to believe that the Taliban may not have staying power, which is why it is not engaging the Kabul government. At the same time, it could also be that New Delhi will not be able to sustain its allegations of Islamic terrorism, which the strategists in New Delhi employ, were there were to be a rapprochement with Kabul.

Transient Phenomenon

The Taliban’s onward journey as the government of Afghanistan is bound to be a precarious one. Faced with the unfinished battle with Massoud, political skirmishes and minor uprisings, acts of attempted sabotage in Kabul, and a unabating propaganda war in the international press, the Taliban leadership has not been able to open up its top ranks to the skilled expatriate Afghans whom it so desperately requires for the skills they have. The wave of migration to the West began with the ouster of Najibullah in 1992 and the subsequent closure of educational institutions. While the mass of destitute refugees are holed up in camps in Pakistan and Iran, skilled Afghans have found easy sanctuary in the West, with the US and Germany having been particularly generous in granting asylum. According to an official with the UNHCR, the refugee agency, at least 200 Afghans continue to fly out every week from Karachi and Islamabad in their onward journey to the West. The first problem in returning for this capable category of expatriate Afghan professional is political, but it is compounded by the problems of social conservatism and lack of economic incentive.

There is, then, the critical battle-front with Massoud. He has refused the Taliban’s offer of a cabinet position if he accepts Mullah Umar as the head of government. Massoud gets his military support from Russia, Iran, India and also minimally from Tajikistan. He also gets some help from the Tajiks in the Panjsheer area. Meanwhile, the support of ethnic groups like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras for the Taliban is limited. The challenges before the Taliban government—of social progress, economic development and fighting a war—are daunting. However, perhaps because of their religion-fronted zeal, a sense of pessimism or frustration is absent, and the officials appear zealous in tackling the colossal tasks of reconstruction and rehabilitation. As one minister told a UN Special Rapporteur, "We had our own priority -- our country was to be divided into various parts, and our first priority was to ensure our country’s unity. Now we will work in other areas."

Principally, the Taliban are now engaged in a security maintenance operation. But on the more complex task of governance, of delivering basic amenities to the people and ensuring an environment within which they can earn a livelihood, the government is crippled because of lack of funds and skilled hands. The support being provided through the humanitarian UN agencies and foreign NGOs is extremely limited in comparison to what is required. The state functions at a rudimentary level, mainly because the modern institutions of higher education, science and technology, business and commerce, judiciary, and so on, have been destroyed. In the area of judiciary or basic trade, some institutions continue to work along traditional lines, capable of undertaking simple and uncomplicated tasks like holding jirgas, implementing shariah edicts, or importing cars from Japan.

Given the sociological upbringing of the Taliban, their adjustment to the world of governance will be nothing short of radical. But for the Taliban government to truly evolve, the external pressure upon it has to ease, even as the Taliban themselves streamline and loosen their orthodox systems. The Taliban are necessarily a transient phenomenon -- they are as relevant for today’s Afghanistan as they will be irrelevant to a future rehabilitated Afghanistan, at least in their present form and texture.

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Last updated on 12 March, 2003

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