"few genuine fanatics belonged to the group"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 7 07:39:28 MST 2001

Two months on, a war waged by the strong against the weak nears its
inevitable end
War on terrorism

By Patrick Cockburn in Ghazni, on the Kandahar Road

The Independent, 07 December 2001

The end could be foreseen from the moment the night sky over Kabul turned a
bright yellow as the first American bombs and missiles landed near the
airport two months ago.

>From a hill to the north of the capital we could see the Taliban
anti-aircraft fire, a few feeble sparks of red and white, explode uselessly
far below the American aircraft. In few wars has the disparity of force
between the two sides been so obvious.

"They could not take any more American bombing, so they had to surrender,"
said a young Northern Alliance officer called Abdul Razeq yesterday morning
as we drove down the road from Kabul towards Kandahar. He explained that
his commander had just received a call from Hamid Karzai, the anti-Taliban
Pashtun leader fighting just north of Kandahar, saying that the Taliban
fighters were going to give up.

It has been the strangest war, decided mainly by defections. Afghans had
seen the first bombs come down, just as we had done, and had concluded that
the United States and its local ally, the Northern Alliance, must win.
Nobody here likes to bet on a loser. In a quarter of century of war in
Afghanistan, sudden betrayals and switches of alliance, not battles, have
decided the victor.

All this was obvious yesterday in Ghazni, the fortress city on the Kandahar
road. Abdul Razeq had earlier explained that what we were doing was a
little dangerous. He said that in Wardag, the first province we came to,
the Taliban "have joined our side, but only very recently and they still
have the same commanders. Sit in the back of the car and don't get out."

Ghazni, a bleak city dominated by the guns and tanks in its
thousand-year-old citadel, had already led the way for Kandahar. The
Taliban have simply dematerialised. In return for giving up power, they
received a de facto amnesty. Qari Baba, the ponderous- looking governor of
Ghazni province, had been appointed the day before. "I don't see any
Taliban here," he said, which was surprising, since the courtyard in front
of his office was crowded with tough- looking men in black turbans carrying
sub-machine-guns. "Every one of them ex- Taliban," Abdul Razeq said as we
got back in the car.

The reasons for the Taliban defeat are obvious enough. There was the US
bombing. There was the hatred felt towards them by the non-Pashtun
minorities, who make up 60 per cent of Afghans. Of the remaining 40 per
cent, half are women – whom they treated as a sub-species. And the Pashtun
themselves were never united behind the regime.

But the Northern Alliance was also weak and its military strength
uncertain. Most males in Afghanistan can fight. In October, I met a
defector from the Taliban, a shopkeeper from Kunduz in the north, whose
captors were displaying him like a prize marrow at a village fête. A small
man, he had staggered across no man's land clutching a sub-machine-gun, a
Kalashnikov and a pistol. I asked him how long the Taliban had trained him.
He said: "Just two days, but like everybody else here I can use a gun."

There were few trained troops on either side, apart from about 12,000 men
drilled by Ahmed Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance leader assassinated on
9 September. Even these had their problems. One of them owned the Japanese
pick-up truck used by The Independent. An unsmiling man called Abdul
Rashid, he had taken it from the Taliban three years ago. He once grimly
explained to me that the 40 men he led would starve if it was not for the
rent from the truck.

In fact, the Northern Alliance played its cards with great skill. At a
moment when the world was desperate for news from Afghanistan, it organised
an airlift of journalists across the peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains from
Tajikistan to the Panjshir valley just north of Kabul. This put the
Alliance on the political map of the world. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, its suave
and intelligent foreign spokesman, would meet us day after day in the
pretty garden of a government guest-house.

Working with the Northern Alliance, which is partly armed and supported by
Russia and Iran, was a little difficult for the US to swallow. But it
needed a local ally, and the Alliance was the only game in town. Despite
the offence caused to Pakistan, America had to bomb the Taliban's frontline
trenches if it was to win.

The Taliban were always thought likely to unravel in northern Afghanistan,
where there are few Pashtun. But at some point it seemed a hardcore of
Taliban fanatics would turn and fight.

They, however, turned out not to exist. The swift rise of the Taliban, of
course, had depended on Pakistan's ISI intelligence service and Saudi
money. But the surprise of the war has been how few genuine fanatics
belonged to the group.

A problem of covering the war was that it was difficult to meet members of
the Taliban. This was their own fault, since they had banned the media at
the start of the crisis. After the fall of Kabul, I did meet Mullah
Khaksar, who had been the deputy interior minister. He said: "They did not
know what all the world knows, that the people hated them." Yet when the
Taliban had first taken Kabul in 1996, he had "liked them because they
provided security", he said – and he had not been alone.

The savage civil war between the different parties of the Northern Alliance
has reduced most of Kabul to ruins. But the brutality of the Taliban and
their obsession with controlling people's private lives meant that they had
long outlived their welcome. The diminishing number of people who went to
Kabul sports stadium to see alleged thieves have their hands amputated
discovered that their bicycles were stolen while they watched. Even those
fond of innocent pleasures such as kite-flying were rewarded with a beating
or even prison.

There is still something terrifying about the way in which the Taliban
pursued their obsessions. In Bamiyan, a valley in central Afghanistan, they
destroyed two colossal 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues, condemning them as
un-Islamic, earlier this year.

I thought one smaller statue in a distant glen might have survived. But
when I got there a local farmer pointed to an empty stone niche in a cliff
face, saying: "There is nothing left. They destroyed it like they destroyed
everything else." 

Louis Proyect
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