Chapter 7

The Consequences of a Failed State 


By Dr Robert Johnson

Since 1978, Afghanistan has endured over thirty years of violence, with profound consequences for its people. The Communist government of 1978, having violently seized power, proceeded to coerce the Afghan population into a series of unpopular social and economic reforms. The ruling party’s own quarrels and escalating popular resistance to socialist changes eventually provoked open revolt, prompting Soviet military intervention a year and half later. Soviet plans did not take into account the possibility of further armed resistance, and Moscow struggled to comprehend the conflict it had inherited. 

On the other side, seeking to champion the cause of the Afghan resistance against the “onward march of socialism”, there was further foreign intervention from the US, Pakistan and the Gulf countries. In all such wars, the civilians bear the brunt. The protracted character of the war worsened the plight of Afghan citizens, millions of whom were forced into temporary exile as refugees. Mine warfare proved especially deadly to a people largely dependent on agriculture and confined to limited routes because of the nature of the terrain. Few agree on the numbers killed or maimed during this depressing war. There are estimates that nearly two million people died, while a further two million were injured.27 

When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, there was some optimism that the Afghans could settle their differences and build a better future. Such hopes were short-lived. The mujahedin resistance factions fought amongst each other, and the central government collapsed when funding from the Soviet Union ended abruptly in 1991. State institutions withered and virtually disappeared. Gunmen and warlord-led clans battled it out in the streets of Kabul, reducing the old city to ruins, while everywhere roadside robberies and taxation at the muzzle of an assault rifle became the norm. 

The emergence of an austere, puritanical sect amidst this Hobbesian world seems all the more understandable with the distance of time, and the Taliban were undoubtedly welcomed in some quarters as the means to end the war. In the regions with sectarian or ethnic difference to this southern Pashtun movement however, the reaction was one of horror. The Taliban exhibited a terrible brutality towards many Afghans and it was suspected that such untypical behaviour must be foreign-inspired, from the more extreme Deobandi tradition of Pakistani madrassas or from Arab chauvinists who looked down on Afghan culture. 

Having been subjected to beatings or disciplinarian regulations for some years, in 2001 the Afghans found that another foreign invasion was underway. It was difficult to grasp that this assault was due to the Taliban’s decision to allow al Qaeda to base itself in the country, and to mount 9/11, the world’s most outrageous mass casualty terrorist attack from its soil. Nevertheless, there was again a brief period of hope when the Taliban and their al Qaeda associates were driven out. 

The Communist Era and the Collapse of the State

“The Soviets decided that the way to isolate the fish was to drain the ocean. The Soviet Air Force…was useless against a guerrilla that it could not target. However, the air force could readily target irrigation systems, orchards, cropland, farms, villages and livestock. The air force went after the mujahedin support structure”.28

On 1 January 1990, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that Soviet scorched earth tactics in Afghanistan, part of their strategy to destroy the insurgency, had created 6.2 million refugees.29 It is estimated that the Afghan population was reduced by around 10 percent from 15 million during the Soviet occupation. This is arguably a greater proportional loss than Soviet civilians in the Second World War.30 Consequently, the campaign has been labelled as “migratory genocide”. 

While Soviet forces were eager to bring to bear maximum firepower against the resistance they encountered, their policy of “rubblisation” of villages and compounds undoubtedly drove more Afghans into the arms of the mujahedin and encouraged thousands to take up arms. Afghan notions of badal (retributive justice), fuelled by the deaths of family or clan by bombing, swelled the ranks of the mujahedin, and those who found themselves languishing in refugee camps were often eager to strike back at the Shuvrov (Soviets). 

The Soviet Limited Contingent of 40th Army was, on the one hand, eager to assert it was acting in support of the Afghan people, in the usual Marxist-Leninist tones. However their “monopoly on high technology” made it too easy to resort to force which, as one military specialist put it, “magnified the destructive aspects of their behaviour”.31 The result was that 12,000 out of 24,000 villages and towns were destroyed and with them, hundreds of bridges, roads, culverts, irrigation networks, and other infrastructure.

However, physical structures are easier to rebuild than social systems - people can never be brought back. The Soviets estimated that this type of destructive campaign was effective because it inflicted relentless losses on the mujahedin fighters. Their formula was to calculate the amount of ammunition expended and assume that this led to a proportion of deaths amongst resistance fighters. On this basis they asserted that the mujahedin lost thirty thousand men every year from 1982, which was a significant exaggeration.32 

Colonel Leonid Shershnev who served in Afghanistan wrote a long and critical report about Soviet operations in 1984 and sent it directly to the General Secretary of the Party, Konstantin Chernenko.33 He said that military operations in Afghanistan had taken on the character of punitive campaigns, the civilian population was treated with systematic brutality, weapons were used casually and without justification, homes were destroyed, mosques defiled, and looting was widespread. He concluded: “We have got ourselves into a war against the people, which is without prospects”. 

Ivan Arreguin-Toft observes: “Soviet forces were so thoroughly unsuited to a counter-insurgency mission that their failures must be attributed almost entirely to strategic interaction”. He explains: “They swung a blunt club, and the mujahedin ducked and stabbed them in the foot with a sharp stick”.34 The Soviets “incorrectly determined that the destruction of the Afghan villages and crops would strip the guerrillas of their means to wage war, thereby making their will to wage it irrelevant”.35 They failed to appreciate that in order to win wars amongst the people, “defeat must be visited upon the minds and will of the vanquished for it to carry any significance”.36 They failed to grasp that inflicting destruction and death on the various Afghan communities did not create a state of national paralysis and submission, but ignited each community in turn against them. 

Nevertheless, the Soviets undoubtedly only worsened an already bitter and ideological civil conflict. When Hafizullah Amin became Prime Minister in March 1979, before the Soviet intervention, he imposed state terror to establish control. Secret police brutalities increased and Edward Giradet, the journalist in Afghanistan at the time, estimates that some 20,000 were killed in purges or state executions.37 These extra-judicial killings were carried out at Pul-e Charki prison in Kabul on a large scale, and included rivals within the Afghan Communist party. The prison commandant, a loyalist of the “Khalq” faction, remarked: “A million Afghans are all that should remain alive. We need a million Khalqis. The others we don’t need, we will get rid of them.” The instability caused by Amin was serious enough for other communists to neutralise him. The KGB, or Afghan allies, murdered Amin in the first hours of the Soviet occupation. 

The new leader, Karmal, was expected to comply with the occupation and make arrangements for the improvement of the Afghan army, the forging of unity in the PDPA, strengthening the relationship between the state and “the masses”, and developing the country economically. However, the very existence of foreign troops negated the legitimacy of the Karmal regime as far as the Afghan people were concerned. Moreover, the Soviet armed forces represented yet another tool of coercion for a party that had already exhibited a ruthless disregard for the interests of the population. 

To make matters worse, Soviet troops had little love for their new posting or the Afghan people. Known for its harsh discipline and endemic bullying, the Soviet army’s mistreatment of civilians was predictable, particularly when many Slavs harboured racist beliefs about the Afghans. Attacked by mujahedin in civilian clothes, it was easy to assume that all the Afghan people were in league with the resistance. Low morale, high levels of sickness, and increasing acceptance of reprisals increased the divide between occupiers and occupied in the years that followed.

Even cooperation between the Soviets and the Afghan communists was troubled. The Khedamat-i Attalatt-e Dawlatti (KhAD: the Afghan Communist secret police) provided vital intelligence, but often through intimidation and brutality. The Afghan army and police were far less effective, and cooperation was strained. Treated with disdain by the Soviets, some Afghan troops killed their officers or Russian advisors and defected. Others turned into informers for the resistance. The number of conscripts was only maintained through more reasonable rates of pay and regular rations although, to obtain recruits, the army had sometimes to cordon entire villages and force men onto trucks at gunpoint.

The Soviet war bequeathed both important and malign legacies to Afghanistan. There was an abundance of weapons throughout the country, multiple groups of battle-seasoned fighters unwilling to accept any compromise where their interests were not protected, and a generation that had not known agriculture or trade, only the business of war and the hardship of life as a refugee. Afghanistan was littered with mines sown by all parties in the Soviet war, and in the civil war that followed. There are still casualties as old mines are set off by children and farmers working their fields, while today’s insurgents unearth stockpiles for their improvised explosive devices. 

The inflow of aid also created a dependency culture in the Afghan economy. The Afghan communist government was reliant on Soviet funding, and the mujahedin on American, Saudi and Pakistani support. The first Soviet military loan of $32.4 million was made in 1956 and this grew to $1.25 billion by 1979. Once the war had broken out, Moscow continued to pour money into the country. For their part, the Americans dedicated $3 billion in covert aid in the 1980s, amounting to around $700 million per year. Saudi Arabia funded their Jihad and missionary work, giving considerable and unspecified sums, while unofficial Gulf donors gave their own, unknown, quantities. This war funding and its sudden termination in the early 90s led to an economic crisis. 

The war and the imbalance of wealth in favour of armed groups had caused the decimation of traditional state elites and social systems. The domination of royalty, leftists, and intellectuals was replaced by new elites, myriad armed groups of mujahedin, the Taliban, extremist Hezb-e Gulbuddin, and the Haqqani network. The war led to the destruction of the institutions of the state, especially the Afghan Army and police, and these were replaced by aggressive and acquisitive militias. 

There was a normalization of violence, a form of “Kalishnikovisation”, quite unlike the periodic inter-clan battles and raiding of the past. There was widespread destruction of economic infrastructure, including factories, energy and power lines, transportation and irrigation. Economic activity was reduced to the “kiosk”, the opium-heroin trade, and smuggling. State taxation was replaced effectively by gunmen. Transactions depended on bribes and favours. Astri Suhrke has shown that even in 2005 official taxation was only eight percent of all estimated income in the national budget.38

Afghanistan declined from a “rentier state” paid for by others, to a “failed state” where institutions collapsed all together between 1992 and 1993.39 Warlords established independent fiefdoms and they regarded the Afghan people as the main source for their sustained funding. The capital was almost abandoned and all centralised structures disappeared. When Western forces and UN agencies swept into the ruins of Kabul in 2001, they faced the task of building a country, literally from scratch. 

Crushed by Soviet military power, Afghans had invoked religion to compensate for their relative weakness, although this too created an important legacy. The defence of Islam gave the resistance a moral dimension and encouraged a sense of self-sacrifice. It encouraged other Muslims, including political elites in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and foreign volunteers, to participate in the conflict. In Afghanistan itself, village mullahs were given new prominence, although this was perhaps a reflection of an undoubtedly strong sense of community heightened by an external threat. The loss of family or clan members was, in fact, just as effective at mobilising the survivors, and those who had lost all their property saw little option but to fight. Legitimate political protest was simply impossible. In Kabul in February 1980, 800 demonstrators were killed in a crackdown. The subsequent combination of militancy and militarisation offered little hope for the future peaceful reconstruction of the country, for a whole generation had learned that force would prevail, often justified by a vengeful interpretation of Islam.

Afghanistan would also suffer as a result of the ambitions of Pakistan. General Zia-ul-Haq, military president of Pakistan in the 1980s, was willing to exploit the language of radical Islam to garner support for his regime. Zia argued that the Soviet Union was effectively an ally of India, and, given the United States’ antagonism with Iran and the USSR, Zia got American aid to the tune of $3.2 billion. Pakistan’s assistance to the mujahedin was channeled through the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) of the Pakistan army. While a secular organisation, Islamist views gained currency as a way of justifying decisions that could not then be questioned, and there was close support for the radical Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as their protégé in Afghanistan. 

Hekmatyar, who commanded little loyalty amongst fellow Afghan Pashtuns, impressed ISI with his ruthlessness. Hekmatyar carefully stockpiled his weaponry, insisted on the lion’s share of ISI backing, and concentrated on cultivating his political allies in Pakistan.40 Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Service also supported orthodox Sunni factions in the mujahedin, including Hekmatyar, largely in an attempt to contain radical Afghan Shi’ites who had Iranian backing. Some Saudis of the radical Wahhabi sect, including Osama bin Laden, made their way to Afghanistan as volunteers, although bin Laden was not a fighter – in spite of al Qaeda propaganda to the contrary, he merely built hostelries and provided logistical support. Pan-Islamists, such as the Palestinian Dr Abdullah Azzam, also joined the resistance and fostered the sense that the Muslim world was under attack from all sides. This creed, so influential to men like bin Laden, contributed directly to the development of global Islamist terrorism. In the short term, however, these sources of external support prolonged and intensified the war in Afghanistan, to the detriment of the Afghan people.

Yet coercion remained the leitmotif of the war on both sides. Najibullah, the head of the KhAD with the ugly nickname of “the bull”, encouraged atrocities to terrorise the population. His ruthlessness caught the eye of the Soviets and he was soon earmarked as a potential “strong” national leader. His brutalities are amongst the darkest in the history of Afghanistan. Farida Ahmadi, a Kabuli medical student who was arrested for distributing anti-Soviet bulletins, claimed that she was beaten and interrogated by six women guards in one of Najibullah’s detention centres.41 She was often electrocuted and witnessed the dismemberment of other prisoners. In testimonies to human rights hearings in Paris, Geneva and the United States, she stated that one prisoner had had their eyes gouged out by a male guard. 

Mrs Nassery, a female high school teacher, also saw victims of torture. She reported that a pile of hands, feet and breasts that had been cut off were piled in the corner of her cell. Prisons were frequently used to conceal the murder of opponents and suspects. Most arrests were made by armed squads in the middle of the night. Reasons for the arrests were rarely given to relatives. 

It was the fall of Kunduz to the mujahedin in August 1988 that suggested the Soviet strategy of stabilisation had failed. Najibullah blamed the defeat on treachery, but there was no disguising how serious it was to lose a major settlement to the resistance. It was also poignant that the mujahedin soon lost the confidence of the Kunduz people because of their mistreatment of the inhabitants. Already there were signs of in-fighting by resistance factions and local militias. A year before, fighting erupted between the mujahedin and the Esmatullah Muslim militia, adding a new depth of bitterness to the war. 

In response, Najibullah made no attempt to heed Moscow’s calls for the adoption of a policy of “national reconciliation”. A new constitution in November 1987 permitted private enterprise and the practice of Islam, but offered little of any substance. Opposition members were invited to join the administration, but only in subordinate roles. The offer of a “ceasefire” for six months, subject to the continuing right of the regime to deliver decisive blows, failed to impress either the resistance or members of the PDPA who saw the offer as “surrender”. Arrests and torture continued.

The end of the Soviet occupation was far from satisfactory from an Afghan point of view. Unsurprisingly, the USSR’s decision to withdraw caused consternation among Afghan communist die-hards. Moscow promised to leave $1 million worth of military equipment. Najibullah, conscious that his administration was vulnerable, visited Gorbachev and urged radical solutions including a joint offensive against Pakistan. He was unsuccessful. Pakistan also failed to gain any dividend from the Soviet exit. Zia was killed in an air crash in August 1988 and was unable to influence the post-occupation Afghanistan. Despite meetings in November 1988 between Soviet officials and two mujahedin leaders, Abdul Rahman of Jaimat-e Islami, and Ghairat Bakeer of Hezb-e Islami, there was no progress at building a post-war government. The following year, Pakistan hosted the first meeting of the Interim Government at Rawalpindi, but Saudi and Pakistan Intelligence services tried hard to influence the outcome by backing their own factions. With bitter divisions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, and only a third of the Afghan groups represented anyway, there was no agreement. 

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had been a disaster. Soviet and regime forces had alienated the population and the state became little more than an organ of terror. Divided by factions and personal rivalries, even the regime’s political elite failed to provide the basic leadership to manage the country effectively. Nevertheless, Najibullah survived in power for four years after the Soviet withdrawal. The Soviet Union continued to supply him. Air freight sustained Kabul with essential supplies, the regime received $300 million a month in financial aid totalling $3 billion in 1990, and military equipment continued to pour in, including R17 “Scud” missiles. 

Najibullah also took the precaution of printing more money that he could use to buy the allegiance of local militias and their commanders. The brutalities inflicted by these forces meant there was little chance they could defect to the resistance but, like all mercenary organisations, their loyalty depended on the continuation of the cash flow. Najibullah tried to cloak the obvious disintegration of his power by renaming the party – the name PDPA was dropped in favour of Hezb-e Watan (Party of the Nation). He tried to foster a sense of nationalism by criticising the foreign interference of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but he also tried to invoke Islam as legitimacy for his rule, arguing that only practising Muslims could serve in the “new” government. In fact, places for non-PDPA members were limited and when Khalqis criticised his move in December 1989, he had 100 leading members of the faction arrested. The Afghan Army made a coup attempt in March 1990 to remove Najibullah. Lieutenant General Shahnawaz Tenai, the Afghan Army Chief of Staff, tried to seize Kabul and open a route for Hekmatyar’s men from the east. The attempt failed, allowing Najibullah to effect a new purge of the party. 

Failed State and Civil War

Although Najibullah was deeply unpopular, the resistance itself was bitterly divided and unable to unite against him. Without the common cause of defeating foreign Soviet forces, factionalism prevented concerted action. A failure to capture Jalalabad ended any semblance at cooperation between mujahedin groups and paved the way for independent warlordism. In a bid for power, undoubtedly prompted by Pakistan, Hekmatyar offered to work with Najibullah if he was given a prominent place in the government. When Soviet funds dried up and Mazar-e Sharif fell to the warlord leader Dostum on 18 February 1992, Najibullah hoped to get the support of the new Central Asian Republics. He obtained six million barrels of oil and half a million tonnes of wheat. It was not enough and he resigned, enabling the United Nations to step forward with a new plan for the establishment of an interim government. 

The Interim Government, subsequently represented by Rabbani and Mojadiddi, rejected the UN proposals and called for the immediate establishment of an Islamic government. Dostum was not prepared to wait for the outcome of further negotiations, and he flew a thousand men into Kabul’s Khwaja Rawash airport on 15 April 1992 forcing Najibullah to flee to the UN headquarters for safety. Massoud and Hekmatyar also moved their own mujahedin forces to the outskirts of the city. This was the logical outcome for groups who felt that force and the Islamist cause were the only forms of legitimacy, but their movements and alignments also reflected their desire to fight to preserve their own interests and power, which they regarded as the dividend of the Jihad against the communists. 

Kabul became the focus of an intense power struggle. In the summer of 1992, fighting broke out between the armed factions. Between 1992 and 1995, conservative estimates suggest some 9,800 Afghans were killed and 56,100 were wounded. There were also massacres of Sikhs and Hindus accused of being pro-communist. The worst atrocity was the Afshar massacre of 11 February 1993 in which large numbers of Shi’ite Hazaras were butchered, although it is still unclear which faction perpetrated it. Assassinations, rape and looting were widespread. 

Outside the capital, regional commanders and local factions clashed with each other in a bid for supremacy. “Taxing”, a euphemism for expropriating any material wealth from the people, proved vital to buy loyalties and assert a sort of baronial legitimacy to rule. Kandahar was especially divided. In May 1996, in an attempt to end the civil war, “President” Rabbani again offered Hekmatyar the post of Prime Minister. Hekmatyar was delighted because his power had been on the wane since the arrival of the Taliban, the southerners who enjoyed Pakistan’s backing, but Kabulis were alarmed when the new premier began to enforce a strict code of conduct, especially on women. The Taliban reacted to Hekmatyar’s appointment by bombarding the capital with artillery and launching rockets into the city centre. 

The Taliban was supported by an important sponsor – the Pakistan army was convinced that Hekmatyar could no longer deliver what they wanted, namely a compliant, pro-Pakistan authority in Kabul. The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) therefore swung its full weight behind the Taliban and supported its assault on the capital in September 1996. Divided still, despite the onslaught, the other factions abandoned Kabul.  

The Taliban was a militaristic organisation, eager to turn the clock back to an idealised version of Islamic society. Yet such sentiments suggest something conceptually constructive in their ethos and this is misleading. The recruits to the Taliban were disaffected and angry young men, leavened by veterans of the Soviet war. They were Sunni Pashtuns but augmented with significant numbers of foreign volunteers from across the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Repudiating politics, their commander Mullah Omar referred to himself as Amir Al-Momineen (leader of the faithful) and sought exclusive power that was legitimised as a “divine right”. There could be no power-sharing since that would assume that Allah’s will was divisible. Omar also made use of the props and rhetoric of Islam, impressing his followers with a dignified piety, but in reality ruling with an oligarchy of friends and allies. 

The Taliban made use of their ISI and Pakistan military contacts, but they also relied on the support of drug barons and provincial governments.42 For recruits and for influence beyond the country they made use of networks of Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan. Taliban fighters found themselves amongst idealistic comrades who shared radical ideas and were fed a heady cocktail of religious dogmatism and militarist doctrine. 

Nevertheless, despite all their righteousness and self-confidence, the Taliban were never fully in control of Afghanistan. Groups gradually united against the Taliban under the banner of Jabha-i Mutthad-e Islami Milli bara-i Nejat-e Afghanistan (National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan), more commonly known as the “Northern Alliance”. Yet this resistance and their insecurity drove the Taliban to greater brutality against the Afghan people. Seeking to crush all opposition, the Taliban drove 200,000 people out of the areas to the north of Kabul to be sure that their operations against the “Northern Alliance” would not be hindered by civilian insurrection. 

In August 1998 the Taliban overran Mazar-e Sharif and massacred large numbers of civilians, mainly Hazaras. Survivors state that the killing went on for three days and was led by foreign Taliban fighters under the direction of Mullah Omar’s loyal lieutenant, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi. Several were boiled alive, others asphyxiated by being locked in metal containers in the sun. Thirty patients in a hospital were murdered in their beds. Firing squads toured the streets, and decrees forbade the inhabitants from moving or burying the bodies. Eyewitnesses spoke of dogs tearing at corpses.43 

The Hazaras were the target of the Taliban’s offensive against Bamian in September 1998. The Taliban killed hundreds of civilians. Their advance through the Hazarajat was marked by atrocities fuelled by fear of insurrection, ethnic hatreds and sectarianism. At Yakaolong, 300 Hazaras were killed including a large group of civilians who had sheltered in a mosque that was subjected to rocket fire. Anti-Taliban forces briefly retook Bamian again on 13 April 2001, but they were quickly overrun and the whole region remained terrorised until the fall of the Taliban later that year. 

Further north, in Badakhshan, the anti-Taliban forces of Massoud were the most successful in defying Mullah Omar’s attempts to coerce all Afghans into submission. A series of pitched battles were fought in the Shomali Valley, north of Kabul, between 1996 and 1999, and the Taliban resorted to the “ethnic cleansing” tactics they had practiced against Mazar. Crops and buildings were destroyed and populations systematically uprooted. Fearful of uprisings as they spread themselves across the country, the Taliban were eager to assert their control more firmly during these subsequent campaigns. 

Indeed, “security” was the Taliban’s primary objective. They claimed to be asserting shari'a law and restrictions on private and public life in order to “protect” the Afghan people. They expressed a desire to continue the Jihad until there were no opponents left and they aimed for a “strong” Afghanistan. Afghans quietly described the means by which this was enforced as Wahshat (Terror). Whilst the Qur’an states that there is no compulsion on belief, the Taliban made sure their laws were strictly enforced often by a “religious police”, the Amr bil-Maroof wa Nahi An il-Mukir (Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice). Brutal and bigoted, the religious police were ideologically motivated, dishing out summary justice. Those that fell foul of the religious police in Kabul could be stoned to death or executed publicly by firing squad.

When the United Nations protested, the Taliban claimed their Qur’anic law was derived from Allah and therefore could not be criticised or challenged. Even the vaguest suggestion of liberalising culture was a target of the Taliban’s fury. Television was banned and radio only tolerated as a means of propaganda, for prayers and for the broadcast of new decrees. Music, dancing, playing games, flying kites, drumming and all visual representations of animals or people were outlawed. On 10 March 2001, the 1,500 year-old Bamian Buddhas were destroyed and artefacts in the Kabul museum, condemned by the Taliban as “idols”, systematically vandalised. 

International opinion, already angered by the cultural destruction, soon focussed on the Taliban mistreatment of women. The Taliban argued the “face of a woman is a source of corruption for men”. Women often had to forego medical treatment, were denied education, forced into marriages, and prevented from travelling. They were rendered invisible with decrees on dress, orders for them not to be heard and to be kept out of public view. Denied employment, many war widows were left destitute.44 Islam had been hijacked to serve the interests of a totalitarian despotism, namely the personal rule of Mullah Omar. 

Omar revealed a staggering ignorance of international realities in his dealing with the West. When the United Nations refused to accept Taliban delegates, Omar condemned the UN as a tool of Western countries. When energy corporations approached the Taliban, hoping that the new regime in Kabul might ensure stability and enable them to build oil and gas pipelines through the country, Omar expected the corporations to pay for the entire reconstruction of Afghanistan. The talks failed and Omar grew contemptuous of all UN and NGO personnel in the country. Despite UN appeals, the Taliban continued with their economic blockade of the Hazarajat, causing untold human suffering. Staff of NGOs were harassed and Hindus, and later all foreigners, were compelled to wear a yellow patch to make them more easily identifiable.45 

Afghanistan under the Taliban became a springboard for al Qaeda’s terrorist operations. On 7 August 1998, suicide car bombs were detonated outside the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. America retaliated by launching 75 cruise missile strikes against al Qaeda camps which killed an estimated 40 fighters, although Osama bin Laden tried to downplay the effects by claiming that only “camels and chickens” had died. Taliban assets in the United States were frozen and the UN followed up with sanctions, demanding that Osama bin Laden be handed over to the Americans. In December 2000, the pressure mounted when military sanctions were imposed.46 

Pakistan claimed that sanctions were having a detrimental effect on humanitarian grounds, a view UN investigators found to be groundless since it was a widespread drought that was causing the most serious problems, although conditions on the ground were often desperate. In December 1999 the Taliban assisted a group of hijackers on board Indian Airlines flight IC814 to escape, and there were a number of assassinations of moderate Afghans. In early 2001 statements were issued advocating global Jihad. Fresh attacks were launched against the “Northern Alliance”, usually spearheaded by the fanatical ‘‘foreign” Taliban. On 9 September a group of al Qaeda, posing as journalists, made a suicide attack on Massoud in his headquarters and killed him. Having eliminated one leader who opposed them, the Taliban and their al Qaeda confederates were about to face a far greater enemy. 

War on Terror and the Fall of the Taliban

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 elicited a military reaction from the United States. Overwhelming American air power guided by Special Forces working alongside the “Northern Alliance” defeated the Taliban in a matter of weeks. After what was effectively an ultimatum, President Pervez Musharraf declared himself in favour of American-led action in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s policy of creating a compliant state on their western border had failed spectacularly under a hail of US ordnance.

Some 12,000 bombs and missiles were deployed in the space of a few weeks and even seasoned Taliban veterans broke under the intensity of the attacks. Many fighters later explained that they could not even see the aircraft that attacked them. Especially feared was the 15,000 pound BLU-82 “daisycutter” which, although only dropped on four occasions, had a devastating impact. The CBU-103 Combined Effects Munitions, colloquially known as a ‘‘cluster bomb”, was also highly effective, although the debris of unexploded ordnance attracted media criticism in the West. Despite fears of indiscriminate bombing, 6,700 of the weapons used were precision-guided and Special Forces were able to lay down carpets of explosions a few hundred yards in front of their own positions without inflicting civilian casualties. On comparatively few occasions targets were selected inaccurately, but media critics tended to draw attention to these isolated cases in their efforts to present a balanced account of the conflict. The Taliban invited Western and Middle Eastern journalists into hospitals filled with civilian casualties, knowing that the cameras would use the most graphic images.

The collapse of the Taliban was incredibly swift because they simply had no legitimacy to govern. They had demonstrated that they were just as ruthless and uncompromising as previous regimes, all of which had managed to alienate substantial sections of the Afghan people. By 2001 the Taliban were thoroughly hated and the drought that affected the south further undermined their base of support. The foreign involvement was welcomed as liberation, unlike the Soviet effort of 1979. When Mullah Omar fled Kabul, he spoke in terms of an approaching apocalypse but this only exposed that fact that the Taliban had nothing else to offer. Under the Taliban the country had remained in ruins and its people lived in intolerable conditions, held in check only by repression.


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