Excerpt from Taliban by Ahmed Rashid, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Taliban

Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia

By Ahmed Rashid

Taliban
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2001,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2001,
    288 pages.

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Omar speaks very little in Shura meetings, listening to other points of view. His shyness makes him a poor public speaker and despite the mythology that now surrounds him, he has little charismatic appeal. All day he conducts business from a small office in the mansion. At first he used to sit on the cement floor alongside visiting Taliban, but he now sits on a bed while others sit on the floor ---a move that emphasises his status as leader. He has several secretaries who take notes from his conversations with commanders, ordinary soldiers, ulema and plaintiffs and there is always the crackle of wireless sets as commanders around the country communicate with him.

Business consists of lengthy debate and discussions which end with the issuing of 'chits' or scraps of paper on which are written instructions allowing commanders to make an attack, ordering a Taliban governor to help out a plaintiff or a message to UN mediators. Formal communications to foreign embassies in Islamabad were frequently dictated by Pakistani advisers.

In the early days of the movement I collected numerous chits written on cigarette boxes or wrapping paper, allowing me to travel from city to city. Now more regular paper pads are used. Beside Omar is a tin trunk from which he dishes out wads of Afghani notes to commanders and plaintiffs in need. As success came, another tin trunk was added ---this one containing US dollars. These tin trunks are the treasury of the Taliban movement.

In important meetings, Mullah Wakil Ahmad, Omar's trusted confidant and official spokesman is usually beside him. Wakil, a young madrassa student from the Kakar tribe who studied under Omar, started out as his companion, driver, food taster, translator and note-taker. He quickly progressed to higher things such as communicating with visiting foreign diplomats and aid agency officials, travelling to meet Taliban commanders and meeting with Pakistani officials. As Omar's spokesman he is the Taliban's main contact with the foreign press as well as its chastizer, when he feels that journalists have criticized the Taliban too harshly. Wakil acts as Omar's ears and eyes and is also his doorkeeper. No important Afghan can reach Omar without first going through Wakil.

There is now an entire factory of myths and stories to explain how Omar mobilized a small group of Taliban against the rapacious Kandahar warlords. The most credible story, told repeatedly, is that in the spring of 1994 Singesar neighbours came to tell him that a commander had abducted two teenage girls, their heads had been shaved and they had been taken to a military camp and repeatedly raped. Omar enlisted some 30 Talibs who had only 16 rifles between them and attacked the base, freeing the girls and hanging the commander from the barrel of a tank. They captured quantities of arms and ammunition. 'We were fighting against Muslims who had gone wrong. How could we remain quiet when we could see crimes being committed against women and the poor?' Omar said later.

A few months later two commanders confronted each other in Kandahar, in a dispute over a young boy whom both men wanted to sodomise. In the fight that followed civilians were killed. Omar's group freed the boy and public appeals started coming in for the Taliban to help out in other local disputes. Omar had emerged as a Robin Hood figure, helping the poor against the rapacious commanders. His prestige grew because he asked for no reward or credit from those he helped, only demanding that they follow him to set up a just Islamic system.

At the same time Omar's emissaries were gauging the mood of other commanders. His colleagues visited Herat to meet with Ismael Khan and in September Mulla Mohammed Rabbani, a founding member of the Taliban, visited Kabul and held talks with President Rabbani. The isolated Kabul government wished to support any new Pashtun force that would oppose Hikmetyar, who was still shelling Kabul, and Rabbani promised to help the Taliban with funds if they opposed Hikmetyar.

From Taliban. Copyright © 2000 Ahmed Rashid. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Yale Univ. Press.

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