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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  • First Published:
    Mar 2001, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2001, 288 pages

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Next to his tomb is the shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed ---one of the holiest places of worship in Afghanistan. The Cloak has been shown only on rare occasions such as when King Amanullah tried to rally the tribes in 1929 and when a cholera epidemic hit the city in 1935. But in 1996 in order to legitimise his role as leader and one ordained by God to lead the Afghan people, Mullah Omar took out the cloak and showed it to a large crowd of Taliban who then named him Amir-ul Momineen or Leader of the Faithful.

However, Kandahar's fame across the region rests on its fruit orchards. Kandahar is an oasis town set in the desert and the summer heat is devastating, but around the city are lush, green fields and shady orchards producing grapes, melons, mulberries, figs, peaches and pomegranates which were famous throughout India and Iran. Kandahar's pomegranates decorated Persian manuscripts written one thousand years ago and were served at the table of the British Governor General of India in Delhi during the last century. The city's truck transporters, who were to give major financial support to the Taliban in their drive to conquer the country, began their trade in the last century when they carried Kandahar's fruit as far as Delhi and Calcutta.

The orchards were watered by a complex and well-maintained irrigation system until the war, when both the Soviets and the Mujaheddin so heavily mined the fields that the rural population fled to Pakistan and the orchards were abandoned. Kandahar remains one of the most heavily mined cities in the world. In an otherwise flat landscape, the orchards and water channels provided cover for the Mujaheddin who quickly took control of the countryside, isolating the Soviet garrison in the city. The Soviets retaliated by cutting down thousands of trees and smashing the irrigation system. When the refugees were to return to their devastated orchards after 1990, they were to grow opium poppies for a livelihood, creating a major source of income for the Taliban.

With the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 there followed a long struggle against the regime of President Najibullah until he was overthrown in 1992 and the Mujaheddin captured Kabul. Much of Afghanistan's subsequent civil war was to be determined by the fact that Kabul fell, not to the well-armed and bickering Pashtun parties based in Peshawar, but to the better organized and more united Tajik forces of Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander Ahmad Shah Masud and to the Uzbek forces from the north under General Rashid Dostum. It was a devastating psychological blow because for the first time in 300 years the Pashtuns had lost control of the capital. An internal civil war began almost immediately as Hikmetyar attempted to rally the Pashtuns and laid siege to Kabul, shelling it mercilessly.

Afghanistan was in a state of virtual disintegration just before the Taliban emerged at the end of 1994. The country was divided into warlord fiefdoms and all the warlords had fought, switched sides and fought again in a bewildering array of alliances, betrayals and bloodshed. The predominantly Tajik government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani controlled Kabul, its environs and the north-east of the country, while three provinces in the west centring on Herat were controlled by Ismael Khan. In the east on the Pakistan border three Pashtun provinces were under the independent control of a council or Shura (Council) of Mujaheddin commanders based in Jalalabad. A small region to the south and east of Kabul was controlled by Gulbuddin Hikmetyar.

In the north the Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum held sway over six provinces and in January 1994 he had abandoned his alliance with the Rabbani government and joined with Hikmetyar to attack Kabul. In central Afghanistan the Hazaras controlled the province of Bamiyan. Southern Afghanistan and Kandahar were divided up amongst dozens of petty ex-Mujaheddin warlords and bandits who plundered the population at will. With the tribal structure and the economy in tatters, no consensus on a Pashtun leadership and Pakistan's unwillingness to provide military aid to the Durranis as they did to Hikmetyar, the Pashtuns in the south were at war with each other.

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

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