Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia
by Ahmed Rashid
KANDAHAR 1994: THE ORIGINS OF THE TALIBAN
The Taliban Governor of Kandahar, Mullah Mohammed Hassan Rehmani, has a disconcerting habit of pushing the table in front of him with his one good leg. By the time any conversation with him is over, the wooden table has been pushed round and round his chair a dozen times. Hassan's nervous twitch is perhaps a psychological need to feel that he still has a leg or perhaps he is just exercising, keeping his one good leg on the move at all times.
Hassan's second limb is a wooden peg-leg, in the style of Long John Silver, the pirate in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. It's an old wooden stump. The varnish rubbed off long ago, scratches cover its length and bits of wood have been gouged out ---no doubt by the difficulties of negotiating the rocky terrain outside his office. Hassan, one of the oldest Taliban leaders at over 40 and one of the few who actually fought Soviet troops, was a founder member of the Taliban and is considered to be number two in the movement to his old friend Mullah Omar.
Hassan lost his leg in 1989 on the Kandahar front, just before Soviet troops began their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Despite the availability of new artificial limbs now being fitted to the country's millions of amputees by international aid agencies, Hassan says he prefers his peg-leg. He also lost a finger tip, the result of another wound caused by shrapnel. The Taliban leadership can boast to be the most disabled in the world today and visitors do not know how to react, whether to laugh or to cry. Mullah Omar lost his right eye in 1989 when a rocket exploded close by. The Justice Minister Nuruddin Turabi and the former Foreign Minister Mohammed Ghaus are also one-eyed. The Mayor of Kabul, Abdul Majid, has one leg and two fingers missing. Other leaders, even military commanders, have similar disabilities.
The Taliban's wounds are a constant reminder of 20 years of war, which has killed over 1.5 million people and devastated the country. The Soviet Union poured some US$5 billion a year into Afghanistan to subdue the Mujaheddin or a total of US$45 billion ---and they lost. The US committed some four to five billion dollars between 1980 and 1992 in aid to the Mujaheddin. US funds were matched by Saudi Arabia and together with support from other European and Islamic countries, the Mujaheddin received a total of over US$10 billion. Most of this aid was in the form of lethal modern weaponry given to a simple agricultural people who used it with devastating results.
The war wounds of the Taliban leaders also reflect the bloody and brutal style of war that took place in and around Kandahar in the 1980s. The Durrani Pashtuns who inhabit the south and Kandahar received far less aid through the CIA and Western aid pipeline which armed, financed and provided logistics such as medical facilities to the Mujaheddin, as compared to the Ghilzai Pashtuns in the east of the country and around Kabul. The aid was distributed by Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence (ISI), who tended to treat Kandahar as a backwater and the Durranis with suspicion. As a consequence the nearest medical facilities for a wounded Kandahari Mujaheddin was a bone-shaking two-day camel ride to Quetta across the border in Pakistan. Even today first-aid amongst the Taliban is rare, doctors are all too few and surgeons on the front line non-existent. Virtually the only medical practitioners in the country are the hospitals of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
By chance I was in Kandahar in December 1979 and watched the first Soviet tanks roll in. Teenage Soviet soldiers had driven for two days from the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan in Central Asia to Herat and then on to Kandahar along a metalled highway that the Soviets had themselves built in the 1960s. Many of the soldiers were of Central Asian origin. They got out of their tanks, dusted off their uniforms and ambled across to the nearest stall for a cup of sugarless green tea ---a staple part of the diet in both Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Afghans in the bazaar just stood and stared. On 27 December Soviet Spetsnatz or Special Forces had stormed the palace of President Hafizullah Amin in Kabul, killed him, occupied Kabul and appointed Babrak Karmal as President.
When the resistance began around Kandahar it was based on the tribal network of the Durranis. In Kandahar the struggle against the Soviets was a tribal jihad led by clan chiefs and ulema (senior religious scholars) rather than an ideological jihad led by Islamicists. In Peshawar there were seven Mujaheddin parties which were recognised by Pakistan and received a share of aid from the CIA pipeline. Significantly none of the seven parties were led by Durrani Pashtuns. In Kandahar all seven parties had a following, but the most popular parties in the south were those based on tribal ties such as the Harakat-e-Inquilab Islami (Movement of the Islamic Revolution) led by Maulvi Mohammed Nabi Mohammedi and another Hizb-e-Islami (Party of Islam) led by Maulvi Younis Khalis. Before the war both leaders were well known in the Pashtun belt and ran their own madrassas or religious schools.
For commanders in the south party loyalty depended on which Peshawar leader would provide money and arms. Mullah Omar joined Khalis's Hizb-e-Islami while Mullah Hassan joined Harakat. 'I knew Omar extremely well but we were fighting on different fronts and in different groups but sometimes we fought together,' said Hassan. Also popular was the National Islamic Front led by Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, who advocated the return of the Durrani ex-King Zahir Shah to lead the Afghan resistance ---a move that was strongly opposed by Pakistan and the USA. The ex-King was living in Rome and continued to be a popular figure amongst the Kandaharis, who hoped that his return would reassert the leadership role of the Durrani tribes.
The contradictions within the Pashtun Mujaheddin leadership were to weaken the Pashtuns as the war progressed. The ulema valued the historical ideals of early Islamic history and rarely challenged traditional Afghan tribal structures like the Jirga. They were also much more accommodating towards the ethnic minorities. The Islamicists denigrated the tribal structure and pursued a radical political ideology in order to bring about an Islamic revolution in Afghanistan. They were exclusivists which made the minorities suspicious of them.
Thus Harakat had no coherent party structure and was just a loose alliance between commanders and tribal chiefs, many of whom had just a rudimentary madrassa education. On the other hand Gulbuddin Hikmetyar's Hizb-e-Islami built a secretive, highly centralized, political organization whose cadres were drawn from educated urban Pashtuns. Prior to the war the Islamicists barely had a base in Afghan society, but with money and arms from the CIA pipeline and support from Pakistan, they built one and wielded tremendous clout. The traditionalists and the Islamicists fought each other mercilessly so that by 1994, the traditional leadership in Kandahar had virtually been eliminated, leaving the field free for the new wave of even more extreme Islamicists ---the Taliban.
The battle for Kandahar was also determined by its own particular history. Kandahar is Afghanistan's second largest city with a 1979 pre-war population of about 250,000 and twice that today. The old city has been inhabited since 500 BC, but just 35 miles away lies Mundigak, a Bronze-Age village settled around 3,000 BC, which was once part of the Indus Valley civilization. Kandaharis have always been great traders as the city was located at the intersection of ancient trade routes ---eastwards across the Bolan Pass to Sind, the Arabian Sea and India and westwards to Herat and Iran. The city was the main crossing point for trade, arts and crafts between Iran and India and the city's numerous bazaars have been famous for centuries.
The new city has changed little from that laid out in grand proportions in 1761 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of the Durrani dynasty. The fact that the Durranis from Kandahar were to create the Afghan state and rule it for 300 years gave the Kandaharis a special status amongst the Pashtuns. As a concession to their home base, Kabul's kings absolved the Kandaharis from providing manpower for the army. Ahmad Shah's mausoleum dominates the central bazaar and thousands of Afghans still come here to pray and pay their respects to the founder of the nation.
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.
International aid agencies were fearful of even working in Kandahar as the city itself was divided by warring groups. Their leaders sold off everything to Pakistani traders to make money, stripping down telephone wires and poles, cutting trees, selling off factories, machinery and even road rollers to scrap merchants. The warlords seized homes and farms, threw out their occupants and handed them over to their supporters. The commanders abused the population at will, kidnapping young girls and boys for their sexual pleasure, robbing merchants in the bazaars and fighting and brawling in the streets. Instead of refugees returning from Pakistan, a fresh wave of refugees began to leave Kandahar for Quetta.
For the powerful mafia of truck transporters based in Quetta and Kandahar, it was an intolerable situation for business. In 1993 I travelled the short 130 miles by road from Quetta to Kandahar and we were stopped by at least 20 different groups, who had put chains across the road and demanded a toll for free passage. The transport mafia who were trying to open up routes to smuggle goods between Quetta and Iran and the newly independent state of Turkmenistan, found it impossible to do business.
For those Mujaheddin who had fought the Najibullah regime and had then gone home or to continue their studies at madrassas in Quetta and Kandahar, the situation was particularly galling. 'We all knew each other ---Mullahs Omar, Ghaus, Mohammed Rabbani (no relation to President Rabbani) and myself ---because we were all originally from Urozgan province and had fought together,' said Mulla Hassan. 'I moved back and forth from Quetta and attended madrassas there, but whenever we got together we would discuss the terrible plight of our people living under these bandits. We were people of the same opinions and we got on with each other very well, so it was easy to come to a decision to do something,' he added.
Mullah Mohammed Ghaus, the one-eyed Foreign Minister of the Taliban said much the same. 'We would sit for a long time to discuss how to change the terrible situation. Before we started we had only vague ideas what to do and we thought we would fail, but we believed we were working with Allah as His pupils. We have got so far because Allah has helped us,' said Ghaus.
Other groups of Mujaheddin in the south were also discussing the same problems. 'Many people were searching for a solution. I was from Kalat in Zabul province (85 miles north of Kandahar) and had joined a madrassa, but the situation was so bad that we were distracted from our studies and with a group of friends we spent all our time discussing what we should do and what needed to be done,' said Mullah Mohammed Abbas, who was to become the Minister of Public Health in Kabul. 'The old Mujaheddin leadership had utterly failed to bring peace. So I went with a group of friends to Herat to attend the Shura called by Ismael Khan, but it failed to come up with a solution and things were getting worse. So we came to Kandahar to talk with Mullah Omar and joined him,' Abbas added.
After much discussion these divergent but deeply concerned groups chalked out an agenda which still remains the Taliban's declared aims ---restore peace, disarm the population, enforce Sharia law and defend the integrity and Islamic character of Afghanistan. As most of them were part-time or full-time students at madrassas, the name they chose for themselves was natural. A talib is an Islamic student, one who seeks knowledge compared to the mullah who is one who gives knowledge. By choosing such a name the Taliban (plural of Talib) distanced themselves from the party politics of the Mujaheddin and signalled that they were a movement for cleansing society rather than a party trying to grab power.
All those who gathered around Omar were the children of the jihad but deeply disillusioned with the factionalism and criminal activities of the once idealised Mujaheddin leadership. They saw themselves as the cleansers and purifiers of a guerrilla war gone astray, a social system gone wrong and an Islamic way of life that had been compromised by corruption and excess. Many of them had been born in Pakistani refugee camps, educated in Pakistani madrassas and had learnt their fighting skills from Mujaheddin parties based in Pakistan. As such the younger Taliban barely knew their own country or history, but from their madrassas they learnt about the ideal Islamic society created by the Prophet Mohammed 1,400 years ago and this is what they wanted to emulate.
Some Taliban say Omar was chosen as their leader not for his political or military ability, but for his piety and his unswerving belief in Islam. Others say he was chosen by God. 'We selected Mullah Omar to lead this movement. He was the first amongst equals and we gave him the power to lead us and he has given us the power and authority to deal with people's problems,' said Mullah Hassan. Omar himself gave a simple explanation to Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yousufzai. 'We took up arms to achieve the aims of the Afghan jihad and save our people from further suffering at the hands of the so-called Mujaheddin. We had complete faith in God Almighty. We never forgot that. He can bless us with victory or plunge us into defeat,' said Omar.
No leader in the world today is surrounded by as much secrecy and mystery as Mullah Mohammed Omar. Aged 39, he has never been photographed or met with Western diplomats and journalists. His first meeting with a UN diplomat was in October 1998, four years after the Taliban emerged, when he met with the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi, because the Taliban were faced with a possibly devastating attack by Iran. Omar lives in Kandahar and has visited the capital Kabul twice and only then very briefly. Putting together the bare facts of his life has become a full-time job for most Afghans and foreign diplomats.
Omar was born sometime around 1959 in Nodeh village near Kandahar to a family of poor, landless peasants who were members of the Hotak tribe, the Ghilzai branch of Pashtuns. The Hotaki chief Mir Wais, had captured Isfahan in Iran in 1721 and established the first Ghilzai Afghan empire in Iran only to be quickly replaced by Ahmad Shah Durrani. Omar's tribal and social status was non-existent and notables from Kandahar say they had never heard of his family. During the 1980s jihad his family moved to Tarinkot in Urozgan province ---one of the most backward and inaccessible regions of the country where Soviet troops rarely penetrated. His father died while he was a young man and the task of fending for his mother and extended family fell upon him.
Looking for a job, he moved to Singesar village in the Mewand district of Kandahar province, where he became the village mullah and opened a small madrassa. His own studies in madrassas in Kandahar were interrupted twice, first by the Soviet invasion and then by the creation of the Taliban. Omar joined Khalis's Hizb-e-Islami and fought under commander Nek Mohammed against the Najibullah regime between 1989 and 1992. He was wounded four times, once in the right eye which is now permanently blinded.
Despite the success of the Taliban, Singesar is still like any other Pashtun village. Mud-brick homes plastered with more mud and straw are built behind high compound walls ---a traditional defensive feature of Pashtun homes. Narrow, dusty alleyways, which turn into mud baths when it rains, connect village homes. Omar's madrassa is still functioning ---a small mud hut with a dirt floor and mattresses strewn across it for the boys to sleep on. Omar has three wives, who continue living in the village and are heavily veiled. While his first and third wives are from Urozgan, his teenage second wife Guljana, whom he married in 1995, is from Singesar. He has a total of five children who are studying in his madrassa.
A tall, well-built man with a long, black beard and a black turban, Omar has a dry sense of humour and a sarcastic wit. He remains extremely shy of outsiders, particularly foreigners, but he is accessible to the Taliban. When the movement started he would offer his Friday prayers at the main mosque in Kandahar and mix with the people, but subsequently he has become much more of a recluse, rarely venturing outside Kandahar's administrative mansion where he lives. He now visits his village infrequently and when he does he is always accompanied by dozens of bodyguards in a convoy of deluxe Japanese jeepsters with darkened windows.
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.
However the Taliban's closest links were with Pakistan where many of them had grown up and studied in madrassas run by the mercurial Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI), a fundamentalist party which had considerable support amongst the Pashtuns in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). More significantly Maulana Rehman was now a political ally of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and he had access to the government, the army and the ISI to whom he described this newly emerging force.
Pakistan's Afghan policy was in the doldrums. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, successive Pakistani governments were desperately keen to open up direct land routes for trade with the Central Asian Republics (CARs). The major hindrance was the continuing civil war in Afghanistan, through which any route passed. Pakistan's policy-makers were thus faced with a strategic dilemma. Either Pakistan could carry on backing Hikmetyar in a bid to bring a Pashtun group to power in Kabul which would be Pakistan-friendly, or it could change direction and urge for a power-sharing agreement between all the Afghan factions at whatever the price for the Pashtuns, so that a stable government could open the roads to Central Asia.
The Pakistani military was convinced that other ethnic groups would not do their bidding and continued to back Hikmetyar. Some 20 per cent of the Pakistan army was made up of Pakistani Pashtuns and the pro-Pashtun and Islamic fundamentalist lobby within the ISI and the military remained determined to achieve a Pashtun victory in Afghanistan. However, by 1994 Hikmetyar had clearly failed, losing ground militarily while his extremism divided the Pashtuns, the majority of whom loathed him. Pakistan was getting tired of backing a loser and was looking around for other potential Pashtun proxies.
When Benazir Bhutto was elected as Prime Minister in 1993, she was keen to open a route to Central Asia. The shortest route was from Peshawar to Kabul, across the Hindu Kush mountains to Mazar-e-Sharif and then to Tirmez and Tashkent in Uzbekistan, but this route was closed due to the fighting around Kabul. A new proposal emerged, backed strongly by the frustrated Pakistani transport and smuggling mafia, the JUI and Pashtun military and political officials. Instead of the northern route the way could be cleared from Quetta to Kandahar, Herat and on to Ashkhabad, the capital of Turkmenistan. There was no fighting in the south, only dozens of commanders who would have to be adequately bribed before they agreed to open the chains.
In September 1994 Pakistani surveyors and ISI officers discreetly travelled the road from Chaman on the Pakistani border to Herat, to survey the road. The Pashtun-born Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar also visited Chaman that month. The Kandahar warlords viewed the plan with mistrust, suspecting the Pakistanis were about to try and intervene militarily to crush them. One commander, Amir Lalai, issued a blunt warning to Babar. 'Pakistan is offering to reconstruct our roads, but I do not think that by fixing our roads peace would automatically follow. As long as neighbouring countries continue to interfere in our internal affairs, we should not expect peace,' said Lalai.
Nevertheless, the Pakistanis began to negotiate with the Kandahar warlords and Ismael Khan in Herat to allow traffic through to Turkmenistan. On 20 October 1994, Babar took a party of six Western ambassadors to Kandahar and Herat, without even informing the Kabul government. The delegation included senior officials from the departments of Railways, Highways, Telephones and Electricity. Babar said he wanted to raise US$300 million from international agencies to rebuild the highway from Quetta to Herat. On 28 October, Bhutto met with Ismael Khan and General Rashid Dostum in Ashkhabad and urged them to agree to open a southern route, where trucks would pay just a couple of tolls on the way and their security would be guaranteed.
However, before that meeting a major event had shaken the Kandahar warlords. On 12 October 1994 some 200 Taliban from Kandahar and Pakistani madrassas arrived at the small Afghan border post of Spin Baldak on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border just opposite Chaman. The grimy grease pit in the middle of the desert was an important trucking and fuelling stop for the transport mafia and was held by Hikmetyar's men. Here Afghan trucks picked up goods from Pakistani trucks, which were not allowed to cross into Afghanistan and fuel was smuggled in from Pakistan to feed the warlords' armies. For the transport mafia, control of the town was critical. They had already donated several hundred thousand Pakistani Rupees to Mullah Omar and promised a monthly stipend to the Taliban, if they would clear the roads of chains and bandits and guarantee the security for truck traffic.
The Taliban force divided into three groups and attacked Hikmetyar's garrison. After a short, sharp battle they fled, losing seven dead and several wounded. The Taliban lost only one man. Pakistan then helped the Taliban by allowing them to capture a large arms dump outside Spin Baldak that had been guarded by Hikmetyar's men. This dump had been moved across the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan in 1990, when the terms of the Geneva Accords obliged Islamabad not to hold weapons for Afghans on Pakistani territory. At the dump the Taliban seized some 18,000 kalashnikovs, dozens of artillery pieces, large quantities of ammunition and many vehicles.
The capture of Spin Baldak worried the Kandahar warlords and they denounced Pakistan for backing the Taliban, but they continued bickering amongst themselves rather than uniting to meet the new threat. Babar was now getting impatient and he ordered a 30 truck test-convoy to travel to Ashkhabad with a load of medicines. 'I told Babar we should wait two months because we had no agreements with the Kandahar commanders, but Babar insisted on pushing the convoy through. The commanders suspected that the convoy was carrying arms for a future Pakistani force,' a Pakistani official based in Kandahar later told me.
On 29 October 1994, the convoy drawn from the army's National Logistics Cell (NLC), which had been set up in the 1980s by the ISI to funnel US arms to the Mujaheddin, left Quetta with 80 Pakistani ex-army drivers. Colonel Imam, the ISI's most prominent field officer operating in the south and Pakistan's Consul General in Herat, was also on board. Along with him were two young Taliban commanders, Mullahs Borjan and Turabi. (Both were later to lead the Taliban's first assault on Kabul where Mullah Borjan was to meet his death.) Twelve miles outside Kandahar, at Takht-e-Pul near the perimeter of Kandahar airport, the convoy was held up by a group of commanders, Amir Lalai, Mansur Achakzai, who controlled the airport, and Ustad Halim. The convoy was ordered to park in a nearby village at the foot of low-lying mountains. When I walked the area a few months later the remains of camp fires and discarded rations were still evident.
The commanders demanded money, a share of the goods and that Pakistan stop supporting the Taliban. As the commanders negotiated with Colonel Imam, Islamabad imposed a news blackout for three days on the convoy hijack. 'We were worried that Mansur would put arms aboard the convoy and then blame Pakistan. So we considered all the military options to rescue the convoy, such as a raid by the Special Services Group (Pakistan army commandos) or a parachute drop. These options were considered too dangerous so we then asked the Taliban to free the convoy,' said a Pakistani official. On 3 November 1994, the Taliban moved in to attack those holding the convoy. The commanders, thinking this was a raid by the Pakistani army, fled. Mansur was chased into the desert by the Taliban, captured and shot dead with ten of his bodyguards. His body was hung from a tank barrel for all to see.
That same evening, the Taliban moved on Kandahar where, after two days of sporadic fighting they routed the commanders' forces. Mullah Naquib, the most prominent commander inside the city who commanded 2,500 men, did not resist. Some of his aides later claimed that Naquib had taken a substantial bribe from the ISI to surrender, with the promise that he would retain his command. The Taliban enlisted his men and retired the Mullah to his village outside Kandahar. The Taliban captured dozens of tanks, armoured cars, military vehicles, weapons and most significantly at the airport six Mig-21 fighters and six transport helicopters ---left-overs from the Soviet occupation.
In just a couple of weeks this unknown force had captured the second largest city in Afghanistan with the loss of just a dozen men. In Islamabad no foreign diplomat or analyst doubted that they had received considerable support from Pakistan. The fall of Kandahar was celebrated by the Pakistan government and the JUI. Babar took credit for the Taliban's success, telling journalists privately that the Taliban were 'our boys'. Yet the Taliban demonstrated their independence from Pakistan, indicating that they were nobody's puppet. On 16 November 1994 Mullah Ghaus said that Pakistan should not bypass the Taliban in sending convoys in the future and should not cut deals with individual warlords. He also said the Taliban would not allow goods bound for Afghanistan to be carried by Pakistani trucks ---a key demand of the transport mafia.
The Taliban cleared the chains from the roads, set up a one-toll system for trucks entering Afghanistan at Spin Baldak and patrolled the highway from Pakistan. The transport mafia was ecstatic and in December the first Pakistani convoy of 50 trucks carrying raw cotton from Turkmenistan arrived in Quetta, after paying the Taliban 200,000 rupees (US$5,000) in tolls. Meanwhile thousands of young Afghan Pashtuns studying in Baluchistan and the NWFP rushed to Kandahar to join the Taliban. They were soon followed by Pakistani volunteers from JUI madrassas, who were inspired by the new Islamic movement in Afghanistan. By December 1994, some 12,000 Afghan and Pakistani students had joined the Taliban in Kandahar.
As international and domestic pressure mounted on Pakistan to explain its position, Bhutto made the first formal denial of any Pakistani backing of the Taliban in February 1995. 'We have no favourites in Afghanistan and we do not interfere in Afghanistan,' she said while visiting Manila. Later she said Pakistan could not stop new recruits from crossing the border to join the Taliban. 'I cannot fight Mr [President Burhanuddin] Rabbani's war for him. If Afghans want to cross the border, I do not stop them. I can stop them from re-entering but most of them have families here,' she said.
The Taliban immediately implemented the strictest interpretation of Sharia law ever seen in the Muslim world. They closed down girls' schools and banned women from working outside the home, smashed TV sets, forbade a whole array of sports and recreational activities and ordered all males to grow long beards. In the next three months the Taliban were to take control of 12 of Afghanistan's 31 provinces, opening the roads to traffic and disarming the population. As the Taliban marched north to Kabul, local warlords either fled or, waving white flags, surrendered to them. Mullah Omar and his army of students were on the march across Afghanistan.
From Taliban. Copyright © 2000 Ahmed Rashid. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Yale Univ. Press.