Afghanistan and Pakistan: Perspectives on the War and the Taliban
Photos by Steve Routhier
I’ve recently been reading books by Peter Bergen (The Longest War) and Jon Krakauer (Where Men Seek Glory). The works have brought back into my focus the years I spent in the Middle East. While my journeys there took place in the distant past – the last trip I made to the region occurred in the early 1980s – I don’t think reality changes that much in a few decades. I mean, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is still considered a classic on the USA and and was written more than a hundred and fifty years ago.
And humbly I have to say I’ve spent more time in the Middle East than most Westerners, with the exception of professional diplomats, academics, and business people. I traveled in a fashion that few of them would recognize, often alone, that kept me in touch with “the street” as it is called, hitchhiking, sleeping under the stars, staying with poor families, and living as a vagabond.
The misunderstandings that have led to our current quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan are too profound and lengthy to discuss in this modest essay. But if we are ever to extract ourselves from the area and regain the trust of the Muslim world, a few points have to be understood about the Taliban and their allies.
I should say first that they are a despicable bunch, well-versed in evil and a bane to their fellow citizens in all the countries where they have taken root. Their treatment of women is abhorrent and their intolerance and cruelty are legendary. So why on Earth have they become such a popular and powerful force?
1) Horseman, Ghowr Province, Afghanistan
The short answer is this: the alternative power structures in both countries have proved to be just as nasty if not more so than the Taliban. The warlords and politicians that Western interests currently support are corrupt and vicious in their own right. (And don’t forget Unocal opened an office in Khandahar to do business with the Taliban in the 1990s, thinking they could run a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan to enhance their corporate profit sheets).
To paraphrase the reasoning behind Hitler’s success in post-World War I Germany, the Taliban got the trains to run on time. In other words, part of their success can be attributed to their elimination of the lawless ways of the Western-backed warlords, who ran checkpoints on every road in the country, shaking down travelers (even I experienced one of them in the 1970s, recounted elsewhere on this site) and worse. Most Afghanis never saw a trace of their government’s presence or work until the Soviet and American invasions.
I do have to admit, however, that in 1976 when I visited the country, women walked in the cities freely unveiled, the education system included girls, and flashes of modernity were visible in a variety of unlikely places. However that world vanished when the Russians headed south on the highway they constructed through the Salang Pass.
Americans were quick to arm and extend vast amounts of cash to the mujaheddin insurgents, many of whom, as is well-known, turned against their benefactors, eagerly biting the hands that had formerly nourished them.
Our love affair with the so-called Northern Alliance, who fought the Taliban for control of Kabul in the 1990s, has clouded our collective memory concerning the ways of the despots we supported. We have forgotten that they were a venal and brutal mix of tribes and ethnicities who nearly destroyed Kabul in the civil war that began after the withdrawal of the Russians and who bombed the capitol city into small and shattered pieces, fighting endlessly over turf and killing thousands of civilians in the process.
Afghanistan indeed has become the world’s largest current producer of opium, but whom exactly the trade enriches is open to debate. Certainly elements of the current government, which controls little of the country outside of Kabul, benefit from the drug business, and the Taliban uses dope profits to fund their insurgency. But who consumes those drugs in the end? Why, we do, of course.
So we now think of Afghanistan as a narco-state, no longer recalling that hashish has been a way of life there for centuries. In fact, in-country travelers such as myself were regularly criticized for smoking the substance too much and too often. Afghanis traditionally thought of hash as something to be enjoyed at the end of the day, after their work was done, as a way to relax and socialize, much as we consider a round of cocktails – and alcohol is infinitely more damaging than cannabis – as an accepted method to unwind after a long day at the office.
2) Village, Bamiyan Province – the bee-hive structures were used for storing grain
So what is the truth here and today? Mr. Bergen argues that Bin Laden underestimated the vehemence with which the USA would attack Afghanistan after 9/11, while Jon Krakauer maintains that the destruction of the World Trade Center was accomplished largely to launch the States into an unwinnable war. And it does seem that the conflict will never be decided in a traditional military fashion.
Whomever is correct, a few facts are clear. The USA has made a series of horrible blunders in their fight against “terror” which remind the casual thinker of the stupidity of the war against “drugs.” After all, defeating an abstract noun is by definition impossible.
Are we to nation-build in a region that has never thought of itself as a unified society in the Western sense? How can we implement a modern government into a feudal culture that disdains our hypocrisy and decadent mores? And what about Pakistan, a country run by manipulative thugs who play the different sides against each other, mostly worried about India while possessing a potent stash of nuclear weapons? Good luck on that score. (I have recounted also in this site how Pakistani President Zia used to vacation in my home area around North Hatley, Quebec, availing himself of Canadian earthly pleasures while exercising absolute despotism at home with the help of our own governments.)
How does a person wrap their thoughts around these facts? I don’t have the answers but I can say this: until we wake up and realize what we have done in South Asia and understand the horrors of the wars we have fomented, the region will continue to suffer as a benighted wasteland.
Courtesy of your tax dollars and mine.
3) Nomads of the Central Asian steppe, Mazar-i-Sharif. Their way of life has passed into history