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Mazar-e-Taliban, R.I.P.

The Taliban's penchant to anger all around them and putting Afghans off everything they loved led to their fall.

Mazar-e-Taliban, R.I.P.
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illustration by Saurabh Singh My first encounter with the now-vanquished Taliban was on videotape. It was September 1994 and I was sitting in the office of Gen (retd) Hidyatullah Khan, then the president of Pakistan's National Highways Authority. We were watching a shaky, often out-of-focus home video. The general and his good friend and interior minister of the day, Nasirullah Babar, also a retired major general, both featured prominently in the video.

So did a lanky, bearded young man that I now believe was Mullah Omar. The video was a proud memento of Nasirullah Babar's latest project—to open trade links between Pakistan and Central Asia. That meant securing a route through Afghanistan's Wild West—probably the most bandit-ridden country in the world just then, particularly the 200 km from Spin Boldak to Kandahar. Former mujahideen commanders were stealing trade goods and extorting money from truck drivers and merchants. There were nearly 30 checkposts before the outskirts of Kandahar—$10 was the minimum for a laissez passer.

Thus the Taliban were born. Babar needed security for his first convoy, to be sent in October, so as the home video camera whirred, he signed up with Mullah Omar and his band of madrassa students. Many of them came from Pakistan but as the Taliban movement grew, it also attracted turncoat mujahideen commanders and, crucially, Pashtoon ex-communists from the then Soviet-trained Afghan army. Flush with cash from their Pakistani backers, and well armed after the capture of a munitions dump at Spin Boldak, Mullah Omar's men proceeded to restore peace if not harmony to the Kandahar area.

They famously executed two rapists by hanging them from the barrel of an artillery piece. They captured Kandahar city in October and hardly looked back until early October 2001.

The Taliban were a uniquely Afghan phenomenon, despite their Pakistani origins. Only in the intricate and devastated mosaic of Afghanistan could such a group have begun with so little, achieved so much and lost it all so quickly. But yes, Pakistan was there from beginning—the ISI, the Karachi transport mafia, Nasirullah Babar, Benazir Bhutto, the foreign ministry and, until September 12, 2001, General Pervez Musharraf. But in retrospect, it's now plain that the Taliban often exploited the Pakistanis cleverly.

As they expanded outward from Kandahar, they used treachery and foreign backing to win support for their campaign to "bring Sharia to Afghanistan". The ISI at first opposed the Taliban as dangerous opponents to their man, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But the spies from Rawalpindi didn't take long to get on the Talibs' rolling bandwagon. Even Benazir Bhutto, a self-proclaimed "moderate Muslim", was a great Taliban supporter at first. She had to be. Her interior minister, and later her government's spy agency, were providing money, logistics and training to the Islamist militia. By September 1996, the Taliban had captured the south and the west of Afghanistan, much of the east and the territory around Kabul by exploiting the greed and treachery of their opponents.

Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997 was the Taliban's first big military setback and may have been the beginning of their long decline. A traitorous aide to General Abdul Rashid Dostum betrayed his boss, but then turned on his new allies, the Taliban. Thousands of Talibs died, Pakistan nearly lost its consular staff. An ISI-supported assault on the city the following year led to even more bloodletting; the Shi'ite Hazaras bore the brunt of the Taliban's wrath.Then followed an intensification of the litany of human rights abuses, puritanical edicts and support for militant Islam.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's grip on the day-to-day workings of the Taliban was weakening. Many allies of Mullah Omar and his men found them ultimately untenable as friends. All along, it seems, the Taliban played off the ISI against Saudi intelligence, the Saudis against Osama bin Laden. The US embassy in Islamabad was an early fountain of pro-Taliban sentiments, largely because the oil company Unocal was bidding to build a pipeline through Afghanistan. When a Saudi-Argentine joint venture entered the picture, the Taliban used competing oil interests to their benefit. Finally, the UN peace envoy of the time, Mahmoud Mestiri of Tunisia, flirted dangerously with the Taliban, despite their immense personal contempt for him as a westernised, Francophile Muslim. An aide to Mestiri once told me on the record that the Talibs were "Mestiri's militia". When President Burhanuddin Rabbani heard that comment on the BBC Persian service, he was so angry that he pulled out of a UN-sponsored conference on transferring power to his opponents. That aide, by the way, went to join Unocal as political advisor to the chief executive officer.

In the end, the Taliban were brought down by their penchant for angering everyone around them. They fell out with the UN over women's rights. The Americans dropped them for the same reason. They alienated Prince Turki, the Saudi intelligence chief. The oil companies gave up on them, knowing there were better prospects elsewhere. The coup d'grace came when President Musharraf abandoned them after September 11. Only bin Laden remained a friend. They whipped women, amputated hands for thievery, buried adulterers alive, banned kites, songbirds, soccer and anything else that the Afghans enjoyed. They savaged their country's past by blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas and pre-Islamic art. In the end, their fate is probably to be mere footnotes to the study of bin Laden and his deeds. History can be both cruel and just, as the people of Afghanistan know to their cost.

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