Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ahmed Rashid's prophetic book about the Taliban

000068I just finished reading this amazing book by Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia

This book came highly recommended, so I picked it up, not realizing that it was actually published in 2001 before September 11th.  That makes everything he says so stunning, knowing it's all analysis of things that the US was really overlooking and should have been taking more seriously, things that would very quickly affect our nation in a huge way.

*** A few points of clarification first to clear up some common misconceptions (some of which I also held).  The  Mujaheddin that the US funded to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are not the same as the Taliban. The Mujaheddin were guerrilla warlords, and the Taliban developed from a rootless, floating refugee population on the border of Pakistan (where we are STILL fighting) who were uneducated and found an identity in the fundamentalist Islamic madrassas that eventually recruited them all to join into a Pashtun religious student fighting force... the Taliban. The Soviets eventually withdrew, the Mujaheddin were mired in infighting, and the Taliban ended up taking over Afghanistan... until the US invaded.

Also, the Al Quaeda/Bin Ladin and the Taliban are not the same thing. The Taliban is the conservative Islamic group that took over Afghanistan. The US actually was diplomatically friendly with the Taliban at first, and we distanced ourselves as the reality of just how extreme their policies toward women were, and then finally when they insisted on providing shelter for Bin Laden. Bin Laden came out of Saudi Arabia, developed a conservative and militant Islam and a fighting force of other militant Muslims from around the world (more on that in a minute). When he started claiming international terrorist actions, he was pushed out of most countries and found sanctuary in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The chapter on Bin Laden was the most stunning, considering that when it was written we considered him a terrorist but within months we were willing to invade and take over a country to go after the man. It's also the most painfully embarrassing part of the story to the US. It's worth an extended quote here:

[The USA] committed CIA support to a long-standing ISI (Pakistani Secret Service) initiative to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan and fight with the Afghan Mujaheddin...... [No one] reckoned on these volunteers having their own agendas, which would eventually turn their hatred against the Soviets on their own regimes and the Americans.

 Pakistan already had standing instructions to all its embassies abroad to give visas, with no questions asked, to anyone wanting to come and fight with the Mujaheddin.... Between 1982 and 1992 some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East would pass their baptism under fire with the Afghan Mujaheddin... Eventually more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the jihad. In camps near Peshawar and in Afghanistan, these radicals met each other for the first time and studied, trained, and fought together. It was the first opportunity for most of them to learn about Islamic movements in other countries and they forged tactical and ideological links that would serve them well in the future. The camps became virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism. None of the intelligence agencies involved wanted to consider the consequences of bringing together thousands of Islamic radicals from all over the world. "What was more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of the Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" said Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US National Security Advisor.

'The war,' wrote Samuel Huntington, 'left behind an uneasy coalition of Islamist organizations intent on promoting Islam against all non-Muslim forces. It also left a legacy of expert and experienced fighters, training camps and logistical facilities, elaborate trans-Islam networks of personal and organization relationships, a substantial amount of military equipment including 200 to 500 unaccounted for Stinger missiles, and, most important, a heady sense of power and self-confidence over what had been achieved and a driving desire to to move on to other victories.

Isn't that just.... amazing? Ludicrous? We helped fund and trained Bin Laden and the growth of fundamentalist, militaristic Islam. Did we ever stop to examine their worldview and ideology? Are we so short-sighted that we thought anything anti-communist would help us? *shakes head*. Maybe it WAS worth it. Maybe the war in Afghanistan weakened the USSR enough that without the war they would have continued to expand and take over, and maybe they would have been worse than militant Islam. Maybe? Or maybe not. It's hard to say what's worse.

It was really useful to read more about Bin Laden himself as well. Did you know he's 6'5"? Or that he's child number 17 of 57? Daaaaaang. His father had more than one wife, of course.

In any case, the book also goes over the politics of oil and how that played out in Central Asia and Afghanistan, and how Saudi, Pakistani, and Iranian negotiations played out in the region. Really interesting... but just so ironic in the end. This quote below refers to the "war in Afghanistan" and it means the war between the Taliban and the anti-Taliban alliance. Ironically we could say it today about OUR war in Afghanistan, and some of it has already come true.

If the war in Afghanistan continues to be ignored we can only expect the worst. Pakistan will face a Taliban-style Islamic revolution which will further destabilize it and the entire region. Iran will remain on the periphery of the world community and its eastern borders will continue to be wracked by instability. The Central Asian states will not be able to deliver their energy and mineral exports by the shortest routes and as their economies crash, they will face an Islamic upsurge and instability. Russia will continue to bristle with hegemonic aims in Central Asia even as its own society and economy crumbles. The stakes are extremely high. 

The thing is, I feel like although we did invade Afghanistan, we did continue to ignore the war there in some ways. We took political control but then dropped our troop levels, funding, and humanitarian aid and focused almost completely on Iraq. In doing so, we let the Taliban thrive in resistance, Bin Laden and his cohorts spread around the world, and all of the things described above continued to develop. Here's another quote that describes our abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet's pulled out, and yet it also describes Afghanistan after we got distracted by Iraq.

By walking away from Afghanistan as early as it did, the USA faced within a few years dead diplomats, destroyed embassies, bombs in New York and cheap heroin on its streets, as Afghanistan became a sanctuary for international terrorism and drugs mafia. Afghans today remain deeply bitter about their abandonment by the USA, for whom they fought the Cold War. In the 1980's the USA was prepared 'to fight till the last Afghan' to get even with the Soviet Union, but when the Soviets left, Washington was not prepared to help bring peace or feed a hungry people.

You'd think we'd learn our lesson. I do so hope that we help rebuild Afghan society THROUGH the Afghans as much as possible, instead of simply focusing on our military efforts there.

1 comment:

Jaimie said...

Great, fascinating post. Really informative.