The Unknown Enemy


By James Fergusson

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From a small group of religious students formed in 1994, the Taliban quickly grew into a national movement that occupied all of Afghanistan. Led by the mysterious Mullah Omar, the group established a theocracy based on strict observance of Sharia law. When the Americans overthrew the Taliban in 2001, the United States thought the regime had been defeated. Yet today, nine years later, the Taliban continue to wage a bloody insurgency.

In this extraordinary and compelling account of the rise, fall, and return of the Taliban, author James Fergusson, who has unique access to its shadowy leaders, presents the reality of themovement so often mischaracterized in the press. His surprising and, perhaps, uncomfortable conclusions about our current strategy in Afghanistan should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand this intractable conflict.


For Mary


In a previous book, A Million Bullets, an account of the British Army's battle with the Taliban in Helmand in 2006, I argued in its conclusion that negotiation with the enemy might be a better alternative to fighting them. Ever since – at conferences and literary festivals, in the comment pages of Sunday newspapers, on national radio and television, in private meetings with senior politicians and soldiers, even in testimony to a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee – I have repeated the axiom that no counter-insurgency in history has concluded without dialogue with the enemy. No one ever contested the assertion. And yet, nine miserable years after the campaign against the Taliban began, there has been no contact between the West or any of its allies and the insurgency's undisputed leader, Mullah Omar: not so much as a text message.
This book is written from a deep conviction that we must change tack. The insurgency is still expanding and Afghans have lost confidence in our ability to stem it, as well as in our ability to establish an alternative government in Kabul that is truly worthy of their support. A negotiated settlement with the Taliban looks increasingly like the West's only way out of the mess.
Our strategy to date has been dominated by military rather than civilian thinking, and it is failing in large part because we continue to misunderstand the nature of the opposition.
'There are those who are propagating war based on an extreme, perverted view of Islam. Those people are not reconcilable,' the former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown once remarked.1 Yet if the problem is the 'perversion' of Islam – a characterization of their religion, incidentally, that a great many Afghans, not just the Taliban, would dispute – is reconciliation not more likely to be achieved through theological debate rather than military force? The Taliban are the representatives of an ideology as much as they are an army. It follows that we need to win arguments with them, not just battles – and we can't do that without talking to them. How much, in the end, do we really know about the Taliban and their motives? Not nearly enough, I would suggest. And yet according to Sun Tzu's The Art of War, the famous ancient Chinese text still taught in Nato staff colleges, 'know your enemy' is one of the first precepts of successful warfare.
In the first part of this book I have traced the origins and history of Mullah Omar's extraordinary movement from 1994 to the present day, with the aim of demonstrating that the Taliban were never quite the bearded bigots of popular Western imagination. The second part is dedicated to conversations with leading members of the so-called 'reconciled' Taliban, who are likely to emerge as key mediators in any peace deal with Omar in the future, and tackles these more immediate questions: what might such a deal look like? What would it mean for Afghanistan and the world, and how can it be achieved?
A compromise would not necessarily entail the abandonment of the West's principal goal.
'Let us not forget why we are in Afghanistan,' the US General David Petraeus said in November 2009. 'It is to ensure that this country cannot become once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida.'
Forget, for a moment, democratization, development, reform. They are all optional extras: desirable in themselves, perhaps, but nevertheless means to a greater end. Omar wants the withdrawal of foreign troops and the establishment of Sharia law in his country. In return for a guarantee to keep al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, is it unthinkable now to grant him this wish? Our policy-makers assume that Omar could never be trusted to keep al-Qaida out, but how can they be sure when they have never asked him?
Western troop withdrawal, phased and carefully timetabled, would not mean the abandonment of Afghanistan. On the contrary, the departure of our soldiers should be coordinated with a massive uplift in aid, paid for by savings from the military effort: the civilian-led development programme that we should perhaps have concentrated on in the first place. In February 2010, for the first time, the Pentagon spent more in a month on Afghanistan than it did on Iraq: $6.7 billion compared to $5.5 billion, or $233 million a day.2 This is about three times what the Taliban government, before it was ousted, could afford to spend on civil development in an entire year. How many roads or schools or hospitals could be built with a budget as big as that? Such reconstruction could only happen with the consent of the Taliban, of course; but there is every reason to think that they would give their consent. They did in the past. The Taliban are not against Western aid and development in principle. It is the presence of infidel troops they primarily object to, and when they destroy a newly built school or well or road, it is often because they see these projects – perhaps with some reason – as weapons in a Western counter-insurgency campaign.
As an organization they have been relentlessly demonized: a byword for extremism, the most infamous religious movement of our times. They were doubtless guilty of many excesses when they were in power. Crucial questions remain about how they would treat the non-Pashtun minority should they return to the political mainstream – particularly the Hazara Shi'ites, the victims of serious persecution in the late 1990s. The footage of public executions carried out in a Kabul football stadium remains hard to comprehend in the West. We are rightly outraged by those insurgents who apparently see nothing wrong in using women and children as human shields on the southern battlefields of today.
Yet the truth is that the Taliban were never as uniformly wicked as they were routinely made out to be – and nor are they now. The original idea behind their movement was not evil, but noble. Perhaps like all popular revolutions, theirs took off in directions unanticipated by its founders, and much of the idealism that underpinned it became lost. But not, they insist, irrevocably so; and if they are convinced they could do better next time, who are we to say that they are wrong?
More to the point, the Afghans themselves now seem ready to offer the Taliban a second chance: even some Afghan women.
'I changed my view three years ago when I realized Afghanistan is on its own,' said Shukria Barakzai, an MP and one of the country's leading women's rights campaigners. 'It's not that the international community doesn't support us. They just don't understand us. The Taliban are part of our population. They have different ideas, but as democrats we have to accept that.'3
In 1999, Barakzai was beaten by the Taliban's religious police in Kabul when she went to the doctor's unaccompanied by her husband. If even she is prepared to consider a compromise with her former tormentors, should not the West be listening?
The Taliban made some terrible mistakes, and I do not condone them. But I am also certain that we need a better understanding of how and why they made those mistakes before we condemn them. Many worse things have happened to Afghans than the Taliban government of 1996 – 2001. In the context of Afghanistan's history of violence and poverty, they may well represent the least of evils. It is not as if the West's track record in Afghanistan over the last nine years is anything to boast about. Lawlessness, corruption, poppies: the Taliban arguably dealt with all these better than we have since 2001. For all their good intentions and sacrifices, our armed forces have won precious few hearts and minds in Afghanistan, while inadvertently visiting death and destruction on thousands of rural civilians and their communities.
In the end the Taliban are only people, and surely deserve to be treated as such. I know they are capable of learning from their mistakes and of changing their minds. In private arguments I have heard them do so many times. Besides: if we find their worldview abhorrent, is it not more practical to try to change it through patient argument rather than at the point of a gun? Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, as Churchill once said. Dialogue is more effective as well as more humane than bullets.
There was a time in the 1990s, often forgotten now, when even America did not consider the Taliban so bad. A Texan oil firm once discussed building a trans-Afghan pipeline with them, openly and with Washington's blessing. We can and should learn to live with them again; and political reconciliation, currently a kind of adjunct to Western military strategy, must be placed centre stage if there is ever to be peace in the country.
Finally, a caveat: I have been writing about or reporting from Afghanistan for fourteen years now, but I do not claim to be an expert. In fact, the more I visit this bewildering, intoxicating country, the less I feel I truly understand it. There are certainly many people with a better grasp of its complexities than me. I therefore make no apologies for borrowing from the work of other writers in some sections of this book, while affirming that any mistakes are entirely my own.

Part I

The Tank of Islam: Kandahar, 1994
It seems improbable, given the daily drip of news of British soldiers' deaths in Afghanistan, but in 1994, the year the Taliban movement was born, that country was a far more dangerous and chaotic place than it is now. The Soviets, who ended their ten-year occupation in 1989, were long gone – and the disparate ethnic and religious leaders who once united to eject the invaders, the famous mujahideen, were now at each other's throats. In the first six months of 1994, 25,000 civilians were killed in the vicious squabble for control of the capital, Kabul: death and destruction on a scale worse than anything the Afghans had suffered under the Soviets.
The world's attention had wandered since 1989, and the renewed carnage was barely noticed abroad. The Cold War was yesterday's story, and the hottest proxy battlefield of the 1980s seemed an irrelevant backwater. There was in any case much else to preoccupy the West in 1994. Even as President Bill Clinton pulled US troops out of Somalia, he found himself drawn into an intensifying civil war in Bosnia. Boris Yeltsin invaded Chechnya, while Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors and sent troops to the Kuwaiti border once again. In Rwanda, 800,000 Tutsis were hacked to death by rival Hutus, a massacre that the international community seemed powerless to prevent. The suffering in Kabul was small fry compared to that. For whatever reason, between 1990 and 1996 the UN Security Council did not hold a single debate on Afghanistan.1
With the collapse of central government, much of the countryside had fallen under the control of rapacious bandits. Life had become particularly difficult for the rural poor – and nowhere more so than in the Pashtun heartlands of southern Afghanistan. Rival gangs of armed men had slung chains across every road around Kandahar city, stopping the traffic to demand a 'toll' before it could proceed. It was becoming uneconomical as well as dangerous for farmers even to try to take their crops to market.
Many of these bandits were minor ex-mujahideen commanders whose salaries had dried up with the ending of the war and who were unwilling, or unable, to disband their hungry followers. Others were merely criminals with an eye to the main chance. By the spring of 1994 it wasn't just farmers but the international trucking business that was suffering. The bandits laid siege with their chains to the A1 national ring road that intersected the southern provinces, a road that connected Afghanistan's main trading partners, Iran to the west and Pakistan to the east. There were fifty chains just on the 65-mile drive between Kandahar and the Pakistani border.2 Truckers were paying more in bribes than the value of the goods they were trying to transport. The A1 was a vital artery in the national economy, and now it was all but choked off.
Some highwaymen, such as Shah Baran, a former officer in the Soviet-backed National Army, were often so stoned on chars, the powerful local cannabis, that they were barely able to function. One traveller recalled his dread as his car approached the chain that designated a Shah Baran checkpoint. The gang of grubby armed men huddled in blankets at the kerbside didn't move, however. They were too busy puffing from a large chilam. The traveller was too scared to attract their attention. More than fifteen minutes passed before Shah Baran looked up and even noticed the car.3
Men like these soon graduated from demanding tolls to random acts of murder, or worse. A notorious villain called Saleh, who at times commanded hundreds of men, had taken to stopping inter-city bus traffic and abducting any woman he fancied. Two young girls travelling from Herat to Kandahar were later found to have been gang-raped and beaten to death, their naked bodies thrown in a pit behind Saleh's checkpoint.
Things were no better in Kandahar city. A bloody turf war had erupted between the main local commanders, Ustad Abdul Haleem, Hajji Ahmad and Mullah Naqib. One battle lasted for six days, turning buildings into rubble and streets into impassable mazes of trenches. Bodies lay scattered everywhere. The air was filled with thick smoke from houses burning out of control, and hundreds of shops were looted. On the sixth day, a Friday, thousands of townspeople gathered after prayers to demonstrate against the violence, but at Kabul Darwaza Square their march through the city came to an abrupt halt when they were confronted by Baru, a former mujahideen commander who had taken up position with a tank.
Baru was an odious man, corrupt and without conscience. He was notorious for marrying some girl, demanding a large dowry, then divorcing her a month later without returning the family's money. Nor was his sexual appetite confined to women. Like many mujahideen commanders, Baru kept a teenage catamite, a practice unequivocally forbidden in Islam but which is nevertheless widespread among Afghanistan's huge fighting community: a status symbol as well as a source of sexual release. The difference in Baru's case was that the catamite himself was a bandit, effetely waving a Makarov pistol at passing travellers and able to get away with anything, including murder, thanks to his feared patron. A man such as Baru thrived in Kandahar's present climate. Now, without warning, he fired a shell into the demonstrators, massacring dozens. The Kandaharis had suffered greatly during the Soviet occupation, but this was worse. The period is still remembered as topakiyaan: the time of the men with guns.
Not all former mujahideen had gone to the bad. Among them was the veteran fighter Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who took up arms against the Russians in 1983 at the age of fifteen. He was ambushed nine times and injured twice in that war; in an attack on Kandahar airport in 1988, he lost fifty of the fifty-eight men under his command. Zaeef was no war-monger by nature but a religious scholar who greatly preferred the Koran to the Kalashnikov. But because a jihad had been formally declared against the Russians in 1979, it became his duty as a Muslim to take up arms against them. He was grateful, indeed overjoyed, to hang up his guns when the invaders were finally ejected.
The war had slowed rather than interrupted his studies. Now, back at home, he was able to concentrate on them properly again. In 1990 he became a father for the first time. He was forced to take a job digging roads when money became tight, but by 1993 he had found a position as the imam of a tiny village mosque. This quiet life was not to last. The rumble of artillery could often be heard from Kandahar city, thirty miles to the east. Passing travellers or visiting friends brought news of fresh chaos and atrocities there almost every day. A moment came when one of his parishioners, a young man called Abdul Mohammad who was just back from a trip to the city, told him how he had almost been killed by two armed muggers on a motorbike, one of whom he had managed to wrestle to the ground. The attack, shockingly, had happened not in Kandahar but in broad daylight on the road right next to Zaeef's mosque. Abdul Mohammad was still white and shaking from the experience.
Zaeef was a peace-loving man whose patience had been tried too much. This was the land of his childhood: he had been born in the village of Zangiabad, barely 20 miles away, and had spent most of his adult life in desperate combat with foreigners bent on subjugating his country and suppressing his religion. A million of his countrymen had died in the national cause, and for what? The Islamic society he had fought so long and hard for was disintegrating before his eyes. Some ex-mujahideen friends of his, Abdul Qudus and Neda Mohammad, were in favour of ambushing and killing the villainous Saleh, but Zaeef advised caution. He knew there were other retired mujahideen commanders who thought and felt as he did: local men alongside whom he had fought for years. Saleh and his kind were powerful; banding together again seemed the best means of standing up to them.
The networks from the war were still strong among the ex-mujahideen. The anti-Soviet resistance had coalesced around a number of politico-military organizations, or tanzeems, which represented every possible shade of political opinion in Afghanistan's fragmented society, from the deep religious conservatism of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami to the federalism espoused by Abdul Ali Mazari's Hazara Shi'ite organization, Hizb-i-Wahdat.
Like many Pashtuns from the conservative south, Zaeef initially fought for a unit loyal to Hizb-i-Islami. But as a man with a religious calling, he also belonged to a separate but overlapping network that, although drawn from a far wider area than the typical tanzeem, was no less tightly knit. Their bond was their faith and, very often, a childhood upbringing in a madrasah: an Islamic seminary, a training school for mullahs. Such men formed the grass roots of the movement that became known as the Taliban.
Contrary to common perception in the West, the movement did not emerge out of nowhere in the 1990s. 'Taliban' was no more than the plural, in Pashto, of talib, the Arabic word for an Islamic student: literally, 'one who seeks knowledge'. They had been a presence in Afghan village society for as long as there had been madrasahs – which is to say, since the earliest days of Islam. There had once been so many Islamic students at large, indeed, that they had created something of a social problem. A British intelligence report written in 1901 described the 'talib-ul-ilm' as 'men, chiefly young men, who contemplate following the religious profession. They flock to the shrines of the country and attach themselves to some religious leader, ostensibly for religious education. Their number far exceeds those required to fill up vacancies in village mullahships and other ecclesiastic appointments, and they are reduced to seek other means of livelihood. They are at the bottom of all the mischief in the country, the instigators and often the perpetrators of the bulk of the crime. They use their religious status to live free on the people, who are too superstitious to turn them out, even when they destroy the peace of the family circle.'4
In the 1980s, most madrasah students who fought against the Soviets were assimilated into units controlled by the established tanzeems, although some banded together to form their own platoon-sized fighting groups who were described, by both themselves and others, as 'taliban' even then. They were easily distinguished by their turbans that were either jet black or snow white, in emulation of the headgear worn by descending angels who, according to the Koran, came to the Prophet's rescue during one of his battles with the infidel hordes between Mecca and Medina in the founding days of Islam. They were Muslim brothers-in-arms, and their faith made them tough guerrillas who were highly valued by their regular mujahideen colleagues, both for their fighting prowess and for the galvanizing effect that their religious conviction could have on their troops' morale. At their best, taliban fighters embodied the mujahideen ideal. One mullah specialized in ambushing armoured vehicles by hiding under water in a ditch by the road, breathing from the inner tube of a bicycle tyre. They could and frequently did survive on a handful of dates when supplies ran low, and they faced Afghanistan's extremes of heat and cold in the same old sandals and shalwar qamiz each day.
Among the people Zaeef went to consult in 1994 about standing up to Saleh and his like was one Mullah Mohammad Omar, a former fighter born in the neighbouring province of Uruzgan to the north, but who was now living at Sangisar, a village community 25 miles west of Kandahar. In the 1980s Sangisar was home to an important mujahideen base, and both Omar and Zaeef had taken part in a desperate battle with the Soviets in the district in 1988, the type of close combat where they had picked up live grenades and tossed them back at their assailants. Zaeef was 20 metres from Omar when their position was attacked by MiG fighter jets. Omar, looking around the corner of a wall, was struck by shrapnel from a bomb – a wound that would later prove terminal to his sight in one eye.
That same night, even as Omar was bandaging himself up, Zaeef recalled how the defenders celebrated the success of their resistance with an attan, a physically intense Pashtun war-dance performed to the beat of a double-headed drum called a dhol. The men gathered in a large circle, leaping and spinning faster and faster and firing their guns in the air. It was, according to Zaeef, 'a marvellous party . . . May God be praised! What a brotherhood we had among the mujahideen! We weren't concerned with the world or with our lives; our intentions were pure and every one of us was ready to die as a martyr. When I look back on the love and respect that we had for each other, it sometimes seems like a dream.'
Omar had returned to the Sangisar base after the war, and converted it into a madrasah where he now preached and taught. He was a pious, conservative man with a reputation as a courageous but taciturn military commander. He was something of a southern Pashtun archetype in this respect. He kept himself to himself and avoided the petty politics and self-advancing turf wars that preoccupied some of his peers. As a consequence he had never been a very prominent figure in the Jihad, but he was also a clean slate, a man who had no enemies because he had crossed no one in the past, and no scores to settle on his own behalf. In the view of Zaeef and others, this was precisely the kind of man that the reconstituted band of veterans now needed as a leader. Memories are long everywhere in Afghanistan, but nowhere more so than among the Pashtuns, who traditionally put great emphasis on badal, the obligation to seek revenge.a
Omar's wife had just given birth to a son when Zaeef went to see his old comrade. His friends and the local imams had all gathered there for the traditional celebration ceremony – lengthy recitations from the Koran – and Zaeef and two other mullahs who had accompanied him joined in. After supper, they took Omar to a separate room to talk business. The plan they proposed to him was beguilingly simple: the disarmament of the people in two provincial districts west of Kandahar – Maiwand and Panjwayi – and the establishment there of Sharia law, as articulated by the Prophet Mohammed in the early seventh century.
'We told him that he had been proposed as a leader who could implement our plan,' Zaeef recalled in his autobiography. 'He took a few moments to think after we had spoken, and then said nothing for some time. This was one of Mullah Omar's common habits, and he never changed this . . . Finally he said that he agreed with our plan and that something needed to be done. "But, I cannot accept the leadership position," he said . . . "Why did you not accept it yourself?" '
Zaeef understood Omar's misgivings, for the job would certainly be a dangerous one.
'He asked us what guarantees he could have that everyone wouldn't just abandon him if things became tough. We assured him that all those involved were true taliban and mujahideen.'
He was persuaded eventually. Others had come to see him, asking for the same thing.
'In the end everything that happens depends on God,' he said.
Within six weeks of the first discussion about killing Saleh, some forty or fifty people gathered in Sangisar at a small, crumbling mud-brick building known as the White Mosque to discuss the foundation of what became known as 'the Taliban'. Omar agreed to be their commander and took a solemn oath of allegiance, a beyat, from all those present. No mission statement was drawn up, no articles of association written down. There didn't seem any need. No name for the movement was ever discussed, either: taliban was simply what Omar and his followers were. The term in its present sense, with a definite article and a capital T, was probably coined by the BBC Pashto service, which aired a report about the Sangisar meeting twenty-four hours after it happened. It was never clear how the BBC learned about the meeting, since no press release was ever issued, nor any interview given. No one, least of all Omar, ever suspected that 'the Taliban' would one day become a kind of global brand name.


On Sale
May 24, 2011
Page Count
432 pages
Da Capo Press

James Fergusson

About the Author

James Fergusson is a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent who has written for many publications, including The Times of London and The Economist. He is the author of Taliban: The Unknown Enemy and the award-winning A Million Bullets. He lives in Edinburgh.

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