Taliban, Islam and Oil

The detention of 24 aid workers accused of promoting Christianity has stretched relations between Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers and governments around the world to breaking point. This is the latest episode in the international power struggle around this strategically vital area of the world. Per-Åke Westerlund looks at a recent book by Ahmed Rashid that details the background to the Taliban’s rise to power and the situation in Afghanistan today.

In November 1994, after a few weeks of fighting, the Taliban movement conquered Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second biggest city. Within three months the Taliban had taken control of ten of the country’s 31 provinces. In September 1996, they conquered the capital, Kabul. Everywhere they introduced the most repressive sharia law in the world. The reporter, Ahmed Rashid, has covered Afghanistan for the Far Eastern Economic Review and other newspapers for more than 20 years. His book, Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, gives a very fresh and factual account of a country in collapse and a potentially explosive region.

Despite its economic backwardness, developments in Afghanistan play an important role internationally. It is here where camps financed from Pakistan prepared military action in Kashmir. Up until last year, the country was the biggest heroin producer in the world and could become so again. Continued war and Taliban rule could destabilise the whole region even further. And Rashid points out: “The central point in this regional power game is the struggle over the enormous oil and gas supplies of Central Asia”.

He compares this with the ‘great game’ between Russia and England in the 19th century when the British empire made three failed attempts to conquer and occupy Afghanistan. Today’s ‘great game’ involves Pakistan and Iran, Russia and the US, as well as what Rashid calls, ‘the mightiest actors’, the oil companies.

After the second world war, Afghanistan belonged to the so-called ‘fourth world’ – economically poorer than even third world countries. The economy was dominated by big estates and nomadic cattleherders. Afghanistan was still more marked by the Silk Road, Genghis Khan and millennia-old religious and cultural monuments, than by 20th century capitalist development. Because of its strategic location, however, the scattered kingdom received modest economic aid from the former USSR and the US. In the 1970s, a growing layer of low-ranking officers looked to Stalinism as a model, an alternative to the capitalist West. Another group moved towards Islam.

In December 1979, Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union, allegedly to ‘stabilise’ the country against the background of an intensified power struggle and military coups. Rashid describes the subsequent 21 years of conflict as the “longest civil war in our time”, in which 1.5 million people have been killed.

The departure of the USSR in 1988, after the deal in Geneva, was caused by opposition to an unending and unwinnable war and by the growing crisis in the USSR itself. The war in Afghanistan helped hasten the collapse of Stalinism a couple of years later. The civil war continued, first against the Soviet-friendly president, Najibullah, and then between the warlords who had received approximately $10 billion from the US and Saudi Arabia during the conflict.

The reasons for the rapid growth of the Taliban were the breakdown of the economy and traditional way of life. This had been made worse by the oppressive policies of Western imperialism, and was further exacerbated by the catastrophic fiasco of Stalinism and the corrupt rule of the squabbling warlords.

In 1992, Najibullah was overthrown by Tadzjik forces led by Ahmed Shah Massoud and Uzbeks led by Rashid Dostum. Burhanuddin Rabbani became the new president. But the Pathan and extreme Islamist opposition, with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at their head, did not accept this regime and started a ruthless bombardment of Kabul. This was the prelude to ethnic disputes which had been rare in Afghanistan up to then. The ethnic Pathan are a majority in the south and form 40% of the total national population of 20 million people. Turkish and Persian ethnic groups dominate in the north. The country is divided by the Hindukush mountains, populated by Persian-speaking Hazaris and Tadjiks.

Pakistan’s Influence

Most of the Taliban were students from the Madrisas (Islamic religious schools) in Pakistan. They had not taken part in the war against the Soviet troops. With Pakistani aid at the end of 1994, they took control of big armament supplies. The whole country had more or less collapsed. Taliban leader, mullah Mohammed Omar, was seen almost as a Robin Hood-type figure when the Taliban conquered Kandahar, disarming the warlords and arresting spivs. Food became cheaper when the roads were opened and the city became relatively calmer.

The Taliban introduced harsh sharia law. Following on from 20 years of continually worsening conditions, women were banned from working outside the house. Music, television, video, card playing, singing and dancing (even at weddings), paper dragons and kite flying were all banned. Homosexuality was outlawed. Forty-five schools were closed, leaving only three open. Even before the Taliban, 90% of girls and 60% of boys were illiterate. According to Rashid, most people with any kind of education fled the country.

Among the young Taliban soldiers there was absolutely no criticism of this policy. Raised in the isolated and exclusively male Madrisas, they saw themselves as ‘soldiers of God’. More importantly, there were no alternatives. The Taliban promised peace and condemned the warlords, and gained support from the war-weary population. “The Taliban had the luck to emerge at a moment when the Communist (ie Stalinist) power structure had fallen apart, the resistance leaders were discredited and the traditional tribal leaders had been eliminated”, Rashid summarises.

The Pakistan government under Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Inter Service Intelligence agency (ISI), effectively created the Taliban by providing money and arms. Kandahar was linked up to Pakistan’s telephone network. The US, which officially did not support any side, indirectly supported the contributions from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Rashid comments: “The Clinton administration was positively disposed towards the Taliban because they fitted into the anti-Iranian policies of Washington and were important to the possibilities of building oil pipelines from Central Asia without passing through Iran”.

The Rabbani government received aid from Iran, Russia and India. The Taliban, however, got growing support in Kabul with the population turning against the looting and harassment by Massoud’s soldiers. The Taliban also enhanced their reputation when they ended the food blockade. The earlier favourite of the West, Hekmatyar, entered the government in June 1996 to put an end to the Taliban offensive. But by the end of September the familiar Taliban jeeps drove into Kabul. The population did not understand what the consequences would be. Within 24 hours, girls’ schools with 75,000 pupils were shut down.

In Kabul, as later in Herat and Mazar, the Taliban became an occupying army. Sharia law, ruthless killings, and Pathan nationalism quickly turned the inhabitants against them. In Mazar, an uprising forced the Taliban out. Six hundred Taliban were killed and 1,000 captured. Both sides used terrible and cruel methods, such as leaving enemies to die in containers in the desert. Children have been drawn into this war more than any other – two-thirds have seen someone killed by a missile or rocket. All the warlords recruit child soldiers.

In the autumn of 1997 there were 750,000 refugees in the north. Starvation affected around one million of the three to four million Hazaris. At the same time, the Taliban received 600,000 tons of wheat from Pakistan. Food had become a weapon.

Drugs, Arms and the CIA

AFTER THE TALIBAN took control of Kandahar, the area’s renowned fruit cultivation was replaced by opium. Eighty percent of all heroin in Europe and 50% of the world’s supply originated from Afghanistan. This production was developed under the protection of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The production of opium increased by 35% in 1997. The big winners were the distributors and pushers in Europe and North America who get more than 90% of the profits.

Under pressure from the West, the Taliban have drastically reduced Afghanistan’s opium production this year. The clampdown has had a devastating effect, increasing the widespread hardship. In a country where the average monthly salary is around $5, smallholders could make up to $500 a year from the cultivation of poppies. Instead of the expected aid to deal with the worst drought in 30 years, however, the United Nations rewarded Afghanistan with tougher sanctions. The Taliban then destroyed two key statues of Buddha built in the third century, contrasting the international outcry at this cultural vandalism to the silence at the plight of millions of Afghani people.

The Taliban publicly mutilated women. Windows were painted black to stop anyone looking at women in their homes. In July 1998, the UN and all aid organisations were forced out of Kabul, despite the fact that more than half the 1.2 million population depended on them. By this time, the Taliban controlled 90% of the country, their rule recognised by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Taliban’s sharia law had nothing to do with Afghani culture. Most of the Muslims in Afghanistan belonged to the Hanafi school of thought – the most tolerant current of Sunni Islam. The extreme Islamists were a new phenomenon, arising out of the war with the USSR, armed and financed by the CIA and the Pakistani ISI. The 900 Madrisas in Pakistan in 1971 had increased to 13,000 by the end of the 1980s. With the collapse of public education, these schools were often the only possibility to gain an education. The Madrisas belonged to the Deobandi school of Islam, with connections to the Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam (JUI – Society of Islamic Scholars) political party. The JUI sat in the PPP-dominated government coalition from 1993. From the Deobandis the Talibans acquired their opposition to tribalism. The rest of their programme, including the view that all other currents have betrayed Islam, are a product of Omar and the Taliban themselves.

The basis for the birth and development of these ideas is the extreme crisis and desperation in Afghanistan, and the weakness of its socialist or working-class traditions and alternatives. Rashid describes Pakistan as a country with an “identity crisis, economic meltdown, ethnic and religious collisions and a greedy ruling elite”. The oppression by the Taliban is based on ethnicity and gender, as well as class, religion and politics.

As early as 1986, the CIA was recruiting Muslim ‘radicals’ all over the world and sending them to Pakistan – a total of 80,000, of whom a third took part in the fighting in Afghanistan. Among them was Osama bin Laden, a friend of members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. Following the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the CIA named bin Laden as the leader of a global Islamic ‘terrorist conspiracy’. Undoubtedly, he runs camps in Afghanistan and has influenced the Taliban to become more hostile to the US and the West. According to Rashid, however, bin Laden was never capable of playing the leading role which the CIA has assigned to him.

Despite a continuous flow of new warriors from the Madrisas, the Taliban have been pushed back by Massoud’s troops with Russian and Iranian assistance. After the massacre of Iranian officials in 1998, Iran threatened open war. This was withdrawn and Iran continued its proxy war via Massoud. The Taliban army has never exceeded 25-30,000 men, most without military training. Massoud commands a force of 12-15,000 far more experienced men.

The Taliban’s occupation has met resistance. There have been strikes and student protests in Jalalabad, as well as rumours of a coup. The protests have been around food shortages, inflation and the loss of foreign aid. The infant mortality rate of 163 per 1,000, is the fourth highest in the world. Two-hundred and sixty children out of 1,000 die before they reach five years of age, and 17 out of 1,000 mothers die while giving birth. Life expectancy is 43-44 years for men and women. Only 29% of the population have access to health care. Following military defeats, there have been protests against the Taliban’s rules. Discontent is increasing but the ‘religious police’ in Kabul still organise thousands of young fanatics.

The Great Oil Rush

The initial support of Bill Clinton’s administration for the Taliban was based on the campaign against Iran, but even more on the region’s oil and gas. In 1996-98 the US government supported the Unocal oil company’s plans for a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan.

The discovery of large oil and gas reserves in Central Asia opened up a race between the oil companies. For Turkmenistan, the disintegration of the USSR meant economic collapse as it was no longer paid for the oil and gas it sold to other republics in the former Soviet Union. President Saparmurad Niyazov signed deals with Turkey, Iran and the Argentinean oil company, Bridas, for two pipelines. Mobil Oil also established itself in Turkmenistan. The US and other Western governments had no objections to the semi-dictatorial regimes of Niyazov or Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. Indeed, the US increased its trade with Uzbekistan eight-fold between 1995-98. Nato made deals and conducted military exercises with the armies of these states.

The Russian state was concerned with the spread of the Taliban. The economic crisis in the new Central Asian states, alongside corruption and oppression, were sources of recruitment for the Islamic groups. But even more important for Moscow was the oil. The government under Boris Yeltsin made it clear that it would not accept any oil being transported in non-Russian pipelines.

Under pressure from Russia, the civil war in Tadjikistan ended in an agreement in 1998. The government in Tadjikistan and the opposition both feared the Taliban. Yeltsin then situated 25,000 troops in the country and established camps for Massoud. A quarter of the population of Afghanistan are Tadjiks, the only ethnic group in Central Asia of Persian – as opposed to Turkish – origin. Russian influence is also strong over the governments in Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan.

With Turkish dialects in most of Central Asia, including in Xinjiang in China, Turkey and Turkish big business has invested a lot in the region. The US and Turkey are pushing for a pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan to Ceyhan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

At the centre of this power struggle is Afghanistan. Russian, Iranian and Turkish interests have good reasons for supporting Massoud’s northern alliance. Their aim is to stop the Taliban and its plans for a pipeline through Afghanistan. The US stood by Unocal. As Rashid says, “The US did not say a single critical word when the Taliban occupied Herat and expelled thousands of girls from the schools. The fact is that the US, with the Pakistani ISI, regarded the downfall of Herat as a step forward for Unocal and a setback for Iran”. In September 1996, the CIA believed that the Taliban could be victorious in the whole of Afghanistan and that relations similar to those between the US and Saudi Arabia were possible. Unocal offered the Taliban education and material resources. Only later did the Clinton administration come under pressure because of the Taliban’s treatment of women. This coincided with falling oil prices and the pipeline project was put on hold.

Oil was another reason the ruling elite in Pakistan supported the Taliban. Pakistan is in desperate need of cheap energy. Its own gas fields are running out and imports are increasing. The main reason for its support of the Taliban, however, is the fighting in Kashmir. The regime in Pakistan has always used Kashmir as a nationalist glue and needs the bases in Afghanistan. But the cost is huge. In June 1998, in spite of the deep economic crisis, the government of Pakistan paid $6 million in wages for the Taliban administration in Kabul. But friction has grown between the Pakistani ruling class and the Taliban. The latter has fuelled Pathan nationalism and promoted armed groups which support an Islamic counter-revolution in Pakistan.

Rashid shows that for economic, military and ethnic reasons, it is impossible for the Taliban to establish a stable regime. Massoud on the other hand has neither the necessary strength nor support to take power. While the fighting is totally dependent on Pakistani aid for the Taliban and Iranian/Russian aid for Massoud, neither of them wants a permanent division of the country, with a refugee crisis involving the whole region. Iran has already two million refugees from Afghanistan. There is a growing number of groupings within the Taliban movement itself, which could lead to an inter-Taliban civil war or a coup against Omar and his Kandahar clique.

Ahmed Rashid has written a rich book, filled with facts and an analysis of recent history. He is a very critical observer. Without socialist ideas, however, his alternatives are vague. Rashid seems to believe that the US could have saved Afghanistan from this tragedy. He advocates an armistice. He proposes a weak central government, UN-brokered deals with guarantees for all groups including foreign aid countries and a package for rebuilding the country.

But the US and UN are to a great extent responsible for the severe crisis. So are the ruling classes in the other countries involved. To stop the nightmare in Afghanistan and Central Asia, socialist and internationalist solutions are needed. The fight against imperialism, militarism, and capitalism is the task for the workers and oppressed in Afghanistan, the region and globally. Only the working class can guarantee the rights of all ethnic groups. Present and future struggles against reactionary political and religious regimes will be the schools of the revolutionary socialist forces.

Socialism Today #59 September 2001