This well researched book was written before the events of September 11th 2001. The author is a journalist who has worked in Afghanistan since 1979. It has been described by the Guardian as the book which is being read by Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, who allegedly have been heavily influenced by the book. Do not let that deter you from reading this book! It remains to be seen if they have really been influenced by it.
The main argument of Rashid is that the world and in particular the United States ignored the plight of Afghanistan after the end of the Cold War. The Mujaheddin (Islamic counter-revolutionaries) who with the aid of the CIA were crucial in the defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and hence critical in bringing about an end to the Cold War were abandoned as Afghanistan drifted into civil war. Out of these conditions rose the Taliban Movement which was to control up to 90% of the country, a movement which gained the reputation of religious fanaticism in its interpretation of Islam and which led to unheard of persecution of women in Afghanistan. Dependent for its existence on narcotics the regime had never heard of accounting. Its war was paid for out of illicit drug trafficking along the border with Pakistan. Rashid convincingly makes the case that the Taliban were not purely the result of the backwardness of their country, but in fact were a 20th century construct, whose members came from refugee camps in Pakistan and continued to be aided by that country. However this fundamentalist movement, used to defeat the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had got out of control, its activities threatening the whole of South Asia and even the whole world. Reactionary movements have long been supported by imperialism to defeat revolution in Asia. Now the dog would turn on its master. This was recognized by the author before the events of September 11th. The book has been reissued with a new introduction since that day.
Rasid describes the humanitarian disaster affecting Afghanistan. It has the world's largest refugee population, with 3.6 million refugees outside the country, 2.2 million in Pakistan and 1.2 million in Iran. In the north of the country where there were some 200,000 displaced persons, they had resorted to eating grass, animal fodder and rodents. The drought affecting agriculture had worsened the situation. Aid agencies were increasingly finding it difficult to work with the Taliban. However, as the author describes - with more than half of Kabul's 1.2 million people dependent on NGO food aid, the main victims were women and children- the most vulnerable sections of the population. Not only food supplies but water and health were affected. Kabul has been reduced to rubble, its infrastructure destroyed. The International Red Cross reported that 98,000 families were headed by a widow, 63,000 by a disabled person and 45,000 persons were treated for injuries in 1998 alone. There was not even an estimate of how many had been killed. The infant mortality rate of 18% of all live births is the highest in the world. A quarter of all children die before their fifth birthday (the overall figure for the developing world is one in ten).Life expectancy for men and women is 43 years, only 29% of the population has access to safe water. Even before the Taliban 90% of girls and 60% of boys were illiterate. Years of war had destroyed schools and disrupted communities.
This situation was worsened by the Taliban's gender policies. Closure of schools affected both girls and boys as many of the teachers were women and not allowed to work. As a result UNICEF estimated that by 1998 9 out of 10 girls and 2 out of 3 boys were not enrolled in school. Children were subject to wartime brutality the majority having witnessed death and destruction and many have been recruited on either side as soldiers.
Rashid describes the roots of the Taliban in the refugee camps of Pakistan. They were a direct consequence of the war against the Soviet Union which had claimed 1.5 million lives. The followers of Mullah Omar were brought up in the "madrassas" (refugee camps) in Pakistan and had no links with the history of their own country. Their view of the world was what they had been taught in these camps. They had no idea of the complex ethnic background of their country and knew only war. Their teachers followed the word of the prophet and knew nothing of science, history or geography. In particular their view of women was shaped by life in these camps - "The mullahs who taught them stressed that women were a temptation, an unnecessary distraction from being of service to Allah. So when the Taliban entered Kandahar and confined women to their homes by barring them from working, going to school or even from shopping, the majority of these madrassa boys saw nothing unsual in such measures. They felt threatened by that half of the human race which they had never known and it was much easier to lock that half away, especially if it was ordained by the mullahs who invoked primitive Islamic injunctions, which had no basis in Islamic law. The subjugation of women became the mission of the true believers and a fundamental marker that differentiated the Taliban from the former Mujaddin." This increasingly drew the Taliban into conflict with intergovernmental and aid organisations and even feminist organisations in the USA lobbied the Clinton administration heavily against recognition of the Taliban. Refugees from Afghanistan were joined in the camps by 35,000 Muslims from over 43 countries between 1982 and 1992. One of these recruits was a wealthy Saudi student named Osama Bin Laden. These students believed that due to the defeat of the Soviet Union, Islam could defeat the other world power, namely the USA.
The brutality of the Taliban against their opponents is described by Rashid in his account of the capture of the town of Mazar in the North. The Hazara defending forces were subject to a massacre. "The Taliban went on a killing frenzy, driving their pick-ups up and down the narrow streets of Mazar, shooting to the left and right and killing everything that moved- shop owners, cart pullers,, women and children, and even goats and donkeys....They were shooting without warning at everybody who happened to be on the street, without discriminating between men, women and children. Soon the streets were covered with dead bodies and blood. No-one was allowed to bury the corpses for the first six days. Dogs were eating human flesh and going mad and soon the smell became intolerable.". as reported by one onlooker.Those who escaped death were arrested and transported to prison in containers where many suffocated. The town was then subject to aerial bombardment. The Taliban claimed that this was revenge to the treatment their people had suffered the previous year. And so the spiral of violence continued.
The author shows how Afghanistan has since the 19th century been the focus for conflict between world powers. In the 19th century Britain and Russia fought over the country in what was known as the "great game". The strategy of British imperialism was to defend its position in the Indian sub-continent. In the 1980s the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces again pushed it into the international focus, as the US sought to prevent it becoming part of the Soviet empire by all means possible. The US used the local mujaheddin plus the reactionary governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as its allies. This has acquired a rationale of its own as Pakistan pursued its own agenda in Afghanistan of supporting the Taliban. This was because many of the militants fighting in Kashmir were being trained by them. Russia and the former Soviet Republics continued to support the opposition tribes of the North (now called the Northern Alliance!). Hence the civil war was fuelled by these neighbouring states with the Pakistan secret service (ISI) supplying funds and weapons to the Taliban. The prospects for oil exploration in the Caspian Sea region and the desirability of building an oil pipeline through Afghanistan further disturbed the forces of imperialism. The Taliban played off two companies competing for the oil contract - Unocal and Bridas (an Argentian company which tried to woo the Taliban. The potential economic importance of the area as well as the fact that Islamic fundamentalism was spiraling out of control in South Asia became an issue of world concern and led to UN led sanctions against the Taliban regime in 1998. The tension increased with increasing terrorist attacks on US targets. However as the author says "What Washington was not prepared to admit was that the Afghan jihad, with the support of the CIA, had spawned dozens of fundamentalist movements across the Muslim world which were led by militants who had grievances, not so much against the Americans, but their own corrupt, incompetent regimes." Even before September 11th the priority of the American government was to capture Bin Laden, but its whole policy in South Asia had been to foster those conditions which would lead to the creation of yet more fundamentalists of the same kind.
The author concludes that there is a lesson to be learnt from the collapse of the Soviet regime "-those who intervene in Afghanistan can face disintegration themselves" "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 the drugs mafia." This was before the events of September 11th. What then did the author propose as the solution? Basically an arms embargo, an aid programme and political intervention by the United Nations to bring the warring factions together. When the US returned to Afghanistan again however it was not with aid but with bombs, as revenge for New York became the prime aim of US foreign policy. But the influence of Islamic fundamentalists cannot be dealt with by bombing one country. Their arrests which are being made all over the world, including in Europe and the USA show that this is the case.
In spite of the unexpected early collapse of the Taliban, Afghanistan is still being bombed by the most powerful military power on earth, thousands more lives have been lost. A humanitarian disaster looms. Hence the conditions for spawning Islamic fundamentalism remain. Fundamentalism as the author shows was a creation of the "west". The problem he faces is that organisations such as the United Nations cannot have an independent life apart from their member countries, the most powerful being the USA. Only the recreation of radical socialist movements throughout the world can achieve this - the sort of movements which imperialism used the fundamentalists to attempt to destroy.