Wars and Empire


Q: Was the Taliban the creation of Pakistan? Can you tell us about its formation and how was Russia involved in it?



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Q: Was the Taliban the creation of Pakistan? Can you tell us about its formation and how was Russia involved in it?

A: The Taliban was not a creation of Pakistan, although Pakistan was among several states that contributed to the genesis and development of this peculiar movement. It is true that the Taliban (which was established only as late as in 1994 as a religious movement) had a significant influx from Pakistani madrassas. But the Taliban is not only an extreme religious movement, but also an ethnic Pashtun one. The Pashtuns are a bit less than half of Afghanistan's population, but in Pakistan there are 16 million resident Pashtuns plus 3 million as refugees. There are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan nowadays. The "Pakistanis" involved in Afghanistan are in fact Afghans.

The role of the Pakistani Islamist opposition in the formation and support of the Taliban is widely recorded. But more important are those who made it a military power. This is where Russia enters the game, too. In order to understand the Taliban, we must recall the background situation in Afghanistan ever since the events in 1970s.

The Taliban is not monolithic. Even less so is the Northern Alliance. Neither were the Afghan communists united. This was made evident by the internal power struggles following the ousting of King Zahir Shah in 1973. Daoud was overthrown and killed by communists in 1978. But the communists were divided into the Khalq faction, favored by China, and the Parcham faction, favored by the Soviet Union. In 1978 it was the Khalq faction that took over, but their more moderate leader Nur Mohammed Taraki was overthrown and killed by the hardliner Khalq communist Hafizullah Amin. In 1979, the Soviet Spetsnaz murdered Amin and replaced him with the Parcham follower Babrak Karmal, who was close to the KGB. Then the Soviet army invaded.

The communist secret service Khad (KhAD), whose leaders were Karmal and Sayid Mohammed Najibullah, was actually an Afghan branch of the KGB. It had been preceded by the communist secret services of Taraki and Amin (AGSA, KAM), but from 1979 onwards this organization of terror was instructed and trained by the KGB. The culture of terror and the horrible persecution of the civil population continued without a pause from the communist takeover up until the overthrowing of Najibullah's regime in 1992 when Massoud liberated Kabul. Western minds seem to implicitly suppose that when the Cold War was over, the communists and the structures they had created just suddenly disappeared. This is a recurrent fatal misperception especially of the Americans.

According to Professor Azmat Hayat Khan of the University of Peshawar, when Ahmad Shah Massoud's mujaheddin liberated Kabul in 1992, and Najibullah gave up power, the communist generals of the army and of Khad agreed to prolong the Afghan civil war in order to discredit President Burhanuddin Rabbani's mujahid government and prevent Afghanistan from stabilizing. The Uzbek communist General Abdurrashid Dostum continued the rebellion against Rabbani and Massoud in Mazar-i-Sharif, massively backed by the Soviet Union and later by Russia and Uzbekistan. Another rebellious general was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Most of the ethnic Pashtun Khalq army generals as well as those of the Khad defected to Hekmatyar's troops. A decisive role was the one played by General Shahnawaz Tanai, the communist commander of the artillery, who defected to Hekmatyar's side as early as in 1990. Later in 1995, when Hekmatyar's rebellion was losing  strength, Tanai defected to the Taliban. So did many other communist army and Khad officers.

It was Tanai's defection that provided the Taliban with Soviet artillery, Soviet air force, Soviet intelligence and Soviet technical and military knowledge. The American Anthony Arnold argued already then that Tanai's moves were a KGB-inspired provocation. The former KGB General Oleg Kalugin said that it was Moscow who trained most of the terrorists the US is now chasing.

As regards the Taliban, it was nothing special when they took over Kandahar in 1994. Kandahar was a Pashtun city and the strict interpretation of Islam the Taliban propounds is not so much based on the Qur'an but on the narrow-minded social norms of an agrarian Pashtun village. Mullah Omar is often described as having the background of a relatively simple-minded rustic mullah, although he was also politically active in Mohammed Nabi Mohammadi's Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami (Revolutionary Islamic Movement), which later opposed the Taliban.

But apart from Mullah Mohammed Omar and some other leaders who seem to have truly religious backgrounds (and no other education), the Taliban's military and intelligence are dominated by Soviet-trained communists.

Besides Tanai, there is for example the late first Taliban military commander and one of its founders, "Mullah Borjan", whose real name was Turan Abdurrahman, a prominent communist military officer. Many Taliban "mullahs" have no religious training at all. They are former communist military and security agents who have grown up beards and adopted new names and identities replete with the title "mullah". The Taliban artillery commander was the former Soviet Army's Afghan military intelligence officer Shah Sawar. The Taliban intelligence service chief Mohammed Akbar used to head a department of the Khad. And the Taliban air force commander Mohammed Gilani was a communist general, too.

Perhaps because of this immensely influential influx into the Taliban, their interpretation of Islam is quite alien for most of the world's Muslims, but closely resembles the interpretation of Islam that the communists and Russia have traditionally espoused in their anti-Islamic propaganda.

The decisive strengthening of the Taliban took place in 1995-1996, when it was seen as a "stabilizing" force in Afghanistan. This was a great fallacy based on the Taliban's success in Kandahar, which was indeed their "home field". Anywhere else the Taliban did not bring about stability, but quite the opposite. Among those with a rising interest in the Taliban forces, were all the main players: Russia and its satellite regimes in Central Asia, the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. At the initiative of the Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, the Russian energy giant Gazprom, headed by the then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the US firm Unocal, contracted to lay a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, circumventing Iran and crossing the Afghan territory that the Taliban had supposedly "stabilized". For Pakistan, it has been a traditional national interest to secure energy supplies from Central Asia, since it is sandwiched between two vehemently hostile great powers, India and Iran. For Russia, this was seen as a way to control Central Asian energy resources and to extend its influence towards the Indian Ocean. Two Saudi Arabian oil companies were also involved.

During the same years, the Taliban received sizable armed support. It did not come mainly from Pakistan. Financial succor came from Saudi Arabia. But the most decisive increase in the Taliban's strength came from Russia: the defections of the Khalq and Khad generals directly into the Taliban's leadership, vast amounts of Russian weaponry in several mysteriously "captured" stashes, including a very suspicious "hijacking" and escape of a Russian jet loaded with weapons that ended up in the hands of the Taliban's ex-communist leaders. With these new weapons, the Taliban marched on Herat in 1995, and finally managed to capture Kabul in 1996.

Najibullah was hanged, but Najibullah's hanging by his former Taliban-turned protégés seems to have camouflaged the actual developments in the Afghan power struggle.

Russia had an interest to cut the strong ties between Massoud's mujaheddin and the Tajik opposition that Russia had crushed since it attacked Tajikistan in 1992 and backed the communists into power there. The old provocateur Hekmatyar was by then defeated and had finally given up his fight - after losing his men and arms by Tanai's defection to the Taliban - and accepted a seat in the government in compensation. Since Hekmatyar was finished, a new Pashtun force was needed in those years. Taliban was a rising force that various external players tried to exploit by infiltration, support and manipulation.

When the Cold War was declared over by the West, it did not stop elsewhere. After 1989 the West really lost interest in Afghanistan and until some months before his death Massoud was trying to appeal to it in vain. The West was uninterested, but others were. Pakistan, of course, was interested in the goings on in its unstable neighbor. Saudi Arabia was financing and supporting dangerous Sunni fundamentalist groups, and later the Taliban. The Saudis also provided them with their own Saudi fanatics that had become troublesome at home. Iran was supporting its own agents within Afghan Shia groups. And the Soviet Union and later Russia continued to provide massive armed support to the last communist dictator of Afghanistan, Najibullah, and later to the notorious General Dostum.

The Russian principle was "divide and rule", with the basic idea of keeping the West out and assuring that the region would not strengthen so that the Soviet empire could return once it has regained its military might. Because of this stratagem, Russia has supported the Tajiks of the Northern Alliance through Tajikistan - only sufficiently to form a buffer zone against the Taliban, but without being able to gain substantial victories or to intervene in Tajikistan. Moreover, Russia has been arming and supporting the Uzbeks under the command of Dostum and General Malik who later defected to the Taliban's side. This support has been directed through Uzbekistan and still continues - ironically, with the West's full blessing. Less known has been the Russian support directed through Turkmenistan to the Taliban, and to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that is said to threaten Karimov's rule there.






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