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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1998, Page 47

Special Report

The Afghan Taliban: Like It or Not, It Occupies Two-Thirds of Afghanistan and Shows No Sign of Weakening

By Musa M. Maroofi

Much has been said concerning the Taliban by friends and foes alike, but with conflicting conclusions. The group has been accused of being a political puppet, created by Pakistan's security, military and religious establishments and sustained financially and otherwise by Saudi Arabia and its allies. On the other hand, the Taliban are praised as a group of religious heroes who sprang from within Afghanistan's Pashtun ethnic majority. Supporters credit them with having replaced violence and social chaos with peace and security in the areas under their domination.

Even exhaustive research might not settle the argument to everyone's satisfaction. A more constructive approach might be to examine how these two diametrically opposing views complement rather than contradict each other.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the history of madaris (religious schools) and taliban (religious students) is as old as the arrival of Islam in that country. Both religious schools and taliban existed long before the modern system of schools and education was introduced there almost a century ago.

Since the establishment of Islam in Afghanistan, the taliban, a sort of religious proletariat, have been recognized as an inseparable part of the social fabric. In addition to running religious schools, mosques, shrines and all kinds of religious affairs, they have distinguished themselves as mujahideen (holy warriors) whenever the cause of Islam or, for that matter, the cause of Afghanistan as a Muslim country, was at stake. Thus, in the context of Afghan history, the Taliban are not an upstart movement. The international community, however, perceives them differently and seems to be confused by the Taliban phenomenon.

Source of Confusion

This stems from the fact that taliban, as simply one component of a religious establishment, have always lived in the shadow of military, political and economic elites. Now taliban leaders themselves have assumed the role of a military-political governing elite for the first time in the history of Afghanistan.

In a world that only feels comfortable with professional politicians and soldiers running political and military affairs, it is not surprising that so far only three countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—have given political recognition to the Taliban regime. This clearly indicates that world opinion makers have a problem with what they have heard of events in areas controlled by the Taliban.

Who is willing or able to challenge the Taliban's absolute power?

The lack of experience among the Taliban leaders in political, diplomatic, economic and cultural affairs, as well as their determination to interpret human rights on the basis of a particular school of religious thought rather than according to more widely accepted contemporary principles, brings the Taliban into confrontation with the logic of today's world.

The frustration is mutual. The Taliban cannot understand why it should be the world's business when they, for instance, amputate the hand of a thief, or stone to death an adulterer, as prescribed by Islamic criminal law. By what authority, Taliban leaders demand, does a Western organization intercede on behalf of an Afghan woman in contravention of local cultural mores that have persisted for more than a thousand years?

Are They Here to Stay?

Leaving aside the lack of mutual understanding between the Taliban and the world, the important question remains as to their staying power. Presently, in the almost two-thirds of Afghanistan under their domination, there is no valid, organized and effective opposition to challenge their power. Their proven effectiveness in maintaining law and order as well as their adherence to the commandments of Islam and to cultural norms where traditional Afghan women are obedient rather than challenging to men, seem to have won over the predominantly illiterate peasants and working class.

After so many years of debilitating warfare, concentrated in and around the cities, the urbane, educated elite who would challenge these norms have vanished. More importantly, for centuries the great mass of Afghans have thrived under the most primitive political and economic conditions, while the past two decades have brought only war, poverty and insecurity. For most Afghans, therefore, their present situation under the Taliban appears to be, if not ideal, the best of all possible worlds.

So the most relevant question now is who, if anyone, is willing or able to challenge the Taliban's absolute power? So far, the only formidable, armed and unrelenting opposition is the Northern Military Alliance (NMA). This coalition has managed to keep the Taliban militarily and diplomatically preoccupied and has so far denied them the chance to bring the rest of the country under their rule. Loosely composed of three main ethnic and sectarian groups and some local factions and militia commanders, the alliance is internally unstable as a result of its own lack of political and military cohesiveness. Therefore as much of its energy is directed at maintaining internal cohesion as in battling the Taliban.

The Realities

Barring a political miracle, the Taliban will retain power for the foreseeable future. That miracle might take the form of a domestic economic disaster, an internationally armed and financed destabilization campaign, the fragmentation of the Taliban into competing groups, or some combination of these elements.

The NMA, unless its sponsorship grows beyond the present motley backing of Iran, Russia and India, does not appear to be capable of toppling the Taliban. Nor, because of the NMA's foreign backing, does it appear that the Taliban will be able, in the near future, to expel the NMA from the approximately one-third of Afghanistan currently under its rule.

Thus the international community is left with but two choices: either to come to terms with one country of two conflicting regimes, albeit, dominated by the Taliban, or to help return Afghanistan to the relatively unified "golden age" of the pre-Communist era.

Musa M. Maroofi is a former vice-dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science, Kabul University.