1. How can one analyse the evolution of Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion and the victory of the Taliban?
The PDPA (—the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan—-Afghan Communist Party) which had a strong base in the army and air force carried out a coup d’etat in 1978, toppling the corrupt regime of Daoud. The people welcomed the change. The PDPA was initially popular. It pledged important social reforms and democracy. But the latter promise was never upheld even though important educational reforms were pushed through such as free education and schools for girls. In the cities girls and boys began to attend the same schools. Medical care was improved as well, but a bitter factional struggle led to the victory of a Pol-Pot faction led by Hafizullah Amin, who embarked on a campaign massive repression.
Meanwhile the United States decided to destabilise the regime by arming the ultra-religious tribes and using the Pakistan Army as a conduit to help the religious extremists. The Americans were laying a bear-trap and the Soviet leadership fell into it. They sent the Red Army to topple Amin and sustain the PDPA regime by force. This further exacerbated the crisis and the United States gave the call for a jihad against communism.
The Pakistani military thought it would help the jihad if a Saudi prince came to lead the struggle, but volunteers from that quarter were not forthcoming. Instead the Saudi regime suggested Osama Bin Laden to the CIA. He was approved, recruited, trained and sent to Afghanistan where he fought well. In one action Bin Laden led his men to attack a mixed school (boys and girls) and kill all the teachers. The US watched this approvingly. The rest is history.
The Soviet Union was defeated and withdrew its forces in 1989. A civil war followed and a coalition government consisting of forces loyal to Iran, Tajikistan and Pakistan came to power. Instability reigned. Then Pakistan hurled the Taliban (students) it had trained in special seminaries into the battle with open support from the Pakistan Army. Kabul was captured and gradually the regime extended its rule to the rest of the country. American think-tanks until just a few months ago were talking of using the Taliban to further destabilise the Central Asian Republics! Now the US and Pakistan are waging war to topple a regime they created. Who said that history had ceased to be ironical?
2. What is specific about the Islamism of the Taliban?
It is a virulent, sectarian, ultra-puritanical strain heavily influenced by Wahhabism—the official state religion of Saudi Arabia. It was Saudi religious instructors who trained the Taliban. They believe in a permanent jihad against infidels and other Muslims (especially the Shias). Bin Laden, too, is a staunch Wahhabi. They would like a return to what they imagine was Islam in the 7th century, during the leadership of Mohammed. What they don’t understand is that Mohammed was a very flexible prophet-politician as Maxime Rodinson explains in his excellent biography.
3. What was the strategic aim of the United States in basing themselves on the most hard-line wing of the Islamic resistance to the USSR, and more generally groups such as that of Bin Laden in the Arab-Muslim world?
Throughout the Cold War the United States used Islam as a bulwark against communism and revolution. Everywhere in the Islamic world, not just in South Asia. So we can say that the Islamism we witness is a product of imperialism and modernity.
4. The key to what will happen in the region is Pakistan. What sort of regime is it, what are its goals and what are the contradictions it faces? It is a military regime, but not a vicious one like its predecessor. It is a regime which wants to supervise neo-liberalism in Pakistan. The Army, of course, is divided, but the exact strength of pro-Taliban currents inside the Army is a matter of dispute. It could be anything between 15–30 percent. The Islamists are very weak in Pakistani society as a whole. Its important to understand this fact.
In successive elections, fewer people have voted for zealotry in Pakistan than in Israel. That’s why the Pakistan Taliban decided to make ‘entryism’ inside the Army. If the United States spills too much blood in Afghanistan then the consequences could be dire within the Pakistan Army in a year’s time.
5. For the moment President Musharraf seems to want to line up alongside the US. Is it possible that Pakistan would be a logistical support to an American intervention against Afghanistan? Pakistan has agreed to give logistical support. In fact the Pakistan Army is necessary for the whole operation. The United States planes and troops will be stationed in the Gwadur base in Baluchistan which they built during the Cold War. Don’t forget that Pakistan was a cold war ally of the United States from 1954-1992. Both sides know each other well. The Pakistani elite is delighted that the country’s debt (36 billion dollars) has been canceled and more money has been pledged. In return for this they are prepared to see the Taliban defeated and disarmed. Trouble will begin if too many bearded men are killed. In my opinion one reason for the delay in action is that the Pakistan Army is trying to make sure that the Taliban do not resist the United States. The advice being given to the faithful is: shave your beards and keep your powder dry. The West will go away and then we’ll see. Islamabad detests the Northern Alliance which it defeated via the Taliban when it took Kabul. I cannot stress enough that the Taliban is sustained on every level by Pakistan. What is switched on can also be switched off. The problem for Pakistan is that a wing of the Taliban defected to Bin Laden and his praetorian guard of Arab anarcho-Islamists. These guys will probably fight back whatever the odds.
6. If the conflict becomes regional what effects would this have on the situation in the region and the attitude of countries like India, China and Russia? All three countries are delighted by the ‘war against terrorism’. They are all Americans now! India wants to crush the opposition Kashmir, The Turkish military wants to a final solution to the ‘Kurdish problem’, Putin has already destroyed Chechnya, China has the green light to do what it wants. So it suits them all, but a great deal depends on how this adventure ends. Are we witnessing yet another boost to and acceptance of US world hegemony or is the Empire about to triumph itself to death? CP
Tariq Ali is the author of The Stone Woman. He lives in London.