This paper purports to concisely review the scale and nature of the current crisis in Afghanistan in its historical context, with the view to comprehend whether Western é particularly American é foreign policy toward Afghanistan has been formulated on the basis of humanitarian principles or not. By briefly analysing the extent of the catastrophe that continues to devastate the Afghan people to this day, and by uncovering its historical causes and contemporary geopolitical/strategic context, the paper outlines the responsibility of the international community for the ongoing war in the country. My thesis is that not only has the United States together with the former Soviet Union perpetuated the current catastrophe by having previously supported the armed factions in Afghanistan, but that covert US support of the most prominent faction in the country é the Taliban é continued throughout the 1990s, and may be continuing to this day. The US policy, I argue, is motivated not by humanitarian principles, but by lucrative economic and strategic interests in the region. The case of Afghanistan therefore illustrates the irrelevance of human rights in the formulation of US/Western foreign policy, and highlights the fundamental ongoing cause of the escalating catastrophe in the country in that policy.
Afghanistan is currently undergoing a humanitarian catastrophe of tremendous proportions, to which the international community displays only what appears to be systematic indifference. To understand the crisis in Afghanistan it is particularly important to understand its historical causes. This is because the crisis is a direct result of self-interested American and Russian operations in the region.
Afghanistan’s coup of 1978 resulted in a new government headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki coming to power in the Afghan capital, Kabul. The coup d’etat that brought Taraki’s party – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – to power, had been precipitated by the previous government’s arresting of almost the entire leadership of the PDPA. This was an attempt to annihilate any viable opposition to the existing government, which was led by Muhammad Daud. The leader of the PDPA, Taraki, was then freed in an uprising by the lower ranks of the military, and within a day Daud and his government was overthrown, with Daud being killed in the process. In fact, many of the leaders of the PDPA had studied or received military training in the USSR; moreover, the Soviet Union had pressured the PDPA – which had split into two factions in 1967 – to reunite in 1977. The PDPA had therefore been the principal Soviet-orientated Communist organisation in Afghanistan; the military coup of 1978 was thus effectively engineered by the USSR, which had significant leverage over the PDPA and its activities. Afghanistan subsequently became exclusively dependent on Soviet aid, unlike previous governments which had attempted to play off the US and USSR against one another, refraining from exclusive alignment with either.
The PDPA did go on to implement certain programmes of social development and reform, like the previous government – although these were primarily related to urban as opposed to rural areas. For example, the previous government under Daud had used foreign aid from both the USSR and the US (primarily the USSR) to build roads, schools and implement other development projects, thereby increasing the mobility of the country’s people and products – not that this necessarily eliminated the severe problems faced by masses of the Afghan population. For instance, 5 per cent of Afghanistan’s rural landowners still owned more than 45 per cent of arable land. A third of the rural people were landless labourers, sharecroppers or tenants, and debts to the landlords were a regular feature of rural life. An indebted farmer ended up turning over half his annual crop to the moneylender. Female illiteracy was 96.3 per cent, while rural illiteracy of both sexes was 90.5 per cent. The Communist PDPA government under Taraki had similarly imposed some social programmes like Daud’s government: It moved to remove both usury and inequalities in land-ownership and cancelled mortgage debts of agricultural labourers, tenants and small landowners. It established literacy programmes, especially for women, printing textbooks in many languages, training more teachers, building additional schools and kindergartens, and instituting nurseries for orphans.
Once more, these policies should be understood in context with the fact that the government was established as the result of a violent military coup without any connection to the wishes of the majority of the Afghan people, and consequently did not engender their participation. The PDPA’s policies served to destroy even the state institutions established over the previous century, having constituted a stage in a revolutionary programme which the government had attempted to impose by force, not by the approval of the population. The new government, like previous governments, was essentially illegitimate, with no substantial representation of the Afghan population. It was, for example, responsible for arresting, torturing and executing both real and suspected enemies, setting off the first major refugee flows to neighbouring Pakistan. Such policies of repression and persecution, resulting in the killing of thousands as well as the forceful imposition of a Communist revolutionary programme that was oblivious to the sentiments of the majority of the Afghan masses, sparked off popular revolts led by local social and religious leaders – usually with no link to national political groups. These broke out in different parts of the country in response to the government’s atrocities. Furthermore, during the Soviet occupation, despite the modest ‘modernising’ policies that were primarily urban in character, the bifurcation of Afghan society and economy deepened greatly.
The PDPA was therefore essentially a Communist dictatorship that was allied with the Soviet Union. This was unlike the previous government of Daud’s, that was not exclusively allied to either of the superpowers (neither the US nor the USSR). However, both the latter superpowers wished Afghanistan to remain within their respective spheres of influence, due to the traditional brand of political, economic and strategic interests. Their wishes resulted in one of the last brutal episodes of the Cold War: the Afghanistan war that began several months after the 1978 Saur coup, and that was a manifestation of the two superpowers’ attempts to gain control of a region of very high geostrategic significance.
Although the USSR had been interfering in Afghan affairs long before the US, it is worth noting that contrary to the conventional wisdom, the United States appears to have begun operations in Afghanistan before the full-fledged Soviet invasion. Former National Security Adviser under the Carter Administration, Zbigniew Brzezenski, has admitted that an American operation to infiltrate Afghanistan was launched long before Russia sent in its troops on 27 December 1979. Agence France Press reported that: “Despite formal denials, the United States launched a covert
operation to bolster anti-Communist guerrillas in Afghanistan at least six months before the 1979 Soviet invasion of the country, according to a former top US official.”
Brzezenski stated that “We actually did provide some support to the Mujahedeen before the invasion.” “We did not push the Russians into invading, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” He also bragged: “That secret operation was an excellent idea. The effect was to draw the Russians into the Afghan trap.” In other words, the US appears to have been attempting to foster and manipulate unrest amongst various Afghan factions to destabilise the already unpopular Communist regime and bring the country under US sphere of influence. This included the recruitment of local leaders and warlords to form mercenary rebel groups, who would wage war against the Soviet-backed government, to institute a new regime under American control.
In December 1979, Russia intervened to reinforce its hegemony over Afghanistan, since the PDPA was, according to Brzezenski’s testimony, being destabilised by a US operation to infiltrate Afghanistan that had commenced at a much earlier date. The US had therefore evidently also wished to bring this strategic region under its own hegemony. Anticipating this attempt by the US to destabilise the pro-Soviet PDPA and install a new pro-American regime in Afghanistan, Russia undertook a full-fledged invasion to keep the country under its own sphere of influence. Afghan analyst Dr. Noor Ali observes of the ensuing US policy: “Following the invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union in late December 1979, hundreds of high ranking Afghan politicians and technocrats as well as army officers including generals entered into Pakistan with the hope of organizing the needed resistance to oppose the invader in order to liberate Afghanistan. Unfortunately and regrettably the US Government in collusion with Pakistan’s leaders took abusive advantage of the opportunity so as to exploit it fully and by all manner of means to their own and exclusive illegitimate benefits and objectives, which had been threefold: (i) to rule out the creation of any responsible and independent Afghan organization among Afghans, interacting directly with Washington, to support Afghan resistance, (ii) to repulse the Red Army by using exclusively the blood of Afghans, and (iii) to make of Afghanistan a satellite if not an integrated part of Pakistan in return for Pakistani leaders’ services, but in complete disregard to Afghan people’s sovereignty and sacrifices.” The overall result was a brutal civil war manipulated by the two superpowers that drove 6 million Afghan people from their homes.
The ultimate result has been that post-Cold War Afghanistan has remained in a state of anarchical civil war up to this day, with the Taliban having emerged as the most powerful faction in the country by the mid-1990s. One can therefore conclude that as a result of a string of proxy wars, that were the result of manipulation by both the US and the former USSR, Afghanistan has been plunged into a state of perpetual humanitarian catastrophe.
Development specialist Dr. J. W. Smith, founder and Director of Research for the California-based Institute for Economic Democracy, summarises the humanitarian catastrophe of Afghanistan, commenting on Brzezinski’s admission of the US operation in the country: “Afghanistan was also a US destabilization. In 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor… admitted that covert US intervention began long before the USSR sent in troopsé Take note of what was ‘an excellent idea’: A country rapidly developing and moving towards modernization was politically and economically shattered, almost 2 million Afghans were killed, the most violent and anti-American of the groups supported by the CIA are now the leaders of Afghanistan, these religious fundamentalists set human rights back centuries to the extent they are even an embarrassment to neighboring Muslim fundamentalists, and both Muslim and non-Muslim governments within the region fear destabilization through Taleban fundamentalism.”
Smith fails, however, to take into account the illegitimacy of the Soviet puppet regime and its policies of repression. The fact is that both the US and USSR bear responsibility for having attempted to control Afghanistan, thereby shattering the country in the process; if these powers had merely attempted to aid the Afghan people to develop their country, rather than enforce hegemony over the country for their own self-interested strategic designs, there would obviously have been no such humanitarian crisis. Thus, as Barnette Rubin of the Council on Foreign Relations reports: “Despite the end of the proxy war, the massive arms supplies still held by both the Soviet-aided army and the Islamic resistance fighters (backed by the US, with help from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and others) continue to fuel the fighting.”
It is important to note that the Taliban and the forces of Hekmatyar are two separate factions. Moreover, it should also be emphasised that Hekmatyar and his forces are not solely responsible for the deaths of thousands in Kabul and the city’s destruction. While Hekmatyar’s forces may have killed and destroyed more than other groups, factions under Ahmed Shah Masoud, Burhanuddiin Rabbani, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Abdul Ali Mazari and Abdul Karim Khalili are equally responsible for the violence that raged between 1992 and 1996 in Kabul.
Due to the ravages of such ongoing war, Kabul has been without municipal water and electricity since 1994. This state of affairs has not improved by the time of writing. Trade is frequently blockaded and subjected to extortionate ‘taxes’ by local power holders. Nearly everywhere a new generation is emerging with minimal education in a land infested with landmines, due to which thousands of civilians continue to be killed or maimed. The UN reports that the socio-economic conditions of the population are amongst the worst in the world. The investment of previous governments into schools, roads and hospitals has been reduced to near insignificance. Literacy rates are at an extreme low, with estimates showing that they have plummeted to as low as 4 per cent for women. Healthcare is rudimentary at best, with many being without access to even the basics. Every year thousands of children die from malnutrition and respiratory infections, and maternal mortality rates are one of the highest in the world. Irrigation systems and the agricultural sector have been neglected and destroyed. Today’s Afghanistan is plagued by a perpetual orgy of destruction, impoverishment and repression. One to two million Afghans have been killed. There remain over 2 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan, making Afghans the largest single refugee group in the entire world. The Taliban that now dominates Afghanistan has instituted a ‘system’ in which much of the population is denied their social and human rights; torture, arbitrary detention, mass killings and ongoing warfare are the norm; the masses remain embedded in growing poverty; the rulers falsely legitimise their actions under the guise of Islam.
Poverty is now endemic. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: “Millions of Afghans have little or no access to food through commercial markets, just as their access to food through self-production has been severely undermined by drought. The purchasing power of most Afghans has been seriously eroded by the absence of employment. About 85 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated 21.9 million people are directly dependent on agricultureé The agricultural infrastructure has been severely damaged due to war and irrigation facilities are in urgent need of rehabilitation”. Afghanistan also has one of the worst records on education in the world. UNICEF estimates that only 4-5 per cent of primary aged children receive a broad based schooling – for secondary and higher education, the picture is worse. As Kate Clark reports: “Twenty years of war has meant the collapse of everything. Both sides in the long running civil war prefer to spend money on fighting… However, the desire for schooling runs deep in Afghanistan, even among the uneducated. But the chances of getting a decent education are very slim. A whole generation of children is losing out, prompting questions about where this leaves the future of this devastated country.”
Indeed, there is no doubt that the Taliban has been ruling Afghanistan with an iron fist. The faction’s policies are repressive and involve the perpetration of countless human rights abuses. However, as the international Muslim newsmagazine Crescent International rightly observes, “criticism of the Taliban, whether it comes from non-Muslims or Muslims, is often heavily overlaid with prejudices or political interests.” It is therefore important to we ensure that facts are separated from propaganda. Nevertheless, Crescent admits that the Taliban regime is undoubtedly highly repressive, to the extent that therein “the phrase ‘Islamic justice’ [is] used as a synonym for tyranny.” Numerous reports of “draconian restrictions on women” being enforced falsely in the name of Islam unfortunately reveal harsh realities. “Men responsible for enforcing public decency are said to beat women in the streets who show their faces or ankles. Most women are ‘not allowed to work’. They are forbidden to see male doctors, yet there are few female doctors available [to compensate]. Most girls’schools have been closed, and the only religious instruction is for girls who have not reached puberty.”
A full refutation of the notion that the Taliban is an Islamic movement would require an extensive discussion of Islamic principles based on authoritative scholars and sources, compared to the documented facts of Taliban policy. Unfortunately this important issue falls beyond the scope of this paper, and so cannot be tackled here with the necessary depth.
However, it may still be noted here that the Taliban’s status as a genuinely Islamic movement is at the very least highly questionable é there are very few Muslim scholars who would agree that the policies discussed above constitute Islamic policies. As pointed out by former US Congressman Paul Findley é Chairman Emeritus of the Washington-based Council for National Interest and Chairman of the Illinois-based Human Relations Commission – the Taliban “calls itself ‘Islamic’, but its regulations directly violate some of the most cherished principles of the Islamic faith.” Indeed, most Muslim scholars do not ratify or condone Taliban-like repression or atrocities. For instance, the Pakistani newspaper, the Daily Star, reports that “Islamic scholars in neighbouring Pakistan say the Taliban’s laws reflect tribal traditions more than Islamic tenets.” Abdullahi An-Na’im, a Muslim and US-based legal scholar, challenges the Taliban claims that their edicts come from the Qu’ran. He writes, “Unless Muslims [condemn these policies and practices] from an Islamic point of view as well, the Taliban will get away with their false claim that these heinous crimes against humanity are dictated by Islam as a religion.” Indeed, the Associated Press further reports the little known but important fact that while the “Taliban have imposed their harsh brand of Islamic Laws on the 90 per cent of Afghanistan they rule” in actual fact, “Islamic scholars elsewhere say that the Taliban’s laws are based more on tribal traditions than the Koran, Islam’s holy book.”
In a useful study of Taliban policies in comparison with a wide-ranging survey of Islamic thought and culture, American journalist Robin Travis points out that “as to whether the Taliban’s practice of Islam is the pure form of Islam, we can see that there is much debate on the interpretation of the Qur’an…. Thus far, we have been able to determine that there are many interpretations of the Qur’an and many definitions of the religious practice of Islam. What we can also see here, is that the majority of those who practice this religion, do not interpret the Qur’an as endorsing oppression and abuse of women.” Travis thus concludes from her “research and discussion of the practice of the Islamic faith that the Taliban are practicing an extreme version of Islam, because other forms and practices do not include the oppression of women… The Taliban has clearly manipulated the Qu’ran to serve its own purposes in causing abuse and hardships on women.”
The Muslim Women’s League concurs with this analysis, observing that the “Taliban’s insistence on secluding women from public life is a political maneuver disguised as ‘Islamic’ law. Before seizing power, Taliban manipulated and used the rights of women as tools to gain control of the country. To secure financial and political support, Taliban emulated authoritarian methods typical of many Middle Eastern countries. The Taliban’s stand on the seclusion of women is not derived from Islam, but, rather, from a cultural bias found in suppressive movements throughout the regioné The Qur’an and the examples of the first Muslim society give the Muslim Women’s League a voice to state that the current manipulation of women to serve geo-political interests, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, is both unIslamic and inhumane.”
A representative example of the Taliban’s actual contempt for basic Islamic edicts is one of the numerous issues noted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, in Afghanistan: “The Special Rapporteur was informed by scholars that it was a religious obligation in Islam to acquire education and that deprivation of education constituted a disobedience of Islamic principles. The view was expressed that the motivations for banning female education on part of the Taliban were neither legal, financial or based on security but were probably politically motivated. One of the most serious consequences of the conflict in Afghanistan was the brain-drain of its educated people.”
The authoritative UN report further confirmed: “It should be recalled that the Taliban have a highly idiosyncratic vision of Islam that has been disputed by numerous Sunni Islamic scholars as representing at best a tribal rural code of behaviour applied only in some parts of Afghanistan of which only one aspect is being exploited.” Elsewhere, the report points out again that, “The Special Rapporteur heard persistent affirmations from qualified sources that the policies applied by the Taliban in the areas under their control did not constitute a correct interpretation of the Shariah (Islamic law) but were at best a narrow tribal and rural code of conduct in limited parts of Afghanistan.”
Of course, the repression of women in Afghanistan is not something that was solely introduced by the Taliban, but had existed long before the concrete existence of this faction. Nevertheless, Taliban rule certainly led to the exacerbation of this repression.
When the Taliban marched into Kabul in 1996, its policies of repression were highlighted. Political opponents were executed without trial. Females were barred from schools and employment; the ban including up to 50,000 war widows who were the sole support of their families. Indeed, there have been endless reports concerning the mass oppression of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban, under the false guise of supposedly ‘Islamic’ tenets. While an increasing number of women are having to beg to survive and support their families, there have been many reported cases of forced marriages and prostitution; of women being forcefully taken from their homes, or forcefully separated from their husbands and moved to camps; of huge numbers of women throughout the country suffering from clinical depression due to unceasing confinement; and even of sexual assaults. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women concluded: “Never have I seen a people suffering as much as in Afghanistan… The situation looks very bleak in terms of poverty, in terms of war, in terms of the rights of women.” Coomaraswamy has concluded that discrimination against females is official Taliban policy, a veritable war on women which is “widespread, systematic and officially sanctioned.”
The facts have been documented extensively by numerous independent human rights organisations that have witnessed the impact of the Taliban directly and undertaken meticulous grassroots research. It is worth quoting copiously from a survey conducted by the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to comprehend the scale of the crisis, utilising direct interviews with Afghan citizens and investigations on the ground. PHR reports that “One of the first edicts issued by the regime when it rose to power was to prohibit girls and women from attending school. Humanitarian groups initiated projects to replace through philanthropy what prior governments had afforded as a right to both sexesé On June 16, 1998, the Taliban ordered the closing of more than 100 privately funded schools where thousands of young women and girls were receiving training in skills that would have helped them support their families. The Taliban issued new rules for nongovernmental organizations providing the schooling: education must be limited to girls up to the age of eight, and restricted to the Qur’ané PHR’s researcher when visiting Kabul in 1998, saw a city of beggars – women who had once been teachers and nurses now moving in the streets like ghostsé selling every possession and begging so as to feed their children.” The Taliban has thus “deliberately created such poverty by arbitrarily depriving half the population under its control of jobs, schooling, mobility, and health care. Such restrictions are literally life threatening to women and to their children. The Taliban’s abuses are by no means limited to women. Thousands of men have been taken prisoner, arbitrarily detained, tortured, and many killed and disappeared. Men are beaten and jailed for wearing beards of insufficient length (that of a clenched fist beneath the chin), are subjected to cruel and degrading conditions in jail… Men are also vulnerable to extortion, arrest, gang rape, and abuse in detention because of their ethnicity or presumed political views.”
PHR goes on to note that there are “extraordinarily high levels of mental stress and depression” in the country. 81 per cent of participants in the PHR survey “reported a decline in their mental condition. A large percentage of respondents met the diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (42%) (based on the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition) and major depression (97%), and also demonstrated significant symptoms of anxiety (86%) Twenty-one percent of the participants indicated that they had suicidal thoughts ‘extremely often’ or ‘quite often’. It is clear from PHR’s forty interviews with Afghan women that the general climate of cruelty, abuse, and tyranny that characterizes Taliban rule has had a profound affect on women’s mental health. Ninety-five percent of women interviewed described a decline in their mental condition over the past two years. The denial of education also contributes to Afghan women’s deteriorating mental healthé The interviews revealed that women attributed the anxiety and depression that affects the vast majority of them to their fear of limited opportunities for their children, specifically denial of education to girl children. Poor and uneducated women spoke with particular urgency of their desire to obtain education for children, and saw health care, schooling, and protection of human rights as a key towards achieving a better future.”
PHR notes that the women interviewed “consistently described high levels of poor health, multiple specific symptoms, and a significant decline in women’s physical condition since the beginning of the Taliban occupation. Sixty-six percent of women interviewed described a decline in their physical condition over the past two years. An Afghan physician described declining nutrition in children, an increasing rate of tuberculosis, and a high prevalence of other infectious diseases among women and children.” Investigating the Rabia Balkhi Hospital, previously the only facility in Kabul open to women, PHR “found that it lacked basic medical supplies and equipment such as X-ray machines, suction and oxygen, running water, and medicationsé Yet even these poor facilities are not available to many women who seek treatment for themselves or their children.” A massive 87 per cent of women surveyed by PHR “reported a decrease in their access to health services. The reasons given included: no [male] chaperone available (27%), restrictions on women’s mobility (36%), hospital refused to provide care (21%), no female doctor available (48%), do not own a burqa (6%), and economics (61%).” A general environment of constant terror has been instituted. “Sixty-eight percent of women interviewed described incidents in which they were detained and physically abused by Taliban officialsé Witnessing executions, fleeing religious police with whips who search for women and girls diverging from dress codes or other edicts, having a family member jailed or beaten; such experiences traumatize and retraumatize Afghan women, who have already experienced the horrors of war, rocketing, ever-present landmines and unexploded ordnance, and the loss of friends and immediate family”.
The Taliban’s brutal policies were particularly exemplified when its forces captured Mazar-e Sharif in 1998. Following this military take-over on 8 August, Taliban guards systematically killed 8,000 civilians. The vast majority of those killed were from the Hazara ethnic group, who are mostly Shi’a Muslims, and were killed deliberately in their homes and in the streets, where their bodies were left for several days, or in locations between Mazar-e Sharif and Hairatan. Victims of these acts of genocide included women, children and the elderly – many of whom were shot trying to flee. Furthermore, 11 Iranian nationals (ten diplomats and one journalist) were killed when Taliban guards entered the Iranian Consulate in Mazar-e Sharif. According to eyewitnesses, their bodies were left in the consulate for two days, before being buried in a mass grave at the Sultan Razieh girls’ school.
Having sealed their military capture of Mazar-e Sharif, Taliban guards imposed a curfew in the city. In the Uzbek populated areas people were ordered to hand in their weapons, while in the Hazara area people were ordered to stay in their homes. Taliban forces subsequently entered Hazara houses, killing older men and children, and taking away young men without explanation. In some houses they also abducted young women, this time with explanation: they would be married off, whether they liked it or not, to the Taliban militia.
Thousands of detainees were reportedly transferred in military vehicles to detention centres in Mazar-e Sharif and Shebarghan and interrogated to identify their ethnic identity. Non-Hazaras were released after a few days. Amnesty International reports that former detainees were beaten during their detention, sometimes severely. Moreover, hundreds were reportedly taken by air to Kandahar, while many others were taken during the night to fields in the surrounding areas of Mazar-e Sharif and Shebarghan to be subsequently executed.
Severe restrictions were imposed on the movement of Afghan people in and out of Mazar-e Sharif – again, for apparently genocidal purposes. Amnesty reports that families who managed to leave the area were stopped at many checkpoints on the way. At each checkpoint, Taliban guards would ask them whether Hazaras were among them. Anyone whom the guards suspected of being a Hazara was abducted. Hazara men and boys younger than 12 years old were taken to Jalalabad prison while women and girls were sent to Sarshahi camp. Such facts reveal the simple but horrifying fact that the Taliban was implementing a two-pronged programme of ethnic cleansing and genocide. As Amnesty International observes, “A new pattern in Afghanistan’s human rights tragedy is the targeting of people on the basis of their group identity”. AI confirms that “The Taleban”, which is composed of the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, “is targeting minorities such as Tajiks and Hazaras”. By May 1999, brutal treatment of civilians continued as territory around the city of Bamiyam was captured and recaptured by the Taliban and another faction, Hezb-e Wahdat. While the majority of people fled after the Taliban recaptured the city on 9 May, many civilians who stayed behind were later systematically slaughtered by Taliban guards arriving in the city.
In continuation of such policies of terror and repression, in August 1999 tens of thousands of people were violently evicted from their homes by Taliban forces as they attempted to uproot rebels in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban was undertaking a ‘scorched earth’ policy involving the burning of homes, villages and crops to prevent residents from returning to homes in the Shomali Valley north of Kabul. After the massive expulsion, long lines of men, women and children were reportedly trudging toward Kabul. According to a UN statement from officials in Pakistan, “Families speak of whole villages being burned to the ground and crops set on fire to deter them from moving back to this once-fertile valley.” At this time, Kabul was already hosting a refugee population of 400,000. Thanks to the Taliban-sponsored ‘cleansing’ of the Shomali Valley, tens of thousands more refugees arrived. Additionally, as many as 150,000 reportedly fled the region towards rebel bases northeast of Kabul.
However, it is important to remember that systematic human rights abuses are perpetrated by all major factions in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, not just by the Taliban. These have included “the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on residential areas, deliberate and arbitrary killing of thousands of men, women and children by armed guards during raids on their homes, unacknowledged detention of several thousand people after being abducted by the various armed political groups, torture of civilians including rape of women, routine beating and ill-treatment of civilians suspected of belonging to rival political groups or because of their ethnic identity.”
More than 25,000 people were killed from 1992 to 1997 in deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilian areas, with killings often occurring on a daily basis after severe battles for control of territory. With the war for territory between the Taliban and other factions escalating, civilians increasingly became the victims of indiscriminate attacks. Air raids on residential areas, ongoing fighting, landmines, gunfire, unreported massacres and the uncovering of mass graves, illustrate the extent to which the civil war has pulled the country into a downwards spiral of devastation.
As Human Rights Watch reported at the end of the year 2000 in a succint overview of the tragedy plaguing Afghanistan, “Afghanistan has been at war for more than twenty years. During that time it has lost a third of its population. Some 1.5 million people are estimated to have died as a direct result of the conflict. Another 5 million fled as refugees to Iran and Pakistan; others became exiles elsewhere abroad. A large part of its population is internally displaced… Throughout the war, all of the major factions have been guilty of grave breaches of international humanitarian law. Their warmaking is supported and perpetuated by the involvement of Afghanistan’s neighbors and other states in providing weapons, ammunition, fuel, and other logistical support. State and non-state actors across the region and beyond continue to provide new arms and other materiel, as well as training and advisory assistance. The arms provided have been directly implicated in serious violations of international humanitarian law. These include aerial bombardments of civilian targets, indiscriminate bombings, rocketing and other artillery attacks on civilian-populated areas, reprisal killings of civilians, summary executions of prisoners, rape, and torture.”
Unsurprisingly, calls by human rights organisations for the meaningful intervention of an international body have continued unanswered. This is despite the fact that two key members of the international community, America and Russia, bear primary responsibility for the state of war that has plagued Afghanistan to this day, due to their respective self-interested manipulations of the country. Disregarding their responsibility, these nations refuse to undertake a significant intervention, be it diplomatic or otherwise. Meaningful pressure that could be exerted upon the Taliban to change its policies is not exerted. As Amnesty notes: “For two decades, the international community has mostly averted its eyes from the human rights catastrophe in Afghanistan… The United States, its West European allies and the former Soviet Union have failed to bring to an end the very human rights crisis that they helped to create.” In fact, the systematic, ethnically-motivated killings of thousands of Hazara Afghans has not been enough to elicit other than a rhetorical response from the Western powers, who have thereby clearly illustrated their lack of genuine concern for this tide of genocide. While issuing a statement condemning the killing of Iranian diplomats at Mazar-e-Sharif and calling for investigations into their death, “The UN Security Council… has remained silent about the deaths and arbitrary detention of thousands of ‘ordinary’ people.” As AI emphasises, international pressure combined with condemnation in public “has been shown to be effective in revealing the truth about human rights abuses” and “prevent[ing] further massacres”. Yet, the Western powers refuse to impose such pressure. Twenty years of such ongoing refusal and failure have – quite predictably – given effective consent to the Taliban to continue with its policies, in the knowledge that the Western powers are simply unconcerned about a crisis regarding which they can undertake significant stops to halt – as AI has made clear. The West has, rather, strangely refrained from implementing even the most simple of such steps, suggesting that there may be other more important interests in allowing the Taliban to rise to power.
The only countries that openly accept the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government are Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – all of which happen to be Western clients and, in particular, obedient US servants. If the West exerted political or economic pressure on these countries to cease their well documented sponsoring of Taliban terrorism (via arms, for instance), it is highly likely that they would willingly acquiesce, simply because they are virtually absolutely dependent on Western – particularly American – aid. Indeed, while sometimes condemning atrocious Taliban policies in rhetoric, the West turns a blind eye to the actions of its own regional clients, who are actively supporting these same policies, thereby effectively giving a ‘green light’ to the Taliban to pursue its policies. Barry Rubin of the CFR reports that the professed US policy of promoting peace in Afghanistan has “suffered from a variety of internal contradictions. US policy toward Iran conflicts with US stated policy toward Afghanistan and is one of the reasons that many in the region believe the US supports the Taliban.” Rubin notes: “If the US is in fact supporting the joint Pakistani-Saudi backing of the Taliban in some way, even if not materially, then it has in effect decided to make Afghanistan the victim of yet another proxy war – this time aimed at Iran rather than the USSR.” America’s professed commitment to supporting the UN as the means of creating peace in Afghanistan is similarly highly flawed: “US support of the UN as the proper vehicle for a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict is undermined by congressional refusal to allocate funds for UN dues or the US share of peacekeeping expenses.” Moreover, “The US has not described and criticized in a straightforward manner the specific types of external interference occurring in Afghanistan”, from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for instance. “Public statements by the State Department condemn such interference but never specify who is undertaking it”, effectively annulling the whole purpose of condemnation, thereby strongly suggesting the aforementioned tacit ‘green light’ to the Taliban’s sweep across the region – an issue which we shall be investigating in further detail.
Furthermore, expressing the conclusions of the majority of Afghan analysts on current US-UN policy, former Afghan commerce minister (1965-69) Dr. Noor Ali notes other vast internal contradictions in the approach. Highlighting the UN’s claim to have “mediated the withdrawal of foreign (Soviet) forces from Afghanistan”, Noor Ali notes that the policy only succeeded in “planting and strengthening the warring factions and factionalism in Afghanistan.” “For in connection with this mediation there is a question: mediation between who and who? Normally, logically, and legally, it should be conducted between Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union, and the Geneva Accords should be concluded accordingly. Scandalously and shamefully, the mediation took place among all the interested parties, but in the sheer exclusion of Afghanistan. And the accords were signed between the delegate of the Soviet-installed government in Kabul representing the former Soviet Union and that of the Government of Pakistan representing somehow the Government of the United States.” This peculiar form of “mediation”, which deliberately excluded Afghanistan, indicates the “US Administration’s policy – implemented by the United Nations – to deny Afghanistan its right for a national government representing its people in its relations with foreign nations, letting other powers decide its fate.” Furthermore, this state of affairs has continued with all factions in Afghanistan being funded by foreign powers. “There is no doubt that the presaging has been confirmed by the subsequent development: No national Afghan government has yet emerged; the country is fragmented and no longer independent; its fate is in the hands of alien powers; all its social, political, and administrative services are abolished; the warring factions and factionalism – introduced by the US Administration and maintained by the United Nations – are prevailing.”
The Western powers therefore remain content with primarily ignoring Afghanistan’s humanitarian catastrophe, refraining from implementing any significant action. One then wonders why the West is so willing to impose massive pressure on a country such as Serbia for its human rights abuses against Kosovans, when it refuses to impose a comparable kind of pressure on the Taliban, although the Taliban follows through with the same brand of mass abuses, yet on a much more brutal and extensive scale. This exposes the selective disparity of alleged Western concern for promoting democracy and protecting human rights. Such Western indifference is probably linked to the fact that, as Ben C. Vidgen remarks: “In Afghanistan and Pakistan fundamentalism could not have bloomed without the CIA’s covert assistance – a fact that is apparent when one examines the history of the area”.
Western motives become clearer when one recalls that it was the US that originally trained and armed the faction in Afghanistan – even “long before the USSR sent in troops” – which now constitutes the “leaders of Afghanistan”. The record illustrates the existence of an ongoing relationship between the United States and the Taliban. AI reports that even though the “United States has denied any links with the Taleban”, according to then US Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel Afghanistan was a “crucible of strategic interest” during the Cold War, though she denied any US influence or support of factions in Afghanistan today, dismissing any possible ongoing strategic interests. However, former Department of Defense official Elie Krakowski, who worked on the Afghan issue in the 1980s, points out that Afghanistan remains important to this day because it “is the crossroads between what Halford MacKinder called the world’s Heartland and the Indian sub continent. It owes its importance to its location at the confluence of major routes. A boundary between land power and sea power, it is the meeting point between opposing forces larger than itself. Alexander the Great used it as a path to conquest. So did the Moghuls. An object of competition between the British and Russian empires in the 19th century, Afghanistan became a source of controversy between the American and Soviet superpowers in the 20th. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has become an important potential opening to the sea for the landlocked new states of Central Asia. The presence of large oil and gas deposits in that area has attracted countries and multinational corporations… Because Afghanistan is a major strategic pivot what happens there affects the rest of the world.”
Raphel’s denial of US interests in the region also stands in contradiction to the fact that, as AI reports, “many Afghanistan analysts believe that the United States has had close political links with the Taleban militia. They refer to visits by Taleban representatives to the United States in recent months and several visits by senior US State Department officials to Kandahur including one immediately before the Taleban took over Jalalabad.” The AI report refers to a comment by the Guardian: “Senior Taleban leaders attended a conference in Washington in mid-1996 and US diplomats regularly travelled to Taleban headquarters.” The Guardian points out that though such “visits can be explained”, “the timing raises doubts as does the generally approving line which US officials take towards the Taleban.”
Amnesty goes on to confirm that recent “accounts of the madrasas (religious schools) which the Taleban attended in Pakistan indicate that these [Western] links [with the Taleban] may have been established at the very inception of the Taleban movement. In an interview broadcast by the BBC World Service on 4 October 1996, Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto affirmed that the madrasas had been set up by Britain, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan during the Jihad, the Islamic resistance against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.” Similarly, former Pakistani Interior Minister, Major General (Retd) Naseerullah Babar, stated that “[The] CIA itself introduced terrorism in the region and is only shedding crocodiles tears to absolve itself of the responsibility.”
In light of Brzezinski’s testimony, the establishment of this Western link with the Taliban – as well as other Afghan factions – was initiated even prior to the Soviet invasion. Similarly, Vidgen reports that “the corporate media have… remained silent in regard to America’s involvement in the promotion of terrorism. On the issue of right-wing terrorism, little has been reported. On America’s intelligence connection to ‘Islamic’ guerrillas (and their manipulation of Islam), nothing has been said. Yet, the truth is that amongst those who utilise religious faith to justify war, the majority are closer to Langley, Virginia, than they are to Tehran or Tripoli… In a move to recruit soldiers for the Afghanistan civil war, the CIA and Zia encouraged the region’s Islamic people to think of the conflict in terms of a jihad (holy war). Thus was fundamentalism promoted.”
William O. Beeman, an anthropologist specialising in the Middle East at Brown University who has conducted extensive research into Islamic Central Asia, points out: “It is no secret, especially in the region, that the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been supporting the fundamentalist Taliban in their war for control of Afghanistan for some time. The US has never openly acknowledged this connection, but it has been confirmed by both intelligence sources and charitable institutions in Pakistan.” Professor Beeman observes that the US-backed Taliban “are a brutal fundamentalist group that has conducted a cultural scorched-earth policy” in Afghanistan. Extensive documentation shows that the Taliban have “committed atrocities against their enemies and their own citizens… So why would the US support them?” Beeman concludes that the answer to this question “has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity – but only with the economics of oil. To the north of Afghanistan is one of the world’s wealthiest oil fields, on the Eastern Shore of the Caspian Sea in republics formed since the breakup of the Soviet Union.” Caspian oil needs to be transhipped out of the landlocked region through a warm water port, for the desired profits to be accumulated. The “simplest and cheapest” pipeline route is through Iran – but Iran is essentially an ‘enemy’ of the US, due to being overtly independent of the West, as shall be discussed later. As Beeman notes: “The US government has such antipathy to Iran that it is willing to do anything to prevent this.” The alternative route is one that passes through Afghanistan and Pakistan, which “would require securing the agreement of the powers-that-be in Afghanistan” – the Taliban. Such an arrangement would also benefit Pakistani elites, “which is why they are willing to defy the Iranians.” Therefore, as far as the US is concerned, the solution is “for the anti-Iranian Taliban to win in Afghanistan and agree to the pipeline through their territory.” Apart from the oil stakes, Afghanistan remains a strategic region for the US in another related respect. The establishment of a strong client state in the country would strengthen US influence in this crucial region, partly by strengthening Pakistan – a prime supporter of the Taliban – which is the region’s main American base. Of course, this also furthers the cause of establishing the required oil and gas pipelines to the Caspian Sea, while bypassing Russia and opening up the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) bordering Russia to the US dominated global market.
Strategic interests therefore seem to have motivated what the Guardian referred to as “the generally approving line that US officials take towards the Taleban.” CNN reported that the “United States wants good ties [with the Taliban] but can’t openly seek them while women are being repressed” – hence they can be sought covertly. The Intra Press Service (IPS) reports that underscoring “the geopolitical stakes, Afghanistan has appeared prominently in US government and corporate planning about routes for pipelines and roads opening the ex-Soviet republics on Russia’s southern border to world markets.” Hence, amid the fighting, “some Western businesses are warming up to the Taliban despite the movement’s” institutionalisation of terror, massacres, abductions, and impoverishment. “Leili Helms, a spokeswoman for the Taliban in New York, told IPS that one US company, Union Oil of California (Unocal), helped to arrange the visit last week of the movement’s acting information, industry and mines ministers. The three officials met lower-level State Department officials before departing for France, Helms said. Several US and French firms are interested in developing gas lines through central and southern Afghanistan, where the 23 Taliban-controlled states” just happen to be located, as Helms added, to the ‘chance’ convenience of American and other Western companies.
An article appearing in the prestigious German daily Frankfurter Rundschau, in early October 1996, reported that UNOCAL “has been given the go-ahead from the new holders of power in Kabul to build a pipeline from Turkmenstein via Afghanistan to Pakistan. It would lead from Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea to Karachi on the Indian Ocean coast.” The same article noted that UN diplomats in Geneva believe that the war in Afghanistan is the result of a struggle between Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and the United States, “to secure access to the rich oil and natural gas of the Caspian Sea.” Other than UNOCAL, companies that are jubilantly interested in exploiting Caspian oil, apparently at any human expense, include AMOCO, BP, Chevron, EXXON, and Mobile.
It therefore comes as no surprise to see the Wall Street Journal reporting that the main interests of American and other Western elites lie in making Afghanistan “a prime transhipment route for the export of Central Asia’s vast oil, gas and other natural resources”. “Like them or not,” the Journal continues without fear of contradiction, “the Taliban are the players most capable of achieving peace in Afghanistan at this moment in history.” The Journal is referring to the same faction that is responsible for the severe repression of women; massacres of civilians; ethnic cleansing and genocide; arbitrary detention; and the growth of widespread impoverishment and underdevelopment. Despite all this, as the New York Times similarly reported, “The Clinton Administration has taken the view that a Taliban victory… would act as a counterweight to Iran… and would offer the possibility of new trade routes that could weaken Russian and Iranian influence in the region.”
In a similar vein, the International Herald Tribunal reports that in the summer of 1998, “the Clinton administration was talking with the Taleban about potential pipeline routes to carry oil and natural gas out of Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean by crossing Afghanistan and Pakistan”, clarifying why the US would be interested in ensuring that the region is destabilised enough to prevent the population from being able to mobilise domestic resources, or utilise the region’s strategic position, for their own benefit. P. Stobdan reports that “Afghanistan figures importantly in the context of American energy security politics. Unocal’s project to build oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan for the export of oil and gas to the Indian subcontinent, viewed as the most audacious gambit of the 1990s Central Asian oil rush had generated great euphoria. The US government fully backed the route as a useful option to free the Central Asian states from Russian clutches and prevent them getting close to Iran. The project was also perceived as the quickest and cheapest way to bring out Turkmen gas to the fast growing energy market in South Asia. To help it canvass for the project, Unocol hired the prominent former diplomat and secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and a former US ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley, as well as an expert on the Caucasus, John Marescaé The president of Unocol even speculated that the cost of the construction would be reduced by half with the success of the Taliban movement and formation of a single government.” Worse still, this corporate endeavour backed wholeheartedly by the US involved direct military support of the Taliban: “It was reported by the media that the US oil company had even provided covert material support to help push the militia northward against Rabbani’s forces.” However, as Stobdan also notes, the terrorist antics of Taliban favourite Usama Bin Laden caused a rift in the blossoming US-Taliban relationship, leading the American corporation UNOCAL to indefinitely suspend work on the pipeline in August 1999. It is thus exceedingly hard to see how humanism has played a significant role in defining the policy of the US and the other Western powers toward Afghanistan. On the contrary, strategic and economic interests have evidently far outweighed the West’s professed humanitarian benevolence.
It is in this context that Franz Schurmann, Professor Emeritus of History & Sociology at the University of California, comments on “Washington’s discreet backing of the Taliban”, noting the announcement in May 1996 “by UNOCAL that it was preparing to build a pipeline to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Western Afghanistan… UNOCAL’s announcement was premised on an imminent Taliban victory.”
We should therefore take particular note of the authoritative testimony of US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher concerning American policy toward Afghanistan. Rohrabacher has been involved with Afghanistan since the early 1980s when he worked in the White House as Special Assistant to then US President Ronald Reagan, and he is now a Senior Member of the US House International Relations Committee. Since 1988 he traveled to Afghanistan as a member of the US Congress with mujahideen fighters and participated in the battle of Jalalabhad against the Soviets; he has been involved in US policy toward Afghanistan for twenty years. He has testified as follows: “Having been closely involved in US policy toward Afghanistan for some twenty years, I have called into question whether or not this administration has a covert policy that has empowered the Taliban and enabled this brutal movement to hold on to power. Even though the President and the Secretary of State have voiced their disgust at the brutal policies of the Taliban, especially their repression of women, the actual implementation of US policy has repeatedly had the opposite effect.” After documenting a large number of factors indicating tacit US support of the Taliban, Rohrabacher concludes: “I am making the claim that there is and has been a covert policy by this administration to support the Taliban movement’s control of Afghanistané [T]his amoral or immoral policy is based on the assumption that the Taliban would bring stability to Afghanistan and permit the building of oil pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistané I believe the administration has maintained this covert goal and kept the Congress in the dark about its policy of supporting the Taliban, the most anti-Western, anti-female, anti-human rights regime in the world. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that this policy would outrage the American people, especially America’s women. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of our government’s covert policy to favor the Taliban is that the administration is currently engaged in a major effort to obstruct the Congress from determining the details behind this policy. Last year in August, after several unofficial requests were made of the State Department, I made an official request for all diplomatic documents concerning US policy toward the Taliban, especially those cables and documents from our embassies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As a senior Member of the House International Relations Committee I have oversight responsibility in this area. In November, after months of stonewalling, the Secretary of State herself promised before the International Relations Committee that the documents would be forthcoming. She reconfirmed that promise in February when she testified before our Committee on the State Department budget. The Chairman of the Committee, Ben Gilman, added his voice to the record in support of my document request. To this time, we have received nothing. There can only be two explanations. Either the State Department is totally incompetent, or there is an ongoing cover-up of the State Department’s true fundamental policy toward Afghanistan. You probably didn’t expect me to praise the State Department at the end of this scathing testimony. But I will. I don’t think the State Department is incompetent. They should be held responsible for their policies and the American people should know, through documented proof, what they are doing.”
This documentation shows clearly that the US was certainly supportive of the Taliban while they were scoring sweeping victories throughout Afghanistan. As has been noted by Central Asia specialist Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Daily Telegraph (London), from 1994-96 at least the United States “did support the Taliban, and [the Americans] cannot deny that fact.” In an important study of the issue, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Rashid showed that “between 1994-96 the US supported the Taliban politically through its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, essentially because Washington viewed the Taliban as anti-Iranian, anti-Shia and pro-western… [B]etween 1995-97, US support was driven by the UNOCAL oil/gas pipeline project.”
Thus, as Afghan scholar Noor Ali accurately points out, by its covert policy “to make of Afghanistan a satellite or a protectorate of Pakistan, the US Administration ignored the very objectives of Afghans themselves to repulse the invader, to recover their independence, to establish the style of government of their choice, and to live in peace. It disregarded the aspirations of the Afghan masses who bore the actual burden of the war and rendered an unparalleled sacrifice to the cause of freedom.” Rather than providing genuine help to the Afghan people by making available to them “the necessary facilities to rebuild an independent Afghan state and to reconstruct Afghan economy, the US Government has shamefully rewarded Pakistan in authorizing it to control Afghanistan as suzerain through the heads of Units – the warring faction’s leaders – originated in Pakistan” – evident in America’s failure to condemn the policies of its subservient Pakistani client. “The current warfare in Afghanistan is not a civil war. It is rather an international war among the involved regional states, through their respective proxies – Afghan warring factions – using Afghanistan territory as their battle fieldé the war is between the interfering foreign powers for their expansionist or protectionist objectives within and beyond the region; the warring factions and their leaders are their surrogates and defacto extension of their state organizations.” Summarising the economic and strategic interests of the US that have motivated the current policy, Dr. Ali remarks that the Great Game in Central Asia is not ending, but rather “going on briskly.” Today, however, it is “the United States that is looking North and intended to cross Afghanistan from Pakistan so as to be able (i) to sway Iran; (ii) to expand its power beyond the Amou Daria to control the resources of Central Asia; and (iii) to influence the Federation of Russia from South, and the mainland China from North West, as and when requiredé The US Government, in complicity with its regional allies, and for want of anything better, is trying to put therein a servile government of its own choice so as to possess the necessary leverage to influence the overall politics and economics of the region in accordance with its imperialistic objectives. Pending the identification and installation of such a government the country has to endure the state of anarchy and instability accordingly.”
However, it is extremely unlikely that the US continues to support the Taliban. As indicated above, after the bombings in Africa and Yemen blamed on Afghan warlord Usama Bin Laden, the US relationship with the Taliban soured considerably. Under consequent US pressure, United Nations sanctions preventing Western firms from investing in Afghanistan have been imposed against the Taliban, in light of which it appears that the once blooming US-Taliban relationship is over. One of the reasons for this certainly appears to be the fact that the Taliban is incapable of playing the US-friendly role of a “servile government”. As Ahmed Rashid points out, “The UNOCAL project was based on the premise that the Taliban were going to conquer Afghanistan. This premise was fed to them by various countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and elements within the US administration. Essentially it was a premise that was very wrong, because it was based on conquest, and would therefore make it absolutely certain that not only would they not be able to build the pipeline, but they would never be able to have that kind of security in order to build the pipeline.” Once this became absolutely clear to the United States, it also became clear that the Taliban was incapable of providing the security essential to allow the pipeline to go ahead as required. Thus, in other words, by 1998 the US began to see the Taliban as a fundamental obstacle to US interests, and due to this, US policy toward the Taliban took an about-turn.
The shift in US policy in Afghanistan from pro-Taliban to anti-Taliban, has not brought with it any change in the tragic condition of the Afghan people, primarily because the policy shift is once more rooted in America’s own attempt to secure its strategic and economic interests. Since the Taliban no longer plays a suitably subservient role, US policy has grown increasingly hostile to the faction. The shift has also, unfortunately, occurred “without public discussion, without consultation with Congress and without even informing those who are likely to make foreign policy in the next administration.”
The imposition of sanctions on Afghanistan in the wake of the US embassy blasts in east Africa attributed to Bin Laden, has not only failed to affect the Taliban, but has served primarily to devastate the Afghan population even more. Indeed, “The US engineered a punishing Iraq-style embargo of war-ravaged Afghanistan at a time when many of its 18 million people are starving and homeless,” observes the Toronto Sun. The London Guardian reports that “When the UN imposed sanctions a year ago on the Taliban because of their refusal to hand over bin Laden, the suffering in Afghanistan increased. The move has not hurt the Taliban. They are well off. It is ordinary Afghans who have suffered. Those in jobs earn a salary of around $4 a month, scarcely enough to live on. The real losers are Afghanistan’s women, who have been for bidden by the Taliban from working. Kabul is full of burqa-clad women beggars who congregate every lunchtime outside the city’s few functioning restaurants in the hope of getting something to eat.” Indeed, the imposition of sanctions amidst the ongoing famine in Afghanistan has quite predictably resulted in the exacerbation of the country’s crisis. “The country is in the grip of an unreported humanitarian disaster”, notes Luke Harding reporting from Kandahar. “In the south and west, there has been virtually no rain for three years. The road from Herat, near the Iranian border, to Kandahar, the southern desert city, winds through half-abandoned vil lages and swirlingly empty riverbeds. Some 12m people have been affected, of whom 3m are close to starvation.” As Pakistani correspondent Arshad Mahmoud observes that the people, particularly the children, of Afghanistan “are facing the grave consequences of the UN sanctions”, in tandem with the continuing drought.
Meanwhile, the US desire to eliminate Bin Laden and his likeminded colleagues has led to the formation of a joint US-Russian project to undermine the Taliban to make way for a new more subservient regime. Frederick Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, reports that “the United States has quietly begun to align itself with those in the Russian government calling for military action against Afghanistan and has toyed with the idea of a new raid to wipe out Osama bin Laden. Until it backed off under local pressure, it went so far as to explore whether a Central Asian country would permit the use of its territory for such a purpose.” Meetings between government American, Russian and Indian government officials took place at the end of 2000 “to discuss what kind of government should replace the Taliban… [T]he United States is now talking about the overthrow of a regime that controls nearly the entire country, in the hope it can be replaced with a hypothetical government that does not exist even on paper.”
The fact that the US has recently been backing a UN resolution strengthening sanctions against foreign military aid to the Taliban , without including an embargo on the other armed factions in the country, confirms clearly that the shift in policy has no humanitarian basis behind it. The other factions “when they ruled in key areas, showed a brutal disregard for human rights and for other minorities that was comparable to the Taliban at its worst”, notes Central Asia specialist Frederick Starr. “Yet the fragment of a government they support limps on and, with US backing, occupies Afghanistan’s seat in the United Nations.” HRW criticised the Security Council measures, urging “the adoption of an arms embargo against all combatants, not only the Taliban.” Indeed, a joint US-Russia draft resolution ignored the ongoing civil war, responsible for the humanitarian crisis, focusing instead “on the Taliban’s harboring of Osama bin Laden… [The resolution] would impose new sanctions only on the Taliban until it gives up bin Laden for extradition and closes camps allegedly used to plan criminal activities overseas. But the draft resolution does not directly address the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan, which has been accompanied by a severe humanitarian crisis.” Executive Director of HRW, Kenneth Roth, has pointed out that the international community’s failure to “address abuses by the warring parties now because they are an important cause of the continuing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan”, signifies that they are “inexcusably abandoning the Afghan people to suffer atrocities at home while focusing exclusively on the Afghan government’s role in attacks on foreigners.”
Canadian journalist Eric Margolis reports that “The United States and Russia may soon launch a joint military assault against Islamic militant, Osama Bin Laden, and against the leadership of Taliban, Afghanistan’s de facto ruling movement. Such an attack would probably include US Delta Force and Navy Seals, who would join up with Russia’s elite Spetsnaz and Alpha commandos in Tajikistan, the Central Asian state where Russian has military bases and 25,000 troops. The combined forces would be lifted by helicopters, and backed by air support, deep into neighboring Afghanistan to attack Bin Laden’s fortified base in the Hindu Kush mountains.” The plans have little to do with aiding the Afghan people, and more to do with eliminating the current danger to US interests in the region. As the Guardian rightly observes, “Another missile attack will merely add to Afghanistan’s misery.”
We thus see a clear example of how human rights, democracy and egalitarian social development are directly opposed by deliberate Western policies to further the economic interests of Western corporate elites. In this case, a faction whose policies of brutal repression are extensively documented and well known was being covertly supported at the expense of the Afghan people in the name of US strategic and corporate interests. This support only ceased when it became clear that the Taliban was incapable of establishing the sort of conditions necessary for the security of the proposed pipeline. Evidently, the human rights of the Afghan people are not a very significant factor in the formulation of Western policy toward Afghanistan. AI summarises the crisis aptly: “Civilians are the targets of human rights abuses in a war they have not chosen, by one faction after another… They are pawns in a game of war between armed groups inside Afghanistan backed by different regional powers”, with the leading perpetrator of abuses and massacres – the Taliban – having been covertly supported by the United States for several years. “Meanwhile, the world has watched massacres of civilians without making any meaningful effort to protect them.”
 Rubin, Barnett R., ‘Afghanistan: The Forgotten Crisis’, Writenet (UK), February 1996; Rubin, Barnett R., ‘In Focus: Afghanistan’, Foreign Policy In Focus, Vol. 1, No. 25, December 1996, http://www.igc.org/infocus/index.html; Catalinotto, John, ‘Afghan feudal reaction: Washington reaps what it has sown’, Workers World News Service, Workers World newspaper, 3 September 1998; Pentagon report, Afghanistan: A country study, 1986, cited in ibid.; Rubin, Barnett R., ‘The Political Economy of War and Peace in Afghanistan’, paper presented at Afghan Support Group, Stockholm, Sweden, 21 June 1999, Online Center for Afghan Studies, http://www.afghan-politics.org. For more detail on the contemporary history of the crisis in Afghanistan see Roy, Oliver, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990; Rubin, Barnett R., The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995; Rubin, The Search for Peace in Afghanistan: From Buffer State to Failed State, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995.
 Cited by Agence France Presse, 14 January 1998. Also see Greg Guma, ‘Cracks in the Covert Iceberg’, Toward Freedom, May 1998, p. 2; Feinberg, Leslie, ‘Brezezenski brags, blows cover: US intervened in Afghanistan first’, Workers World, 12 March 1998.
 Ali, Noor, US-UN Conspiracy Against the People of Afghanistan, Online Center for Afghan Studies, 21 February 1998,
 Smith, J. W., ‘Simultaneously Suppressing the World’s Break for Freedom’, in Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle for the 21st Century, M. E. Sharpe, New York, Armonk, 2000.
 Rubin, Barnett, ‘In Focus: Afghanistan’, Foreign Policy In Focus, Vol. 1, No. 25., December 1996.
 Human Rights Watch, New York, December 1992; Economist, 24 July 1993.
 Rubin, Barnett R., ‘Afghanistan: The Forgotten Crisis’, Writenet (UK), February 1996; AI report, Refugees from Afghanistan: the World’s Largest Single Refugee Group, Amnesty International, London, November 1999; AFP, ‘Tubercolisis spreading in Afghanistan killing thousands’, 25 March 2000; Gannon, Kathy, ‘Children: the Victims in Afghan War’, Associated Press (AP), 27 December 1998; Dumble, Lynette J., ‘Taliban are still brutal villians’, Green Left Weekly, Issue 390, 26 January 2000; AI report, Women in Afghanistan: Pawns in Men’s Power Struggles, Amnesty International, London, November 1999. Also see Catalinotto, John, ‘Afghan feudal reaction: Washington reaps what it has sown’, Workers World, 3 September 1998; Griswold, Deirdre, ‘Afghanistan: The lynching of a revolution’, Workers World, 10 October 1996.
 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, ‘Hunger threatens millions of poor Afghans’, 9 June 2000.
 Clark, Kate, BBC Worldnews Services, 27 April 2000.
 Geissinger, Aishah, ‘Understanding the Taliban phenomenon – a crucial task for the Islamic movement’, Crescent International, 1-15 May 2000, http://www.muslimedia.org. Geissinger also observes a critical fact that tends to be missing from the reports on Taliban repression: “Western complicity in and responsibility for the Taliban’s excesses is usually ignored”. She cites an obvious example: “if the economy is based on opium, what can anyone expect after 22 years of war and upheaval [perpetuated by the West which was supporting various factions throughout the war to secure its strategic interests], to say nothing of the recent imposition of economic sanctions?” For more on how the CIA deliberately encouraged the drugs trade in Afghanistan see Cooley, John K., Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, Pluto Press, London, 1999. For a Muslim report on the Taliban see Rashid, Ahmed, ‘Afghanistan: Heart of Darkness’, ‘Wages of War’, ‘Final Offensive?’, Far Eastern Economic Review, 5 August 1999; Ahmed Rashid is an investigative reporter based in Pakistan.
 Dumble, Lynette J., ‘Taliban are still brutal villians’, Green Left Weekly, Issue 390, 26 January 2000.
 ‘UN: Abuse of women in Taliban areas officially sanctioned’, CNN, 13 September 1999.
 ‘Hard News’, Khilafah Magazine, Vol. 7, Issue 8, June/July 1997.
 AI report, Afghanistan: Grave Abuses in the Name of Religion, Amnesty International, London, November 1996.
 AI report, Afghanistan: Continuing Atrocities Against Civilians, Amnesty International, London, September 1997.
 AI report, Afghanistan: Grave Abuses in the Name of Religion, op. cit.; ‘Editorial: Who’s behind the Taliban?’, Workers World, 5 June 1997; Catalinotto, John, ‘Afghanistan: Battle deepens for Central Asian oil’, Workers World, 24 October 1996. See the report by the award-winning investigative journalist and human rights activist Jan Goodwin, ‘Buried Alive: Afghan Women Under the Taliban’, On The Issues, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer 1998, http://www.mosaic.echonyc.com/~onissues/index.html.
 CNN, ‘UN: Abuse of women in Taliban areas officially sanctioned’, 13 September 1999. Extensive documentation of Taliban complicity in organised prostitution is detailed especially in RAWA report, Prostitution Under the Taliban Rule, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, August 1999; Khan, M. Ilyas, ‘Beyond or Evil’, Herald Magazine, August 1999. Also see AI report, Afghanistan: Grave Abuses in the Name of Religion, op. cit.; Dumble, Lynette J., ‘Taliban are still brutal villians’, Green Left Weekly, Issue 390, 26 January 2000; Goodwin, Jan, ‘Buried Alive: Afghan Women Under the Taliban’, On The Issues, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer 1998; AI report, Women in Afghanistan: Pawns in Men’s Power Struggles, Amnesty International, London, November 1999.
 Afghanistan Campaign, The Taliban’s War on Women: A Health and Human Rights Crisis in Afghanistan Executive Summary, Physicians for Human Rights, Boston, 1998.
 ibid. Also see the report by the award-winning investigative journalist and human rights activist Jan Goodwin, ‘Buried Alive: Afghan Women Under the Taliban’, On The Issues, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer 1998, http://www.mosaic.echonyc.com/~onissues/index.html; AI report, Women in Afghanistan: Pawns in Men’s Power Struggles, Amnesty International, London, November 1999; AI report, Human Rights Defenders in Afghanistan: Civil Society Destroyed, Amnesty International, London, November 1999; AI report, Children Devastated by War: Afghanistan’s Lost Generations, Amnesty International, London, 1999.
 AI news release, ‘Afghanistan: Thousands of civilians killed following Taliban takeover of Mazae-e Sharif’, Amnesty International, London, 3 September 1998; Sheridan, Michael, ‘How the Taliban Slaughtered 8,000’, Sunday Times, 1 November 1998.
 AI news release, ‘Afghanistan: Thousands of civilians killed following Taliban takeover of Mazae-e Sharif’, op. cit.
 ibid.; AI news release, ‘Afghanistan: International actors have a special responsibility for ending the human rights catastrophe’, Amnesty International, London, 18 November 1999; AI news release, ‘Afghanistan: Civilians in a game of war they have not chosen’, Amnesty International, London, 27 May 1999.
 Naji, Kasra, ‘UN: Taliban forcing thousands from homes in Afghanistan’, CNN, 15 August 1999. Also see AI report, Afghanistan: The Human Rights of Minorities, Amnesty International, London, November 1999.
 For example, supporters of the Taliban, such as Pakistan, could be pressurized into ceasing support; AI news release, ‘Afghanistan: International actors have a special responsibility for ending the human rights catastrophe’, op. cit.; AI news release, ‘Afghanistan: Immediate action needed to halt further massacres’, Amnesty International, London, 8 November 1999.
 Naji, Kasra, ‘UN: Taliban forcing thousands from homes in Afghanistan’, CNN, 15 August 1999.
 See Aburish, Said K., A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite, Indigo, London, 1998.
 Rubin, Barnett, ‘In Focus: Afghanistan’, Foreign Policy In Focus, Vol. 1, No. 25., December 1996; Meanwhile, the European Platform for Conflict Prevention and Transformation has detailed the total number of casualties in Afghanistan at 1.25 million, with 2 million permanently disabled, 1 million internally displaced and 3 million being refugees, mainly in Iran and Pakistan. European Platform for Conflict Prevention and Transformation – http://www.euforic.org.
 Ali, Noor, US-UN Conspiracy Against the People of Afghanistan, Online Center for Afghan Studies, 21 February 1998, . See this paper for a detailed review of the numerous particular discrepancies in the US-UN policy indicating that the policy is motivated by ominous intentions, and moreover that the policy is resulting – quite predictably – in the entrenchment of factionalism and war in Afghanistan.
 Vidgen, Ben C., ‘A State of Terror: How many ‘terrorist’ groups has your government established, sponsored or networked latterly’, Nexus Magazine, Vol. 3. No. 2, February-March 1996. See especially Cooley, John K., Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, Pluto Press, London, 1999.
 Smith, J. W., ‘Simultaneously Suppressing the World’s Break for Freedom’, op. cit.
 Krakowski, Elie, ‘The Afghan Vortex’, IASPS Research Papers in Strategy, No. 9, April 2000.
 AI report, Afghanistan: Grave Abuses in the Name of Religion, op. cit; Guardian, 9 October 1996. Also see Financial Times, 9 October 1996.
 AI report, Afghanistan: Grave Abuses in the Name of Religion, op. cit.
 Vidgen, Ben C., ‘A State of Terror: How many ‘terrorist’ groups has your government established, sponsored or networked laterly?’, op. cit.
 Beeman, William O., ‘Follow the Oil Trail – Mess in Afghanistan Partly Our Government’s Fault’, Jinn Magazine (online), Pacific News Service, San Francisco, 24 August 1998, web-site at http://www.pacificnews.org/jinn. Thus, we may note the observation of Hizb ut-Tahrir: “The importance of Pakistan [to the US] comes from the effect it has on neighboring countries like Iran, Afghanistan and India. Pakistan is a powerful tool of American which has established, supported and guarded the Taliban in her control of Afghanistan.” (‘An Army General in Pakistan Overthrows the Prime Minister’, Hizb ut-Tahrir,15 October, 1999, http://www.khilafah.com)
 Ibid. For a summary of the issue of Caspian oil see Bangash, Zafar, ‘Pipelines in the pipeline: The Scramble for Central Asia’s black gold’, Crescent International, 1-15 June 1997, http://www.muslimedia.org. It is important to note that the US sanctions ‘on the Taliban’, which have been allegedly imposed because of the Taliban’s refusal to give up Usama Bin Laden, do not contradict America’s general supportive tendencies toward the Taliban. This is because the so-called sanctions ‘on the Taliban’ are not actually that – they are sanctions on the people on Afghanistan which have absolutely no effect on the members of the Taliban, and will therefore have no impact on forcing the Taliban to give up Bin Laden, but will rather merely add to the decimation of the innocent Afghan population (see especially Online Center for Afghan Studies, Economic, Humanitarian and Political Impact of the UN Imposed Sanctions, November 1999, http://www.afghan-politics.org). As Beeman similarly points out, the US bombing of a Bin Laden outpost in Afghanistan in response to his alleged prior bombing of US embassies was designed to send a message to the Taliban that they must “ditch Bin Laden”, whose anti-Americanism threatened the US-Taliban relationship. However, the action may not ultimately be successful in this regard. If the US-Taliban relationship degrades, this is therefore not because of US concern for human rights, since the US support of the Taliban that has been an ongoing reality for many years is a geopolitical/business-orientated strategy that utterly (and knowingly) disregards the human rights of millions of Afghans (as has been reported for almost decade by numerous human rights organizations). Any such degradation would actually be an effective result of Bin Laden’s anti-Americanism, and its effects on the Taliban’s approach to the US, in light of the US response to the latter.
 CNN, ‘US in a diplomatic hard place in dealing with Afghanistan’s Taliban’, CNN, 8 October 1996.
 Frankfurter Rundschau, October 1996; also see Catalinotto, John, ‘Afghanistan: Battle deepens for central Asian oil’, Workers World News Service, Workers World, 24 October 1996.
 Wall Street Journal, 23 May 1997.
 New York Times, 26 May 1997.
 Fitchett, Joseph, ‘Worries Rise that Taleban May Try to Export Unrest’, International Herald Tribunal, 26 September 1998; also see Gall, Carlotta, ‘Dagestan Skirmish is a Big Russian Risk’, New York Times, 13 August 1999.
 Stobdan, P., ‘The Afghan Conflict and Regional Security’, Strategic Analysis (journal of the Institute for Defence & Strategic Analysis [ISDA]), August 1999, Vol. XXIII, No. 5, p. 719-747.
 Statement of Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, US Policy Toward Afghanistan, Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on South Asia, 14 April 1999. Rohrabacher includes the following reasons in his analysis: “ In 1996, the Taliban first emerged as a mysterious force that swept out of so-called religious schools in Pakistan to a blitzkrieg type of conquest of most of Afghanistan against some very seasoned former-mujahideen fighters. As a so-called ‘student militia’, the Taliban could not have succeeded without the support, organization and logistics of military professionals, who would not have been faculty in religious schools.  The US has a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, in matters concerning Afghanistan, but unfortunately, instead of providing leadership, we are letting them lead our policy. This began during the Afghan war against the Soviets. I witnessed this in the White House when US officials in charge of the military aid program to the mujahideen permitted a large percentage of our assistance to be channeled to the most anti-western non-democratic elements of the mujahideen, such as Golbodin Hekmatayar. This was done to placate the Pakistan ISI military intelligence.  In 1997, responding to the pleas of the Afghan-American community and the recognized Afghanistan ambassador, I led an effort to stop the State Department from permitting the Afghanistan embassy in Washington from being taken under the control of a diplomat loyal to the Taliban. Instead, of permitting a new ambassador who was assigned by the non-Taliban Afghan government that is still recognized at the United Nations, the State Department claimed ‘we don’t take sides’, and forced the embassy to be closed against the will of the Afghanistan United Nations office.  During late 1997 and early 1998, while the Taliban imposed a blockade on more than two million people of the Hazara ethnic group in central Afghanistan, putting tens of thousands at risk of starving to death or perishing from a lack of medicine during the harsh winter months, the State Department undercut my efforts to send in two plane loads of medicines by the Americans and the Knightsbridge relief agencies. State Department representatives made false statements that the humanitarian crisis was exaggerated and there was already sufficient medical supplies in the blockaded area. When the relief teams risked their lives to go into the area with the medicines – without the support of the State Department they found the hospitals and clinics did not have even aspirins or bandages, no generators for heat in sub-zero weather, a serious lack of blankets and scant amounts of food. The State Department, in effect, was assisting the Taliban’s inhuman blockade intended to starve out communities that opposed their dictates.  Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this administration’s tacit support of the was the effort made during a Spring 1998 visit to Afghanistan by Mr. Indefurth and U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson. These administration representatives convinced the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance not to go on the offensive against a then-weakened and vulnerable Taliban. And instead convinced these anti-Taliban leaders to accept a cease-fire that was proposed by Pakistan. The cease fire lasted only as long as it took the Pakistanis to resupply and reorganize the Taliban. In fact, within a few months of announcement of the US-backed ‘Ulema’ process, the Taliban, freshly supplied by the ISI and flush with drug money, went on a major offensive and destroyed the Northern Alliance. This was either incompetence on the part of the State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies or indicative of the real policy of our government to ensure a Taliban victory.  Can anyone believe that with the Taliban, identified by the United Nations and the DEA as one of the two largest producers of opium in the world, that they weren’t being closely monitored by our intelligence services, who would have seen every move of the military build up that the Pakistanis and Taliban were undertaking. In addition, at the same time the U.S. was planning its strike against the terrorist camps of Osama bin laden in Afghanistan. How could our intelligence services not have known that Osama bin Laden’s forces had moved north to lead the Taliban offensive, where horrendous brutality took place.  In addition, there has been no major effort to end the flow of opium out of Afghanistan, which is the main source of the revenues that enables the Taliban to maintain control of the country, even though the US Government observes by satellite where the opium is grown.”
 Ali, Noor, US-UN Conspiracy Against the People of Afghanistan, Online Center for Afghan Studies, 21 February 1998,
 AI news release, ‘Afghanistan: Civilians in a game of war they have not chosen’, Amnesty International, London, 27 May 1999.
Mr. Nafeez Ahmed is a political analyst and human rights activist based in London. He is Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and a Researcher at the Islamic Human Rights Commission. Above article was first published by Online Center for Afghan Studies, January 12, 2001