Ed Warner

Veteran Journalist

Taliban’s Afghanistan

Posted on | October 10, 2000 | Comments Off

A 3 Part Series, All Contained Here

Early reporting on the Taliban for the Voice of America

 

PART I

INTRO:  After years of fighting, the Taliban seem close to winning control of all of Afghanistan. That would consolidate their very strict Islamic rule of the country. But much of the world is repelled by this government, especially its treatment of women, and refuse to accept its legitimacy without substantial change. The Taliban, eager for international recognition and economic help, must now weigh religious conviction against societal needs. After a visit to Afghanistan, VOA’s Ed Warner provides the first of three reports.

TEXT:  The zoo in Kabul is all but empty, kids clustering around the cages of a few deer and wolves. In grand isolation, a blind lion sits staring into space, the victim of a soldier’s grenade. Somehow this fallen majesty seems to symbolize his city’s decline as well – an immensely sad but still dignified sight, faced with just about the worst that life can offer.

The decline, it is agreed, began with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It aroused a fierce, united and ultimately successful Afghan resistance. But the war continued after the Soviet withdrawal, as the various Afghan commanders fought among themselves, in the process destroying much of Kabul.

Out of this chaos, with a startling suddenness, emerged the Taliban, holy warriors determined to suppress the violence and impose a sweeping version of the Sharia. Backed and armed by Pakistan, they have now won control of almost the entire country, with resistance waning in the northeast.

What inspired such unlikely conquerors untrained in battle and immersed in studies? Mawlana Samiul Haq, director of a madrassa or religious school in Pakistan, was a major influence on the Taliban. He urged his students to go fight for Islam in Afghanistan, and that they did. It is a matter of great pride for him and his school. Last year, there were 15 thousand applications for four hundred places in the madrassa.

Hearty and forceful, Mr. Haq claims only a modest role in Afghanistan:

// Haq act, Urdu fading to English //

We did not create the Taliban. Circumstances did. They are not that happy to be in power. They are students and would prefer to return to their studies. But foreign powers continue to fuel the war in Afghanistan and give the Taliban little choice.

// //end act //

Why doesn’t the west recognize the Taliban for what they are? asks Samiul Haq: the genuine rulers of a nation. Yet they are denied a seat in the United Nations and banned from participating in the Olympics.

For good reason, replies the west, which finds the Taliban baffling and repellant. They seem to have turned the clock back by centuries as they remove women from schools and jobs, patrol the country for infractions of dress and behavior, ban all forms of entertainment and conduct public executions to intimidate any opposition.

That happens to be our culture, says the Minister of Culture, Mawlawi Qudratullah Jamal. We do not tell the West how to behave. Why should they tell us? The Taliban have brought peace and security to war-torn Afghanistan. For this we are punished:

// Jamal act, Pashto fading to English //

The major problem in Afghanistan today is the hardship resulting from the economic sanctions, which have brought such pain and suffering to the people. Afghans did not expect that after the defeat of the Soviet Union, the world would respond by damaging the Afghan economy instead of helping it.

// end act //

Minister Jamal said it is difficult for the Taliban to deal with issues of peace as long as they remain at war. Once it is over, they will be able to make the kind of progress that will be satisfactory to the west

Meanwhile, we welcome western visitors, says the urbane, under-stated foreign minister Mawlawi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil. The Taliban present three faces, notes a critic: warrior, zealot and diplomat. Mr. Mutawakil is the diplomatic presence.

At a press briefing in Kabul, he said the Taliban want to join the international community. Recognize us as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and we will provide you with some of the answers you seek.

// Mutawakil act, Pashto fading to English //

We are saying that we are ready to talk to people. We want to respond to the concerns of people. We want to participate in world affairs. We want to travel abroad, and we want our airline to take us there. We want to work together with the international community on a variety of problems.

// end act //

Mr. Mutawakil wondered why the west had not responded to the Taliban’s pledge to stop the cultivation of poppies for the drug trade. In its place, the country needs foreign investment to revive its collapsed economy.

But can the Taliban manage even if they have peace and help from abroad? Many have their doubts. Over the stressful years, Afghanistan has lost much of its educated population and trained professionals. Life under the Taliban is not likely to lure them back. Nor is their expertise prized by the Taliban, for whom the Koran is sufficient.

Across the border in Pakistan, Rasul Amin is Director of the AfghanistanStudyCenter in Peshawar and a former professor of political science in Afghanistan. He says the Taliban are ill equipped to govern a country:

// Amin act //

They have come from the madrassas with a very narrow mindedness. They do not know about the very complicated mechanism of the state. A state requires policies – economic policies and political policies, social policy, cultural policy, internal policy, external policy, a thousand policies. But their policies are confined to the beard.

// end act //

All Afghan men are required to have a full beard in emulation of the Prophet Mohammad.

Professor Amin says that is a major preoccupation of the Taliban, who neglect more pressing economic matters. Like others in Peshawar, he awaits the collapse of the Taliban and possibly the restoration of the aged king Zahir Shah, now in exile in Rome. They see him as a unifying figure who could rally support among diverse Afghans.

Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani is the past president of the Council of Understanding for the National Unity of Afghanistan, a Peshawar-based organization that calls for a grand assembly of Afghans to determine the country’s future.

He says Afghans are essentially moderate in contrast to the Taliban:

// Gailani act //

They are not representative of the people of Afghanistan. This is the first time in the history of Afghanistan that the mullahs came to power, but I am not sure they will agree very quickly to a transfer of power to the people of Afghanistan.

// end act //

The Taliban have shed their blood and committed their lives to win control of Afghanistan and submit it to the true faith. Now that military victory is in sight, even firm opponents do not expect them to surrender their power.  

 

PART II

INTRO:  The Taliban have established the most extreme version of Islam to be found in the world today. Strict codes of dress and behavior are enforced by a ministry set up for that purpose. Women are banned from most work and from schools. But the Taliban are discovering these rules clash with the needs of their  impoverished country. Outsiders offering help find it hard to work under such rigid conditions. In the second of three reports, VOA’s Ed Warner describes the Taliban’s Islamic regime.

TEXT:  Observers say one agency works well in Kabul: the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Hundreds of recruits eagerly carry out its mandate as they scour the city for any glimpse of female flesh or beardless males.

When they are outside, women must be fully covered, head to toe, with gauze over their eyes restricting their vision. As they trudge along the streets, none too steadily, many begging for money, they have the look of aliens from another planet. While men freely exchange greetings, shake hands and embrace, women remain apart.

Woe to those who violate the rules. Freba Hamidi is a young Afghan women who recently fled with her family to Peshawar across the border in Pakistan. With her face now exposed, she recalls how she once made the mistake of going to shop without complete covering. A Taliban patrol closed in and flailed her with sticks. She received the same treatment on another occasion, when a bit of ankle was showing.

Being a woman, she was fired from her job at a radio station in Kabul; her father and mother had also lost their posts. I think I am a good Muslim, says Freba Hamidi, but the Taliban give Islam a bad name:

// Hamidi act, Farsi fading to English //

Life in Afghanistan is very difficult, especially for women who have been deprived of the right to work and to get an education. And they are all at home. Women used to be able to work for NGO’s, foreign non-governmental organizations. But recently, the Taliban stopped them from working there and threatened to shut down any NGO that employs them.

// end act //

The Taliban say they want to protect women from the promiscuity and decadence of the west. NGO’s would just like to put them to work. Compromise is apparently possible. Told to dismiss their Afghan women who work in a bakery, the UN’s World Food Program removed them officially but rehired them on an informal basis. That seemed agreeable to the Taliban.

In his office at the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the Deputy Minister, Mullah Mohammad Salim, is arguing with another mullah over the phone. The ministry has shut down an ice cream store because female customers were exposing their faces to eat the ice cream. True enough, says the mullah at the other end of the line, but look at it his way: the women are eating apart from men, and that is a good thing. Well, ok, replies Mullah Salim. We will let the store reopen – in what could be viewed, generously, as another act of incremental change.

At the entrance to the ministry, a group of men with wispy beards or none at all are waiting to get documents that will keep them from being punished. One has just returned from several years in Iran:

// refugee act, Farsi fading to English //

They told me I had to cut my hair in accordance with Islamic rules. I did that, and now I’m back to get an exemption for not having a beard so that I will not be bothered by the patrols.

// end act //

As the refugee from Iran was talking, the deputy minister walked out, casually remarking: “You see, we have not detained him.” Other Afghans say it is easy enough to elude the patrols with a little ingenuity.

Much depends on the individual ministry and the man in charge. Mary MacMakin is head of an NGO called Parsa and a popular figure in Kabul. Nevertheless, the Virtue-Vice Ministry imprisoned her for four days for working with Afghan women and then ordered her out of the country. Once she left, the Foreign Ministry called to apologize and asked her to return. She remains in Kabul, fully committed though somewhat more discreet.

There is apparently no division among the Taliban on handling more serious crimes. After a series of explosions in Kabul, several men were arrested and sentenced to death. Two were recently hanged in the city stadium, and their bodies removed to a main intersection to serve as an example to others. Bills were stuffed into their mouths and ears to signify the money they accepted for their crimes.

Deputy Interior Minister Mullah Khaksaar, soft-spoken but emphatic, says the culprits were caught with the explosives and were tried and convicted. The trial, of course, was not public. So there is no way of verifying the accusations.

Minister Khaksaar concedes Taliban security forces need improvement:

// Khaksaar act, Pashto fading to English //

Right now there is no security problem inside Afghanistan. But our security forces are not up to international standards. We do not have proper equipment because so much was destroyed in the years of war. Despite this, we have been able to bring security to the country. The Taliban are dedicated and are not working for personal gain.

// end act //

Mullah Khaksaar, who has also headed Taliban intelligence, says his ministry is planning to establish an academy for police and put them in uniform. Eventually, they will replace the militia of the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.  

 

PART III

INTRO:  The Taliban have taken over one of the poorest nations on earth with no immediate prospect of improvement. Nor do their policies point in that direction. They concentrate on dress and behavior, while other problems fester and the country’s economic slide continues. In the last of three reports, VOA’s Ed Warner describes the poverty and disease that afflict a once prosperous country.

TEXT:  The Taliban rule is harsh, especially for women. But harsher still is the condition of the economy. Once prosperous Afghanistan is now among the poorest nations on earth with one of the highest rates of infant mortality and one of the lowest life expectancy.

First the war with the Soviets, then the infighting among Afghans have laid waste much of the country. More than half of Kabul is in ruins, and desperate Afghans have set up stalls amid the rubble where they sell all manner of items, including their household possessions.

The poverty is compounded by a severe drought and by U-N and U-S economic sanctions, ostensibly because the Taliban will not surrender Osama bin Laden, the terrorist accused of bombing the American embassies in Africa and a variety of other acts.

The main concern of Afghans is where the next meal is coming from or the next drink of water in a parched land where rivers have dried up.

Peter Goosens, deputy country director of the UN’s World Food Program, says his agency is busier than ever trying to relieve the hunger and avert starvation:

// Goosens act //

In a normal year, the shortfall of wheat in Afghanistan is approximately 700,000 tons of wheat. This year it is 2.3 million, more than three times as bad as in a normal year. We hope that we can avoid at least some of the more blatant cases of food shortage by trying to get as much food out there in the hardest hit areas before the winter stops us.

// end act //

Many Afghans cannot afford to live even in poverty in central Kabul. So their rude homes climb the hills above the city, hardly distinguishable from the earth beneath. They have no electricity or water, which they must lug up twice a day. The trails are rather treacherous, hardly navigable by the old and the lame, although children scamper about them as nimbly as goats.

Out from Kabul, on the sun-baked land, nomads live in  tents waiting for help that never arrives. The deeply bronzed leader of a community of 160 families spreads out rugs, offers bread to his guests and says they are the first in years to come to talk:

// nomad act, Pashto fading to English //

I’m a nomad. I have been living in this Paghman district for four years. The whole district has been destroyed by the drought. We can grow nothing. All our cattle have died from the drought. Nobody has given us a thing. Water is five kilometers away and is not fit for farming, only drinking.

//end act //

Health has deteriorated in Afghanistan, with rising incidence of tuberculosis and polio. Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the earnest, intense deputy minister of public health, says there is a worrying increase in cancer in areas of prolonged warfare.

At best, he says, Afghans are receiving sixty-five per cent of the health care they need. There are shortages of everything, including surgical equipment. Since economic sanctions prevent Afghanistan’s three airplanes from leaving the country, medical supplies must come from land. But the roads are so bad that the medicine may have lost its potency by the time it arrives. Nor can Afghan doctors fly to other countries for information and training.

Minister Stanikzai says the greatest health menace is the debris of war; namely, the land mines all over the country:

// Stanikzai act //

There are millions of mines still left in Afghanistan. Those people returning from Pakistan and Iran because they are new, they do not know what happened in this area. They are victims of those mines. More than 700 thousand people have lost their hands, their legs or their eyes. We receive them in this hospital. Every day they come here for treatment and for artificial legs.

// end act //

Gradually, the mines are being removed, but it is a slow, tedious process that will take years.

Can the Taliban, as fervently religious as they are politically untried, cope with this massive burden of poverty and destruction? They say wait until the war is finally over and we can turn our attention to pressing domestic needs. Others say unless they change their style of governing and welcome back all the educated Afghans – men and women – who have fled the country, they will not succeed.

The Taliban say much of the opposition to them stems from hostility to Islam. Anis Ahmad, director of Da’wah Academy at the Islamic International University in Islamabad, agrees there is some truth to this, but adds that other versions of Islam do not arouse such opposition:

// Anis act //

It is from day one a faith which has been interpreted differently by different people. And that liberty is given by the Koran, not by the people. The Koran desires that you should use your brain, intellect, analysis, rationalism, and based on that, come up with what you understand and follow it as you understand -not that you impose on others what you understand. So it provides within the Islamic framework enormous liberty and freedom of interpretation.

// end act //

The Taliban have enjoyed that liberty in establishing their version of the Koran, say critics. They should respect other versions and even learn from them in a shared effort to attain the ideal Muslim life. 

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"Master of Narrative"

~Ted Lipien


This website contains the collected works, recent articles and continuing blog posts from veteran journalist Ed Warner who has been reporting for more than 55 years. Ed wrote for Time Magazine from 1958-1982 and wrote, edited and reported for the Voice of America from 1983-2005. He continues to freelance today and his articles have appeared in The American Conservative and on AntiWar.com and other news websites. More...

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