Recall that in Part 1, we saw the appearance of the Taliban on the scene in Kandahar Province, clearing the highways of "toll-collectors" -- warlords turned highwaymen -- at the same time as Pakistan was trying to open a road to Central Asia. We also examined possible motives, including the Pakistani plan to upgrade port facilities in Gwadar. In Part 2 we surveyed various snippets of State Department intelligence regarding the region to help establish a framework for the rise of the events we are examining.
We now continue with a message dated November 28, 1994, from the US Embassy in Islamabad to the Secretary of State in Washington.
The subject line of this message was "THE TALIBAN - WHO KNOWS WHAT THE MOVEMENT MEANS?"
I reproduce all the pertinent text, with my comments interspersed.
Please note the following abbreviations in the message:
GOP = Government of Pakistan
CAR = Central Asia Road
1. CONFIDENTIAL - ENTIRE TEXT
2. THIS MESSAGE WAS PRINCIPALLY DRAFTED BY CONSULATE PESHAWAR AND COORDINATED WITH EMBASSY ISLAMABAD.
3. THE ORIGINS, GOALS AND SPONSORS OF THE "TALIBAN" (RELIGIOUS STUDENTS) MOVEMENT REMAIN UNCLEAR, EVEN TO WELL-INFORMED AFGHANS. THE ORGANIZATION APPEARS TO HAVE ITS ORIGINS IN THE JEHADI GROUP OF THE SAME NAME, WHICH CONSISTED OF PASHTUN MADRASA STUDENTS FROM AFGHANISTAN'S SOUTHWEST WHO FOUGHT WITH DISTINCTION AGAINST THE SOVIETS. AFTER THE WAR, THE STUDENTS RETURNED TO THEIR RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS AND NOW SEEM TO HAVE BEEN RE-MOBILIZED THROUGH A COMBINATION OF FRUSTRATION WITH EXTORTIONIST PARTY COMMANDERS AND FOREIGN FINANCING -- PROBABLY BY CONSERVATIVE RELIGIOUS GROUPS IN PAKISTAN. TALIBAN LEADERS ARE POLITICAL ISLAMISTS WHO HAVE DECLARED SHARIAH LAW IN KANDAHAR, AND ARE REPORTED TO FOLLOW A CONSERVATIVE, TRADITIONALIST RELIGIOUS LINE.
Notice the presumed support from "conservative religious groups in Pakistan." Also notice the implementation of Islamic law in areas under Taliban control.
4. THE TALIBAN NOW CONTROL MOST OF KANDAHAR PROVINCE, HAVE MOVED INTO ZABUL AND GHAZNI, AND APPEAR TO ENJOY THE OPEN ADMIRATION OF MOST AFGHANS FOR TAKING ACTION AGAINST EXTORTIONIST PARTY COMMANDERS AND UNRESPONSIVE PARTY LEADERSHIP. THE UNCONTROVERSIAL, CONSERVATIVE VALUES ESPOUSED BY THE TRADITIONALIST, MULLAH-LED GROUP (FREEING THE ROADS FROM BANDITS, RESTORING LAW AND ORDER AND RESPECT FOR TRADITIONAL RELIGIOUS NORMS, ETC.) HAVE MADE IT DIFFICULT FOR BOTH FACTIONAL AND NEUTRAL AFGHAN ACTIVISTS TO PUBLICLY EXPRESS THEIR RESERVATIONS ABOUT THE POPULAR MOVEMENT'S PATRONS AND POSSIBLE ULTERIOR MOTIVES.
Afghanistan had been in the midst of instability for many years. There was political instability in the late 1970's that prompted a Soviet intervention at the end of 1979, and that was followed by a decade of war. After the Soviets withdrew, instability continued as the various factions fought among themselves.
In light of this, any group that could bring stability and peace would be viewed in a favorable light, not just by the people, but also by business interests -- and there is nothing wrong with that, in principle.
Also keep in mind that the Soviet occupation, and the government it had been supporting, were secularizing and even anti-religious -- communism is like that. People had a natural desire to reaffirm traditional aspects of their culture, including their spiritual life, and Islam is more than just an aspect of one's culture -- Islam is billed as a complete religion, a complete way of life.
In this context, any group that renewed Islamic traditions would have broad support, and here the Taliban were religious scholars and religious students.
Notice that the Taliban were from Pashtun areas in Afghanistan's southwest, and were believed to have support from religious groups in Pakistan.
Aside from possible ethnic issues, the only possible drawback for the Taliban at this stage would be if they were viewed as a tool of foreign interests -- political or business. An association with a "foreign" religious group might not be bad, though -- after all, Islam transcends nationality and politics.
5. PRIVATELY, HOWEVER, PARTY LEADERS ARE WORRIED BY BOTH THE RAPID GROWTH OF THE TALIBAN MOVEMENT AND ITS OBVIOUS POPULARITY. BOTH RABBANI AND HEKMATYAR ARE LOOKING FOR WAYS TO COOPERATE WITH OR COOPT THE ORGANIZATION, WITH HEKMATYAR PARTICULARLY WORRIED BY THE SUPPORT THE GROUP HAS RECEIVED FROM PRO-RABBANI MULLAH NAQIB IN KANDAHAR. A NUMBER OF AFGHAN POLITICAL OPPORTUNISTS AND HAS-BEENS ARE FLOCKING TO THE TALIBAN IN HOPES OF RESUSCITATING MORIBUND POLITICAL CAREERS. HOW SUCCESSFUL OUTSIDE ELEMENTS -- BE THEY AFGHANS OR PAKISTANIS -- WILL BE IN CONTROLLING OR INFLUENCING THE TALIBAN REMAINS VERY MUCH IN DOUBT.
Rabbani and Hekmatyar are names you should know -- Google them if you don't.
While it was assumed the Taliban had outside support, it was also assumed early on that they were not going to be controlled by those outsiders.
6. SOME AFGHAN OBSERVERS ARGUE THAT, DESPITE PROBABLE ASSISTANCE FROM PAKISTAN'S JUI, THE TALIBAN LACK THE LOGISTICS, TRAINING, ADMINISTRATIVE EXPERIENCE AND FINANCIAL BACKING TO EXPAND MUCH FARTHER. THE CONSTERNATION OF THE AFGHAN FACTIONS WOULD TEND TO SUGGEST OTHERWISE. ALTHOUGH MUCH ELSE ABOUT THE TALIBAN IS MURKY, ONE FACT IS CLEAR: THE STRONG SUPPORT THE TALIBAN RECEIVE FROM THE AFGHAN PEOPLE REFLECTS POPULAR FRUSTRATION WITH THE PARTY LEADERS AND A STRONG DESIRE FOR PEACE AND STABILITY. END SUMMARY.
MEET THE NEW BOSS...
7. THE "NEW" TALIBAN (RELIGIOUS SEEKERS OR STUDENTS) MOVEMENT BEGAN IN KANDAHAR PROVINCE LAST SPRING WITH A DECLARED MISSION TO OPEN UP THE ROADS AND END THE ORGANIZED BANDITRY OF LOCAL COMMANDERS. AFTER SOME MINOR SUCCESSES, INCLUDING THE EXECUTION OF A RECALCITRANT "TOLL-COLLECTOR", THE GROUP ROSE TO PROMINENCE IN LATE SEPTEMBER AT THE SAME TIME THAT THE "RELIEF CONVOY" ORGANIZED BY PAKISTAN'S INTERIOR MINISTER BABAR ATTEMPTED TO ENTER AFGHANISTAN.
It is remarkable how nicely this declared mission dovetails with the desires of Pakistani business interests -- desires that could be presumed, given Pakistan's stated goal of opening the Central Asia Road, and given Pakistan's efforts, in their infancy at this point, to upgrade the Gwadar port facilities.
8. FOLLOWING SHARP FIGHTING WITH HIG AND ITTEHAD-AFFILIATED COMMANDERS, AND THE APPARENT COOPTION OF THE MAJOR JAMIAT COMMANDER IN THE REGION (MULLAH NAQIB), THE TALIBAN CONTROL ALL BUT TWO OR THREE NORTHERN DISTRICTS IN KANDAHAR PROVINCE, ARE SEEKING TO BRING INDEPENDENT COMMANDERS IN ORUZGAN TO HEEL, AND HAVE A SIGNIFICANT PRESENCE IN HELMAND PROVINCE. HELMAND GOVERNOR GHAFFOUR AKHUNZADA OF HARAKAT, HIMSELF A CLERIC, HAS REPORTEDLY DELCARED "I AM A TALIB," ALTHOUGH WHETHER THIS SHOULD BE READ AS WELCOMING THE PRESENCE OF THE TALIBAN OR INDICATING THAT THEY ARE UNNECESSARY IN HELMAND IS UNCLEAR.
9. ACCORDING TO EMBASSY SOURCES, THE TALIBAN ARE SAID TO HAVE MADE AGREEMENTS WITH THE GOVERNOR OF ZABUL AND GHAZNI GOVERNOR QARI BABA TO ALLOW THEM TO POLICE THE KANDAHAR-KABUL ROAD. RECENT TALIBAN SUCCESSES IN GHAZNI AND ZABUL, HOWEVER, IN CONTRAST TO EARLIER ONES, ARE SAID TO DEPEND MORE UPON BRIBING COMMANDERS THAN FIGHTING THEM. YET DESPITE THIS SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY, THE SPECIFICS OF THE MOVEMENT'S SPONSORSHIP, MEMBERSHIP, AND OBJECTIVES REMAIN MURKY.
Even at this early stage, expanding from Kandahar into Helmand, corruption was noted -- the Taliban were opting for the expedient manner of paying off the warlords, rather than relying on Allah to deliver a battlefield victory in support of implemention of sharia.
10. HERAT GOVERNOR ISMAEL KHAN (WHO STANDS TO GAIN CONSIDERABLE CUSTOMS REVENUES IF THE CENTRAL ASIA-PAKISTAN ROAD IS OPENED) HAS ALSO PUBLICLY ENDORSED THE TALIBAN MOVEMENT. SPEAKING TO VISITING WESTERN AID DONORS, HOWEVER, ISMAEL KHAN WAS MORE CRITICAL IN HIS ASSESSMENT. HE SAID THE TALIBAN WERE THE PRODUCT OF LOCAL FRUSTRATION WITH DISORDER AND INSECURITY. WHERE AFGHANISTAN WAS STABLE AND AT PEACE (E.G., PRESUMABLY, HERAT) THE TALIBAN WOULD NOT BE NEEDED. KHAN ADDED THAT IN KANDAHAR THEY HAD BECOME EXTREMISTS, WHO HAD DESTROYED RADIO AND TELEVISION STATIONS, APPARENLTY FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS. AS A RESULT, KHAN SAID HE HAD SENT A DELEGATION TO THE TALIBAN TO ASK THEM TO MODERATE THEIR BEHAVIOR. HE ALSO CONFIRMED THAT THE GROUP HAD RECEIVED FUNDING FROM RABBANI TO OPEN UP THE KABUL-KANDAHAR-HERAT ROAD.
The first sentence in this last passage calls attention to a key concept here: customs revenues.
People need certain things to live, and business has developed to provide for those needs. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that.
For business to meet those needs, there must be secure lines of communication -- roads, in this case -- so goods and services can be brought to where they are needed. That security also has a cost, and is a cost of doing business -- a cost that is ultimately passed on to the consumer. Again, in principle, there is nothing wrong with that.
SAME AS THE OLD BOSS?
11. ACCORDING TO EMBASSY SOURCES, THE CURRENT TALIBAN MOVEMENT DRAWS ITS INSPIRATION (AND SOME OF ITS LEADERS) FROM THE OLD TALIBAN ORGANIZATION, A GROUP OF RELIGIOUS STUDENTS AND MULLAHS WHO FOUGHT WITH DISTINCTION IN THE KANDAHAR REGION DURING THE JEHAD. FOLLOWING THE END OF THE WAR, MANY OF THESE TALIBAN RETURNED HOME TO STUDY AND TEACH IN RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS (MADRASAS). THIS OLDER GROUP, JOINED BY YOUNGER STUDENTS FROM THE AREA, NOW COMPRISE THE CORE OF THE CONTEMPORARY MOVEMENT, KNOWLEDGABLE KANDAHARIS REPORT. THESE OBSERVERS BELIEVE THAT THE TALIBAN ENJOY THE SUPPORT OF THE BAZAARIS, WHOSE COMMERCIAL ACTIVITIES HAVE BEEN HAMPERED BY HIGHWAY "TOLL BOOTHS." GIVING A BLACK EYE TO "ARROGANT" LOCAL COMMANDERS AND CAUSING DISCOMFORT TO THE STUBBORN PARTY LEADERS ARE IN AND OF THEMSELVES ACTIVITIES WITH ENORMOUS MASS APPEAL, LEADING SOME SOUTHERN PARTY COMMANDERS SUCH AS ABDUL RAZAK (HIZB-I-ISLAMI-KHALIS) [redacted] TO PITCH THEIR LOT WITH THE TALIBAN.
Again -- a connection to the business community is alluded to here.
WHO ARE THESE GUYS AND WHO ARE THEY WORKING FOR?
12. MANY OBSERVERS, [redacted] BELIEVE THAT THE MOVEMENT WAS INITIALLY SPONSORED AND ASSISTED BY PAKISTAN (REFTELS A AND E). THE APPEARANCE OF A NEW FORCE, WITH NEW WEAPONS, AT THE PRECISE MOMENT THAT PAKISTAN CLAIMED THAT OPENING THE ROAD FROM CHAMAN TO KANDAHAR, HERAT AND ON TO THE CAR WAS ONE OF ITS PRIORITIES WAS TOO MUCH OF A COINCIDENCE TO RESIST. WHILE THE CURRENT DIRECT INVOLVEMENT OF THE GOP MAY BE OPEN TO QUESTION, ALL AGREE THAT PAKISTAN'S JAMIAT-I-ULEMA-I-ISLAMI (JUI) LEADER FAZLUR RAHMAN CONTINUES TO BE ACTIVE IN SUPPORTING THE MOVEMENT. MOST AFGHAN SOURCES, HOWEVER, NOW SAY THAT EVEN IF THE GOP (AND PARTICULARLY INTERIOR MINISTER BABAR, A STRONG SUPPORTER OF THE "CENTRAL ASIA ROAD") WAS ONE OF THE INITIAL SPONSORS, IT NO LONGER CONTROLS THE MOVEMENT.
Two assumptions made here: 1) Pakistan helped get the Taliban started, and 2) the Taliban was now under nobody's control.
13. CERTAINLY IN THEIR PUBLIC STATEMENTS SO FAR, THE TALIBAN HAVE REJECTED LINKS WITH THE GOP. SINCE THE CREDIBILITY OF ANY AFGHAN ORGANIZATION DEPENDS ON DEMONSTRATING THAT IT IS FREE OF FOREIGN CONTROL, THIS POSITION IS NOT SURPRISING. HOWEVER, IN BOTH EARLIER PRESS ACCOUNTS AND A NOVEMBER 17 INTERVIEW IN SPIN BOLDAK, TALIBAN COMMANDER HAJI MOHAMMED GHAUS TOOK PAKISTAN TO TASK FOR FAILING TO COORDINATE THE TRUCK CONVOY WITH KABUL, FOR TRUSTING COMMANDERS ASSOCIATED WITH THE WARRING PARTY FACTIONS, FOR FAILING TO USE AFGHAN TRUCKERS IN THE CONVOY, AND FOR CONTINUED BOTTLENECKS IN THE TRANSIT TRADE AT KARACHI.
14. [redacted] TOLD CONSULATE PESHAWAR PRINCIPAL OFFICER THAT THE MOVEMENT HAD MULTIPLE SPONSORS, INCLUDING (IN DECLINING ORDER OF IMPORTANCE):
-- RABBANI AND SAYYAF;
-- PAKISTANI POLITICO-RELIGIOUS LEADER FAZLUR RAHMAN;
-- THE KANDAHAR AND QUETTA BUSINESS COMMUNITIES EAGER TO HAVE THE HIGHWAY OPENED TO TOLL-FREE TRAFFIC, AND,
-- CERTAIN MARGINALIZED POLITICAL FIGURES (COMMENT: ALTHOUGH THE HAJI DID NOT EXPLICITLY SAY SO, PO BELIEVES THAT THIS IS A REFERENCE TO [redacted] WHO HAS PREVIOUSLY REPORTED HIS SUPPORT FOR THE MOVEMENT.
15. [redacted] ADDED THAT HE WAS "QUITE SURE" THAT THE DECISION TO UNLEASH THE MOVEMENT WAS TAKEN AT THE MID-SEPTEMBER MEETINGS IN JALALABAD BETWEEN PRESIDENT RABBANI, PROFESSOR SAYYAF, AND OTHERS, FOLLOWING A DIRECT SUGGESTION OF FAZLUR RAHMAN. THE MOVEMENT WILL BACKFIRE, [redacted] WENT ON TO OPINE, BECAUSE IT IS CLEAR THAT THE TALIBAN ARE BOTH NATIONALISTS AND PASHTUNS; MANY OF THEM ARE PROBABLY ROYALISTS, [redacted] ADDED, AND IT IS UNLIKELY THAT A LASTING ALLIANCE COULD BE FORMED WITH THE ANTI-ROYALIST TAJIKS OF JAMIAT. WHILE [redacted] ALLEGATIONS COULD NORMALLY BE VIEWED WITH SOME HEALTHY SKEPTICISM, THERE HAS BEEN SOME CONFIRMATION FROM JAMIAT SOURCES OF AT LEAST A TACIT CONNECTION BETWEEN THE RABBANI GOVERNMENT AND THE MOVEMENT.
16. IN A TELEPHONE CONVERSATION [redacted] PESHAWAR PO'S DIRECT QUESTION ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF THE TALIBAN MOVEMENT WAS RESPONDED TO WITH A "NO COMMENT" AND A PROMISE TO HAVE A REPRESENTATIVE DISCUSS THE ISSUE IN PERSON. ON NOVEMBER 20 [redacted] (A FORMER HARAKAT COMMANDER WITH STRONG JAMIAT TIES) CALLED ON PO AT [redacted] REQUEST. VISITING FOR THE FIRST TIME WITHOUT AN INTERPRETER, THE ETHNIC PASHTUN EXPLAINED IN FARSI THAT TALIBAN LEADER MOHAMMAD OMAR (REFTEL E) AND MAULANA FAZLUR REHMAN HAD REQUESTED PERMISSION FROM PRESIDENT RABBANI IN JALALABAD TO "CLEAN-UP" THE CHAMAN-KANDAHAR HIGHWAY. PERMISSION WAS GRANTED BY RABBANI, [redacted] SAID, "BUT RABBANI DIDN'T KNOW WHAT HE WAS GETTING INTO."
Might Rabbani have been working with the Government of Pakistan?
Or, might Rabbani have been independently working with the same people that the GOP was working with?
We will examine the last half of this message in Part 4.