Living in the Repressive Silence of the Taliban
By PAULA R. NEWBERG - Los Angeles Times 8/20/00
WASHINGTON--Two years ago today, U.S. cruise missiles landed on Taliban
training camps in Afghanistan. The U.S. government said it targeted accused
terrorist Osama bin Laden, but most Afghans believed the real quarry was the
Taliban. Neither goal was realized: Despite daily rumors of his demise, Bin
Laden remains in Afghanistan, and the Taliban controls most of the country.
Failed Western diplomacy in the last two years is an object lesson in
misunderstood risks and contradictory intentions. It has prolonged
Afghanistan's war, and in so doing, made it possible for the Taliban to
believe it might just win.
Summer is fighting season in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, and this
year is no exception. Just north of the rubble that was once Kabul, Taliban
forces are again trying to neutralize a motley collection of opposition
forces. Both sides are oblivious to entreaties to end their combat, and
excoriate anyone who suggests cease-fire is an honorable substitute for
military victory. Instead, they press toward a weary endgame: a
Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, or a country split among foreign-funded
factions--the Taliban among them--that will simply live another day of war.
This is familiar. For the past four summers, both sides have fought,
regrouped with foreign help, then fought again. The same foreigners who have
supplied weapons, fuel and fighters take odd comfort in preaching a peace
they make impossible. And U.N. envoys have taken small steps to stop the
fighting--or just make life a bit more livable for the victims of a country
almost paralyzed by combat--only to be cursed for interfering in the habit
Is it interference to propose peace? Surely not. But the long struggle
to re-create an Afghanistan in which Afghans can live peaceably has strained
every instinct of humanity in the course of the past 20 years. Fighting
factions have forced civil society to walk an undignified high wire between
starvation and capitulation. Where formerly Afghans argued about the
relative merits of socialism and individualism, or debated how they should
organize their state, now there is enforced silence.
That quiet has rarely been broken since the Taliban took control of
Kabul in 1996--the repression is thorough. But last week, echoes of despair
rang out through some Kabul neighborhoods, where many Afghans have neither
food nor water. New edicts alternately close, then open Kabul's bakeries,
because the widows who run them are prohibited from leaving their homes.
Communal baths, often the only source of clean water, are now closed because
authorities insist they are un-Islamic. Afghans have been told the summer's
drought is punishment for their muted disregard for Taliban control.
Such behavior occasionally leads foreigners to believe that the Taliban
acts in desperation, that edicts reflect ideological rifts and that Afghans
are restive. From such suppositions, outside powers recalculate relative
military advantages in and around Afghanistan's borders, and reassess power
balances among Afghanistan's tribes, clans and factions.
But intelligence about Afghanistan--particularly about inner workings
of the Taliban--is as much hypothesis as fact. Afghanistan is not a
democracy, and neither fighting factions nor their patrons are wedded to
notions of transparency or accountability. When people are not allowed to
speak, or leave their homes, it is hard to know what, or how, they think. No
matter how earnestly foreign powers play guessing games about tactics and
strategy, no one really knows what Afghans believe unless someone finds a
way to ask them--and listen to the answer.
Somehow, the world lost sight of its goals in Afghanistan and, even
worse, forgot whose goals they were supposed to be. After the Soviet army
was defeated, few countries in Asia or the West had much interest in the
rump communist government of a small, battered if strategically located
country. The same powers that waged war against the Soviet Union helped
replace Afghanistan's government with small bands of armed men who turned
public property into private killing fields. After playing factions against
each other, outsiders then promoted the Taliban as a potential unifying
force. They did not fully consider how military success could be transformed
into an ideological quest for a new Afghanistan--or how dangerous that could
The international community quickly changed its focus from Afghanistan
to the problems Afghanistan seemed to create for others. Fearful of
militancy, foreign powers began many worthy-sounding yet self-serving
initiatives to end narcotics production, stem terrorism and limit arms
traffic. But when the outside world's self-interest took over, Afghanistan
got lost. When Afghan farmers plant poppy to buy wheat, the West lectures
them about the dangers of narcotics trade. While Afghan women only imagine
lives outside their homes, regional powers ponder security policy. And when
Afghans worry about bombs bursting in their depleted bazaars, the rest of
the world worries about nuclear weapons in nearby India and Pakistan.
Matters of life and death have become seminar topics--but not for Afghans.
This is not just a problem of scale, but a profound misconception.
Global powers have been unwilling to take decisive steps to enforce the
sovereign rights of a people--fearing the consequences of failure, or
scotching future deals, or unleashing unknown political forces. Instead,
they have tried to strengthen their reactions to menaces they helped create.
But repeated sanctions and harsh words--and high-tech missiles launched
against mud-hut camps--have been drowned in the noise of war.
No wonder Afghans can only greet this cruise-missile anniversary with
rue. Local politics have died, and there are too many people and countries
to blame for this continuing tragedy. Rendered powerless by global
indifference, betrayed equally by organized armies and evangelizing
fighters, Afghans bleed for an idea of sovereignty that almost no one else
After more than 20 years of war, Afghans deserve the right to achieve
peace by deciding their own future. They need the kind of political space
that can only come when outsiders go home--and take their guns with them.
Afghans need to be able to assert their rights, create choice, plant the
seeds of future stability and, critically, make their own mistakes. They
need a chance to balance their interests with the world's--and not have the
world do it for them. These are hardly new ideas, but they seem to have
gotten lost in the search for Bin Laden. - - -
Paula R. Newberg, Formerly a Consultant to the United Nations in
Afghanistan, Is the Author of "Politics at the Heart: the Architecture of
International Assistance to Afghanistan."
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