The US and the Taliban: Remembrance of Things Past

10 Nov, 2001    ·   633

Prof Chandrasekhara Rao while chronicling the US-Taliban relationship points out how the US misjudged Taliban’s fundamentalism to be locked within the region

The slow progress of US military action against Afghanistan is causing embarrassment in Washington .  Poor strategic insight into the Afghan imbroglio accounts for this.  Over four weeks into the punitive air strikes, the official boast that the Taliban have been ‘eviscerated’ has been buried; now military circles speak of a war lasting well into next summer.  Since the capture or expulsion of Osama bin Laden is remote, the Taliban have become the target.



One must conclude that the US actually supported the Taliban after they appeared on the Afghan scene in the early nineties.  This occurred during their struggle for ascendancy over rival Mujahideen factions and after their assumption to power in Kabul .  Early State Department announcements held out a clear hope of recognizing the Taliban regime. Even after the retraction of such announcements, Washington was soft on the Taliban.  Robin Raphael, Assistant Secretary of State, stated in September 1996: “The Taliban control more than two-thirds of the country, they are Afghan, they are indigenous, they have demonstrated staying power….It is not in the interests of Afghanistan or any of us here that the Taliban be isolated.”



This US perception had much to do with the politics of gaining the petroleum resources of the Central Asian Republics and its pursuit of the interests of the American corporation, Unocal.  The proposal related to the laying of a pipeline connecting the Turkmenistan oil fields to Pakistani ports.  Afghanistan ’s consent for the project was crucial and hence the American willingness to placate the Taliban.  Additionally, Washington was also persuaded by Pakistan that the Taliban is the best solution that could have occurred in Afghanistan .  This phase of hobnobbing with the Taliban went on as they relentlessly imposed their fundamentalist version of Islam with atavistic zeal.



But these perceptions changed after the terrorist attacks on US embassies in Africa in August 1998, when the Clinton administration responded with missile strikes against bin Laden’s Al Qaeda camps in Sudan .  In the months following, the articulation of rabid anti-westernism by bin Laden assumed great vehemence.  Al Qaeda issued a manifesto under the aegis of the International Islamic Front for a jihad against Jews and the Crusaders. The fatwa read: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilian and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do.”  In November 1998, bin Laden issued a statement that: “It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess weapons that would prevent infidels from harming on Muslims.  Hostility to America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded for it by God.”  Thus, bin Laden emerged as the Number One personal target of the Americans.  



The curious fact was that, although the Taliban as a fundamentalist force represented a threat, this was perceived as being limited to Afghanistan . The Taliban’s version of extreme Islamic faith was seen by the US in the beginning as an unfortunate phenomenon, but ‘happily’ limited to a region, which, in any case, was destined by history to perpetual civil war and instability.  



The Taliban and its cruelties were ignored till the bin Laden explosion struck.  What it signified was the open and manifest joinder of the Islamic ideology of the Taliban on the one hand and the wider movement of exporting the avenging spirit of bin Laden’s version of Islam on the other.  An Islamic International, as it were, sprang into being.  Bin Laden not merely sought haven in Afghanistan; he turned it into a design to devise the weapons for his jihad, dexterously crafting a centripetal movement of forces emanating from Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan and other nations.



Now the aim of destroying the Taliban has been replaced by the enterprise of deconstructing the Taliban and restructuring an altogether new Afghan regime.  Would any injection of the Taliban elements in the proposed regime be feasible?  For that matter, is putting together a coalition of Afghan warlords with the Northern Alliance a viable prospect?  President Musharraf himself, with all the challenges he faces from the Taliban base in Pakistan , is now reconciled to an all out confrontation with them in Afghanistan .  But, is their ‘root and branch’ removal feasible? All in all, a very uncertain future awaits all concerned in the crisis.