Destiny rides again
Philip Hen sher
REAPING THE WHIRLWIND: THE TALIBAN MOVEMENT IN AFGHANISTAN by Michael Griffin Pluto Press, 179.99, pp. 312, ISBN 0745312748 AFGHANISTAN by Chris Steele-Perkins
Westzone, BO, pp. 127, ISBN 190339113 X
As they say: be careful what you wish for, since your wishes may be granted. The West, in effect, closed its eyes tight after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and wished for the Taliban. Of course, everyone would much rather that we forgot that and, instead, devoted our valuable time to wailing over the destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan and (somewhere rather lower down the list) the fact that most of the country, deprived of any kind of infrastructure and after a series of disastrous harvests, is starving to death. But there is not really any doubt that the brilliant American idea of arming the mujahedin, successful as it was in seeing off the Soviets, had a secondary, highly predictable result. From the training camps and the rural, Pashto-speaking hills emerged a new doctrine of purity and holy war: the Taliban.
Well, what do you know? Give a lot of Islamic fundamentalists money and guns, they do the job for you, and then, afterwards, they take over the country and jolly well won't give up all that hardware. Fancy that. The fallacy here — the usual one — was that American money would establish American ways, and the freedom fighters would be grateful and repay the debt in the usual way by opening branches of Dunkin Donuts from Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat. Kabul is, like everywhere else, in thrall to American culture — the last I heard, from one of my irregular and enraged Taliban correspondents, the entire city seemed to have acquired a bootleg video copy of Titanic and the guardians of the nation's purity were reduced to producing edicts against this season's fashionable men's haircut in Kabul, the 'Leonardo'. That all that American nurturing should have created a regime of stoning and public amputations and faintly queeny debates about beard-length is so embarrassing that most of the guilty parties prefer not to talk about it.
Ever since anyone started paying attention to Afghanistan, they've lurched between fits of hysterical piety and worldly slackness; they pursue their devotions with the same passion as, in other periods, their pleasures. It's odd to recall that at some periods, the Afghans were notorious in the Islamic world for their lack of interest in all things theological. An English officer called Rauray records of his troop of Afghan irregulars that they responded to his invitation to pause and pray at the appropriate hour of the day with scorn; one declared that he'd only prayed twice in his life, and, since, on one of those occasions, someone had stolen his saddle the second he was off his horse, he wasn't going to do it again. The alternations between determined pursuit of pleasure and terrifying austerity go a long way back in the Afghan character. H. W. Bellew's 19th-century The Races of Afghanistan — a surprisingly useful little book — records of the king, Sher Ali, that
he had fits of vice and piety alternately .. . for weeks together he would be shut up in his harem with drugs and wines, and then for weeks he would be employed with the priests performing prayers, reading the Koran, and listening to theological discussions.
He was trying, I suppose, to be both his austere father, the great Dost Mohammed, and the 18th-century monarch Tymur, who never thought of anything but getting small animals to fight each other and increasingly silly court rituals. Yet the Afghans have often rather enjoyed theological discussions — Alexander Burnes, visiting the court in the early 1830s, completely threw the Mir Wa'iz, the mullah of Kabul, by inquiring how the faithful would carry on praying at sunrise and sunset if they should ever find themselves above the Arctic circle in December. The theocracy now existing in Afghanistan, however, is all but unprecedented, and no one has the faintest idea what to do about it.
Predictable as the Taliban, or something like them, ought to have been, when they first came to attention by seizing Kandahar in October 1994 they were a new and an external factor in the civil war. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the exclusion of many Shia resistance groups from the Afghan interim government quickly led to ferocious hostilities of rather a familiar nature. The civil war, in its first stages, followed a recognisable pattern in Afghan history, between factions and tribes riven by ancient and long-forgotten hatreds. The appearance of the Taliban was something quite new, and their rapid escalation something no one was prepared for. In 1994 they were an obscure sect in thrall to a Kandahar mullah called Mohammed Omar. Two years later they had taken Kabul and, as their opening gesture, hanged the hated Mohammed Najibullah, the principal puppet of the Soviet occupation.
The 'students', as `taliban' means, formed a sect of awesome purity within the mujahedin resistance, living, eating and sleeping separately, ready for martyrdom. Their culture was rural and Pashto-speaking rather than of the Persian-speaking capital — indeed, Mohammed Omar could not be bothered to visit Kabul for several months after it fell in 1996, and many of its new leaders could not speak the city's language. Their habits were austere and fanatically anti-women; the culture they emerged from is and has always been largely homosexual in temperament. They did not actually mention the word jihad — by 1994 the concept of a holy war had been held out too hopefully and too often by wildly improbable spiritual leaders in Afghanistan. They did not need to: their purity and martial vigour spoke for itself, and exerted a terrible pull on the hopeless young.
The terrors of the Taliban regime, which has by now driven the indefatigable General Massood back to his base in the Panjshir valley, are well known, their summary public brutalities thoroughly understood in the West. What must also be understood is that. by 1996, they seemed to many Afghans the least bad option, the chance for some kind of stability. It is easy for the West to strike attitudes, and it makes us feel good to impose sanctions and deplore the barbarity everywhere in Afghanistan, but the fact remains that the Taliban are the only people now to make a deal with. Massood, no doubt, will soon be in Paris or London, where his brother is some kind of envoy; the moment for the `Zahir option', of recalling the long-deposed Afghan royal family from its exile in Rome, has long passed, if indeed it ever existed; we have to start talking to the Taliban. That would be a hard step to take, but it is preferable to the final option, which seems, to various posturing Americans, not an impossible one. When Washington, in October last year, said that it would be prepared to attack Afghanistan if Osama bin Laden were found responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, one could only reflect that they had understood nothing of the nature of the Taliban, and had forgotten what little they ever knew of the history of Afghanistan. The West was completely unprepared for the single, gigantic event of the Iranian revolution; and now, nearly a quarter of a century later, it still seems utterly helpless in knowing how to handle those who were inspired by it.
What is driving all of this is a truly terrifying sense of destiny and history. If the West seems to demonstrate at every step the truth that those who are ignorant of history are fated to repeat it, the rulers of Afghanistan are appallingly conscious of their nation's greatness, and the burden it imposes upon their dealings with the West. When he was hanged, Najibullah was in the process of making a Pashto translation of Peter Hopkirk's classic study, The Great Game, and a surprising number of the Taliban are English-speaking and even educated in Western, or Western-influenced cultures.
Nevertheless, despite their evident advanced mastery of public relations — viewed from one angle, from the point of view of column-inches, the destruction of the statues at Bamiyan was something of a masterstroke — it suits them to be considered rustic, unsophisticated and ignorant of anything but the Koran. It has been their lot, for hundreds of years, to be treated like children, and the condescension of outsiders has often worked to their advantage. Mountstuart Elphinstone, whose 1815 Account of the Kingdom of Caubul was one of the first Western accounts of the country, allows himself some merriment at one of the favourite sports of the Afghans, a sort of sumo wrestling, conducted while hopping on one leg — 'a strange game for grown up men'. Alexander Burnes, too, observed loftily, in the first of his two books on his travels, that they are
a nation of children; in their quarrels they fight, and become friends without any ceremony. They cannot conceal their feelings from one another, and a person with any discrimination may at all times pierce their designs. No people are more incapable of managing an intrigue.
He paid for his condescension, it is worth noting, with his life.
Anyone can grasp the simple fact of the Afghan tragedy — destruction of resources, followed by wilful waste of what remained. But the causes are always going to seem bafflingly complex to the Western reader, emerging as they do from the insa tiable Afghan enjoyment of feuding, faction and division. The story begins when Gulbuddin Hekmatyar broke away from Burhanuddin Rabbani's Jamiat-i-Islami party to found Hizb-i-Islami (the former should not be confused with the Pakistani party of the same name, of which Hizb-iIslami was in many respects an Afghan wing), which promptly fissioned when Yunus Ithalis broke away to set up his own party, also confusingly called Hizb-i-Islami, none of which should be confused with any of the eight Shia factions which their Iranian masters had somehow coaxed into Hizb-i-Wazdat Islami, which, in the end,
provided a focus for opposition to Sibghatollah Mojadeddi's 1989 Afghan interim government. Trust me, it all gets very much more complicated once you factor in ethnic loyalties, the parallel feuding and divisions in the communist party (PDPA) between hardline (Khalq) and moderate (Parcham) wings, and all these wretched people's overseas friends. It can all seem, too, unbelievably trivial as well as brutal, as the faithful sit down and bicker cosily about whether buttons are an abomination, and then head off to stone a few more citizens to death. So it's a great pleasure to have Michael Griffin's excellent book on the subject, which guides us through these tangles with lucidity and great understanding. It is level-headed and plausible in an area which is always going to be filled with the maddest sort of conspiracy theories, and, best of all, seeks to understand and even sympathise with the Taliban's aims — something much more difficult than just complaining about them. Everyone knows how terrible the regime is; anyone could just produce a list of outrages committed on innocent men and women by the religious police. What takes skill and intelligence, what will prove of some more substantial use and virtue, is an attempt to explain why, exactly, this situation arose, and why you consider the 'students' as madmen at your own peril.
To turn from the abstract narrative to the powerful images of Chris SteelePerkins is the difference between understanding the scale of human suffering in Afghanistan today and feeling it. These astonishingly beautiful photographs are more moving than can be described; they hardly ever dwell on physical brutalities, but on the bleak rubble and desert of the country, punctuated by inexplicable moments of formal beauty, even pastoral bliss. He proceeds, largely, by analogy; a wonderful, sublime photograph of a mountain which has lost half a flank after an earthquake, or ten lapis lazuli miners, gracefully arranged, as if in choreography, across their womanless village. These, too, are photographs of the war, somehow, and the grandeur of the images comes from Steele-Perkins' never neglecting the human, the individual face in the great crowd of history. Some of these people are now dead; all of them have found their lives utterly changed, such as the woman worker in an orphanage, now punished for doing her job and confined to home and a hurkha, the long Afghan veil. A dizzying feeling, to look at the wise, handsome, halfsmiling face of one of the Taliban, and feel for a moment that one could be friends with someone who looked so humorously quizzical. On the whole, we have to go back to Afghanistan, and stop striking attitudes in the forums of international assemblies: these two books, together, are the most powerful argument for trying, somehow, to rescue a great country from a fate which was not altogether of its own making.