The Taliban scourge — by Ishtiaq Ahmed

When General Musharraf dissociated himself from the extremists, the links with al Qaeda were ruptured but an institutional decision was taken by the military top brass to continue secret low profile support of the Taliban. The more recent delinking in recent months has cost the military and the ISI dearly

As if the attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based terrorists was not enough, we are now faced with another reason to bow our heads in shame — a young man, the son of a former Pakistani air vice marshal, who had only last year been granted US citizenship, tried to explode a device in a busy part of New York. Had it gone off, the mayhem and destruction it would have caused could have been quite considerable. Fortunately some vigilant New Yorker detected it. The US authorities were able to arrest Faisal Shahzad just before the plane he had managed to find a seat on could fly away to Dubai. Subsequent reports suggest he had just returned from Pakistan after five months. During that period he spent time in North Waziristan where the ‘good’ Taliban live.

Major (retd) Agha Humayun Amin, Colonel (retd) David J Osinski and Dr Paul Andre DeGeorges have together authored a compendium on not only the geographical spread of the Taliban, but also the variation in their operations, ideology and networks. It has been appropriately titled, The Development of Taliban Factions in Afghanistan and Pakistan: A Geographical Account (New York: The Edwin Melvin Press, 2010).

In 1996, Mullah Omar and his Sunni Pakhtuns captured Kabul and established their Islamic emirate. They became famous and soon afterwards notorious as the Taliban (students) of the thousands of madrassas that had sprung up along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border thanks to generous financial help from Saudi Arabia and the overall strategy formulated by the CIA to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan.

The Americans perceived the rise of the Taliban as a stabilising factor, which could be used “as a stepping stone to gain access to natural resources in the Caspian Sea as well as the markets and resources of the newly independent republics” (p 28). That was to prove a delusion rather quickly. The Taliban began to grow poppy again and proverbial Afghan corruption began to afflict their functionaries as well. The Taliban enforced a version of Islam and an Islamic state that made the Iranian and Saudi regimes appear enlightened and civilised. The Taliban expressed their taqwa (piety) by bringing down the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, summary executions and destruction of girls’ schools without any regard for world opinion.

Two things constitute core pristine Taliban identity — Pakhtun ethnicity and Deobandi orientation, although the top leadership of the Taliban are Wahabis. The Deobandi-Wahabi distinction is significant in doctrinal terms but did not matter because both are extremists with regard to monotheism. Over the years non-Pakhtuns also joined the Taliban. Among them the most prominent are the Punjabi Taliban. The Punjabi Taliban could be Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), Sipah-e-Sahaba or any other such outfit. The Punjabi Taliban have either relocated in the tribal belt or through various networks provide logistical and other help to the Pakhtun Taliban when they mount operations in Punjab and elsewhere in Pakistan.

The Afghan Taliban known as the ‘Quetta Shura’, with Mullah Omar as its main leader does exist, which means that Mullah Omar is somewhere in Balochistan. The Haqqani Group in North Waziristan and the followers of the veteran Gulbuddin Hekmatyar spread all over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are the main protégés of the ISI outside Punjab. When General Musharraf dissociated himself from the extremists, the links with al Qaeda were ruptured but an institutional decision was taken by the Pakistan military top brass to continue secret low profile support of the Taliban. The more recent delinking in recent months has cost the military and the ISI dearly. The GHQ and ISI offices were subjected to vicious assaults that caused death and destruction.

With regard to Afghanistan, some of the information given by the authors is quite amazing. Drug trafficking takes place not by the Afghans alone, but Americans and Europeans, including the owner of an oil company, are involved. Contracts given to construction firms are replete with bribery passing through many hands and ending up in multifarious pockets. The security firms that are operational in Afghanistan routinely bribe the Taliban to let their trucks carrying goods for the US and NATO forces pass.

The Russians, the Central Asian Republics, India, Iran, China and others are part of the ‘Great Game’, which continues as balance of power concerns collide with more mundane interests in oil pipelines and so on. The Russians have not forgotten or forgiven the Americans for the defeat and humiliation they suffered in 1989. They are involved in undermining US influence. All these factors plus the rampant corruption in Kabul render Afghanistan a case of total degeneration and despair.

The authors advance the thesis that although in the West ideology is given most importance to understand the Taliban phenomenon, the real driving force behind the Taliban upsurge is economic deprivation and control over the access to natural resources. They also pedal the theory that no Taliban was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, hence the Taliban are a parochial phenomenon and therefore no threat to the West.

That might have been true in 2001 but not any more. After the US retaliated on October 7, 2001, with a strong military response and the Taliban were forced out of Kabul, the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Punjabi Taliban and organisations such as the LeT and JeM are probably all mixed up and part of networks that may be loose and local, but which cooperate with each other and constitute a terrorist entity that can strike targets far beyond South or Southwest Asia. Ideological motivation most certainly induced Faisal Shahzad to place explosives in a car that he parked in a busy New York thoroughfare. Such ideology and its adherents are a scourge for humankind.

With regard to Pakistan, the time is running out for reversing the great harm done by our praetorian masters who deluded themselves that the use of force and terror will strike terror in the hearts of the enemy. On the contrary, it seems that the enemy may soon be the whole world. I dread visualising the ultimate punishment that will be meted out to us for adventurism that has still to end.

Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is also Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has published extensively on South Asian politics. At ISAS, he is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 11 May 2010

4 responses to “The Taliban scourge — by Ishtiaq Ahmed”

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