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Date: Sat, 18 Jul 1998 20:52:41 EDT
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Subject: [Atheist] re: AANEWS for July 18, 1998
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Taliban abuses ignored for oil money, drug war; Is supporting Islamic fundamentalism good for politics & business?

American Atheists, AANews, #453, 18 July 1998

Afghanistan's Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime, which has ruled most of that country since 1996, has friends in high places. Despite a shoddy record concerning human rights, the Muslim state -- which declares openly that it is constructing a pure Islamic society -- enjoys a cozy relationship with some international corporate interests, and even elements within the United Nations and the U.S. government.

The Taliban came to international attention in the summer of 1994 as one of the many factions fighting for control of Afghanistan following the pullout by the Soviet Union, and the nation's disastrous civil war. The group was founded by an Islamic cleric, Mullah Muhammad Omar, a one-eyed guerilla leaders who during the 1980s led assaults on the occupying Red Army. During this time, foreign interests ranging from the Soviet Union to the U.S., were locked in a deadly and at times confusing battle for influence, an extension of the Great Game referred to by novelists Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and others. Now as in decades past, Afghanistan sits as the geographic and political cross roads of the region, adjacent civilizational fault lines and hot spots like Iran, Pakistan and the former southern republicans of the Soviet Union including Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Taliban is led by a group of five Mullahs, all of whom come from the southern provinces of Afghanistan, the center of traditional ethnic Pashtun society. Beneath this inner council is a second-level tier of activists who run the Taliban field armies, militias. Most are semiliterate seminary students raised in the network of refugee camps that sprung up along the Pakistan border during the civil war. For over a decade, these squalid camps became a breeding ground for Islamic fervor, resentment and intrigue. Arms flowed into the camps, as the area was awash with surplus military equipment, much of it the result of black ops run by Moscow, London and Washington -- everything from the Russian AK47s to American M-16s and Stinger missiles. Pakistan's well-funded Inter Service Intelligence Agency (ISA) was present as well, and the Taliban became its stalking horse during the civil war.

At first, few observers considered the Taliban to be a serious, credible military or political force. A series of brutal Islamic regimes in the capital of Kabul, though, failed to control most of the 26 far-flung provinces. Gradually, the Taliban gained the upper hand, especially since many of the other factions contesting power were corrupt and plagued by internal politics. The group quickly established a reputation as the holy warriors of the countryside, combining fanatical military tactics with a harsh religion-based code which it employed in administering areas under its control. Taliban road blocks searched cars and trucks for everything from western magazines and other reading materials to rock 'n roll cassette tapes.

In October, 1996, the Taliban surprised the world community and stormed into Kabul, driving out the government of President Rabbani. Nearly 250,000 fled the once cosmpolitan city. Since then, the religious government has consolidated its control over approximately 80% of the country. Efforts to overthrow the Taliban regime by a coalition of former military officials and a war lord have failed, despite outside aid.

It is the situation in the north, especially the Panjshir Valley, which threatens to again turn Afghanistan into a cultural and military flash point. Russian troops, driven out of Afghanistan by the Islamic Mujahadeen coalition in the 1980s, may not be able to hold their own border; and that area is now comprised mostly of Muslims. Gen. Alexander Lebed, who may run for the Presidency of the Russian Federation, warned of the consequences of Taliban expansion to the north. If the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, reaches the borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and sweeps away the Russian border posts, the road to the north across the plains will be open, he told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. Analysts doubt that the Russian 201st Division in Tajikistan can even maintain the military line.

A Study in

Since 1996, Afghanistan under the Taliban regime has become a living nightmare for women, political dissidents, and anyone else who does not submit to a ruthless interpretation of strict Koranic law and the roving bands of militia thugs operating under the authority of the Ministry for the Fostering of Virtue and Suppression of

It would seem inconceivable, then, that any western government or sober group would care to interact with such a regime, let alone do business or extend funding. That is not the case, however. Indeed, the politics of oil and drugs is emerging as a more critical priority among certain western elites.

The Taliban and the Poppy

For several months, unconfirmed reports out of Washington have suggested that the U.S. Government was seeking a policy of engagement with the Taliban rulers. The U.S. had already been active in Afghanistan for over a decade, starting with the civil war when the Central Intelligence Agency poured assets, money and material into the region. Another reason for possibly backing the Taliban is that Iran, Russia, India and some elements in Tajikistan threw their fortunes in with the old regime of President Rabbani. The anti-Shi'ite orientation of the Taliban is an incentive for positioning and encouraging the religious government as a check on possible expansion or activities by neighboring Iran. Indeed, Iran's intelligence service has poured in its own military and financial assets on the side of General Massood, deposed military commander under the old government who now operates a ragtag army of rebels in the north.

And backing the Taliban may put corporations and governments in good company. Some of the oil rich Gulf Arab states also support the new Afghanistan government.

There is another factor, though, which may affect not only the conduct of this new Great Game in the region, but the policy of the Islamic Taliban regime as well. This is the geopolitics of drugs. Prior to the civil war in Afghanistan, production of opium was between 200 and 300 tons per year according to the United Nations International Drug Control Program; that figure sky rocketed, though, as the Mujahadeen presence increased. Militias often financed their arms purchases and other activities by taxing opium production in regions under their control, and Pakistan's intelligence service is believed to have also cashed in on the lucrative trade. There is compelling evidence that the Inter Service Intelligence (ISS) used funds from the heroin production industry to finance its destabilization operation in India, especially in the Kashmir region. The fragmentation of the civil war also reconsolidated a class of regional warlords who turned to poppy growing and the opium trade as a lucrative business. Curiously, the Taliban religious militias were initially perceived by many in the countryside as a stern by welcome change from the corrupt policies of local warlords and graft-taking government officials far from the administrative control in Kabul.

But in the Taliban controlled areas, opium poppy production has not only continued, but actually grown. Provinces like Kandahar, Uruzgan and Nangarhar experienced increases of 40% to as high as 76%. Some of this initially was attributed to the fact that Taliban was pouring its resources into consolidating its political and military control; but the strict imposition of the religious law was not abandoned. It is also known that Taliban officials have placed a 10% levy, known as the zakat, on all farm produce including opium poppies. Village Mullah's collect the tax that is then sent on to Kabul. And there are reports from individuals in various foreign aid groups of Taliban militas actually protecting trucks loaded with opium, morphine and hashish being transported to Pakistan and even Iran.

Despite an explicit Taliban prohibition on drugs, there are continual reports of the opium trade continuing and thriving. And the ruling Taliban government is run by Mullahs who are products of traditional Pashtun society. Mullah Omar, for instance, the Commander of the Faithful, was born in Kandahar province which has been a traditional opium poppy growing area. Some observers have suggested that in the dislocations of the civil war, poppy production was a steady source of quick money which all sides could deal in. Even General Massood has been linked to the opium trade. Indeed, opium can provide for the Taliban government what it yielded prior to the consolidation of power -- badly needed money and international currency.

Drugs are also a negotiating card which Taliban has already used as a lure in gaining recognition and attention in the west. A month after taking Kabul, Taliban Mullah Muhammad informed the United Nations Drug Control Program office in Islamabad, Pakistan, that the new regime was interested in lucrative substitution programs, whereby the Kabul government would receive international funding to encourage farmers to plant crops instead of the poppy. One UN official praised the Taliban, saying All the parts of Afghanistan that produce drugs are now governed by a single authority, with whom we have made contact. They have a definite influence in these regions and have told us they wish to cooperate in the introduction of substitution programs.

These substitution programs have already piqued the interest of drug control officials in Washington. Even within the State Department, there is enthusiasm for funding expensive substitution programs and extending official recognition to the Taliban regime, since it is perceived as a stabilizing force. The problem is that Taliban wins either way; it can remain engaged with opium traders, most of whom continue to operate with seeming impunity, or announce a substitution program paid for by international -- and that includes American taxpayers. Or, it can do both. The only problem for Washington will be in explaining how and why American money is presumably helping to stabilize a region which writer Jane Goodwin of On The Issues has described as the most oppressive country on earth for women.

The Lure of

Drugs politics is not the only factor on this fin de siecle version of The Great Game. The collapse of the former Soviet Union has unleashed new investments throughout the region by international corporations, including energy giants who are entering into lucrative contracts with new regional government. The California-based UNOCAL is one such firm, and is a partner in a consortium now trying to construct a multi-billion dollar pipeline route to transport oil and gas from Turkmenistan. Pipeline politics may also dictate a route not through Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, but Iran instead. Either of the countries stands to reap hundreds of millions of dollars from any arrangement.

For Taliban, a pipeline is a particularly sweet and profitable deal. Most of the administrative cost and efforts of running Kabul is actually being undertaken by NGOs, non-governmental organizations which operate under a myriad of international aid groups. At least 30 NGOs are busy administering and maintaining the city's water works, food programs, medical projects and even land mine clearance, according to Agence France-Presse. Despite that effort, this past week Taliban officials ordered humanitarian aid workers to move their administrative center into a special compound, or face expulsion. Planning Minister Mullah Qari Din Mohammed gave the aid organizations until Sunday, July 19, to relocate, and accused the head of one group of promoting Christianity and... insulting our Islamic values.

We Muslims believe God the Almighty will feed everybody one way or another, added Mohammed.

One major point of contention involves the use of female staff by the international NGOs.

The Terror Continues

Despite the activity of dozens of aid groups, an influx of international money and relief, and the promise of hundreds of millions of dollars from oil companies and the war on drugs, the Taliban remains unfazed to world opinion and human rights. Indeed, the most sordid manifestation of Taliban ruthlessness and fanaticism has been a psychopathic spectacle which takes place every Friday in the dilapidated former sports stadium in Kabul, where tens of thousands of Muslims -- men and boys, mostly -- fill the stands to witness public whippings, beatings, and executions. Recently, Jan Goodwin managed to cover one of these horrifying displays, where a crowd of 30,000 assembled to see a young woman named Sohaila receive 100 lashes. Sohaila had been arrested walking with a man who was not her relative, a sufficient crime for her to be found guilty of adultery. Since she was single, it was punishable by flogging; had she been married, she would have been publicly stoned to death.