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Date: Fri, 26 Dec 1997 17:08:47 EST
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US funding for Afghan Islamic theocracy? The Drug War is replacing the spectre of communism as an excuse to spport despotic & authoritarian regimes

American Atheists, AANews, # 371
26 December 1997

The United States government may be on the verge of extending financial aid and even diplomatic recognition to the Muslim terrorists running Afghanistan, who say they are struggling to create a pure Islamic state.

Since last March, control of about 90% of Afghanistan has rested in the hands of the Taliban religious movement, an Islamic group that has banned women from schools and the workplace, instituted mandatory attendance at mosque services, and attracted international condemnation for other violations of civil liberties and human rights. Even the theocratic government in Iran has refused to extend recognition to the Taliban, although that may be due to arcane ideological differences rather than scruples about the overall grandiose vision of fostering an Islamic society. The Taliban has turned loose its militias to enforce the Sharia or Muslim religious law; justice involves home invasions by religious police looking for contraband material, public whippings, even amputations and executions. Other Islamic societies have such draconian penalties, but the use of these harsh methods has become pandemic throughout Afghanistan, and particuarly in the nation's capital of Kabul -- once a reasonably cosmopolitan city.

There is movement on two diplomatic and political fronts, and even President Clinton has expressed his support for one initiative coming out of the United Nations. There, the UN's drug czar has proposed giving the Taliban regime economic support in exchange for its cooperation in eliminating the cultivation of the opium poppy and attempting to restrict the heroin trade. Pino Arlacchi, the man in charge of US drug operations, says that Taliban fundamentalists have expressed their intention to crack down on opium production. Earlier this month, the White House announced approval for Arlacchi's initiative which calls for a 10-year development program to assist the theocratic regime, beginning with $25,000,000 in assistance in 1998.

The second development involves the recent three-day summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) hosted by the Iranian government in Tehran. The 55-member group issued a number of position papers, including a statement which called for interaction, dialogue and understanding among cultures and religions.

That meeting was seen as a victory for the relatively moderate leadership of the new Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, who won a sweeping victory in recent elections and turned back a spirited challenge from the country's fundamentalist clerical wing. Much of Khatami's support came from the youth and intellectuals; his handy victory at the polls (he won close to 60% of the votes) is cited as evidence that Iranians are demanding substantial changes away from the hard-line religious doctrines which have been imposed since the 1970 revolution.

At the OIC summit, however, there were strong signals which bear on U.S. foreign policy. The Conference remained deeply divided between states like Iran and Iraq which are considered anti-western, and those such as Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf countries who remain staunch American allies -- but for a price. Khatami met twice during the OIC summit with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia; one meeting was considered a ditching of official protocol, when the Iranian leader hunkered down with his Saudi counterpart in the prince's chambers -- suggested as evidence of a possible thaw in relations between the Shiite Muslims of Iran and the Sunni Islamic regme in Saudi Arabia.

The OIC summit condemned Israel as a major threat to peace in the region -- an obligatory gesture of unity which usually masks deep divisions within the Islamic community -- and indirectly criticized both Turkey (for its support of the Jewish state) and Afghanistan's Taliban government. Nether country was mentioned by name. But rift-healing between moderate Islamic states like Saudi Arabia with Iran, along with sweeping reforms in that country, could pave the way for acceptnce of a new foreign policy concernng Afghanistan and the Taliban. At the Tehran OIC summit, Taliban representatives were conspicuous by their mere absence.

For now, that leaves Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates as the only governments which extend official diplomatic recongition to the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. Press accouns still refer to the Taliban as a rebel militia, although they control 90% of the nation, have installed themselves in Kabul, and thus far have successfully resisted attacks from two military groups including a provinicial war lord and a former government minister. The victory of the Taliban surprised most observers, and the cleric's continued stranglehold on power has proved to be equally puzzling.

Taliban: One Nation Under God

When Taliban military units swept into Kabul in September, 1996, it capped the group's long march to power that just months before most journalists and political observers would have dismissed out of hand. Taliban had started as just one of many guerilla movements which precipitated out of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Moscow strategy which contributed to the fall of the Communist regime. When the last Soviet units left in 1992, the Russian-backed regme quickly crumbled and forces loyal to General Ahmad Shah Masood took control. Masood brokered a deal with Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and became the government's military chief. Subsequent rulers all pledge to establish an Islamic state based on the Sharia, or Muslim law. Civil war quickly broke out among the various factions, however, any form of secularist culture was not considered an option; it was only a question of how far a particuar government might go in establishing the Sharia. Hekmatyar's brief rule was punctuated with promises to enforce strict Islamic codes; in one diatribe to civil servants, he warned that any officials who abstained from required daily prayers would be dismissed and that women, though they were permitted to work in government offices, had to wear decent and dignified dress. and avoid the illegal mixing of two sexes.

Along with religious differences, there were also deep-rooted ethnic hostilities. involving tribal groupings of Tajiks, Uzbecks and Pashtuns. The government in Kabul exercised little official or even military influence outside of a few provinces; and a surfeit of arms left over from the civil war aganst the Soviets -- much of it from American sources -- meant that various militias were heavily equipped. Corruption among the competing power factions was also widespread; and this fact helped the Taliban. Even critics acknowledged the strict religious zeal of the group; some Afghanis, and foreign observers, thought that Taliban would bring the war-torn country a form of stability.

Taliban was comprised mostly of Pashtuns, who comprise the ethnic majority of Afghanistan. It grew out of the madrassas or Islamic schools and seminaries which thrived in Afghan refugee camps in the midst of the civil war; most Taliban clerics are barely literate, able to quote select verses from the Koran, but the group's fanaticism quickly proved an asset amidst the chaos of Mujahadeen groups -- many of them corrupt -- fighting for power. One western aid worker to the London Times that Shooting a Taliban soldier is like a Catholic shooting a priest. The paper noted in 1996 that the Taliban movement had a religious mystique (which gave) it a peculiar hold over the population.

The only known official support which Taliban had as it swept through the provinces of Afhanistan came from neighboring Pakistan. There were rumors of possible American aid for the clerical students, though, and even in the U.S.media, publications like The Wall Street Journal engaged in ill-informed (f not disingenuous) spin control articles which attempted to portray the religious militia as just ordinary Afghans who are sick and tired of the corrupt warlords and politician killers who have held the country hostage... A remarkably unperceptive article in the Journal's February 22, 1995 edition argued that many charges against the Taliban were a lot of nonsense, particuarly the claim that they were 'fundamentalists in Darth Vaderish black turbans who want to impose 'purist Islamic' rule. Those charges, however, turned out to be true just months later.

There were reports of Taliban ruthlessness and intolerance in the areas under its control, but the international media did not sit up and take full notice until the clerics seized Kabul and began consolidating their power. By then, Taliban had most of the country under its control, and General Massood had retreated into the Pasjshir Valley where he formed tenuous alliancs with a warlod, Rashid Dostrum. Their combined armies have still not unseated the Taliban rulers from Kabul, despite repeated military offensives.

The Taliban Islamic law has created nightmarish conditions for women and any social dissidents. Adding to the already stern Sharia imposed by previous governments, the clerics quickly declared that females were banned from the work place and schools. Women daring to venture out in public had to be completely covered and veiled; Taliban units patrolled the streets looking for any females in immodest or un-Islamic dress. Men were ordered to grow beards and crop their hair; and neighborhood religious police required males to attend mosque services up to five times each day. Repeating the practices employed in other areas of the country under its control, home invasions and roadblocks by Taliban units searched for immoral contraband -- everything from television sets (which were confiscated), satellite dishes, rock 'n roll cassette tapes, magazines and prohibited books. Radios were permitted; along with loudspeakers, people were informed of the latest religious decrees. One order prohibited recycling of paper, since products might be made of pulped pages of the Koran. But it was women who were the main targets of Taliban wrath; an article in India's Hidustan Times in 1995 which had voiced conditional praise for the Taliban noted that Afghanistan is probably in for some unpleasant spasms of religious orthodoxy. The sassy blue-jeaned Kabuli girls have excellent barometers for that sort of thing, and they are very nervous.

Life in Kabul, and the rest of Taliban-regulated Afghanistan, has taken on a surreal quality blending a heavy-handed law and order authoritarianism with almost comic incidents of absurdity. The closure of schools for girls and banning of women from the workplace, even hospitals, has created a nightmare for relief organizations and medical aid groups. In Kabul alone, nearly 40,000 war widows have been cast into poverty, unable to earn even a meager living. 250,000 have fled the capital, and those who remain face the Taliban spectacle of daily life; one scene described in the London Times told of an accused thief being paraded through city streets, tied to the back of a cart with banknotes stuffed into his ears and mouth, and a weight secured to his jaw. Loudspeakers in public plazas and street corners warn the citizenry of new religious regulations. Accused adulterers have been stoned to death; liquor is banned, along with opposition newspapers. And when the mullahs call for prayer -- five times each day -- taxis and buses stop. Driver and passengers quickly head for the nearest mosque. Offering prayers in mosque is sunnat (a tradition dictated by Mohmmad) and those who abandon it are considered to be corrupt, declares the state-run Radio Kabul.

U.S. Involvement ?

Iran, which is mostly Shi'ite Moslem, has consistenly denounced the Taliban, sayng that the excesses of the regime are an embarrassment to Islamic nations; but many Taliban regulations are common throughout the Muslim world. Amputation of limbs as a form of punishment, along with brutal, squalid penal conditions typify even moderate societies like Saudi Arabia, a reliable American partner in Operation Desert Storm. The status of women in OIC nations is problematic, and few Islamic countries tolerate organized poliitical dissent. Much of the antipathy toward the new rulers of Afghanistan is based not on general religious principles or questions over human rights, but upon complex ethnic conflicts and doctrinal minutia generally unappreciated in the west.

For the United States, however, supporting the Taliban regime may typify the long honored policy of seeking stability in a potentially explosive region. The Taliban government has declared that it does not consider itself in any sort of anti-U.S. camp. And there are still memories of American aid to the various religious militias of the Mujahadeen who battled the Soviets for nearly a decade of civil warfare.

Taliban has also enjoyed support from inside the U.S. State Department, where officials have called for dialogue and engagement. A strong US influence in Kabul could fit into a wider geopolitical strategy, especially one dealing with post-Soviet Russia. Last week, assistant secretary of state Carl Inderfurth, in Moscow to discuss the Afghan and Iran issue, called for joint dialogue with Taliban in hopes of a broad based solution; he made no references, though, to human rights. And Taliban seems to be taking a cue from Washington; last week, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar initiated talks with General Masood. Senior Kabul diplomat Wakil Ahmad Muttawkil said the government was waiting for a reply, and added, We are working for it and believe in a government that accommodates all tribes in an Islamic structure. To achieve this the opposition can nominate the delegation to solve the problem in the light of the Sharia..

For President Clinton, the benefits may be more immediate. Adam J. Smith of the Washington, D.C.-based Drug Reform Council charged earlier this month that in Afghanistan and elsewhere, President Clinton has allowed the bogeyman of his own perceived weakness on the drug issue to chase him into the arms of tyrants. Smith added that with the Republicans preparing to attack the Democrats in the year 2000 elections -- and possibly Al Gore -- for being too soft on drugs, aiding despotic regimes as part of an anti-drug strategy is a small price to pay to cover his (Clinton's) political, non-inhaling flank.

An even greater, though less obvious danger may be in a policy of engagement, where the U.S. and other western governments seek to extract cosmetic reforms from Islamic states. The U.S. needs more allies within groups like the Organization of the Islamic Conference in order to maintain its strategic presence in the Middle East. If a near-feudal aristocracy such as the House of Saud is an ally, why shouldn't the Taliban clerics be considered for such a position as well? The danger here is that with U.S. support, any potential for indigenous -- and secularist -- opposition could be thwarted as a destabilizing element in the region. Unfortunately, an agenda for secularism and individual rights may not fit well into the plans of foreign policy mavens. And support for a despotic regime -- as long as it is a partner in the war on drugs, and religious at the same time, may exist among much of the American electorate.