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Taliban: Another Frankenstein’s monster
Vir Sanghvi

IN A world full of horrors, there is no shortage of political barbarism. Remember how Idi Amin would eat the livers of his enemies after he had killed them? Or how the Francophile Emperor Bokassa would kill (and, according to some versions, eat) small children? Compared to such abominations, the destruction of Buddha statues by Afghanistan’s Taliban regime may not seem particularly horrific.

But the fanatically-pursued destruction of pre-Islamic heritage is just one symptom of the Taliban’s barbarism. As Pramit Pal Chaudhuri pointed out in yesterday’s HT, things have got so bad in Afghanistan that ‘statue-worshippers’ (all non-Muslims except Jews and Christians) have to paint their roofs yellow and wear bits of yellow cloth at all times to remind them of their inferior status. The way in which Hindus and Sikhs are treated in Afghanistan is uncomfortably reminiscent of the manner in which the Nazis treated Jews.

Not that Muslims have it much easier. If you are caught thieving they cut your arm off. If the militia don’t like you, they can summarily execute you on the spot — no questions asked. No woman is allowed to wear white because this is the colour of the Taliban’s flag. Lakhs of Afghans have no water but the regime does not care about the terrible drought; it is too busy dynamiting statues. Anyone caught committing a homosexual act is crushed under a large stone as punishment. (Presumably, this is not rigidly enforced. Otherwise, given the proclivities of Afghan men — Mujahideen included — they would have run out of boulders, rocks and even small stones, by now.)

The sad state of today’s Afghanistan shows us what happens when politicians either misuse religion or pretend that terrorists are freedom fighters.

Take Indira Gandhi, for instance. She armed and trained the LTTE on the grounds that it was a legitimate political organisation. Not only is the subcontinent still paying the price of that blunder, but the LTTE eventually killed her own son. And she propped up Jairnail Singh Bhindranwale as a religious counter to the Akalis. The consequences wrecked Punjab for over a decade and she paid for the mistake with her life.

But why blame Mrs Gandhi alone? The main reason why South Asia is in such a mess today is because America made exactly the same mistakes as her. If the LTTE were the illegitimate offspring of her Sri Lanka policy, then the Taliban are the logical consequence of Ronald Reagan’s Afghanistan policy. And if Bhindranwale was her Frankenstein, then Osama bin Laden is the monster created by American policy-makers.

Much of what is wrong with our region today —- especially the barbaric rise of the Taliban — is the consequence of superpower rivalry in the Eighties. Over the winter of 1979-80, the Russian army entered Afghanistan. It was a foolish decision and the US was quick to see that the situation had the potential to grow into the Soviet Union’s version of the Vietnam war.

President Reagan and his CIA Director William Casey decided to tie the Russians down in Afghanistan by financing, arming and organising so-called resistance organisations using Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan as a staging point. The General was delighted. Not only would his regime have access to American arms and funds, he would also win the undivided attention of the White House.

Over the next decade, the US poured billions into Afghanistan through the Pakistan funnel. According to Bob Woodward’s Veil, Pakistan boasted the world’s biggest CIA station and its army (along with US ‘advisers’) was used to train the resistance. Because there were no ideological issues involved, the resistance was organised on religious lines: the soldiers of Islam (the Mujahideen) fighting their jehad against the Godless Russian communists.

In the short-term, the strategy worked. The Afghan war sapped the Soviet Union of money and morale. Eventually, the Russians withdrew in disgrace —- and the cost of war played a major role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But in the long-term, this strategy devastated the region and eventually rebounded on America. Every single party involved in the battle — and even those on the fringes like India — paid a heavy price. The people of Afghanistan, of course, suffered the most. Ever since the Russians left, they have gone from one unstable regime to the other, ending up eventually with the barbaric Taliban, drawn from the ranks of the Mujahideen trained in Pakistan under the auspices of the US.

Pakistan paid nearly as significant a price. The easy availability of arms and trained assassins destroyed law and order in large parts of the country. A parallel economy based on the opium poppy cultivated by the Afghans (the country has 72 per cent of the world’s crop) and refined into heroin by the Pakistanis, took over from the legal one. The Islamic forces unleashed by Zia and Reagan to fight the Russians unbalanced the secular order in Pakistan. And eventually, that unhappy country came to the present pass where regimes collapse overnight and it goes from tyrant to crook to dictator. A bankrupt Pakistan now has only two exports: heroin and terrorism.

India has also lost out. Once the Americans moved on in 1988-89, Pakistan had to find something to do with the terrorists trained for the Afghan operation. Its solution was to send them to Kashmir — it is no coincidence that the Kashmir militancy began just as the war against the Russians was ending in Afghanistan. Nor it is accidental that the so-called Kashmiri militants (so-called because many of them are not Kashmiris at all) frame their opposition to India in the language used in the Afghanistan conflict: religious war, jehad, Mujahideen etc.

The US has also lost out. The people of Afghanistan recognise that their country was no more than a theatre for the American war against Russia and hate the US for it. This hatred is epitomised by the very Mujahideen the Americans created out of nothing. Comprised in the main of illiterate, unwashed peasants and tribes, people who were told to follow religious leaders for the jehad against the Russians, the likes of the Taliban now swallow everything that any mad mullah may decree.

Sometimes the mullahs tell them to destroy Buddha statues and persecute Hindus. But more often than not, they tell them to attack that den of sin and un-Islamic practices: the United States. Osama bin Laden, for instance, was a rich Saudi youth who got sucked into the Afghan conflict by the American-inspired rhetoric of a jehad. Once he had seen off the Russians, he ran out of things to do. He now spends his time sending terrorists to Kashmir and blowing up American embassies.

The Americans now tell us that these people are dangerous. They frown at the term Mujahideen, once glorified by innumerable Hollywood blockbusters, and say that jehad is a global menace. They declare that the very acts they once trained the Mujahideen to perform in Afghanistan — blowing up government buildings, taking out inconvenient politicians etc. — are an affront to civilisation.

They appear to see no irony in this.

But the biggest loser has been the image of Islam. The Taliban are God’s gift to the VHP. They conform to every RSS caricature of Muslims: they are fanatical, murderous, insensitive and uncivilised. It is much easier to convince people that a mandir was destroyed by invaders who then built the Babri Masjid now, than it was before the Taliban blasted the Buddha statues. Internationally too, more and more people in the West are now unable to say the word ‘Islamic’ without adding ‘fundamentalist’ to it. The entirely unfair image of Muslims as violent fanatics has taken firm hold.

That makes it all the more important for us to realise that it is individuals and groups that are evil; not entire races, countries or religion. However much support he may have commanded at his peak, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale did not represent the Sikh psyche; he represented himself. Similarly, just because the LTTE are terrorist murderers, it does not follow that all Sri Lankans or all Tamils are blood-thirsty. And of course, just because Dara Singh burnt Graham Staines and his two children alive, it does not follow that Hindus are murderous pyromaniacs.

The roots of all these actions lay not in race or in religion; they lay in politics. So it is with the Taliban. The same Afghans who now destroy idols were happy to preserve them 20 years ago. The Pakistani generals who send terrorists to Kashmir are sons and grandsons of people our parents and grandparents were friends with in the pre-Partition days.

If there is a lesson in the barbarism of the Taliban, it is this: whenever politicians base their appeal on ethnicity or religion rather than ideas, everybody suffers. Today it is the Buddha statues; yesterday it was the Babri masjid. Who knows what it will be tomorrow?


Updated: 9-3-2001

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