Prof. M.M. Ali, a Washington, DC-based specialist on South Asia, is a consultant with the United Nations Development Program.
Islam advocates moderation in every aspect of life. The Taliban (seekers of truth) took to extremism, something alien to the religion they preached. Promising to rid Afghanistan of internal strife and establish a clean administration, the band of youthful religious zealots initially had been welcomed as a relief from the tribal feuds and leadership fights tearing the country apart. Instead of bringing the hoped-for peace, however, they wasted five long years reducing the country to an almost medieval status, depriving the Afghan people of the most fundamental amenities of life that the 20th century could offer. Anything modern was forbidden.
Not for the first time, excesses were committed in the name of religion. The Taliban's sole objective was to rid the country of its old leadership and establish a religious state whose contours they alone defined. As a result, the Taliban failed to gain international support. The three countries that recognized the Taliban--Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE--did so in the hope that, once Taliban rule was established, their administration would moderate and improve. Their initial extremism was viewed as a response to the turmoil that preceded them. In spite of several attempts by Pakistan, and monetary support from the two Gulf nations, however, nothing changed the Taliban.
Perhaps the Afghan people's early unflinching support encouraged Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his lieutenants in their extremism. The Taliban, it must be remembered, were a group of die-hard zealots who had seen nothing but war and corruption. Most were raised and educated in madrassas (religious schools) offering an exclusively religious education. Their elders' internecine battles undoubtedly contributed to the younger generation's extremism. Untutored in statecraft or administration, the Taliban came to power ignorant of the basics of administration, relying on their own honesty and determined not to duplicate the misrule of their predecessors.
Intoxicated by their battlefield victories, the Taliban expelled the country's former leaders. Women were not the only ones subjected to extremely restrictive laws and regulations--even men were forced to adhere to Taliban dictates. Their extremism caused the country to slide into virtual chaos, and productivity vanished. The country's only cash crop was poppy, and revenues were dependent upon doles from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Clearly, Afghanistan was heading toward disaster. While there may be an element of truth to the accusation that American abandonment following the defeat of the Soviet Union contributed to the country's plight, responsibility rests with the Afghan leadership, which never was able to reconcile to a joint administration. Whether it was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Yusuf Sayaf, Ahmed Shah Masoud or Gen. Rasheed Dostam--all tried to undo the others at the expense of the country. The result was a constant state of civil war from which, it was hoped, the Taliban would provide deliverance. Sadly, they, too, proved to be a disaster of no ordinary magnitude, and the people of Afghanistan have paid an enormous price for the past two decades.
Afghanistan in turmoil became a haven for other madrassa-educated religious zealots, as well as for foreign elements--inspired by the upheaval in such Muslim troublespots as the Middle East, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir--seeking to pursue their own agendas. It has now become evident that the country harbored militants from all over--and all in the name of Islam. This blind religious extremism apparently holds a universal appeal for disgruntled young men. Reports indicate that Taliban troops also included Pakistanis, Saudis, Chechens, at least one American, an Australian, and other foreigners.
With no vision of statesmanship and no defined objective, the Taliban kept the country on tenter hooks and in a perpetual state of crisis. …