Page 1 of 2 LIFE IN TALIBANISTAN, Part 1 Throw these infidels in jail
By Pepe Escobar
Dear reader: let's sit back, relax, and take a trip down memory lane to
prehistoric times - the pre-9/11, pre-YouTube, pre-Facebook world.
Ten years ago, Taliban Afghanistan - Talibanistan - was under a social,
cultural, political and economic nightmare. Arguably, not much has changed. Or
Ten years ago, New York-based photographer Jason Florio and myself slowly
crossed Talibanistan overland from east to west, from the Pakistani border at
Landi Kotal to the Iranian border at Islam Qillah. As Afghan aid workers
acknowledged, we were the
first Westerners to pull this off in quite a while.
Those were the days. Bill Clinton was enjoying his last stretch at the White
House. Osama bin Laden was a discreet guest of Mullah Omar - hitting the front
pages only occasionally. There was no hint of 9/11, or of the invasion of Iraq,
or of the "war on terror", or of the rebranding of the AfPak war, or of a
global financial crisis. Globalization ruled, and the United States was the
undisputed global top dog. The Clinton administration and the Taliban were deep
into Pipelineistan territory - arguing over the tortuous, proposed Trans-Afghan
We tried everything, but we couldn't even get a glimpse of Mullah Omar. Osama
bin Laden was also nowhere to be seen. But we did experience Talibanistan in
action, in close detail. So why revisit it now? Blame it on the lure of
archeology and history. This is both a glimpse of a long-lost world and a
window to a possible future in Afghanistan.
If schizophrenia defined the Taliban in power, US schizophrenia still rules.
Will the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization reach a "Saigon moment"
anytime soon - and leave? Not likely. As General David "I'm always positioning
myself to 2012" Petraeus, like his predecessor General Stanley McChrystal,
advances his special forces-led, maximum-force Murder Inc to subdue the
Taliban, the same Petraeus - no irony intended - may tell Fox News, as he did
last week, that the war's "ultimate goal" is the "reconciliation" of the
ultra-corrupt Hamid Karzai government with the Taliban.
This in fact means that while "favorable" conditions are not created on the
ground, government-sanctioned drug trafficking mafias and US defense
contractors will continue to make - literally and metaphorically - a killing.
As for the PR-savvy Petraeus, he will pull out all stops to sell his brand of
Afghan surge to Americans as some sort of "victory" - as he managed to sell the
rebranded Iraq war. And as for the (rebranded) umbrella of fighters
conveniently labeled "Taliban", who seem to eat surges for breakfast, they will
bide their time, Pashtun-style, and trust Allah to eventually hand them victory
- the real thing, and not a PR fantasy.
Now let's go back to the future.
KABUL, Ghazni - Fatima, Maliha and Nouria, whom I used to call The Three
Graces, by now are 29, 28 and 24 years old. Ten years ago, they lived in an
empty, bombed house next to a bullet-ridden mosque in a half-destroyed,
apocalyptic theme park called Kabul - by then the world capital of the
discarded container (or reconstituted by a missile and reconverted into a
shop); a city where 70% of the population were refugees; where legions of
homeless kids carried bags of cash on their backs ($1 was worth more than
60,000 Afghanis) and sheep outnumbered rattling 1960s Mercedes buses.
Under the merciless Taliban theocracy, the Three Graces suffered triple
discrimination - as women, Hazaras and Shi'ites. They lived in Kardechar, a
neighborhood totally destroyed in the 1990s by the war between Commander Ahmad
Massoud, The Lion of the Panjshir, and the Hazaras (the descendants of mixed
marriages between Genghis Khan's Mongol warriors and Turkish and Tajik peoples)
before the Taliban took power in 1996. The Hazaras were always the weakest link
in the Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara alliance - supported by Iran, Russia and China -
confronting the Taliban.
Every dejected Kabuli intellectual I had met invariably defined the Taliban as
"an occupation force of religious fanatics" - their rural medievalism totally
absurd for urban Tajiks, used to a tolerant form of Islam. According to a
university professor, "their jihad is not against kafirs; it's against other
Muslims who follow Islam".
I spent a long time talking to the Dari-speaking Three Graces inside their
bombed-out home - with translation provided by their brother Aloyuz, who had
spent a few years in Iran supporting the family long-distance. This simple fact
in itself would assure that, if caught, we would all be shot dead by the
Taliban V&V - the notorious Department for the Promotion of Virtue and
Prevention of Vice, the Taliban religious police.
The Three Graces' dream was to live "free, not under pressure". They had never
been to a restaurant, a bar or a cinema. Fatima liked "rock" music, which in
her case meant Afghan singer Natasha. She said she "liked" the Taliban, but
most of all she wanted to get back to school. They never mentioned any
discrimination between Sunnis and Shi'ites; they actually wanted to leave for
Their definition of "human rights" included priority for education, the right
to work, and to get a job in the state sector; Fatima and Maliha wanted to be
doctors. Maybe they are, today, in Hazara land; 10 years ago they spent their
days weaving beautiful silk shawls. Education was terminally forbidden for
girls over 12. The literacy rate among women was only 4%. Outside the Three
Graces' house, almost every woman was a "widow of war", enveloped in dusty
light-blue burqas, begging to support their children. Not only was this an
unbearable humiliation in the context of an ultra-rigid Islamic society, it
contradicted the Taliban obsession of preserving the "honor and purity" of
Kabul's population was then 2 million; less than 10%, concentrated in the
periphery, supported the Taliban. True Kabulis regarded the Taliban as
barbarians. For the Taliban, Kabul was almost as remote as Mars. Every day at
sunset, the Intercontinental Hotel received an inevitable Taliban sightseeing
group. They'd come to ride the lift (the only one in town) and walk around the
empty swimming pool and tennis court. They'd be taking a break from cruising
around town in their fleet of imported-from-Dubai Toyota Hi-Lux, complete with
Islamic homilies painted in the windows, Kalashnikovs on show and little whips
on hand to impose on the infidels the appropriate, Islamically correct,
behavior. But at least the Three Graces were safe; they never left their
Doubt is sin, debate is heresy
Few things were more thrilling in Talibanistan 10 years ago than to alight at
Pul-e-Khisshti - the fabled Blue Mosque, the largest in Afghanistan - on a
Friday afternoon after Jumma prayers and confront the One Thousand and One
Nights assembled cast. Any image of this apotheosis of thousands of black or
white-turbaned rustic warriors, kohl around their eyes and the requisite
macho-sexy stare, would be all the rage on the cover of Uomo Vogue. To even
think of taking a photo was anathema; the entrance to the mosque was always
swarming with V&V informants.
Finally, on one of those eventful Friday afternoons, I managed to be introduced
into the Holy Grail - the secluded quarters of maulvi (priest) Noor Muhamad
Qureishi, by then the Taliban Prophet in Kabul. He had never exchanged views
with a Westerner. It was certainly one of the most surreal interviews of my
Qureishi, like all Taliban religious leaders, was educated in a Pakistani madrassa.
At first, he was your typical hardcore Deobandi; the Deobandis, as the West
would later find out, were an initially progressive movement born in India in
the mid-19th century to revive Islamic values vis-a-vis the sprawling British
Empire. But they soon derailed into megalomania, discrimination against women
Most of all, Qureishi was the quintessential product of a boom - the connection
between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)
party during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad, when thousands of madrassas were
built in Pakistan's Pashtun belt. Afghan refugees had the right to free
education, a roof over their heads, three meals a day and military training.
Their "educators" were semi-illiterate maulvis who had never known the
reformist agenda of the original Deobandi movement.
Reclined on a tattered cushion over one of the mosque's ragged carpets,
Qureishi laid down the Deobandi law in Pashto for hours. Among other things, he
said the movement was "the most popular" because its ideologues dreamed that
Prophet Muhammad ordered them to build a madrassa in Deoband, India. So
this was Islam's purest form "because it came directly from Muhammad". Despite
the formidable catalogue of Taliban atrocities, he insisted on their "purity".
Qureishi dabbled on the inferiority of Hindus because of their sacred cows
("why not dogs, at least they are faithful to their owners"). As for Buddhism,
it was positively depraved ("Buddha is an idol"). He would have had a multiple
heart attack with Thailand's Buddhist go-go girls, dancing topless at night and
offering incense at the temple the morning after.