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    South Asia
     Sep 2, 2010
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 has it?

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 gas pipeline.

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 Pakistan.

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 their women.

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 bombed-out shelter.

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 life.

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 and Shi'ite-hatred.

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.

Continued 1 2  


Afghan militants return to arms
(Aug 11, '10)

The myth of Talibanistan
(May 1, '09)


1. US Southeast Asian pose risks China clash

2. Combining the worst

3. Petraeus: Hook, line and sinker

4. Obama fighting on all fronts

5. Japanese forces gird for mock island assault

6. Abbas faces a mission impossible

7. China backs Karachi refinery

8. Taliban noose around Wardak tightens

9. How deep after Jackson Hole?

10. Obama draws line on Iran policy

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Aug 31, 2010)

 
 



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