Ahmed Rashid

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia

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Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia Summary

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In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid’s non-fiction book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2000) became a New York Times bestseller as Western readers tried to come to grips with the history of militant Islam. American and British politicians, including Tony Blair, also referred to Rashid’s book in the run-up to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The book was published in the UK as Taliban: Islam, Oil, and the New Great Game in Central Asia.

Rashid begins his account in the present day. A veteran journalist who covers Central Asian affairs for several major newspapers, Rashid has met many of the Taliban’s leaders. He has portrayed them and told their personal stories. However, the story of the Taliban begins well before the official formation of the group. To many Western observers, the Taliban appeared to emerge “from nowhere,” but Rashid argues that in reality, the Taliban was the product of a number of different trends and forces, which came together at a critical moment in the history of Afghanistan and of the broader Middle East region.

Some of these forces date back almost a century, such as the influence of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Others date back still further, to the British Empire’s disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in the 19th century. More recently, the politics of oil in Central Asia, growing ethnic tensions in Afghanistan, and the growth of the opium industry have all played into the Taliban’s formation and eventual success.

However, none of these trends would have combined to create the Taliban without the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Funded and armed by the US and Pakistani governments, Afghan mujahedeen defeated the Soviet-controlled government of the country in 1992. The Taliban played little part in this victory. With the withdrawal of Soviet troops, Afghanistan was left in ruins; to fill the local power vacuum, criminal warlords arose, claiming large territories and control of valuable supply routes running between Europe and Asia.

It was in this context that the Taliban came of age. Formed by a group of Pashtun Islamic clerics (the Pashtuns are the dominant ethnic group in the south of the country) in Kandahar, the Taliban first came to prominence as a resistance group, hemming in the warlords’ ambitions and redistributing some of their wealth to ordinary Afghans. These actions earned the group the support of Pakistan’s well-funded intelligence agency, and with such a powerful backer, the ambitions of the Taliban quickly metamorphosed, until they dreamed of remaking Afghanistan as a conservative Muslim state.

Writing before the US invasion of Afghanistan, Rashid offers some prophetic criticisms of US policy in the region. He argues that the US intervention in the Soviet war was shortsighted and lacking in strategic vision. In his view, the US simply forgot about Afghanistan as soon as the Soviet threat was quashed. The result: Pakistan’s government armed and supported sympathetic religious factions within the country in order to tip the regional balance of power against the Iranians.

Alongside this political history is an intellectual one: the Taliban emerged from a longer and broader history of Islamic movements in the 20th century. Specifically, the Taliban recruited most of its fighters from the madrassas (Islamic religious academies) founded near the Pakistani border to spread the fundamentalist Wahhabi philosophy. As well as promoting a conservative ideology, these schools had become a destination for “the rootless and the restless, the jobless and the economically deprived with little self-knowledge.”

Rashid points out that no fewer than eight of the Taliban’s most senior officials attended a single madrassa, named Haqqania. The madrassa’s leader, Samiul Haq, was said to be close to the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Omar. Once, when the Taliban lost the battle for the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, “Haq shut down his madrassa and sent his entire student body to fight alongside the Taliban.”

Rashid describes the Taliban’s war to take over Afghanistan in close-up detail: He was an eyewitness to several of its key events and he has met many of the major leaders in the conflict.

The author also provides detailed accounts of the contemporary situation in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. He describes how opium cultivation funds Taliban operations, and he interviews the head of the regime’s “drug-control” force, who argues, “Opium is permissible because it is consumed by kafirs in the West and not by Muslims or Afghans.”

Meanwhile, oil companies continue to be eager to do business in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Rashid spends two chapters on the battle between several companies for the chance to build pipelines to South Asia, a competition with implications for the regional power balance between Iran and Pakistan.

Interspersed with the Taliban’s history and the author’s analysis are portraits of Afghanistan in the year 2000, a place where women are effectively property and the Kabul soccer stadium is used for executions.