The World Isolates the Taliban:


By Gilles Dorronsoro

Monde Diplomatique
June, 2001

Adding to their unpopularity, the Taliban decided in May to force Hindus living in Afghanistan to wear a distinctive sign on their clothing. The recent UN Security Council embargo has increased the regime's isolation, but its full force is being felt by the Afghan people who are also suffering from an unprecedented drought. To make matters worse, the Taliban have responded to the sanctions by suspending talks with the opposition. Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of its most prominent leaders, received expressions of support in Europe in April. Yet western policy towards Afghanistan remains deeply ambiguous.

Despite all the high-sounding words about human rights and a negotiated solution, western policy towards Afghanistan, led by Washington, has two contradictory themes: let the Taliban win and punish Afghanistan by isolating it.

The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and that of the Kabul regime in 1992 greatly reduced Afghanistan's importance on the world stage. Between 1992 and 1996 the main external players in the civil war were regional powers: Pakistan, Iran and Russia. In consequence, in 1994, the conflict resulted in the emergence of the Taliban, an extreme fundamentalist movement originating in the south of the country. Significant military aid from Pakistan and a degree of popular support enabled them to take all the towns and cities, not least Kabul in September 1996.

The regime's countless human rights violations have provoked international outcry, especially against the treatment of women and the destruction of the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan. The United States was, however, initially favourable to the Taliban, and Robin Rafael, then US under-secretary of state, welcomed their taking of Kabul in September 1996 as a "positive step". But contrary to popular belief, US support was not directly related to US oil company Unocal's plans to build a gas pipeline across Afghanistan, linking Pakistan and Turkmenistan. The usual alignment of Washington's Afghan policy with that of Pakistan and a desire to back the country's reunification seem more convincing hypotheses (1).

Support for the Taliban ceased because of the presence in Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden, an Islamic billionaire from Saudi Arabia, accused of several attacks against US interests. The Kabul regime's human rights violations played only a marginal role in the policy reversal. The bombing of the Islamists' training camps in Afghanistan in reprisal for the attacks on US embassies in east Africa in August 1998 marked the start of this change in direction. Paradoxically, that operation was the reason why bin Laden was not extradited, for it made him a popular symbol of resistance against American imperialism, especially in Pakistan and the Gulf.

But for all that, the US has not given aid of any significance to the opposition dominated by Ahmad Shah Massoud. And the only strategy that might have been effective, putting pressure on Pakistan, was ruled out. The western countries allowed Islamabad to continue its direct intervention and the Taliban prevailed over Massoud. Last summer several thousand soldiers of the Pakistani regular army were sent to the front; their presence proved decisive in the taking of Taloqan, a small town that Massoud had controlled since 1986 and whose loss is a direct threat to his supply lines between Panjshir and Tadjikistan.

The western countries failed to condemn this known and proven presence - for example, before the United Nations Security Council (2) - even though the opposition is still recognised as the legitimate government in Afghanistan. Why was this? Probably because the West was reluctant to further destabilise a nuclear state that was already experiencing chronic unrest. An implicit agreement may have been reached after the Kargil crisis (3) to give Pakistan a free hand in Afghanistan in return for a degree of moderation in Kashmir. In addition the US is losing interest in the situation, seeking only to eliminate bin Laden. Here we see the perverse nature of the western position: the more the Taliban gain ground, the less they are included in the political game.

The country has been isolated, by sanctions in particular, in the same way as Iraq. After the Taliban took control of Kabul, international recognition was made conditional on progress in three areas: human rights, eradication of drugs and the fight against terrorism.

A Dead Letter

The Taliban made progress on the least contentious of these, opium production, where they had remarkable success. The two others have, however, remained a dead letter. The Taliban have, in fact, refused to extradite bin Laden, suggesting instead that he appear before an Islamic court. They understand human rights as deriving from the sharia (Islamic law) of which they have a very rigid interpretation. They reject western pressure as illegitimate and politically motivated for, after all, the West recognises the Saudi regime.

The first sanctions were imposed, at US instigation, in November 1999 after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden. The measures were designed primarily to ban the national airline Ariana from making international flights, freeze Taliban assets abroad and prohibit investments. They failed to have the desired effect, but their economic and psychological impact on the population was appreciable (4). Then new sanctions came into force at the start of this year. Acting in the US national interest alone, the Security Council has taken no account of the global context of the crisis or of the drought afflicting the country.

The consequence (or is it the purpose?) of the sanctions is therefore to punish the Afghan population. Sanctions make life even more difficult for civilians, discredit those Afghans who want to modernise the country (they are deemed to be foreign agents), and reinforce the xenophobic and fundamentalist currents that have grown strong since the start of the war.

But the question is not so much whether the Taliban are guilty of human rights violations - there is consensus on that point - but how to respond. Sanctions and the regime's growing isolation are incapable of bringing about positive change; instead they make it ever more radical.

Rejecting The International Community

The Taliban are, in fact, convinced that they will not gain international recognition. The closure of their representation in New York showed that the US was no longer interested in talking to them. Moreover, the fact that sanctions were proposed by Washington and Moscow was seen as a provocation. The western countries' feeble response to UN requests for aid for the million people displaced by the drought is increasing their physical and psychological isolation (5). In this context, the destruction of the Bamiyan statues was not a religious act but a sign of political radicalisation (6). The Taliban used this media coup to express their rejection of the international community.

The first consequence of this policy of isolation has been the de facto abandonment of a negotiated solution. That would involve finding a political compromise which, to be acceptable, would have to reflect the balance of forces on the ground. That in turn would mean accepting that the Taliban are the dominant political player, with Massoud becoming a minority partner in a united government. But the US has ruled this out. The Vendrell mission (7) was therefore doomed to failure before it even began. And in the absence of talks, Massoud's trip to Europe in April this year and the military aid he is receiving from France will achieve little more than to further harden the Taliban's attitude against the western countries, with a real risk of reprisals against the French non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on the ground.

Many experts have justified this strategy of non-negotiation by maintaining that the Taliban were merely a transient, tribal phenomenon outside of society or that civil society was capable of providing an alternative political solution (8). Following the UN dogma that "there is no military solution", most thought that time was on Massoud's side. Taliban advances and their level of organisation were systematically under-estimated while the opposition's military capacity and political backing were overrated. The Taliban will not collapse spontaneously because they do, in fact, enjoy support within the country and they are sufficiently well organised to maintain control of a country deeply disrupted by 20 years of civil war. Further, Massoud's disparate coalition ceased to be a political alternative several years ago.

In the absence of a negotiated solution, there are two possible scenarios. Greater military and diplomatic support for Massoud together with pressure on Pakistan could prolong the war almost indefinitely. Massoud would remain locked in the mountains of the northwest, while the Taliban controlled most of the rest of the country. A hypothetical reconquest of the north by Massoud would only complicate matters because the coalition of commanders and parties making up the opposition is too divided to survive even limited success. The alternative outcome is that the Taliban will ultimately take the Panjshir valley. They will consider themselves to have beaten the western powers and the Russians, which will not dispose them to compromise with the international community. If the country closes up even further, the NGOs - the only foreign presence in Afghan society and the main source of eyewitness accounts - could be forced to withdraw (9).

US strategy has therefore helped further to destabilise and radicalise the crisis. Can Europe offer a different policy? The lifting of sanctions combined with strong diplomatic pressure on Pakistan could halt the Taliban advance and get the two sides talking again. The other aspect to the strategy would be massive investment, through the NGOs in particular, to try and meet certain social needs - education in particular - thus in the medium term encouraging the emergence of new elites.

* Institute of Political Studies, Rennes, author of La révolution afghane, des communistes aux Talibans, Karthala, Paris, 2000.

(1) Following Pakistan's lead, and despite the unanimous criticism of all the experts, the United States gave priority backing to Hezb-i Islami, the only Afghan resistance movement with obvious totalitarian leanings.

(2) Moreover, the Group of Six (Tadjikistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, China, Pakistan) plus Two (US and Russia) formed by Afghanistan's neighbours in 1997 had signed an agreement in July 1999 to put an end to outside intervention in the Afghan crisis.

(3) The Pakistani army infiltrated troops into Kargil (Indian Kashmir) in spring 1999, provoking a grave international crisis.

(4) Difficulties for individual travel, barriers to trade, eg exports of fresh fruit to the Gulf, extra costs for importing Indian medicines, etc.

(5) According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, governments contributed around 10% of what they were asked for. On the Pakistani border, the refugees are held in such atrocious conditions that the Pakistani government refused to allow Kofi Annan to visit a camp while on a recent trip to the country.

(6) Earlier decrees from Mullah Omar protected all Afghan works of art from looting or damage; see Les Nouvelles d'Afghanistan, Paris, February 2001.

(7) Francesc Vendrell is the UN secretary-general's special envoy for the Afghan question, responsible for the peace process.

(8) Olivier Roy, "Has Islamism a future in Afghanistan?" in William Maley (ed), Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, Hurst and Company, 1998, and Ahmed Rashid, Taliban, Tauris, 2000.

(9) NGOs spend some $100m a year in Afghanistan, a derisory sum for a population of more than 20m. But their influence is much greater than these figures suggest, especially as they enable social services to be maintained and provide work for thousands of Afghan administrators.

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