Underlying the appearance of the Taliban movement, first of all, are factors internal to Afghan society, in particular the discrediting of the government and the “commandos” born out of the resistance to Soviet intervention. The rapid expansion of the militia, culminating with the conquest of Kabul on September 26, 1996, cannot be understood without considering the direct support of Pakistan, abetted by the US and Saudi Arabia, as part of a larger project to export fossil fuels from Central Asia to Western markets via Afghanistan and Pakistan, bypassing Iran and Russia.

The Taliban’s cadres come from the rural madrasas (schools) of southern Afghanistan, established in Pashtu tribal zones, notably by the Durranis and Ghilzais. [1] These upper-level Qur’anic schools were able to recruit students regardless of tribal affiliation. While the Taliban are exclusively Pashtu, the ethnic group which has traditionally dominated Afghanistan’s political life, the framework of these schools allowed them, in a period of crisis, to unite the tribes.

The war against the Soviet Union (1979-1988), carried out mostly in the north, entailed a loss of Pashtu influence. Each of the other three large ethnicities regrouped behind a relatively homogeneous party: the Shi‘a Hazaras in the Wahdat, the Persian-speaking Tajiks in the Jami‘at and the Uzbeks behind Gen. Rashid Dostum. In April 1992, a coalition of Tajiks and Uzbeks under the command of Ahmed Shah Massoud seized Kabul. The dual legitimacy of the Taliban — religious and ethnic — thus facilitated the comeback of the Pashtus following their rapid occupation of the “Pashtu belt,” the southern territories traditionally dominated by this ethnic group.

This resurgence also reflects the failure of the modern and ideological Islamist political model promoted by Massoud and Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, head of Hizb-e Islami (Islamic Party). This model, discredited through factional strife, has revealed itself to be in capable of functioning in Afghan society. The Islamist “engineers” must give way to the traditionalist mullahs, whose program is limited to the exclusive rule of the shari‘a and the expulsion of women from the public sphere. [2]

The Taliban owe much to Pakistan’s direct intervention. The Pakistani military provided tanks, aircraft and effective telecommunications, the use of which is not taught in the madrasas. The interception of a Russian cargo plane above Kandahar in 1995 suggested that radar cover exists in this region which only Pakistan can provide.

The Taliban’s madrasas are branches of a larger network, installed in Pakistan and dependent on the reformist fundamentalist movement of the Deobandis. Its political expression is the Jamaat-e Ulema Islami, allied to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto. This seemingly unnatural alliance can be explained by the hostility of the Jamaat-e Ulema to the radical Islamist party Jamaat-e Islami, formerly allied to Gen. Zia ul Haq. [3] For many years, the latter supported Hizb-e Islami in Afghanistan, led by Hikmatyar, himself the principal beneficiary of Pakistani aid until 1991. [4]

After 1993, Pakistan looked for a pawn to replace Hikmatyar in Afghanistan. The United States and Saudi Arabia had belatedly realized that the Sunni Islamist networks they had supported against the Soviets were turning against them. These networks relied on the Jamaat-e Islami; Osama bin Laden, the rich Saudi since deprived of his citizenship who calls for jihad against the Americans; and Saudi and Sudanese organizations in Peshawar. Anti-American attacks after 1992 have been the work of members of these networks, who moreover have no connection to Iran: Consider the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.

Fossil Fuels

The Pakistani stroke of genius, through the medium of Minister of Interior Gen. Nasserullah Babar, was to support the Taliban opposition to Hikmatyar. Pakistani intelligence and the Jamaat-e Ulema mobilized, advised and supplied the Taliban. Pakistan’s strategic goals in this were threefold: first, to set up a clerical regime in Kabul whose ethnic affinities will place it under Pakistan’s tutelage (many Pakistani officers are Pashtu); second, to obtain a strategic economic edge over India; and third, to open an access corridor to Central Asia in order to assure Islamabad a supply of energy and pipeline revenues.

The Saudis, for their part, want to prevent Iran — and especially radical Sunni Islamists — from obtaining any religious legitimacy. They need new allies after the Muslim Brotherhood, the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front and the Palestinian Hamas failed to support Saudi Arabia during the Gulf war. The Taliban’s version of Islam suits them. If it is not Wahhabi on the theological plane, it is near enough to their rigorous interpretation and comes with a pro-Western attitude. Riyadh also has an interest in preventing Iran from exploiting the fossil fuels of Central Asia and thereby diminishing the strategic role of Saudi Arabia in the Near East.

Despite its denials, Washington has supported this project completely. In October 1994, without the authorization of the government in Kabul, the US ambassador to Pakistan, John C. Monjo, accompanied the Pakistani interior minister into the Taliban-controlled zone in western Afghanistan. The US always considered the government of Rabbani and Massoud as one faction among many, and never planned to reopen the embassy in Kabul. Scarcely had the city fallen into the hands of the Taliban, however, when the State Department issued a statement describing the development as “positive” and announcing the dispatch of an official delegation to Kabul. [5]

Washington’s haste stems from a gas pipeline project linking Turkmenistan with the Pakistani port of Gwadar via western Afghanistan. The head company of this project is the American firm UNOCAL, in partnership with a Saudi firm, Delta Oil. (The president of Turkmenistan chose their bid over that of the Argentinian corporation, Bridas.) The pipeline, which will cost $2 billion and will also serve as an oil pipeline, responds to two US priorities: first, an assured direct route for the fossil fuels of Central Asia and the Caspian, where US companies, Chevron among them, have invested massively; and second, to reinforce the isolation of Iran, which would be a natural candidate for the pipeline due to its proximity to the points of production and its existing infrastructure. [6]

UNOCAL and Delta Oil played a major role in “buying” the local military leaders, not to mention lobbying Washington and coordinating with Pakistan. UNOCAL’s American political adviser, Charles Santos, who was close to the Clinton administration, is now assistant to Mahmoud Mestiri, former UN special envoy for Afghanistan. UNOCAL’s support for the Taliban is barely disguised by its vice president, Chris Taggart, who described the Taliban advance as a “positive development.” Affirming that “events have tended to favor the project,” he recently envisaged recognition of the Taliban. [7]

Gambling on the Taliban is risky. It assumes that the Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum will play along in exchange for autonomy, and that the Shi‘a and Massoud remain confined to their mountain retreats. It implies in particular that the Taliban will hold on to power or transfer it to a more competent government.

In Afghanistan, though, losers typically unite against the victor. Massoud has conserved important military forces, including some aircraft. Though Dostum has never looked to dominate Kabul, he cannot allow himself to be challenged in his own fiefdom. The Hazaras have not forgotten the Taliban assassination of their leader, Abd al-Ali Mazari, two years ago. Intoxicated with victory, the Taliban have yet to conquer several non-Pashtu areas quite fond of their present autonomy. The Taliban front is in danger of weakening through internal, essentially tribal, dissensions: The large Pashtu tribes will not accept a leadership that does not assure them a place.

Financial interests can be expected to play a role in stirring up divisions, not only around the pipeline but also with respect to drugs. The image of pious Taliban fighting against the drug trade is naive. No one can stop the peasants from growing opium without investing colossal amounts in crop substitution. In fact, the war of the mullahs against drug traffickers is related to their struggle for control of the market. [8]

The winner of the Taliban “Kabul coup” is Pakistan; the losers are Russia, Iran and India. Iran has overestimated its influence, particularly over the Shi‘i Wahdat party. While Tehran had wanted to maintain an equilibrium between the different forces in Afghanistan, in September 1995 the Taliban took Herat, a Persian-speaking town on the Iranian border, marking the rupture of this equilibrium and demonstrating the militia’s hegemonic aims. Tehran, however, continued its game of balancing the different Afghan players, maintaining the internal divisions in the ruling Jamaat party. Internal rivalries in Iran — between provincial authorities, the foreign minister and the secret service — have made the consistent implementation of this strategy difficult.

If Iranian passivity toward the fall of Herat sealed Tehran’s decline in influence, the Islamic Republic cannot fail to react to perceived American encirclement, from the Gulf to the Caspian Sea. While Tehran does not have the means to launch a counterattack on the ground, covert maneuvers are likely.

The other big loser is Russia — not for any strategic error, but due to its loss of influence in Central Asia. At the extraordinary Alma Ata summit on October 4, which reunited Russia with four Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) to deal with Afghanistan, Moscow invoked the specter of an Islamic plague in the region to create a front away from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, however, want the pipeline and are counting on US support. Provided they get certain guarantees, they have nothing against the power of the Taliban. For the Uzbeks, the guarantee is Rashid Dostum, whom the US and Pakistan will encourage to negotiate with the Taliban while protecting his fiefdom. While negotiating with the Taliban, Dostum has agreed to re-ally himself with Massoud.

Russia, for its part, must face up to the tension building in Tajikistan. Based in Afghanistan, the Islamist opposition there, very active on the ground with increasing Arab support, has been reined in by Rabbani and Massoud, who are anxious to win over the Russians. [9] The Taliban victory risks a resumption of hostilities. Moscow has become more and more isolated in its Tajik war, and is paying for its mistakes: It has given unconditional support to the Kulabi clan, which won the civil war but is incompetent and discredited, and it has refused to speak with an opposition that is Islamic though moderate. On this point, the Kremlin has Washington’s support but not that of Uzbekistan, since it is very hostile to the Kulabis. At stake for Russia is not the march of the Taliban toward Kazan, but its loss of influence in Central Asia, to the gain of the United States. The events in Afghanistan are merely an episode in the slow Russian retreat from the southern areas of the former USSR, from Baku to Dushanbe.

The apparent victor, Pakistan, could pay dearly for its success. The triumph of the Taliban has virtually eliminated the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. On both sides, Pashtu tribes are simultaneously slipping toward fundamentalism and becoming increasingly implicated in drug trafficking. They are gaining autonomy; already small fundamentalist tribal emirates are appearing on Pakistani soil.

Pakistan is increasingly torn apart by inter-communal violence reinforced by corruption and the drift of movements, initially political, to organized crime. In particular, Shi‘i-Sunni conflicts will certainly persist if tension continues between Iran and Pakistan. The de facto absorption of Afghanistan will accentuate centrifugal tendencies within Pakistan. India, another loser in the Taliban’s offensive, will only fuel that fire. Following the occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union collapsed ten years after achieving its maximum territorial expansion. This scenario could threaten Pakistan similarly, if there is no agreement among Afghans.

Translated from French by Jon Van Camp


[1] The Taliban did not emerge out of thin air. Some of the madrasas were already functioning during the war against the Soviets, in the summer of 1984, in the area between Arghandab and Kandahar. In this period, the Taliban overwhelmingly adhered to the conservative and clerical Harakat-e Islami party, led by Mohammed Nab Mohammedi. See Ahmed Rashid, “L’Afghanistan a l’heure des talibans,” Le Monde Diplomatique (April 1995).
[2] Observers who put all “Islamic fundamentalists” in the same category do not understand how the United States can support fundamentalists while Iran opposes them. One must distinguish between radical and political Islamism and fundamentalism that has no precise political project. See Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) and Genealogie de l’islamisme radical (Paris: Hachette, 1995).
[3] Coming to power in July 1977, through a military coup which overthrew Ali Bhutto, father of Benazir, Gen. Zia ul Haq led Pakistan until his death in August 1988.
[4] Olivier Roy, “La crise afghane au mirroir des ambitions etrangere,” Le Monde Diplomatique (July 1993).
[5] New York Times, December 31, 1996.
[6] Nur Dolay, “Grandes manoevres dans le Caucase,” Le Monde Diplomatique (July 1995), and Alfonso Artico, “Les talibans afghans sur la route du petrole,” Le Monde Diplomatique (November 1995).
[7] Financial Times, October 3, 1996.
[8] New York Times, December 31, 1996.
[9] A branch of the International Organization for Islamic Aid, directed by a Saudi, was very active in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan.

How to cite this article:

Olivier Roy "The Taliban, the Shari’a and the Pipeline," Middle East Report 202 (Spring 1997).

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