In 1994, when the Taliban set out to become the government of Afghanistan, their plan was to replace the anarchy of tribal warfare with Islamic order. The strange thing is that there are still people who think they accomplished what they promised.
It would have been a miracle if that had happened, since the Taliban had no experience in anything but fighting, and no policies beyond a virulent level of religious belief and a pretentious name meaning "students of Islamic knowledge." In achieving power, they demonstrated the weakness of the tribal leaders and the strength of their own murderous passions. But they used power carelessly. The people of Afghanistan, glad to see the warlords vanish, soon discovered that the Taliban's "orderly" regime was worse.
In an argument against Canada's Afghanistan mission, Rick Salutin in The Globe and Mail recently suggested that invading Afghanistan to depose the Taliban was a mistake--after all, the Taliban "at least provided security." The words "at least" made me sit up. They often introduce a political fairy tale. Long ago, people said of Benito Mussolini that he may have been a brutal tyrant but "at least he made the trains run on time."
That's a common mistake in thinking about dictatorships. Tyrants heavily influence information, letting foreigners know as little as possible. A myth of efficiency grows around them. The story about Italian trains, a favourite for many years, has often been debunked. Under Mussolini, they sometimes ran on time, sometimes not. More or less as before.
And the Taliban? No, they didn't provide security. All to the contrary, as we can learn by reading The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan (Harvard University Press), a new collection of articles edited by Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi. Neither editors nor contributors support U.S. policy. They think the invasion intensified the struggle between militant Islam and the West by drawing Afghans into world politics. It made many Afghans feel part of a global Muslim community; now they demonstrate against Israel or Danish cartoons or whatever else appears on the agenda.
But Crews, Tarzi and the rest leave us with a sense that the Taliban provided nothing you could call security. Their regime was not only harsh but also arbitrary. They exhibited a willful eccentricity that must have left the population baffled. Laws went far beyond a rigid dress code for women and strict supervision of male-female meetings. The Taliban made it illegal to train pigeons, play drums or fly a kite.
Crimes, particularly sexual crimes, drew spontaneously created punishments. On one occasion, the 36-year-old Mullah Omar, Commander of the Faithful and head of government, dreamt up a particularly bizarre and labour-intensive form of public execution. Three men, having been convicted of sodomy, were partly buried in the ground. Then a bulldozer pushed the wall of a house onto them.
Lutz Rzehak, a professor from Humboldt University in Berlin, contributes a piece called Remembering the Taliban, drawn from data he gathered in Nimroz Province, a southwestern region, much of it desert, that borders both Iran and Pakistan. Instead of security, the Taliban brought Nimroz a grotesque parody of government.
First they sent in a governor who had family roots in Nimroz but couldn't speak the local language. Like many Taliban, he had been brought up speaking Urdu in Pakistan. For his own convenience, he made Urdu the language of administration. Those who couldn't speak Urdu, which meant most of the residents, were turned away when they applied for government help. There were three more governors between the years 1995-2001. Two of them, both the products of Afghan enclaves in Pakistan, are remembered as barbarous and, when it came to local customs, woefully ignorant.
One carried a stick and struck people with it. He also burned down the library, with its 15,000 books. Next came a mullah who concentrated on amassing a personal fortune by running drugs across the border and confiscating property. He fled when the American bombs began falling in November, 2001.
In 2008, sad to say, the revived Taliban are again active in Nimroz. They encourage opium growers and then seize part of their profits. They also deploy human bombs. In one recent week, two Taliban suicide bombers attacked in Nimroz. One killed an Afghan soldier and a baby; the other wounded a Canadian soldier. If Nimroz is to have a secure life it remains far in the future. It's hard to imagine that it will be provided by the Taliban.