The Civil War & The Rise of the Taliban: A Brief History of Afghanistan, pt 2

Part 1 | Part 2

Afghanistan has always been a country of valleys. Only 12% of Afghan soil is arable, just half of which is actually cultivated due to water scarcity, making Afghanistan one of the driest, roughest patches of territory in the world. What water can be had is usually sourced from the mountains, the single immutable feature of country life. Life on the slopes themselves can be a struggle, so Afghans tend to live around the mountains or between them, huddled together in narrow valleys. It can take days travel from one valley to the next. Unsurprisingly, such difficult conditions were not conducive to the development of a centralized state, either endogenously or through outside intervention.
On the other hand, the conventional image of the wild, hirsute tribesman of the Afghan frontier perpetually fighting back modernity and foreign invaders–which, in the eyes of said invaders, were invariably the same thing–doesn’t tell the whole story either. Before the modern era, Afghanistan was not a “graveyard of empires.” Some foreign campaigners proved victorious, such as teh Arab and Persian armies that, over centuries, brought Islam. And others regarded the country as nothing more than a convenient buffer, looking beyond it for riches. The British, for example, may have fought, and lost, battles on Afghan soil, but the real prize was India.
For a long time, the people of Afghan valleys herded sheep and goats. Wealth in pastoral societies is a peculiar thing, because, being on the hoof, it can wander off or be pilfered or slaughtered. WIth too little to go around and no state to enforce property relations, fighting could be frequent and brutal. You adapted by leaning on those you trusted most: first your immediate family, then your cousins, your cousins’ cousins, and so on. Clannishness, in other words, was not a symptom of Afghans’ preternaturally backward ways, but rather a sensible response to harsh and precarious conditions. Over time, the mountain dwellers developed complicated kinship networks of trust and solidarity, organized into groups called “tribes” that they believed had descended from a common ancestor. Hundreds of Pashtun tribes, large and small, are scattered across the country.
In the lawless mountains, you needed strategies–conscious or otherwise–to survive. On the one hand, you had to stand ready to defend yourself against slights and intrusions, as there was no outside authority, no central government, to call upon. On the other, it was no less prudent to attempt to elicit the best in others, to promote generosity and hospitality. In fact, the two approaches tended to work in tandem, typifying what some sociologists call a culture of honor. Of course, Afghan tribal society, with its feuding clans and warm hospitality, is the prototypical honor culture, but to varying degrees you can find such societies wherever life is rugged, resources scarce, and the state absent, from the deserts of Arabia to the highlands of Scotland–and even closer to home, in the 19th century Appalacian foothills of the Hatfields and the McCoys.
For the ancient Pashtun mountain families, anything that marauding rivals could plunder was worth protecting and controlling–and this included women. Females were a family commodity; in some cases, mountain clains even tattooed their animals and their women with the same markings. As pastoralists settled into sedentary agricultural life, the intimate clustering of village communities curtailed women’s freedoms even further. A woman became the embodiment of her family’s “honor,” always signaling, through her behavior, the virtues of her parents and siblings. To safeguard this honor, families cloistered their women in the home, separating them completely from unrelated menfolk. Men inhabited the public sphere, women the private. This practice of seclusion, called purdah, became the dominant form of sexual organization in much of rural southern Afghanistan, varying in degree from village to village but almost always present in some form. If a woman needed to venture into the public sphere, purdah was preserved symbolically through the burqa. There’s nothing quintessentially Afghan or Islamic about purdah; it predates Islam, and can also be found in non-Muslim contexts, such as in certain Indian Hindu villages.
To mention all of this is not to say that purdah is the “natural” state of things. Indeed, there is no immutable natural state–Afghan societies, like all societies, are forever transforming themselves. By the 20th century, purdah’s emotional and symbolic power had driven urban elites into a culture war with traditional rural forces. Over decades, reformers campaigned to dismantle the system, their movement culminating in the 1959 decision that allowed women to unveil (and may have helped spark violent riots in Kandahar that left 60 people dead). By the 1970s, life in cities like Kabul, where women went to school, took jobs, and married relatively late, felt ages removed from the Pashtun countryside.
Following the Soviet invasion, the Communists, to their credit, passed decrees making girls’ education compulsory and abolishing certain oppressive tribal customs–such as the bride-price, a payment to the bride’s family in return for her hand in marriage. However, by massacring thousands of tribal elders, they paved the way for the “commanders” (warlords) to step in as the new elite. Aided by American and Saudi patronage, extremism flourished. What had once been a social practice confined to areas deep in the hinterlands now became a political practice, which, according to ideologues, applied to the entire country. The modest gains of urban women were erased.
In rural Uruzgan, a woman did not step outside of her compound. The first time a woman enters her husband’s house, she wears white–her wedding dress–and the first time she leaves, she wears white–the color of the Muslim funeral shroud. In an emergency, she required the company of a male blood relative to leave, and then only with her father’s or husband’s permission. Even the sound of her voice carried a hint of subversion, so she was kept out of hearing range of unrelated males. When the man of the house was not present, boys were disaptched to greet visitors. Unrelated males also did not inquire directly about a female member of the house. Asking “how is your wife?” qualified as somewhere between uncomfortably impolite and downright boorish. The markers of a woman’s life–births, anniversaries, funerals, prayer, feasts–existed entirely within the four walls of her home. Gossip, hopscotching from living room to living room, was carried by husbands or sons.
In 1994, the civil war was in its second year. Every attempt to cobble together some sort of detente between the rival factions had failed spectacularly. The Russians and Americans, whose interventions had brought this state of affairs about, had lost all interest in the country. Osama bin Laden was living in Sudan, and al-Qaeda as we know it today did not yet exist. Nor did the Taliban. Instead, a country of 30 million that had at once been the center of the Cold War was now quietly and anonymously devouring itself.
Although fighting was less intense in Uruzgan than Kabul, rival warlords–chief among them Jan Muhammad–were locked in a bloody power struggle, leaving the road dotted with rogue checkpoints and militia posts. Heela’s house was a squat, one-story structure designed to honor the local virtues of family, privacy, and hospitality. A large compound wall of tawny mud bricks surrounded the property, with holes punched through to examine visitors. Upon entering you found yourself in a small courtyard, where weeds and crabgrass had edged onto the walkway. To the left sat a guest room, the qintessential mark of a southern home, set off by itself so that visitors might not inadvertently glimpse a female. A pair of apple trees stood near the opposite wall. It took about 20 paces to get from the main gate to the front door.
Had Heela been able to leave the compound, she would have found a bucolic hamlet of about 50 homes, each very much like hers. There was no main road; instead, a web of narrow dirt tracks running between farm fields, connecting one house to the next. Heela’s village was one among dozens that peppered the basin of the mountain range, which stretched as far as she could see. In total, about 50 thousand people lived in Khas Uruzgan District, most of them farmers and herders. If the women rarely left their homes, the men did not venture much farther–some had never set foot outside the district in their lives.
Out here you lived by nature’s rhythms, rising and returning with the sun, growing the food your family ate and sewing the clothes they wore. Without electricity there were no televisions or telephones, although by the late 1990s hand-cranked radios were making an appearance. To hear the latest news you visited the bazaar, a ramshackle row of windowless one-room shops fashioned out of old shipping containers, each with corrugated iron shutters and straw flooring. Out in front hung signs for Iranian colas, Pakistani biscuits, spare tired, and jerry cans of gasoline, which you could purchase once a week when the fuel truck came through.
The shops flanked an uneven dirt road, on one end of which stood the government office, where the local governor normally lived, and on the other an old schoolhouse. In 1994, both were vacant. When a car passed through, men and boys would step out of their shops and look. The nearest town, Tirin Kot, Uruzgan’s capital, was 7 hours away, on a highway running through multiple militia checkpoints. Even in more peaceful times, however, news came slowly. When the Americans appeared in 2001, some villagers assumed that the white-skinned interlopers were the Soviets.
At first, with roadblocks and bandits, it had taken weeks for goods to reach the village; by autumn, they were not arriving at all. Prices soared. People relied on subsistence farming. Almost daily, bodies were being dumped in the mountains, victims of war and hunger. There were days when the snowcapped peaks looked as if they were some premonition of the winter and the hardship to come. As if death were now the common order of the land, the only principle binding country and city, men and women, holy warriors and Communists alike. And it may well have become so, if not for a new force that arose suddenly in the south to change everything.
Drive away from Uruzgan, taking the sole rutted pebble road running southeast, you’ll cross miles of low open brush in Ghazni Province, then wheat fields and apricot thickets, and farther on dry scrubland again, leading up to the barren gravel hills of the province of Paktika. In 3 decades of war much has changed, but in this corner of the country you can still find a smattering of hill tribes clinging, against the odds, to their old ways of life. They make a good starting point for those looking to excavate Afghanistan’s distant past. Surprisingly, however, they also carry a more contemporary relevance: a glimpse into the obscure origins of the Taliban. Most writing on the Taliban assumes that they originated in extremist Pakistani madrasses in the 1980s. In fact, the group’s origins lie much deeper in the Afghan past.
Visiting Pakitka in 2010, I came upon a small hilltop village where locals had gathered around a silent, downcast man. Nearby, a young herder paced back and forth, watching him intently, and off to a side, tribal graybeards stood conferring. One of the approached, pushing his way through the scrum, and announced a verdict: for killing Rahim Gul’s cow, Moheb Jan was to pay him 2 sheep and 20 days’ worth of labor.
Afterward, I sat down with the elder, who explained that each transgression in his community carried a fixed fine. Break someone’s nose in a fight, and you gave him a chicken. Break a bone, and you surrendered a sheep or goat. murder, depending on the circumstances, could cost you a peace of land, your house, or even one of your women, who would go to the victim’s family in marriage.
This was how the hillspeople had learned to live with each other in a world without a state or police or judicial system. Each tribe had its own set of intricate rules, decided by elders elected by the clan’s entire male population. The elders derived their status from experience and the respect traditionally accorded to the aged. No man, however, outranked another in rights, and it was rare for one family to possess significantly more than any other. For men, at least, a deep egalitarian ethos ran through the tribal system.
For a long time, most of the Pashtun belt had functioned this way. Eventually, however, when some tribes moved down from the mountains into agricultural settlements, certain enterprising individuals developed ties with distant state authorities, and soon hierarchies sprang up. In 18th-century Kandahar, for example, the Safavid Empire of Persia had established suzerainty, incorporating tribal figures of their liking into their military or using them as intermediaries in dealing with the native population. The egalitarian system of the mountains slowly gave way to one dominated by tribal strongmen, and decisions were increasingly made not through traditional tribal law but on the whims and biases of a small clique of notables. It was not long before Kandahari tribes were the most thoroughly hierarchical in the country.
As a consequence, a different form of justice grew in popularity as an alternative to the tribal system: religious law, or sharia. Like tribal law, religious law expressed itself in a detailed set of punishments and restitutions for particular crimes. Its main practitioners were mullahs, who led Friday sermons and could adjudicate disputes. To become a mullah, you studied for up to 12 years in a madrassa, where you learned the intricacies of Islamic law, along with history, philospohy, and logic. In Pashto, such students were called taliban. Because a mullah was guaranteed employment for life, this was a course of study particularly well suited to those from the humblest backgrounds. It was in greater Kandahar, where tribal structures were the weakest, that the taliban were most fully integrated into social life.
In times of strife, taliban have usually mobilized in defense of tradition. British documents from as early as 1901 decry taliban opposition to colonialism in present-day Pakistan. However, as with so much else, it was the Soviet invasion and the US response that sent the transformative shock. In the 1980s, as guns and money coursed through the ranks of the Kandahar mujahideen, squabbling over resources grew so frequent that many increasingly turned to religious law to settle their disputes. Small, informal bands of taliban, who were also battling against the Russians, established religious courts that heard cases from feuding fighters from across the south. Seemingly impervious to the lure of foreign riches, the taliban courts were in many eyes the last refuge of tradition in a world in upheaval.
After the Soviet withdrawal, intra-mujahideen bickering exploded into outright warfare, but the talibs would have no part of it and put their weapons down, retiring to a life of preaching and study. They watched as Kandahar plunged into a civil war as brutal and rapacious as Kabul’s, a near-total breakdown of society with rogue gunment and militias running wild.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man in king–and in Kandahar, this one-eyed man turned out to be a small-time taliban preacher named Mullah Muhammad Omar. A minor figure known only for his bravery (he lost his eye in battle against the Soviets), he was part of a burgeoning movement of talibs looking to end the terror. With an unfailing air of simplicity and modesty, Omar was seen as less politically ambitious than his colleagues, and was soon anointed by the movement as its leader. “The religion of God is being stepped on, the people are openly displaying evil,” he said in a speech at the time, “and the evil ones have taken control of the whole area; they steal people’s money, they attack their honor on the main street, they kill people and put them against the rocks on the side of the road, and the cars pass by and see the dead body on the side of the road, and no ones dares to bury him in the earth.”
Thousands of talibs rallied to the cause, and an informal, centuries-old phenomenon of the Pashtun countryside morphed into a formal political and military movement, the Taliban. As a group of judges and legal-minded students, the Taliban applied themselves to the problem of anarchy with an unforgiving platform of law and order. The mujahideen had lost their way, abandoned their religious principles, and dragged society into a lawless pit. So unlike most revolutionary movements, Islamic or otherwise, the Taliban did not seek to overthrow an existing state and substitute it with one to their liking. Rather, they sought to build a new state where none existed. This called for eliminating the abritrary rule of the gun and replacing it with the rule of law–and for countryside judges who had arisen as an alternative to a broken tribal system, this could mean religious law.
Jurisprudence is thus part of the Taliban’s DNA, but its single-minded pursuit was carried out to the exclusion of all other aspects of basic governance. It was an approach that flirted dangerously with the wrong kind of innovation: in the countryside, the choice was traditionally yours whether to seek justice in religious or in tribal courts, yet now the Taliban mandated religious law as the compulsory law of the land. It is true that, given the nature of the civil war, any law was better than none at all–but as soon as things settled down, fresh problems arose. The Taliban’s jurisprudence was syncretic, mixing elements from disaprate schools of Islam along with heavy doses of traditional countryside Pashtun practice that had little to do with religion. As a result, once the Taliban marched beyond the rural Pashtun belt and into cities like Kabul or the ethnic minority regions of northern Afghanistan, they encountered a resentment that rapidly bred opposition.
So the Taliban’s history is fraught with complication. But the important point is that they, like so many other factions in Afghanistan, were never an alien force. Rather, they were as Afghan as kebabs or the Hindu Kush–a fact that US soldiers would learn the hard way.
When winter came to Khas Uruzgan, the meadows were left yellow and ruined, the mountain passes and roads buried under snow. Life retreated indoors, and no news from the outside would come until springtime. It had always been that way, until one winter afternoon in early 1995, when neighbors informed each other the war was over. In the bazaar, you found Toyota jeeps with rocket launchers piled in the back and some mullahs milling nearby. The big landowning families and the major warlords were surrendering their weapons to the new authorities. If the men of the bazaar rejected the rule of the Taliban mullahs, they did not show it. Instead, they approached, one after another, to kiss their hands and thank God for peace.
As the weeks passed, it transpired that life went on much as before, except that now you could drive the breadth of the district without worry, which meant that the shops were stocked once again and the prices sttled back down to reason. There was no whip-wielding religious police because the men of Khas Uruzgan had beards and prayed regularly anyway. There was no shuttering of girls’ schools or orders for women to stay indoors because there had been no such schools to begin with and women were confined to the home as it was. With no TVs or cameras, the ban on moving images meant nothing. Heela might have disliked the injunction against music, but the civil war had already rendered outdoor music parties obsolete, and no one would stop her from listening to her cassettes in the privacy of her own home.
In time, she grew to appreciate her new rulers. She was pleased to learn that authorities were clamping down on the tribal practice of using females to settle fueds, for which they found no sanction in their version of religious law. They were even prepared to look te other way when the stubborn details of state making clashed with deeply held beliefs. When the wife of Mullah Abbas, the new Taliban minister of health, fell ill, he ran up against the prohibition of contact between women and male doctors and nurses, which had created a dire shortage of female medical practitioners. In response, he pushed for the creation of a nurse training program in Kabul. One afternoon in 1998, Abbas, a Khas Uruzgan native, called Heela’s husband to explain that Heela, one of the few educated women in the district (she studied in Kabul before the Soviet invasion), had been selected to participate.
Heela and two others, with chaperones, were taken in a van across a gutted country, along highways that lay ruined but bandit-free. They arrived in the city of her birth on a quiet spring day. From the car, she stared at what had become of her childhood streets: crippled beggars wheeling themselves about, roads torn seemingly beyond repair, almost no traffic anywhere, whole neighborhoods lying in apocalyptic ruins. She turned away, wondering how Muslims could have done this to themselves.
For 6 months, she trained under the watchful eye of her Taliban supervisors and was not allowed outdoors even once. But the work was engaging, and as she roomed with women from other provinces, it almost felt like her university days. She learned midwifery and basic nursing, and it filled her with hope that she might be able to make Khas Uruzgan her own, that she might carve out a future for herself there.
Back home, news of a woman with medical skills spread quickly through the village. Husbands started to bring in their pregnant wives or ailing mothers. For many women, it was their first trip outside in years. Some even feigned illness for the opportunity.
From her patients, Heela learned that extended confinement had varied psychological effects. For some, the compound walls so completely delineated the limits of their universe that they had developed something akin to agoraphobia. For others, especially those who’d had a taste of freedom in childhood, the internment of married life plunged them into depression. (One favored method of suicide was self-immolation; another was throwing oneself down a well). A 3rd group, certainly the largest, adapted to their confinement, if only because it was the sole world they had ever known.
Although she was a transplant from Kabul, Heela herself had been slipping into this last category as the demands of the household and her growing family consumed her. After Omaid had come Jamshed, now rapidly turning into a springing toddler, and then Nawid and Walid, baby boys born just a year apart. Weeks and months bled into years, and the 1990s drew to a close. “We all thought that life would just on that way, forever,” she said.

Adapted from “No Good Men Among the Living” by Anand Gopal p73-84.
Read about the rebirth of the Taliban:
Read the Afghanistan Papers


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