The first execution I saw was in August 1998. All the executions in Kabul take place in the football stadium, and I sat high in the concrete terraces, buying endless small glasses of green tea from a hawker as I waited for the amputations – which precede most Taliban executions – to start. A crowd of around five thousand had filed quietly through the tunnels and onto the stands. Lessons from the Koran were being read aloud over the public address system and people sat and talked and bought nuts and sweet biscuits and cold kebabs. There were no women present but many boys.

Just after three o’clock two men were led into the centre circle of the pitch by a group of Taliban soldiers and made to lie on their stomachs. Their arms were tied behind their backs. For a few minutes, a group of white-coated surgeons huddled around them. The stadium was quiet but for a low murmur of conversation and the cries of the hawkers. Once a hand and a foot had been cut from each of the men tied up on the grass, the white coats retired and the amputees were led away. Later, in the street outside, I saw a Taliban soldier holding the severed hands above his head to keep them away from some children who were jumping up to try and touch them.

Soon another man was brought out from the cab of a pick-up truck that had been driven onto the centre circle. He was made to squat in front of one of the goals. He had no blindfold or hood and I could see lank, dark hair and thin features. The soldiers had tied his hands behind his back though he made no attempt to escape. His movements were awkward and sudden. As I watched him fidget, a mullah at the side of the pitch took a microphone and, through the static, announced that the condemned man was a convicted murderer who was to be punished, according to the principle of an eye for an eye, by the brother of his victim. There was a short pause and some discussion among the soldiers.

Then a man took a kalashnikov from one of the Taliban, and aiming it awkwardly, pulled the trigger. Six or eight rounds rattled out in a sharp, loud burst and the muzzle of the weapon jerked upwards and to the right. The condemned man, still squatting, shuddered and spun round as the bullets hit him, seemed to hold himself upright for a moment and then toppled over onto his side. I saw him turning his head, craning his neck as if looking for something he had left behind. The crowd were on their feet shouting, then there was another short burst of fire and the body shook again. There were long shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’. The small pool of blood was mopped up with rags and, fifteen minutes later, two football teams filed out and started warming up.

It was my first time in Kabul. I have reported many deaths since then – in Ethiopia, Baghdad, Tajikistan, Kashmir, the Gaza Strip – but the two executions in Afghanistan still trouble me. For one thing, I was keen to see them. I wanted to see what an execution was like. I also wanted to be the sort of person who had seen an execution. Besides, they make good copy for the newspaper I work for. In November 1999, an Afghan friend mentioned over lunch that a woman was to be shot that afternoon. I had a professional reason to go: no woman had ever before been executed in such a way by the Taliban. But, as with the first execution, I suspect that I would have gone even if I hadn’t had an excuse.

The Taliban had arrived in Kabul on 26 September 1996. Their first target was President Najibullah. Propped up by the Soviets, Najibullah had ruled Afghanistan from 1986 to 1992 and was living in the UN compound in the north of the city. They found him quickly. He was beaten, castrated, dragged behind a jeep and then shot dead. His brother, too, was killed and their battered bodies were hung from a post by a steel noose in the centre of the city. Cigarettes were forced into their mouths and their pockets were stuffed with money.

The Taliban then set about imposing one of the strictest Islamic regimes anywhere in the world. All women were banned from work, even though they ran the entire primary school system and much of the health system, and young girls were banned from schools. They were ordered to wear the head-to-toe burqa outside the home and not to travel without a male relative. Men were ordered to wear a beard. ‘Western-style’ clothing and haircuts and most music and television were forbidden. So were kite flying, pigeon racing, chess and anything else that might detract from the study of the Koran. Squads of young men from the newly created Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue armed with lengths of cable roamed the streets enforcing the new laws.

The desert city of Kandahar lies three hundred miles south of Kabul and, as the capital of the south-east of the country, is the spiritual and administrative heart of the Taliban movement, which captured the city in the autumn of 1994. Nearly four years later, I was there to meet Osama Bin Laden. His associates in Pakistan had given me the name of a man to contact in Kandahar. I reached the city ten days after bombs had destroyed two American embassies in East Africa and Bin Laden was the prime suspect. Everyone was talking about the West’s imminent retribution and I wasn’t surprised when, in the course of an interview, a Taliban official, putting down his tea and picking up a piece of pomegranate, asked me if I thought the Americans were going to bomb them. No, I said, it would be totally counter-productive. It’s not going to happen.

About twelve hours later, 75 cruise missiles struck the hills that line Afghanistan’s eastern frontier. Operation ‘Infinite Reach’ killed a dozen or so young Pakistanis training to fight in Kashmir, some villagers and a goat. On the night of the strikes I stayed up watching television in a UN compound in Kandahar, waiting for the mob to come over the walls (in Kabul two Westerners were shot, one fatally, within 24 hours of the strikes). On the BBC, I watched Tony Blair enthusiastically endorsing the attacks. Even then they looked petulant; now it is clear they were self-defeating. All they did was turn Bin Laden into a household name throughout the region, if not the world, and recruit thousands to his cause – itself very different from what the Americans believe it to be. The attack undermined the emerging moderate faction within the Taliban. The US authorities have still revealed no hard evidence to back their claim that Bin Laden was responsible for the East Africa bombings, or any of the other atrocities blamed on him.

But Britain backed the strikes, and has supported the ill-conceived UN sanctions that were imposed a year ago to punish the Taliban for refusing to hand over Bin Laden. The sanctions will do nothing to further British interests, and will harm ordinary people. Perhaps the Foreign Office thinks the suffering of civilians here, as in Iraq, is a price worth paying for the eventual deposition of their leaders. Maybe they realise the policy is flawed but feel that reversing it is now impossible. Or perhaps the Government’s support for air strikes and sanctions stems from a misconception of what the Taliban are and what they want. Few know much about them. Putin has told Blair that they are heavily involved in Chechnya, though there is little to substantiate this claim. They are suspected of harbouring ambitions to lead a global jihad – a complete misunderstanding of their ideology. They are, at the same time, men of extreme violence. Yet if much of what they do is inexcusable, it is by no means inexplicable.

In the summer of 1994 a woman living in a village close to Kandahar was abducted by a local warlord. For years much of south-west Afghanistan had been ruled by half a dozen armed gangs who took what, and whom, they wanted. Fifteen years of war had destroyed the economy and the infrastructure, armed the population with modern weapons, brutalised tens of thousands and displaced millions. For the people of Kandahar the woman’s abduction and gang-rape were nothing out of the way. But the reaction was. A group of men from Singesar village, almost all of whom had fought the Soviets from 1979 to 1989, attacked the warlord’s base and freed the raped woman. They were to become the Taliban.

The name means ‘students’ and represents a conscious attempt to distinguish the Taliban’s aims from those of the Mujahideen who had fought the Soviets and, after the fall of Najibullah’s Moscow-backed regime, each other. I believe that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Taliban do, on the whole, want to eliminate violence and return the country to a state of peace.

The majority, particularly the young footsoldiers, have spent most of their lives in exile. Many have grown up in refugee camps in Pakistan and have been educated, if at all, in Islamic schools there. In the camps and schools an uncompromising and conservative version of Islam has fused with the traditions of local tribal society. Almost all the Taliban are from the Pashto-speaking tribes of Afghanistan’s east and south. The Sunni Muslim Pashtoons (Pathans to the British) have traditionally provided the rulers of the country and have dominated its ethnic (largely Tajik and Uzbek) and religious (Shia, Ishmaeli) minorities.

The Taliban’s vision of a perfect society is based on a romanticised idea of rural life before the Soviet invasion, when, they believe, the behavioural code of the Pashtoon tribes – the honour-based Pakhtunwali – was strictly adhered to, women knew their place, harvests were plentiful, everyone was happy. The way to achieve their vision is clear: follow, to the letter, the Shari’a. If everybody can be made to do so – even though coercion is contrary to the spirit of Islam – then, Taliban logic goes, the ideal will be realised. If people persist in straying from the true path then it won’t. Instead of a perfect society in the eyes of God, you get flawed, sinful, violent chaos. Given these high stakes, you can begin to see why the Taliban feel justified in resorting to extreme measures to make people do what they believe is ‘the right thing’. Their programme, contrary to what Putin and the State Department say, is restricted to Afghanistan. There is no real idea of ‘global jihad’. Most of the Taliban would find it difficult to identify their own country on a map let alone the neighbouring states they are supposedly planning to subvert.

The key point is that, for many in Afghanistan, the Taliban are a great improvement on what went before. An Amnesty Report covering the (pre-Taliban) period from 1992 to 1994 was entitled ‘Women in Afghanistan: A Human Rights Catastrophe’. For those who find it difficult to understand why there should be any sympathy for the Taliban the report makes challenging reading. Over that period, it says,

armed groups massacred defenceless women in their homes, or have brutally beaten and raped them. Scores of young women have been abducted and raped, taken as wives by commanders or sold into prostitution . . . Scores of women have . . . ‘disappeared’ and several have been stoned to death . . . The perpetrators are the main Mujahideen groups . . . As territory changes hands after long battles, an entire local population can be subjected to violent retaliatory punishments. The conquerors often celebrate by killing and raping women and looting property.

These days, rape – at least by strangers and soldiers – is relatively rare in Taliban-controlled areas. So is the widespread theft and abduction referred to in the report. The Taliban soldiers are on the whole well-behaved. Wrong-doers in the ranks are punished, often savagely, which wasn’t the case among the Mujahideen groups who preceded them. In much of the country the dismal security situation has been turned round. There is a system of justice and rudimentary policing which, whatever its manifest flaws, does function. I once asked the owner of a roadside tea stall near the eastern town of Ghazni what he felt about the Taliban. ‘Now you could leave a bar of gold in the street overnight and it would be safe,’ he said.

The idea that the Taliban are a universally hated military regime ruling through fear and violence simply doesn’t hold up. The occasional revolts are mostly to do with conscription, which is very unpopular. The repressive edicts that so outrage the West have long been the practice in most of rural Afghanistan, where 80 per cent of the population live. In the rural regions around the western city of Herat a year before the Taliban took control, there were, according to Save the Children UK, nearly 75,000 boys at school and fewer than 2000 girls. In the Afghan countryside women have never gone to school, left the village unaccompanied or chosen their husbands. There is no need to ban television – there aren’t any sets. The 1994 Amnesty Report also says that ‘women have been prevented from exercising several of their fundamental rights . . . to association, of expression and employment – by Mujahideen groups who consider such activities to be un-Islamic.’ So you couldn’t really say that the Taliban are innovators.

In many urban areas the situation is different. Taliban rule in Herat itself is vicious. The city has a predominantly Persian culture and language and is largely populated by Shia Muslims of different ethnic stock from the people of Kandahar. Unlike the south-east and Kabul, Herat was calm, prosperous and relatively liberal when the Taliban seized control in 1995. More than 20,000 girls were then thrown out of school. In the north – in cities like Mazar-e-Sharif and Taloqan – the situation is similar or worse. There the Taliban are indeed an army of occupation.

One reason for the lack of balance in reporting of the Taliban is that coverage is weighted towards the cities. Travel in Afghanistan is arduous, and in towns such as Kabul and Herat the story is simpler: there are obvious villains and heroes. I was surprised, for example, to learn that Kabul had a good war under the Russians. Its tiny middle-class was cultivated by Moscow. They were given good jobs in the new universities or government departments, were sent overseas for training and spent their money in the city’s new cinemas, cafés and restaurants. If they fought at all they fought alongside the Soviets in the Kabul Government forces against the Mujahideen. The war took place out in the mountains and the deserts and the old orchards and wheat fields. It was the villages there – where the Taliban or their fathers grew up – that were bombed and burned (as well as Herat and the northern Panjshir valley). As a result, when the Taliban took Kabul, there was a feeling that it was payback time. The city had been the entry point for the disease that had infected their country. It had to be purged. As the Taliban have little in common with the Kabulis ethnically, linguistically, religiously or culturally, their self-appointed task was that much easier. They set about their purifying mission with zeal.

Yet even in the capital, where people remember the violence that accompanied the fighting in the city before the Taliban took control, I often found a grudging respect for what they had achieved, alongside a deep-seated contempt for their style of government, their relative illiteracy and their fanaticism. ‘These arseholes are arseholes,’ a female doctor – one of the few still permitted to work in the city – told me on a ward in the shattered hulk of Kabul’s children’s hospital. (Our conversation was illegal under Taliban laws about women associating with men outside their family.) ‘But they are better than all the other arseholes we’ve had in the last few years. I might have to wear a burqa but at least I’m not going to get rocketed or raped.’ I often think about the doctor and our illegal conversation. How can I know whether being free from a continual fear of rape is worth being denied the right to education? Improved security is worth what, exactly? And what if you never had any concept of a right to education – or indeed a desire for education – in the first place?

The West, of course, bears a certain responsibility for the current plight of Afghanistan, having contributed billions of pounds to the Mujahideen war effort during the 1980s. Once the job was done, Afghanistan was allowed to fall apart. The Taliban are a function of that chaos. The country is poorer than anywhere else in Asia. Only in Sierra Leone are maternal mortality rates higher. Male life expectancy is 42 years. But there is little help from overseas because no one wants to be seen propping up the Taliban. Potential donor governments run away from anything that might be taken as assisting a pariah regime. The only half-decently funded projects are those aiming to reduce the flow of drugs from the country – a trade until recently taxed by the Taliban – to the West’s junkies, and even here there is an unwillingness to fund crop substitution programmes that might be seen as aiding the administration. It is the Kandahari opium farmer or the Kabuli female doctor and her patients who suffer.

I am not sure whether writing about the two deaths helped anybody understand what was, and is, happening inside Afghanistan. Readers scanning my piece somewhere between the gardening page and the small ads would no doubt have added their voice to the overwhelming consensus that encourages Blair to appear on my flickering TV screen with a mouthful of banalities explaining why Britain backs ludicrous missile strikes or continues to deny sufficient aid to the country.

And so the journalistic justification for my presence disappears and I am left as a tourist and a voyeur. The second execution I saw took place in November and the hills that rim the horizon were white with snow, the threat of winter hanging in the air. Once again I was sitting on the concrete of the football stadium watching a Taliban mullah in a white turban harangue the crowd that had filled the stands. Small groups of young Taliban fighters, with their black turbans bunched low over their tanned foreheads, swaggered past. A new Japanese pick-up truck bounced into the middle of the pitch with three women in light-blue burqas in the back. A group of armed men fanned out around the truck as the woman in the middle, the oldest and frailest, was helped down. She walked unsteadily. She was led to the edge of the penalty box where she knelt down, and turned her head as if unsure of what to do, like a shy child on a school stage looking to her teacher for instruction. ‘This woman is Zarmina, daughter of Ghulam Haznat of Parwan province,’ the mullah told the crowd. ‘She is the mother of seven children. Five months ago she killed her husband Alauddin with a heavy hammer and has confessed her crime. The sentence of death has been upheld by three courts.’ The metallic rasp of the breech being worked on the kalashnikov could be heard from where I was sitting twenty metres away. There was a moment of silence, and I remember the breeze gently lifting the pleated hem of the woman’s burqa. I was glad I couldn’t see her face. Then three shots cracked out and though they were less than a second apart there was time to see the dust spurt twice from the ground in front of her and see, on the third shot, a shard of skull fly out through the air and hit the grass.

Late last month Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s spiritual leader, ordered a purge of un-Islamic images in Afghanistan. His troops have since destroyed thousands of statues and figures, some nearly two thousand years old and many of great cultural value, including the two huge figures of the Buddha that were hacked from the rock above the mountainous central valley of Bamiyan in the third and seventh centuries. Anti-aircraft guns have apparently been turned on them. To us, such vandalism suggests that the Taliban know how to hit the West where it hurts, while playing up to our deeper prejudices. Their behaviour is, after all, exactly what we expect of the turbanned, kalashnikov-wielding, hardline Muslim – a figure who predominates in all our thinking, not only about Afghanistan, but about Islam and the Middle East in general. Some air these prejudices quite freely: the Hindu nationalist Government in New Delhi – who have their own predilection for sectarian demolition – spoke of ‘medieval barbarism’. In Bamiyan, where there have been a number of rebellions by Shia Muslims recently, the destruction of the Buddhas is a powerful demonstration of Taliban authority. It will resonate throughout the country. More than anything, however, it is a giant V-sign shown, with typical Afghan defiance and calculation, at the rest of the world. It’s a gesture born of the Taliban’s frustration that they are still not recognised as their country’s legitimate government, that sanctions remain, that Bin Laden’s presence is still such an issue, that their recent eradication of much of the opium crop – a major source of funds – has been ignored and that the humanitarian crisis affecting much of the country has barely been noticed abroad.

It is also a clear signal of the dominance of the Taliban’s hardliners. When a zealous commander shot up the Bamiyan Buddhas three years ago, he was disciplined and Mullah Omar, pushed by the moderates, decreed that such sites should be shown respect. That order has now been rescinded. Inside Afghanistan, and in the world’s dealings with this isolated country, no one shows much repect or understanding any more.

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Vol. 23 No. 7 · 5 April 2001

Jason Burke's self-description as someone proud to have seen an execution (LRB, 22 March) would, in normal circumstances, merit little more than anthropological interest. Just another visiting European attracted by the particularist values of a remote country which, he implies, should not be judged by universal standards. It's not a view that many people in Afhganistan find acceptable – in particular, the tens of thousands of women who have fled abroad as refugees – but it does correspond to that of the US oil giant Unocal, which is constructing a pipeline in Afghanistan. Unocal's spokesman said in response to criticism from women's groups in the US: we are guests in countries who have sovereign rights and their own political, social and religious beliefs. Confronted with the question of sovereign rights, apologists such as Burke tend to turn a blind eye.

Burke traces the origins of the Taliban to a mass campaign against a particularly violent gang-rape in Kandahar. He is wrong. The Taliban were educated and trained in specialist religious schools in this country, funded by the Saudi regime and under the control of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. They were then despatched across the border together with Pakistani soldiers, officers and heavy armour to capture as much of the country as possible. Afghanistan today is a Pakistani satellite, heavily dependent on Islamabad for economic and military sustenance, though both parties rely a great deal on cultivating the poppy. Pakistan's control of the Taliban is hardly a secret. They may well resent the fact that they are still not recognised as their country's legitimate government but Burke's sympathy for them is misplaced.

Burke also states that the situation is better now than it was while the civil war was raging. This is true, but hardly surprising. Dictators always pride themselves on restoring order. The fact remains that two of the most virulent strains of Islam – Saudi Wahhabism and subcontinental Deobandism – have coalesced to justify and strengthen the deracinated fanaticism that rules Kabul. It was two Saudi clerics who sanctioned the destruction of the statues against the advice of Muslim scholars from rival Sunni and Shia institutes in Cairo and Qom. Contrary to what Burke says, the situation remains unstable. If Pakistan were to withdraw its troops under American or Chinese pressure, the Taliban regime would collapse.

Ahmed Gul

Vol. 23 No. 8 · 19 April 2001

Even thirty years ago, travel in rural Afghanistan was, as Jason Burke says, arduous (LRB, 22 March). I was glad of armed guards on the vegetable truck I hitched from Bamiyan to Kabul, after a friendly warning that undefended vehicles were sometimes hijacked by opium smugglers, religious zealots and plain, old-fashioned bandits – and this was in the good old days, when Afghanistan still had a king and Kabul a Western-educated middle class. Burke is, however, wrong to reproach himself as a voyeur for witnessing a second public execution, with no clear journalistic justification, after reporting the first he had seen.

Sharp-end reporters of earlier generations felt the same self-doubts: why, I often asked myself, was I accompanying yet another body-count, or watching yet another village going up in flames, when these generic Vietnam stories had already been written to death? The answer, I have decided in my tranquil Japanese mountain village, is that omnivorous curiosity is a reporter's best motivation, and the psychological strain of calmly watching detestable activities goes with the job.

Murray Sayle
Aikawa, Japan

Vol. 23 No. 11 · 7 June 2001

Jason Burke (LRB, 22 March) ignores the principal cause of the fighting in Afghanistan since 1992: Pakistan’s campaign to overthrow any Afghan authority unwilling to enforce its hegemony. Ever since the ‘wrong’ Afghans, led by Ahmad Shah Masood, toppled the Communist regime in 1992, Pakistan’s military has fielded a motley series of opposition militias to get rid of them. The Taliban are merely the most recent and successful of these groups. They are opposed by many Afghans not just on account of their brutality and obscurantism, but because they are quislings.

Burke cites a discreditable, poorly researched 1994 Amnesty International report. ‘For those who find it difficult to understand why there should be any sympathy for the Taliban the report makes challenging reading,’ he says. I had been reporting from Kabul for AP and the Economist for over two years when the Amnesty report came out. It painted an unrecognisable picture of life in Kabul, taking obvious cues from Pakistani propaganda. It was researched almost entirely in refugee camps in Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, where local authorities were known to be in league with Pakistani Intelligence. Amnesty glossed over profound distinctions between the brutal and unrepresentative factions besieging the capital on Pakistan’s behalf, and its much better behaved defenders led by Masood.

Burke claims the Taliban have no interest in exporting their practices; he ignores the presence of Central Asian and Pakistani militants whom the Taliban arm and train on Afghan soil. He criticises US cruise-missile potshots and half-hearted UN sanctions, but for the wrong reasons. The missiles were launched on Monica Lewinsky’s account, not Osama bin Laden’s. As for the sanctions, they hurt ordinary Afghans exactly as much as the Taliban want them to. Afghans understand this; so the sanctions should stand, to encourage unrest. Uprisings will fail, however, without solid military backing.

Burke speaks of unrest in the Taliban heartland over the militia’s press-gangs. But he ignores the factor that made volunteers scarce and press-gangs necessary: the battlefield reverses that Masood has inflicted on the Taliban. Independent reports suggest that one third of the Taliban’s foot-soldiers are Pakistani or Arab militants. Even apolitical Afghans understand that it’s not a civil war.

John Jennings
Flushing, New York

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