11 September 2001>News Stories>The Legacy of the Taliban Is a Sad and Broken Land

The Legacy of the Taliban Is a Sad and Broken Land
Dexter Filkins . NYTimes . 31 December

SANGESAR, Afghanistan, Dec. 27 — When the last of the Taliban fled into the desert three weeks ago, the neighbors of Mullah Muhammad Omar wasted no time in celebrating his downfall.

They rushed to the madrasa, the religious school he built more than a decade ago, tore the wood frames off the doors and window panes and burned them for heat. They carried the straw mats to their homes, boxed up the books that Mullah Omar regarded as too important to be handled by the local boys.

Today, the Islamic school started by the founder of the Taliban stands empty, a mud-brick monument to the rise and fall of a man and his creed.

"We didn't trust him," said Abdul Muhammad, a 25-year-old farmer in Sangesar. He was not born in the village, and "he kept to himself," Mr. Muhammad said. "Nobody went with him."

And so the Taliban, the radical Islamic movement, died here at the outskirts of Kandahar, seven years after it came to life in the nearly the same spot. It had risen from the desert, forcing itself through a historical opening left by the breakup of the Soviet Union, the opportunism of Afghanistan's neighbors, and the growing appeal of radical Islam in a world shorn of its cold war faiths.

Full of itself, the Taliban flourished outside the gaze of the world's remaining superpower, the United States, finally giving succor to the terrorists that would invite its own doom. As a revolutionary movement, the Taliban burned hot and fast.

The Afghanistan the Taliban left behind is a sad and broken land. To a visitor, the country seems an almost apocalyptic place, scattered with ruins and orphans and the detritus of wars.

In the five years that the Taliban held the capital, their record as a government might be measured by the numbers they produced: nearly one million refugees, joining the million others who had already left and refused to come home; six million Afghans, a quarter of the country, unable to find enough food.

But the real legacy of the Taliban rule lies deeper and is harder to grasp. A journey around Afghanistan, beginning on the border with Tajikistan and ending 400 miles away in Kandahar, revealed deep psychological wounds in a people still struggling with the torment of a government regarded by many as oppressive and strange.

In Kandahar, a 30-year-old man named Hekmatullah walks the streets in search of a new career. Five years before, he was a taxi driver, and then he was accused of theft, and his right hand was severed by the Taliban's religious police. Now he keeps the stump of his right hand hidden in a scarf lest anyone see.

"I am a joke to you," he snarled at an acquaintance." Everyone knows what happened to me."

Syed Sher Agha, a 26-year-old English teacher, grapples most nights with the memories of his two cousins, slain by a Taliban soldier in Mazar-i-Sharif three years ago. The gunman had bickered with his comrades for the opportunity to do the deed, and when he finished, Mr. Agha recalls, the Talib took pleasure in his work.

"I am a Ghazi," the man had exulted, meaning a victorious holy warrior.

In Kabul, the widows gather in front of the city's most fashionable shops, hustling and fighting one another for the scraps tossed to them by the luckier in life. It is a pathetic scene, these grown and mature women, their faces shrouded in filthy burkas, sometimes tearing the worthless Afghani notes thrown their way.

"Please, mister," Sheela, a 40-year-old widow and mother of six, called to a passerby recently on Flower Street. "I haven't any food for my children."

The widows of Kabul may be viewed as Exhibit A for the Taliban's indifference to their own. Nearly one in eight families in Kabul is believed to be headed by widows, and most have children. But under the Taliban, they were not permitted to work.

The World Food Program had started an ingenious project, setting up a string of bakeries that allowed a group of widows to bake bread for money and provide food for the rest. The program's directors said they wanted to survey the city, to see who was at need and who was not, according to Peter Goossens, the program's deputy director in Afghanistan. . The Taliban balked.

Several times, Mr. Goossens said, he thought that he had reached an agreement with the Taliban to survey Kabul's households to find all of its widows, only to return to the next meeting to find that he had not. He was led to wonder whether the Taliban leaders ever really understood what it was he wanted to do.

The survey was never completed.

"Sometimes, I thought the Taliban were from another century," Mr. Goossens said. "And sometimes I thought they were from another planet."

The Taliban stood as the embodiment of a nation, but succeeded only in gaining the allegiance of their own ethnic group, the Pashtuns, and in the end they lost that, too. It is now clear that as the end drew closer, only a combination of drugs, Pakistani help and the largesse of the world's most wanted man kept them afloat.

Osama bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan in 1996, with the Americans already regarding him as a stateless sponsor of terrorism. Over the years he exerted ever greater influence over the Taliban. Afghanistan became a training ground for terrorists.

It seemed that the Taliban leadership and Al Qaeda increasingly became one. "Sometimes, Osama would walk in, take out a lot of money and give it to everyone," said Muhammad Khaksar, the Taliban's deputy minister for the interior who stayed behind in Kabul when the rest of his comrades fled.

With the Taliban having dispersed, some of its leaders now claim that a moderate faction had been struggling to expel Mr. bin Laden from Afghanistan. A less confrontational approach by the United States, those Taliban say, might have succeeded in neutralizing Mr. bin Laden before Sept. 11. And afterward, they say, the Americans pulled the trigger too quickly on their military response.

"We needed more time, two weeks," Sohail Shaeen, the Taliban's deputy ambassador to Pakistan, said in an interview. "The rank and file of the Taliban were opposed to bin Laden; even some in the leadership were."

At the same time, Mr. Shaeen said, many in the Taliban grew frustrated with Mullah Omar's increasingly autocratic style and with the heavy-handed ways of his dreaded religious police.

"All the decisions were made by one man," Mr. Shaeen said, referring to Mullah Omar. "Many of us were frustrated." It is unclear whether such emotions were authentic or have been manufactured since the Taliban's fall.

American diplomats said they had given any moderates who might have existed in the Taliban every chance to step forward, before and after Sept. 11. But such Taliban never succeeded in making a difference, if they were ever there at all. When the two sides did meet, American diplomats said they could barely comprehend each other.

"Every time I met with these guys, I felt like I was going back to the 14th century," said William Milam, the United States ambassador to Pakistan until July."They never saw the connection between what Al Qaeda did and what their own fate and responsibilities were."

Even Mullah Omar seemed to sense that the end was near. Six months ago, while Mr. bin Laden plotted his attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mullah Omar told a confidant that he was prepared to take all of Afghanistan down with him.

"He knew he might lose power; he knew that he might be killed," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist who spoke to Mullah Omar regularly over the years. "He said half of his country had been destroyed in the jihad, and that if the other half had to destroyed to protect bin Laden, then so be it."

Mullah Omar
No Charisma,
Just Pakistani Money

Mullah Omar rose as quickly as he fell, propelled to power not by charisma but by the geopolitical maneuverings of his friends. Like many successful leaders, he had a vision and a wealthy patron. For Mullah Omar, the patron was Pakistan.

The reclusive mullah, now believed to be in hiding in southern Afghanistan, was a dour, soft-spoken cleric in Sangesar, a wounded veteran of the jihad against the Soviets, when he was stirred to holy war once again. It was the summer of 1994, five years after the Soviet Union had departed in defeat, and Afghanistan had collapsed into an anarchy of competing warlords. In a story now part of the Afghan folklore, Mullah Omar gathered his men and attacked a group of warlords who had raped and shaved the head of a girl.

By the end of that year, Mullah Omar had nearly 12,000 followers, and he was rolling up the warlords to the north and east. With his promise of restoring the centrality of Islam to daily life, he had created a genuine popular movement.

In early 1996, as Mullah Omar swept across the country, his main rival, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, sent an envoy to take the measure of the man. Mr. Hekmatyar's messenger was stunned by what he saw.

"I was prepared for a strong and magnetic leader," said Syed Idris, the envoy. "This was a very ordinary Afghan. He was uninspiring, without charisma. He had no idea about what was happening in the world. He knew only jihad."

Even with the popular support, the Taliban might have withered were it not for the intervention of their neighbor to the east.

The Pakistani government had nurtured the Islamic revival that drove the war against the Soviet Union, and then watched with frustration as the fighters they helped began savaging one another. The Pakistanis had long harbored a vision of a stable Afghanistan as a gateway to the oil riches of Central Asia, and as a counterweight against India.

For the Pakistanis, the turning point came in 1994, when one of their convoys bearing relief supplies was held hostage by Afghan warlords. As Pakistani officials negotiated the convoy's release, Mullah Omar's men attacked, wiped out the bandits and sent the convoy on its way.

From that point on, former Taliban and Pakistani officials said, Pakistani intelligence officers began funneling arms, money and supplies to the Taliban, as well as military advisers to help guide them in battle.

The Pakistani government had served as the paymaster for the Americans during the war against the Soviets. With the Taliban, they carried on the same role, with American money and with their own. "The Taliban was not a creation of Pakistan, but a logical outcome of the war against the Soviets," said Mirza Aslam Beg, former chief of the Pakistan armed forces.

Not everyone saw it that way. Mr. Idris, the former aide to Mr. Hekmatyar, was so unimpressed by Mullah Omar that he concluded that he was merely a stand-in for a foreign government.

Years later, when he became chief of foreign intelligence for the Northern Alliance, Mr. Idris unearthed evidence justifying his skepticism: The Pakistanis, he said, had funneled as much as $10 million a year to the Taliban, much of it hidden in the budget for the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul.

"Omar was a puppet of the Pakistanis," Mr. Idris said.

For all its logistical and monetary help, Pakistan's most important contribution to the Taliban was people: the thousands of madrasa students who flooded across the border to join the Afghan militia. They did so at the urgings of their mullahs, who told them that it was their Islamic duty.

Indeed, it often seemed there was little the Pakistani government could have done to stop the holy warriors even if it had wanted to. The border was too long and too desolate, the madrasas were too numerous.

The Islam that flourished in the Pakistani madrasas found its theological roots not in the mainline of the religion but in an offshoot, the Deobandi movement. The Deobandi creed, based in India, exalted extreme austerity and the subjugation of women. The mullahs in Pakistan added their own touches, including the emphasis on holy war. Many of the Taliban's top leaders, including Mullah Omar, studied at Deobandi madrasas.

Mullah Omar remained an enigma until the end of his reign. He shied away from cameras, thinking human images un-Islamic. His followers claimed he was an austere and serious man, but he seemed to enjoy his status and the comforts it conferred.

When he left Sangesar seven years ago to bring about a Taliban victory, Mullah Omar had a modest mud-brick home, a wife and a son. At the height of his power, he had three wives, lived in a gaudy estate and called himself "the Leader of the Faithful."

"He was a simple man unaccustomed to the perks of power," Mr. Yusufzai, the Pakistani journalist who met regularly with Mullah Omar, said. "But over time he found that he liked them."

Bin Laden
A New Cash Cow
For the Taliban

In May 1996, Mr. bin Laden arrived by chartered jet at Jalalabad Airport. For all the sacrifices that Mullah Omar later made on his behalf, he came originally as the guest of a local warlord, Yunis Khalis. When the Taliban emerged as the dominant force in Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden went with them.

The Arab Afghans, the name given to the foreigners who had fought against the Soviet Union, had been in Afghanistan for years; many of them played a weekly volleyball game on the outskirts of Kabul long after the jihad against the Soviet Army was over.

As the ensuing civil war dragged on and the Taliban became more isolated, Mullah Omar turned to the Arabs for support. The Arabs were some of the Taliban's toughest fighters, often far more so than the Afghans themselves. And they had money.

Wahidullah Sabawoon, the finance minister for the Northern Alliance, said financial records of the Taliban indicated that the movement faced growing shortfalls of money in the late 1990's.

There was no annual budget, Mr. Sabawoon and his aides said; the Taliban appeared to spend $300 million a year, nearly all of it on the war. In the last few years of their rule, he said, the Taliban had come to rely increasingly on three sources of money: "poppy, the Pakistanis and bin Laden."

Mr. Khaksar, the former Taliban deputy interior minister, said Mr. bin Laden had essentially bought his influence in the Taliban government. He would sometimes walk into a room, Mr. Khaksar said, and pull out wads of cash worth as much as $100,000.

Mr. Khaksar said he once tried to persuade Mullah Omar to rid himself of Mr. bin Laden and the foreigners, but that Mullah Omar rebuffed him."The foreigners had taken over our government," Mr. Khaksar said.

Toward the end of the Taliban's reign, the evidence of foreign infiltration of the movement's upper ranks was unmistakable. Monitoring Taliban radio transmissions, Northern Alliance generals picked up Arabic and Urdu, the language of Pakistan.

In Kabul, Qaeda members planned their attacks in homes scattered around, some of them bearing the seals of the Taliban government. A group of foreigners who been imprisoned by the Taliban said in interviews that they had first been interrogated by Taliban officials, then later by a group of Arabic- speaking men who were far more brutal.

The Taliban, too, grew more extreme. Western diplomats say Al Qaeda helped persuade Mullah Omar to order the destruction of 800-year-old Buddha statues at Bamiyan, an act condemned around the world.

Pakistan rushed a delegation to Kandahar to try to persuade Mullah Omar to hold off. A Pakistani official who attended that meeting said only Mullah Omar had spoken; none of the other Taliban officials seated around him uttered a word.

Mullah Omar did not budge.

"If even one Muslim prays before the Buddhas, how will I explain myself to God?" the Pakistani official recalled him as saying.

Mr. Milam, the American envoy to Pakistan at the time, said, "the Taliban had become so dependent on Al Qaeda that they didn't really need the Pakistanis anymore."

The Remains
Some Still Wait
For More Holy War

The Taliban said they would fight to the end. But when the end came, they surrendered, changed sides and ran away. Some ran to Pakistan, where they wander the bazaars with their turbans and ideologies intact. "We will wage a guerrilla war," said Hamidullah, a former Taliban soldier, strolling with a group of comrades in Quetta. "I am waiting for word from my commander."

His pugnacity is rare these days. Among those Taliban who have not fled to the hills, some, like Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, have applied to Pakistan for asylum. His deputy, Mr. Shaeen, says he stays in touch with former Taliban comrades, but he plays down the likelihood that they would, or could, try a comeback.

"If decisions continue to be made by one person, and the same methods are used, then, no, the Taliban will not return," he said.

The mass of Taliban soldiers, who left their villages to join Mullah Omar, seem mostly to be waiting — in the ranks of the new government they have joined, in the hamlets to which they have returned. There are thousands of these young men, many of them confused, most of them armed.

Not far from Mullah Omar's village, Muhammad Karam joined the Taliban seven years ago. He was fighting, he said, to restore the good name of Islam. He found many enemies on his journey, and his eyes have the glazed look of someone for whom pain no longer pricks the skin.

"I was just a soldier," Mr. Karam said, fiddling with his band of his watch.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Karam, 32, quit the only job he ever had and went home. He has never been to school, and he is not certain where his life will carry him. Most of the men in his village, he said, are willing to give the new government a chance.

But no more than that.

"We Afghans, we all love our children and respect our mothers, and fathers, but when the country is threatened by infidels, we are ready to start the holy war again," Mr. Karam said.

"I still believe in jihad."