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“A Recipe for Endless War” – The Rise of the Taliban

After conquering Kabul in April 1996, the Taliban established the ultra-conservative Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, enforcing a radical interpretation of Islamic law which severely curtailed individual social and religious freedoms, especially for women. Because of its radical policies, its massive violation of human rights, and abysmal failure to provide basic governmental services, the Taliban were internationally condemned and almost completely isolated.

After offering safe haven to Osama bin Laden, the Taliban survived for years off of al Qaeda funding. In the following interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning July 2004, Ambassador to Pakistan Thomas W. Simons Jr. discusses initial attempts to reach out to the Taliban (or as he called them, “backwoods Muslims”) and Pakistan’s rationale for establishing ties with them and al Qaeda.

In a second interview with Kennedy beginning August 2001, Theresa A. Loar provides another perspective based upon her meeting with Taliban representatives and her work defending women’s rights in the context of a repressive regime.

You can also read about when the U.S. bombed an Afghan wedding and Loar’s insights on trafficking in persons.


“Not because we liked them, but because they were winning”

Thomas W. Simons Jr.
Ambassador to Pakistan, 1996-98 

SIMONS:  Afghanistan continued to be in the grips of a civil war. We knew that drugs were becoming more important because it was a ruined economy. In 1994, finally, the Taliban arose in Afghanistan. These were Islamists, but sort of provincial Islamists, at that point animated not so much by Middle Eastern radical Islamism, of the kind that later became famous under the label of al-Qaeda, but really very much a sub-continental version of Islamic reformism… promoting purification and simplification of Islam there….

So it was sort of a homegrown Islamist reformism, which came up in Afghanistan basically as a law-and-order movement, really to clean up the mess of the civil war. The capital of Kabul was destroyed not by the Communists or the Russians, but by these Afghan Mujahedeen factions fighting each other and bombarding each other, depending on who was in charge in the capital.

[The] Taliban was a new movement supported by the Pakistanis. But it was on that basis, as a law-and-order movement, that it had kind of swept to power beginning in 1994—first Herat in the west then, in September of 1996, Kabul. At that point we had no representation in Afghanistan. All of the intelligence assets had been withdrawn, so we didn’t even have networks there….

The Taliban I think were stunned by their victory in Kabul. Babar [Naseerullah Khan, Pakistani Interior Minister]….attempted to do a shuttle effort between Taliban and the resistance, in what became the Northern Alliance, trying to get a ceasefire and the beginnings perhaps of a political process. I thought that was hopeful because the Taliban did not know what to expect. And I encouraged it. I remember that he gave a briefing at the Foreign Ministry and I went up afterwards and shook his hand. That proceeded over the course of the fall. And I think that there was some hope to it.

Our part in this was a mini-impulse from Washington to go in and make contact with the newly victorious Taliban. This was not because we liked them, but because they were winning and our policy was to be in touch with all the Afghan factions. I was in Chitral, on a visit to the northern province of the former princely state of Chitral, when the news came of the Taliban victory in Kabul. My DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], John Holzman, calls from Islamabad to say, “Robin [Raphel, the Assistant Secretary] wants me to go to Kabul.” And I said, “Well, what will you say? What will your message be?”

He said, “Well, we haven’t talked about that yet. But she just thinks…we should go.”  And I said, “Well, you know, I’m not going to object to that. I just think until you have something to say it’s probably not wise to go in there. Because the expectations will be high.”

I think the Taliban saved us from ourselves by saying it was too soon for them to receive an American official visitor. So he didn’t go. And we were spared what I think would have probably been the embarrassment of an unproductive visit.

A Recipe for Endless War

Q: Was there action on the part of the Pakistan military intelligence service pointing to connections to the extremists in the Islamic movement? 

SIMONS:  Well, they were certainly in touch with Taliban….And they also would support Taliban just on the basis of the generally accepted Pakistani view that Pakistan can never afford to be on the wrong side of a Pashtun government in Kabul—that, if the Taliban were going to win, Pakistan had to be there with them. Because it just couldn’t afford hostility with the Pashtun government in Kabul because of its own Pashtun population. Because the Pashtun population is split across the border.

So those are the reasons why ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate] would support the Taliban. They also tried to make an argument early on that this was going to be favorable to Pakistani commercial relations with a newly liberated Central Asia. In other words, there was going to be a new kind of Silk Road that was going to go around through Herat and up into Central Asia, and this was going to be a source of some prosperity and a strategic anchor to prevent Pakistan’s nightmare—that the Indians are going to do an end-run or a pincer movement and be extraordinarily influential in Afghanistan….

The Taliban is in power in Afghanistan. They’re moving northward. They’ve taken about 85% of the country. When you go and talk to the Pakistanis about it, they say a couple of things….My message to the [Pakistani]Army, to my friend the Chief of Army Staff, was that what you’re doing in Afghanistan is a recipe for endless war. Because even if the Taliban took 100% of Afghanistan, their neighbors would not allow them to rest in peace. They would not allow them to enjoy the fruits of their conquest. Uzbekistan, Russia, Iran just wouldn’t let it happen. I mean they would keep provoking civil war, so you’d have to live with it.

His answer was basically that “We’re alone in the world. We have no choice but to support these people.” And the subtext was that they’re a Pashtun government in Kabul…. And they can’t afford to, you know, to be hostile—to have a hostile Pashtun government in Kabul. So they have to stay with these guys…. 

Q: Was al-Qaeda on our radar?

SIMONS:  Yeah. Because Osama came across our radar. Osama bin Laden returned to Jalalabad—after we had him kicked out of the Sudan—in 1996. Jalalabad is a city in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. And by the time he sought refuge there, after leaving Sudan, it was not yet controlled by the Taliban. But the Taliban, as they moved north in September, took Jalalabad. He then moved closer to their leadership in Kandahar and began funding them.

And the Taliban, as a bunch of backwoods Muslims, cared very little about economics. They were actually not very interested in governing. They were interested in making people grow beards and making women cover themselves and closing schools for women. But they weren’t very interested in governing, which is how you get into a drug culture, but also how you appreciate someone like Osama bin Laden, who is willing to come up with tens or maybe hundreds of millions of dollars to support this movement.

There are also rumors that he had developed a family relationship with Mullah Omar, the so-called Emir al-Mu’minin, ‘Commander of the Faithful’, as the Taliban call him, that they had children who had married each other. I mean I’ve never seen that totally confirmed, but that was out there too. Osama, of course, is very different from Taliban….but there’s an overlap in terms of purification and simplification of the religion and the importance you attach to the religion, and so they became closer and closer. And after a while I think they kind of became inseparable….

We considered [Osama bin Laden] a danger. That’s why we got him kicked out of Sudan, which may have been a strategic mistake. I mean the Sudanese have always said, “You’d have been better off if he were here and we were taking care of him than you were when he went to Afghanistan and became an engine of the Taliban.”

They gave him a safe haven where he could operate almost without supervision and build up the capability that led to the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

A Stable Reign of Terror

Theresa A. Loar
Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues

LOAR:  It was October of 1996 [when] I came over, literally moving back into the State Department a couple of days after the Taliban had moved into Kabul in Afghanistan….The position was Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues, and it was a position created by Congress in one of the State Department appropriation bills, I believe….

So I walked into my home building, the State Department, ready to go, and ready to get everybody on board with these important issues affecting women’s rights progress around the world, and I didn’t have a fax machine! I did have a chair and a desk! I think it’s the story of my life—I never could walk into an office with an existing couch and matching chairs. I always had to scrounge. But I did have three or four interns from the White House who had a White House Security clearance, and State allowed me to bring them over with me, so they became my instant staff. They were really sharp, bright, energetic young women….

And literally within days of coming into the building, the Taliban moved into Kabul….The Taliban were a ragtag, uneducated, highly armed group, many of whom had grown up in refugee camps in Pakistan, and were very poorly educated in the Islamic tradition. I know this from many of my Muslim friends here in the United States who said that it was really not a sophisticated education of Islam that they received, because they had such strange non-Koranic-based versions of what Islam was. But they had come into Afghanistan. There was tremendous struggle in Afghanistan for who was in control. There were all kinds of warlords, including Massoud who was struggling for control of Afghanistan at the time. The Taliban moved in from the refugee camps in Pakistan, with tremendous financial support (we found it was backing from Pakistan), to the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, and declared that they were in charge of the country.

There was an initial statement made by a deputy spokesman for Secretary of State Warren Christopher. I don’t know the exact wording of it, but it gave the impression, informally I was told, that: “Well, at least we’ll have some stability now.” And of course, the reaction of many people who knew what the Taliban were and what they were trying to do was:  “Well, it’s going to be a stable reign of terror.”

“Let’s just act like it didn’t happen”

The first thing that [the Taliban] did was to issue decrees saying that women could not work outside the home, that girls could no longer be in school, and that women could no longer move outside of the home, not even to work to support their families. This was an issue as millions of Afghan women were widows as a result of the Afghan-Russian war, and were the sole support of their families. So it wasn’t like they were reacting to women in high heels, you know, in the corner office building their careers. These were widows working in basic food-production jobs, many of which were created by the United Nations:  baking breads in the most primitive ovens possible, and being part of the food distribution channel….

It was such a shocking thing when the Taliban came in and, for those of us who were living in this world, just having come back from the Beijing Conference [1995 Fourth World Conference on Women] the year before, it was a particularly shocking thing! So I thought that we needed to get statements out immediately from Secretary Christopher, and from his spokesman, who at that time was Nick Burns….

Well, I had no experience working with the press office at the Secretariat, but I went to see him to say, “Nick, I’m really concerned about this. There’s this…statement of, ‘Let’s just act like it didn’t happen.’ It wasn’t you. It was the deputy. But now you’re back in the office today, and I’d really like to say that these violations of women’s human rights are appalling to the United States. It’s against what we stand for as a country— excluding girls from school and women from the ability to earn money to support their families.”

Q: Women were even excluded from hospitals, weren’t they?

LOAR:  Right. The Catch-22 there was, if you couldn’t have women as doctors and women couldn’t be treated by male doctors, women were basically denied health care for the entire reign of the Taliban. It’s not like they had tremendous health care before, but they had basic health care needs met, especially in the cities….

It’s not that there weren’t other countries where women’s human rights were being violated; there were many other countries. But nobody was stupid enough, as the Taliban were, to go in front of CNN and say, “Girls can’t go to school. Women cannot work outside the home and there’ll be no movement of women on the streets unless accompanied by a male relative.” (Mullah Omar, at right.) That means that, if your husband’s dead, and you don’t have any brothers, and you don’t have any sons, you’re basically housebound. And that means, if women can’t work, they can’t be doctors to provide health care. So they were stupid enough to do this right in front of the world, and we as a government had to respond.

I went down, as the good, organization person that I am, or a good company woman, to the [South Asia] Bureau to say, “Nick’s [Nick Burns] asked me for guidance.” Because it’s true; he did ask me for it once! And there was yelling, and there was slamming of doors, and there were disparaging remarks such as: “Who the heck are you?” “Have you ever been in the country? Have you ever been in the Marines? And what are you talking about?”

I did bring in different groups [but] a lot of the domestic groups had no idea where Afghanistan was. They didn’t know what Taliban meant. They had no idea, but they knew that girls couldn’t go to school and that women couldn’t leave their homes, or couldn’t work outside their homes. So there were just basic knee-jerk reactions to this.

Some of these groups came in to see me, and I would get a conference room and sit down and talk with them about what I was doing…. I was unprepared for the level of vitriol and disrespect. At one point Kumar—this wonderful NGO fellow—says, “You know, why aren’t we just doing blank, blank, blank?” And it wasn’t a stupid question. It was just a very direct thing. And this guy gets up across the table and points a finger in this guy’s face…He said, “That’s a stupid question! That’s a really stupid question! And I’m not going to answer stupid questions!” And I’m looking at him like, “Oh my gosh, please don’t hit him….!”

Meeting the Taliban

One of the key goals of the Taliban was to get U.S. government recognition for their government when they came into power in October of 1996. When they came into Kabul, they pretty much thought that they would be recognized by the international community as the government of Afghanistan. One of my key purposes in life was to make sure the U.S. did not recognize them….

I think the effort of keeping these women’s human rights on the agenda, and in a prominent way on the agenda, really did help to marshal the support of the international community not to recognize the Taliban. I think we had the support of the other donor communities. We had very high-level women at the UN who had significant positions of leadership:  Cathy Bertini, who was head of the [UN] World Food Program, and Carol Bellamy, who was head of UNICEF at the time. They were determined not to continue their programs as if it was business as usual.

That made a very big difference to many of us working in governments around the world, to know that there was senior leadership at the UN who were going to make the point that when women and girls are excluded from all the normal streams of society in life, that a country can’t go forward, and the international community can’t just turn its head and say, “Well, that’s cultural.” Because it’s not cultural. It wasn’t cultural before these guys came in with guns and people with guns shouldn’t determine the culture of the country. Of course, that’s what the Afghan women said and continue to say….

I asked for a meeting with the Taliban, so I could express my views and be able to share with them the concerns of some of the groups we were working with here in the United States, and of the Afghan women in exile…. I also spoke to Muslim friends whom I had worked with and known getting ready for the Beijing Women’s Conference to ask them how I should appropriately address the Taliban….Of course the big message of the groups I had spoken with was, “Your message is not based on Islam. You, Taliban, are wrong, and we don’t support what you’re saying about girls’ education and women’s ability to earn their own income, and the women’s relationship to the family….”

It was a fascinating meeting…. I asked very specifically, “You’ve closed down the schools and have excluded girls from any schools, and yet you’re talking about and moving ahead to continue educating your sons. Don’t you want your daughters to be educated too?”

And they said, “Well, the main reason is that the Russians left behind these terrible books full of propaganda and girls are very weak and susceptible to that propaganda. So we can’t have the girls go to school. If UNICEF would just give us the appropriate books…” (and then they started ranting and raving about UNICEF and Carol Bellamy, which I thought was fascinating) “…If they would do that, then we might find a place for the girls in school again….”

I know that Cathy Bertini particularly incurred the wrath of one of the senior Taliban officials, because she was so direct and clear and was not going to go ahead with the food distribution in Afghanistan if women weren’t part of the distribution chain, because they just weren’t going to get the food.…In the course of it, the meeting took place around noontime, individual Taliban members would get up and go into the corner and do their prayers. It was a very interesting experience….

“Women’s rights are human rights”

Some of the practices of the Taliban were no worse than the practices of some of the other warlords –Abdul Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and others. But then the Taliban were stupid enough to go in front of CNN and make these ridiculous pronouncements. This became their dominant driving force, and it would wax and wane according to who was in control. And they just never delivered anything to their people either.

When they took over government ministries, it wasn’t to improve the lives of their people. It was for control. But they had nothing to offer other than control….It turned out that al Qaeda were the power, and the Taliban allowed al Qaeda to come in. And then al Qaeda was sponsoring them. The Taliban were the sponsored conquerors. That’s what kept them going for a long time, because they even had the drug trade cleaned up; they did some good work on that front. Al Qaeda had unlimited resources. But for what difference it made, I think the U.S.—in not recognizing the Taliban as the government— sort of set a standard.

But if the Taliban had turned over al Qaeda and cooperated on terrorism, there might have been a different outcome. I can’t predict that….I don’t know that there was anybody who was politically tone deaf enough to say we should recognize them [the Taliban], but there was a prevalent attitude among some that… “this is the way women are always treated in these countries, and we’re not going to tell these countries how to treat women….”

And it wasn’t just related to the Taliban….There were some who knew the country well, had served there, and had lived there for many years, who said, “These guys are no worse than anybody else.” I had recognized that. But the Taliban did lay down this line and were carrying out these edicts. The U.S., as a government which had just gone to this United Nations Conference and put out this important message that “Women’s rights are human rights,” couldn’t ignore that. This was a black and white case!

This was a basic, human concern….The Afghan women got the right to vote about the same time as American women. In the ’70s there was a cadre of professional women, a professional class of women, in Kabul. In the countryside, there’s no question that there’s an extremely high rate of illiteracy, that many women were covered with the burqa [the full-body veil created to hide women completely from the gaze of men], and that women had a very inferior status to men in society.

But in the capital city of Kabul, women ran universities, and were lawyers and judges. So it wasn’t a valid claim to say it was cultural. Plus, the Taliban were not native. Many of them came from Pakistan and grew up in these very isolated “madrassas” [religious schools], where they had very little access to sisters, mothers, aunts, and all the memorable things that help civilize and help a person develop and understand their role in the world. They had very limited female interaction, and were taught by people who were not Muslim scholars.

As my Muslim friends would say, it would be impossible to have read the Koran and to have really been trained by a Koranic scholar and to draw the conclusions the Taliban did.