by tiziano terzani
Delhi, 5 January, 2002
India is home. I've lived here for years. It's here that I keep my books, that I find the refuge a man seeks from the world's hustle and bustle. Here, as nowhere else, I get a sense of the senseless flowing of life. But now even India is a disappointment. Even India talks only of war, mobilizes troops and artillery and threatens to use its atomic bombs against Pakistan. Like a star pupil who's just learnt the absurd George W. Bush doctrine of "with us or with the terrorists" off by heart, it happily wags its tail behind the American military bandwagon. A country of a billion people! The country which owes its independence to Gandhi, the Mahatma, the noble soul, today a country just like any other. What a pity.
This was India's chance to go back to its roots, to rediscover the ancient language of non-violence, its true strength. It was India's opportunity to return to its recent history of non-alignment, to remind the world of the middle way which is always there, and which in this case means not with them and not with the terrorists either.
Instead, even in India we hear nothing but the rhetoric of "shoulder to shoulder", the litany of the international coalition against terrorism, a great outpouring of rage and pride, of courage and determination, of readiness for sacrifice. All this for one of two reasons. Either those currently in power hope to take advantage of the situation created by the American attack on Afghanistan to use force to solve the Kashmiri problem, despite the fact that no amount of force has managed to solve it in fifty years (three wars have been waged between India and Pakistan already); or, worse still, the largest party in India's ruling coalition, the BJP, hopes that mouthing off about the war, even if they don't really want it, might help tip the balance in their favour in the imminent elections in two of the country's major states. This is what the world is like these days, even in India: no principles but plenty of expedients; no spiritual aspirations, only the desire for large or small material gain.
The lessons of the past have all been forgotten. Here's a small one which, like all of Gandhi's, gives food for thought. India and Pakistan formally became two independent states in 1947. In fact they were still two bleeding stumps of the same body, which the duplicity of British colonial power had helped to divide. Gandhi opposed partition with all his might. He said that both Pakistan and India were his countries, and he rejected the idea of a passport to go from one to the other. His idealism was defeated, and his fasting failed to stem the desperate exodus of biblical proportions and the massacre of almost a million people. The realism of small and large interests prevailed.
Partition was based loosely on religious grouping, with the Hindus on one side and the Muslims on the other. The maharajahs of the 562 princely states were left to decide which side they wanted to be on. The Maharajah of Kashmir was torn. He was Hindu, but most of his subjects were Muslim. So for two months he remained formally independent. Pakistan exploited this situation by sending "volunteers" into Kashmir to annex that precious plot of land. The Indians exploited it by pressing the Maharajah to decide in their favour and sending their troops into Kashmir. The war had already begun when the two countries had to divide up the reserves they still held in a joint account in Delhi, to complete the partition of what had been the British Empire in India. Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister at the time, argued that Pakistan would use its share to fund the war in Kashmir, so India should keep it all. Gandhi disagreed. In his eyes no reason could prevail over the sacrosanct principle of justice. Pakistan had a right to its share, and India had to give it to them. So it was. What a lesson! One that cost him his life. It was immediately after this decision to give Pakistan the 550 million rupees, that Gandhi, already accused by the Hindu fundamentalists of being biased towards the Muslim, was assassinated on 30 January 1948.
From that moment on there has been no peace between India and Pakistan. Kashmir has been destroyed, tormented and divided by a so-called "line of control", across which the two armies still face each other, but now with nuclear missiles. It's still a battlefield, and as in all the wars till now, it's been mostly the civilians who have died.
If Gandhi or someone else of his moral stature were here today, they would well understand that no-one has been "just" in the Kashmiri question, that Pakistan and India bear enormous responsibility for the current state of affairs, that both have committed horrendous crimes in pursuing their aims, and that the real victims of this whole sorry business have been and still are the Kashmiris, whom no-one in over half a century has asked the simple question: "What do you want?" More than anything, I think they'd like to live in peace and enjoy that valley, which is still one of the most beautiful places on earth.
And one day they will, because unless the human race really does go ahead and commit suicide, the great Indian subcontinent, with its population equal to that of China, will have to go back to being what it was in 1947: a unity of diversities. Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis all have the same roots, the same culture and the same history, including the history of the wars they've recently fought against each other, just like the French and the Germans, the Italians and the Austrians. If the continent of Europe has managed to become a community, there's no reason why the Indian subcontinent can't do so too.
So why not, instead of preparing new massacres, start working immediately towards greater integration, a subcontinent without wars or borders, maybe even with a single currency, or if that's too much to ask, at least a wide-scale, shared commitment to supply everyone with drinking water, given that from Pakistan to India to Bangladesh only a quarter of the population currently has it?
But drinking water is hardly a cause to get excited about. War is much more so. And if this damned conflict between India and Pakistan does indeed escalate and become nuclear, even if by mistake - after all, one mistake leads to another -, the death toll would be enormous.
The current India-Pakistan situation clearly shows that a doctrine like the one America is using in support of the international anti-terrorism coalition is preposterous, unjust and downright dangerous. All the reasons the United States has brought forward for bombing Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban would now give India equal right to carpet-bomb Pakistan and overthrow the regime of General Musharraf. For years the Indians have been on the receiving end of some horrendous terrorist attacks, the most recent of which was on their parliament on 13 December 2001. There can be no doubt that the terrorist organizations attacking India are based in Pakistan, and there's equal proof that the Pakistani government is granting them asylum. War, then? A just war from India's point of view? No war is just. But there's a problem here: who exactly are the terrorists? Many of those India labels as such are seen by others as freedom fighters. Then there's another problem: unlike the Taliban, who had little in the way of defence to offer against the American superpower, the Pakistanis have modern armed forces and nuclear missiles which are ready and available to be used. A war against them would have unforeseeable consequences.
Washington is therefore now busy trying to calm the two parties down, basically explaining to them that only America is allowed to pursue its terrorists, that only America can go and flush them out where and when it wants or overthrow governments which are not to their liking. Can you imagine any other country asking them to deliver up to justice one of their citizens who committed terrorist acts in Cuba, Haiti or Chile? Or Washington handing over one of the shady characters responsible for the prolonged terrorist campaigns carried out on America's behalf, say, in Latin America, who now enjoys their protection?
The Americans aren't seeking justice; they're seeking their version of justice. They have no genuine interest in resolving the Kashmiri issue, just as they have no genuine interest in solving the problem of Afghanistan. They entered the region by force to gain their revenge and pursue national interests, and now they're there, they'll stay. The attack on Afghanistan has changed the shape of the world. For the first time in history the United States have gained access to Central and Southern Asia, and they won't let go of it in a hurry. The agreements they've made with the ex-Soviet republics will extend beyond the anti-terrorist state of emergency, and the military base they're building at Jacobabad in Pakistan will be permanent, not least because it will serve to keep an eye on and if necessary wipe out the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, which we all know they see as the "Islamic atom bomb".
India, by committing itself unconditionally and unswervingly to fall in behind the might of America, perhaps in the hope of harnessing that might for its own purposes, has merely strengthened the U.S. presence in the region, and definitively surrendered its stance of being distant and different from the groupings of others. It didn't need to.
India is a poor country, but it still has - and it may well be the last in the world to do so - its own strong, deep-rooted spiritual culture, which is able to withstand the materialistic wave of globalization that steamrollers over identity and everywhere engenders suffocating conformity. This was the moment when India could have sung the praises of diversity, when it could have reminded everyone that the world needs a coalition against poverty, exploitation and intolerance much more than it does even a coalition against terror. India, sometimes described as "the largest democracy in the world", could have reminded Western democracies that we won't solve our problems by restricting our citizens' freedom, protecting our societies with barbed wire, granting ever more power to repressive organizations and making those who are different feel more and more excluded. It was the moment when India could have spoken up against violence of every kind, even that of the "new world order". This, with its supposedly "global" principles and criteria, which are actually those of the "strong" ex-colonialist countries, merely imposes on India and many other economically underdeveloped and hence "weak" ex-colonies the kind of policy which makes the rich richer, the poor poorer, and both more and more unhappy.
Despite its politicians, India is still a country apart, a country whose society is not moved exclusively by earthly ambitions. Only in India do millions and millions of men and women who have lived normal lives as fathers and mothers, employees or professionals still give up all that is of this world - possessions, ties, desires and name - to become sanyasis or renouncers, dressing up in saffron robes, embarking on pilgrimages at an age where we're ready to retire, going round the country from temple to temple, from ashram to ashram, living off charity. As long as this goes on and the people continue to feed and honour them, India will remain an existential and philosophical alternative to the materialism which dominates the rest of the world today. This is why deep down India remains a line of resistance against globalization, and a bulwark of defence in favour of diversity.
By its very existence, India reminds us Westerners that the whole world doesn't necessarily want what we want or care to be how we care to be. I think back to Afghanistan, and I realize how pertinent this is to that poor country too. The international community, which is rushing in with its cash, its soldiers, its advice and its experts, is most certainly not the answer for Afghanistan. Indeed, it will only be a new problem if the future of the country turns out to be just a projection of Western fantasies and interests rather than the aspirations of the Afghans, all Afghans.
I left Kabul a fortnight ago to spend the holidays with my family in Delhi, but it's as though my head's still there. In my eyes I still have the stunning view from my two dusty windows, in my ears I still hear the constant buzz of the bazaar, the muezzins' call to prayer and the shouts of small boys seeking custom for the taxis as they depart for the ever more dangerous roads of the province. I flick through notebooks crammed full of the stories I heard and the things I thought there. From a distance, it seems more and more obvious to me that what is happening now in Afghanistan, and will continue to do so, is basically to do with diversity, with the right to be different. A century ago, diversity to the Afghans meant gaining independence from colonial oppression, just as it did for the other peoples of the world. Today it means remaining outside a more sophisticated but equally oppressive regime, one which seeks to turn the whole world into a marketplace, and all men into consumers who must first be sold identical desires, then identical products.
Every reconstruction scheme and recovery plan to be financed by international aid in Afghanistan raises one vital question, which no-one seems to have the courage to ask with any conviction: what sort of country is it we're wanting to rebuild? one like ours or one like theirs? The great danger for the Afghans today is that in the euphoria of regaining their freedom to dream, they'll end up dreaming only what we Westerners want them to, and looking on their own history through the eyes of those who are now rewriting it. It's enough just to look at the current version of what has happened in Afghanistan to understand the extent to which it's already riddled with distortions and lies. American war propaganda has planted some of them there on purpose. Others are spontaneous, deriving from the fact that what we call "reality" is what we perceive via our own senses, prejudices and fixed ideas.
One example of this is the image of the Taliban that the Western press has tried to convey. They were horrible, an Islamic version of the Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. They committed hideous crimes against humanity, especially women. They had no popular support, and were little more than foreign occupiers whom the Pakistanis kept in power. The arrival of the Northern Alliance soldiers in Kabul was a genuine liberation. I remember the headline in a major Italian newspaper on 15 November which said: "Kabul: high heels and lipstick". Others told of women who were throwing off their burqas or even burning them.
This is obviously a picture which helps justify the conduct of the American war in Afghanistan, their pressing on with raids which continue to cause civilian casualties, and their the hunt for Mullah Omar, his ministers and envoys, with which they've got so carried away they've forgotten to explain exactly what "crimes" they're supposed to have committed. But is it an accurate picture? Probably not.
The Taliban regime undoubtedly was arbitrary and repressive, but the Koranic students were hardly pathological assassins. They were the victims as well as the perpetrators of several massacres in the course of the civil war. For example, 3,000 Taliban were captured and killed at Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. They then did the same to 2,000 Hazaras in the same place a year later by way of retaliation. But unlike in Pol Pot's Cambodia, there were no killing fields in Mullah Omar's Afghanistan, no plans to wipe out part of the population, no attempt to create a "new man" by eliminating the old. The Taliban saw themselves as protectors of the people and as moralizers of Afghan life, which in their eyes had been polluted by a variety of foreign influences. It shouldn't be forgotten that their first public acts in Kandahar in 1994 were to execute a mujahideen leader guilty of abducting and raping two young women, and to hang another leader whose offence had been to "marry" a little boy he'd fallen in love with, festoon him with garlands and parade him round on a tank as if it had been a wedding carriage.
Certain Taliban prohibitions, such as the one on flying kites because it took up time the children should have devoted to memorizing the Koran, or rules such as the one about maintaining beards at the "Islamic" length, were clearly absurd. Others less so. For example, anyone discovered watching television or listening to music was sentenced to a week in prison. This had a certain logic to it: Afghanistan didn't produce any tapes or television programmes of its own (at the moment it doesn't even produce matches!), so people could only see or hear material which had been imported, usually from India. This was considered non-Islamic and therefore a potential source of corruption. Their reasoning was not all that different from those in the West who don't want to expose their children to all the ridiculous sex and violence currently shown on television.
One morning when I was in Kabul, I went to the old television station, which had just resumed broadcasting. It was a revelation. The place was in excellent condition. The Taliban hadn't touched it. They'd even continued to pay the technicians' wages so they'd keep the equipment running. It was as if they'd hoped to start it up again one day with programmes of their own. Staff working for the Northern Alliance have got it running again, but people prefer to pick up programmes broadcast by the BBC or those from Pakistan and India.
One of the most ingenious enterprises I saw start up and flourish was using Coca-Cola cans to make satellite dishes. Suddenly they were everywhere. Dozens of old shops that had sold electrical goods and light bulbs were transformed into outlets for television sets and video recorders that had been smuggled in from Pakistan and Iran. The effect was immediate. One day I went out to eat in an old cinema which had been converted into a restaurant, The Khalid. Sadly I noted this newly re-acquired freedom had silenced the nightingales who used to chirp in the cages between the tables. Instead, some heavily bearded regulars were standing goggle-eyed in front of a television on at full blast, watching a video of a majestic female belly-dancer.
From this point of view, you could say that for Kabul the demise of the Taliban was a minor cause for celebration. The stalls now sell brand new statues of Indian actresses and pirated tapes alongside old city postcards. The owner of a small carpet factory in the Kote Parwal district, where I ended up by chance one day while looking for something else, proudly showed me the recent acquisitions he'd made to make life more pleasant for his workers: two posters of film stars, and a tape recorder which played a little tune over and over again. The workers in a small, cold room were fifteen children, the youngest seven, the eldest sixteen. They worked there eight hours a day, twenty-four days a month for a daily wage of 3,000 afghani or 4p, not enough even to buy a chapati, which in Kabul costs 4,000 afghani. The owner didn't give these children anything to eat or even the occasional hot drink.
"But these are the lucky ones", a humanitarian organization official replied when I told him the story that evening. "They're surviving. For years children have been dying like flies here. In Bamyian dozens and dozens of children were starving because of the drought and the embargo when the Buddhas were destroyed, yet all the international community was concerned about was what happened to the statues", he said. The destruction of the Buddhas was certainly one of the Taliban's most provocative acts, and it did much to heighten the world's picture of their regime as mad and criminal.
Some of the many crimes attributed to the Taliban include the amputation of alleged thieves' hands and feet, public executions, even the shooting of several women. Certainly these scenes were far from edifying, but they have to be seen in the context of a society which during the civil war had lost all semblance of order, and which began to feel safe again when the sharia or Koranic law was strictly re-imposed. Many Kabul inhabitants I spoke to said that no-one was afraid of being robbed while the Taliban were in power, that women could travel from one corner of the country to the other without threat of being molested, and that the country's roads were safe.
The Western mindset rebels against public executions, but is capital punishment by lethal injection inside an American penitentiary any more civilized? At least under the sharia pardon can be granted up to the very last minute if the victim's family forgives the condemned person, unlike in Texas, where George W. Bush rubber-stamped every single death sentence requiring his signature as governor.
The sharia has always been the law that governs Afghanistan, and even the constitutions enacted under the various attempts to secularize the country have had to recognize its validity, especially in the spheres of family and property. Many in the West will be surprised to learn that the judges appointed by the new Afghan government have already said that the principles of the sharia will have to remain at the heart of the country's new legal system.
As things stand, the law is still that of the rifle. Kabul is full of armed men, and people are still nervous when they see a man with a Kalashnikov before the curfew begins in the evenings: is he a policeman or a thief? Safety conditions are far from good outside the capital either, even in daylight. The country is in the hands of various warlords, each of whom extorts tolls with his armed bands along the roads. The sense of uncertainty caused by this renewed form of banditry, which the Taliban had stamped out by forcibly commandeering a large proportion of all privately-owned weapons, has now been compounded by the risk of American bombs, which could fall at any time and on any part of the country.
At the start of the war, the Americans very generously distributed satellite telephones to tribal chiefs and Afghan leaders who promised to rebel against the Taliban and provide them with any information that could be useful for directing air attacks against Osama bin Laden's and Mullah Omar's men. However, some of these tribal chiefs sent (and are still sending) U.S. bombers to attack their political adversaries or their rivals' villages, under the pretext that these are hiding the Taliban. This has only served to increase the number of civilians killed "by mistake". One leader with good business acumen used his satellite phone twice in a row to get the Americans to drop him large quantities of food, claiming he was in charge of many people dying of starvation. He wasn't.
Apart from the sharia, another issue which has greatly contributed to the Taliban's bad press has been that of the burqa. Their imposition of this truly horrific (in our eyes) garment, which covers women from head to foot, has so fired the imagination of the Western world that at one point it seemed as though releasing women from this spectral sack had become one of the aims of the American war in Afghanistan, as though it were a kind of "collateral benefit" to result from their air raids. The impression around the world was that if the Taliban went, so too would the burqa. But it wasn't quite like that.
The crowd at the bazaar I saw every day from my two splendid windows over Kabul always wore two colours: the grey-ochre-brown of the men's cloaks, and the grey-blue-navy of hundreds and hundreds of burqas. Literally all the women continued to wear it. In the twenty days I stayed in Kabul, I didn't see a single woman in the street with her face uncovered.
This is a point I'll never tire of making. It may seem absurd to us that others don't want to live, eat and dress the same way we do. It may appear ludicrous to us Westerners that any society should prefer polygamy and enforced total fidelity to our temporary monogamy and constant promiscuity. It seems normal to us that a woman should want to be like a man, become a soldier, lawyer or an air pilot and be economically independent, rather than devote herself to rearing and bringing up children and being the mistress of her home.
We like to see the world as we know it, so we can only understand the liberation of Kabul in terms of a liberation from the burqa. If these women don't then throw their burqas away, we urge them or even pay them to do so, as one television crew seems to have done.
We forget that the burqa belongs to a different world from ours, to a different culture. We forget it has its own tradition, like the sharia, and is only one, specifically sartorial aspect of the far more general principle of purdah, the tent, which in Islamic society separates women from men in their dwelling places, eating and upbringing. It separates them, but in so doing they believe protects them. For the burqa is also protection, a symbol of female unapproachability in a country where it's still customary for village doctors not to touch a female patient, and where only a brother or husband can tell her what's wrong with her. For the same reason, beautiful ivory figures of naked women were carved in China, to be able to indicate the parts of the body causing pain.
In Afghanistan, a little girl doesn't play at being grown up by going round the house in her mother's shoes. She puts on her burqa and dreams of the day when she'll be a woman and entitled to one of her own. What would we think if one day our society was taken over by naturists, and we were all forced to celebrate our "release" by suddenly going round stark naked? I know not all Afghan women think the same way, especially those who have studied and travelled abroad, but do the opponents of the burqa realize that for the women of the poorest villages it's also a symbol of affluence?
Every traditional society, from India to China, Japan, Turkey and Iran, has had to face the problem of dress when challenged by the West, which has forced them to come to grips with the drama of their own modernization. Solutions have varied from society to society, but the issue has always been far more than one of fashion or liberation. It's a kind of test case between the forces of a past which is seen as having been superseded, and those of a future which is seen as unavoidable. For this is the crux of all that's been happening in Afghanistan for the past century, and it's not finished yet: a struggle between tradition in the sense of loyalty to the fundamentalist Islamic past, and modernism in the sense of adherence to Western-style secularism.
It's no coincidence that in Afghanistan over the past century and a half, every revolution (including that by the Communists) and every counter-revolution (including that by the Taliban) has touched on the question of the burqa. The 1929 rebellion against Amanullah, the Afghan king who even today is remembered with affection, began in response to his decision to remove the veil from women.
King Amanullah's history is interesting, because it's not hard to find parallels with what's happening now. He came to power in 1919 after his father was assassinated, and became a national hero by challenging and defeating the British, who were still claiming to exercise a kind of protectorate over Afghanistan.
Amanullah used this prestige to launch the largest programme of modernization, or rather Westernization, the country had ever seen. He drew up Afghanistan's first constitution, founded its first university, reorganized its legal system, gave women access to education, sent many young Afghans abroad to study, and invited various foreign experts to help the country reform its army and public administration. Then he began to build a new city at Darulaman, to celebrate Afghanistan's entry into the inner circle of the world's sovereign states. At its centre was an enormous building destined to be the Parliament, and a series of fine palaces in European style lining an avenue, which linked this extravagant new Kabul with the old one like a kind of Champs-Elysées.
In a country where Islam prohibited all representation of life, and where images of people and animals were out of the question, King Amanullah built Bernini-style fountains with marble horses and groups. In a country where the norm had always been traditional Islamic, Persian architecture, Amanullah commissioned Western-style monuments including an Arc de Triomphe, a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and a Column of Knowledge and Ignorance. The latter neatly summarized his entire vision of life: knowledge meant modernity, secular and scientific, imported from abroad; ignorance meant local traditionalism, based on religion.
The Europeans were enthusiastic about this Afghan king who was so like them. Together with Queen Soraya, he went on a tour of Europe which proved to be a personal triumph. He was received in various capitals and courts with full honours, and plaudits and pledges of help were piled on him from all sides - rather like what is now happening to Hamid Karzai, head of the new interim government in Kabul.
However, Amanullah's modernity was not so well regarded or received in his own country. The gradual secularization of the state and the erosion of the tribal chiefs' authority, whom the king ordered to appear clean-shaven before a Loya Jirga in jacket, trousers and bowler hat instead of their shawls and turbans, transformed the traditionalists' passive resistance into a popular revolt. The photographs of Queen Soraya bare-shouldered in Europe were the final straw. The religious leaders maintained the King's entire programme of reform was anti-Islamic, and that he and the Queen, who had once theatrically removed her burqa and trampled on it, had converted to Christianity and become kaffirs or infidels. Attempts to suppress the uprising and hanging fifty rebellious chiefs proved fruitless. Amanullah had to beat a hasty retreat from Kabul in his Rolls-Royce, and soon ended up in Italy where King Victor Emanuel, who had made him his "cousin", awarded him the Collar of the Virgin and granted him asylum. He died in Rome in 1960.
His throne passed to a simple peasant who couldn't read or write, "the son of the water carrier". After nine months, he too was toppled and hanged by Amanullah's ex-military chief Nadir Shah, who promised to restore the King, but in the end preferred to seize power himself. Politics is a dangerous occupation in Afghanistan, however. After four years in power Nadir Shah too was assassinated, typically enough as a son's revenge for the murder of his father, and was succeeded by his son Zahir Shah in 1933. He too has been exiled in Rome for the past thirty years, and the hopes of a national reconciliation now rest on him. If the Bonn agreement is fully implemented, this old man of almost ninety will soon have to preside over a new Loya Jirga.
A scene I witnessed one morning in Kabul describes only too well the desperate situation to which the violent struggle between modernizers and traditionalists has brought today's Afghanistan against the backdrop of the wars against foreign invaders. Guided by a book with photos taken fifty years ago, I had gone to see what remained of Darulaman, the city King Amanullah built. It's awful: mere skeletons of façades, isolated pseudo-Doric columns in a desert of dust and rubble. Much of the destruction occurred between 1992 and 1996, when various groups of mujahideen fought each other here. The latest destructions are due to the recent American raids. I was on a bicycle. A small boy was taking me to see a building in which he said a missile had killed 120 Arabs. He made me go carefully, zigzagging between stones painted white and plastic ribbons marking minefields. And there, on this still treacherous stretch of land beaten by wind and sun, a group of peasants was calmly hoeing and furrowing in the midst of rubble, along a wide street that once had been an avenue. Behind them, a horse tied to a plough was turning up clods. They were sowing on Kabul's Champs-Elysées! Life was beginning all over again, from the soil.
A life which, it is good to know, will be dominated by the perpetually unresolved conflict between modernity and tradition, or as Amanullah saw it, between knowledge and ignorance. Unfortunately this is also how the so-called international community sees it, believing it is knowledge come to drive out ignorance, civilization come to drive out savagery. But it isn't like that, and until we understand that the struggle going on in Afghanistan and other parts of the (especially Muslim) world is also a struggle for diversity, it will never go away.
The Taliban may have been obtuse and repressive, they may have reached power on the back of Pakistani economic and military aid, but they were also an Afghan phenomenon, the result of twenty years' war, the product of an ancient history which has peasant roots. The Taliban were not mercenaries in the pay of Islamabad or Osama bin Laden, they were warrior monks, puritans and fanatics, devoted to the mission of saving Afghanistan by imposing a simplistic, primitive and especially restrictive version of Islam on the country. In this they were nothing new, just the reincarnation of that old anti-urban, anti-Western, fundamentally religious traditionalist force against which King Amanullah had fought, and with which all Afghan rulers before and after him have had to contend. This force is represented by the mullahs, the masters or religious leaders who chant prayers in the mosques, and behind whom the whole congregation turns and kneels in the direction of Mecca.
Dressed in black on white, like the words of the Prophet written in black ink on the white paper of the Koran, the mullahs have always wielded considerable power in Afghanistan. They are priests ands healers, judges and masters, also often landowners, and they've always had a decisive role in the life of the nation, especially in the countryside.
It was Mullah Mashk-i-Alam, "Scent of the World", who declared the jihad against the British in the nineteenth century. It was Mullah Lang, "the Lame", who directed the uprising against King Amanullah and ended up among those hanged.
At the end of the nineteenth century the Emir Abdur Rahman had to go and forcibly convert the inhabitants of Kafiristan, the last region of Afghanistan which wasn't yet Muslim, to obtain the mullahs' consent to open the first schools, hospitals and factories (arms factories!) in the country. He didn't convince all of them, and Mullah Mastun in particular, "the Madman", gave him a torrid time.
The legitimacy which Western rulers used to get from God and now get from their people, in Afghanistan has always come from the mullahs. This because the country, despite being divided into various ethnic groups who hate each other, fight each other and take turns to rip each other to shreds, has a common denominator to which all of them have to return: religion, specifically Islam.
My windows over Kabul were an excellent observation post from which to get an idea of the importance of this common denominator. Wherever I looked there was something to remind me of Islam: a minaret, a mosque, the dome of a sanctuary, or the men constantly fingering their rosary beads and habitually stopping to pray. On the square in front of my building where previously a fountain had stood, there was still a strip of concrete where at every hour of the day I saw someone, a policeman, a boy, a soldier or a man selling muscat grapes, engaging in that routine of gestures and genuflections which is also an excellent exercise in concentration and gymnastics.
An endless queue of young and old people were making their way into the shrine of a holy man near to where I was staying, to kiss the green cloth which covered his tomb and hold in both hands the Koran wrapped in a silvery handkerchief. They rubbed their faces with it and buried their noses in it, as if to breathe in its grace, before popping some coins in the offertory box.
Personally, I feel a bit unsettled every time I come to a Muslim country. I'm attracted by the amazing and to us unfamiliar sense of male solidarity, but it's also a bit too physical for my liking. I'm also put off by the harshness, the austerity and the basic lack of joy and pleasure which pervades the unadorned mosques, where it seems that absolutely nothing is allowed to distract man from his relationship with his invisible, unapproachable God. A God who lives on no altar, of whom you can't ask anything, in whom you can confide nothing, with whom there's no dialogue and in whose presence you can't even weep, but who still seems to control everything. A disturbing religion, but it's theirs, the religion of a billion people.
The Taliban's legitimacy comes from here, from this religion and its representatives the mullahs. And it's surely no coincidence that in the eyes of the Afghan masses, the investiture of Mullah Omar as the spiritual as well as the military and political head of the Taliban took place when, at Kandahar in 1994, the young mujahideen literally clothed himself with the sacred mantle or kherka which is said to have belonged to Mohammed.
In 1768, the Emir of Bokhara presented the kherka to Ahmed Shah, the founder of modern Afghanistan and the man who for the first time had managed to unify the country and give it some semblance of being a state. The kherka remained in Kabul for some days while it was being brought to Kandahar, where it's now preserved in a specially-built mosque. The stone on which it rested is today venerated in a shrine, Ziarat-i-Sakhi, which dominates one of the hills surrounding Kabul, its two little blue domes standing out against the sky. In those days, so the legend goes, the spirit of Mohammed's cousin and brother-in-law Ali came to pay homage to the relic, and the footprint which can be seen in the stone to this day is the sign that he did so.
Perhaps it's because one of the city's largest cemeteries sprawls at the feet of this sanctuary, with its thousands and thousands of simple, unnamed tombstones casting their brief shadows on the ground, or perhaps it's because on the morning I visited it there were very few people there, just some children playing with the flocks of pigeons in the courtyard, that I remember Ziarat-i-Sakhi as being the most peaceful, intense place in Kabul.
And al-Qaeda? What did the people of Kabul know of this organization? What did they know of Osama? Various people I spoke to suggested the name of al-Qaeda was unknown before 11 September, and that only thereafter did Bin Laden's group start to be mentioned in all the foreign local language broadcasts and become part of the common parlance. The Arabs? "The Taliban said they were foreign mujahideen who had come to help us fight the jihad and so were our guests", the people now say. There were quite a lot of Arabs in various parts of Kabul, but they kept themselves to themselves and didn't mix with the Afghan population. They lived their own lives. They weren't popular, and like foreigners in general were viewed with suspicion.
But the fact remains that this word "guest" has a different meaning for the Pashtuns from the one it has for us. Already travellers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries pointed out that melmastia, the duty of hospitality according to the Pashtun code of honour or Pashtunwali, was such that they even went as far as to risk their own life in order to protect a guest. This is why we shouldn't rule out the possibility that, no matter how absurd it might seem to us Westerners, Mullah Omar, as a Pashtun himself and in his role of "defender of the faith", should view as sacrosanct this dual tribal and religious duty to grant asylum to his guest Osama bin Laden and the foreign mujahideen.
It might help to recap their story. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Americans saw it as a perfect opportunity to "trap the bear", weaken the Soviet Union and avenge the 50,000 men they lost in the Vietnam war. Moscow had helped the Vietcong and North Vietnamese to humiliate the United States, so Washington would help the Afghans to humiliate and defeat the Soviets. It was a question of finding someone who would fight that war for them alongside the Afghans. Thus the Americans discovered Islamic fundamentalism, not as an enemy but as an ally. Urged on by a propaganda offensive in favour of the jihad which the Americans encouraged, thousands of young men from the entire Muslim world volunteered to go and fight the "evil empire", which for their benefit was conveniently portrayed as being fundamentally anti-Islamic. In what it called Operation Cyclone, some 35,000 foreign mujahideen were financed, armed, and brought to Afghanistan by the United States.
The war lasted ten years. The Soviets withdrew in 1989 after losing 15,000 soldiers, and the Americans, who had fufilled their objectives, lost all interest in Afghanistan. They closed their embassy in Kabul, and left those of their foreign mujahideen who'd survived the jihad to fend for themselves. Thus thousands of Egyptians, Saudis, Yemenites, Algerians, Chechens, Chinese Uighurs and others were left to their own devices.
They couldn't return home, because in the eyes of their governments they weren't ghazis or veterans worthy of respect but dangerous revolutionaries who needed to be eliminated. They had nowhere else to go, because no other country was willing to take them in (some of them tried to go back and live in the Arab world, but they were imprisoned immediately and in most cases murdered). They had no alternative but to stay in Afghanistan and sign up with Osama bin Laden. His new jihad against the United States, who were "occupying Islam's holy places, helping Israel against the Palestinians and supporting corrupt regimes in the Arab world" struck a chord with those who at that stage were feeling doubly betrayed by Washington. It was thus that al-Qaeda was born and Afghanistan, "the one true Islamic state in the world", as the Taliban called it, became a reference point for all Muslim fundamentalist movements. In a much more limited way and without the training camps, something similar had occurred in the 1920s, when King Amanullah, keen to get back into the mullahs' good books, offered hospitality to large numbers of Muslim fundamentalists from various countries, including British India.
It shouldn't be forgotten that pan-Islamism has Afghan roots, and it's no coincidence either that the tomb of Jamaluddin Afghani, generally thought of as the father of this movement for the unity of the Muslim world, lies at the centre of Kabul University, or rather what's left of it. Afghani, born in 1838, spent most of his life in Persia, Egypt and Turkey. The question which lay at the heart of all his thinking was one which has still to be resolved and which continues to beset Islam today, that is, how to combine religion with modernity.
The solution he proposed involved a selective approach to Western conquests, but first and foremost what he wanted to achieve was the unification of the world's Islamic countries to form a grand caliphate.
Perhaps Osama bin Laden managed to convince Mullah Omar that Afghanistan was that caliphate and their task to expand it. The relationship between Osama and the spiritual head of the Taliban remains a mystery from our point of view, but it's likely that he had a great influence on Mullah Omar, with his more sophisticated Islamic culture, his extra years, his aristocratic origins and his experience of the world.
And al-Qaeda? It probably wasn't and isn't the homogeneous, centralized organization we are asked to believe. The groups which form part of it, perhaps even only on a very informal basis, have disparate aims and different histories.
Some 329 Taliban prisoners are currently being detained in a Northern Alliance prison which is five hours' drive from Kabul. Two of them are Uighurs. The Uighurs are a race which forms part of the Turkic minority who for centuries has lived in Xinjiang, the westernmost region of China. This is the story of how these two men, aged twenty-two and twenty-five, ended up here.
The Uighurs are discriminated against in China. They aren't even allowed to study in their own language, let alone read the Koran in Arabic. So over the years several families began sending their children to the madrassas in Pakistan, a country which has excellent relations with China. For a while everything went well, but then China realized these students were taking a more radical stance, so they asked Pakistan to send them back. Once they'd returned the persecution started, and according to the two prisoners 132 of them were executed. The rest, including my two, managed to escape to the only country prepared to grant them asylum, Afghanistan. But even here the Chinese continued to persecute them. The Peking government was building a new telephone exchange in Kabul, and threatened to withdraw its technicians and aid if the Taliban didn't hand the Uighurs over. The Taliban refused, citing their customary duty of hospitality as they would when they refused to hand over Bin Laden to the Americans. However, they managed to reach a compromise solution with the Chinese, whereby they promised to keep the Uighurs under surveillance and prevent them using Afghan territory for anti-Chinese activities. And so it was: the Uighurs remained to all intents and purposes under house arrest in Kabul, and only when the Americans started the bombings did the Taliban send them off to fight on the front at Kunduz. There my two were captured.
And now? They're waiting for someone to look after them. But who? And where will they go? No-one wants them.
The troops of General Dostun, now Deputy Minister of Defence in the new Kabul government, and their American and British advisers have got round a similar problem, by massacring over five hundred prisoners in the fortress at Mazar-i-Sharif.
Maybe the Americans think they can solve the problem of terrorism by killing every seed of the Frankenstein they themselves have created. But they won't be able to do so until they face up to the various problems which by their different routes have brought peoples as disparate as the Saudis, the Uighurs, the Chechens and the Algerians to a place such as Afghanistan.
The current anti-terror coalition is just making these problems worse, and increasing intolerance and hatred is undermining the path to any hope of reconciliation between the Chinese and their Muslim minorities, the Russians and the Chechens, the West and the Muslim world in general, let alone any chance of reconciliation between the various Afghan groups.
Kabul today is a city on the alert, a city in which, with the prudence that comes from experience, the people tell their Western interlocutors what they want to hear: that the Taliban were awful, that American intervention was welcome. It took an old poet of over eighty, a man who no longer has anything to fear and whom I found ill in bed, to write the following lines in Pashtun in my notebook:
In the garden
I gathered at random
grapes and bits of bombs.
Thank you for your gifts,
On the trail of Attila
the bloodbath in Afghanistan
is now warm.
People only open up and begin to say what they really think once you get to know them a bit. They even display a kind of naive nostalgia for the Taliban: hard men but honest, simple and spartan, who ate little and badly, didn't steal and "thought only of Islam and dying". They understand perfectly that those who are currently in power are only there thanks to Americans, who bombed the way to Kabul for them. They know these are the same soldiers who previously destroyed, raped and sacked this city, and they're suspicious.
An Afghan driver with the United Nations once told me he had overheard a conversation shortly after the fall of Kabul between some Northern Alliance soldiers. They were furious, because they'd arrived there hoping to ransack the city - they already had the address of a place they could steal cars from - but were prevented from doing so by their leaders on orders from America.
The people also know that the Taliban are far from finished, that many of them have retreated to their villages and are ready to come back fighting, and that others who were less involved in the worst aspects of the regime are now free in Kabul.
One day I went to talk to some scholars at the Science Academy. As they left the deputy chairman's office, a dusty room with a cast-iron stove but no wood to go in it, and sheets of plastic in the windows rather than panes of glass, six or seven bearded, middle-aged, imposing men wearing turbans and broad brown shawls with green borders tossed over their shoulders, sat waiting to go in. "They're civil servants from the ex-Taliban Ministry for Pilgrimages to Mecca", the man who was accompanying me said as we went down the stairs.
These men struck me as being real Afghans, in touch with the crowd in the market, with the old men who, now the Taliban prohibition has ended, meet up again each day in the winding alleys round the mosque of Puli-i-Khisti to bet on cock-fights, with those I used to watch come and pray on the concrete strip beneath my windows. These Taliban, who never left their country and lived through and took part in every drama there in the past twenty years, struck me as being far more Afghan than the Afghans of the diaspora, the wanderers I saw returning to Kabul after years of exile in the West to offer their (Western) experience to help rebuild the country. Dressed like foreigners in their jackets and trousers, often in raincoats in a city where it rarely rains, a city where nothing at all is familiar to them even though they happened to be born here, they're unmistakable, at times almost pathetic.
One of these expatriates, whose flawless French has already got him a job at the revived Ministry of Culture, gave me one of the few amusing moments I had during my stay in Kabul.
One morning I had joined a few Western diplomats, who had been especially invited by the Minister to inspect the proof of a "crime" that had been committed by the Taliban. The appointment was in front of the Gallery of Modern Art, an old building still in good condition not far from the sanctuary of the King of the Two Swords. The newly-appointed French-speaking junior official was our guide, and he explained to us that the Taliban Minister for the Protection of Virtue and the Struggle against Vice himself had come here a few months ago to carry out the purge. We went round the four rooms, duly noting the spaces on the walls where the missing works of art had once been, and then, in front of a door sealed with a card bearing the signature of the Minister himself, we waited till one of the attendants managed to find the key.
Eventually a man of about fifty, with a fine henna-red beard, a turban and a brown shawl - was it him? the minister? - broke the seal and opened the door. On the floor, and already coated in dust, were some twenty paintings of historical scenes with soldiers and horses, and three large canvases with life-size women looking pensive and naked, completely naked, as they dried themselves or looked at their mons Veneris in the mirror. Camera flashes were blinding the poor attendants, who were obliged to hold the pictures up high. The French-speaking official was still speaking of this "horrible crime contre la liberté d'expression du peuple afghan", a diplomat discovered that we were looking at Afghan copies of early nineteenth-century French paintings, and I creased up laughing.
Among the Afghans of the diaspora who are now returning to Kabul - some of them are already members of the new government - there are also some experienced doctors, engineers and businessmen. But clearly the Afghanistan these people dream of building will just be a copy of the Western countries they've just come from, just as the palaces and fountains Amanullah built were copies. An Afghanistan like this would also please the international community and fit with their interests. But would it be an Afghanistan that is Afghan?
It's now up to the new prime minister Hamid Karzai to strike a balance between these forces. He's a brave, decent man, who's been involved in every stage of his country's recent history and has never put too much distance between himself and his land. His father was killed by the Pakistanis, and he too, at one point foreign minister in the mujahideen government, ended up under arrest. The Northern Alliance imprisoned him, ironically given that he's now their ally and acceptable face. He succeeded in escaping, and managed to reach Quetta in Pakistan. When the Taliban seized power in 1996, Karzai kept up good relations with them, and at one point there was even talk of him becoming their ambassador to the United Nations, had the international community done the obvious thing under international law and decided to recognize their government rather than that of the ousted Northern Alliance.
Karzai's anti-Taliban stance came later on when the regime of Mullah Omar became increasingly radical, perhaps under the growing influence of Osama. Karzai owes a great debt to the Americans. Twice they saved his life when he was on the point of being captured by the Taliban after re-entering the country once the raids had started. The Americans support him, but his being seen as "America's man" doesn't help him, nor does his not being able to ask the Americans to stop bombing the country he's supposed to be running, or being able to decide on what terms or for how long the multinational force can stay in Kabul. Being too much the friend of foreigners is no blessing in Afghanistan.
Everyone says foreigners are now welcome in Afghanistan, but it's not true. Afghan hostility towards all those who pass through their country, especially if uninvited, goes back a long way and has deep roots.
In Beyond the Khyber Pass, an American writer's account of his journey through Afghanistan in 1925, the author writes of an Afghan historian who tells him: "You are a foreigner, and you will fill our country with cars and smoke, you will make master and slave alike and will destroy true religion ... not you, my friend, but the destiny you bring with you". That man was no Talib, and you don't need to be one now to think the same way he did. The foreigner in Afghanistan has always been perceived in this light, and those the Afghans have so far seen arrive on one pretext or another, wearing this uniform or that uniform, have all without exception been like this, suspected of wanting to introduce some unacceptable innovation or guilty of some bloody deed crying out to be avenged.
I witnessed one such act of revenge, albeit in miniature, with my own eyes. I'd gone to have a look at a field hospital the Russians were setting up in Kabul, clearly so they too might have a decent excuse for being in the Afghan capital and keeping an eye on what the Americans were up to. The soldiers from Moscow guarding the entrance are young, penniless conscripts, and they don't say no to the offer of a cigarette. One of them was on the point of lighting up the one he'd just been given by a group of small boys when the Afghan guard standing nearby shouted out: "Stop, stop!". The boys ran away laughing, and the Afghan opened the cigarette paper up. There was gunpowder hidden in with the tobacco.
Episodes such as this make you think that the soldiers of the peace force could also become the target for acts of revenge, if the bombings continue as time goes on with their customary number of deaths "by mistake", and the Americans continue to want to capture all the Taliban irrespective of whether they're commanders, ministers or ambassadors, and carry them off to be interrogated on some offshore ship or at their base in Guantanamo in Cuba to accuse them of goodness knows what crimes. These foreign soldiers who patrol the streets are no different from those who sit in the B-52s as far as the people of Kabul are concerned, not to mention those living in the Afghan countryside where the raids flatten entire villages, destroy fields and alter the very landscape of the mountains by sweeping away their summits. Maybe this is why the British, who were the first to want to come to Afghanistan, now say they want to be out within three months, thereby passing the hot potato on to someone else.
Only if there is reconciliation between the Afghans, only Afghans, all Afghans, those of the Northern Alliance, those returning from exile and also the Taliban, only then will they be able to decide without too much outside interference and advice what kind of Afghanistan they'd like to live in. Only then will they be able to slowly wipe the slate of revenge clean, for at the moment it's clearly anything but. It's going to be a hard, hard task.
One of the great personalities of the last century understood how true this was: Badshah Khan, the "Ghandhi of the frontier", the "Muslim soldier of peace". He was an Afghan from the Peshawar region, who joined Gandhi's movement when he was still a young man. He gave his entire life to persuading his people the Pashtuns, one of the most belligerent ethnic groups in the whole world, to renounce violence and give up their ancient code of honour or badal which states that it is the duty of all to avenge every deed of blood, even every insult to a tribe, clan or family, with blood. This code has stained the history of Afghanistan for centuries.
Badshah Khan managed to put together an army of over 100,000 men, the "Servants of God" who devoted themselves to non-violence. He led these unarmed soldiers in the anti-British independence movement. An unmistakable figure, strong, with a prominent nose and almost twice the height of the Mahatma, he was at Gandhi's side in all his great battles, the last of which was against the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Despite the fact that he was a devout Muslim, he didn't believe in the idea of basing a state on religious exclusivity. Nor did he believe the Pashtuns should accept the Durant Line, that artificial division drawn by British colonialism which left half his race in Pakistan and half in Afghanistan. This is why, before his death in 1988 at the age of ninety-eight, having spent a third of his life in prisons, first British then Pakistani, he signalled his desire to be buried in Jalalabad. Afghanistan was still at the time under Soviet occupation and in the middle of a war, but even on his deathbed he continued to repeat that non-violence was the only possible form of defence and the only way to save the world.
His last message was a straightforward question: "Why do we still produce weapons of mass destruction?". This question has lost none of its relevance today. It is one which first and foremost should be answered by countries such as the United States, who despite continuing to produce weapons of this kind as well as having huge quantities of them in their arsenals already, is threatening at any moment to attack a country like Iraq, which it suspects of wanting to do exactly the same thing, i.e. produce weapons of its own.
There's only one solution to the problem of weapons of mass destruction: destroy the lot of them, and stop producing new ones. Only then will we be able to prevent any state, rogue or otherwise, from using them. Only then will we be able to prevent any terrorist, Islamic or non-Islamic, from gaining possession of them, as it seems some American citizen still in hiding and as yet unpunished managed to do with spores of anthrax.
Hardly anyone now remembers Badshah Khan and the life he dedicated unsuccessfully to the pursuit of peace. But this is no surprise. Hardly anyone even in India remembers their spiritual master Gandhi, and what that noble soul preached in his life and his death.
India, which Gandhi hoped would become an example of non-violence for the rest of the world and which he thought could be defended without armies but simply by means of satyagraha, the strength of truth, now has hundreds and thousands of troops with tanks, artillery, jets and atomic weapons trained against that other half of itself known as Pakistan.
At Rajghat, six kilometres from my home, is a barren plain which the British left completely empty and open when they built New Delhi in case their cannons had to fire on anyone marching on it from old Delhi. It is there that you find Gandhi's samadhi, the place intended to honour his memory. I felt the urge to go back there this morning.
There is a large green lawn inside a pink stone enclosure, at the centre of which a flame burns continuously to indicate where the Mahatma was cremated. Everything is neglected and filthy. There are no flowers in the flower beds and no water in the tiled bowls which line the path. Not even Gandhi or his spirit is here. Although tourists and foreign dignitaries stop off here when they visit India, it's as though this place and all it stands for is no longer fashionable.
Two words stand out on the simple, unadorned black marble dais where someone has thrown a handful of flowers: Hei ram, "Oh, God", the words Gandhi uttered when he was hit by his assassin's bullets. It's as if Bapu, the father, were repeating them once more today, now that India has forgotten his example and killed him all over again. Hei ram
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