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Living in the Repressive Silence of the Taliban

August 20, 2000|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg, formerly a consultant to the United Nations in Afghanistan, is the author of "Politics at the Heart: The Architecture of International Assistance to Afghanistan."

WASHINGTON — Two years ago today, U.S. cruise missiles landed on Taliban training camps in Afghanistan. The U.S. government said it targeted accused terrorist Osama bin Laden, but most Afghans believed the real quarry was the Taliban. Neither goal was realized: Despite daily rumors of his demise, Bin Laden remains in Afghanistan, and the Taliban controls most of the country. Failed Western diplomacy in the last two years is an object lesson in misunderstood risks and contradictory intentions. It has prolonged Afghanistan's war, and in so doing, made it possible for the Taliban to believe it might just win.

Summer is fighting season in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, and this year is no exception. Just north of the rubble that was once Kabul, Taliban forces are again trying to neutralize a motley collection of opposition forces. Both sides are oblivious to entreaties to end their combat, and excoriate anyone who suggests cease-fire is an honorable substitute for military victory. Instead, they press toward a weary endgame: a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, or a country split among foreign-funded factions--the Taliban among them--that will simply live another day of war.

This is familiar. For the past four summers, both sides have fought, regrouped with foreign help, then fought again. The same foreigners who have supplied weapons, fuel and fighters take odd comfort in preaching a peace they make impossible. And U.N. envoys have taken small steps to stop the fighting--or just make life a bit more livable for the victims of a country almost paralyzed by combat--only to be cursed for interfering in the habit of war.

Is it interference to propose peace? Surely not. But the long struggle to re-create an Afghanistan in which Afghans can live peaceably has strained every instinct of humanity in the course of the past 20 years. Fighting factions have forced civil society to walk an undignified high wire between starvation and capitulation. Where formerly Afghans argued about the relative merits of socialism and individualism, or debated how they should organize their state, now there is enforced silence.

That quiet has rarely been broken since the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996--the repression is thorough. But last week, echoes of despair rang out through some Kabul neighborhoods, where many Afghans have neither food nor water. New edicts alternately close, then open Kabul's bakeries, because the widows who run them are prohibited from leaving their homes. Communal baths, often the only source of clean water, are now closed because authorities insist they are un-Islamic. Afghans have been told the summer's drought is punishment for their muted disregard for Taliban control.

Such behavior occasionally leads foreigners to believe that the Taliban acts in desperation, that edicts reflect ideological rifts and that Afghans are restive. From such suppositions, outside powers recalculate relative military advantages in and around Afghanistan's borders, and reassess power balances among Afghanistan's tribes, clans and factions.

But intelligence about Afghanistan--particularly about inner workings of the Taliban--is as much hypothesis as fact. Afghanistan is not a democracy, and neither fighting factions nor their patrons are wedded to notions of transparency or accountability. When people are not allowed to speak, or leave their homes, it is hard to know what, or how, they think. No matter how earnestly foreign powers play guessing games about tactics and strategy, no one really knows what Afghans believe unless someone finds a way to ask them--and listen to the answer.

Somehow, the world lost sight of its goals in Afghanistan and, even worse, forgot whose goals they were supposed to be. After the Soviet army was defeated, few countries in Asia or the West had much interest in the rump communist government of a small, battered if strategically located country. The same powers that waged war against the Soviet Union helped replace Afghanistan's government with small bands of armed men who turned public property into private killing fields. After playing factions against each other, outsiders then promoted the Taliban as a potential unifying force. They did not fully consider how military success could be transformed into an ideological quest for a new Afghanistan--or how dangerous that could be.

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