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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The path to destruction

In his latest online Afghanistan dispatch, Jason Burke returns to Buddha-less Bamiyan and reflects on how the Taliban's act of cultural destruction marked a turning-point for the regime.

Jason Burke in Afghanistan
Observer.co.uk, Sunday 5 May 2002 12.59 BST
Article history
It is an astonishingly beautiful place. Overhead a keen, high altitude wind hauls thin streaks of cirrus across the bright, clear blue sky. To the south there are high mountains, covered in thick spring snow. Beneath them there are the rocky brown slopes of the rolling hills sliced by steep, narrow valleys that finally broaden into one plain ten miles wide and full of fields and low mud houses and slender ash trees that are painfully graceful. At dawn their leaves catch the light before anything else.
Except of course the great cliff where the Buddhas once stood. Its sandstone runs through a dozen shades of blue and pink and orange before settling on a washed out yellow. Bamiyan, the high mountain province in the centre of Afghanistan, has been famous for 1,700 years for the two statues of the Lord Buddha carved into the bluffs that dominate the valley. Last spring the Taliban dynamited both of them. It was only when standing beneath the empty cavities, the largest more than 200ft high, that you can appreciate the crime.

To those of us who had been watching the Taliban for years the destruction of the Buddhas showed that they were changing. In a sense the hardline Islamic militia's eventual demise became inevitable from that moment. I thought it was always too easy to accept the caricature of the Taliban as evil, violent misogynists who ruled by terror alone. Partly, I felt sorry for men whose lives had so obviously been ruined by war and who were trying to recreate some romantic, albeit twisted, vision of what their childhoods and lives should have been like; partly through irritation at the kneejerk Western reaction to the Taliban, who had, after all, been welcomed by many of their countrymen; and partly because I had been in Kandahar, the southern Afghan city that was their spritual and political headqaurters, when in 1998 President Clinton had sent cruise missiles to strike bin Laden's bases in the east of the country. Then the Taliban protected me from angry mobs out to avenge themselves on Westerners. I suppose I felt I owed it to them to try and understand before I condemned.

But looking at the ruins of the Bamiyan buddhas - the rubble is covered by a faded blue tarpaulin that flaps in the breeze - it was impossible to feel much sympathy for the men in the black turbans.

We now know that the influence of al'Qaeda on the Taliban leadership was critical in the decision to blow up the buddhas. Letters found in houses in Kabul show that bin Laden and other senior figures in al'Qaeda leant heavily on Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive one-eyed cleric who led the Talibs, to destroy the statues despite, or rather because of, the international outrage at their plans. Ostensibly the buddhas were blown up because Islam permits no graven images. Actually it was a giant V-sign flicked at the world.

The Taliban seized Kabul and effective power in September 1996. Then they were pretty much unconcerned by the rest of the world. Afghanistan was not just the limit of their ambitions but the limit of their worldview. In long conversations with senior Talibs, even as late as 1998, it was clear that they knew where Pakistan and Iran were, had a fair idea where to find the Gulf but were very sketchy on the exact whereabouts of pretty much anywhere else.

But, by last autumn, Mullah Omar was making specific statements about Iraq and Palestine. The change was due to al'Qaeda and bin Laden.

We are now learning much more about how that happened. It had been old mujahideen commanders who had invited bin Laden back into Afghanistan and the Saudi had to launch a concerted campaign to build a relationship with the Taliban when they came to power. He did it well, but not without some difficulty.

I think the crunch point came the end of 1999 when Mullah Omar gave in to the moderates within the Taliban and successfully eradicated the opium crop - at considerable political and financial cost. Instead of the international recognition and aid that the moderates had assured him the Taliban would recieve they got sanctions and opprobrium instead. The question of bin Laden's presence in the country - described to me as a 'liability' by senior Taliban ideologues at the time - was the subject of desultory negotiations with the US and Saudi but that was all.

The moderates had the rug - no doubt it was a beautiful antique Afghan jaldar bokhar 6ft x 4ft - pulled from under them. And the hardliners decided that bin Laden and his associates were right. It was them against the world.

It took me a day to drive the winding valley that leads from Bamiyan down to the broad Shomali plains where the British and American forces have their main base. After dumping my bags on a free cot in Tent Five of Viper City and picking up an MRE ration pack I went for a run. Overhead Chinooks swung low overhead blasting the dust with their rotor blades. I ran past the British marines encampment, festooned with Union jacks and games of football, past the artillery park and on to the old Soviet-built strip. At the A-10 Tankbuster jets I turned round.

Bearded American special forces soldiers were sprint training along the scarred concrete, each holding a handgun. It was early evening. The light in Afghanistan has a hard-edged metallic quality that I have never seen anywhere else. The men and their machines stood out very sharply against the distant plain and the far off hills. To the north lay the Hindu Kush, to the west was Hazarajat and Bamiyan. I wondered if there was a point when the war could have been averted. Maybe at the time of the Taliban's opium ban. And if so, what other decisions are being taken now in Washington and London and elsewhere. And where will that mean I will be running between the jets and the howitzers in three years time.

Source,

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/may/05/afghanistan.jasonburke

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