HISTORY is unpredictable. One never can tell how things will turn out to be and speculation is not worth it. For years, starting with the end of the Second World War, the world had witnessed the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In terms of sheer economic power, the Soviet Union could not hold a candle to the United States. Like European powers which at one time wanted to spread Christianity, the Soviet Union had its own ambition to spread communism as an ideology. Afghanistan, it seemed to Moscow, was an ideal country. And it so happened that there were some in the country who were not averse to seeking Soviet assistance.
Understandably, the United States felt challenged. What happened subsequently is now old history. Washington was roused to action and it sought Pakistan’s aid to displace Soviet influence from Afghanistan. A revolt against the Soviet presence in Kabul was organised using the most vile technique to which the author makes no reference. But it turned out to be a success. By 1989 the ten-year Soviet presence in Kabul ended and the Americans went home. This was the start of fierce infighting in Afghanistan between disparate ethnic and religious leaders who were once united to eject the Soviets, but then turned at each other’s throats.
In the vicious squabble that followed, some 25,000 civilians got killed. It is an old saying that the times provide the man. Peace had to be restored and the people found in Mullah Mohammad Omar, a former fighter against the Soviets the right person to fight for peace. The fighters came to be known as the Taliban. It came into existence in 1994 and Pakistan was quick to support it. The author dismisses Pakistan’s support to terrorism lightly. For one thing, chaos in Afghanistan had forced some 1.4 million Afghans to see refuge in Pakistan. They had to be persuaded to return.
For another, according to the author, Pakistan was afraid that India may make its presence felt in Afghanistan. So the fight to capture Kabul began. It ended on September 26, 1996 when the Taliban entered the city and in no time arrested Mohammad Najibullah, the Soviet-era President of Afghanistan, who was tortured, castrated and hanged from a lamp post. Taliban terrorism had started. If the human cost of the decade-long Soviet presence in Afghanistan was to result in a million killed, over four million wounded and five million turned into refugees, the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban was to turn out to be more tortuous.
Kabul in the past had been, according to Fergusson “a city of music and flowers, of cinema and night clubs, children flying kites, female students wearing trousers and even mini-skirts”. Now all that began to be a thing of the past. Hundreds of executions took place. A convicted thief could get his hands chopped off. Kite flying was banned; girls and female teachers were forbidden from attending mixed schools, television was banned. On July 30,1998 one witness say dozens of TV and video players thrown out into the streets and the city’s electronic shops raided. Women were beaten for violating new dress codes, in some case with electric cables.
The capital’s infra-structure was soon in ruins. Government offices were looted. Men wearing short beards were beaten. The Buddha statues in Bamiyan had their faces disfigures using dynamite. The United States now again came into the picture. As the then Pakistan President Musharraf put it, America acted like a “wounded bear”. It returned to Afghanistan. The Taliban, with an estimated 60,000 troops in the field,fled at the cost of just one American soldier killed! It was not so cheap for Afghans, though. According to one study, as many as 4,000 civilians were killed or injured as a result of US bombing. The Northern Alliance came into existence, which was considered friendly towards India. Hamid Karzai took over the reins of government.
Can there be a compromise between Karzai and the Taliban? Writes Fergusson: “Who would not choose compromise and the chance for peace over continued war, poverty and corruption?” An arguable point that, one wonders how India will react to it. Talks are all very well, but can the Taliban change its face?
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