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Blood Washing Blood

Blood Washing Blood

Afghanistan's Hundred-Year War
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Chapter 16: Guilt by Association

In early 1998 the United Nations ceased operations in Kandahar after senior Taliban officials beat and threatened several staff members. The Taliban also made operations in other parts of the country more difficult when they ordered all female United Nations staff to be accompanied by their husband or a male blood relative whenever they left their homes. This was clearly impossible for the international staff. The restriction hit the mission especially heavily because the United Nations had greatly increased the proportion of female staff members in the country in order to better access the women of Afghanistan. This edict was closely followed by the Taliban order to close all offices of non-governmental organizations across the country, as the Taliban felt they were undermining their rule. This created a humanitarian crisis, as more than half of the 1.2 million people living in Kabul relied on food aid to survive.

Largely ignored by the Taliban government, the Afghan economy was a shambles. Average salaries, for those who found employment, were between one and three U.S. dollars per month. Surgeons at the government hospitals in Kabul were paid $5 per month, not enough to survive on. The World Food Program was importing 750,000 tonnes of wheat a year in 1998, which was still not enough to feed the population. Donors had begun to ask hard questions, worried that the aid that they were providing was sustaining the war rather than meeting humanitarian needs. Many wondered if the Taliban would be forced to reckon with the humanitarian situation and negotiate a peace settlement, if not for the support provided to the Afghan people by the international community.

Nonetheless, the Taliban retained their focus on defeating their enemies, attacking again from Herat in an effort to seize Mazar. Weakened by infighting, Dostum’s soldiers were routed, and the Taliban captured eight hundred Uzbek militia whom they massacred near Maimana. They also captured nearly a hundred tanks, which they used to sustain their offensive. Once again, several of Dostum’s key subordinates took bribes from the Taliban and betrayed their leader. Dostum again fled to Turkey.

The Taliban attacked Mazar on August, 8, 1998. The fighting was intense, as both sides knew that defeat meant certain death. Of the fifteen hundred Hazara defenders of the city, only one hundred survived to be captured. With the memory of their loss the previous year still fresh, the Taliban took brutal revenge on the city, looting and killing for days. Whereas before they had been chased and trapped in unfamiliar streets, this time they recruited guides from HIG who knew the city. Thousands of Hazara civilians were locked in sea containers and left in the Dasht-e Leili to die. Tens of thousands more fled the city on foot, and were attacked by the Taliban from the air.

In all, five or six thousand people were killed in Mazar, and perhaps as many more in the villages and towns along the route from Herat. Mullah Dost Mohammed entered the Iranian consulate with a group of Taliban soldiers and murdered 11 staff. The Taliban ignored Iranian government protests and took no action against the mullah, though he was later jailed after his wife complained that he had brought a Hazara concubine home with him to Kandahar. It is believed that four hundred Hazara women were taken by Taliban as sex slaves during the destruction of the city.

The Taliban had long considered the Shi’a not to be true Muslims, and in Mazar they put this theory into practice. They declared that all Shi’ites in the city had three choices: to convert to Sunni Islam, to immediately leave for Iran, or to be killed. The result was a massacre. Long-standing tensions between the Sunni and Shi’a communities in Afghanistan had subsided during the anti-Soviet jihad, as much of the rural population united against the foreigners and the government in Kabul. And for years before that, the PDPA had been promoting the equality of all ethnicities. The Taliban brand of Islam, however, borrowed from Salafists the idea that the Shi’a were not Muslims, leaving them open to horrible atrocities. While many previous Afghan governments had also targeted the Shi’a, this was often for practical reasons such as to seize land or other valuables. In the case of the Taliban, it was for ideological and religious reasons.

In August 1998 the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in attacks that killed 224 people and wounded 4,500. Although bin Laden did not direct the attacks, they were perpetrated by alumni of his training camps, and he may have funded and encouraged them as well. The American response was swift. Dozens of cruise missiles were launched into Afghanistan, targeting six camps associated with al Qaeda. It was hoped that bin Laden might be among those killed, but he survived. Most of the dead were Pakistanis being trained for operations in Kashmir.

The American attacks raised the question of whether the Taliban should continue to shelter bin Laden. Doing so prevented them from gaining recognition from the United States, which they desperately wanted. Many Afghans opposed his presence in the country, seeing Wahhabism as an alien version of their religion, and the Afghan-Arabs as arrogant and difficult to work with. Bin Laden had provided a force of Afghan-Arabs to fight alongside the Taliban, known as 555 Brigade. They were unpopular for the way in which they treated Afghans, and were likely behind some of the more extreme behaviour exhibited on the battlefield, such as the torture and murder of Shi’ites. Bin Laden’s ideas of a global jihad did not generally resonate among Afghans, whose interests largely lay within the borders of their own country. They had no interest in assisting the Kashmiris or the Palestinians or any other group fighting jihad.

Although bin Laden did have supporters among the Taliban leadership, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, it was his friendship with Mullah Omar that mattered most. As the amir’s personal guest, he was well-nigh untouchable. Within the Pashtunwali is the concept of melmastia, which obligates a host to protect and shelter a guest. Even when pressure on the regime mounted, Mullah Omar stubbornly cited this precept as the reason why bin Laden was allowed to remain. In November the United States began to communicate directly with Mullah Omar via a satellite phone provided to him by the ISI. It offered a $5 million reward and international recognition if he would hand over bin Laden, but he refused. Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia flew to Kandahar to try to convince Mullah Omar to hand bin Laden to him, but to no avail. Mullah Omar insulted the prince so badly that the Saudis immediately suspended diplomatic relations with the Taliban, although they did not suspend their funding.

By early 1999 even Mullah Omar recognized that bin Laden had become a liability, and encouraged him to disappear discreetly from Kandahar to live elsewhere in the country. Mullah Omar wrote to President Clinton that year, saying: “whatever we are — even if we are as you say fundamentalists — we are far from you and we do not intend to harm you and cannot harm you either.” The letter did little to change American perceptions of the Taliban. Yet the Taliban still hoped for international recognition. When the Hazarajat fell to a three-pronged Taliban attack that year, the Taliban largely refrained from massacring civilians, possibly fearing that to do so would strain relations with the United States even further.

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