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Blood Washing Blood

Blood Washing Blood

Afghanistan's Hundred-Year War
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Chapter 16: Extreme Melmastia

In early 1998, the United Nations ceased operations in Kandahar entirely 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 members to be accompanied by a male blood relative whenever they left their homes. This was clearly impossible for the international staff, and was made worse by the fact that the United Nations had greatly increased the proportion of female staff members in the mission in order to better access the female half of the Afghan population. This edict was closely followed by the decision to close all of the 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, which was still not enough to survive on. The World Food Program was importing seven hundred and fifty thousand 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 simply meeting humanitarian needs. Many wondered if the Taliban would be forced to reckon with the humanitarian situation a, 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 who they massacred near Maimana. They also captured nearly a hundred tanks, which they would use to sustain their offensive. As happened before, several of Dostum’s key subordinates took bribes from the Taliban and betrayed their leader. Dostum was forced to flee to Turkey once again.

Through a combination of combat and bribery, the Taliban reached Mazar, which they attacked on 8 August, 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 employed guides who knew the city who they recruited from HiG. Thousands of Hazara civilians were locked in sea containers and left in the Dasht-e Leila 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 alone, and perhaps as many more in the villages and towns along the route from Herat to Mazar. An international incident developed after the Taliban entered the Iranian consulate and murdered eleven staff. The Taliban took no action against Mullah Dost Mohammed, who led the soldiers into the Iranian consulate, 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 that the Shi’a were not 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. Although there had long been tensions between the Sunni and Shi’a communities in Afghanistan (and elsewhere), it had subsided during the anti-Soviet jihad, both as the PDPA promoted the equality of all ethnicities, and as much of the rural population united against the government. There was little appetite for internecine fighting while an external threat existed. The Taliban brand of Islam, however, borrowed the idea from Salafists that the Shia were not Muslims, opening them up 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 reasons alone.

In August 1998, the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in attacks that killed two hundred and twenty four people and wounded forty-five hundred more. Although bin Laden did not directly conduct 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, and dozens of cruise missiles were launched into Afghanistan, targeting six camps associated with al Qaeda. It was hoped that bin Laden might be amongst those killed, but he survived. Most of those killed were actually Pakistanis who were being trained for operations in Kashmir.

The American attacks raised the issue of whether the Taliban should continue to shelter bin Laden. Doing so prevented them from gaining recognition form the United States, something that they desperately wanted in order to normalize their relations with the world. 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 amongst 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, instead remaining parochial in their view of the world.

Although bin Laden did have supporters amongst 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. They 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 discretely from Kandahar to live elsewhere in the country. They claimed to have no knowledge of his whereabouts, but in truth, it had simply become too dangerous, for both bin Laden and the regime, for him to continue to live openly. Mullah Omar wrote to President Clinton in 1999, 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.” It did little to change American perception of the Taliban. 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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Democratic Equality

Democratic Equality

What Went Wrong?
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