How the Taliban stand to gain

By Sreedhar

NEW DELHI: Taliban supremo Mullah Umar's February 26 fatwa, to destroy all idols of worship and its implementation within five days, can be interpreted from four different angles.

Foremost among them would be that after the UN Security Council Resolution 1333 imposing sanctions against the Taliban regime came into effect on January 19, Afghanistan became a pariah for the international community.

Offices of international agencies were shut down and workers sent back home. The international community also started monitoring the movement of men and material to and from Afghanistan.

This questioned the very legitimacy of Taliban rule. Even their sympathisers in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have found it extremely difficult to interact with or extend support to them.

Along with this isolation, nature played havoc with agriculture in Afghanistan. In most parts of the country the rainfall this winter was very poor and the country is experiencing one of the worst droughts in living memory.

International aid is not forthcoming because of the UN sanctions. There is an exodus to neighbouring countries like Iran and Pakistan and there is every chance of people revolting against the Taliban leadership.

While Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is going through this human misery, the anti-Taliban forces controlling less than 10 per cent of Afghanistan have gathered support from the international community. In fact, this support enabled them to blunt the Taliban's winter offensive this year.

In this difficult situation, how can the Taliban and its leadership assert their position in the country? This extraordinary fatwa issued by Mullah Umar has brought them back into the international arena. The same UN, which imposed sanctions six weeks ago, is pleading with the Taliban not to destroy the artifacts. The Taliban response to these pleas, as articulated by its ambassador in Pakistan is, "Why this hue and cry for stone figures when there is no compassion for people who are dying."

To an outsider this may seem perverse logic, but for the majority of Afghans it could look like the world's mightiest have been humbled by Mullah Umar. In fact, Mullah Umar tried this in 1998, when the international community refused to recognise the Taliban regime.

At that time too, the target was the statutes of Buddha in Bamiyan. The international protests prompted the Taliban to issue a statement that some over-zealous cadres indulged in this vandalism and necessary steps had been taken to stop them.

Fanatical belief

A second interpretation could be that the Taliban leadership genuinely believes that other than their version of Islam, no other form of faith should exist within their sphere of influence. That is the reason they indulged in ethnic cleansing within the area controlled by them. The cadres trained by them do the same thing in other places. The burning down of the Chrar-e-Sharif in Kashmir by Taliban-trained militants in 1995 is one example.

Historically too, this is not an uncommon phenomenon in South Asia. Rulers from Mohammad Ghazni and Mohammed Ghauri to Aurangazeb indulged in similar vandalism. According to some reports, the ideological gurus of the Taliban, the Jamaat-e-Ulema-Islam of Pakistan, consider Mohammad Ghauri and Aurangzeb as the true Muslims. If this is true then one need not be surprised at the Taliban destroying the Buddha statues.

Pakistani instigation

Third, arson and looting of Afghanistan heritage started when the Taliban came on the scene in September 1994. According to one version, Pakistani advisers to the Taliban instigated them to remove all artifacts from Afghan soil as they were all against Islam.

The now widely-publicised collection of artifacts from the Kabul National Museum with Naseerullah Babbar, interior minister in the second Benazir Bhutto government, and in the London and Dubai houses of Benazir Bhutto give some credence to this theory. The drug cartels also made tidy sums by selling some of them in the international antique market.

All this indicates that a section of the Pakistan leadership appears to have instigated the Taliban to indulge in this cultural vandalism and the Taliban succumbed to it. Will the Taliban cadres in Pakistan make Taxila their next target is the question being asked now by South Asian watchers.

Provoking India

Lastly, there seems to be an India angle too to this development. After the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar in December 1999, India's relations with the Taliban leadership have become bitter. Since then India has been canvassing extensively in various forums to isolate the Taliban internationally. This has made the Taliban look for ways to acquire pressure points in India.

Their training to Kashmir militants proved to be ineffective. By threatening to demolish the Buddha statutes in Bamiyan, they managed to provoke India. One of the Taliban spokesmen in an interview to a television channel is reported to have remarked that they are destroying the Buddha statutes in retaliation to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Again this may not stand to reason, but the Taliban sees that it has certainly scored a point.

In this whole episode one development surprised everyone. While the world opposed this extraordinary fatwa of Mullah Umar, two countries that have diplomatic relations with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan - Saudi Arabia and the UAE - have maintained a stony silence. Pakistan has not gone beyond a formal criticism.

In the past, none of theses countries ever tried to restrain the Taliban from indulging in this cultural vandalism. Under intense pressure from the international community, more than 48 hours after the fatwa was issued, Pakistan issued a meek appeal to the Taliban to stop implementing it.

The statement of the Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, that the edict is irreversible seems to have closed all options. "Have you ever seen any decision of the Islamic Emirates reversed" he is reported to have said.

After 72 hours of this statement this cultural heritage of mankind is in ruins. What has the Taliban achieved by this? For them they have defied the world. By this action, they have lost the few sympathisers they had outside Afghanistan. This seems to have been not realised by Mullah Umar. Outsiders now know what is cultural terrorism is all about.

(The writer is a Senior Analyst with the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi)