The Taliban Blunder

The Taliban’s rise began in southern Afghanistan, or the Pashtun belt, among a group of local Pashtun mullahs (see “Rise of the Taliban”). However, after the Taliban’s initial military successes, the Pakistani government quickly supported the movement militarily and logistically. The Taliban could not have taken the country without Pakistan’s aggressive aid. Officially, the US position in the early days of the Taliban (1994-1996) was that it supported no one faction; however, it is believed that the US preferred a Taliban victory because it thought the Taliban would serve Western interests.*

National security and economic factors are the two biggest drivers of a country’s foreign policy. In South Asia, the major political actors are Russia, India, China, and the US. The smaller actors linked to the Afghanistan crisis mainly include Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Central Asian states. In Afghanistan in the mid-90s, the US wanted to exploit Turkmenistan’s oil and natural gas and the best way to do this was to build a pipeline that would pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan, but Afghanistan’s civil war prevented this. What to do? The solution was to stabilize Afghanistan.

There are at least two ways to stabilize a state that is embroiled in civil war. Either one faction will overpower the others, or all (or most) factions will form a coalition government. The former is achieved militarily, the latter diplomatically. In Afghanistan’s case, the diplomatic solution was elusive. Even alliances among the non-Pashtun tribes were difficult to achieve and untenable once achieved, and the Taliban took the hardest line of all: either join its movement or die.

In the mid-90s, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the US believed that the Taliban was the winning ticket. The Afghan government at the time was Tajik and Uzbek-dominated, which linked it politically to Central Asia and Iran. A Taliban victory would theoretically link Afghanistan to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the US because the Taliban are mainly Pashtun, and the Pashtun are also located in Pakistan and are inside of the Pakistani government. The Pashtuns seemed a natural ally. A Taliban victory would also provide the needed stability -thus better internal security- for the pipeline.

The Pakistani government was the immediate and direct hand that picked up the Taliban from its humble roots and helped it to eventually take 90-95% of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, supporting the Taliban was a huge foreign policy blunder that indirectly led to the September 11th attacks and to the current NATO-led, UN-sanctioned operation in Afghanistan.

In retrospect, there were a number of warning signs in the mid-90s that indicated that the Taliban was the wrong choice.** First, whenever the Taliban would take a town or city, it would immediately impose an incredulously harsh variation of Sharia law. Such actions suggested intolerance, a narrow world view, and likely a people who would be difficult to work with. Second, the Taliban repeatedly disregarded Pakistani input after each successive military victory. The latter behavior was significant because it meant that the Taliban leadership was ignorant of its dependent position and ungrateful to the proverbial hand that fed them.

The continuing Afghan crisis holds a treasure trove of political and foreign policy lessons. For the US, the Taliban fiasco raises two broader questions: “How far should the US be willing to go in order to accomplish its objectives around the world?” and “Can the US learn from the Taliban mistake, and institutionalize this learning, so that it never repeats a similar blunder?”

The first question implies ethics –how far is the US willing to go? The US government boldly champions human rights and personal liberty around the world but has on a number of occasions walked arm-in-arm with the worst violators of these ideals in order to further its interests. It is like condemning bank robbers then legitimizing them through a joint venture. Such a double standard kills America’s reputation internationally. In today’s closely-knit world due to globalization and the Internet, with experts on every subject and millions of blogs just a click away, America’s foreign policy missteps are publicized around the world. America’s critics relish in them. These bad US policy decisions also affect each and every American as they enter adulthood. The best of American ideals are taught to American elementary school students, but as these youth enter adulthood they are lambasted with repeated examples of America’s hypocrisy. Americans generally are proud of their political ideals and each foreign policy blunder of this sort whittles away a little love for America.

From another angle the first question also pits pragmatism against ethics (“the end justifies the means”), while the second question wonders whether that dichotomy can be avoided through forward-thinking policy advisors. In the mid-90s the Afghanistan crisis looked pretty straightforward geopolitically. Conventional wisdom pointed to indirectly supporting the Taliban through Pakistan in order to secure Uzbekistan’s oil and gas. The US would outmaneuver the other regional players and secure its own energy needs. The plan looked good but it was dependent on the Taliban, an unknown variable. Moreover, in the end the Taliban victory was neither politically nor economically pragmatic. The oil and gas never flowed and the US paid dearly in loss of life and billions of dollars. How ironic that when the US ousted the Taliban in late 2001, it used the Tajiks and the Uzbeks, or those ethnic groups that it initially opposed in favor of the Taliban.

* Roy, Olivier. “Rivalries and Power Plays in Afghanistan: The Taliban, the Shari’a and the Pipeline.” Middle East Report, No. 202 (Winter, 1997) pp. 37-40.

** Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Yale University Press: New Haven. 2001. Pp. 29-54.