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IUK: Fisk - Repressive regime destined to end in oblivion
By Robert Fisk

11/12/2001 11:29 pm Tue

Repressive regime destined to end in oblivion

By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent

08 December 2001

There was always something distinctly odd, as well as frightening, about the Taliban. Take the young immigration officer who stamped my passport at Jalalabad airport in 1997. Why hadn't I obtained an exit visa, he asked. He must have been 14 years old and was wearing a kind of mascara beneath his eyes, eye make-up just as he imagined the Prophet had once worn it.

When I protested that there was no one in his 8th-century statelet to give me an exit visa, he raised his head and tut- tutted at me. "Tut-tut-tut-tut,'' he went. On and on, shaking his head from side to side. I was an errant schoolboy and he, the child, was the Islamic elder, admonishing the untutored Westerner.

Admonishment, in a sense, was what the Taliban were about. The prevention of joy and pleasure fitted perfectly with their literalist view of Islam. The minister of justice spent much of his time touring Afghanistan to check the length of beards: each had to be "two fists'' in length. The darker side of this tomfoolery, of course, was performed in the Kabul sports stadium: the public execution of men and women, the amputation of hands. If God was merciful, the Taliban's interpretation of mercy was more than strained.

And yet - and here there must be an "and yet" - they were a perfect product of the rapine and pillage of the Northern Alliance's years of terror. Yes, the Taliban were in many ways the creation of our very own friends in the Northern Alliance. After 50,000 men and women had been slaughtered in Kabul between 1992 and 1996, accompanied by the creation of a drugs and prostitution mafia, Afghans of every ethnic group sought peace at any price. And when the Taliban arrived, they were welcomed in a dark, fearful kind of way. Thieves may have their hands cut off but at least there were no more thieves. You could drive from Jalalabad to Kandahar in the certainty that you would arrive safely and untouched. As journalists know all too well now, you cannot do that today.

And the drug production was erased. The UN praised the Taliban's prohibition of hashish and heroin production - it was left to the Northern Alliance boys to keep the reefers smoking in the West - and Mullah Omar toured Kandahar, warning the Pashtun tribes of the consequences if they disobeyed his orders.

The rules were those of the refugee camps in Pakistan in which many of the Taliban had grown up. No drugs. Knowledge of the Koran by rote. Women in the tent, unseen, uneducated, serving their men. This was what life was in those camps and this is what the Taliban reproduced inside Afghanistan in 1996: they turned the whole country into one refugee camp, complete with the rules of penury that they learnt in exile during the Afghan-Russian war.

But they were rules that had about them a kind of obscenity. A Scandinavian friend of mine, a diplomat visiting Kabul, was telephoned in his hotel room by a Taliban official. "We are going to execute a murderer by firing squad. Do you want to witness this?'' he was asked. The diplomat carefully explained that his country opposed capital punishment for any crime. Hours later the man rang back. The Taliban would no longer execute the condemned man by firing squad, he said. Instead, they would kill him by pushing down a wall on top of him. And in any case, he added, the punishment had been postponed for several days.

And so it went on. No music, no kites, no pigeons, no television, no films, no education for women, no jobs for women. The Taliban said they respected women but, as with so many obscurantists, there was always a suspicion that they feared them.

And so the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue would use its canes on women who left home without a male relative or dressed without appropriate modesty in full burqa. We in the West clucked our liberal teeth at this with the same disapproval shown to me by that immigration officer at Jalalabad airport.

We chose, naturally enough, to ignore the Wahabi obscurantists in Saudi Arabia whose rules were almost as vicious and equally insensitive to the outside world. Our allies in Saudi can cloak their women in black, prevent them from driving and chop off heads outside mosques in front of baying crowds every Friday. And they got away with it; scarcely a whimper from the West. And thus the Americans, while crowing at the Taliban's overthrow, have carefully avoided any reference to the Taliban's tutors in Saudi Arabia, whose theology is equally literalist and whose mutawa religious police were the very inspiration for the Vice and Virtue men in the Taliban. Certainly, we are free to forget that most of the pilot-murderers of 11 September were Saudis. None of them was a Taliban, though you might be forgiven for thinking, given the venom we express, that it was the other way round.

For we did not go to war in Afghanistan to make the world free for kite flyers or cinema lovers or women in veils. We went after the Taliban because of their protection for Osama bin Laden. Does this mean the end of militant Islam? Will the Americans now turn on Hamas and Islamic Jihad - via their Israeli friends - and the Hizbollah in Lebanon and just about any man with a beard who objects to the United States? I rather suspect that Muslim "extremism'' has more tenacity than that, indeed more tenacity than the Taliban. For they were always an unworldly version of their co-religionists in the rest of the Islamic world, more interested in applying sharia law than in resisting the more obvious manifestations of Western oppression.

The Taliban never volunteered to fight for Iraq or for the Palestinians or for the Lebanese. They did not even have a military strategy to fight anybody, just a theological strategy. They ruled Afghan-istan in the way they did because it was all they knew.

And so they forgot the principle of power: that you must at least pretend to protect and nurture and show compassion towards your own people. The Taliban disappeared because they cared about morality but not about life, about absolutism rather than human dignity, about rules rather than logic, a world in which challenge was always treachery.

In their territory a few days ago, another boy immigration officer studied my latest entry visa to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan - the last the Taliban was to issue, stamped into my passport by their officials in Islamabad after their embassy had been officially closed. The teenager brought down his immigration stamp on my entry visa. It said "Exit''. Wrong stamp. But it pretty much symbolised the Taliban.