Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith had this to say during a panel discussion convened by This Magazine to discuss a decade of international intervention in Afghanistan:
“Afghanistan had a functioning country in some ways before we came in in 2001. That’s a qualified statement: the Taliban had been relatively successful in establishing a regime and you could argue that if you were looking for a partner to fight terrorism—a partner to take on al-Qaeda and make sure that the country would remain stable with some kind of rule of law—in 2001, your best partner would have been the Taliban.”
Afghanistan was neither functioning nor stable prior to 2001. It was a wasteland that at least three million Afghans had fled, seeking refuge in Pakistan and Iran. Many more were internally displaced. I saw thousands of them in the fall of 2001. They lived and died in shallow pits covered with scraps of cloth and plastic. They hadn’t run from American bombs; they ran from the Taliban.
Who can blame them? Barring women from school and banning kite flying were the least of the Taliban’s sins. Their violence was lurid and genocidal. They skinned Hazaras alive. “When the Taliban stormed into our house they shot my husband and two brothers dead on the spot. Each was shot three times and then their throats were slit in the halal way,” a Tajik widow, describing the Taliban’s 1998 capture of Mazar-e-Sharif, told Ahmed Rashid. The Taliban murdered as many as 8,000 civilians that summer, as they attempted to cleanse northern Afghanistan of Shia Muslims.
There was no functioning administration to speak of. Here’s Rashid again, describing the Taliban’s 1995 move into western Afghanistan:
“The Taliban treated Herat as an occupied city, arresting hundreds of Heratis closing down all schools and forcibly implementing their social bans and Sharia law, even more fiercely than in Kandahar. The city was garrisoned not by local defectors, but by hardcore Pashtun Taliban from Kandahar and the administration was handed over to Durrani Pashtuns, many of whom could not even speak Persian and therefore were incapable of communicating with the local population. Over the next few years not a single local Herati was to be inducted into the administration.”
As for Smith’s claim that the Taliban would have been our best partner to take on al-Qaeda and fight terrorism, there is nothing in the historical record to suggest that this is true. The United States tried for years prior to 9/11 to convince the Taliban to break their bonds with al-Qaeda. They refused. Here’s Steve Coll writing in Ghost Wars:
“After earlier reports of sharp tensions between Taliban leaders and bin Laden, U.S. intelligence discovered that the Taliban’s Council of Minister’s had unanimously endorsed its alliance with al Qaeda at the end of 1999. [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar had even reportedly executed Taliban dissenters over the issue.”
Mullah Omar did tell a Pakistani intelligence chief prior to 9/11 that he “wanted to get rid of Osama but did not know how.” This, however, is far from an indication that he would have joined with the Americans and Canadians to fight al-Qaeda.
Even until today, Mullah Omar has spurned Afghan government reconciliation offers that would require him to reject al-Qaeda. And ties between al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, an affiliated branch of the Taliban, are much stronger.
The West has done a lot of things wrong in Afghanistan, and in its war against al-Qaeda. Not partnering with the Taliban isn’t one of them.