Thursday, October 21, 2021
Life in Talibanistan   by Pepe Escobar
Part 1 ♦ 2021 version  [LINK]

Fatima Maliha  Nouria
Fatima, Maliha and Nouria

Dear reader: this is very special, a trip down memory lane like no other: back to prehistoric times – the pre-9/11, pre-YouTube, pre-social network world.

Welcome to Taliban Afghanistan – Talibanistan – in the Year 2000. This is when photographer Jason Florio and myself slowly crossed it overland from east to west, from the Pakistani border at Torkham to the Iranian border at Islam qillah. As Afghan ONG workers acknowledged, we were the first Westerners to pull this off in years.

Those were the days. Bill Clinton was enjoying his last stretch at the White House. Osama bin Laden was a discreet guest of Mullah Omar – hitting the front pages only occasionally. There was no hint of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the “war on terror”, the perpetual financial crisis, the Russia-China strategic partnership. Globalization ruled, and the US was the undisputed global top dog. The Clinton administration and the Taliban were deep into Pipelineistan territory – arguing over the tortuous, proposed Trans-Afghan gas pipeline.

We tried everything, but we couldn’t even get a glimpse of Mullah Omar. Osama bin Laden was also nowhere to be seen. But we did experience Talibanistan in action, in close detail.

Today is a special day to revisit it. The Forever War in Afghanistan is over; from now on it will be a Hybrid mongrel, against the integration of Afghanistan into the New Silk Roads and Greater Eurasia.

In 2000 I wrote a Talibanistan road trip special for a Japanese political magazine, now extinct, and ten years later a 3-part mini-series revisiting it for Asia Times.

Part 2 of this series can be found here, and part 3 here.

Yet this particular essay – part 1 – had completely disappeared from the internet (that’s a long story): I found it recently, by accident, in a hard drive. The images come from the footage I shot at the time with a Sony mini-DV: I just received the file today from Paris.

This is a glimpse of a long-lost world; call it a historical register from a time when no one would even dream of a “Saigon moment” remixed – as a rebranded umbrella of warriors conveniently labeled “Taliban”, after biding their time, Pashtun-style, for two decades, praises Allah for eventually handing them victory over yet another foreign invader.

Now let’s hit the road.

KABUL, GHAZNI – Fatima, Maliha and Nouria, who I used to call The Three Graces, must be by now 40, 39 and 35 years old, respectively. In the year 2000 they lived in an empty, bombed house next to a bullet-ridden mosque in a half-destroyed, apocalyptic theme park Kabul – by then the world capital of the discarded container (or reconstituted by a missile and reconverted into a shop); a city where 70% of the population were refugees, legions of homeless kids carried bags of cash on their backs ($1 was worth more than 60,000 Afghanis) and sheep outnumbered rattling 1960s Mercedes buses.

Under the merciless Taliban theocracy, the Three Graces suffered triple discrimination – as women, Hazaras and Shi’ites. They lived in Kardechar, a neighborhood totally destroyed in the 1990s by the war between Commander Masoud, The Lion of the Panjshir, and the Hazaras (the descendants of mixed marriages between Genghis Khan’s Mongol warriors and Turkish and Tajik peoples) before the Taliban took power in 1996. The Hazaras were always the weakest link in the Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara alliance – supported by Iran, Russia and China – confronting the Taliban.>

Every dejected Kabuli intellectual I had met invariably defined the Taliban as “an occupation force of religious fanatics” – their rural medievalism totally absurd for urban Tajiks, used to a tolerant form of Islam. According to a university professor, “their jihad is not against kafirs; it’s against other Muslims who follow Islam”.

I spent a long time talking to the Dari-speaking Three Graces inside their bombed-out home – with translation provided by their brother Aloyuz, who had spent a few years in Iran supporting the family long-distance. This simple fact in itself would assure that if caught, we would all be shot dead by the Taliban V & V – the notorious Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Taliban religious police.

The Three Graces’ dream was to live “free, not under pressure”. They had never been to a restaurant, a bar or a cinema. Fatima liked “rock” music, which in her case meant Afghan singer Natasha. She said she “liked” the Taliban, but most of all she wanted to get back to school. They never mentioned any discrimination between Sunnis and Shi’ites; they actually wanted to leave for Pakistan.

Their definition of “human rights” included priority for education, the right to work, and to get a job in the state sector; Fatima and Maliha wanted to be doctors. Perhaps they are, today, in Hazara land; 21 years ago they spent their days weaving beautiful silk shawls.

Kabul 2000
This is how bombed-out Kabul looked like in 2000

Education was terminally forbidden for girls over 12. The literacy rate among women was only 4%. Outside the Three Graces’ house, almost every woman was a “widow of war”, enveloped in dusty light blue burqas, begging to support their children. Not only this was an unbearable humiliation in the context of an ultra-rigid Islamic society, it contradicted the Taliban obsession of preserving the “honor and purity” of their women.

Kabul’s population was then 2 million; less than 10%, concentrated in the periphery, supported the Taliban. True Kabulis regarded them as barbarians. For the Taliban, Kabul was more remote than Mars. Every day at sunset the Intercontinental Hotel, by then an archeological ruin, received an inevitable Taliban sightseeing group. They’d come to ride the lift (the only one in town) and walk around the empty swimming pool and tennis court. They’d be taking a break from cruising around town in their fleet of imported-from-Dubai Toyota Hi-Lux, complete with Islamic homilies painted in the windows, Kalashnikovs on show and little whips on hand to impose on the infidels the appropriate, Islamically correct, behavior. But at least the Three Graces were safe; they never left their bombed-out shelter.

Doubt is sin, debate is heresy

Few things were more thrilling in Talibanistan 21 years ago than to alight at Pul-e-Khisshti – the fabled Blue Mosque, the largest in Afghanistan – on a Friday afternoon after Jumma prayers and confront the One Thousand and One Nights assembled cast. Any image of this apotheosis of thousands of black or white-turbaned rustic warriors, kohl in their eyes and the requisite macho-sexy stare, would be all the rage on the cover of Uomo Vogue. To even think of taking a photo was anathema; the entrance to the mosque was always swarming with V & V informants.

Herat village elders
Village elders in Herat

Finally, in one of those eventful Friday afternoons, I managed to be introduced into the Holy Grail – the secluded quarters of maulvi (priest) Noor Muhamad Qureishi, by then the Taliban Prophet in Kabul. He had never exchanged views with a Westerner. It was certainly one of the most surrealist interviews of my life.

Qureishi, like all Taliban religious leaders, was educated in a Pakistani madrassa. At first, he was your typical hardcore deobandi; the deobandis, as the West would later find out, were an initially progressive movement born in India in the mid-19th century to revive Islamic values vis-à-vis the sprawling British Empire. But they soon derailed into megalomania, discrimination against women and Shi’ite-hatred.

Most of all, Quereishi was the quintessential product of a boom – the connection between the ISI and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad, when thousands of madrassas were built in Pakistan’s Pashtun belt. Afghan refugees had the right to free education, a roof over their heads, three meals a day and military training. Their “educators” were semi-illiterate maulvis who had never known the reformist agenda of the original deobandi movement.

Reclined on a tattered cushion over one of the mosque’s ragged carpets, Qureishi laid down the deobandi law in Pashto for hours. Among other things he said the movement was “the most popular” because its ideologues dreamed that Prophet Muhammad ordered them to build a madrassa in Deoband, India. So this was Islam’s purest form “because it came directly from Muhammad”. Despite the formidable catalogue of Taliban atrocities, he insisted on their “purity”.

Ministry of Foreign Relations
Turn left for the Ministry of Foreign Relations – at the time only recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Qureishi dabbled on the inferiority of Hindus because of their sacred cows (“why not dogs, at least they are faithful to their owners”). As for Buddhism, it was positively depraved (“Buddha is an idol”). He would have had a multiple heart attack with Thailand’s Buddhist go-go girls, dancing topless at night and offering incense at the temple the morning after.

Doubt is sin. Debate is heresy. “The only true knowledge is the Koran”. He insisted that all “forms of modern scientific knowledge came from the Koran”. As an example, he quoted – what else – a Koranic verse (the Koran, by the way, in its neo-deobandi, Talibanized version, forbade women to write, and allowed education only up to 10 years old). I could not help being reminded of that 18th century French anonymous – a typical product of the Enlightenment – who had written the Treaty of the Three Impostors – Moses, Jesus and Muhammad; but if I tried to insert the European Enlightenment into (his) monologue I would probably be shot dead. Basically, Qureishi finally managed to convince me that all this religious shadow play was about proving that “my sect is purer than yours”.

Play it again, infidel

Talibanistan lived under a strict Kalashnikov culture. But the supreme anti-Taliban lethal weapon was not a gun, or even a mortar or RPG. It was a camera. I knew inevitably that day would come, and it came on Kabul stadium, built by the former USSR to extol proletarian internationalism; another Friday, at 5 pm, the weekly soccer hour – the only form of entertainment absent from the Taliban’s Index Prohibitorum apart from public executions and mango ice cream.

Jason and me were lodged at the VIP tribune – less than 10 US cents for the ticket. The stadium was packed – but silent as a mosque. Two teams, the red and the blue, were playing the Islamically correct way – with extra skirts under their trunks. At half time the whole stadium – to the sound of “Allah Akbar” – run to pray by the pitch; those who didn’t were spanked or thrown in jail.

Jason had his cameras hanging from his neck but he was not using them. Yet that was more than enough for a hysteric V & V teenage informant. We are escorted out of the stands by a small army of smiling, homoerotic brotherhood, those who were then referred to as “soldiers of Allah”. Finally we are presented to a white-turbaned Talib with assassin’s eyes; he’s no one other than mullah Salimi, the vice-Minister of the religious police in Kabul – the reincarnation of The Great Inquisitor. We are finally escorted out of the stadium and thrown into a Hi-Lux, destination unknown. Suddenly we are more popular with the crowd than the soccer match itself.

Kuchi nomad caravan
A Kuchi nomad caravan going south towards Kandahar

At a Taliban “office” – a towel on the grass in front of a bombed-out building, decorated with a mute sat-phone – we are charged with espionage. Our backpacks are thoroughly searched. Salimi inspects two rolls of film from Jason’s cameras; no incriminating photo. It’s now the turn of my Sony mini-DV camera. We press “play”; Salimi recoils in horror. We explain nothing is recorded on the blue screen. What was really recorded – he just needed to press “rewind” – would be enough to send us to the gallows, including a lot of stuff with the Three Graces. Once again we noticed the Taliban badly needed not only art directors and PR agents but also info-tech whiz kids.

In Taliban anti-iconography, video, in theory, might be allowed, because the screen is a mirror. Anyway, later we would know from the lion’s mouth, that is, the Ministry of Information and Culture in Kandahar: TV and video would remain perpetually banned.

At that time, a few photo-studios survived near one of the Kabul bazaars – only churning out 3X4 photos for documents. The owners paid their bills renting their Xerox machines. The Zahir Photo Studio still had on its walls a collection of black and white and sepia photos of Kabul, Herat, minarets, nomads and caravans. Among Leicas, superb Speed Graphic 8 X 10 and dusty Russian panoramic cameras, Mr. Zahir would lament, “photography is dead in Afghanistan”. At least, that wouldn’t be for long.

So after an interminable debate in Pashto with some Urdu and English thrown in, we are “liberated”. Some Taliban – but certainly not Salimi, still piercing us with his assassin’s eyes – try a formal apology, saying this is incompatible with the Pashtun code of hospitality. All tribal Pashtun – like the Taliban – follow the pashtunwali, the rigid code that emphasizes, among other things, hospitality, vengeance and a pious Islamic life. According to the code, it’s a council of elders that arbitrates specific disputes, applying a compendium of laws and punishments. Most cases involve murders, land disputes and trouble with women. For the Pashtun, the line between pashtunwali and Sharia was always fuzzy.

Ghazni minaret
The 11th century Ghazni minaret with, on the foreground, a Taliban military base

The V & V obviously was not a creation of Mullah Omar, the “Leader of the Faithful”; it was based on a Saudi Arabian original. In its heyday, in the second half of the 1990s, the V & V was a formidable intelligence agency – with informers infiltrated in the Army, ministries, hospitals, UN agencies, NGOs – evoking a bizarre memory of KHAD, the enormous intel agency of the 1980’s communist regime, during the anti-USSR jihad. The difference is that the V & V only answered to orders – issued on bits and pieces of paper – of Mullah Omar himself.

Rock the base

The verdict echoed like a dagger piercing the oppressive air of the desert near Ghazni. A 360-degree panoramic shot revealed a background of mountains where the mineral had expelled all the vegetal; the silhouette of two 11th century minarets; and a foreground of tanks, helicopters and rocket launchers. The verdict, issued in Pashto and mumbled by our scared official translator imposed by Kabul, was inexorable: “You will be denounced in a military court. The investigation will be long, six months; meanwhile you will await the decision in jail”.

Once again, we were being charged with espionage, but now this was the real deal. We could be executed with a shot on the back of the neck – Khmer Rouge style. Or stoned. Or thrown into a shallow grave and buried alive by a brick wall smashed by a tractor. Brilliant Taliban methods for the final solution were myriad. And to think this was all happening because of two minarets.

To walk over a supposedly mined field trying to reach two minarets was not exactly a brilliant idea in the first place. Red Army experts, during the 1980s, buried 12 million mines in Afghanistan. They diversified like crazy; more than 50 models, from Zimbabwe’s RAP-2s to Belgium’s NR-127s. UN officials had assured us that more than half the country was mined. Afghan officials at the Mine Detention Center in Herat, with their 50 highly trained German shepherds, would later tell us that it would take 22,000 years to demine the whole country.

Afghanistan Iran border
On the Afghanistan-Iran border at Islam qilla

My objects of desire in Ghazni were two “Towers of Victory”; two circular superstructures, isolated in the middle of the desert and built by the Sassanians as minarets – commemorative, not religious; there was never a mosque in the surroundings. In the mid-19th century scholars attributed the grand minaret to Mahmud, protector of Avicenna and the great Persian poet Ferdowsi. Today it is known that the small minaret dates from 1030, and the big one, from 1099. They are like two brick rockets pointing to the sheltering sky and claiming for the attention of those travelling the by then horrific Kabul-Kandahar highway, a Via Dolorosa of multinational flat tires – Russian, Chinese, Iranian.

The problem is that, 21 years ago, right adjacent to the minarets, there was an invisible Taliban military base. At first we could see only an enormous weapons depot. We asked a sentinel to take a few pictures; he agreed. Walking around the depot – between carcasses of Russian tanks and armored cars – we found some functioning artillery pieces. And a lone, white Taliban flag. And not a living soul. This did look like an abandoned depot. But then we hit on a destroyed Russian helicopter – a prodigy of conceptual art. Too late: soon we are intercepted by a Taliban out of nowhere.

The commander of the base wanted to know “under which law” we assumed we had the right to take photos. He wanted to know which was the punishment, “in our country”, for such an act. When the going was really getting tough, everything turned Monty Python. One of the Taliban had walked back to the road to fetch our driver, Fateh. They came back two hours later. The commander talked to Fateh in Pashto. And then we were “liberated”, out of “respect for Fateh’s white beard”. But we should “confess” to our crime – which we did right away, over and over again.

The fact of the matter is that we were freed because I was carrying a precious letter hand-signed by the all-powerful Samiul Haq, the leader of Haqqania, the factory-cum-academy, Harvard and M.I.T. of Taliban in Akhora Khatak, on the Grand Trunk Road between Islamabad and Peshawar in Pakistan. Legions of Taliban ministers, province governors, military commanders, judges and bureaucrats had studied in Haqqania.

Carpet weaving
Carpet-weaving at the Herat bazaar

Haqqania was founded in 1947 by deobandi religious scholar Abdul Haq, the father of maulvi and former senator Samiul Haq, a wily old hand fond of brothels and as engaging as a carpet vendor in the Peshawar bazaars. He was a key educator of the first detribalized, urbanized and literate Afghan generation; “literate”, of course, in Haqqania-branded, Deobandi-style Islam. In Haqqania – where I saw hundreds of students from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan indoctrinated to later export Talibanization to Central Asia – debate was heresy, the master was infallible and Samiul Haq was almost as perfect as Allah.

He had told me – no metaphor intended – that “Allah had chosen Mullah Omar to be the leader of the Taliban”. And he was sure that when the Islamic Revolution reached Pakistan, “it will be led by a unknown rising from the masses” – like Mullah Omar. At the time Haq was Omar’s consultant on international relations and Sharia-based decisions. He bundled up both Russia and the US as “enemies of our time”; blamed the US for the Afghan tragedy; but otherwise offered to hand over Osama bin Laden to the US if Bill Clinton guaranteed no interference in Afghan affairs.

Back in Ghazni, the Taliban commander even invited us for some green tea. Thanks but no thanks. We thanked Allah’s mercy by visiting the tomb of sultan Mahmud in Razah, less than one kilometer from the towers. The tomb is a work of art – translucid marble engraved with Kufic lettering. Islamic Kufic lettering, if observed as pure design, reveals itself as a transposition of the verb, from the audible to the visible. So the conclusion was inevitable; the Taliban had managed to totally ignore the history of their own land, building a military base over two architectural relics and incapable of recognizing even the design of their own Islamic lettering as a form of art.

Credit: All pictures taken from The Roving Eye Video Archives . Pepe Escobar, 2000

Part 1 ♦ Throw these infidels in jail  [LINK]

Dear reader: let's sit back, relax, and take a trip down memory lane to prehistoric times – the pre-9/11, pre-YouTube, pre-Facebook world.

Ten years ago, Taliban Afghanistan – Talibanistan – was under a social, cultural, political and economic nightmare. Arguably, not much has changed. Or has it?

Ten years ago, New York-based photographer Jason Florio and myself slowly crossed Talibanistan overland from east to west, from the Pakistani border at Landi Kotal to the Iranian border at Islam Qillah. As Afghan aid workers acknowledged, we were the first Westerners to pull this off in quite a while.

Those were the days. Bill Clinton was enjoying his last stretch at the White House. Osama bin Laden was a discreet guest of Mullah Omar – hitting the front pages only occasionally. There was no hint of 9/11, or of the invasion of Iraq, or of the "war on terror", or of the rebranding of the AfPak war, or of a global financial crisis. Globalization ruled, and the United States was the undisputed global top dog. The Clinton administration and the Taliban were deep into Pipelineistan territory – arguing over the tortuous, proposed Trans-Afghan gas pipeline.

We tried everything, but we couldn't even get a glimpse of Mullah Omar. Osama bin Laden was also nowhere to be seen. But we did experience Talibanistan in action, in close detail. So why revisit it now? Blame it on the lure of archeology and history. This is both a glimpse of a long-lost world and a window to a possible future in Afghanistan.

If schizophrenia defined the Taliban in power, US schizophrenia still rules.

Will the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization reach a "Saigon moment" anytime soon – and leave? Not likely. As General David "I'm always positioning myself to 2012" Petraeus, like his predecessor General Stanley McChrystal, advances his special forces-led, maximum-force Murder Inc to subdue the Taliban, the same Petraeus – no irony intended – may tell Fox News, as he did last week, that the war's "ultimate goal" is the "reconciliation" of the ultra-corrupt Hamid Karzai government with the Taliban.

This in fact means that while "favorable" conditions are not created on the ground, government-sanctioned drug trafficking mafias and US defense contractors will continue to make – literally and metaphorically – a killing. As for the PR-savvy Petraeus, he will pull out all stops to sell his brand of Afghan surge to Americans as some sort of "victory" – as he managed to sell the rebranded Iraq war. And as for the (rebranded) umbrella of fighters conveniently labeled "Taliban", who seem to eat surges for breakfast, they will bide their time, Pashtun-style, and trust Allah to eventually hand them victory – the real thing, and not a PR fantasy.

Now let's go back to the future.

3graces010910
The Three Graces

KABUL, Ghazni – Fatima, Maliha and Nouria, whom I used to call The Three Graces, by now are 29, 28 and 24 years old. Ten years ago, they lived in an empty, bombed house next to a bullet-ridden mosque in a half-destroyed, apocalyptic theme park called Kabul – by then the world capital of the discarded container (or reconstituted by a missile and reconverted into a shop); a city where 70% of the population were refugees; where legions of homeless kids carried bags of cash on their backs ($1 was worth more than 60,000 Afghanis) and sheep outnumbered rattling 1960s Mercedes buses.

Under the merciless Taliban theocracy, the Three Graces suffered triple discrimination – as women, Hazaras and Shi'ites. They lived in Kardechar, a neighborhood totally destroyed in the 1990s by the war between Commander Ahmad Massoud, The Lion of the Panjshir, and the Hazaras (the descendants of mixed marriages between Genghis Khan's Mongol warriors and Turkish and Tajik peoples) before the Taliban took power in 1996. The Hazaras were always the weakest link in the Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara alliance – supported by Iran, Russia and China – confronting the Taliban.

Every dejected Kabuli intellectual I had met invariably defined the Taliban as "an occupation force of religious fanatics" – their rural medievalism totally absurd for urban Tajiks, used to a tolerant form of Islam. According to a university professor, "their jihad is not against kafirs; it's against other Muslims who follow Islam".

I spent a long time talking to the Dari-speaking Three Graces inside their bombed-out home – with translation provided by their brother Aloyuz, who had spent a few years in Iran supporting the family long-distance. This simple fact in itself would assure that, if caught, we would all be shot dead by the Taliban V&V – the notorious Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Taliban religious police.

The Three Graces' dream was to live "free, not under pressure". They had never been to a restaurant, a bar or a cinema. Fatima liked "rock" music, which in her case meant Afghan singer Natasha. She said she "liked" the Taliban, but most of all she wanted to get back to school. They never mentioned any discrimination between Sunnis and Shi'ites; they actually wanted to leave for Pakistan.

Their definition of "human rights" included priority for education, the right to work, and to get a job in the state sector; Fatima and Maliha wanted to be doctors. Maybe they are, today, in Hazara land; 10 years ago they spent their days weaving beautiful silk shawls. Education was terminally forbidden for girls over 12. The literacy rate among women was only 4%. Outside the Three Graces' house, almost every woman was a "widow of war", enveloped in dusty light-blue burqas, begging to support their children. Not only was this an unbearable humiliation in the context of an ultra-rigid Islamic society, it contradicted the Taliban obsession of preserving the "honor and purity" of their women.

Kabul's population was then 2 million; less than 10%, concentrated in the periphery, supported the Taliban. True Kabulis regarded the Taliban as barbarians. For the Taliban, Kabul was almost as remote as Mars. Every day at sunset, the Intercontinental Hotel received an inevitable Taliban sightseeing group. They'd come to ride the lift (the only one in town) and walk around the empty swimming pool and tennis court. They'd be taking a break from cruising around town in their fleet of imported-from-Dubai Toyota Hi-Lux, complete with Islamic homilies painted in the windows, Kalashnikovs on show and little whips on hand to impose on the infidels the appropriate, Islamically correct, behavior. But at least the Three Graces were safe; they never left their bombed-out shelter.

Doubt is sin, debate is heresy

talibs010910
V&V informants

Few things were more thrilling in Talibanistan 10 years ago than to alight at Pul-e-Khisshti – the fabled Blue Mosque, the largest in Afghanistan – on a Friday afternoon after Jumma prayers and confront the One Thousand and One Nights assembled cast. Any image of this apotheosis of thousands of black or white-turbaned rustic warriors, kohl around their eyes and the requisite macho-sexy stare, would be all the rage on the cover of Uomo Vogue. To even think of taking a photo was anathema; the entrance to the mosque was always swarming with V&V informants.

Finally, on one of those eventful Friday afternoons, I managed to be introduced into the Holy Grail – the secluded quarters of maulvi (priest) Noor Muhamad Qureishi, by then the Taliban Prophet in Kabul. He had never exchanged views with a Westerner. It was certainly one of the most surreal interviews of my life.

Qureishi, like all Taliban religious leaders, was educated in a Pakistani madrassa. At first, he was your typical hardcore Deobandi; the Deobandis, as the West would later find out, were an initially progressive movement born in India in the mid-19th century to revive Islamic values vis-a-vis the sprawling British Empire. But they soon derailed into megalomania, discrimination against women and Shi'ite-hatred.

Most of all, Qureishi was the quintessential product of a boom – the connection between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad, when thousands of madrassas were built in Pakistan's Pashtun belt. Afghan refugees had the right to free education, a roof over their heads, three meals a day and military training. Their "educators" were semi-illiterate maulvis who had never known the reformist agenda of the original Deobandi movement.

Reclined on a tattered cushion over one of the mosque's ragged carpets, Qureishi laid down the Deobandi law in Pashto for hours. Among other things, he said the movement was "the most popular" because its ideologues dreamed that Prophet Muhammad ordered them to build a madrassa in Deoband, India. So this was Islam's purest form "because it came directly from Muhammad". Despite the formidable catalogue of Taliban atrocities, he insisted on their "purity".

Qureishi dabbled on the inferiority of Hindus because of their sacred cows ("why not dogs, at least they are faithful to their owners"). As for Buddhism, it was positively depraved ("Buddha is an idol"). He would have had a multiple heart attack with Thailand's Buddhist go-go girls, dancing topless at night and offering incense at the temple the morning after.

Doubt is sin. Debate is heresy. "The only true knowledge is the Koran". He insisted that all "forms of modern scientific knowledge came from the Koran". As an example, he quoted – what else – a Koranic verse (the Koran, by the way, in its neo-Deobandi, Talibanized version, forbade women to write, and allowed education only up to the age of 10). I could not help being reminded of that 18th century French anonymous writer – a typical product of the Enlightenment – who had written the Treaty of the Three Impostors – Moses, Jesus and Muhammad; but if I tried to insert the European Enlightenment into (his) monologue I would probably be shot dead. Basically, Qureishi finally managed to convince me that all this religious shadow play was about proving that "my sect is purer than yours".

Play it again, infidel

Talibanistan lived under a strict Kalashnikov culture. But the supreme anti-Taliban lethal weapon was not a gun, or even a mortar or rocket-propelled grenade. It was a camera. I knew inevitably that day would come, and it came in Kabul stadium, built by the former USSR to extol proletarian internationalism; another Friday, at 5pm, the weekly soccer hour – the only form of entertainment absent from the Taliban's Index Prohibitorum apart from public executions and mango ice cream.

Jason and I were lodged at the VIP tribune – less than 10 US cents for the ticket. The stadium was packed – but silent as a mosque. Two teams, the red and the blue, were playing the Islamically correct way – with extra skirts under their trunks. At half time the whole stadium – to the sound of "Allah Akbar" – ran to pray by the pitch; those who didn't were spanked or thrown in jail.

Jason had his cameras hanging from his neck, but he was not using them. Yet that was more than enough for a hysteric V&V teenage informant. We were escorted out of the stands by a small army of smiling, homoerotic brotherhood, those who were then referred to as "soldiers of Allah". Finally we were presented to a white-turbaned Talib with assassin's eyes; none other than Mullah Salimi, the vice minister of the religious police in Kabul – the reincarnation of The Great Inquisitor. We were finally escorted out of the stadium and thrown into a Hi-Lux, destination unknown. Suddenly we were more popular with the crowd than the soccer match itself.

camp010910
Internal Refugee Camp

At a Taliban "office" – a towel on the grass in front of a bombed-out building, decorated with a mute sat-phone – we were charged with espionage, our backpacks thoroughly searched. Salimi inspected two rolls of film from Jason's cameras; no incriminating photo. Then it was the turn of my Sony mini-DV camera. We pressed "play"; Salimi recoiled in horror. We explained that nothing was recorded on the blue screen. What was really recorded – he just needed to press "rewind" – would have been enough to send us to the gallows, including a lot of stuff with the Three Graces. Once again, we proved that the Taliban badly needed not only art directors and PR agents but also info-tech whiz kids.

In Taliban anti-iconography, video, in theory, might be allowed, because the screen is a mirror. Anyway, later we would know from the lion's mouth – the Ministry of Information and Culture in Kandahar – that TV and video would remain perpetually banned.

At that time, a few photo-studios survived near one of the Kabul bazaars – only churning out 3X4 photos for documents. The owners paid their bills by renting their Xerox machines. The Zahir Photo Studio still had on its walls a collection of black and white and sepia photos of Kabul, Herat, minarets, nomads and caravans. Among Leicas, superb Speed Graphic 8 X 10 and dusty Russian panoramic cameras, Mr Zahir would lament, "photography is dead in Afghanistan". At least that wouldn't be for long.

So after an interminable debate in Pashto with some Urdu and English thrown in, we were "liberated". Some Taliban – but certainly not Salimi, still piercing us with his assassin's eyes – tried a formal apology, saying what happened was incompatible with the Pashtun code of hospitality. All tribal Pashtun – like the Taliban – follow the Pashtunwali, the rigid code that emphasizes, among other things, hospitality, vengeance and a pious Islamic life. According to the code, it's a council of elders that arbitrates specific disputes, applying a compendium of laws and punishments. Most cases involve murders, land disputes and trouble with women. For the Pashtun, the line between pashtunwali and sharia was never very clear.

The V&V obviously was not a creation of Mullah Omar, the "Leader of the Faithful"; it was based on a Saudi Arabian original. In its heyday, in the second half of the 1990s, the V&V was a formidable intelligence agency – with informers infiltrated in the army, ministries, hospitals, United Nations agencies, non-governmental agencies – evoking a bizarre memory of KHAD, the enormous intelligence agency of the 1980s communist regime, during the anti-USSR jihad. The difference is that the V&V only answered to the orders – issued on bits and pieces of paper – of Mullah Omar himself.

Rock the base

The verdict echoed like a dagger piercing the oppressive air of the desert near Ghazni. A 360-degree panoramic shot revealed a background of mountains where the mineral had expelled all the vegetal; the silhouette of two 11th century minarets; and a foreground of tanks, helicopters and rocket launchers. The verdict, issued in Pashto and mumbled by our scared official translator imposed by Kabul, was inexorable: "You will be denounced in a military court. The investigation will be long, six months; meanwhile you will await the decision in jail".

Once again, we were being charged with espionage, but now this was the real deal. We could be executed with a shot on the back of the neck – Khmer Rouge style. Or stoned. Or thrown into a shallow grave and buried alive by a brick wall smashed by a tractor. Brilliant Taliban methods for the final solution were myriad. And to think this was all happening because of two minarets.

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Nomads in Ghazni

To walk over a supposedly mined field trying to reach two minarets was not exactly a brilliant idea in the first place. Red Army experts, during the 1980s, buried 12 million mines in Afghanistan. They diversified like crazy; more than 50 models, from Zimbabwe's RAP-2s to Belgium's NR-127s. UN officials had assured us that more than half the country was mined. Afghan officials at the Mine Detention Center in Herat, with their 50 highly trained German shepherd dogs, would later tell us that it would take 22,000 years to demine the whole country.

My objects of desire in Ghazni were two "Towers of Victory"; two circular superstructures, isolated in the middle of the desert and built by the Sassanians as minarets – commemorative, not religious; there was never a mosque in the surroundings. In the mid-19th century scholars attributed the grand minaret to Mahmud, protector of Avicenna and the great Persian poet Ferdowsi. Today, it is known that the small minaret dates from 1030 and the big one from 1099. They are like two brick rockets pointing to the sheltering sky and claiming the attention of those travelling the by then horrific Kabul-Kandahar highway, a Via Dolorosa of multinational flat tires – Russian, Chinese, Iranian.

The problem is that, 10 years ago, right adjacent to the minarets, there was an invisible Taliban military base. At first we could see only an enormous weapons depot. We asked a sentinel to take a few pictures; he agreed. Walking around the depot – between wrecks of Russian tanks and armored cars – we found some functioning artillery pieces, a lone, white Taliban flag, and not a living soul. This did look like an abandoned depot. But then we hit on a destroyed Russian helicopter – a prodigy of conceptual art. Too late: soon we were intercepted by a Taliban out of nowhere.

The commander of the base wanted to know "under which law" we assumed we had the right to take photos. He wanted to know what was the punishment, "in our country", for such an act. When the going was really getting tough, everything turned Monty Python. One of the Taliban had walked back to the road to fetch our driver, Fateh. They came back two hours later. The commander talked to Fateh in Pashto. And then we were "liberated", out of "respect for Fateh's white beard". But we should "confess" to our crime – which we did right away, over and over again.

The fact of the matter is that we were freed because I was carrying a precious letter hand-signed by the all-powerful Samiul Haq, the leader of Haqqania, the factory-cum-academy, Harvard and MIT of the Taliban in Akhora Khatak, on the Grand Trunk Road between Islamabad and Peshawar in Pakistan. Legions of Taliban ministers, province governors, military commanders, judges and bureaucrats had studied in Haqqania.

Haqqania was founded in 1947 by Deobandi religious scholar Abdul Haq, the father of maulvi and former senator Samiul Haq, a wily old hand fond of brothels and as engaging as a carpet vendor in the Peshawar bazaars. He was a key educator of the first detribalized, urbanized and literate Afghan generation; "literate", of course, in Haqqania-branded, Deobandi-style Islam. In Haqqania – where I saw hundreds of students from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan indoctrinated to later export Talibanization to Central Asia – debate was heresy, the master was infallible and Samiul Haq was almost as perfect as Allah.

He had told me – no metaphor intended – that "Allah had chosen Mullah Omar to be the leader of the Taliban". And he was sure that when the Islamic Revolution reached Pakistan, "it will be led by a unknown rising from the masses" – like Mullah Omar. At the time, Haq was Omar's consultant on international relations and sharia-based decisions. He bundled up both Russia and the US as "enemies of our time"; blamed the US for the Afghan tragedy; but otherwise offered to hand over Osama bin Laden to the US if Bill Clinton guaranteed no interference in Afghan affairs.

Back in Ghazni, the Taliban commander even invited us for some green tea. Thanks but no thanks. We thanked Allah's mercy by visiting the tomb of Sultan Mahmud in Razah, less than one kilometer from the towers. The tomb is a work of art – translucent marble engraved with Kufic lettering. Islamic Kufic lettering, if observed as pure design, reveals itself as a transposition of the verb, from the audible to the visible. So the conclusion was inevitable; the Taliban had managed to totally ignore the history of their own land, building a military base over two architectural relics and incapable of recognizing even the design of their own Islamic lettering as a form of art.

Next: The degree zero of culture

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Part 2 ♦ The degree zero of culture  [LINK]

Ten years ago, Taliban Afghanistan – Talibanistan – was under a social, cultural, political and economic nightmare. Ten years ago, New York-based photographer Jason Florio and myself slowly crossed Talibanistan overland from east to west, from the Pakistani border at Landi Kotal to the Iranian border at Islam qillah.

Those were the days. Bill Clinton was enjoying his last stretch at the White House. Osama bin Laden was a discreet guest of Mullah Omar – hitting the front pages only occasionally. There was no hint of 9/11, or the invasion of Iraq, or the "war on terror", or the rebranding of the AfPak war.

We tried everything, but we couldn't even get a glimpse of Mullah Omar. Osama bin Laden was also nowhere to be seen. But we did experience Talibanistan in action, in close detail. This is both a glimpse of a long-lost world, and a window to a possible future in Afghanistan. Arguably, not much has changed. Or has it?

Now let's go back to the future again.

KANDAHAR – The art direction at the ministries of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan seemed to come courtesy of an involuntary Salvador Dali; lopsided paintings, dossier-free desks but with a walkie-talkie on, mute telephones, maps in psychedelic prints. Schizophrenia was the rule; the embassy of the Emirate in Islamabad, for instance, had a map of the "Democratic Republic of Afghanistan".

Abdul Haiy Mutmain's office was true to form. Ten years ago, Mutmain was the Minister of Information and Culture in Kandahar – the Taliban Central. In the absence of the loquacious, peripatetic Ahmad Wakil – Mullah Omar's official spokesman – Mutmain was the real game in town. "Elections? What elections? They are incompatible with sharia. Thus we reject them."

Like the handful of Western correspondents immersed in Talibanistan 10 years ago, a long time before 9/11, I was dying to meet the one-eyed legend Mullah Omar. Fat chance; he was more mysterious than The Shadow, even in Kandahar. He had only been to Kabul twice – and left in a hurry. His three wives still lived in Singesar, his native village, a dusty basket of mud-hut compounds where no girls had ever been to school – after all there was no school; only Omar's own madrassa, little else than a tent with a soiled floor filled with mattresses for the pupils.

He had never been photographed, never had met with foreign diplomats (and that is still true to this day). His famous "orders" still came on pieces of wrapping paper or cigarette matches. Beside his working desk, he kept an aluminum trunk full of Afghanis, and another one with US dollars; these constituted the Afghan Federal Reserve.

It was easy to feel in Kandahar how the Taliban initial agenda was to restore peace in the country, disarm the population, impose sharia law and defend the country's "Islamic integrity". Kandahar felt like a giant madrassa. The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard – still alive at the time – would have called it the degree zero of culture (the Islamic remix). The key cultural activity was to drink mango juice. A giant billboard on Martyr's Square – Kandahar's Times Square – exhibited a Mullah Omar dictum: "Don't be divided between tribes and ethnic groups; this is like the division between Jews and Christians".

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Young Talibs

Every conversation with a Taliban higher-up at the time implied the recurrence of the same theme; we don't have money because we're victims of an international conspiracy; thus, we cannot develop the country. It did not help to point out that for the price of a tank they could easily pave the horrendous Kabul-Kandahar highway.

The Taliban official line in 2000 was to fight for international recognition (only Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates had really recognized them; even Saudi Arabia had backed down). Mutmain used to complain non-stop about the threat of sanctions, and about the "negative" role of both the US and Russia; Mullah Omar had vented that "America and Russia have got together to form an anti-Afghan alliance". Mutmain insisted, "The UN does what the White House wants." And contrary to all evidence, he also insisted, "We don't have any prejudice against Shi'ites."

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Shi'ite Refugees

This was his notion of democracy; "The term 'democracy' has many meanings. In our country it means to protect the lives, property and culture of our people. Our country wants this type of government." And that led to the Taliban definition of culture; "People here are Muslims, this is a religious country. We are against customs that go against the religion of Islam. We protect Islamic and Afghan culture." He always refused to elaborate.

The work ethic on Taliban ministries was monolithic. Bill Clinton might launch a showering of missiles, Iran might threaten to invade, drought might exterminate most of the population; but the ministries only worked from 8 am to 12 am. Then there were prayers and a long siesta. And in late afternoon, a major Turban Get Together in front of Mullah Omar's White House in Kandahar. No sign of Omar himself, of course, or of his famed guest, America's Public Enemy Number One, Osama bin Laden.

Where is Osama?

Over a year before 9/11, Bin Laden was already a mass hero. For a Syrian businessman, a Malaysian student or a Pakistani entrepreneur, he was a fanatic; but for the poor, urban, radicalized youth across AfPak, he was iconic – a corrected version of Muhammad as Warrior-Prophet, a supposed Antichrist capable of defying America. I had seen Osama bin Laden images, T-shirts, videos and cassettes all the way from Peshawar in Pakistan, the Islamic Rome, to Kandahar; they were also being smuggled from Kashmir to Java, from Palestine to the southern Philippines.

I had learned everything to be learned about Bin Laden in Peshawar, the Mecca of Afghan exiles and Pashtun fierceness, through endless kebab and Kabuli rice dinners sitting cross-legged over tribal carpets washed with endless coups of green tea. Those solemn Pashtun elders reclined over cheap made-in-China velvet cushions were real Scheherazade masters at weaving a hypnotic narrative – a lethal, high and low-tech version of the Thousand and One Nights.

They would dabble on how Bin Laden was tall, shy, charming, generous, eating sparsely, sleeping even less, lending his clothes and distributing suitcases full of cash. How Bin Laden first fell in love with Peshawar in late 1979, right after the Red Army had entered Kabul. How he came to live in 1982 and soon set up the first hostel for the Arab jihad warriors, along with his former master Abdullah Azzam. How they had recruited a true Islamic Foreign Legion. How this was the best of possible worlds – where no one thought of fighting the Saudi monarchy or the American Grand Satan.

How in 1988 he set up his data bank including all the jihad warriors and the nebulae of volunteers who flowed through the training camps; that was "al-Qaeda" ("the base"). How Bin Laden fired his first anti-American projectile in Somalia, in 1993. How he moved to Sudan, then to Afghanistan. How he issued his declaration of jihad against America, in 1996. And how delocalized, interconnected cells across the world had adopted the spectacle of terror to seduce sections of those poor masses deserted from the Great Capitalist Banquet.

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Peshawar Elders

Over a year before 9/11, America was already imposing to the world's psyche the image of Osama bin Laden as an inexplicable, pathological criminal; the degree zero of terror. But the Peshawar elders were already telling me, in their own way, that Bin Laden, recluse as a hermit, was in fact more like the degree zero of the Reconquista, Islam's shot at reconquering its primacy. I could not help feeling both versions were false.

And then, in Kandahar, he might be just around the corner, sharing a kebab dinner at the White House with Mullah Omar...

Even in Kandahar it was clear that for the Taliban what really mattered was not a pan-Islamic jihad; it was to control their land. It was also more than evident that Talibanistan had no system. Everybody monopolized authority. Nobody accepted alien authority. Deobandi culture hates the public sphere; it is only interested in the meticulous respect of dogma. After all, the state is considered impious ever since the British conquered India in 1857.

So minimalist exceptions were positively delicious. Such as the young, polite and well-educated official at the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Kandahar – little more than a brick shack in the city's suburbs, close to the airport whose claim to fame at the time was as landing site for the hijacked Indian Airlines at the turn of the millennium; the official insisted the best thing I could do in Kandahar was "to get out of here as soon as possible".

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Internal Refugees

Well, I had already seen the degree zero of culture at the University of Kabul as well – once one of the 12 best in the world, as many professors reminded me. There were absolutely no women students; that was "anti-sharia".

In fluent Spanish, the extraordinary man responsible for the library, Muhamad Kabir-Nezami, guided me through an archive whose names – in this wasteland – sounded like jade idols: Marx, Freud, Gibbon, Spinoza, Bernard Shaw. Kabir-Nezami told me that after much Taliban blood and fury, the library had managed to preserve only 20% or maybe 30% of its books; he could not say how many were left.

A group of eminent professors gave me the full extension of the tragedy. The university had been literally demolished. “We started the reconstruction from scratch – books, electrical system, water supply”. Some non-governmental organizations had helped. But there was no international help for the reconstruction. Nothing happened because of the United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed at the end of 1999.

The university was managed at the time by – who else – a maulvi (priest), Muhamad Monin. When he insisted that "the professors teach the meaning of a free press", the professors themselves – present at our meeting – looked at each other with infinite melancholy. But then one of them finally contradicted the maulvi. A real debate, in Pashto, raged on – an unnamable heresy as far as the Taliban are concerned. Pressed by the professors, the maulvi finally had to admit, "the university is affected by the current political situation."

I felt depressed for days. This was what the degree zero of culture was all about; a group of eminent professors at what was once one of the best universities in the world subjected to the sermons of a mediocre madrassa student who never finished the equivalent of primary school.

Next: Married to the mob

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Part 3 ♦ Married to the mob  [LINK]

Ten years ago, Taliban Afghanistan – Talibanistan – was under a social, cultural, political and economic nightmare. Ten years ago, New York-based photographer Jason Florio and myself slowly crossed Talibanistan. Those were the days. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Osama bin Laden was a discreet guest of Mullah Omar, and there was no hint of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, or the "war on terror", or the rebranding of the AfPak war.

We experienced Talibanistan in action, in close detail. This is both a glimpse of a long-lost world, and a window to a possible future in Afghanistan. Arguably, not much has changed. Or has it?

If schizophrenia defined the Taliban in power, US schizophrenia still rules.

Will the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization reach a "Saigon moment" anytime soon – and leave? Not likely. As General David "I'm always positioning myself to 2012" Petraeus, like his predecessor General Stanley McChrystal, advances his special forces-led, maximum force Murder Inc. to subdue the Taliban, the same Petraeus – no irony intended – may tell Fox News, as he did last week, that the war's "ultimate goal" is the "reconciliation" of the ultra-corrupt Hamid Karzai government with the Taliban.

This in fact means that while "favorable" conditions are not created on the ground, government-sanctioned drug trafficking mafias and US defense contractors will continue to make – literally – a killing. As for the PR-savvy Petraeus, he will pull all stops to sell his brand of Afghan surge to Americans as some sort of "victory" – as he managed to sell the rebranded Iraq war. And as for the (rebranded) umbrella of fighters conveniently labeled "Taliban", who seem to eat surges for breakfast, they will bide their time, Pashtun-style, and trust Allah to eventually hand them victory – the real thing, and not a PR fantasy.

Now let's go back to the future again.

HERAT, SPINBALDAK, BALOCHISTAN – Arriving in Herat after a hellish journey from Kandahar, I thought I had smoked prime Afghan opium and was on a non-stop trip to Persian fantasy. I had met Scandinavian non-governmental organization women intellectuals stranded right in the middle of Taliban theocracy, but in Herat they seemed to be in the right place. Because Herat seemed to be absolutely impervious to tyranny.

The oasis of Herat – established 5,000 years ago – is the cradle of Afghan history and civilization. It boasts the richest soil in Central Asia; Herodotus dubbed it "Central Asia's granary". For centuries it was a crucial crossroads between the Turkish and Persian empires. The whole population was converted to Islam in the 7th century. When I entered the grand mosque – built in the 7th, rebuilt in the 12th century – I felt I was really in Persia.

During the Middle Ages, Herat was a great Sufi center – mystical and profoundly spiritual Islam. Not by accident the city's patron saint is Khawaja Abdullah Ansari, an 11th-century Sufi poet and philosopher. Genghis Khan conquered Herat in 1222 and spared only 40 of its 160,000 inhabitants. Less than two centuries later the city recovered its glory when Tamerlan's son and his wife – queen Gowhar Shad – transferred the capital of the empire from Samarkand to Herat.

Tamerlan's empire was the first to mix the nomadic culture of the Turkish steppe with the extreme sophistication of Persian culture. At the bazaar, septuagenarian traders told me – the first foreigner they had seen in almost two years – how at the beginning of the 15th century the city was as wealthy as Venice, producing the finest carpets, jewelry, weaponry and miniatures as well as mosques, madrassas , public baths, libraries and palaces.

Herodotus might be having a blast with the historical irony of the Taliban – with their pathological horror of the female sex – now ruling a Persian city where once reigned one of the most seductive humanists and feminists of Asia. Gowhar Shad – the female, Persian version of Lorenzo de Medici – used to marry her "ruby-lipped" ladies-in-waiting with the Taliban of their time.

The queen built a fabulous complex including mosque, madrassa and her own tomb in the outskirts of Herat. The tomb – blue Persian tiles with floral decoration, a blue dome decorated with vertiginous Koranic inscriptions – is unanimously recognized by art historians as one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture. The inscription on the tomb is a simple "the Bilkis of her time"; "bilkis" stands for "Queen of Sheba".

What is left of the complex are five elegant minarets, a few marble slabs and something from Gowhar Shad's tomb. The British Empire demolished almost everything by the end of the 19th century and the Soviets mined the area during the 1980s to repel the mujahideen. Heratis would comment that when the Soviets bombed the city in 1979, they wreaked more havoc than Genghis Khan.

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Herat Mosque

The Taliban had no idea of the prodigious cultural, literary and political history of Herat. What mattered for them was Herat as a golden goose – the crossroads through which passed the non-stop smuggling of second-hand vehicles, consumer electronics and computers from Dubai and Bandar Abbas on the way to Pakistan. The taxes paid by the hundreds of lorries crossing Herat every day fed the Taliban central bank and financed the war to conquer the north of Afghanistan still escaping their control.

Unlike the rest of Talibanistan, there was no mass poverty in Herat. Pakistani Pashtun moneychangers insisted business was great. In two sprawling bazaars, eight-year-old kids crammed in small rooms were weaving for 12 hours a day the carpets that would flood all Asian markets (not anymore; now they are synthetic, or made in China). Before curfew, at 10pm, the bazaars were booming, as well as the juice and ice-cream shops.

Intellectually, this miniature of Persia was buried when the Taliban conquered it in 1995; the painters, poets and professors crossed the border to Iran. The Taliban locked all women behind closed doors; forbade visits to Sufi sanctuaries; imposed the degree zero of education closing down all schools; segregated hospitals; closed down public baths; and banished women from the bazaar.

They rebelled. Every day, from 8am to 11am, for the past three years, Latifah – a graduate of Herat's Medical Institute – had been conducting her own, homemade primary school, teaching math, Persian, Pashto, English, biology, physics, chemistry and Koranic studies. This was a two-year course, with a month's holiday. Officially, this school "didn't exist". But "they know", she would tell me. There had been no repression. But she was very anxious about the future.

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Herat School

For her beloved students, Latifah – one of the six daughters of an upper-middle-class Herati family – was none other than a reincarnation of Gowhar Shad. Her father, an engineer trained in the former Soviet Union, used to make thousands of dollars a month before the Taliban. Latifah was part of a sprawling west Afghan network of underground resistance – confiding that there was practically "one school in every street" and a few hundred teachers, although they never tried to communicate with each other.

Apart from teaching, she gave medical attention to anyone who needed it, and had worked for a de-mining organization. She used to say that when she got married, she would want "a person like me, who gives me permission to teach". That's what she may be doing in Herat nowadays.

By that time I had crossed Talibanistan from east to west. It was enough to share two certainties. For all that I saw, the tribalization of urban Afghanistan did not seem inevitable – even though it was accelerated by the rustic Taliban theocracy. And the talibanization of the whole of Central Asia – so much feared by Washington, Moscow and Beijing – also was a non-starter. Because of the strength of spirit of people like Latifah, Gowhar Shad, the indomitable humanist, would certainly give it the seal of approval with her ruby lips.

Free trade, here we come!

A horizontal canyon of containers fries in the Balochistan desert, casually watched over by a turbaned army. Inside, a Babel of conspicuous consumption, from Japanese video cameras to English knickers, from Chinese silk to computer parts from Taiwan.

In this Taliban version of Ali Baba's cave you can buy anything – cash; no major credit cards accepted. A few yards away, monster hauls of heroin, Eastern European Kalashnikov replicas and Iranian oil converge in an apotheosis of free trade. Yes, because 10 years ago "free trade" was not in the World Trade Organization in Geneva; it was here, in Spinbaldak – a ringside seat to the largest smuggling ring on the planet, involving the Taliban, Pakistani smugglers, drug lords, tribal chiefs owning transport mafias, bureaucrats, politicians, the police and selected army officials.

This low-tech version of the Silk Road – where lorries replaced 5,000-camel caravans – was the Taliban's real golden goose. The Silk Road linking China to Europe via Afghanistan and Central Asia was controlled by the same tribal chiefs and nomads who today roll in Mercedes.

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On the Road to Kabul

This free-trade boom could only be a consequence of the interminable civil war in Afghanistan – linked to the expansion of the drug business and the overwhelming corruption in Pakistan. At the same time, this far west coincided with a consumer boom all across Central Asia.

Drug and transport mafias – all across what today the Pentagon calls AfPak – united in merry convergence. The Taliban, since taking power in 1996, were encouraged by transporters to open roads for mass smuggling. It was the Quetta (Balochistan's capital) transport mafia that forced the Taliban to capture the Persianized Herat, and thus totally control the way to Turkmenistan. What a Pakistani diplomat had told me in Islamabad still rings true to this day; "It's this mafia that ultimately controls the fate of governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

The border "control" between Chaman, in Balochistan, and Spinbaldak, in Afghanistan, was a joke (and remains so to this day); a monster frat party drenched in endless cups of green tea. Everybody knows everybody else. Up to 400 trucks and lorries used to cross the border every day. Most of the Bedford and Mercedes trucks were stolen – with fake license plates. There was no invoice for anything inside them. The drivers would have crossed as many as six international borders with a fake driver's license, no road permit and no passport. Nobody paid customs or taxes of any kind.

Obviously, this was not a recommend spot for Westerners. We were met with accusations of being "UN spies". Only after a handful of altercations in Urdu were we "adopted" by some clans – who immediately started to peddle their wares. I could have bought a Toyota Corolla 92 for only $3,000, a Nihonkkai Japanese fire truck for less than $5,000, a Toyota Land Cruiser 96 for $10,000 or a Yamaha bike as good as new for only $700.

Abdul Qadir Achkazi was a key figure in the family of a terribly influential local warlord. He was a cosmopolitan – he'd been to Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai and had a "martyr" bother in the anti-USSR jihad. Reclined on a cushion over the dusty carpet inside his container office, serving the umpteenth cup of green tea, he laid down the free-trade law.

All this stuff came by ship from Yokohama to Bandar Abbas in Iran, via Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The transport of a container full of dodgy goods was $4,000, maximum. In Bandar Abbas, the container paid a harbor tax. From Bandar Abbas, it crossed the Iran-Afghan border and arrived in Spinbaldak on top of a lorry. Entering Afghanistan, the importer paid the Taliban up to $7,000 in taxes per container, or $3,000 if these were toys. For each imported Toyota, the Taliban got a cool $1,000. From Bandar Abbas to Spinbaldak, transport expenses would run to $600, paid before entering Herat – the Taliban's golden goose.

Abdul told me that all clients in this free-trade special were Pakistanis. And almost all traders had double nationality. Best-sellers at the time were cassette players, CDs and computers (nowadays it must be iPhones).

The absolute majority of traders confirmed that most deliveries were in Quetta – but they could deliver wherever the client wanted; after all they controlled their own transport networks. In this case, there would be an extra of 30%. If the merchandise was apprehended by police, the client would get all his money back. But anyway in Spinbaldak, as Abdul said, "Everything is legal. There's no Taliban interference because all taxes have been paid." In front of a container selling a pile of good old Sony Trinitrons, a group told me, "We fought the Russians. Today we support the Taliban."

The border with Iran, in Islam qila, a wasteland battered by endless sandstorms worked in the same register. Iranian lorries got rid of their containers, immediately lugged on to Afghan trucks that inevitably would fall prey to the sandstorms. The layout of Afghan "customs" was a row of transportation companies' offices. Faced with a few questions, the Iranian officials were as polite as a mortal Pasdaran enemy of still living Saddam Hussein.

It was only in 2000 that Pakistan actually woke up to the billions of dollars in taxes it was losing in this free-for-all. The informal economy at the time was 51% of gross domestic product (not much has changed). Smuggling was – and remains – an immense network trespassing Central Asia, Iran and the Persian Gulf (that's one of the reasons why sanctions against Iran will never work).

Already in 2000 it was pure wishful thinking to believe that powerful tribal lords could not live without Pakistan – to which they were and remain interlinked by trade and property they bought outside of the tribal areas. Tribal chiefs raved about this huge, illegal duty-free corridor – and they still profit from it.

The porosity of Pakistan's borders – from the Khyber pass to Balochistan – benefited the Afghan mujahideen during the anti-USSR jihad, but at the same time allowed the infiltration all across Pakistan of the Kalashnikov culture. The Hindu Kush as much as the Durand Line, natural or human barriers, nothing has prevented a continuous flux of horrors to flow from Central Asia to South Asia.

So what was the purpose of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan? Well, I did learn that Talibanistan was conditioned by three "values": war, trade and pious morality. The Taliban did manage to recreate in almost the whole country the mindset of a madrassa .

Those taxes over free trade filled their coffers. And an internal jihad – against Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras – justified the regime. The legitimacy of the state and politics was absolutely zero; that is, any notion of citizenship or freedom was also absolutely zero. Only belief and obedience were legitimate. Ten years later, I still think this is a demented, (non)political experiment for the history books.

Well, we finally hit the Balochistan border, between pyramids of multinational tires and a traffic jam of donkey carts piled up with stereos. The Taliban control post was a small, fly-infested room. The official was asleep. When he awoke, he asked for exist visas. We improvised – showing him a letter from the Foreign Ministry in Kabul. It took him an eternity not to read our letter. But he eventually stamped our passports. We hit the main street like Gary Cooper in High Noon. A black-turbaned Taliban passed by. I couldn't resist; "Welcome home." We grabbed a Mad Max cab and burned rubber in the dust of this 7th-century black hole – and the time-machine brought us back to the year 2000.

Where's my refugee Buddha?

"Oh, I have Buddhas from Bamiyan."

The news – as cool, calm and collected as a Taliban rocket launch – took a while to sink in. The Cousin of the Mine King of Balochistan was still smiling. We had been in Quetta, frontier capital of the Pakistani side of Balochistan, only for a few hours.

In Afghanistan, we had been arrested (twice), menaced with a trial by a military court, accused of being UN spies. We were exhausted, and as far as Bamiyan was concerned, frustrated. Taliban officials in Kabul had denied us a visa do visit Bamiyan, allegedly because of "security reasons". At the time I lived in Buddhist Thailand. Apart from trying to understand what makes a warped madrassa worldview tick in the beginning of the Third Millennium, I had always longed to see the Bamiyan Buddhas.

But I never made it to Bamiyan. Instead, Bamiyan came to me.

At the Quetta Serena Hotel – a plush compound straight from Santa Fe, New Mexico – the Cousin of the Mine King showed up in style: chauffeur-driven in a Toyota Hi-Lux. This could only foment our paranoia: Toyotas Hi-Lux constituted the entire Taliban motorized Walhalla, and when we were arrested by the religious police in Kabul stadium in the middle of a soccer match for (not) taking photos, we were taken to interrogation in the back seat of a Toyota Hi-Lux. But the Cousin of the Mine King had other plans.

"Let's go meet some nomads."

A few hours later, we were in a tent sipping tea with a family of Balochistan borderland nomads. Compared to the destitute Ghazni nomads we had seen in Afghanistan, fleeing from the worst drought in the past 30 years, these ones were positively de luxe. The head of the family even tried to sell me a falcon: customers from the United Arab Emirates were snatching them at the time for as much as 1 million rupees.

The head nomad reveals himself to be an Afghan trader in the Punjab. His take on Afghanistan is extremely self-assured: the Taliban are falling apart, and the country has now split into three factions. All of them are responsible for the widespread destruction, as much as the whole population.

Back in Quetta, after the nomad warm-up, we are taken through a mud-brick labyrinth to a house in the middle of a desert wasteland. Kids swarm in the dusty "streets". One of them disappears inside a shack and emerges with a statue. And another. And then another. We are now contemplating the private collection of the Cousin of the Mine King. It features astonishing Greco-Buddhist boddhisatvas, hellenic arhats with their ribs protruding, and even part of a frieze. Some could be 3rd or 4th century, some even older. They are all pre-Bamiyan Buddhas.

The Cousin of the Mine King is naturally evasive. He would love to sell his collection to a Western museum – but can't get it out of the country. The Guimet Museum of Asian Arts in Paris had recently reopened after lavish restoration work worth $50 million; they would kill for this "private collection". He "obtained most of the statues from the Bamiyan valley". Some of them "came from the Kabul museum". The methods were effective: "We just went there and took them".

With the boddhisatvas still in our minds, the Cousin of the Mine King take us to meet the Great Man himself. We are ushered into his living room, decorated with a silk Qom almost the size of a tennis court, and worth the gross domestic product of whole Afghan provinces. The Mine King is a Baloch from the borderlands – a member of the Sanjirani tribe. He controls coal, onyx, marble and granite mines. And he goes straight to the point.

"Afghanistan is a tribal society. We should leave it like that." For him, the only solution for the country would be the return of King Zahir Shah: "But that was already proposed in the early 1990s. Now it's too late." The Mine King regards the Taliban as "very nice people". But he worries about the future, considering the vast amount of weapons in the country: "If there is a total collapse in Afghanistan, the ashes will be coming straight to Pakistan" (how prophetic was he, 10 years ago?)

The Mine King waves us goodbye, dreaming of enjoying New York City nightlife. Then a few months passed. I always thought that somewhere in the wasteland outskirts of Quetta, a few Afghan Buddhas were still sleeping half-buried in the sand. Then in March 2001 I knew for sure they had escaped the fate of the Bamiyan Buddhas, bombed to ashes by the Taliban. But as the Mine King himself remarked, these ashes, brought by the winds, headed straight into Pakistan.

talibs030910
Talibs in Helmand

Ten years ago, and even by March 2001, not many people were fully aware that a geopolitical New Great Game was already unraveling in Central Asia. The Taliban were – and remain – just one of the (minor) players. They could obliterate Buddhist art that predates Islam itself. But Buddhism teaches us that everything is impermanent.

Ten years ago the Cousin of the Mine King could be the target of a few accusations; a few months later, he could be seen as a man who saved a significant part of the world heritage from the Taliban smashing orgy. And more impermanence: considering Central Asian volatility, the bombers themselves, sooner rather than later, were reduced to ashes in the New Great Game.

Or were they? Ten years later, they seem to be stronger than ever. Against all the firepower of the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, they seem to believe they may even get their Talibanistan back. General Petraeus, go back to the future and eat your heart out.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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