Taliban Victory in Afghanistan

Compared to other foreign stories this year, the all but inevitable final victory by the militant Taliban Islamists in Afghanistan has barely caught our notice. But make no mistake: more than Hong Kong's handover, the doomed Mideast peace process, even the big power rush for Caspian Sea and Central Asian oil, this is the biggest story of 1997. For leaders in many countries, it is already the most frightening. The Taliban now control just about all of Afghanistan. They also control all land and air access to Mazar-i Sharif, the last stronghold of their opposition. Once that city falls, the Taliban will be in a position to claim Afghanistan's UN seat and international recognition. The prospect -- discounted by many foreign experts until a few weeks ago -- is now rattling nerves in the capitals of Russia, the Central Asian Republics, China, Western Europe, not to mention the Talibans' increasingly reluctant backers Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Nor is Iran pleased to see this upstart movement stealing their revolutionary Islamic thunder. It's the power of the Taliban's ideas and the stability they have brought to war-torn Afghanistan that makes them so frightening, not their military prowess.* What scares Pakistan is that everywhere the Taliban now rule, they have brought peace and order. By contrast violence in Pakistan is spreading so fast it's reaching endemic levels. Since most Taliban Pashtuns are ethnically related to Pakistan's dominant Pathans, Pakistan's ruling elites fear it's only a matter of time before the Taliban model spreads by example.* Saudi Arabia is as Muslim fundamentalist as the Taliban. But what scares the Saudis -- who have one of the biggest wealth gaps in he world - is the Talibans' commitment to income equality and justice. Wherever the Taliban rule prevails, economic equality prevails. No more posh-living princes, no more fat cats.* What scares the U.S. isn't just that the Taliban are fundamentalist Muslims or that they force women back into the home. What's scary about them is their uncanny power which could easily destabilize the not too stable oil regions of Central Asia and the Caspian sea. They took three of Afghanistan's biggest cities in one September after another: Herat in 1995, Kabul in 1996, and Mazar in 1997. Even scarier is that they did it with few casualties among their troops and even fewer among civilians. They win battles by getting enemy soldiers to go over to them. And when the generals see that happening, they panic, suddenly acknowledge God and go over to the Taliban.The U.S. is scared because just when it thought Russia had dropped out of the running for who's going to rule the region's oil and natural gas fields the Taliban have stepped in as a threat even greater than Russia. Russians are not liked in the region. If Afghan Uzbeks, Tajiks, Shiites flock to the Taliban, their regional religious and ethnic cousins are likely to do the same, along with Kazakh, Turkmen, Azerbaijani and -- of course -- the war-ravaged Chechen.Fifty year ago China's Maoists -- as much feared by mainline Russian Communists as by anti-Communists all over the world -- took over China in just two years. They did it in much the same way as the Taliban have done it: poor peasant soldiers dragooned by their warlord regimes to fight the Maoist communists instead stampeded to join them. As with the Maoists, what makes the Taliban so difficult to combat--let alone defeat--is that they have embraced the principle of democracy, even while shunning the Western-sounding word. For Westerners and many non Western countries only now embracing "democratic values," democracy is synonymous with elections -- a system which can be manipulated by opposing politicians to keep themselves in power. For the Taliban, on the other hand, democracy means that the people, especially the poor, are the roots of the political system. Whatever the Taliban have done, and much of it has been bloody and unjust, it has been by, with and through poor people.Demonized in much of the democratic and newly democratizing world for their repressive policies, the Taliban are emerging as the greatest rival yet to Western style democracy with their new and clearly effective brand of power to the people.PNS editor Franz Schurmann, professor emeritus of history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, lived and worked in Afghanistan in the late 1950s.

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