A Mea Culpa (of Sorts, on the Taliban)

by Joshua Foust on 12/29/2007 · 3 comments

Whilst discussing the ramifications of Benazir Bhutto’s murder, I noted that many media accounts seemed to be ignoring the role she played in supporting the Taliban and other Islamist crazies during the 90’s—the very groups that now stand accused of having assassinated her. Steve LeVine—who covered Pakistan extensively in the 80’s with the New York Times’ John Burns—quibbled with my characterization, saying in effect I assign her far too much blame for their creation. I disagreed.

I did further research, and Steve was right and I was wrong.

While it is true that Ms. Bhutto played a role in supporting the Taliban after they took Kandahar, she was not involved in their initial creation or funding. It is far more appropriate to say she was powerless to protest, and therefore was forced to assent to their rise. Ms. Bhutto never was able to exercise control over either the Army or the ISI, and both of those institutions have far more to do with the Taliban than the civilians ever did or could have.

This is a difficult relationship to express properly, as it was a foreign relations problem that took place while she—and, to be fair, Nawaz Sharif—were in theory the heads of state. Indeed, many discussions of Bhutto’s relationship with the Taliban, including Steve Coll’s excellent history of the US-Al Qaeda war, expressed that relationship in a way that was not incorrect, but easy to misinterpret (and it is a problem that gets repeated in good faith by really smart people).

In other words, I fell victim to a popular myth. To our readers here: I apologize.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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AG December 29, 2007 at 11:21 pm

Elements within Benazir’s cabinet had a major role in supporting the Taliban (especially the interior minister the retired major Naseer Ullah Khan Babar). I am inclined to think that this distinction whether the civilian administration had a hand in supporting Taliban is not as clear cut as “she did” or “she did not.” (The latter case shows her in so much the worse light: she may not have controlled the army but she couldn’t even control elements within her own cabinet.)

Péter December 30, 2007 at 3:32 am

The ISI was behind HIG at least up till Omar et al. took Spin Boldak. Bhutto et al. were already behind them by that time. But they haven’t been behind the Taliban from the start, rightaway. The Taliban started from Maiwand district in Kandahar. As they started to grow (partly to do with loose, madrassa-based cross-border networks organised already previously, during the anti-Soviet war, with elements from HIK among them, as well as during Najibullah’s last years in power), bazaaris (transit traders/smugglers) got behind them, since they were good to clean the Chaman-Kandahar road of warlords’ illegal checkpoints. When they proved their worth, just as AG said, the then-interior minister and Bhutto’s government got behind them. Later the ISI just jumped on the bandwagon as HIG ‘rocketed’ itself out of popularity, I think. The taking of Kandahar – that only happened after Spin Boldak. That’s because the Kandahari power-brokers didn’t oppose the Taliban when they started to rise. And even then when the town was taken, mullah Naqib’s decision not to fight the Taliban really, was a key to the town’s being taken.

Péter December 30, 2007 at 3:48 am

Of course take this with the disclaimer that this is the picture I put together partly by speculation on the basis of all the contradicting information read in the literature and even in official documents, like Islamabad U.S. embassy cables and so on. I’ll put out a post in the upcoming days on this. Meanwhile, this is what I put together on mullah Omar back in October:

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