In the spring of 1839, the extraordinary Indian adventurer and spy, Mohan Lal Kashmiri, engineered one of the greatest intelligence coups of the 19th century: using nothing more lethal than cash and intrigue, he brought about the fall of Kandahar and secured the Afghan throne for Imperial Britain's chosen client, Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk.
Less than three years later, in the bitter winter of 1842, Kashmiri found himself working undercover in insurgent-held Kabul, seeking to ransom the remnants of his masters' once-magnificent army — children, women and men at threat of being sold as slaves in Central Asia.
For decades after, imperial historians agonised over the Afghan debacle of 1842, using tropes that still colour discourse on the country: religious fanaticism; treachery of native rulers; savagery of the tribal culture; primitiveness of its civilisation.
In a June 1842 paper, authored for the attention of the Governor-General in New Delhi, Kashmiri offered a simpler explanation. Britain's easy victory in Kandahar and Kabul, he recorded, persuaded commanders that “there was no necessity for wearing longer the airy garb of political civilities and promises.” He concluded: “there are, in fact, such numerous instances of violating our commitments and deceiving the people in our political proceedings, within what I am acquainted with, that it would be hard to assemble them in one place.”
Eleven years ago, the United States went to war in Afghanistan, promising to free its people from a despotic Islamist regime. President George Bush never delivered on his promises of reconstruction. Afghanistan received a fraction of the aid handed out to less-troubled Kosovo and Bosnia, a 2003 RAND corporation study demonstrated, let alone post-Second World War Japan or West Germany. Neoconservatives hostile to big government dominated the development agenda; the war in Iraq sucked away desperately-needed troops.
Now, as first revealed by The Hindu last year, even the political promise is vanishing: the U.S. is spearheading an effort to make peace with the Islamists it promised to free Afghanistan from.
Figures like the northern warlord Rashid Dostum, former Afghan intelligence chief Amarullah Saleh and former vice-president Zia Massoud, have been lobbying against the looming deal with the Taliban — but the tide of western opinion seems against them.
In capitals across Europe and in the U.S., leaders have been persuaded that an end to the war in Afghanistan must mean reconciliation with the Taliban — cast by a growing phalanx of apologists as representatives of a culturally legitimate religious-nationalist tradition.
The part of the story that is strangely absent from history-telling today is this: until the events of 9/11, the U.S. was engaged in precisely the same process of reconciliation that is being marketed today.
Muhammad Najibullah Ahmadzai's last minutes were the first of Afghanistan's Islamic Emirate, the Taliban's short-lived state. Early on September 27, 1996, Afghanistan's former President was dragged out of the United Nations compound where he had taken sanctuary. He was beaten, then castrated; his bloodied body was dragged behind a truck before being hung on a traffic light for public display.
The President's last visitors included Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Panjshir-region warlord who would himself be assassinated on the eve of 9/11. Massoud, for decades a bitter adversary of Najibullah, offered to help him escape, an offer that demonstrated courage and decency.
Glyn Davies, the U.S. State Department's spokesperson, demonstrated neither when he was asked about Najbullah's murder a few hours later. The barbaric killing, he said, was merely “regrettable.” Mr. Davies proceed to explain that he found “nothing objectionable” in the laws of the new Islamic Emirate; these, he suggested, were “anti-modern”, not “anti-western” and, therefore, presumably legitimate. He hoped the Taliban would “form a representative interim government that can begin the process of reconciliation nationwide.”
From 1994, the administration of President Bill Clinton had sought just this outcome. The story had something to do with oil. The scholar and journalist, Ahmad Rashid, has shown the U.S. threw its weight behind oil giant Unocal's efforts to build an ambitious pipeline linking Central Asia's vast energy fields with the Indian Ocean. Mullah Muhammad Ghaus, the Islamic Emirate's foreign minister, led an expenses-paid delegation to Unocal's headquarters in Sugarland, Texas, at the end of 1997. The clerics, housed at a five-star hotel, were taken to see the NASA museum, several supermarkets and, somewhat peculiarly, the local zoo.
In April 1996, Robin Raphel — then Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, and now President Barack Obama's ambassador for non-military aid to Pakistan, visited Kabul to lobby for the project. Later that year, she was again in Kabul, this time calling on the international community to “engage the Taliban.”
Ishtiaq Ahmad, Pakistani commentator and scholar, has pointed out that oil wasn't the only driver of these sentiments. It suited the U.S., he argued in a perceptive 2002 essay, to back the “emergence of an inherently anti-Iran Sunni force in Afghanistan”.
The U.S. was well aware that the Taliban's dramatic rise had something to do with forces other than its purported popularity among Afghans: “my boys and I are riding into Mazhar-i-Sharif,” Rafiq Tarar, the head of the Pakistani intelligence's Afghan operations, was recorded saying in an intercepted 1998 conversation.
It was also evident that the regime the U.S. was endorsing was exceptionally savage. In a 1998 report, Physicians for Human Rights documented the Islamic Emirate's war against Afghanistan's women: the closing down of schools, the denial of medical care facilities, public floggings and institutionalised child-rape. It noted that men faced “extortion, arrest, gang rape, and abuse in detention because of their ethnicity or presumed political views.”
From at least January 1998, evidence also emerged of systematic war crimes. Larry Goodson, in his 2002 scholarly work, Afghanistan's Endless War , documented the use of scorched-earth tactics, the denial of United Nations food-aid to ethnic minorities, and the demolition of their homes. Ms Raphael had these words for the critics: “The Taliban do not seek to export Islam, only to liberate Afghanistan”.
In 1996, a State department report described Osama bin Laden as one of the “most significant sponsors of terrorism today.” Even though the Islamic Emirate sheltered bin Laden, it was never declared a state sponsor of terrorism.
“Madeline Albright, [her] undersecretary Tom Pickering and regional specialists in state's South Asia bureau,” records Steve Coll in his magisterial work Ghost Wars , “all recommended that the administration continue its policy of diplomatic engagement with the Taliban. They would use pressure and promises of future aid to persuade [Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad] Omar to break with bin Laden.”
Islamic Emirate officials thus met with State Department representatives as late as March and July 2001. From the memoirs of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Islamic Emirate's envoy to Islamabad, we know that they also passed on information that bin Laden was planning an attack on the U.S. — to no effect.
“The truth”, Ms Albright would later argue, “was that those [attacks before 9/11] were happening overseas and while there were Americans who died, there were not thousands and it did not happen on U.S. soil”. It isn't: Libya, Iraq, South Yemen, and Syria, all secular states, hadn't killed “thousands” or “on U.S. soil” in 1979, when the State Department first began designating sponsors of terrorism. There was something about the Islamic Emirate that was different.
Deeper than oil rigs
For a sensible understanding of the intellectual underpinnings of western romancing of the Taliban, therefore, one must excavate deeper than oil rigs: the West's relationship with Islamism has to do with ideas about the world, not just cash. In search of reliable collaborators across the Middle East, colonial states threw their weight behind reactionary tendencies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Islam was used to legitimise this project.
Led by the enigmatic scholar, Gerhard von Mende, Nazi Germany's Ostminsterium recruited Muslims from Central Asia to aid its fight against the Soviet Union. Ian Johnson's remarkable history, A Mosque in Munich , shows the Central Intelligence Agency recruited many of these ex-Nazis.
The West's Afghanistan policy marks a return to these geostrategic roots —this time founded on the hope that religious-authoritarian regimes will provide a volatile region stability. Its growing engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, its tactical embrace of jihadists in Libya and Syria, its use of the right-wing cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, as a mediator with the Taliban form other parts of this mosaic.
Afghanistan's political parties and political representatives aren't the ones, notably, who will be doing the deal. The Taliban isn't being asked to agree to terms acceptable to other Afghans. Afghanistan's women's organisations or ethnic minorities aren't at the table in Doha.
Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to reassure secular Afghans, promising that her country “intends to stay the course with our friends.” “We will not leave you on your own”, said Germany's Foreign Minister, Guido Westwelle, echoing her words.
Mohan Lal Kashmiri might have had some thoughts on these promises. Those they are directed at in Afghanistan almost certainly do.