Afghanistan's agony seems endless. Thousands of Afghans are starving.
Hundreds of thousands have become internal refugees after two years of
terrible draught and famine. Three million Afghans remain refugees in
Pakistan and Iran.
Enraged by Afghanistan's sheltering of Osama Bin Laden, the US has imposed
punishing sanctions and near-total isolation on this shattered nation.
Russia is infiltrating troops and weapons into northern Afghanistan. India,
China, and the Central Asian states have allied against Afghanistan' s
ruling Taliban movement in Kabul. Almost every hand is raised against
Afghanistan, which continues to suffer and bleed after 22 years of war.
So what does Taliban's leadership do?just as the world's 1.2 billion
Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan?
Like the legendary Don Quixote de la Mancha, who tilted at windmills,
believing them evil giants, Taliban's leader, Mullah Omar, proclaimed al
l-out war against two 1,500-year old statues of the Buddha carved into
sandstone cliffs in Bamiyan province. He ordered them destroyed forthwith.
These towering idols, 175 and 120 feet high, are the most impressive
relics of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic era, when much of the population was
As Taliban soldiers blasted away at the statues with heavy machine guns and
explosives, the world pleaded with the Islamic Don Quixotes of Kabul to
halt their vandalism. But Taliban's fierce mullahs refused to be deterred
from their jihad against idolatry, though they agreed to a temporary delay.
Islamic strictly bans any form of idols and their worship. This has led
many Sunni Muslims to oppose all religious artifacts and ban depiction of
the human form in art.
The notoriously stubborn Afghans refused to heed worldwide pleas,
including from the UN, many Muslim nations, and Islamic leaders, to spare
the statutes. Taliban rejected offers by museums to buy the Buddhas. `We
must strike down idolatry,' thundered Kabul's later-day Savanarolas.
Muslims in general, and Taliban, in particular, have an uncanny knack for
negative public relations. Think of the bloodcurdling but empty threats
made in 1967 by the PLO's windbag spokesman, Ahmad Shukairy: `we are going
to drive the Jews into the sea.' Such ludicrous bombast gave Israel a
perfect pretext to attack its Arab neighbors. Of Col. Khadaffi's clownish
threats, and Saddam's `Mother of All Battles' that turned into a
Taliban ended anarchy in Afghanistan, brought peace to 90% of the country,
largely halted the opium poppy trade, and is holding off Russian attempts
to infiltrate northern Afghanistan. In spite of these important
accomplishments, the rural clerics, rustic mountaineers, and religious
seminarians who make up Taliban have managed to incur the wrath of the
outside world by foolish acts of medievalism, such as forcing women to go
veiled from head to toe, stoning alleged adulterers, and, now, in the
supreme act of demented anti-public relations, blowing up the giant
It should be noted Taliban is not the world's only destroyer of religious
sites or art. The greatest destruction of religious and laic art in our
era occurred under Chairman Mao during China's Cultural Revolution. In
Bosnia and Kosova, Serb forces blew up large numbers of old mosques and
Muslim shrines, without a peep of protest from the west. In 1992, Indian
mobs, incited by Hindu extremists of the now ruling BJP party, torn down an
ancient Muslim mosque, the Babri Masjid., and threatened to `cleanse' India
of all Muslim-era holy places, palaces, and artifacts.
Still, why would Taliban leaders act in such a self-defeating and foolish
First, to petulantly strike back at the US, which is now punishing
Afghanistan the way it did with Iraq, and, in league with Russia, trying
to overthrow Taliban.
The Buddha outrage reminds be of my godfather, a Balkan nobleman and
soldier of fortune, who married a Spanish duchess. Whenever they had a
fight, which was often, he used to take his favorite .45 automatic and
shoot her collection of priceless Majollica ceramics. As each plate
exploded into fragments, the count roared with laughter while the duchess
screamed in horror and agony.
Second, as the result of a power struggle inside Taliban between
isolationist and more moderate factions. The former says `To hell with
the outside world! We defeated the Soviet Union and won't be told what to do
by anyone.' The moderates urge better relations with the west and
Afghanistan's nervous neighbors. Washington's intensifying war against
Taliban has emboldened the extremists and sidelined the moderates.
Pakistan, Taliban's main supporter, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE,
has only limited influence over Taliban's hardliners. Islamabad has been
repeatedly frustrated in attempts to soften Kabul's policies and image.
In fact, no one has much influence over Taliban's wildmen, who pride
themselves, in true Afghan style, in rebuffing all outside pressure, as
the refusal to hand old comrade-in-arms Osama Bin Laden to the Americans
shows. The Afghans fear no one, a fact that infuriates the great powers
who are unused to having a small nation thumb its collective nose at them.
However wanton and stupid, the destruction of the Bamiyan statues should
not divert us from the fact that Russia is steadily reasserting its
influence in strategic Afghanistan. No matter how unlikeable, Taliban
remains Afghanistan's only legitimate government and the sole bulwark
against Russian southern expansion.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2001