“Slowly, Slowly Sucked into It”

THE MAN WHO BECAME KNOWN as Ahmed Shah Durrani, a celebrated king of Afghanistan, began his career as an unsuccessful bodyguard. His liege, the Persian emperor Nadir Shah, had conquered lands and treasure as far east as India, but he grew murderous and arbitrary even by the standards of a tyrannical age. Angry courtiers attacked him in his royal desert tent in 1747. Durrani found his ruler’s headless torso in a bloody pool. Sensing they were now on the wrong side of Persian court politics, Durrani and his fellow guards mounted horses and rode east for Kandahar, homeland of their tribes, known to the British as Pashtuns.1

Kandahar lay uncomfortably exposed in a semiarid plain between the two great Islamic empires of the day: Persia, to the west, and the Mughal Empire, ruled from Kabul to the north. In the Pashtun homeland luscious orchards and farms dotted the banks of the snaking Helmand River. Mud-walled villages unmolested by outside authority nestled in fertile valleys. Swift snow-melt rivers in the surrounding hills seemed to invigorate the strong-boned, strong-willed pathwalkers who drank from them. The desert highways crossing Kandahar carried great caravans between India and Persia, providing road taxes for local governors and loot for tribal highwaymen. Yet Kandahar’s fractious tribes lacked the administrative and military depth of Persia’s throne or the natural defenses of Kabul’s rock-mountain gorges. The region’s two great tribal confederations were the Ghilzais, whose dispersed members lived to the north, toward Jalalabad, and the Abdalis, centered in Kandahar. They marauded against neighbors and passing armies. Chieftains of lineage clans consulted in circle-shaped egalitarian jirgas, where they forged alliances and authorized tribal risings as cyclical and devastating as monsoons. But they had yet to win an empire of their own.

Ahmed Shah Durrani changed their fortune. His story recounts an inextricable weave of historical fact and received myth. In the standard version, when Durrani reached Kandahar from the scene of Nadir Shah’s murder, he joined a council of Abdali tribal leaders who had been summoned to a shrine at Sher Surkh to choose a new king. In the first round many of the chiefs boasted about their own qualifications. Ahmed, only twenty-four and from a relatively weak subtribe of the Popalzai, remained silent. To break the deadlock a respected holy man placed a strand of wheat on his head and declared that Ahmed should be king because he had given no cause for anger to the others. The tribal chiefs soon put blades of grass in their mouths and hung cloth yokes around their necks to show they agreed to be Ahmed’s cattle. Presumably the spiritual symbols cloaked a practical decision: The most powerful Abdali chiefs had elected the weakest among them as leader, giving them flexibility to rebel whenever they wished. This was a pattern of Pashtun decision-making about kings and presidents that would persist into the twenty-first century.2

Durrani proved a visionary leader. He crowned himself king in central Kandahar, a flat dust-caked city constructed from sloping mud-brown brick. Its mosques and shrines were decorated by tiles and jewels imported from Persia and India. He called himself the Durr-I-Durrani, or Pearl of Pearls, because of his fondness for pearl earrings. From this the Abdalis became known as the Durranis. His empire was launched with an act of highway robbery near Kandahar. A caravan from India moved toward Persia with a treasure trove. Ahmed seized the load and used it as an instant defense budget. He hired a vast army of Pashtun warriors and subsidized the peace around Kandahar. He struck out for India, occupied Delhi, and eventually controlled lands as far away as Tibet. The Ghilzai Pashtun tribes submitted to his rule, and he united the territory that would be known during the twentieth century as Afghanistan. He summered in Kabul, but Kandahar was his capital. When he died in 1773 after twenty-six years on the throne, the region’s proud and grateful Durranis erected a decorated tomb with a soaring turquoise dome in the town center. Signaling the unity their king forged between Islam and a royal house, they built his memorial adjacent to Kandahar’s most holy site, a three-story white mosque inlaid with mosaics. The mosque housed a sacred cloak reputedly worn by the Prophet Mohammed.

For two centuries Ahmed Shah Durrani’s legacy shaped Afghan politics. His reign located the center of Pashtun tribal and spiritual power in Kandahar, creating an uneasy balance between that city and Kabul. His vast empire quickly disappeared, but its legend inspired expansive visions of Pashtun rule. His unification of Pashtun tribes in a grand royal house laid the foundation for future claims to royal legitimacy in Afghanistan. Many of the kings who followed him came from a different tribal branch, but they saw themselves as his political heirs. King Zahir Shah, overthrown in 1973, exactly two hundred years after Durrani’s death, was the last ruler to claim the heritage of the jirga at Sher Surkh.3

By 1994 the Kandahar Durranis had fallen into disarray. Many prominent leaders lived in scattered exile in Pakistan, Europe, or the United States. Pakistan’s army and intelligence service, fearing Pashtun royal power, squeezed out Durrani leaders who might revive claims to the Afghan throne. The mujahedin leaders most favored by Pakistani intelligence—Hekmatyar, Rabbani, Sayyaf, and Khalis—did not include any Durrani Pashtuns. Also, the geography of the anti-Soviet war sidelined Kandahar and its clans. The conflict’s key supply lines flowed north from Kabul to the Soviet Union or east toward Pakistan. None of this was Durrani territory. Kandahar knew heavy fighting during the Soviet occupation, but in the war’s strategic geography, it was often a cul-de-sac.

After the Soviet withdrawal the Kandahar region dissolved into a violent checkerboard—less awful than hellish Kabul, but awful still. Hekmatyar’s well-armed, antiroyal forces, backed by Pakistani intelligence, lingered like a storm cloud on the city’s outskirts. Trucking mafias that reaped huge profits from the heroin trade and other smuggling rackets propped up local warlords. Any group of young Pashtun fighters with a few Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers could set up a checkpoint and extort payments on the highways. By 1994 the main road from Quetta in Pakistan through Kandahar and on toward Herat and Iran was choked by hundreds of extralegal roadblocks. So was the road from Kandahar to Kabul. Shopkeepers in the ramshackle markets clustered around Ahmed Shah Durrani’s still magnificent tomb in central Kandahar—now a fume-choked city of perhaps 750,000—battled ruthless extortion and robbery gangs. Reports of unchecked rape and abduction, including child rape, fueled a local atmosphere of fear and smoldering anger. One of the most powerful Durrani warlords in Kandahar, Mullah Naqibullah, had fallen into a state of madness later diagnosed as a medical condition that required antipsychotic drugs. “I was crazy,” Naqibullah admitted years later. “The doctors told me that I had a heavy workload, and it had damaged some of my brain cells.”4

The birth and rise of the Taliban during 1994 and the emergence of the movement’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, were often described in the United States and Europe as the triumph of a naïve, pious, determined band of religious students swept into power on a wave of popular revulsion over Kandahar’s criminal warlords. The Taliban themselves emphasized this theme after they acquired power. As they constructed their founding narrative, they weaved in stories of Mullah Omar’s visionary dreams for a new Islamic order for Afghanistan. They described his heroic rescue of abducted girls from warlord rapists. They publicized his yen for popular justice, as illustrated by the public hanging of depraved kidnappers. “It was like a myth,” recalled the Pashtun broadcaster Spozhmai Maiwandi, who spoke frequently with Taliban leaders. “They were taking the Koran and the gun and going from village to village saying, ‘For the Koran’s sake, put down your weapons.’ ” If the warlords refused, the Taliban would kill them. “For us it was not strange,” Maiwandi recalled. Religious students had meted out justice in rural Kandahar for ages. “We knew these people still existed.”5

Much of this Taliban narrative was undoubtedly rooted in fact even if credible eyewitnesses to the most mythologized events of 1994, such as the hanging of notorious rapists from a tank barrel, proved stubbornly elusive. In the end, however, the facts may have mattered less than the narrative’s claims on the past. The Taliban assembled their story so that Pashtuns could recognize it as a revival of old glory. The Taliban connected popular, rural Islamic values with a grassroots Durrani Pashtun tribal rising. They emerged at a moment when important wealthy Pashtun tribal leaders around Kandahar hungered for a unifying cause. The Taliban hinted that their militia would become a vehicle for the return to Afghanistan of King Zahir Shah from his exile in Rome. They preached for a reborn alliance of Islamic piety and Pashtun might.

Taliban, which can be translated as “students of Islam” or “seekers of knowledge,” had been part of traditional village life in Kandahar’s conservative “Koran belt” since even before the time of Ahmed Shah Durrani. Taliban were as familiar to southern Pashtun villagers as frocked Catholic priests were in the Irish countryside, and they played a similar role. They taught schoolchildren, led prayers, comforted the dying, and mediated local disputes. They studied in hundreds of small madrassas, memorizing the Koran, and they lived modestly on the charity of villagers. As a young adult a Talib might migrate to a larger madrassa in an Afghan city or across the border in Pakistan to complete his Koranic studies. Afterward he might return to a village school and mosque as a full-fledged mullah, a “giver” of knowledge now rather than a seeker. In a region unfamiliar with formal government, these religious travelers provided a loose Islamic civil service. The Taliban were memorialized in traditional Afghan folk songs, which sometimes made teasing, skeptical reference to their purity; the students were traditionally regarded as so chaste that Pashtun women might not bother to cover themselves when they came around for meals.6

After the communist revolution in Kabul in 1978, Islamic students and mullahs fervently took up arms in rural Pashtun regions. At the village level, far removed from the manipulations of foreign intelligence services, they fortified the anti-Soviet jihad with volunteers and religious sanction. But the war altered the context and curriculum of Islamic studies in the Pashtun belt. This was especially true just across the border in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia’s World Muslim League, General Zia’s partners at Jamaat-e-Islami, Saudi intelligence, and Pakistani intelligence built scores of new madrassas in Peshawar, Quetta, Karachi, and in between. Scholars introduced new texts based on austere Saudi theology and related creeds. One of the most influential and richly endowed of these wartime madrassas, Haqqannia, located along the Grand Trunk Road just east of Peshawar, attracted tens of thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Talibs with free education and boarding. The students included many exiled Pashtuns from Kandahar.7

Haqqannia’s curriculum blended transnational Islamist politics with a theology known as Deobandism, named for a town in India that houses a centuries-old madrassa. During the nineteenth century the Deobandis led a conservative reform movement among Indian Muslims. Many Muslim scholars updated Islam’s tenets to adapt to changing societies. The Deobandis rejected this approach. They argued that Muslims were obliged to live exactly as the earliest followers of the Prophet Mohammed had done. Deobandi scholars drew up long lists of minute rules designed to eliminate all modern intrusions from a pious Muslim life. They combined this approach with a Wahhabi-like disdain for decoration, adornment, and music.8

Nearly all of the Taliban’s initial circle of Kandahar Durrani leaders had attended Haqqannia during the 1980s and early 1990s. They knew one another as theology classmates as well as veteran fighters in the anti-Soviet jihad.9

The Taliban leadership had no special tribal or royal status. They first surfaced as a small militia force operating near Kandahar city during the spring and summer of 1994, carrying out vigilante attacks against minor warlords, backed by a security fund of about $250,000 raised by local small businessmen. But as the months passed and their legend grew, they began to meet and appeal for backing from powerful Durrani Pashtun traders and chieftains. As these alliances developed, their movement was transformed.

Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai ran lucrative transportation and manufacturing businesses from Pakistan to Central Asia. He was also a leader of the huge Ahmadzai tribe. He had known some of the Taliban’s leaders as strong fighters around Kandahar during the anti-Soviet jihad. When he met them in late 1994, “the sell was very practical, and it made sense. They were saying, ‘Look, all these commanders have looted the country. They’re selling it piece by piece. They’ve got checkpoints. They’re raping women.’ And they wanted to bring in the king. They wanted to bring in national unity and have the loya jirga process,” a grand assembly that would ratify national Afghan leadership. “It was not something you could turn down.” Ahmadzai threw the Taliban his support.10

So did the Karzai family, the respected and influential Kandahar-born leaders of the Popalzai, the tribe of Ahmed Shah Durrani himself. Their decision to back the Taliban during 1994 signaled to Afghans that this student militia stood at the forefront of a broad movement—an uprising aimed at the enemies of Islam and also at the enemies of Pashtuns.

ABDUL AHAD KARZAI was the family patriarch. He and his son Hamid, then thirty-six years old, had been moderately important figures in the anti-Soviet resistance. As a boy Hamid Karzai had grown up in bucolic comfort on prewar Kandahar’s outskirts. He and his brothers played in dusty lanes they shared with chickens and goats. Their family owned rich farmland; by local standards, they were wealthy. After the Soviet invasion they fled to Quetta.11

A lively, thin, bald, elflike man with bright eyes and an irrepressible voice, Hamid Karzai worked during the 1980s as a press, logistics, and humanitarian aid coordinator for the royalist mujahedin faction of Sibghatullah Mojaddedi. He spoke English fluently and maintained many American contacts, including diplomats such as Ed McWilliams and Peter Tomsen. They and other State Department emissaries saw Karzai as an attractive, reasonable royalist, a wily talker and politician. Two of his brothers operated Afghan restaurants in the United States. His royal Pashtun heritage and ease with foreigners allowed him to mediate across Afghan political and ethnic lines after the Soviet withdrawal. He was a born diplomat, rarely confrontational and always willing to gather in a circle and talk. He was appointed deputy foreign minister in the fractured, Massoud-dominated Kabul government during 1993.

Karzai tried to stitch his own fratricidal government back together. For months he shuttled between besieged Kabul and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s hostile encampment at Charasyab. Karzai sought to mediate between the Kabul cabinet and its estranged prime minister even as they fired rockets at each other.

Early in 1994, Massoud’s security chief, the gnome-faced Mohammed Fahim, received a report that Hamid Karzai was working with Pakistani intelligence. Fahim set in motion a bizarre chain of events that led the Karzais to offer their prestige and support to the Taliban.

Like all of Massoud’s most trusted commanders, Fahim was an ethnic Tajik from the northeastern Panjshir Valley. By 1994 the Panjshiris were seen by many Pashtuns in Kabul as a kind of battle-fighting mafia. United by a decade of continuous war under Massoud’s charismatic leadership, the Panjshiris were close-knit, tough, secretive, and a government within the government. The Kabul cabinet remained multiethnic on paper, but as the civil war deepened, the power of Massoud’s Panjshiri-run defense and intelligence ministries grew. Relations with Pashtun leaders deteriorated.

An important cause was the unfinished war with Hekmatyar. Massoud saw Hekmatyar as an unreformed creature of Pakistani intelligence. He and his aides felt they could never be sure where the next ISI-backed conspiracy, fronted by Pashtun leaders, might be coming from. They were bathed in wartime rumors and had few reliable ways to sort fact from fiction. They were under continual bombardment in their candlelit Kabul offices. The war’s chronic violence and deceit shaped their judgments about friend and foe.

Acting on a tip that he was plotting against the government, Fahim sent intelligence officers to Hamid Karzai’s Kabul home. They arrested the deputy foreign minister and drove him to an interrogation center downtown, not far from the presidential palace. For several hours Fahim’s operatives worked on Karzai, accusing him of collusion with Pakistan. Karzai has never provided a direct account of what happened inside the interrogation cell. Several people he talked to afterward said that he was beaten up and that his face was bloodied and bruised. Some accounts place Fahim himself in the cell during parts of the interrogation. It is not clear whether Massoud knew about the interrogation or authorized it, although his lieutenants denied that he did.

The session ended with a bang. A rocket lobbed routinely by Hekmatyar into Kabul’s center slammed into the intelligence compound where Karzai was being interrogated. In the ensuing chaos Karzai slipped out of the building and walked dazed into Kabul’s streets. He made his way to the city bus station and quietly slipped onto a bus headed for Jalalabad. There a friend from the United Nations recognized Karzai walking on the street, his patrician face banged up and bruised, and helped him to a relative’s house. The next day Hamid Karzai crossed the Khyber Pass into exile in Pakistan. He would not return to Kabul for more than seven years.12

He joined his father in Quetta during the spring of 1994. Within months he heard about the Taliban’s rising. He knew many of the Taliban’s leaders from the days of the anti-Soviet jihad. “They were my buddies,” he explained later. “They were good people.”13

They were also a way to challenge a Kabul government whose officers had just beaten him into exile. Karzai was not especially wealthy by Western standards—his hard currency accounts were often precariously low—but he contributed $50,000 of his own funds to the Taliban as they began to organize around Kandahar. He also handed them a large cache of weapons he had hidden away and introduced them to prominent Pashtun tribal leaders. Separately, the Taliban met with an enthusiastic Abdul Haq and with many Durranis who maintained close ties with the exiled king Zahir Shah. The Durrani Pashtuns hoped now to achieve what the United Nations and American envoys such as Peter Tomsen had earlier failed to deliver. Urging their new white-bannered, Koran-waving rural militia forward, they plotted a return of the Afghan king.14

MOHAMMED OMAR was an unlikely heir to Pashtun glory. He reflected the past through a mirror cracked and distorted by two decades of war. For a man destined to make such an impact on global affairs, remarkably little is known about his biography. He was born around 1950 in Nodeh Village in Kandahar province. His small and undistinguished family clan occupied a single house in the district, according to a biographical account given to U.S. diplomats by the Taliban early in 1995. His was an impoverished, isolated boyhood dominated by long hours in dim religious schools memorizing the Koran. From religious texts he learned to read and write in Arabic and Pashto only shakily.He never roamed far from Kandahar province. If he ever flew on an airplane, slept in a hotel, or watched a satellite movie, he gave no indication of it. In later years he had many opportunities to travel abroad but refused even a religious pilgrimage to holy Muslim shrines in Saudi Arabia. He declined to travel as far as Kabul except on very rare occasions. Kandahar was his world.15

During the anti-Soviet jihad, Omar served as a local subcommander with the Younis Khalis faction. He followed a prominent trader, Haji Bashar, who also funded a religious school in the area. He showed special ability with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and reportedly knocked out a number of Soviet tanks. By one account, he eventually became Khalis’s deputy commander for Kandahar province, a relatively senior position, despite his being neither “charismatic nor articulate,” as a Taliban colleague later put it.16

Exploding shrapnel struck Omar in the face during an attack near Kandahar. One piece badly damaged his right eye. Taliban legend holds that Omar cut his own eye out of the socket with a knife. More prosaic versions report his treatment at a Red Cross hospital in Pakistan where his eye was surgically removed. In any event, his right eyelid was stitched permanently shut.17

By the early 1990s, Omar had returned to religious studies. He served as a teacher and prayer leader in a tiny, poor village of about twenty-five families called Singesar, twenty miles outside of Kandahar in a wide, fertile valley of wheat fields and vineyards. In exchange for religious instruction, villagers provided him with food. He apparently had no other reliable source of income, although he retained ties to the relatively wealthy trader Bashar. He shuttled between the village’s small mud-brick religious school and its small mud-brick mosque. He lived in a modest house about two hundred yards from the village madrassa.18

The only known photographs of Omar depict him as a relatively tall, well-built, thin-faced man with a light complexion and a bushy black beard. He spoke Pashto in a peasant’s provincial accent. In meetings he would often sit silently for long periods. When he spoke, his voice was often no louder than a whisper. He modestly declined to call himself a mullah because he had not finished all of his Islamic studies. He sometimes talked about himself in the third person, as if he were a character in someone else’s story.

He believed in the prophecy of dreams and spoke about them in political and military meetings, drawing on them to explain important decisions. During 1994, as the Taliban gathered influence around Kandahar, Omar repeatedly said he had been called into action by a dream in which Allah appeared before him in the form of a man and told him to lead the believers.

As he began to meet with Pashtun delegations around Kandahar, he would often receive visitors outside, seated on the ground. By one account, in an early Taliban organizational meeting, he was selected as leader of the movement’s supreme council because unlike some of the more seasoned candidates, Omar did not seem to be interested in personal power.19 The story was another plank in the Taliban’s myth of Pashtun revival: The humble, quiet Mullah Omar echoed the silence of young Ahmed Shah Durrani at the Sher Surkh jirga.

He spoke rarely about his ambitions, but when he did, his language was direct. The Taliban was “a simple band of dedicated youths determined to establish the laws of God on Earth and prepared to sacrifice everything in pursuit of that goal,” he said. “The Taliban will fight until there is no blood in Afghanistan left to be shed and Islam becomes a way of life for our people.”20

When they sprang from Kandahar in 1994, the Taliban were a tabula rasa on which others could project their ambitions. The trouble was, as the French scholar Olivier Roy noted, the Taliban were different from other opportunistic Afghan factions: They meant what they said.21

BENAZIR BHUTTO also charted the future from the past. Pakistan’s sputtering democracy had shuddered through another minor miracle—a semi-legitimate national election—and voters had returned Bhutto to office as prime minister. Before her swearing-in she took long walks in Islamabad parks with old political allies. She wanted to talk candidly about her plans where Pakistani intelligence could not listen. She told her colleagues that she wanted to learn from the errors of her first term. She was determined to stay close to the Americans. She wanted to keep the Pakistani army happy as best she could—she would not pick unnecessary fights. She would have to keep watch on ISI, but she would try to listen to their demands and accommodate them. In this way she hoped to survive in office long enough to revive Pakistan’s economy. Only if she created wealth for Pakistan’s middle classes could Bhutto ensure her party’s long-term strength, she and her advisers believed.22

Pakistan suffered from widespread poverty, low literacy rates, and a weak natural resource base. Yet it also had a strong business class, international ports, and thriving export industries. How could the country create sudden new wealth through external trade the way other Asian countries had managed to do during the 1980s? To the east lay India, the Pakistan army’s reason for being and a foreign policy problem Bhutto could not hope to solve on her own. But to the west and north lay new possibilities for commerce and influence. Bhutto wanted, as she said later, to “market Pakistan internationally as . . . the crossroads to the old silk roads of trade between Europe and Asia.” Like every young student on the subcontinent, she had grown up with history texts that chronicled invasions across the Khyber Pass. These ancient conquests had been inspired by lucrative trade routes that ran from Central Asia to Delhi. “So I thought, ‘Okay, control of the trade routes is a way to get my country power and prestige.’ ” She imagined Pakistani exporters trucking televisions and washing machines to the newly independent Muslim republics of former Soviet Central Asia. She imagined cotton and oil flowing to Pakistan from Central Asia and Iran.23

But when she and her advisers looked at the map in 1994, they saw Afghanistan in the way, an impassable cauldron of warlords, a country engulfed by a civil war fueled by Pakistan’s own intelligence service. Bhutto called in the ISI brigadiers, and, as she recalled it, they told her they wanted to keep pressure on Massoud because his government was “too pro-India.” This seemed to her a dead-end policy, but she had pledged to go slowly with the army this time in office, to defer to them where she could. She wanted to create a discussion about an alternative Afghan policy that would include the views of the army and Pakistani intelligence.24

She organized an interagency group on Afghanistan. Beside her at the conference table sat a retired septuagenarian Pakistani general, Naseerullah Babar, who had agreed to serve as Bhutto’s interior minister. A Pashtun notable, Babar had organized covert guerrilla training for Hekmatyar and Massoud when they first fled to Pakistan in the 1970s. He had been loyal to Bhutto’s father, and Benazir trusted him. Babar had friendships inside the notoriously independent Afghan bureau of Pakistani intelligence. He brought some of the ISI brigadiers he knew to the early working sessions on Afghan policy. They argued about the risks of pulling support from Hekmatyar. Without his pressure on Massoud, the ISI’s officers maintained, ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks might lock up control of Kabul for many years. They would deepen ties with India and remain hostile to Pakistan and stir up trouble in its large Pashtun population. How could Bhutto pursue her dream of Central Asian trade in that case?

“Why do we need Kabul anyway?” Babar asked, as Bhutto recalled it. They could reach Central Asia by the southern route, through Kandahar and Herat. Bhutto thought this idea had promise. Her government could build roads, telephone lines, and other infrastructure right through Afghanistan’s Pashtun country, all the way to Central Asia, bypassing Kabul and the ethnic gridlock to its north. Bhutto endorsed the new approach “if it could be done by paying local warlords” for free commercial passage via southern Afghanistan. Pakistani intelligence had no objection.25

Babar spearheaded the effort. In October 1994 he arranged a heavily publicized trial convoy carrying Pakistani textiles that he hoped to drive from Quetta to Turkmenistan, to demonstrate Pakistan’s new ambitions. The convoy arrived on the Afghan border above Kandahar just as Mullah Omar and his Taliban shura opened their preaching campaign in the area.

Pakistani trucking interests had already begun to supply money and weapons to the Taliban, hoping they could unclog Kandahar’s highways. It may have been these trucking overlords rather than Pakistan’s government who aided the Taliban in their first military breakthrough. An Afghan commander in the border truck-stop town of Spin Boldak, loyal to Massoud on paper, handed the Taliban the keys to an enormous ISI-supplied weapons dump near the town, apparently in exchange for a large payment. The dump had been created in 1991 to receive weapons and ammunition rushed across the border by Pakistani and Saudi intelligence officers who were trying to comply with a deadline to end outside supplies to the Afghan war. The Spin Boldak dump’s seventeen tunnels held enough weaponry for tens of thousands of soldiers.26

The Taliban broke it open in mid-October, issued public calls for volunteers from local madrassas, and handed out assault rifles still wrapped in plastic. Whether Babar or local ISI officers endorsed or aided this handover of weapons is not clear. Babar did capitalize quickly on the Taliban’s new strength. When his demonstration convoy was blocked at rogue checkpoints twenty miles outside of Kandahar in early November, he waved the Taliban on to free his trucks.27

They did so with ease. Mullah Naqibullah and other long-feared Kandahar warlords who were allied with Massoud had terrorized the region without challenge for years. Suddenly, in just twenty-four hours, the Taliban moved into central Kandahar and captured the entire city. Mullah Omar took control of the provincial governor’s arched sandstone headquarters, across from the tomb of Ahmed Shah Durrani. Naqibullah and his allies, unable or unwilling to resist their youthful and highly motivated attackers, simply melted away.28

By mid-November the Taliban’s six-member shura ruled not only Kandahar but its airport, where they captured six MiG-21 fighter jets and four Mi-17 transport helicopters. They seized tanks and armored personnel carriers.29 They announced that all highway roadblocks would be dismantled, all non-Taliban militia disarmed, and all criminals subject to swift Islamic punishments. They lynched a few resisters to make their point.

Benazir Bhutto was suddenly the matron of a new Afghan faction. The Taliban might provide a battering ram to open trade routes to Central Asia, as she hoped, yet they also presented complications.

Pakistani intelligence already had one Pashtun client, Hekmatyar. The ISI Afghan bureau was in turmoil. The Rawalpindi army command had recently appointed a secular-minded, British-influenced general, Javed Ashraf Qazi, to take charge of ISI. Qazi’s immediate predecessor, the bearded Islamist missionary Javed Nasir, had led the intelligence service toward overt religious preaching. The army brass now told Qazi to “put ISI right,” as he recalled it, by purging the most open Islamists. Qazi systematically removed officers who had been promoted by Nasir. In doing so he shook up the Afghan bureau. Its relations with Hekmatyar were already a mess. Nasir’s ardent personal beliefs had led him into obscure theological arguments with his putative client. ISI was supposed to be helping Hekmatyar pressure “the fox of Panjshir,” as Qazi called Massoud. Instead, Javed Nasir picked fights over religion.30

ISI had even deeper interests at stake than Hekmatyar’s fate. By 1994, Pakistani intelligence relied on the Islamist training camps in Hekmatyar-controlled Afghan territory to support its new covert jihad in Indian-held Kashmir. The political-religious networks around Hekmatyar trained and shipped foreign volunteers to Kashmir. Bhutto recalled that during this period, Pakistani intelligence officers repeatedly told her they could not fight the clandestine Kashmir war with Kashmiris alone; there just weren’t enough effective native guerrillas to bleed Indian troops. They needed Afghan and Arab volunteers, and they needed the sanctuary of guerrilla training camps in Afghan territory.31

This complicated ISI’s new relationship with the Taliban. Mullah Omar was determined to challenge Hekmatyar for supremacy among Pashtuns. If Pakistani intelligence suddenly shifted its support to Omar, it might put the covert Kashmir war at risk. Pakistani brigadiers working from Peshawar, close to Hekmatyar for years, wanted to stick with their longtime client. But ISI’s Quetta and Kandahar offices, responsible for covert policy in southern Afghanistan, became intrigued by the Taliban, according to accounts later assembled by the CIA.

Qazi’s “chap in Kandahar” urged that the ISI chief meet some of the new militia, as Qazi recalled it. He invited a Taliban delegation to ISI headquarters in Rawalpindi. Mullah Omar refused to travel, but a senior group arrived. They picked up their dirty, sandled feet and sat cross-legged on top of the sofa cushions, as if they were sitting on the floor. Some of them were limbless. Others had been fitted with artificial legs or arms. “I was horrified to see they had emerged literally from the villages,” recalled Qazi, a product of Pakistan’s British-designed higher education system. “They had very little clue about international affairs or anything like that. They had their own peculiar set of ideas. The only thing I found was that they were well intentioned.”

The Taliban delegation urged Qazi to withdraw ISI’s support from other Afghan leaders, including Hekmatyar. Young and thick-bearded, their faces marked and wizened beyond their years, they declared that all other Afghan leaders had brought destruction to the country. They wanted “to hang all of them—all of them.” They also asked ISI for logistical help. The Taliban wanted to import gasoline from Pakistan and sought an exemption from trade rules. Qazi agreed, as he recalled it.32

Bhutto said that in the months that followed this first meeting between ISI and the Taliban, the requests from Pakistani intelligence for covert aid to their new clients grew gradually. “I became slowly, slowly sucked into it,” Bhutto remembered. “It started out with a little fuel, then it became machinery” and spare parts for the Taliban’s captured airplanes and tanks. Next ISI made requests for trade concessions that would enrich both the Taliban and the outside businessmen who supplied them. “Then it became money” direct from the Pakistani treasury, Bhutto recalled.

Each time Pakistani intelligence officers asked for more covert aid during 1995, they said they needed the funds to attain leverage over the Taliban. The ISI brigadiers complained to Bhutto that the Taliban’s leaders were stubborn, that they would not follow the military and political advice Pakistan offered. By providing cash, military spare parts, and training, the Pakistani intelligence service told Bhutto, they could ensure that the Taliban stayed close to Pakistan as they began to challenge Massoud.

“I started sanctioning the money,” Bhutto recalled. “Once I gave the go-ahead that they should get money, I don’t know how much money they were ultimately given. . . . I know it was a lot. It was just carte blanche.”33

By the spring of 1995 these covert supplies were visible across southern Afghanistan. ISI sent exiled Pashtun military officers and guerrilla leaders to the Taliban’s cause. Former Afghan communist army officers loyal to Shahnawaz Tanai began to repair and operate Taliban tanks, aircraft, and helicopters. In eastern Afghanistan powerful local commanders such as Jallaladin Haqqanni declared for the Taliban. These political conversions were supported by money, weapons, pickup trucks, and supplies shipped across the Pakistan border. Volunteer fighters poured out of the border madrassas.When Herat fell to the Taliban in September, the die was cast. Omar and his Durrani militia now controlled all of southern Afghanistan. They announced their intention to march on Kabul.34

Benazir Bhutto felt that she was losing control of her new Afghan policy. She did not want Pakistani intelligence to back the Taliban in a military drive on Kabul. Bhutto argued that Pakistan should use the Taliban’s rising strength as a new lever in negotiations for a coalition Afghan government. Some in the army and ISI agreed with her, but the Taliban did not care for these Pakistani diplomatic nuances. They still meant what they said: They did not want to negotiate with other Afghan leaders, they wanted to hang them.

Bhutto began to wonder if ISI was telling her everything about its covert aid to the Taliban.When Bhutto traveled to Tehran, Iranian president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who supported Massoud, lashed out at her in a private meeting, complaining angrily about covert Pakistani aid to the Taliban. Rafsanjani alleged that Pakistan’s army sent disguised troops into Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Taken aback, Bhutto denied this, but later, when she heard that Massoud held Pakistani officers in his prisoner of war camps, she wondered about what she had not been told.35

Yet ISI’s ambition was greater than its purse. Pakistan’s army suffered from acute money problems during 1995. The army commanded the lion’s share of Pakistan’s budget, but with American aid cut over the nuclear issue, there was not much to go around. The country wallowed in debt. An arms race with India drained resources. As it had during the 1980s, ISI needed Saudi intelligence, and it needed wealthy Islamist patrons from the Persian Gulf.

EARLY IN 1995, Ahmed Badeeb, chief of staff to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the director of Saudi intelligence, descended toward Kandahar’s airport in a Gulfstream-2 corporate jet. As the plane was about to touch down, Badeeb saw a cow in the middle of the runway. His pilot pulled up suddenly, flew around, and tried again. The Taliban’s greeting party chased the cow away and crowded around Badeeb when he reached the tarmac.

“Don’t you remember us?” some of the bearded young Taliban asked. Badeeb stared at them and confessed he did not.

“We were students in your school!”36

During the anti-Soviet jihad Ahmed Badeeb had funded a vocational school for Afghan boys along the Pakistani border. The school was personal charity, funded from his Islamic zakat, or tithe.

The Taliban explained that they had since moved Badeeb’s entire school to Kandahar. One of the graduates was Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, a senior member of the founding Taliban ruling shura and a close associate of Mullah Omar. Rabbani (no relation to President Rabbani, Massoud’s ally in Kabul) expressed deep gratitude to Badeeb. He led the Saudi to a waiting car. They drove to meet Mullah Omar in central Kandahar.

Afghan colleagues carried the Taliban leader into the meeting; he was having trouble with one of his legs. But Omar stood long enough to offer Badeeb a long, warm embrace. Over tea and plates of food Omar told the story of the Taliban’s rise in Kandahar. As Badeeb recalled it, Omar told him the first weapons he received had come from Pakistan’s Interior Ministry.

The Taliban leaders asked Badeeb for guidance and support. They needed to learn from Saudi Arabia about how to run a proper Islamic government, they said. Omar asked Badeeb to send in whatever texts Saudi Arabian schools used so they could be handed out in Taliban schools. He asked for food and assistance that would allow Afghan refugees to return home. Badeeb presented Omar with a copy of the Koran as a gift, and Omar said he would follow its teachings always.

“Whatever Saudi Arabia wants me to do, I will do,” Omar told Badeeb, as Badeeb recalled it.37

Prince Turki had sent Badeeb on this mission to Kandahar. The Pakistanis were advertising the Taliban to the Saudis as an important new force on the Afghan scene. Babar referred to the Taliban as “my boys,” and he gave both Badeeb and Prince Turki the impression that he had helped create them and was now building them up steadily.38

Prince Turki flew into Islamabad and met with Mullah Rabbani, Badeeb’s former student. He wanted the Taliban to support an all-party peace proposal for Afghanistan. Turki remained personally involved in Afghan political negotiations. There was a sense among many Saudi officials when they looked at the Afghans that, but for the luck of Saudi oil, something like this might have been their fate. It bothered Turki greatly that the Americans had walked away from Afghanistan. A negotiated peace might deliver a modest success for Saudi foreign policy as well, checking rivals Iran and India, but Turki’s interest in the issue often seemed as much personal as professional.

The Taliban’s Rabbani was only in his twenties, but he seemed relatively sophisticated to Prince Turki, eager to learn about Saudi Arabia and international politics. Turki thought that Rabbani was someone the Saudi kingdom could and should help. “He told me that they are proud of having friendship with Saudi Arabia,” as Turki recalled it, “and that they considered King Fahd as their imam,” or spiritual leader.39

As the months passed, it became clear to both Turki and Badeeb that Pakistani intelligence had decided to back the Taliban at Hekmatyar’s expense. Saudi intelligence had no objection to this betrayal: Hekmatyar had angered Turki by denouncing Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War.40

As the Taliban grew in military strength, so did the breadth and depth of its leaders’ contacts with Saudi Arabia. Saudi intelligence maintained a close and direct relationship with ISI, allowing it to bypass the civilian government of Benazir Bhutto. Hamid Gul and other former ISI generals consulted with Prince Turki, traveled frequently to Saudi Arabia, and encouraged Saudi intelligence to support the Taliban. By one account Saudi intelligence paid annual cash bonuses to senior ISI officers designated by the Pakistani intelligence chief. Financial aid and discounted oil supplies from Riyadh buoyed the treasuries of Pakistan’s army and intelligence service during these lean years of American economic sanctions. The Saudi liaison strengthened ISI as a shadow government within Pakistan and helped it to resist civilian political oversight.41

ISI offered regular “situation reports” to Prince Turki and his staff as the Taliban conquered new territory. The reports outlined the Taliban’s plans and catalogued their problems and setbacks. Steadily the emphasis on peace talks faded and the emphasis on military victory rose.42

The scale of Saudi payments and subsidies to Pakistan’s army and intelligence service during the mid-1990s has never been disclosed. Judging by the practices of the previous decade, direct transfers and oil price subsidies to Pakistan’s military probably amounted in some years to at least several hundred million dollars. This bilateral support helped ISI build up its proxy jihad forces in both Kashmir and Afghanistan.43

Saudi charities and religious ministries also aided the Taliban’s rise during 1995 and 1996. Prince Turki has acknowledged providing “humanitarian” support to the Taliban during this period via Saudi charities such as the International Islamic Relief Organization. Wealthy Saudi individuals also made contributions, Turki has acknowledged: “We didn’t think we could control individuals who take their money and go and give it to them.”44 The madrassas along the Afghan border that had educated the Taliban’s leaders and now supplied them with new recruits also received funding. Many of the Pakistani clerics who ran these madrassas had been trained in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the kingdom’s religious police, tutored and supported the Taliban as they built up their own Islamic police. The Taliban’s virtue and vice ministry—which enforced punishments under Islamic law, policed female modesty, and forcibly rounded up Afghan men for prayers—quickly grew richer than other arms of Taliban government. This almost certainly was a result of direct subsidies and training from Saudi Arabia’s Islamic establishment.45

Saudi Arabia still feared Iranian influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Taliban were useful allies for the aims of Saudi statecraft, but they also promoted Islamic values in accord with Saudi theology. Although there were important differences between Saudi Islamic orthodoxy and the Taliban’s strange Deobandi rule making, there were also many similarities. There was a naïve purity about the Taliban that attracted Saudi missionaries.

For his part Prince Turki believed the Taliban would grow and evolve into a more normal, worldly, conservative Islamic political force. All revolutionary movements started out in a radical vein and gradually moderated, and so would the Taliban, Turki thought. In the meanwhile, the Taliban had much to recommend them: They were not corrupt, they brought order to Afghan cities, and they gratefully accepted Saudi and Pakistani patronage.

Saudi Arabia itself had been born seven decades earlier under the sword of a radical Islamic militia, the Ikhwan. Gradually the kingdom had grown up, stabilized, and partially modernized. More than any other previous Afghan militia or political movement, the Taliban presented themselves in the Saudi image. Surely, Prince Turki believed, they, too, would mature.46

AT THE U.S. EMBASSY in Islamabad the Taliban’s rise was evaluated as an isolated Afghan mystery. American diplomats in the Pakistani capital and in Peshawar sifted contradictory rumors and reports, unable to discern the Taliban’s supply sources. “The Taliban have been characterized as simultaneously Pakistani tools and anti-Pakistan,” the Peshawar consulate told Washington in a Confidential cable dispatched on November 3, 1994, as Mullah Omar consolidated control. The consulate said it was “very possible” that the Taliban had received aid from “a number of sources, including Pakistan,” but “their backers may find that they have created a tiger that is more than willing to take independent action and not be anyone’s tool.” The consulate reported ISI contacts with the Taliban but conceded that the movement’s “origins, goals and sponsors . . . remain unclear.” A second November 1994 cable from Peshawar to Washington, sardonically quoting the lyrics of the rock band the Who, asked about the Taliban: “Meet the New Boss. . . . Same as the Old Boss?” The movement’s military equipment, some of it freshly unpacked from crates, seemed “too much of a coincidence,” the Peshawar consulate initially reported, and probably suggested covert Pakistani involvement of the type that had previously strengthened Hekmatyar. Abdul Haq warned an American diplomat that same month, “It looks like Afghanistan was first destroyed by the communists, then by the fundamentalists, and now we might be destroyed by the mullahs.” But the State Department was not ready to leap to such conclusions. Its cables that autumn and winter of the Taliban’s rise described the militia as “an enigma” that was “certainly not acting to the exclusive benefit of any of the established vested interests,” and enjoyed widespread popular support. As the Taliban swept west from Kandahar in sophisticated military formations, the U.S. embassy reported that their “use of tanks and helicopters strongly suggested Pakistani tutelage or direct control.” Still, the extent and character of any Pakistani involvement remained “very much in doubt.” Two American diplomats traveled to Kandahar on February 13, 1995, to meet with the Taliban mayor. The session began with a prayer calling for the conversion by unbelievers to Islam. The mayor refused to answer questions from the Americans about the Taliban’s leadership or organization. The movement’s leaders “appeared coached and the overall impression was one of disingenuity and a degree of deception,” the American officials cabled afterward to Washington. It was the beginning of a long string of such lies and evasions—but the U.S. government had few resources in the region to dig beneath the surface. The CIA station and the Pentagon’s defense attachés had other priorities. Afghanistan’s civil war was no longer an important subject for intelligence collection.47

Benazir Bhutto, who was secretly authorizing the Taliban’s covert aid, did not let the Americans know. She visited Washington in the spring of 1995, met with President Clinton, and promoted the Taliban as a pro-Pakistan force that could help stabilize Afghanistan. During her discussions with Clinton, “Afghanistan was not very high up in either person’s agenda,” Bhutto recalled. The country was “a dying issue.” But she found a receptive audience among midlevel officials for her message about the Taliban’s potential to bring peace. During her visit and for many months afterward Bhutto and her aides repeatedly lied to American government officials and members of Congress about the extent of Pakistani military and financial aid to the Taliban. At a meeting with then acting Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in Washington, Bhutto’s foreign minister and ISI chief both “categorically denied that Pakistan provided military assistance to the Taliban,” as a contemporaneous State Department cable put it. Talbott warned in reply that Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan were likely to produce “unintended consequences,” because ultimately, groups like the Taliban “could not be controlled.” Later Bhutto herself brazenly lied to Senator Hank Brown and Congressman Charlie Wilson over lunch in Islamabad, telling them that Pakistan’s government “backed the U.N., not the Taliban, in Afghanistan.” Bhutto had decided that it was more important to appease the Pakistani army and intelligence services than to level with her American friends.48

The relatively small number of American officials at the White House, the CIA, and the State Department who followed Afghanistan tended to accept the Taliban’s own narrative: They were a cleansing, transitional force that would unite Pashtuns and create a new basis for peace. Regional specialists at State—influenced by such Westernized Taliban supporters as Hamid Karzai—welcomed the rise of a militia that might finally pull divided Pashtuns together. At the National Security Council the Taliban were seen in the early stages “as a force that could bring order to chaos,” as one senior official there recalled it. At the CIA, analysts also concluded that the Taliban could stabilize Afghanistan. The Taliban might reduce factional bloodshed, curtail heroin trafficking, and create conditions for realistic peace talks, they believed. The speed at which the Taliban began to rack up military victories left some CIA analysts shaking their heads in amazement. But the Taliban seemed an idiosyncratic Afghan group with no larger significance. The dominant response to the Taliban by the American government was indifference. When Senator Brown, a Democrat from Colorado, tried to organize a new policy initiative, he hit a “wall of silence” at the State Department. “It wasn’t that they favored the Taliban,” he recalled. “It was simply that they didn’t want to get engaged.”49

Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel, the Clinton administration’s most active Afghan policy maker, accepted many of Benazir Bhutto’s claims and arguments about Afghanistan, and supported Bhutto’s drive to open new trade routes between Pakistan and Central Asia. She defended Bhutto in public against charges that Pakistan was the secret force behind the Taliban’s rise. She also wanted to lift U.S. economic sanctions against Pakistan. She thought the sanctions drove America and Pakistan apart without having any impact on Islamabad’s nuclear ambitions. She and Clinton ultimately won new American aid for Bhutto’s government. They hoped it would strengthen the prime minister’s hand in her struggles with the army and ISI. Since the Clinton administration was heavily invested in Bhutto and since she personally advocated U.S. support for the Taliban, hardly anyone in Washington was inclined to raise doubts as the militia swept north toward the outskirts of Kabul.

By then American policy in Central Asia had found another impetus: oil and gas.

As Benazir Bhutto had done, executives at America’s largest energy companies began late in 1995 to imagine the future by studying historical maps. Across Afghanistan travelers along the Silk Road had created fortunes for centuries by moving spice, jewels, and textiles to new markets. The profitable game now—created by the Soviet Union’s collapse—was oil and natural gas. The key trade routes were the same as they had been for centuries. Many led through Afghanistan.

Robin Raphel and others at the State Department and the White House believed that for American oil companies, too, the Taliban could be an important part of a new Afghan solution.

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