In his chapter entitled “The Flow of Blood from Mazar-i Shairf to Jabal Siraj, Nairobi and Dar Assalam”, the author claims the Taliban movement repeated the mistakes of other jihad (holy struggle) movements by relying on the power of the gun instead of the mind, resulting in their defeat.
Writen from Qandahar , the main base of the Taliban leadership, the chapter tells how the good will and great expectations of Mullah Omer failed to materialize on the ground. Taliban members lived in a puritanical and restricted atmosphere which they enforced on the rest of the country when they seized power. Theirs was a worldview narrower than the reality of Afghanistan .
The chapter mentions the arrival of “jihad tourists” from Saudi Arabia , Yemen , and Egypt , attracted by the fiery language of Osama bin Laden, who was increasingly coming under the spotlight of the international media because of his fatwas (religious edicts) against the United States of America . Other organizations such as the banned Islamic Jihad came to Afghanistan fleeing persecution. Several thousands of volunteers from Pakistan joined forces with bin Laden but the cooperation was not fruitful due to administrative, logistic, and even cultural reasons.
Described by a London- based Islamist as a “prominent Afghan Arab and a resident of Qandahar”, the author discussed the massacre of Taliban forces in Mazar-i Sharif before losing control of most of the country, with a special mention of the death of its young leaders and its prominent speaker
Mawlawi Ehasanullah. While the movement regained the city, it never recovered from the loss of one its most influential figures.
When Taliban forces moved to Northern Afghanistan , the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud perceived the threat as a Pashtun invasion, given that all its members hail from this ethnic group. The issue was blown out of proportion to the extent that a significant number of Taliban youths behaved as if they were engaged in a war against “Fursuwan” or the Farsi-speaking Afghans in the North.
Taliban leaders, we are told, failed to formulate an effective policy to on how to govern the central and northern parts of Afghanistan and lacked political administrative elements.
Problems arose when radical Taliban guards who co-founded the movement and played an important part in seizing Kabul dominated the administration. Controlling many sensitive posts in the new Taliban government, they influenced major decisions because of their position in the Shura Council (consultative council), thereby marginalizing differing points of view.
To assert their control of the movement, many radical elements only appointed members of their tribes and extended families. This proved catastrophic as these tribal groups sustained most of the causalities in it battle, from the growth of the Taliban until its collapse under attack from the Northern Alliance and US military troops. Many Taliban soldiers died in combat, others were massacres. The chapter estimates the total number of deaths to be in the region of fifty thousand.
One of the reasons the Taliban sustained such high casualties is that its members were excited and overconfident about facing their enemy. This reflects the fighting traditions and tribal spirit of the tribes most Taliban fighters hail from, around Qandahar and Helmand , Jowzjan, and Zabul. These tribes are related by blood and geography; it is where Taliban radicals and Mullah Omer, its leader, were born and raised.
Lacking defense strategies, Taliban fighters were renowned for their sudden sweeping attacks, except in a few instances where defending was masterminded by junior leaders from the Pashtun tribes referred to earlier. This lack of strategic thinking on behalf of military commanders and the fighting spirits of its soldiers were behind the massive loss of life suffered by the Taliban. Casualties could have been reduced if leaders had opted to widen the base of support to other areas and tribes. Perhaps, the chapter informs us, this might have saved the Taliban in 2001.
When the Taliban leadership sought to occupy northern Afghanistan and unify the country under a centralized government following Sharia (Islam law) rule, it faced two options: It could invade the Shiaa-dominated Bamiyan province, populated by the Hazara ethnic group, who were hostile to the Taliban. This was a long and arduous route that stopped at the Salang Pass , on of the world’s most inaccessible passes. The second option would be to invade Heart and move troops towards Mazar-i Shairf, then stronghold of the Communist leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, on an unpaved road, close to the border.
Dostum and his men represented a major obstacle to the Taliban’s attempts of occupying Mazar-i Sharif and moving towards Kunduz and Talqan, where Ahmad Shah Massoud was located. When a dispute erupted between Dostum and his Lieutenant General Malik Pahlawan, the latter contacted Taliban commanders and expressed his readiness to assist them in capturing the city. The leadership split between two camps: those who believed the General was not to be trusted, led by Mullah Omer, and those who saw matters pragmatically and wanted to enter into an agreement, led by then Foreign Minister Mullah Mohammad Ghous. Eventually, the second camp prevailed.
The city welcomed its invaders in the autumn of 1997. Taliban fighters flocked to Mazar-i Sharif from all directions. Military transport aircrafts and trucks were used to transport thousands of men to the city which soon became crowded with Taliban celebrating this quick victory and daring to believe the war was nearing its end and a united, peaceful Afghanistan under Sharia law a real possibility.
The author recalls how Gen. Malik who apparently believed he had struck a deal to share power with the Taliban and ousted Dostum in a coup When the Taliban reneged on the agreement and began disarming local forces, resistance broke out first in Hazara neighbourhoods, and the Taliban found themselves trapped in a city that had turned murderous on them.
Taliban troops were fired on from every corner of the city; they were trapped and had no realistic chance of escaping. Those who surrendered were killed immediately and those who continued to fight were also murdered when they ran out of ammunition or were injured. The author tells of at least 10,000 Taliban dead, their bodies mutilated and dumped in the streets. A new fighting strategy emerged in Mazar-i Sharif. Whilst taking prisoners and exchanging them had previously been the norm, after events in the city, sides no longer took prisoners. He blamed sinister foreign forces were involved in enflaming sectarian and ethnic tensions to serve their interests.
The picture emerging from the northern city was indeed bleak. Thousands of defaced bodies littered the streets. No one knew who the killers were. No one admitted their crimes unless they could guarantee escaping from retaliation. It was rumored that women in Mazar-i Sharif were raped. Rape, we learn, is a crime Afghans abhor even more than murder. This further shook the retreating Taliban forces and increased their bitterness and resentment. The Taliban promised to retaliate and succeeded in re-occupying the city a year later. Once again, many were killed and bodies dumped on Mazr –i Sharif’s roads and the River Jijoon.
In the summer of 1998, the Taliban returned. Neighborly relations and the traditions of Afghan hospitality fell victim to the conqueror’s desire for retaliation. The Iranian consulate in Mazar-i Sharif was overrun and twelve diplomats assassinated. According to witness reports, the representatives were held for sometime during which Taliban fighters telephoned Pakistan and received orders from Islamabad to kill their captives.
It is worth mentioning that hundreds of Pakistani volunteers had been murdered in the first assault on Mazar-i Sharif. A number of survivors later led the assault on the consulate. The majority hailed from religious schools, others worked for the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence which worried some Taliban officials.
One of the greatest losses the Taliban suffered was the death of Mawalawi Ihsan Allah, who withdrew his forces to the neighboring Baghlan province. His convoy was ambushed and he was killed. The only survivor, his brother, Abdul Ghani, recounted the story, squashing rumors that some Shiaa had assassinated Ihsan Allah on the site of their late leader, Abdul Ali Mazari’s grave. The Shiaa party, Hizb-i Wahdat had accused Taliban members of killing its leader after arresting him near the capital in 1995, but eyewitnesses contradict this scenario.
Mawlawi Ihsan Allah was renowned for his intelligence. His death was a great loss to the Taliban. Without His contribution, the movement would resemble other Arab Islamic groups, notoriously belligerent, except for one notable exception. According to the author, the Taliban were the product of their environment and could count on the support of the tribes of the area. The group adopted the prevalent school of jurisprudence but committed a fatal error by allowing foreign figures to formulate rules and religious decrees.
The Taliban commander was a first class orator. He led the earlier military campaign that started in Qandahar and included several regions and ending in Bakhtia province. He helped solve many problems with his influential and inspiring speeches. Mawlawi Ihsan Allah advised common folk to settle their disputes and return other people’s belongings to them because problems referred to him would be settled according to Sharia law; those who stole would have their hands cut off and murderers would be killed.
The policies had an unprecedented impact on Afghan society. Arguments were quickly solved and order restored. The Taliban were even able to keep law and order with a small number of security forces. For example, only 15 soldiers were needed to patrol the town of Khost , under the Taliban, compared to 15,000 men previously.
Afghan Arabs who had established military training camps around Khost first met senior Taliban officials in the spring of 1995, after tribes in the Pakhtia Province asked Mawlawi Ehsanullah to govern the region. Afghan Arabs sympathized with the then emerging Taliban movement and were following its exploits in battle. They had repeatedly offered their assistance but Afghan leaders were suspicious of their intentions. They even suggested they train Taliban Special Forces, similar to the training offered to Tajik mujahedeen (fighters) in the al Farouq camp near Khost but the Taliban refused. Their military capabilities, at the time, were still inferior to those of their rivals.
Mawlawi Ehsanullah met bin Laden in his winter residence in the village of Arab Khail , close to Jalalabad; both shared a common understanding of international politics. The author describes the last few years of the commander he so admired. Ehsanullah lived in a small room attached to a government building. He was assigned a nominal position as governor of the Central Bank, which at the time was shut after the gold assets were seized by the former Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud who hid them in a series of caves in the Panshir Valley . Bin Laden visited on several occasions, his guards standing outside because the room could not hold more than four individuals at once, sitting on a floor covered with old rugs. He spoke in Arabic and recalled the role of the Hijra (the emigration of Prophet Mohammed and his followers to Medina in 622) and said Afghan Arab fighters were chosen by God for jihad. His regaled his audience with stories of the early days of the Islamic Caliphate as if he had lived in that time. Visitors listened attentively and wept with delight.