- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

Like a devastating wreck on the highway, the Taliban are not pleasant to observe, yet it is difficult to avert one's gaze. Indeed, the so-called civilized world feels much more civilized in the face of new modern lows of barbaric behavior set by the amalgam of mid-level mullahs, misogynist religious students (taliban), opportunistic ex-communists, clandestine Pakistani soldiers, and mujahedin defectors from rival Islamist tribes, that now rules Afghanistan.
The presumed role of the Taliban in harboring and otherwise abetting Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the tragedies of Sept. 11, lend a fresh sense of revulsion and fascination to their tale.
Pardon Michael Griffin, then, if he describes his account of the unlikely rise of the Taliban as a "narrative thriller." That rise, after all, has been marked by grisly public amputations and executions, including the hanging of former President Mohammad Najibullah; by the denial of basic education, jobs, and public presence to Afghan women; by the iconoclastic destruction of the treasured Buddha sculptures of Bamiyan; and, by the public trial of eight foreign workers of the aid agency Shelter Now, who are accused of preaching Christianity to Muslims.
The gaper's block apparently extends beyond the media to the regional and global powers vying for influence over the Taliban's role in the outcome of the energy wars being fought throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia. The prize is control over the pipelines that will run from the world's largest oil reserves in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In addition to solving Pakistan's energy problems and enriching the coffers of the United States and Saudi Arabia, the proposed trans-Afghanistan route could shift the region's center of gravity well out of its Russian orbit while isolating Iran's developed systems of pipelines and ports.
Controlling the Taliban proved agonizingly difficult to all parties concerned, however, including the movement's foremost patron, Pakistan. Keenly aware of the Afghans' repudiation of any foreign interference in the affairs of their deeply tribalized but nonetheless nationalistic country, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the authoritarian and reclusive Taliban leader, publicly denied and privately attempted to camouflage the Pakistan connection.
Meanwhile, repeated denunciations of the regime's egregious violations of human rights, not least by then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, undermined the prospect of oil-sensitive cordial relations with the West.
A similar dynamic unfolded with regard to Afghanistan's other multi-billion dollar "natural resource" opium. When they captured Helmand and the poppy fields beyond in 1995, the Taliban inherited 2,200 tons of heroin with a final street value of $37 billion. Taking casuistry to new heights, the Taliban produced a catechism outlawing the consumption of opium but permitting its production and trade.
Afghanistan's rural economy, shattered by the Soviet war and the civil war that followed, depended for its survival on sales of the crop. Moreover, the mullahs reasoned, "the opium goes to our neighbors, who are our enemies, and to the infidels, who sent the guns here." Pressed by the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) and the United States' Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to decrease opium cultivation and thereby diminish the supply of heroin flowing into world markets, the Taliban invoked the "R-word" "recognition" as in recognition of the "legitimate" Taliban government by the United Nations, accompanied by the establishment of official diplomatic relations with the United States. Diplomatic paralysis ensued.
"Reaping the Whirlwind," cast in an odd genre, is part journalism, part collation of journalism. Mr. Griffin, a freelance journalist who worked briefly for UNICEF in Afghanistan, admits that two short visits to Afghanistan do not qualify him to provide anything more than a narrative, stitched together from hundreds of local and international news reports, of the events that unfolded from October, 1994, when the Taliban emerged in Kandahar (in southern Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan), through their defiance of the United States over the proposed extradition of bin Laden, to the 1999 military coup in Pakistan.
The resulting story is not quite the "thriller" Mr. Griffin intended; arresting passages, including those which probe the religious dynamics within the movement, relate its origins, and sketch the geopolitical drama, are scattered among the author's dutiful accounts of the labyrinthine and constantly shifting political, tribal, and religious alliances which determined Afghanistan's tragic fate. Consultation of relevant secondary sources would have enriched Mr. Griffin's narrative, adding depth to his treatment of subjects such as the Taliban's formation in the rigorous Deoband school of Sunni thought.
No matter. Some authors are lucky as well as good, and Mr. Griffin's book appears at a moment when the world is hungry for information about the Taliban and their notorious house-guest. In this regard the book delivers, tracing the development of what Mr. Griffin calls a "nest of vipers" the cadres of mujahedin warriors, young men recruited by bin Laden and others from Islamist networks in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Muslim world, who now constitute "a fully-fledged international conspiracy to destroy U. S. installations and take American lives."
After their victory over the Soviet Union, many of the mujahedin dispersed, armed with tons of U.S.-supplied weaponry, and regrouped in their countries of origin or in Kashmir, Tajikistan, China's Xinjiang Province and other local flashpoints in the battle for Islamist (Muslim fundamentalist) supremacy over secular regimes and, in many settings, over moderate Muslims.
Mr. Griffin traces bin Laden's life and career, detailing the Saudi millionaire's collaboration with the Jamaat-i-Islami (the Pakistani branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Egypt's radical Islamic groups; his supervision and transformation of al-Qaida ("the base"), a terrorist network originally located in Peshawar and financed by a nephew of King Faisal; his flight to Sudan and, later, to Afghanistan; and, his building up of a network of Saudi exiles in Iran and Syria.
Bin Laden was instrumental, Mr. Griffin explains, in empowering these cadres to think globally and to target the United States. Triggers for the expansion and further internationalization of the movement included the stationing of U. S. "Christian" troops in Saudi Arabi during the 1991 Gulf War, and the morale-raising bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.
Several passages in "Reaping the Whirlwind" written, of course, long before the events of a week ago Tuesday are eerily and disturbingly prescient. "Having manipulated Islam's convoluted, but impotent, quarrels for decades, Washington awoke to the knowledge that in the two years since the Soviet empire fell, it had replaced Moscow as the only western power occupying the lands of the Umma, or Muslim community, and, therefore, the most politically convenient target of international jihad," Mr. Griffin writes, describing the impact of the initial WTC bombing. "Even more surprising, perhaps, its global civil and military infrastructure were defenseless in the face of dedicated and well-planned sabotage."
Based as it is on journalistic accounts, not a few of which traded in rumor as well as hard evidence about the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, the narrative of the evolution of the Islamist terror network, while indeed gripping, is certainly not the last word on the subject. Nonetheless, Mr. Griffin succeeds in de-mythologizing the mysterious Taliban. The most riveting parts of the book reveal how this previously obscure group of zealous young religious scholars did it how, that is, they parlayed initially meager resources, impeccable timing, canny alliances, martial courage, and access to a sea of high-tech weapons into a dominant coalition of forces that eventually vanquished the mujahedin.
Mr. Griffin shrewdly observes that the Taliban succeeded only after their enemies had failed at the great game of indigenous Islamic resistance to foreign interlopers. The mujahedin, grouped in seven separate militias of Islamist rebels, ousted the Soviets and proceeded to fight one another for the spoils. In the process they proved themselves to be mercenaries rather than men of God, violators rather than upholders of the Shari'a, the Islamic law.
The Afghan populace, composed largely of devout, rural Muslims who were scandalized by mujahedin corruption and rape of young women, readily accepted the Taliban's imposition of the harshest elements of both Pashtun tribal code and Shari'a, in exchange for economic and moral stability. Today, however, the Taliban has been reduced to staging show trials to demonstrate that they have not been compromised by their transformation from resistance army to ruling power.
Through its detailed reportage and unflagging sense of the big picture including the key role of failed states such as Afghanistan in the rise of international terrorism "Reaping the Whirlwind" provides a useful primer for historians, policy makers and the informed reader. Mr. Griffin catches the story as it enters a new phase, the unfolding of which should prove enthralling and deeply troubling to the multiple players with a stake in its outcome.

R. Scott Appleby is professor of history and the John M. Regan, Jr. Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


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