- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

In need of easy enemies, Afghanistan's Taleban leaders targeted two colossal Buddhist statues.

Cut from a sandstone cliff overlooking the Afghan town of Bamiyan, the 1,300-year-old colossi couldn't flee the Taleban's field artillery and in-tense Sunni Muslim religious fervor. Despite appeals from the United Nations, from an embarrassed ally, Pakistan, and from Gulf Arab (and Sunni Muslim) states who have generously supplied the Taleban with economic aid, it was bye-bye time for the big Buddhas. According to Taleban propagandists, the statues were idols dangerous pagan remnants and their existence was an affront to God. God is great. Ready, aim, fire.

Well, God is great. The Taleban leadership, however, is increasingly desperate.

The Taleban began as a reformist movement, a group of men with the mission of:

(1) Winning and concluding the Afghan War Russia began in 1979.

(2) Ending political and economic corruption.

(3) Establishing a just Islamic society.

For the moment, skip defining troublesome terms like "winning," "corruption," "just" and even "Islamic." To the brutalized and impoverished people of Afghanistan, the Taleban offered hope. The Taleban's moral armor of incorruptible commitment was far preferable to the usual politics of Central Asian warlords. The warlords were always kowtowing to murderous outsiders Russians, Brits, Americans, Iranians. The warlords were only in it for personal gain look how they battled over opium poppy production. The Taleban fighters, however, submitted themselves to God's omnipotent direction.

The Taleban fighters, even as they launched their first successful offensives, were viewed by most non-Afghanis (including many Muslims) as dangerous fanatics. Inside Afghanistan, they were populist saviors creating a better future.

Of course, when violence is rampant, when a taste for power has been whetted, moral armor tends to corrode. When history doesn't go like it is supposed to go, when victory is elusive, when drought rages, when enemies prove to be resilient, doubts intrude, grumbling starts, defections begin.

"True believers" usually greet doubt and defections with heavier doses of fanaticism. Their explanation for failure: The religion isn't working because we haven't practiced it perfectly.

The Taleban's brutal treatment of women has been bitterly attacked by human-rights groups throughout the world. The Taleban leaders reply that they are only following religious law practicing the religion more perfectly.

But women are another easy enemy. Implementing a cruel version of holy law has brought the Taleban at least short-term political benefits. A harsh interpretation of Islamic law gives the Taleban an ideological tool for exerting direct control over an unruly and divided population.

Easy enemies also provide useful excuses for failure. If we're not winning on the battlefield, it's because the women are wearing lipstick. Two years ago, Taleban fighters were reportedly smashing television sets and videotape players. If we haven't defeated our opponents, it's because the people are watching too much TV.

The truth is, the city of Bamiyan has been an affront to the Taleban. In the last three years, the Bamiyan region has changed hands numerous times. This February, the Taleban fought several battles around Bamiyan with its most potent internal opponent, the Northern Alliance. Bamiyan is also a Shi'ite Muslim area. Shi'ites, in the Taleban view, are at best suspect Muslims. The Shi'ites of Bamiyan have committed one certain heresy they have accepted support from Iran. Iran, as far as the Taleban are concerned, is a Great Satan. The Buddhas in Bamiyan were at one time a tourist attraction. Bamiyan now pays a terrible, permanent economic price for resisting Taleban domination.

Though the Taleban has controlled some 90 percent of Afghanistan for several years, the Northern Alliance hangs tough. Anti-Taleban resistance from non-Sunnis and non-Pushtuns remains strong. Given Afghanistan's geography, when popular support ebbs, every mountain valley becomes a battlefield.

As they confront increasing internal opposition, the Taleban zealots have managed to pull off something rather extraordinary, in geo-strategic terms. They have provided Iran, Russia, China, India and the United States with a common enemy. Iran plies the Shi'ite connection. India supports the Northern Alliance,because Pakistan supports the Taleban. China says the Taleban supports Muslim rebels in western China. Russia resents Taleban-trained terrorists who stir trouble in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The Russians also see direct links from the Taleban and Osama bin Laden to Chechen rebels. For the United States, harboring terrorist kingpin bin Laden puts the Taleban in the crosshairs.

The Taleban leaders can blast stone Buddhas. Confronting their own failures and the wrath of the globe's most powerful nations is a much more difficult battle.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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