History Repeating Itself

by: J.M Butt

I often have occasion to recall the words of Ismail, from the Said Karam district of Paktia. Talking to me outside Kabul’s Pul-e-Khishti mosque in 2007, he recalled how the mujahideen had been divided into seven parties in Peshawar in the 1980s.

“They destroyed us by splitting us up into seven parties,” he implored. “Why didn’t they make us into one party?”

The cost of the division into seven parties was plain for all to see when the mujahideen took over from the government of Dr.Najibullah in 1992. The seven parties fought amongst themselves for control of various parts of the country and cities. Rockets rained on Kabul, as groups situated outside the city tried to dislodge those within the city precincts. Check-posts – some affiliated with one group, some with another – contaminated the countryside. At some of them, money was exhorted from the population, at others there was terrorization of those associated with other groups. I remember visiting the Norgal district of Kunhar during this time. “There are 150 check-posts in this district alone,” one well-wisher informed me. “If you wish to keep possession of your vehicle, best not to venture into Norgal.” This was not only the case with one district, or one province. It was true of districts throughout Afghanistan.

It was only the advent of the Taliban in 1994 that put an end to the warring and ravages of these seven parties, at least in the areas under Taliban control. I was in a room with the Taliban district administrator – oliswal – in the Paktia district of Dand-Patan when the Taliban took control of the district in 1996. He was taking allegiance from all the groups who had held sway in the district prior to the arrival of the Taliban. The representative of one group showed me the letter they had written, signaling their merger into the Taliban movement. “But the letter is written on your party’s letterhead,” I queried. He made as if to erase the mention of his party from the letter-head. “That name is irrelevant,” he assured me. “We are only Taliban now.”

Whatever else one might think about the Taliban, they did bring unity and order to the parts of the country under their control. Instead of a host of parties and groups, the writ of one Taliban authority held sway. This changed in 2001, with the fall of the Taliban government. The remnants of the Taliban followed their mujahideen predecessors into exile. Like the mujahideen before them, there then followed a process of fragmentation of the Taliban.

In the last few weeks, I was talking to a resident of Moosai district of Logar. He runs a business in Kabul. “I cannot go to my own village,” he told me. “I am challenged there by the Taliban as to why I live and work in Kabul. Anyone who works in Kabul is viewed with suspicion, as if they must be either a government servant or working with the international forces.” “Who are these Taliban who make life difficult for you in Moosai?” I probed. “Are they real Taliban?” “Not one of them are real Taliban,” he clarified. He then went on to mention three different groups, calling themselves Taliban but in fact not real Taliban, in other words not people from a madrassah background affiliated with the original Taliban who used to rule in Afghanistan. “Then there is a group of pure thieves,” he added. “Even they call themselves Taliban.”

The same is the case in every eastern province. There are not just three or four groups of so-called Taliban. The number of neo-Taliban groups has at least mirrored – if not exceeded – the seven mujahideen groups formed in the 1980s.

When one looks at the situation of President Karzai’s government, it is also not much different to that of the erstwhile government of Dr.Najibullah in the late 1980s and early 1990s. President Najibullah’s government had also been supported by foreign forces, who were about to withdraw. In the case of Dr.Najibullah, there were predictions that his government would not last more than a few months after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. In fact, his government lasted for the greater part of three years. Only the defection of General Dostum in the north led to a chain reaction, which led to the ouster of Dr.Najibullah. Who knows what the fate of President Karzai’s government will be, once the NATO forces supporting him retire from a combat role? The predictions are no more hopeful than they were for the government of Dr.Najibullah.

If the unthinkable were to happen, and a similar chain of events were to be set in motion as took place in the early Nineties, then there are now multiple groups of Taliban waiting in the wings, to fight it out among themselves as the multiple groups of mujahideen did in the early Nineties. Now the situation is more dangerous than it was in the early Nineties. The Taliban groups are more shadowy than their mujahideen predecessors. The chaos would be immeasurably greater than the chaos that held sway in the interregnum between the fall of Dr.Najibullah in 1992 and the coming to power of the Taliban in 1994.

So history would appear to be repeating itself in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen if anyone will reverse the downward spiral of events, and buck the trend of history repeating itself by actually learning from history.

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