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Who are the Taleban? - 2001-09-26

Until September 11, most Americans knew very little about the Taleban rulers of Afghanistan. But even among experts, there can be strong disagreement over what kind of leaders they are.

Peter Tomsen was U.S. Special Envoy to the Afghan Resistance to the Soviet Occupation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He likens the Taleban to modern history's worst political criminals such as the Nazi leader Adolph Hitler and the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. "We have to look at the Taleban, much as the President said the other night in his speech, as a totalitarian movement much like the Nazis or the Soviet communists where everything is viewed in black and white and where news outlets are strictly controlled to put out a certain message," he said. "It doesn't matter [to the Taleban] what is right or wrong, true or false, as long as it creates the impression that is wished [for]. That's the objective."

Syndicated journalist and south Asia expert Eric Margolis, the author of War At the Top of the World, resists the characterization of the Taleban in such terms. "This to me smacks of pre-war misinformation," he said. "It is obviously aimed at galvanizing Western support with special buzzwords like 'Nazis' and 'concentration camps' that the U.S. media would be sure to pick up and directing it against the Taleban. And this is a wild exaggeration. The Taleban are not Nazis. They are a backwards, primitive, narrow-minded mountain people who are not really that very much different from any other tribesmen in the rest of Afghanistan, in the north of Pakistan, in rural India or in Iran or, for that matter, in Saudi Arabia, where the Taleban would feel quite at home.

"So many Afghans supported the Taleban because they imposed order, however draconian it was, after years of chaos and rape and pillage after this seven-way civil war that had been raging between the Mujahadeen factions [resistance fighters] after the U.S. and the Western powers walked away from Afghanistan."

Mr. Tomsen counters that, while the present historical moment differs greatly from the Nazi and Stalinist eras, the Taleban leaders often use methods of control similar to those times. "If you are an Afghani who has lived for the past four or five years under Taleban rule, I think the totalitarian aspect of this would have come shining through," he says. "That is, the umbrella of rules and regulations backed up by military force not only against women but [also] against the population in general. There have been clips on television taken surreptitiously in the stadium of women being executed by the Taleban and men hanging from the goalposts. And of course you had the destruction of the Buddhas this treasure of Afghanistan."

Former Ambassador Tomsen was asked what the policy of the West should be toward a post-Taleban Afghanistan. "The objective should be Afghans themselves moving back to the cohesion [and] consensus they had in the 1960s when they had two parliamentary elections [and] the democracy in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasions [and] an attempt to agree on a coalition that will replace the Taleban in Afghanistan," he says. "And we don't [wish to] face a situation we faced in 1992 when the communist regime fell and the different factions in Afghanistan started to fight each other.

"If there is peace and stability in the country after the Taleban leave, then the international community could begin assistance to Afghanistan massive reconstruction aid -and the Afghans themselves could move toward self-determination."

Eric Margolis doubts that outcome could actually be achieved given Afghanistan's modern history. "The ethnic and social structure in Afghanistan was so destroyed by the Soviets. They had a policy of ethnic turbulence that the KGB ran, designed to turn tribes and clans against each other, [so] that the Afghans are having a very hard time to come to any kind of consensus and I don't see one developing any time soon," he says.