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A pariah made in the West

The international community's relationship with Afghanistan's Taliban regime shows that when a state is treated like a pariah, it will act like a pariah.

Jon Holbrook

Topics Politics

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After the Saudis drove Osama bin Laden out of Saudi Arabia in 1991 and the Sudanese expelled him in 1996, Afghanistan’s Taliban regime offered him refuge. From there, bin Laden built up his al-Qaeda network and turned himself into the world’s most notorious terrorist. But why did the Taliban invite him to be a guest – and why has it continued to hide him in the face of the Western coalition’s bombing campaign?

Many commentators answer these questions by pointing to the Taliban’s and bin Laden’s shared fundamentalist beliefs; others point to the loyalty that was forged in the 1980s as bin Laden fought with the Mujahidein against the Soviets; while some see the Taliban’s protection of bin Laden as just another example of its irrational character.

But few commentators consider the role of the international community in shaping the Taliban’s attitude towards bin Laden. Over the past five years, the Taliban has been isolated, subjected to international sanctions and deprived of international assistance – effectively treated as a pariah state. And often, when a state is treated like a pariah it acts like a pariah.

International recognition should have been conferred on the Taliban shortly after September 1996 when it took control of the capital Kabul. By the summer of 1998 almost 90 percent of Afghanistan was under Taliban control, with oppositional forces confined to the north. Over the past two years, some reports have put the Taliban’s control at 95 percent of the country – and there was even talk of one more Taliban offensive being sufficient to end the civil war that has blighted Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979.

International recognition does not imply support for a regime, but is merely an acknowledgement that the regime is effectively in control of a state. After taking Kabul, the Taliban was effectively in control of Afghanistan – yet only three states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, recognised it as the official government.

Even more absurdly, the international community continues to recognise the Northern Alliance as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, even allowing it to occupy Afghanistan’s seat at the United Nations. From the outset, the Taliban was isolated – and the seeds for pushing it towards befriending bin Laden were sown.

The international community’s refusal to recognise the Taliban was a symptom of a more fundamental issue. The Taliban regime not only lacked friends on the international stage – it had enemies who wanted to undermine it. For some time, the UK government has supported the return of the 86-year-old ex-King Shah to Afghanistan – and UK foreign secretary Jack Straw recently acknowledged that Britain’s desire to remove the Taliban government predated 11 September:

‘Well before 11 September we, at the United Nations’ request, had hosted an international conference to consider the measures that we should all put in place to support stable government in that country.’ (1)

To further its aim of undermining the Taliban, the international community imposed sanctions – enforced by the UN in October 1999 and then strengthened in December 2000.

The sanctions further isolated and tightened the screws on the Taliban. As the 1999 UN resolution spelled out, it was only flights to or from Afghanistan that were ‘owned, leased or operated by or on behalf of the Taliban’ that were outlawed; and it was only funds and other financial resources ‘derived or generated from property owned or controlled directly or indirectly by the Taliban’ that were frozen (2). When the sanctions were tightened in 2000, they prohibited the supply, sale or transfer of military equipment and know-how only to ‘the territory of Afghanistan under Taliban control’ (3).

Sanctions, by their definition, bite on government actions. They cannot outlaw the actions of non-government actors, and they cannot be effective against the actions of black marketeers. A report into the effect of sanctions on Iraq noted that for every legitimate load that entered Iraq 200 sanction-breaking trucks drove across the Turkish border.

But it is not just that sanctions are ineffective – they also serve to create a network of black market traders who operate with the approval of government officials. And bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has been one such network in Afghanistan.

According to a recent report, the largest source of revenue for warring groups in Afghanistan was customs duties from the smuggling trade with Afghanistan’s many neighbours, which all use Afghanistan as a land bridge. And because unofficial cross-border trade has a strong centrifugal influence, Afghanistan’s economy has developed at the periphery with transport and trading links radiating outwards to neighbouring countries rather than inwards towards Kabul. As the central authority of the state has weakened, so Kabul has become an economic and political backwater.

It would be wrong to say that sanctions alone created Afghanistan’s unofficial economy. Years of internal conflict have fragmented the power of the state and vested it in competing warlords. But the imposition of sanctions at a time when Afghanistan was coming under the control of a single political force speeded up the process just when it could have been reversed.

Furthermore, sanctions caused the Taliban to rely even more on bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network to smuggle goods and narcotics and to secure revenue.

The Taliban, unlike al-Qaeda, has never been anti-Western. Indeed, it actively sought Western support and recognition after coming to power. Anticipating American retaliation for the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, the Taliban’s foreign affairs spokesman said that Afghanistan had ‘no difficulty’ with the USA. ‘We don’t like the logic of intimidation and force’, he said of the attack on USS Cole. ‘This is not rationalism.’ (4)

The Taliban also showed its willingness to cooperate with Western priorities in its attitude towards opium growing. In July 2000, the Taliban banned the cultivation of opium poppy and by November 2000 the UN was aware that the ban was being implemented vigorously. Almost unnoticed, the UN published its annual opium poppy survey of Afghanistan on 18 October this year – confirming the near total success of the Taliban ban and noting that opium poppy yield was 94 percent lower than in the previous year and 96 percent lower than the record high reported by its 1999 survey.

Some critics in the West accused the Taliban of cynically trying to drive up the price of opium in an attempt to increase the overall revenue. But the UN noted that despite a 10-fold increase on average farm-gate prices there was still a reduction of 38 percent on gross income to Afghanistan’s farmers.

The Taliban’s decision to clamp down on opium production should have been welcomed by Western nations, many of whom expressed concern in recent years about Afghanistan’s narcotic production. The UK government, for example, last year donated £300,000 to the UN’s International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) to produce a glossy study on Afghanistan’s opium trade – despite the fact that Afghans are desperately short of food.

The Taliban’s attempts to accommodate to the West’s agenda by stopping opium production was not reciprocated by Western governments. As a result, the Taliban was driven further into the hands of the extremists. This is one reason why the Taliban destroyed the two tallest Buddhist statues at Bamiyan in March this year – widely seen as an act of rage against the international community for failing to accept the legitimacy of the Taliban regime, especially after it had put a halt to opium production.

After Western governments shunned the Taliban, non-governmental organisations followed suit. Many NGOs left Afghanistan when the Taliban imposed a directive requiring them to discriminate in their treatment of men and women – meaning that essential aid has not been getting through. For much of the past five years the Red Cross has been one of the few agencies that has worked in Afghanistan (5).

The international community’s relationship with the Taliban shows that if a state is treated as a pariah it acts like a pariah. Isolated and shunned by the world, the Taliban has turned its back on the world. Bereft of friends, the Taliban has relied on Osama bin Laden for military and economic support. Not only has his al-Qaeda network been important in the war against the Northern Alliance – it has also been well placed to take advantage of the illegal trade, especially in drugs, that became a necessity after sanctions were imposed.

The shunning of states by the international community is a post-Cold War phenomenon. Before 1990 the UN had imposed sanctions only twice: against Rhodesia in 1966 and against South Africa in 1977. But since the end of the Cold War, 12 states have been subjected to sanctions.

In the past the West supported certain undesirable states, for fear that they might otherwise fall under Soviet influence. With collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has tended to isolate states instead. The Taliban’s regime is undoubtedly a repressive and backward one, but, like it or not, it is the regime that has been in effective control of Afghanistan for the past five years.

Pariah status is easy to confer on a state – but pariah states do not cease to exist. Now, the West has to confront the fact that it has little influence over the pariah state of Afghanistan – and it is the absence of influence that is causing the most powerful nations to bomb one of the most wretched nations on Earth.

Jon Holbrook is a barrister in London. Email Jon.Holbrook@btinternet.com

Read on:

Spotlight on Camp X-Ray, by Jon Holbrook

In defence of sovereignty, by Jon Holbrook

War crimes: prosecute at any cost?, by Jon Holbrook

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) Straw expands on political aims of military action in Afghanistan, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 11 October 2001


(2) See Security Council demands that Taliban turn over Usama bin Laden to appropriate authorities, United Nations Security Council, 15 October 1999


(3) See Security Council imposes wide new measures against Taliban authorities in Afghanistan, demands action on terrorism, United Nations Security Council, 19 December 2000


(4) Taliban braced for US missiles, The Guardian, 1 November 2000


(5) See Aiding the Afghans? by Bernadette Gibson

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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