Ten years ago, Taliban Afghanistan – Talibanistan – was under a social, cultural, political and economic nightmare. Ten years ago, New York-based photographer Jason Florio and myself slowly crossed Talibanistan. Those were the days. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Osama bin Laden was a discreet guest of Mullah Omar, and there was no hint of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, or the “war on terror”, or the rebranding of the AfPak war.
We experienced Talibanistan in action, in close detail. This is both a glimpse of a long-lost world, and a window to a possible future in Afghanistan. Arguably, not much has changed. Or has it?
If schizophrenia defined the Taliban in power, US schizophrenia still rules.
Will the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization reach a “Saigon moment” anytime soon – and leave? Not likely. As General David “I’m always positioning myself to 2012” Petraeus, like his predecessor General Stanley McChrystal, advances his special forces-led, maximum force Murder Inc. to subdue the Taliban, the same Petraeus – no irony intended – may tell Fox News, as he did last week, that the war’s “ultimate goal” is the “reconciliation” of the ultra-corrupt Hamid Karzai government with the Taliban.
This in fact means that while “favorable” conditions are not created on the ground, government-sanctioned drug trafficking mafias and US defense contractors will continue to make – literally – a killing. As for the PR-savvy Petraeus, he will pull all stops to sell his brand of Afghan surge to Americans as some sort of “victory” – as he managed to sell the rebranded Iraq war. And as for the (rebranded) umbrella of fighters conveniently labeled “Taliban”, who seem to eat surges for breakfast, they will bide their time, Pashtun-style, and trust Allah to eventually hand them victory – the real thing, and not a PR fantasy.
Now let’s go back to the future again.
HERAT, SPINBALDAK, BALOCHISTAN – Arriving in Herat after a hellish journey from Kandahar, I thought I had smoked prime Afghan opium and was on a non-stop trip to Persian fantasy. I had met Scandinavian non-governmental organization women intellectuals stranded right in the middle of Taliban theocracy, but in Herat they seemed to be in the right place. Because Herat seemed to be absolutely impervious to tyranny.
The oasis of Herat – established 5,000 years ago – is the cradle of Afghan history and civilization. It boasts the richest soil in Central Asia; Herodotus dubbed it “Central Asia’s granary”. For centuries it was a crucial crossroads between the Turkish and Persian empires. The whole population was converted to Islam in the 7th century. When I entered the grand mosque – built in the 7th, rebuilt in the 12th century – I felt I was really in Persia.
During the Middle Ages, Herat was a great Sufi center – mystical and profoundly spiritual Islam. Not by accident the city’s patron saint is Khawaja Abdullah Ansari, an 11th-century Sufi poet and philosopher. Genghis Khan conquered Herat in 1222 and spared only 40 of its 160,000 inhabitants. Less than two centuries later the city recovered its glory when Tamerlan’s son and his wife – queen Gowhar Shad – transferred the capital of the empire from Samarkand to Herat.
Tamerlan’s empire was the first to mix the nomadic culture of the Turkish steppe with the extreme sophistication of Persian culture. At the bazaar, septuagenarian traders told me – the first foreigner they had seen in almost two years – how at the beginning of the 15th century the city was as wealthy as Venice, producing the finest carpets, jewelry, weaponry and miniatures as well as mosques, madrassas, public baths, libraries and palaces.
Herodotus might be having a blast with the historical irony of the Taliban – with their pathological horror of the female sex – now ruling a Persian city where once reigned one of the most seductive humanists and feminists of Asia. Gowhar Shad – the female, Persian version of Lorenzo de Medici – used to marry her “ruby-lipped” ladies-in-waiting with the Taliban of their time.
The queen built a fabulous complex including mosque, madrassa and her own tomb in the outskirts of Herat. The tomb – blue Persian tiles with floral decoration, a blue dome decorated with vertiginous Koranic inscriptions – is unanimously recognized by art historians as one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture. The inscription on the tomb is a simple “the Bilkis of her time”; “bilkis” stands for “Queen of Sheba”.
What is left of the complex are five elegant minarets, a few marble slabs and something from Gowhar Shad’s tomb. The British Empire demolished almost everything by the end of the 19th century and the Soviets mined the area during the 1980s to repel the mujahideen. Heratis would comment that when the Soviets bombed the city in 1979, they wreaked more havoc than Genghis Khan.
The Taliban had no idea of the prodigious cultural, literary and political history of Herat. What mattered for them was Herat as a golden goose – the crossroads through which passed the non-stop smuggling of second-hand vehicles, consumer electronics and computers from Dubai and Bandar Abbas on the way to Pakistan. The taxes paid by the hundreds of lorries crossing Herat every day fed the Taliban central bank and financed the war to conquer the north of Afghanistan still escaping their control.
Unlike the rest of Talibanistan, there was no mass poverty in Herat. Pakistani Pashtun moneychangers insisted business was great. In two sprawling bazaars, eight-year-old kids crammed in small rooms were weaving for 12 hours a day the carpets that would flood all Asian markets (not anymore; now they are synthetic, or made in China). Before curfew, at 10pm, the bazaars were booming, as well as the juice and ice-cream shops.
Intellectually, this miniature of Persia was buried when the Taliban conquered it in 1995; the painters, poets and professors crossed the border to Iran. The Taliban locked all women behind closed doors; forbade visits to Sufi sanctuaries; imposed the degree zero of education closing down all schools; segregated hospitals; closed down public baths; and banished women from the bazaar.
They rebelled. Every day, from 8am to 11am, for the past three years, Latifah – a graduate of Herat’s Medical Institute – had been conducting her own, homemade primary school, teaching math, Persian, Pashto, English, biology, physics, chemistry and Koranic studies. This was a two-year course, with a month’s holiday. Officially, this school “didn’t exist”. But “they know”, she would tell me. There had been no repression. But she was very anxious about the future.
For her beloved students, Latifah – one of the six daughters of an upper-middle-class Herati family – was none other than a reincarnation of Gowhar Shad. Her father, an engineer trained in the former Soviet Union, used to make thousands of dollars a month before the Taliban. Latifah was part of a sprawling west Afghan network of underground resistance – confiding that there was practically “one school in every street” and a few hundred teachers, although they never tried to communicate with each other.
Apart from teaching, she gave medical attention to anyone who needed it, and had worked for a de-mining organization. She used to say that when she got married, she would want “a person like me, who gives me permission to teach”. That’s what she may be doing in Herat nowadays.
By that time I had crossed Talibanistan from east to west. It was enough to share two certainties. For all that I saw, the tribalization of urban Afghanistan did not seem inevitable – even though it was accelerated by the rustic Taliban theocracy. And the talibanization of the whole of Central Asia – so much feared by Washington, Moscow and Beijing – also was a non-starter. Because of the strength of spirit of people like Latifah, Gowhar Shad, the indomitable humanist, would certainly give it the seal of approval with her ruby lips.
Free trade, here we come!
A horizontal canyon of containers fries in the Balochistan desert, casually watched over by a turbaned army. Inside, a Babel of conspicuous consumption, from Japanese video cameras to English knickers, from Chinese silk to computer parts from Taiwan.
In this Taliban version of Ali Baba’s cave you can buy anything – cash; no major credit cards accepted. A few yards away, monster hauls of heroin, Eastern European Kalashnikov replicas and Iranian oil converge in an apotheosis of free trade. Yes, because 10 years ago “free trade” was not in the World Trade Organization in Geneva; it was here, in Spinbaldak – a ringside seat to the largest smuggling ring on the planet, involving the Taliban, Pakistani smugglers, drug lords, tribal chiefs owning transport mafias, bureaucrats, politicians, the police and selected army officials.
This low-tech version of the Silk Road – where lorries replaced 5,000-camel caravans – was the Taliban’s real golden goose. The Silk Road linking China to Europe via Afghanistan and Central Asia was controlled by the same tribal chiefs and nomads who today roll in Mercedes.
This free-trade boom could only be a consequence of the interminable civil war in Afghanistan – linked to the expansion of the drug business and the overwhelming corruption in Pakistan. At the same time, this far west coincided with a consumer boom all across Central Asia.
Drug and transport mafias – all across what today the Pentagon calls AfPak – united in merry convergence. The Taliban, since taking power in 1996, were encouraged by transporters to open roads for mass smuggling. It was the Quetta (Balochistan’s capital) transport mafia that forced the Taliban to capture the Persianized Herat, and thus totally control the way to Turkmenistan. What a Pakistani diplomat had told me in Islamabad still rings true to this day; “It’s this mafia that ultimately controls the fate of governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
The border “control” between Chaman, in Balochistan, and Spinbaldak, in Afghanistan, was a joke (and remains so to this day); a monster frat party drenched in endless cups of green tea. Everybody knows everybody else. Up to 400 trucks and lorries used to cross the border every day. Most of the Bedford and Mercedes trucks were stolen – with fake license plates. There was no invoice for anything inside them. The drivers would have crossed as many as six international borders with a fake driver’s license, no road permit and no passport. Nobody paid customs or taxes of any kind.
Obviously, this was not a recommend spot for Westerners. We were met with accusations of being “UN spies”. Only after a handful of altercations in Urdu were we “adopted” by some clans – who immediately started to peddle their wares. I could have bought a Toyota Corolla 92 for only $3,000, a Nihonkkai Japanese fire truck for less than $5,000, a Toyota Land Cruiser 96 for $10,000 or a Yamaha bike as good as new for only $700.
Abdul Qadir Achkazi was a key figure in the family of a terribly influential local warlord. He was a cosmopolitan – he’d been to Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai and had a “martyr” bother in the anti-USSR jihad. Reclined on a cushion over the dusty carpet inside his container office, serving the umpteenth cup of green tea, he laid down the free-trade law.
All this stuff came by ship from Yokohama to Bandar Abbas in Iran, via Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The transport of a container full of dodgy goods was $4,000, maximum. In Bandar Abbas, the container paid a harbor tax. From Bandar Abbas, it crossed the Iran-Afghan border and arrived in Spinbaldak on top of a lorry. Entering Afghanistan, the importer paid the Taliban up to $7,000 in taxes per container, or $3,000 if these were toys. For each imported Toyota, the Taliban got a cool $1,000. From Bandar Abbas to Spinbaldak, transport expenses would run to $600, paid before entering Herat – the Taliban’s golden goose.
Abdul told me that all clients in this free-trade special were Pakistanis. And almost all traders had double nationality. Best-sellers at the time were cassette players, CDs and computers (nowadays it must be iPhones).
The absolute majority of traders confirmed that most deliveries were in Quetta – but they could deliver wherever the client wanted; after all they controlled their own transport networks. In this case, there would be an extra of 30%. If the merchandise was apprehended by police, the client would get all his money back. But anyway in Spinbaldak, as Abdul said, “Everything is legal. There’s no Taliban interference because all taxes have been paid.” In front of a container selling a pile of good old Sony Trinitrons, a group told me, “We fought the Russians. Today we support the Taliban.”
The border with Iran, in Islam qila, a wasteland battered by endless sandstorms worked in the same register. Iranian lorries got rid of their containers, immediately lugged on to Afghan trucks that inevitably would fall prey to the sandstorms. The layout of Afghan “customs” was a row of transportation companies’ offices. Faced with a few questions, the Iranian officials were as polite as a mortal Pasdaran enemy of still living Saddam Hussein.
It was only in 2000 that Pakistan actually woke up to the billions of dollars in taxes it was losing in this free-for-all. The informal economy at the time was 51% of gross domestic product (not much has changed). Smuggling was – and remains – an immense network trespassing Central Asia, Iran and the Persian Gulf (that’s one of the reasons why sanctions against Iran will never work).
Already in 2000 it was pure wishful thinking to believe that powerful tribal lords could not live without Pakistan – to which they were and remain interlinked by trade and property they bought outside of the tribal areas. Tribal chiefs raved about this huge, illegal duty-free corridor – and they still profit from it.
The porosity of Pakistan’s borders – from the Khyber pass to Balochistan – benefited the Afghan mujahideen during the anti-USSR jihad, but at the same time allowed the infiltration all across Pakistan of the Kalashnikov culture. The Hindu Kush as much as the Durand Line, natural or human barriers, nothing has prevented a continuous flux of horrors to flow from Central Asia to South Asia.
So what was the purpose of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan? Well, I did learn that Talibanistan was conditioned by three “values”: war, trade and pious morality. The Taliban did manage to recreate in almost the whole country the mindset of a madrassa.
Those taxes over free trade filled their coffers. And an internal jihad – against Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras – justified the regime. The legitimacy of the state and politics was absolutely zero; that is, any notion of citizenship or freedom was also absolutely zero. Only belief and obedience were legitimate. Ten years later, I still think this is a demented, (non)political experiment for the history books.
Well, we finally hit the Balochistan border, between pyramids of multinational tires and a traffic jam of donkey carts piled up with stereos. The Taliban control post was a small, fly-infested room. The official was asleep. When he awoke, he asked for exist visas. We improvised – showing him a letter from the Foreign Ministry in Kabul. It took him an eternity not to read our letter. But he eventually stamped our passports. We hit the main street like Gary Cooper in High Noon. A black-turbaned Taliban passed by. I couldn’t resist; “Welcome home.” We grabbed a Mad Max cab and burned rubber in the dust of this 7th-century black hole – and the time-machine brought us back to the year 2000.
Where’s my refugee Buddha?
“Oh, I have Buddhas from Bamiyan.”
The news – as cool, calm and collected as a Taliban rocket launch – took a while to sink in. The Cousin of the Mine King of Balochistan was still smiling. We had been in Quetta, frontier capital of the Pakistani side of Balochistan, only for a few hours.
In Afghanistan, we had been arrested (twice), menaced with a trial by a military court, accused of being UN spies. We were exhausted, and as far as Bamiyan was concerned, frustrated. Taliban officials in Kabul had denied us a visa do visit Bamiyan, allegedly because of “security reasons”. At the time I lived in Buddhist Thailand. Apart from trying to understand what makes a warped madrassa worldview tick in the beginning of the Third Millennium, I had always longed to see the Bamiyan Buddhas.
But I never made it to Bamiyan. Instead, Bamiyan came to me.
At the Quetta Serena Hotel – a plush compound straight from Santa Fe, New Mexico – the Cousin of the Mine King showed up in style: chauffeur-driven in a Toyota Hi-Lux. This could only foment our paranoia: Toyotas Hi-Lux constituted the entire Taliban motorized Walhalla, and when we were arrested by the religious police in Kabul stadium in the middle of a soccer match for (not) taking photos, we were taken to interrogation in the back seat of a Toyota Hi-Lux. But the Cousin of the Mine King had other plans.
“Let’s go meet some nomads.”
A few hours later, we were in a tent sipping tea with a family of Balochistan borderland nomads. Compared to the destitute Ghazni nomads we had seen in Afghanistan, fleeing from the worst drought in the past 30 years, these ones were positively de luxe. The head of the family even tried to sell me a falcon: customers from the United Arab Emirates were snatching them at the time for as much as 1 million rupees.
The head nomad reveals himself to be an Afghan trader in the Punjab. His take on Afghanistan is extremely self-assured: the Taliban are falling apart, and the country has now split into three factions. All of them are responsible for the widespread destruction, as much as the whole population.
Back in Quetta, after the nomad warm-up, we are taken through a mud-brick labyrinth to a house in the middle of a desert wasteland. Kids swarm in the dusty “streets”. One of them disappears inside a shack and emerges with a statue. And another. And then another. We are now contemplating the private collection of the Cousin of the Mine King. It features astonishing Greco-Buddhist boddhisatvas, hellenic arhats with their ribs protruding, and even part of a frieze. Some could be 3rd or 4th century, some even older. They are all pre-Bamiyan Buddhas.
The Cousin of the Mine King is naturally evasive. He would love to sell his collection to a Western museum – but can’t get it out of the country. The Guimet Museum of Asian Arts in Paris had recently reopened after lavish restoration work worth $50 million; they would kill for this “private collection”. He “obtained most of the statues from the Bamiyan valley”. Some of them “came from the Kabul museum”. The methods were effective: “We just went there and took them”.
With the boddhisatvas still in our minds, the Cousin of the Mine King take us to meet the Great Man himself. We are ushered into his living room, decorated with a silk Qom almost the size of a tennis court, and worth the gross domestic product of whole Afghan provinces. The Mine King is a Baloch from the borderlands – a member of the Sanjirani tribe. He controls coal, onyx, marble and granite mines. And he goes straight to the point.
“Afghanistan is a tribal society. We should leave it like that.” For him, the only solution for the country would be the return of King Zahir Shah: “But that was already proposed in the early 1990s. Now itดs too late.” The Mine King regards the Taliban as “very nice people”. But he worries about the future, considering the vast amount of weapons in the country: “If there is a total collapse in Afghanistan, the ashes will be coming straight to Pakistan” (how prophetic was he, 10 years ago?)
The Mine King waves us goodbye, dreaming of enjoying New York City nightlife. Then a few months passed. I always thought that somewhere in the wasteland outskirts of Quetta, a few Afghan Buddhas were still sleeping half-buried in the sand. Then in March 2001 I knew for sure they had escaped the fate of the Bamiyan Buddhas, bombed to ashes by the Taliban. But as the Mine King himself remarked, these ashes, brought by the winds, headed straight into Pakistan.
Ten years ago, and even by March 2001, not many people were fully aware that a geopolitical New Great Game was already unraveling in Central Asia. The Taliban were – and remain – just one of the (minor) players. They could obliterate Buddhist art that predates Islam itself. But Buddhism teaches us that everything is impermanent.
Ten years ago the Cousin of the Mine King could be the target of a few accusations; a few months later, he could be seen as a man who saved a significant part of the world heritage from the Taliban smashing orgy. And more impermanence: considering Central Asian volatility, the bombers themselves, sooner rather than later, were reduced to ashes in the New Great Game.
Or were they? Ten years later, they seem to be stronger than ever. Against all the firepower of the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, they seem to believe they may even get their Talibanistan back. General Petraeus, go back to the future and eat your heart out.