Queries from Afghanistan

The war between 72 nations has left all in regret.
Because they have not seen truth, they have created fairy tales.

In the context of President George W. Bush’s declared "War on Terrorism," what does it mean to live, as George Fox said, "in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars"?

What does the Quaker Peace Testimony mean in the context of an Afghanistan that has been "liberated" from the terror of the Taliban regime by force of military arms? Indeed, what did it mean in the context of the harsh rule of the Taliban? Are there times when the awesome power of modern weaponry can be used to shake up the chess board of long entrenched "evil" regimes and allow otherwise impossible outcomes? Does the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan vindicate the use of war as a means to bring about positive change?

I have been given ample cause to ponder these and other challenging questions over the past years and, indeed, decades. Revulsion at the horrors committed by the United States in Vietnam led me to become a conscientious objector and eventually to find a spiritual home in the Religious Society of Friends. Some restless spirit has led me to a career in international relief and development, spanning five years with the Peace Corps in Iran, two years managing medical programs for Eritrean refugees in Sudan for the Lalmba Association, and now 19 years working for CARE in Egypt, Ethiopia, Northern Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan. It has definitely been interesting, but making sense of it through a Quaker lens is not easy. Being philosophically and morally opposed to war as a tool to solve the world’s problems is the easy part. What practical alternative do we then have to offer? Must the Afghans of the world suffer under intolerable regimes forever because neither they nor the international community have the will and the wherewithal to bring peaceful change? Can it be that all that is required for the triumph of evil in the world is for good people to limit themselves to prayers, demonstrations, and calls for peace?

If any group has been impugned in Western public opinion, it must be the Taliban. Their harsh and uncompromising fundamentalist version of Islam seemed ever intent on rushing from one outlandish extreme to another. And much of what has been written is true. Women were banned from most forms of employment.

Severe restrictions were placed on female education. Harsh shari’a punishments were imposed on adulteresses (death by stoning), thieves (amputation of the right hand), beard trimmers (lengthy prison terms), and other offenders of Taliban morality. They conducted massacres in some Hazara communities, and they destroyed archeological treasures, including the two giant standing Buddhas of Bamiyan. As their easy territorial gains of 1994-96 receded into history, the Taliban employed scorched-earth tactics and more sophisticated military campaigns against their entrenched opposition in the center and northeast of the country. And as the years went by, the relationship of the Taliban leadership to Osama bin Laden became closer and more protective. It is an appalling and amazing list.

But truth is complex. The Taliban arose in the chaos of mujahidin-fractured Afghanistan. Reports on abuse of women in mujahidin-ruled Afghanistan were as appalling as those later written to document Taliban excesses. Armed factions had destroyed cities. Highway robbery and extortion were crippling any chance for the recovery of the Afghan economy and society from the horrors of the Soviet war. Yet from this chaos, in a matter of only two years, the Taliban movement evolved and spread with minimal violence to control half of the country. Myths evolved about Taliban virtue and invincibility. Cities, towns, and villages peacefully came under the Taliban map as commanders succumbed to perceived inevitability and bribes. By the time the movement reached the outskirts of Kabul, their extreme views on women’s rights were well known, but still many Kabulis looked forward to their arrival because at least it offered the hope of peace and stability.

The Taliban were not a monolithic group. Their leadership included some university-educated officials and some more progressive mullahs who looked for ways to temper the organization’s worst excesses. There were some Taliban officials with a genuine concern for the welfare of the Afghan people. While most in the West would not agree with Taliban values, we should recognize that for better or for worse they were driven by values and an uncompromising commitment to those values. To believe that there is "that of God in every one" is to believe and to act as though the Taliban leadership is worthy of respect, to appeal to and to seek to nurture that responsible side of their being.


In March 1996, six months prior to the Taliban seizure of Kabul, I traveled to Qandahar with three of our senior national staff to negotiate a basic agreement with the nascent Taliban movement. I had expected that this process would take a couple of months, with an initial visit to get to know the accessible members of the Taliban leadership and reach an agreement in principle. A follow-up trip in April or May might be required to actually negotiate and sign an agreement. Instead, through a period of two days of meeting, sitting on the floor, drinking tea with, and getting to know Mullah Attiqallah, then head of the Taliban Foreign Relations office, and Mullah Abbas, then mayor of Qandahar, we were able to move from our initial draft to a negotiated and signed agreement. That agreement recognized the integrity and responsibility of the two parties, the Taliban Authority and CARE Afghanistan. CARE agreed to operate with respect for the culture and traditions of Afghanistan, and the Taliban agreed to respect and support CARE’s humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, including the right to transport relief commodities over besieged frontlines to needy families in then opposition-held Kabul. We subsequently made copies of the agreement to be carried in all of our vehicles operating in Afghanistan in order to facilitate their movement through Taliban-held parts of Afghanistan. While we had numerous "hiccups" along the way with our relations with Taliban officials at the local and national levels, our staff could always refer to the basic agreement signed with the Taliban leadership in Qandahar as the basis for moving forward, and usually it would work. Even after Mullah Attiqallah had been replaced by other officials in charge of Taliban foreign relations, some officials, when presented with the signed agreement simply said, "What we have signed, we have signed."

Education of Girls

A few months prior to the Taliban seizure of Khost in the spring of 1995, CARE had helped establish ten community-based schools. Under our education philosophy, CARE would provide teacher training and educational materials for the schools, but the communities were responsible for identifying and paying the teacher and for providing an appropriate space for the schools. Before CARE would support any community school we required that at least 30 percent of the students be girls. This was an ambitious target even in pre-Taliban Afghanistan. When the Taliban gained control of Khost and the surrounding districts where the schools were placed, they were dismayed to find village schools teaching girls. They told the communities to stop doing this, but the communities all responded, "No, these are our schools and our students and we are paying for the teachers. We want our children to learn." The schools stayed open and over the ensuing six years the Community Organized Primary Education (COPE) Program expanded to 707 classrooms in seven provinces, with 465 teachers (15 percent female) and 21,000 students (46 percent female). The fundamental legitimacy of the schools was established in the communities through their Village Education Committees. Often the local Taliban mullah was selected as a member of the committee. Building on hadith (sayings of the prophet Muhammad) such as, "It is compulsory on all Muslim men and Muslim women to be educated," and "Search for learning, even if it is from China," the COPE schools were accepted by communities and mullahs throughout much of southeastern Afghanistan.

Employment of Women

The 1996 Amnesty International report on the abuse of women’s rights in pre-Taliban Afghanistan is as damning as any report later written on the anti-female excesses of the Taliban regime. From the rape, plunder, and forced marriages of mujahidin-ruled Kabul to the beatings, seclusion, and forced unemployment of the Taliban years, women of Afghanistan’s urban centers have endured long years of abuse. In the austerity of Taliban Kabul, the 30,000 war widows and their 150,000 dependent children ranked among Afghanistan’s most destitute people. Their plight was made worse by Taliban edicts banning female employment outside the medical sector, banning female education, and banning women from directly receiving humanitarian assistance. But through the nightmarish restrictions lay the seeds of possibility. In the winters prior to the Taliban seizure of Kabul CARE had conducted emergency distributions of food and non-food items to widows. In the Taliban years this evolved to a year-round program managed by and for women. The program grew to have a female distribution team, a female monitoring team, and a female health and sanitation education team. Ugly incidents did occur from time to time. A squad from the Department to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (PV2 we called it) once stopped a bus carrying CARE female staff, forced them to disembark and then beat the women with a leather strap as they got off the bus. We suspended both the widows’ feeding program and a large water and sanitation program until we received assurances from the Taliban leadership that the PV2 actions did not represent official policy, and that they would not be repeated. Later the regime tried to force us to retrench all of our female staff. We appealed to Mawlavi Abdulrahman Zahed, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, saying that it would be shameful for men to manage a women’s relief distribution program. He concurred and at significant risk to himself approved a mechanism through which female CARE staff could continue to work. (We have more recently been pained to learn that Mawlavi Abdulrahman Zahed is among the hundreds of Taliban now being held without charges or judicial process in Guantánamo.)

Prison for Beard Trimmers

At 5:00 a.m. one summer morning in 1998 Mullah Nur ad-Din Torabi, the Taliban Minister of Justice, led a group of armed Taliban to the CARE sub-office on a hillside overlooking the Kabul-Maidanshah highway. He seized half of the office and turned its basement into a prison for men who trimmed their beards. He set up a roadblock on the highway and sent all men who showed evidence of having trimmed their beards up the hill to the CARE office/Taliban prison. One of our engineers was also imprisoned: even though his beard met the Taliban length standards, he was a Dari speaker and misunderstood the Taliban beard length question when it was put to him in Pushtu. It took us many weeks of negotiation with very senior officials in Kabul before we were finally able to get the main shura (council) in Kabul to issue a decree that the CARE office in Maidanshah should be returned to CARE, and it took yet more weeks before the Ministry of Justice acted on the decree. Principled engagement was not fast, but it did work.


Also in the summer of 1998, the Ministry of Planning decreed that all nongovernmental organizations should move their Kabul offices into the severely damaged dormitories of Kabul Polytechnic. We protested at the security implications and the cost of such a move and embarked on months of negotiations and stalling tactics. Finally, in apparent frustration, the Taliban began expelling international aid agencies and sealing their offices. When we realized what was happening, the head of our widows’ feeding program went to see Mullah Qari Din Mohammad, the Minister of Planning, and told him, "I don’t want to discuss your plans to expel agencies from Kabul. I just want to know if we can continue our widows’ feeding program." The minister thought for a few moments and agreed to her request. She asked if we could have that in writing. He told her to come back in two days, and indeed it was ready.

As these anecdotes indicate, it was possible through patience, respect, and tact to work with Taliban leaders at different levels to address some of the most egregious aspects of their policies and practices. But the policy of principled, cautious engagement was inadequate to bring about fundamental change in Afghanistan in the near future. The constructive engagement strategy was not adopted by all agencies working in Afghanistan; it was supported with limited resources; it did not directly engage all of the most senior members of the Taliban leadership; and there were strong and uncompromising ideas and forces directing the Taliban regime who were not easily amenable to persuasion. Does quiet, cautious engagement run the risk of bringing about only marginally important positive steps, but ultimately end up giving a degree of legitimacy to a despicable regime? It is an uncomfortable question. And it probably does not have a neat answer.

Ultimately, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was toppled by a massive U.S. bombing campaign and an insurgent ground war orchestrated by Special Forces and fought by career Afghan warlords and their armies. The sense of relief that was brought by the fall of the Taliban is most strongly felt in Kabul, Hazarajat, and northeast Afghanistan—areas that had suffered the most from Taliban excesses. The results are more mixed in much of the rest of the country. The peace and security of commerce that the Taliban had brought to the 90 percent of Afghanistan under their control has now been replaced with resurgent warlordism, highway banditry, and a Taliban movement transformed into a guerilla force. The near eradication of opium poppy production under the Taliban in 2001 has now been replaced with bumper crops of poppy—80 percent of global production. "Victory" in Afghanistan is neither complete nor assured.

And the costs of the military victory over Taliban are significant. The $10 billion plus spent in the military campaign could be seen as a great investment if it were indeed a turning point in the elimination of global threats of terror, or if it were to lead to a stable, progressive democracy in Afghanistan. But these ends are very much in the balance, and there are other very real costs that should be weighed. I find credible the estimates that between 3,000 and 8,000 Afghan civilians were killed in U.S. bombing "mistakes," more than the total number of victims of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. And it has been estimated that the United States used between 500 and 1,000 metric tons of depleted uranium in munitions attacking bunkers, caves, tanks, and other hardened targets. The prospect of up to 1,000 metric tons of uranium oxide now dispersed over Afghan cities and mountains is a sobering prospect for this and future generations of Afghans.

There has not yet been a complete or sustainable military victory over the Taliban. The military successes against the Taliban have come at a high cost in lives and environmental pollution: inflation, rising rural insecurity, and a disappointing pace of reconstruction all call into question the benefits of the regime change ushered in by the coalition war.

The stunning U.S. military victories in recent years have sown the seeds of future tragedy. Gulf War I and the establishment of U.S. military bases in Arabia became the festering wound that led Osama bin Laden to create the al-Qaida network and focus its wrath against the United States. President Bill Clinton’s August 1998 cruise missile attacks on al-Qaida bases in the southeastern mountains of Afghan-istan galvanized Mullah Omar’s resolve to stand by and defend the residency rights of his Arab "guests" in Afghanistan.

(The Arabs had become increasingly despised in Afghanistan, and credible reports claim that the Taliban had been on the verge of expelling Osama bin Laden prior to the missile attacks.) The military defeat of the Taliban in 2001 is now mutating into a Taliban guerilla movement against the new Afghan government and its foreign supporters. War has yet to bring peace to Afghanistan.

If the cautious, principled engagement strategies of pre-9/11/01 Afghanistan were inadequate to fundamentally change Taliban beliefs and behavior, could it have been more successful had it been supported with more generous funding, followed by more agencies, and developed as a more comprehensive strategy? Human-itarian and development assistance to Afghanistan is now running at about ten times the level of pre-9/11/01 funding—and at one tenth the cost of the "American War." Had this level of assistance been annually available and creatively used in the decade before that tragic date, far more opportunities would have been created to help the long-suffering Afghan people and to positively influence the Taliban leadership. The modestly sized, community-based education program cited above could have been expanded nationwide, engaging community and religious leaders in very practical discussions leading to the advancement of female education. Similarly modest projects that built on community structures to address basic needs for food, water, and income could have been greatly expanded and those community leaders much more empowered. Had those programs been five or ten times larger, the influence of the Taliban over Afghan lives would have been proportionately reduced. Perhaps a critical mass of new ideas and behaviors could have been planted.

One program which CARE discussed in 1998-99 but unfortunately never managed to develop and get funded was a forum for dialogue between Taliban scholars of Islamic law and scholars of international human rights. It would have been designed to explore in depth the basis of controversial Taliban positions, and to explore the commonalties and conflicts between shari’a and international human rights charters and law. In that many of the most extreme Taliban policies sprang more from Pushtun culture than Islamic teaching, such a forum would have tried to help Taliban leaders to acknowledge and deal with the non-Islamic basis of many of their beliefs. It could have been a bridge between the reclusive Taliban and a poorly informed outside world.

Especially during the present administration, the United States seems determined to force its will by preemptive use of precision-guided weapons of significant destruction and quite explicitly not by treaties, courts, and procedures of international law. The weapons and the destruction are impressive, but the long-term consequences highly questionable.

We in the humanitarian community may not have preferred the "American War" as a response to Afghanistan’s problems. But it has happened and we are left with its aftermath and questions of what to do now.

I have joined other voices in calling for an international security force to help Afghanistan develop and deploy a multi-ethnic, nonfactional Afghan security force throughout the country. I do not think that peace and security can ultimately come to Afghanistan until the warlords and private militias are replaced with a professional, disciplined, multiethnic, nonfactional, paid security force, and in Afghanistan this will probably include an army. I do see a legitimate role in Afghanistan for a disciplined force with guns for some time. But I also believe that ultimately sustainable peace will depend on offering a better life without armed coercion for generations of people who have known little else. And that can only come through a patient and sustained effort of engagement—and a determination to seek and "see truth" in the imagery of Hafez.

Paul Barker

Paul Barker, a member of Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Oreg., is country director for CARE International in Afghanistan. He has worked for CARE for 19 years and has attended Friends meetings and worship groups in Ramallah, Khartoum, Cairo, and Addis Ababa.