By Harinder Baweja
My first trip to Afghanistan was in September 1996, a few days after the Taliban stormed into the Presidential Palace in Kabul and established their hold over the country. Thousands of Talibs had driven into the capital city and strung the pro-Soviet President Najibullah from an electric pole. It was also the first time I saw automatic weapons being decorated with roses.
Sensing the advent of the Taliban, the staff at the Indian embassy had upped and left. Twenty-five years later, India has flown out its diplomats and security personnel from Kandahar and handed over the consulate to local staff.
The trip in 1996 remains one of my most claustrophobic assignments. On the very top of the suitcase lay a burqa and other long-sleeved garments that are a must in Taliban territory. Being an Indian, and more importantly, being a woman were huge disadvantages and the suffocation was not just a physical one.
The Taliban had come a long way from the madrasas in Pakistan, from where they were first recruited. The armed gunmen were accustomed only to mosques and battlefields and walked the silk carpets of the palace and the ministries with trepidation. Arabic translations of the United Nations charter were available but the Taliban had neither the time nor the inclination for diplomatic nuances and international political norms. They had their own code of governance and soon got down to the task of implementing it.
The press was soon to get a taste of the Taliban’s style of functioning. Invited to witness what they called a “bottle smashing ceremony”, we gawked as a tank rolled its blades into a heap of brandy and beer bottles. There were other ways of banning liquor but the Taliban did it their way. They made their point forcefully — which is the way they always do. Just like they did to the Bamiyan statues — strapped them with explosives and blew them up.
India – and the world – is once again watching the strides the Taliban is making to take control of a war-ravaged country. The terror organization, which claims to have captured 85% of Afghan territory, is racing through provinces, brandishing weapons and fighting pitched battles along the way.
In 1996, the Afghans had both fear and hope. There was hope that, once in power, after defeating the Northern Alliance, the Taliban would get down to the business of governing. What ensued was a reign of terror — women were banned from working and girls forbidden from attending school. Men were forced to grow beards and many who went against the edicts, were stoned to death or hanged in public.
The Taliban continued the way they had begun and now, with the United States (US) troops withdrawing after two decades of occupation, there is no reason to believe that the warriors will be any different. They are wedded to violence and know no other way.
Unsurprisingly, I got a taste of their attitude to women when asked to leave the roundtable around which I was sitting with other journalists waiting for a press conference to begin. A newly appointed minister was to address us but he would not do so until the women reporters got up and stood at the far end of the room and “no questions please…women can’t look men in the eye”, we were told. This, I must confess, was mild compared to what was yet to come and it is here that the story starts to get dangerous.
Once outside, I decided to head for Panjshir where the Taliban were staving off an attack from the just-defeated Northern Alliance. Out there, in the battlefield, the Taliban were talking through the barrels of their guns and dodging splinters which poured like metallic rain.
Here, in the midst of the battleground, they didn’t have a problem looking me in the eye or talking to me. Except for one Taliban soldier who walked away when he learnt that my photographer colleague accompanying me was neither my husband nor my brother. “You are not supposed to be out with strange men,” my translator told me, beginning to get nervous.
“Have you heard about Kashmir?” I asked out of sheer curiosity and was not just surprised but taken aback with what I was told: “Heard about Kashmir! I’ve been there and back,” said one and then another. So many of them had added to the list of “foreign mercenaries”, a noting that had begun appearing in army and Intelligence Bureau files since 1994 when “guest militants” had first been welcomed into the Valley.
“I trained and worked with Maulana Masood Azhar and Nasrullah Langriyal,” one of them said. Happy to hear that I was a frequent visitor to Kashmir — where he said he would return for the jihad once their hold over Afghanistan was complete— he wanted me to request the Indian government to release the two he described as “Islamic preachers”.
Masood Azhar is well known. Arrested in the Valley in February 1994, he was released in Kandahar in exchange for passengers aboard the hijacked IC-814 flight. Langriyal, a senior member of the Harkat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami, was lodged in an Indian jail and was involved in various acts of terror in which he killed at least nine BSF men.
I had laughed then, on hearing the young Taliban soldier’s request. It is hitting me now. Masood Azhar and Langriyal were both trained in camps in Afghanistan. They are well known to the Taliban. The cauldron, in fact, had been brewing for years. Omar Sheikh, another militant who was released in Kandahar, is supposed to have wired $10,00,000 to Mohammed Atta, one of the suspected hijackers who crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
I remember how the young Taliban soldier had even offered to take me to the training camps in Kosht.
As reports now come in of an unholy alliance between the Taliban, the Jaish and the Lashkar-e-Mohammad, India is assessing the impact it will have on its internal security, particularly in Kashmir which underwent sweeping changes in August 2019.
Unlike in 1996, when India — like most of the world (barring United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Qatar) — refused to recognise the Taliban government in Afghanistan, it has now opened some communication channels with the gun-wielding group with the help of Qatar. But with the Taliban, one thing can be certain: there is neither sincerity nor certainty when it comes to any deal, not even when it is signed in black and white. The US learnt that the hard way, after trying to negotiate with them and even trying to draw a distinction between “good Taliban and bad Taliban”.
As India sent a special flight to evacuate its diplomats posted in Kandahar, it can be sure, that it will have to keep its guard up. The Taliban, simply put, is bad news.
Harinder Baweja has previously written about her experiences with the Taliban in Outlook in 200. This article appeared first in Hindustan Times on July 12.