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Debate: Was the Taliban uniquely terrible?

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Was the Taliban uniquely terrible?

Background and context

The Taliban first emerged from the confusion of twenty years of civil war in Afghanistan in 1994, when they appeared as an incorruptible religious movement taking a stand against warlordism. By 1996 they had taken control of most of the country and secured Kabul, the capital, setting up their version of a pure Islamic state. Afghanistan’s UN seat, however, is still held by the regime they ousted in 1996, which fights on in the North of Afghanistan and is usually referred to as the Northern Alliance. The Taliban’s links to Osama Bin Laden and other terrorist groups focused recent global attention upon Afghanistan, but the regime had been isolated and condemned internationally since its beginning.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The Taliban sheltered international terrorists, of whom Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qa’ida organisation were the most prominent. In addition to Al-Qa’ida’s strikes against American targets worldwide, fundamentalist terrorists trained in Afghanistan have been active in Chechnya, Kosovo, Central Asia, Indian Kashmir and China. This has resulted in the destabilisation of the region and contributed to a great deal of human misery.

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No

The Taliban are not the only regime in the world to have sheltered terrorists – Syria, Iran, Iraq, Cuba and North Korea are all viewed by the USA’s State Department as state sponsors of terrorism, along with Afghanistan. Indeed, although the Taliban provide shelter for terrorist groups to train, the other states could be seen to go further, by actively initiating and funding terrorism. Moreover, given that Russia and the Central Asian former soviet states have been opposed to the Taliban from the start, and backed the Northern Alliance against it in the Afghan civil war, it is hardly surprising that the Taliban backed their own rebel movements. It could also be asked whether rebels in Chechnya, Kosovo and China should be seen as terrorists or freedom fighters.

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Argument #1

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Yes

The Taliban had no popular democratic mandate to rule Afghanistan, instead they progressively conquered the country in the mid-1990s, taking advantage of a chaotic civil war to impose their own harsh rule upon the Afghan people. The Taliban movement had its beginnings in the madrassas, or religious schools, for Afghan refugees in the border regions of Pakistan, and is widely held to be the creation of the Pakistan Inter-Services Agency (military intelligence). Given this and its reliance upon thousands of non-Afghan fighters from elsewhere in the Islamic world, the Taliban can itself be seen as a partly alien invading force without legitimacy.

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No

Many governments have no popular democratic mandate, including many we count as friends, e.g. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Nor has Afghanistan ever had a government with popular electoral support; indeed for much of the past thirty years the country has been subject to coups, foreign invasion by the USSR, civil war, banditry and warlordism, making the concept of government itself rather inappropriate. The Taliban may not have ever won any elections, but they were widely welcomed in the mid-1990s as their campaign swept across Afghanistan, restoring law and order and bringing peace after many years of civil war. For many Afghans, their rule was preferable to what preceded it, or what may come after.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The Taliban oppressed their own people, especially women and ethnic or religious minorities. A very strict, distinctive interpretation of Sunni Islam was enforced zealously (with public executions and amputations) as they attempted to build the world’s purest Islamic state. Television and music were banned, women had to be fully covered up and were forbidden from receiving an education or working (despite many families having lost their male members after years of warfare, and so rendering many families entirely dependent upon food aid for survival), and their access to healthcare was restricted.

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No

The Taliban were not the only oppressive regime in the world and it was hypocritical to single them out, especially when many of their practices are shared by friendly, pro-western states such as Saudi Arabia. Their views were not an entirely alien imposition upon Afghan society, but were rooted in the traditions of the Pashtun (or Pathan) majority in Afghanistan. To condemn the Taliban is to condemn an entire culture, and to elevate western concepts of government, rights and the role of women over those held elsewhere in the world.

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Argument #4

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Yes

The Taliban failed to provide good government for Afghanistan, being more concerned with religious purity than the physical welfare of the people. As a result, millions of Afghans still live in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, while millions of others are desperately short of food and face starvation. The Taliban made the situation worse by harassing UN workers and aid agencies, in defiance of the usual diplomatic norms, imprisoning westerners on religious charges and impeding the flow of humanitarian relief to their own people.

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No

It was not the fault of the Taliban that there were several years of drought in Afghanistan, something which would cause great suffering in any peasant economy. And while some Afghan refugees specifically fled the Taliban’s austere regime, most were displaced during two decades of warfare that preceded it, or left the country for economic reasons. Nor is it surprising that the Taliban had difficult relations with the representatives of the United Nations, as it is not recognised by the UN, where the Afghanistan seat in the General Assembly was still held by the discredited regime the Taliban overthrew.

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Argument #5

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Yes

The Taliban are responsible for flooding the world with heroin produced from the opium grown there; over 90% of the heroin on the streets of the UK originated in Afghanistan. The regime relied upon levies on the movement of drugs as one of its principle sources of funding. No other government has ever been so complicit in a trade that kills and ruins lives all over the world.

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No

Opium is one of the few crops which grows readily in the harsh conditions of Afghanistan, and the steady demand for heroin from western drug-addicts is the real reason why so many peasant farmers plant it. Although the Taliban profited from levies on the opium trade, so did the warlords they displaced. In fact, in 2000 the Taliban, responding to global concern over the heroin trade and its own religious impulses, issued orders that opium should not be grown. As a result, production dropped by over 90% with a noticeable impact upon street prices of heroin in Europe. This suggests both that engagement with the Taliban was potentially constructive, and that a collapse of central control would give drug runners a free hand.

Motions

  • This House Celebrates the end of the Taliban
  • This House Would Make Sure there is never another Taliban

This debate in legislation, policy, and the real world

See also

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