Married to the mob

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.” -atimes