Central Asia

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What Taliban government looked like in 1998

This story resulted from an unexpected week in Kabul in 1998, courtesy of the Taliban. I was always surprised that the Journal agreed to publish this piece, but none of us I think had quite realised the genius of Osama bin Laden’s successful drive to prevent the Taliban government from seeing through its efforts to normalise with the West.

Reality Check:
Afghanistan’s Taliban,
For Better or Worse,
Seems There to Stay

The Cleric-Warriors
Tighten Grip With Brutal
Tactics — And Better Roadways

The Group’s Own Web Site

By Hugh Pope
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

3 September 1998
The Wall Street Journal

KABUL, Afghanistan — Along the rubble-strewn streets of this blasted capital and across the war-cratered Afghan countryside, the Taliban militia is finally getting down to the business of running a nation — as only it can.

After 20 years of civil war, and two years since taking the capital, the Taliban just last month captured the largest remaining cities held by its opponents. So the cleric-warriors now have a chance to further their crusade to impose the strictest Islamic rule in the world.

Having cowed people with public floggings and executions, the black-turbaned seminarians keep control by patrolling Kabul in four-door pickups and working networks of neighborhood informants. The militia has disarmed much of the populace: Now only its fighters are allowed to bear arms, a stark contrast with the past in towns that once bristled with private weapons.

At the same time, the Taliban is trying to revive credible government institutions — such as the central bank-rendered moribund after years of war, and is soliciting privatization bids via the World Wide Web. It also is waging a diplomatic battle to gain international acceptance. The outcome of these efforts, both at home and abroad, could sway the balance of power in one of the world’s most troubled regions and determine the pace of development of Central Asia’s vast oil reserves.

The West has long balked at recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government, citing human-rights abuses, the country’s flourishing drug trade, and the Taliban’s role in harboring terrorists. These objections were sharpened after last month’s bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the U.S.’s retaliatory missile attack on terrorist training camps here — headquarters and haven, said U.S. officials, to Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

This may strengthen a purist faction within the Taliban that rejects interaction with the outside world, says Barnett Rubin, director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This all happened at a time when they were about to have a big campaign for international recognition,” he says. “Now they’ve been targeted as a pariah state.”

Yet it now appears almost certain the West will have to live with a Taliban-run Afghanistan for a long time — even if most governments — other than Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — still recognize the ousted administration of Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Five miles from Kabul stands a modest outpost of the Taliban’s new order. Here, where a main highway plunges down from the Kabul plain into a jagged mountain gorge, state customs officers have moved back into a toll booth at a checkpoint marked by upended artillery-shell cases and a speed bump made of an old tank track. Road-tax inspectors say toll income is up fivefold over the past year at this and other points. And because highwaymen know well the severe price the Taliban government exacts on lawbreakers, roads are sufficiently free of crime for traders to safely move goods for the first time in years.

“Traffic has really increased, maybe to 200 vehicles a day,” says Mohammed Hashim, a tax inspector. “Since the Taliban came to power it has been possible to travel day and night, too. Things are going much better for merchants.”

In Kabul, the economy shows its first stirrings of life in years. Markets are again filled with supplies for weaving rugs, Afghanistan’s signature export before opium and heroin took over. (Publicly, the Taliban decries the drug trade, but the business continues largely unfettered.) The government is at last trying to take over municipal functions, long the domain of foreign-aid agencies, which the Taliban is now seeking to curtail or control.

In the government, bureaucrats are starting to repave roads and rebuild electricity lines wrecked in the 1979-89 war against the Soviets. In Jalalabad, a province east of Kabul, aid workers report a 25% increase in the number of former refugees returning to their homes this year. Crops have been good and are able to move to market. The cost of trucking goods to and from Kabul has halved in the past year. The Khyber Pass to Kabul from Pakistan is clogged with trucks.

The Taliban, which now controls three-quarters of Afghanistan, has overcome obstacles such as the country’s mountainous terrain and its many warring tribes. From the late 1970s to the late ’80s, the Mujahideen Muslim guerrillas fought a Soviet-installed government and the Russian troops who backed them; after routing the Russians, the Mujahideen battled amongst themselves; since 1994, the Taliban has battled the Mujahideen.

At the heights of what remains of the official Afghan economy, the 31-year-old minister of mines and industries, Al-Haj Mawlawi Ahmad Ahmadjan, is putting together contracts to privatize any enterprise he thinks can be viable. Expatriate Afghans are the main hope; among other steps being taken to reach them, the Taliban has put up a page on its World Wide Web site, http://www.taliban.com [http://www.taliban.com/], that lists 25 operations open to investment. Among them: cement factories, shoe factories, textile mills and a steel works.

An onyx mine in the south has been reopened after 20 years by fixing up some old machines, Mr. Ahmadjan says. Berite, coal, mica, marble and chromite mines are next on the list. “When we got here to Kabul, we started from zero,” he says. “And with the conquest of the northern part of the country, peace will come.”

It remains hard to work out exactly where the Taliban is going. The one-eyed, 36-year-old Mullah Mohammad Omar, the clergyman-general who is the Taliban’s Commander of the Faithful, is secretive. He has been obsessed with total victory in the blitzkrieg led by his seminarians, and he keeps moving men from post to post. Government ministers, often sent to lead offensives from the front, sometimes appear innocent of modern economics.

The first Taliban governor of the central bank is missing, presumed dead in battle last year. His latest successor, AlHaj Mollah Mahmad Ahmadi, struggles to define why the currency halved in value last year: The word “inflation” means little to him. The central bank hasn’t yet issued its own currency, still dependent on Afghan banknotes distributed up to now by the Taliban’s ousted enemies. “The economy, foreign investment, it will all be on the basis of Islam,” Mr. Ahmadi says, shifting his bare feet under him onto his chair.
But other members of the Taliban economic team profess a more conventional approach to economic management. At the Ministry of Finance, deputy minister Mallawi Najibullah Haqqani, 29, aims to “do as other countries do. We want to borrow money from the World Bank and other institutions.” Mr. Ahmadjan, the minister of mines, favors letting private enterprise take the lead in development. “We know that a person works on his own land better than any government organization,” he says.

Though Afghanistan remains an economic backwater, the Taliban has a chance to become a player in one of the biggest business stories of the decade: the development of the Central Asian energy industry, a keen concern of the U.S. government. If peace returns to the entire country, it is a logical route for a pipeline envisioned for getting neighboring Turkmenistan’s natural gas to market. Running from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and on to Pakistan, the line would probably require nearly $2 billion in investment. Two groups are vying to build it: Bridas Corp. of Argentina, which has built a palatial compound in Kabul to impress the Taliban, and a U.S.-Saudi consortium led by Unocal Corp. of the U.S.

“We have no preferred consortium at this stage,” Mr. Ahmadjan says. But a deputy to the Taliban’s minister of culture and information says he thinks the Unocal group may be favored because it has better resources and equipment.

Unocal executives say that the key to the pipeline is funding-and that there can be no funding without international recognition of the Taliban. That, in turn, will depend mainly on whether the Taliban can turn the stunning recent effectiveness of its war machine, drawn mainly from the Pushtuns, Afghanistan’s biggest ethnic group, into a truly national government that can embrace ethnic Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and others.

In the meantime, the Taliban is compelling allegiance to its puritanical brand of Islam with spectacles of punishment such as one that was put on this month, on a typical sabbath Friday here in the capital. The event drew several thousand youths, Taliban militants and a balcony of veiled women to the former national soccer stadium. First, workers built a bonfire of seized drugs. Then, a Taliban youth gave a man who had drunk alcohol 80 strokes with a broad strap. Finally, a burglar was anesthetized, and after he fell on his back near midfield, had his right hand surgically removed by three doctors in masks of pale-blue gauze.

“People should come here not for fun, but for a lesson,” a Taliban preacher intoned as the punishments began. His admonitions were to no avail: As the hand came off, the women jumped up from their seats to peer through their grill-fronted burqas, and the male spectators stormed onto the field for a better look.

But gauging the loyalty of the people to the Taliban is difficult, partly because outsiders are banned from private Afghan homes, and men, such as this reporter, from talking to Afghan women. In the countryside, the Taliban has made little ideological impact on people’s daily lives, largely because villagers already lead the simple lifestyle preached by the Taliban.

Reports of public beatings of women judged improperly dressed by Taliban militants are growing rare, say independent observers. “Things have got much better. The atmosphere of oppression is much less,” said Mary MacMakin, a Boston-born, 37-year resident of Kabul who regularly argues with the Taliban as they attempt to control the activities of her small aid group.

Murza Muhammad Isa Kunduzi, a big currency dealer in Kabul, complains about having to wear a long beard, frustrated like many other city men by this and other Taliban rules. But one day last month, he was smiling because the Afghan currency had jumped 10% on news of the latest Taliban victories.

“People are satisfied with the Taliban. The most important thing in a country is security,” he says. “There was no electricity for five years. Now we have it night and day. Two years ago, people were armed to the teeth protecting us here. Now we pay tax and just have one guard.”

The Turkic world’s alphabet soup

Sotsijaldy_qazaqstan - full image 1937

A 1937 Kazakh newspaper in the old transitional Latin script

News travels slowly from Central Asia, and I only just caught up with the December’s news that Kazakhstan will shift the writing of its Kazakh language to a new Latin script by 2025. Having already changed from Arabic to a previous Latin script in 1927, and then to Cyrillic in 1940, Kazakhstan won’t be the first time a state in and around Central Asia has switched, or been forced to switch, its written national literature about. One of them, Azerbaijan, has done so four times in the past century. Here’s how I wrote up the story for the Wall Street Journal a decade ago:

The Wall Street Journal, 20 October 2000

Freed of Russian Yoke,

Turkic Nations Find

They Miss the Alphabet

New Countries Proudly

Adopt Their Own

Version of ABCs; Now

Try Reading the Menu


By Hugh Pope

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

Baku street in 2000, featuring Persian-style Arabic script, new Azeri Latin script, European Latin script and Russian Cyrillic

Baku street in 2000, featuring Persian-style Arabic script, new Azeri Latin script, European Latin script and Russian Cyrillic

BAKU, Azerbaijan — When a shoe salesman here named Mehman Alimuradov had to move some footwear this summer, he faced an odd marketing problem.

First, few people could clearly recognize the store’s sign out front, which was printed in the government-imposed Latin alphabet. But if he switched to the Russian-style alphabet most people could read, he faced possible fines from inspectors.

So the 22-year-old struck a compromise: He left the store sign alone. Above it, he hung a Russian-scripted, yellow sales banner, one provisional enough to keep inspectors off his back.

“You never know what will happen tomorrow,” Mr. Alimuradov says without much thought. “This is Azerbaijan.”

It’s also one of the world’s great alphabetical messes.

Most people here speak Azeri, so oral communication isn’t a problem. Written communication is. No one can decide how to write out the Azeri language. There have been four completely different alphabets in the last 75 years, and steady replacements of various letters.

These days, at restaurants it’s common to get a menu printed in Latin script, eat your meal, and then get the check written out in Russian-style script. (Those Latin characters look like the ones you’re reading right now.) Azeri newspapers don’t offer much clarity. Most have Latin-scripted headlines, and Russian-scripted articles. At one paper, Azadliq, the only recent all-Latin article was about former president Abulfez Elchibey, who made such a presentation a condition of his interview.

In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan and others celebrated their liberation from the USSR by announcing they would junk the Cyrillic alphabet that had been imposed by Soviet rule for 50 years. Azerbaijan was joined by the nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as Tatarstan, which technically is still a republic of Russia. Altogether, it has been nine years of alphabetic fits and starts.

Changing scripts isn’t easy. There’s logistics: think street signs and textbooks. There are philosophical issues: Is it really a good idea to make it more difficult for people to read? And there are the larger realities of Central Asia: not much money, half-implemented reforms, corrupt governments, emerging ethnic rivalries and a swing back to Russia.

Take Turkmenistan. A bit larger than California, it’s full of desert, natural gas, and lavish government spending on projects such as a revolving, gold-plated statue of the president perched atop a tower in the capital. Appropriately enough, when Turkmenistan went to a Latin-script seven years ago, it briefly added three characters: $, yen, and pound sterling. These characters didn’t simply mean dollar, yen and pound. They corresponded to certain sounds spoken by the Turkmens.

In all, the “Turkic region” spreads from the Balkans to Siberia, and includes five former Soviet republics and the nation of Turkey. Each has its own spoken language, a Turkic dialect. Needless to say, life would be simpler if they all shared the same alphabet. At last count, though, the region had 21 different published scripts — in various forms of Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin.

More than 1,000 years ago, Turkic-speaking people actually wrote in a single, official script: Runic.

Then they started converting to Islam, and adopted an Arabic script. The 1500s ushered in the great Asian Prince Babur, who had tough genes. His mother had descended from Ghengis Khan, the great Mongol warrior, while his father had came down from Timur, the Turkic conqueror.

Prince Babur, who himself founded India’s Moghul dynasty, felt the Arabic script’s lack of vowels couldn’t convey the rich harmonies of spoken Turkic. He tried to reform it. But Muslim clerics controlled the alphabets and blocked the Prince’s project.

Arabic scripts finally succumbed to revolutions and intellectual fervor. In 1926, here in the port city of Baku, the region’s First Turkology Congress convened inside the expropriated palace of an oil baron to discuss the alphabet issue. In a 101-7 landslide, they picked a Latin alphabet, returning to their respective countries to spread the new gospel.

To the north, Joseph Stalin was watching all this — even as much of the region was turning to communism. The Russian leader apparently liked the conversion to Latin letters, because it separated the region from Islamic countries to the south. But Stalin also wanted his own control. So, in the late 1930s, he imposed Russian-style, Cyrillic alphabets. To help drive a wedge among the Turkic nations, he assigned unique Cyrillic characters depending on the nation. So, even though Turkic dialects had the same sounds, those sounds were written differently.

These unique alphabets, in turn, further altered how people pronounced words, which further fragmented the region.

In 1992, a year after the Soviet Union collapsed, Turkey organized a modern-day alphabet congress. Academics arrived from throughout the region, and agreed on a standard 34-character, Latin alphabet — one based on Turkey’s script. Everyone promised to go home and preach another Latin conversion. But few had much sway with the ex-Communist governments.

Azerbaijan, a country the size of Maine, has made the most progress — particularly given wrenching problems, like a six-year war in the mountains separating it from Armenia that displaced one-tenth of its population. Many Azerbaijani kids now can read their native Azeri language in Latin. But they can’t read all the Azeri literature and history printed in Russian-style Cyrillic. Their parents, meantime, can’t read newly published books. In public spaces and on billboards, there’s now a kaleidoscope of Cyrillic, Latin, even some Arabic.

Elsewhere, alphabet conversions have gone even slower. One big problem: Because the Turkic states were just freed of the Soviet Union, they feared a new big brother in Turkey. So, even those who went Latin did so on their own terms.

Meanwhile, businesses throughout the region still use Russian for conversations. So do Turkic presidents, while speaking at regional summits. For many younger people, oddly enough, Russian now is seen as cool.

Recently, a young man walking through historic, downtown Baku — near the confused shoe store — turned his head when two young women walked by, not just because they were pretty, but also because their spoken Russian made them sound sophisticated. And, where Russian is spoken, of course, Russian is written — which means the Cyrillic script.

Many feel that the Internet will ultimately drive people to Latin scripts. But this isn’t easy either. The idiosyncratic variations on the Cyrillic alphabet that Stalin imposed aren’t readily available on computers. So Turkic cybersurfers make do by adopting obscure letters from well-known American computer fonts, which of course aren’t part of the 34-character Latin alphabet established at the Turkey linguistic confab eight years ago.

And there’s always politics, in places like Uzbekistan, a large, dusty nation whose oasis cities like Samarkand evoke the famed Silk Road to China. In 1993, a nationwide committee adopted a Latin alphabet — with a goal of full conversion by 2000. Tellingly, the committee had more provincial governors than linguists.

By 1995, relations soured with Turkey. Uzbekistan changed two Turkish-style consonants to English-style “ch” and “sh.” And controversy remains about writing an “o” script when you’re saying an “a” sound. One result of all the manipulations: When Uzbeks write “Isaac, ” people elsewhere read “donkey.”

The new alphabet doesn’t sit well with everyone. “It’s so ugly. I can’t bear to see it,” says Mohammed Salih, Uzbekistan’s opposition Erk Party leader, speaking by telephone from his exiled home in Norway. A poet, he chooses to write in Cyrillic rather than what he sees as a bastardized script.

“If we come to power,” Mr. Salih says, “we’ll have to modify the Latin alphabet again.”