In 2000, the Taleban celebrated Afghan Independence Day with military parades and cultural events. A year later, they were focussing heavily on the military. As AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, (then the BBC Kabul correspondent), reported at the time, during those 12 months, hardliners in the movement had come even more strongly into the ascendant, as the Taleban smashed statues and moved into a closer relationship with their foreign ‘guests’, as they termed the foreign militants. Below are two reports she filed on 19 August 2001.
CUE: It’s Independence Day in Afghanistan. The Taleban are planning huge military parades to show off their pre-eminent strength in the country. A year ago, there were cultural as well as military celebrations. The Taleban opened the national museum for the first time in a decade.* Six months later, their policy on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage was turned on its head as the Taleban destroyed pre-Islamic statues. The BBC Afghanistan correspondent, Kate Clark looks back at a year when Taleban cultural and military strategies have both become increasingly hard-line.
[Archive sound of marching from celebrations in 2000]
NARRATOR The sounds of Independence Day a year ago. The Taleban held the first military parade in the Afghan capital since the days of the Soviet-backed communist government. A small number of cadets and elite corps marched past in formation, eyes turned smartly right towards the leadership sitting on a podium. Then the real Taleban came. Hundreds of pick-up trucks, filled with men, lounging in their black shalwar chemise and plastic sandals, carrying Kalashnikov rifles and rocket launchers. Pick ups are the equivalent of Panzer tanks in Afghanistan’s low-tech, civil war – able to scorch across the hostile terrain.**
[Archive from 2000 – poetry being read]
NARRATOR Music and clapping are both banned. But poetry and chants praised God, the nation and the Taleban. It was a rare chance to see the Taleban leadership – everyone was gathered at the parade except the supreme leader, the reclusive Mullah Omar. Like Kremlin watchers during the Cold War, we scanned the seating arrangements, trying to work out who was in the ascendant.
At the centre were the hardliners whose influence has become increasingly evident in the last twelve months.
[Note to Afghan Section: Mullah Dadullah was in the centre, along with the Justice, Defence and Interior ministers, while Mullah Rabani, Mutawakil etc were on the edges.***]
A year ago, Afghanistan’s Independence Day was celebrated with cultural as well as military events. The Taleban opened the national museum – for the first time in a decade. They boasted how much better they were than their predecessors, the mujahedin who’d looted most of the collection. The Taleban President of the Museum outlining the official cultural policy of the day, said it was reasonable to have Buddhist and Hindu artefacts as well as Islamic exhibits.
Naqibullah Ahmad Yar, Taleban President of the Museum (recorded August 2000)
‘It’s nothing to do with ideology. It’s about the culture and history of the country and how the country has been defined by them. We’re not opposed to this exhibition in principle – because the exhibits are part of our history. And everything which happens in the country becomes part of the country and the government is obliged to preserve it.’
NARRATOR But it seems the public opening of the museum brought its existence to the attention of hardliners within the Taleban. After months of internal debate, there was an abrupt change of cultural policy. Moderates were side-lined and anything considered blasphemous in the eyes of God was destroyed. A year ago, I took some of the last film of the pre-Islamic statues in the museum.
[Archive from March 2001 of sound of blast]
They now lie in rubble, along with the colossal, centuries-old, carvings of the Buddha at Bamian. Taleban military tactics have also become increasingly hard-line.
[Archive recitation of Qu’ran, recorded September 2000]
NARRATOR The keeper of a Muslim shrine about an hour’s drive west of Bamian, Haji Ismail, recites from a stone inscribed by his grandfather with a verse from the Qu’ran.**** Haji Ismail was a champion swimmer in his youth, before he lost a leg during the jihad against the Soviet Union.
[Archive interview – recorded September 2000.]
Haji Ismail was among one hundred and seventy men and teenage boys killed by Taleban troops in January.***** His crime was to be from the same ethnic group and Muslim sect as opposition fighters who’d briefly captured the area. Eye-witnesses said Taleban troops pretended he was a lame opposition commander, joking as they beat him to death just outside his home.
The Taleban denied the killings, but refused to allow journalists to visit the area. The campaigning group, Human Rights Watch, did manage to send a researcher in – who filmed mass graves, bullet-ridden caps lying in blood-spattered snow and four hours of interviews with eye-witnesses and survivors – among them this man.
ACTUALITY IN PERSIAN
‘They lined us up; I was the first. One of them said, this is your destiny that we will kill you. And I said that’s alright, if you want to kill us. They started shooting and I fell to the ground. I heard their pickups about to start and one of them said to cover us with earth. Another said, ‘No, they’re the children of the opposition. We don’t have to bury them.’ Then they left. Only me and two others were left alive, but one of them was injured. We managed to get him home, but he passed away.’
The district of Yakawlang in the centre of Afghanistan has since changed hands half a dozen times this year. Civilians can only flee as successive waves of fighting crash over them – desperately returning to sow seeds and water crops, trying to survive a year already made dangerous by drought.
NARRATOR A western diplomat describes his frustration as he’s refused consular access to nationals under arrest after the Taleban accused them of spreading Christianity.****** The Taleban religious police say they have written confessions and Christian material seized from the agency. They also rounded up sixteen Afghans – suspected only, it seems, because they’d worked with the foreigners.
It’s still unclear what charges or punishments the detainees could face, but officials have refused to rule out the death penalty. The world is now watching to see if the Taleban will take their country deeper into international isolation.
Independence Day/update rockets dubious/update 2 with Omar comments 19 August 2001
CUE: The Taleban have been holding a military parade in the Afghan capital Kabul to celebrate eighty-two years of the country’s independence. Earlier reports said several missiles had been fired on the capital, just as Taleban jetfighters and helicopters took over to fly over the parade. Other reports say the explosions were just Taleban troops on the outskirts of the city firing their weapons in celebration. The BBC Afghanistan correspondent, Kate Clark, reports.
Independence Day has been a chance for the Taleban to show off their military strength – they’re better armed than the opposition, with much more territory under their control to recruit or conscript fighters from and they have the only military planes in the country. After seven years of fighting their aim, is still to capture the whole of Afghanistan.
Most of the Taleban leadership had gathered to watch the parade. Their supreme leader, the reclusive Mullah Omar, was absent, but leaders from several pro-Taleban parties from Pakistan had come. One banner read: Infidels were plotting against Muslims and Afghans, but their conspiracies are doomed to failure. Another warned that Afghanistan was a graveyard for invaders – a reference to the fact that the country has never been colonised.
But many Afghans will be asking how independent their country really is. The most common explanation given for the continuing civil war is foreign interference. Both sides receive military backing by neighbouring countries. And the Taleban use foreigners as part of their forces – Pakistanis, Arabs and Central Asians. The Taleban say it’s the right of every Muslim to join in what they call a jihad – or holy war. But reports from the frontline say it’s the foreign militants who are increasingly the shock troops in Taleban ranks.
It’s eighty-two years since King Amanullah declared an independent state after the third and final defeat of the British army in Afghanistan. But it’s clear that most Afghans today feel they have no control over their nation’s destiny.
The Taleban supreme leader Mullah Omar stayed away in his southern stronghold of Kandahar, but sent a speech which was read out at the parade. He said the defence of the basics of Islam and of Afghanistan was the responsibility of the entire Muslim world, saying the Taliban were defending Islamic values and the sovereignty of Afghanistan. It was an appeal for Muslim governments to support the Taleban. But only three states – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate – recognise the Taleban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. And only Pakistan has full diplomatic relations. Most Muslim states find the Taleban’s brand of Islam far too extreme to countenance.
* I also attended a cultural exhibition in 2000. I went along out of a sense of duty, having been invited, and to encourage anything remotely cultural in Taleban-drab Kabul. I filed the following newscopy for the BBC Persian and Pashto Sections. Typically, such attempts to be helpful backfired. The following day, the organisers came to the bureau and begged me to amend the story and say women were NOT allowed entry. Amr bil-marouf had gone berserk…
Newscopy Exhibition 19 August 2000
In the Afghan capital, Kabul, a public exhibition of trade and commerce has been put on to mark the eighty-first anniversary of independence. Tomorrow is the last day of the exhibition; but the organisers have put in a request for an extra two or three days which would be women-only. There are displays of traditional crafts, like carpet and silk weaving. And a room of some Afghanistan’s few manufactured products – like soap, cloth, cut marble and metal-work – and food products. The exhibition is in the east of city near the old Kabul cinema.
A year later, Thomas Ruttig recalls, the exhibition had grown:
‘It was held at Chaman-e Huzur and reminded me of a Soviet habit, the ‘exhibition of economic achievements of socialism’, in this case, there were displays of wheat, ores, all kinds of fruit and vegetables and the output of Kabul University – brochures and some books. Also on display were the cars of the former kings from the museum, probably as an example of ‘decadent bourgeois lifestyle’.
** The Taleban brought everything that could be driven, mounted or carried for the march past, including, and this is something I can’t remember, but which Thomas had double sourced (being UN, he was not allowed to attend), ‘two wooden rowing boats, drawn by much larger trucks, at the end of the column.’
*** The then Minister of Justice was Nuruddin Turabi, of Defence was Obaidullah Akhund and of Interior was Abdul Razaq. Dadullah was the Taleban’s most feared and one of their most able field commanders. Mullah Muhammad Rabbani was head of the Kabul shura and seen as having a position equivalent to prime minister and of ranking second in importance to Mullah Omar. He died of cancer in hospital in Pakistan in April 2001. Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil was then Taleban Foreign Minister.
**** The shrine on the banks of Band-e Amir marks the place where Hazrat Ali prayed after he killed the dragon in Bamian and defeated the tyrant there. The stone was and still is in the shrine inscribed with Surat-e Ikhlas. (For more detail, see here)
***** This was not the first Taleban massacre of civilians whom they linked with the opposition Northern Alliance because of ethnicity or sect. However, it was the first massacre where a researcher managed to get to the site within days to collect evidence, speak to survivors and witnesses and film both them and the mass graves. For detailed reporting of this and other Taleban massacres, see ‘Afghanistan Justice Project, Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, 1978–2001 – Documentation and Analysis of Major Patterns of Abuse in the War in Afghanistan (2005), here.
****** The editor demanded a reference to the detained Christians who had been caught proselytising, as it was then the top story. I didn’t think it fitted the main subject then; nor do I now.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020