Matthew Leeming

The making of the Taleban

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Christina Lamb

HarperCollins, pp. 338, £

I saw the first tourists arriving in Afghanistan this summer. I saw their incredulity at the graveyard of crumpled aeroplanes at Kabul airport and at the Hazara suburb of the city that looks like Berlin in 1945. The question everyone asked was: how did this happen? How did a country famous for its hospitality and poetry sleepwalk back into the Middle Ages? In future the tourists will be carrying this book. As an account of how the country got into its present state, and of the making of the grotesque regime of the Taleban, it could not possibly be bettered. Lamb saw much of the tragedy at first hand and has known well or interviewed the main protagonists, from the current head of state, Hamid Kharzai (with whom she travelled to the front line during the jihad), to Benazir Bhutto (who invited her to her wedding).

She describes how the US subcontracted the war against the Russians to Pakistan, which meant its sinister secret service, the ISI. Benazir Bhutto admitted to Lamb that she did not know what they were up to when she was prime minister. Many in the ISI were motivated not just by hatred of communism - the author records that the ex-head of the ISI has a commemorative piece of the Berlin wall in his sitting-room - but also by Islamic fundamentalism. The Americans may have imagined they could use one but not the other. The ISI dished out billions of dollars of weaponry throughout the 1980s to create seven competing mujahedin factions. The ISI also had a rational realpolitik reason: they wanted to see a Pashtun regime in power in Afghanistan. If power was held by the more civilised Persian-speakers of the north, the Pashtun south would start agitating again for their own state of Pashtunistan. If they got it, the lawless Pashtun tribal areas in Pakistan (where most of the Taleban leaders are now safely living) would want to join. Pakistan could not survive the secession of a province. One imagines that Musharraf was reassured by the Americans that they will not let this happen before the current government, dominated as it is by Persian-speakers, was installed.

The book's other strength is its description of the psychological and social pressures that created a generation of young men as weird as the Taleban. Ahmed Rashid's authoritative account of the movement sets out much the same analysis of the making of the Taleban, but Lamb's is brilliant in its human detail. The only hope of a semi-decent life for boys born in the refugee camps of Quetta and Peshawar is to go to a madrasseh - in theory a theological college but in fact a brainwashing camp. Lamb on her travels sees one of the alternatives: seven-year-olds sold by their parents to a brickmaker, working 14-hour days at his kiln. The madrassehs offer food and education - if rote learning chunks of the Quran in a language they cannot understand can be dignified with that name - at the cost of complete separation from family and females. One woman had not been allowed to hug her son since he was eight; the pupils are told that talking to, or even looking at, a woman will send them straight to hell. Given the mad logic of the religion, it is not difficult to understand why, when the ISI pushed these abused boys to power in Kabul, they wanted to cut off the fingers of any woman with painted nails.

Lamb does not speculate about the future. But while my journeys this summer left me with a sense of hope for the first time in ten years of visiting this beautiful country, she has uncovered tendencies that make one despair. Perhaps this is because she has not travelled outside the three main cities and into the countryside, where life goes on as it has done for hundreds of years. For the Afghans she talked to the Quran is the blueprint for everything. Even opponents of the Taleban have not thought their way out of this intellectual cul-de-sac. A typical Afghan condemnation is, 'This was a kind of Islam the Prophet would not have tolerated.' She meets a high court judge who says, 'I am a liberal. I will order the use of smaller stones [in executions] so they have more chance of getting away.' One finishes this powerful book with a depressed feeling that the only hope for this country is to shoot all the mullahs and impose a Western, secular, liberal democracy at gunpoint.

Matthew Leeming is taking parties to Afghanistan in 2003 in association with the Afghan Ministry of Tourism. Email