Afghanistan's agony seems endless. Thousands of Afghans are starving. Hundreds of thousands have become internal refugees after two years of terrible draught and famine. Three million Afghans remain refugees in Pakistan and Iran.
Enraged by Afghanistan's sheltering of Osama Bin Laden, the US has imposed punishing sanctions and near-total isolation on this shattered nation.
Russia is infiltrating troops and weapons into northern Afghanistan. India, China, and the Central Asian states have allied against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement in Kabul. Almost every hand is raised against Afghanistan, which continues to suffer and bleed after 22 years of war.
So what does Taliban's leadership do?just as the world's 1.2 billion Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan?
Like the legendary Don Quixote de la Mancha, who tilted at windmills, believing them evil giants, Taliban's leader, Mullah Omar, proclaimed al l-out war against two 1,500-year old statues of the Buddha carved into sandstone cliffs in Bamiyan province. He ordered them destroyed forthwith. These towering idols, 175 and 120 feet high, are the most impressive relics of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic era, when much of the population was Buddhist.
As Taliban soldiers blasted away at the statues with heavy machine guns and explosives, the world pleaded with the Islamic Don Quixotes of Kabul to halt their vandalism. But Taliban's fierce mullahs refused to be deterred from their jihad against idolatry, though they agreed to a temporary delay. Islamic strictly bans any form of idols and their worship. This has led many Sunni Muslims to oppose all religious artifacts and ban depiction of the human form in art.
The notoriously stubborn Afghans refused to heed worldwide pleas, including from the UN, many Muslim nations, and Islamic leaders, to spare the statutes. Taliban rejected offers by museums to buy the Buddhas. `We must strike down idolatry,' thundered Kabul's later-day Savanarolas.
Muslims in general, and Taliban, in particular, have an uncanny knack for negative public relations. Think of the bloodcurdling but empty threats made in 1967 by the PLO's windbag spokesman, Ahmad Shukairy: `we are going to drive the Jews into the sea.' Such ludicrous bombast gave Israel a perfect pretext to attack its Arab neighbors. Of Col. Khadaffi's clownish threats, and Saddam's `Mother of All Battles' that turned into a catastrophe.
Taliban ended anarchy in Afghanistan, brought peace to 90% of the country, largely halted the opium poppy trade, and is holding off Russian attempts to infiltrate northern Afghanistan. In spite of these important accomplishments, the rural clerics, rustic mountaineers, and religious seminarians who make up Taliban have managed to incur the wrath of the outside world by foolish acts of medievalism, such as forcing women to go veiled from head to toe, stoning alleged adulterers, and, now, in the supreme act of demented anti-public relations, blowing up the giant Buddhas.
It should be noted Taliban is not the world's only destroyer of religious sites or art. The greatest destruction of religious and laic art in our era occurred under Chairman Mao during China's Cultural Revolution. In Bosnia and Kosova, Serb forces blew up large numbers of old mosques and Muslim shrines, without a peep of protest from the west. In 1992, Indian mobs, incited by Hindu extremists of the now ruling BJP party, torn down an ancient Muslim mosque, the Babri Masjid., and threatened to `cleanse' India of all Muslim-era holy places, palaces, and artifacts.
Still, why would Taliban leaders act in such a self-defeating and foolish manner?
First, to petulantly strike back at the US, which is now punishing Afghanistan the way it did with Iraq, and, in league with Russia, trying to overthrow Taliban.
The Buddha outrage reminds be of my godfather, a Balkan nobleman and soldier of fortune, who married a Spanish duchess. Whenever they had a fight, which was often, he used to take his favorite .45 automatic and shoot her collection of priceless Majollica ceramics. As each plate exploded into fragments, the count roared with laughter while the duchess screamed in horror and agony.
Second, as the result of a power struggle inside Taliban between isolationist and more moderate factions. The former says `to hell with the outside world?we defeated the Soviet Union and won't be told what to do by anyone.' The moderates urge better relations with the west and Afghanistan's nervous neighbors. Washington's intensifying war against Taliban has emboldened the extremists and sidelined the moderates.
Pakistan, Taliban's main supporter, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has only limited influence over Taliban's hardliners. Islamabad has been repeatedly frustrated in attempts to soften Kabul's policies and image. In fact, no one has much influence over Taliban's wildmen, who pride themselves, in true Afghan style, in rebuffing all outside pressure, as the refusal to hand old comrade-in-arms Osama Bin Laden to the Americans shows. The Afghans fear no one, a fact that infuriates the great powers who are unused to having a small nation thumb its collective nose at them.
However wanton and stupid, the destruction of the Bamiyan statues should not divert us from the fact that Russia is steadily reasserting its influence in strategic Afghanistan. No matter how unlikeable, Taliban remains Afghanistan's only legitimate government and the sole bulwark against Russian southern expansion.