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Chaos After Soviet Withdrawal Gave Rise To Taliban

Our five-part series on Afghanistan continues with a look at what happened after Soviet forces pulled out of the country in 1989. Various factions of mujahedeen -- or holy warriors -- took control but then quickly began to fight among themselves. And that continued bloodshed among the warlords gave rise to the radical Taliban movement.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

All this week on the program, we're talking about Afghanistan. The Obama administration is now in the middle of another major review of its strategy there. Today, we're going to focus on what happened after Soviet forces pulled out of the country in 1989.

Various factions of mujahedeen, or holy warriors, took control, but then they quickly began to fight among themselves. And that continued bloodshed between warlords gave rise to the radical Taliban movement.

As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, many of those same warlords are back in power, as part of the U.S.-backed government.

QUIL LAWRENCE: The mujahedeen, a patchwork army of Islamist guerrillas, bolstered with copious funding from Washington, defeated the Soviet army in 1989. What they couldn't do was unite to govern Afghanistan.

Unidentified Woman: One day after the Afghan capital Kabul fell to rebel troops, fierce fighting has broken out between rival factions of the mujahedeen.

LAWRENCE: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks: At one time or another, almost every single faction fought every other faction. In the chaos, the communist government was able to hold on in the capital for three whole years after the Soviets left. When it finally came, the liberation of Kabul turned into violent mayhem, leaving the capital city in ruins.

(Soundbite of hammering)

Aliabad Hospital is only now, 18 years later, being repaired. In late summer of 1992, Dr. Farid Adil(ph), then a young abdominal surgeon, found himself caught in a crossfire.

Dr. FARID ADIL: And every places in Kabul, at Kabul city, fighting. A lot of bomb explosions, a lot of rockets.

LAWRENCE: From the mountain behind the hospital, Ahmad Shah Massoud's forces were lobbing rockets. Down the hill in front of the hospital, ethnic Hezara militiamen shot back from inside crowded neighborhoods.

The two groups had fought side by side against the Soviets. Now, they bombarded one another with no regard for civilians or the hospital stuck between them.

Dr. ADIL: We stay there until 3 o'clock at night.

LAWRENCE: During a pre-dawn lull in the maelstrom, 300 doctors, nurses and patients fled the building. Leaving a few men behind with the patients who couldn't walk, Dr. Adil and the hospital staff scampered up the hill and appealed to the soldiers to let them pass. Then the holy warriors swept in and looted the hospital.

The same chaos affected Kandahar, says Waheed Muzdah, a former official in the Taliban government.

Mr. WAHEED MUZDAH (Former Taliban Official): It was not jihad, but it was fighting for power, and a lot of people in that time was against this war and especially a group, a big group of former mujahedeen. It was Taliban.

LAWRENCE: When gunmen at a militia checkpoint outside Kandahar began raping women, locals sought out a former mujahedeen commander named Mullah Omar, and the Taliban movement was born, says Muzdah.

Mr. MUZDAH: Mullah Omar said now, this is another jihad. We should start this jihad against these thieves and these bad people. And they came and attacked this checkpost and killed all the people that was there and hang the man who was responsible for this bad thing.

LAWRENCE: At first even some of the other mujahedeen commanders welcomed the Taliban. Some in the international community saw them as a force for order. Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist and author.

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Journalist; Author): When I first met them in '94, they said we don't want to take power. We don't want to rule the country. You know, there was an element of kind of innocence about them.

And then they got picked up very quickly by Pakistan and then, you know, I think they were perhaps manipulated quite to a large extent. And after the first year, they became just one more warlord faction.

LAWRENCE: In the beginning, civilians welcomed them, if only to be rid of the depravity of the mujahedeen. Sima Samar, Afghanistan's Human Rights commissioner, says it didn't last long.

Mr. SIMA SAMAR (Human Rights Commissioner, Afghanistan): They stopped the women from going outside and all those, and the claim was that we just protect them. '96, they took Kabul. In '98, they took Mazar and Bamiyan and those area. And then they showed their real face.

LAWRENCE: Ethnic Hazaras like Samar, who are Shiite Muslims, were singled out for the worst treatment. The Taliban massacred thousands of Hazaras in areas like Bamiyan and Mazar e Sharif.

(Soundbite of kicking a ball)

Here outside Kabul's Olympic soccer stadium, some kids are kicking a ball around. This is perhaps the symbol that caught the world's attention: The Taliban executed people publicly in this stadium. They cut off the hands of those accused of theft. They stoned to death women who were accused of adultery. And in many ways, this behavior put the Taliban regime beyond the pale and made them an international pariah.

In addition, the Taliban were getting closer to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, with their plans for global jihad. A showdown with the West seemed inevitable; it came on September 11th.

For the most part, Afghans welcomed the American-led invasion that ousted the Taliban a few months later. The problem was who the Americans came in with: the same warlords who had ruined Kabul the last time they had the chance. Ahmed Rashid.

Mr. RASHID: After 2001, the fact was that the Americans depended on the warlords to maintain security and maintain their interests in the country. The warlords were being paid to maintain their militias by the CIA, by the Americans for years and years.

The warlords then changed into becoming businessmen, and some of them became involved in the drugs trade. Then they became parliamentarians. It's been a nonstop process.

LAWRENCE: The U.S.-backed president of the new Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, seemed for a time to be carefully pushing the warlords out of his government and trying to demobilize their militias. But somewhere along the way, that process turned around.

When Karzai ran for re-election in 2009, he invited several of the most notorious alleged war criminals on to his ticket. They in turn delivered hundreds of thousands of votes for Karzai in a widely discredited election.

(Soundbite of hammering)

Dr. Farid Adil, at Aliabad hospital, has watched the careers of those warlords soar.

Dr. ADIL: They have good position in the - our country.

LAWRENCE: The people who destroyed this hospital, they're now in the government?

Dr. ADIL: Yeah, all of them.

LAWRENCE: The parliament, also full of former commanders, passed an amnesty law in 2007 for anyone engaged in the civil war. And now the men who destroyed Kabul drive convoys of SUVs around the city and live in gaudy mansions in the middle of town.

Most historians agree the mujahedeen government gave rise to the Taliban in the 1990s. Many also cite the continuing power of these warlords as a reason that the Taliban insurgency is gaining purchase today.

Quil Lawrence, NPR news, Kabul.

BLOCK: Tomorrow we continue our series on Afghanistan with a profile of President Hamid Karzai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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