Dr. Eqbal Ahmed was born in Bihar, India in 1933. He migrated to Pakistan in 1947. He earned his PhD in Political Science and Middle Eastern History from Princeton. He taught at University of Illinois at Chicago and Cornell University. In the 60's he became known as one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of American policies in Vietnam and Cambodia. Dr. Ahmed died in Islamabad on May 11, 1999.
According to David Barsamain, Eqbal Ahmed was a rare combination of scholar and activist. He not only shared his knowledge with progressive movements for social change but he participated in them. He cared about people and he cared about justice.
David Barsamian is the producer of the award-winning syndicated radio program Alternative Radio. He is a regular contributor to The Progressive and Z Magazine. He interviewed Dr. Eqbal Ahmed in August 1998. Following is an excerpt from an interview with him.
Moving to Afghanistan and the evolving situation there. The Taliban movement, you suggest in an article, has connections with not just Pakistan but also with the United States.
Afghanistan has suffered criminal neglect at the hands of the United States and its media. In 1979 and 1980, when the Afghan people started resisting Soviet intervention, the whole of America and Europe mobilized on their side. For the media, it was such a big story that CBS paid money to stage a battle that it could broadcast as an exclusive. Afghanistan was in the news every day. It disappeared from the news the day the Soviets withdrew. Then, Afghanistan was abandoned by the media, by the American government, by American academics, and as a result by the American people. These people who fought the West's battle with the West's money and with the West's arms, and in the process distorted themselves, distorted Pakistan, and contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union, found themselves totally abandoned after the Cold War. The Taliban's rise takes place in that vacuum.
The Afghan mujahideen fell to fighting with each other. They were all both warriors and drug smugglers. They were known to the CIA as drug smugglers.... There are ten factions shooting at each other, and something new develops. The Soviet Union falls apart. Its constituent republics become independent. Among those are the six Soviet republics of Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan, and Azerbaijan. These six Central Asian republics, whose majority population is Muslim, are very close to or bordering on Afghanistan, and also happen to be oil- and gas-rich states. So far their gas and oil has passed through the Soviet Union ... but now a new game starts: How is this oil and gas going to go out to the world?
At this point, American corporations move in.
The American corporations want, obviously, to get hold of the oil and gas. After the Cold War, who controls which resource at whose expense and at what price? Corporations like Texaco, Amoco, and Unocal start going into Central Asia to get hold of these oil and gas fields. But how are they going to get the oil and gas out? ... Through Turkey and via Afghanistan to Pakistan are two possibilities. Iran is the third, but they don't want to put any pipelines in Iran because Iran is an adversary of America. Therefore, Pakistan and Afghanistan become the places through which they are likely to take pipelines. And then they can cut the Russians out.
President Clinton made personal telephone calls to the presidents of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan, urging them to sign pipeline contracts that together amount to billions, These pipelines would go through Turkey and via Afghanistan to Pakistan and take oil to the tankers that would meet them at the ports. The pipeline would go through Afghanistan. Both Pakistan and the United States ... pick the most murderous, by far the most crazy of Islamic fundamentalist groups, the Taliban, to ensure the safety of the pipelines.
The Taliban are anti-women Some of the highest U.S. officials have been visiting and talking to them. The general impression in our region is that the United States has been supporting them.
How do you know that high Clinton administration officials have been meeting with the Taliban?
From very insignificant lines in the New York Times and Washington Post. I have no private information. These are published facts. But they are written in such a way that, unless you are watching very closely, you don't pick it up.
Why would the U.S. support what you describe as the most crazy, most anti-women, most fundamentalist formation in Afghanistan to advance their geopolitical interests? Were not other groups available?
These were deemed the most reliable, perhaps for good reason. In Afghanistan there are four major ethnic groups. There are the Uzbeks who live in the northern region, near Uzbekistan. There are the Hazaras. They are Persian-speaking among whom Iran would exercise influence. Therefore, they are not totally reliable. The Tajiks are also Persian speaking They have been under Russian influence, but since they are Persian-speaking, Iranian influence on them is potentially strong.
The Taliban come from the Pakhtoon ethnic grouping. They are the majority people. They have a large presence in Pakistan, where we have something like 15 million Pakhtoons. Pakistan has been an old ally of the United States. Its loyalties have been tested. It's much better to have the pipelines under the control of people upon whom the government of Pakistan can exercise some influence, upon whom Iran will have no influence.
The Pakhtoons are Sunnis. The Tajiks are partially Shiias, partially Sunnis. The Hazaras are entirely Shiia. The Uzbeks are Sunni, but their loyalties are divided. They have never been tested. So there are a lot of ethnic considerations, ethnic politics, and historical ties involved.
The U.S. concern is not who is fundamentalist and who is progressive, who treats women nicely and who treats them badly. That's not the issue. The issue is who is more likely to ensure the safety of the oil resources that the United States or its corporations could control?
One of the leaders of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. His name has been consistently linked with gun- running and drug smuggling. Do you have any information on him?
I met him several times. I don't think he is worse than anyone else. He's a bit more of a killer. He is also more progressive more modem, much more sensible towards women, for example- than the Taliban.
The Taliban is as retrograde a group as you can find. Their power base is Qandahar, a southern province of Afghanistan Last year- I spent two weeks there. One day, I heard drums and noises outside the house where I was staying. I rushed out to see what was going on. In this ruined bazaar, destroyed by bombs and fighting from the war, there was a young boy. He couldn't have been more than twelve. His head was shaved. There's a rope around his neck. He is being pulled by that rope in the bazaar. There is a man behind him with a drum. The man slowly beats the drum, dum, dum, dum. The boy is being dragged through the street. I asked, "What has he done?" People said he was caught red handed. I thought. This is a twelve- year- old kid. What could he have been doing? They said, "He was caught red handed playing ball." I said, "what kind of ball?" "A tennis ball." "What's wrong with that?" "It's forbidden."
I went off to interview one of the Taliban leaders. He said, "We have forbidden playing ball by boys." I asked why. He said, "Because when boys are playing ball it constitutes undue temptation to men." The Same logic that makes them lock up women behind veils and behind walls makes them prevent boys from playing games. It's that kind of madness.
Another time I found the watchman where I was staying literally weeping and very agitated. I asked, "What happened to you?" He said, "They took my radio." I said, "What the hell were you doing? Why did they take your radio?" He said, "I was listening to a singer."
Music is banned under the Taliban. People who will ban music and play are, I would say, fifty light years behind the Iranian Islamic regime.
Robin Raphael, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, an appointee and college friend of Bill Clinton, flew out on a helicopter from Islamabad to meet with the Taliban leaders in Qandahar. So let them not tell me anything about human rights issues in China, of all places. The U.S. government officials lie when they talk about human rights. They're a bunch of hypocrites and liars. You can't take it seriously.
"Eqbal Ahmad was that rare thing, an intellectual unintimitated by power or authority...Perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist of Asia and Africa." -Edward W. Said