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Who conceived the Taliban?

Major General Naseerullah Babar is no more. The Hindustan Times report calls him the ‘father of the Taliban’. Well, that is a debatable point. Taliban was conceived in darkness and who exactly fathered the Talibs will remain in darkness, too, unless you happened to be right there when it all happened. Taliban certainly don’t have Babar’s DNA. He was a dashing, whiskey-drinking, back-slapping retired general who loved the social scene and embassy parties. My belief is that Fazl-ur-Rahman was the real father of the Taliban. Babar was, let us say, a distantly-related, rich, step-uncle from NWFP with no children who was willing to adopt the Taliban as his flock for purely selfish reasons. 

Babar’s role as interior minister in Benazir Bhutto’s government (1993-96) certainly made all the difference to the Taliban’s rise in those formative years. He did a lot to remove the image of the Talibs as country bumpkins. Not many would know that Babar played a key role in bringing about proximity between the Taliban and Rashid Dostum (which later helped Taliban to capture the Amu Darya region in 1998.) When Taliban attacked Herat in 1995, Dostum’s “air force” strafed Ismail Khan’s rear columns and Khan had to flee to Iran in disarray. Yes, indeed, Dostum helped Taliban capture Herat -quicksands of Afghan politics! Later, once I happened to be in Shibirghan (Dostum’s citadel an hour’s drive to the west from Mazar-i-Sharif) when Babar arrived there suddenly with a big Taliban delegation including late Mullah Rabbani (who was Taliban number two at that time under Mullah Omar and who went on to head the first Taliban government in Kabul in 1996.) Dostum later narrated to me how the meeting went. Babar made a big presentation as to the Taliban’s political agenda, insisting that Dostum had nothing to fear if they expanded their ‘political activity’ to the Amu Darya region. After that, he took his baton (like all those Sandhurst-trained guys of his generation, he always carried a baton even while in civvies),tapped Rabbani hard on his shoulder and shouted: ‘Why are you keeping quiet? Don’t you have something to say?’ Dostum said he could see Mullah Rabbani literally squirm with embarrassment in being belittled in the presence of other Afghans. Of course, Pakistan later double-crossed Dostum and he fled to Ankara in 1998.
Babar’s period still remains largely unexplained. No one seems interested to ask questions. So, myths have flourished about the Taliban’s infancy. Curious that Benazir and Babar, two urbane politicians, should have thought up the Taliban as an instrument of state policy. Maybe, as Imtiaz Ahmad writes in HT, they were motivated by “strategic consideration”. Maybe, they wanted the US to get “re-engaged” with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Maybe Big Oil prompted Babar.  Anyway, the story goes that ISI inherited Taliban from Babar. Most of 1994-95, ISI continued to view Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as their favourite. But Babar could as well have been the ISI’s ‘project manager’. Some secrets will lie buried with him.      

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