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Extreme Regimes

Extreme Regimes

The Khmer Rouge And The Taliban


"Maybe, if the World had been paying a little more attention, the Twin Buddhas would be standing there now. Maybe the Twin Towers would be standing there now." -Hamid Karzai, Chairman, Afghan Interim Administration

At first glance there might seem to be little similarity between the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban. It's true, of course, that both regimes used brutal methods to impose harsh policies on subject populations with ultimately disastrous consequences. Thus the Khmer Rouge dictatorship which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 sought to establish a classless, atheistic society moving forward "in great leaping bounds" towards an avowed goal of pure communism. By contrast the Islamic Amirate through which Taliban controlled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 looked definitively backwards to a notional Golden Age, based on re-establishing the mores of Islam in early 7th century Arabia. What could possibly be more different?

And yet, as is increasingly clear, the Khmer Rouge and Taliban shared much in common, and for remarkably similar reasons. To begin with, both movements were able to seize power as a direct consequence of cynical Cold War realpolitik exercised by the great powers of the time--the USA and the Soviet Union--as well as by China.

Cambodia, aptly defined by William Shawcross as a "Sideshow", was used and abused by both sides during the Vietnam War. Secret carpet bombing by the USAF between 1970 and 1973 completely destroyed Cambodia's political, economic and social infrastructure, enabling the Khmer Rouge--in 1970 an insignificant group with no prospect of achieving power--to seize control of the entire country. Soon after the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the USA, stung by military defeat, turned its back on Indochina and abandoned the people of Cambodia to the ruthless totalitarianism of Pol Pot and his cohorts.

Afghanistan, by contrast, was devastated during years of resistance to Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989. Viewed as an important ally in the struggle against Soviet expansionism, the Afghan Mujahiddin received extensive military and financial support from the West, only to be forgotten following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. The subsequent civil war fought out between squabbling groups of Mujahids completed the destruction of Afghanistan's tottering infrastructure and allowed the Taliban to seize Kabul on September 26, 1996. As with Cambodia in 1975, the people of Afghanistan, once hailed as valiant allies in the struggle against communism, were abandoned to the religious zealots of Taliban.

Once in power, certain similarities between the Khmer Rouge and Taliban become remarkable. To begin with, both regimes were characterized by an extraordinary degree of secrecy. The leadership of the Khmer Rouge hid behind pseudonyms and governed by decree from secret locations in Phnom Penh. The Communist Party of Kampuchea did not announce that it was running the country until September 1977--well over two years after it had seized power. At the same time Pol Pot revealed his true name was Saloth Sar, but very little else about himself, while Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge "Brother No 2", emphasized that 'secret work was fundamental' to the Khmer Rouge revolution.

Compare this with Afghanistan, where the Taliban supreme ruler, Mullah Muhammad Omar, gave no interviews to Western journalists and never allowed himself to be photographed--indeed only one hazy picture of him is known to exist. Taliban has been characterized by the Afghan affairs analyst Ahmed Rashid as a 'secret society--as mysterious and dictatorial in its ways as Khmer Rouge Cambodia'. Totally unrepresentative, the Taliban administration was almost exclusively in the hands of provincial Pashtun clerics who brooked no challenge to their power and answered exclusively to the shadowy Mullah Omar.

It is also striking that both the Khmer Rouge and Taliban were kept in power through the exercise of brute force administered by young, ignorant and often brainwashed cadre knowing no loyalty but to the regime. Both the Khmer Rouge and Taliban favoured militia drawn from remote rural backgrounds, just as both feared and mistrusted more educated and sophisticated city dwellers. Blind obedience was encouraged, while hesitation or questioning would lead to severe punishment and (especially in Khmer Rouge Cambodia) to death.

Education was severely circumscribed. In the case of the Khmer Rouge all teaching came to a halt as the entire population was press-ganged into agricultural production. In Taliban Afghanistan education for women was completely banned, while education for men was, by-and-large, limited to recitation of the Qur'an. Both regimes indulged in widespread burning of books, in Khmer Rouge Cambodia ostensibly because the leadership wanted a "clean, white slate" to write on, while Taliban officially abhorred images of living things. In fact both regimes feared the "contagion" of modern, democratic thought processes.

Both regimes were marked by Puritanism so extreme that life was all but unbearable for those forced to live under it. Both regimes banned music, with the exception of--in Cambodia--songs to glorify the Khmer Rouge revolution, and--under Taliban--the chanting of religious texts. Both banned alcohol, gambling, even the simplest of games. Thus Taliban forbade chess, but--after careful thought--permitted the playing of football by men provided they wore long trousers and the audience chanted praises to God instead of clapping. Tellingly, both regimes disapproved of excessive levity or loud laughter.

Still more interesting and revealing is the similarity between Khmer Rouge and Taliban attitudes to sexuality and the position of women. In Khmer Rouge Cambodia women were forced to wear identical black clothing and to crop their hair short. Makeup and ornaments of all kinds were banned, while in extreme cases women were executed for leaving too many buttons on their regulation black blouse undone. In Taliban Afghanistan the all-enveloping burqa was essential wear for women who ventured outside. In 1996, shortly after seizing power, Taliban officially decreed that: 'Women who go outside with fashionable, ornamental, tight and charming (sic) clothes will be cursed by Islamic Sharia and can never expect to enter heaven'.

Both the Khmer Rouge and Taliban had an abiding hatred for the "easy-going" mores of the big cities. Thus Khmer Rouge ideologues denounced Phnom Penh as "the Great Whore on the Mekong", while Ahmed Rashid says Taliban 'viewed Kabul as a den of iniquity, a Sodom and Gomorrah where women had to be beaten into conforming with Taliban standards of behaviour'. Under both regimes promiscuity was forbidden and punishable by death--as indeed were adultery, premarital or extramarital sexual relations of any kind.

Both the Khmer Rouge and Taliban were iconoclastic regimes, albeit for very different reasons. The Khmer Rouge outlawed religion, killing the Buddhist patriarch and senior hierarchy, while defrocking all other monks and forcing them to work in the fields. Buddha images were smashed and thrown into the Mekong, while mosques were converted for use as pigpens and the Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was razed to the ground. The iconoclasm of Taliban is more recent and better known, resulting in the destruction not just of the great Buddha images of Bamiyan, but of virtually the entire pre-Islamic holdings of Kabul Museum.

Both the Khmer Rouge and Taliban used ethnic cleansing and hunger as weapons. The Khmer Rouge sought to eliminate all non-Khmer minorities, especially Vietnamese, with the exception of a few "poor and blank" hill tribes who were considered loyal communists. Starvation was employed as a general control to coerce not just minorities, but the entire population of what became an indentured agrarian police state. Taliban also persecuted minorities, being especially vicious in their treatment of the Shia Hazara, who were considered non-Muslims. Unusually for Afghanistan, where traditional codes of war normally precluded the use of starvation as a weapon, Taliban deliberately starved thousands of Hazara men, women and children in an attempt to subjugate this fiercely independent people.

Under Taliban many punishments were imposed, from whipping, through mutilation, to execution. Under the Khmer Rouge just about the only punishment, even for the most trivial offence, was execution. Both regimes employed torture on a systematic basis as a matter of course. Eyewitnesses recount that "many dozens" were executed at the notorious Kandahar sports stadium over a year. Horrific though this is, it pales against the Khmer Rouge record. Up to 500 people a day might be butchered at just one Khmer Rouge prison--Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh--while special days were set aside for killing the wives and children of prisoners already executed.

The list may be continued--both the Khmer Rouge and Taliban, for example, supported terrorism and attempted to destabilize neighbouring states. Tellingly, in both instances, such activities were to bring about external intervention and the overthrow of the regime. This serious misjudgement on the part of both the Khmer Rouge and Taliban point to a further, fascinating shared characteristic--an overweening and entirely misplaced hubris. Both the Khmer Rouge and Taliban believed they had defeated super powers and were virtually unbeatable in combat. When the crunch came, both were soon shown to be very wrong, with Vietnam rolling up the Khmer Rouge in a few weeks, and the US-led coalition defeating Taliban in less than two months.

In sum, it is clear that both the Khmer Rouge and Taliban were "extreme regimes" by any standard, and that--although deeply divergent in philosophical outlook--they were uncannily similar in aspects of their methodology. In this lies an important lesson. If future "extreme regimes" like the Khmer Rouge and Taliban are to be avoided, then the West (and indeed Russia) must look beyond a purely military solution to conflict, towards re-establishment and engagement with, rather than abandonment and isolation of, failed states.

Hopefully, as the international community pledges help and support to the Interim Administration in Afghanistan, this lesson will prove to have been learned.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by Andrew Forbes, David Henley & Pictures From History © CPA Media.