Frozen In Time

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Consumed by the ceaseless war in the north, the Taliban have ignored the business of government, leaving Afghanistan in limbo
By MICHAEL FATHERS Kabul

A kitchen boy strolls out of Kabul's most popular restaurant carrying a bowl of slops and vegetable peelings. He passes a group of beggars: five women, each hidden behind an all-enveloping burka, and half a dozen children. Twenty meters down the street he tips the contents of the bowl into the gutter. Three of the women rush after him and hover over the watery mess like blowflies, scooping out scraps to feed their families.
Not far away in Kabul's Shehr-I-Nau district, a young woman shrouded in a blue burka enters a smart clothing shop with a new dress she wants to sell. My relatives sent it from Pakistan, but I already have the same design, she says nonchalantly. Don't give me that excuse, the shopkeeper says with a sympathetic smile. You're selling it because of the economy. Pride injured, the woman walks out with her dress in hand.

Such scenes of misery and hardship are commonplace in the capital--and beyond--under the Taliban. People are hungry, there are no jobs, they see no future. Slowly Afghanistan is coming to a halt, cut off from most of the world and branded a pariah state by the United Nations for refusing to hand over the suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. After 20 years of war there is little left to build on, and people have to fend for themselves. Kabul has become a city of refugees where women outnumber men and children make up more than half the 2 million population. In the countryside, poverty and stagnation are also breeding discontent. The Taliban brought us peace, says a farmer relaxing at a tea house on the road from Kandahar to Ghazni. But they haven't brought us jobs. People want more now.

The impassioned Islamic students who stormed to power six years ago have found governing even more difficult than the task of unifying their war-torn country. Despite the semblance of a government in Kabul, the Afghan state barely functions. Most Taliban ministries and government institutions exist in name only. Technocrats and the old ´┐Żlite have fled to Europe, Pakistan, the United States. They are not rushing to return: bureaucrats who stayed behind are paid between $6 and $10 a month with a freefall currency printed--against all laws of economics--by Russia for the Taliban's rivals, the ousted mujahedin coalition of Ahmed Shah Masood. Women employees have been dismissed. Most government offices are empty, and ministers do their work surrounded by young Taliban who lounge about on sofas or on the floor. The state's coffers are empty.

Like their mujahedin predecessors, Taliban hard-liners pay little mind to the nitty gritty details of government. Top officials often switch from battlefield to ministry and back again, according to orders from supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. They are a tough bunch: many are limbless or suffering from war wounds that have scarred their faces and bodies. (Mullah Omar himself lost an eye in an artillery attack.) Their mission remains the creation of an Islamic utopia from which riches will follow in abundance. The position is spelled out by Afghanistan's one-legged minister of justice, Mullah Nooruddin Turabi. At age 42, he is already one of the oldest Taliban leaders--and one of the most feared. It is not just a question of men wearing beards and women wearing burkas, he says. In Afghanistan every vice has to be stopped and every virtue promulgated.

Many Afghans are fed up with that kind of talk, particularly in Kabul. The Taliban--who are mocked by the city's residents as country yokels--had always considered the city to be Sodom and Gomorrah. They loathed its easygoing modern ways, its cinemas, its women in Western dress, its music and dancing and its lingua franca--Persian--a language the Pashto-speaking Taliban avoid. They are much stricter here than anywhere else in Afghanistan, an aid worker says. It is a foreign place to them.

In fact, it is the Taliban themselves who are strangers to many Afghans. The regime promotes a religious austerity that is native only to Afghanistan's dominant Pashtoon region in the east. The imposition of medieval rural values irks those non-Pashtoons who are accustomed to a more relaxed brand of Islam. To many in Kabul and among Afghanistan's other communities--Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras--the Taliban are seen as an occupying force of religious zealots. They are fighting a jihad, or holy war, not against non-believers, but against other Muslims who in the Taliban's ultra-orthodox eyes are fallen people. They were O.K. to begin with, a lorry driver says. but their Shari'a law is for everyone but them. Although entertainment is banned, Kabul has an underground network in which movies (a current favorite is Titanic) pass from house to house among people who have hidden away their TV sets.

There are few pleasures left in Afghanistan these days. But surprisingly, luxuries like Swiss chocolates are still sold in city bazaars. They arrive in the country through a huge smuggling and transshipment network from Iran and Pakistan--which the Taliban taxes, bringing in $75 million in 1997, according to the World Bank. Narcotics are the Taliban's other main source of income: the country has become the world's biggest opium producer. The revenue the Taliban earned last year from taxes levied on the poppy crop alone is estimated at $30 million--all of it spent on the war. There is little other economic activity. What the war has not destroyed, sanctions and drought have. Thousands of tons of wheat are imported by U.N. humanitarian agencies to feed the inhabitants of Kabul and other cities who cannot even afford to buy bread.

It would be unfair to blame the Taliban's administrative ineptitude for all Afghanistan's misery. There was very little left for them to inherit. We came to a house that was robbed and destroyed--they even took away the furniture and the windows--and now we are left to run it, says deputy finance minister Mullah Arifullah. Even ordinary Afghans feel bitter that Washington and its allies were happy to funnel billions of dollars worth of arms to mujahedin fighting the Soviet Union while Moscow occupied Afghanistan, but walked away after Moscow pulled out in 1989. We don't want your guns, says Barkatullah, 16, an orphan working as a waiter in a tea shop at Muqur, south of Kabul. We want your help. The world has given us nothing but death.
But what's really paralyzing the country is the Taliban's own fierce, ceaseless war against Masood, who continues to occupy strongholds north of Kabul. It is on the battlefield that the country's energy is exerted. The war between rival tribes and rival traditions--Pashtoon vs. Tajik, both vs. Hazara and Uzbek--and their ever-changing alliances are sapping the country and pushing its people deeper into poverty. Businessmen in Kandahar say they are asked to provide a son for the war or pay $2,000. Most try to find the cash. Military analysts say both sides are gearing up for another summer offensive, though they doubt the Taliban can dislodge Masood from his Panjsher Valley stronghold above Kabul. Almost every time Taliban forces have captured Masood-controlled territory they have been beaten back because of a lack of local support. After a Taliban bombing raid against the Panjsher earlier this year, the U.N. said civilians were being deliberately targeted in frontline areas.

Far from the front line is Kandahar, where real power in Afghanistan lies. Kabul may still be the capital, but the nation is ruled from Kandahar. It was here, or more precisely from behind a mud-walled compound at Sinjesar village just off the highway to Herat, that Mullah Omar led an attack on a mujahedin road block in 1994 and launched the Taliban movement. In Sinjesar they have only just rebuilt a mosque and religious-school complex whose wall was stained by the blood from Mullah Omar's eye when a Soviet artillery shell exploded near him more than 15 years ago. Such is the myth that has grown up around the man who has taken the title of Emir of Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar, 41, is the country's supreme ruler. All lines lead directly to him. I receive all my instructions from Mullah Omar personally, says the governor of Ghazni province, Mullah Dost Mohammed, a 36-year-old war veteran. I can operate autonomously because I know the policy. But on crucial matters I always consult him. Mullah Omar seldom leaves Kandahar and does his business by satellite telephone, a portable accessory found among senior Taliban officials. He has visited Kabul only once and then secretly. Those who have met him describe him as soft-spoken. He has three wives. His lieutenants, the men who run Afghanistan, hail mostly from Kandahar. His court is an exclusive and self-righteous group of young village clerics who believe in their special destiny.

Compromise is not a word the Taliban understand, a factor that does not bode well for a speedy end to the war. Negotiations have gone nowhere, although the two sides agreed to a prisoner exchange for the first time during talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, two weeks ago. The Taliban say they will share power if Masood recognizes Mullah Omar as Emir of Afghanistan. He has refused. Refugees are pushed back and forth across the front line north of Kabul--they now account for 70% of Kabul's population. A third are fed by subsidized U.N. and Red Cross bakeries.

Amid the chaos, lawlessness is creeping back into the Taliban's rigid Islamic state, undermining one of the regime's central claims: to have restored law and order. In January the Kabul money market was hit by raiders and emptied during curfew hours. The gold market was robbed soon after. Extortion reaches down to the pettiest level. Much of the blame for such corruption is put on the Taliban's allies, those former warlords and mujahedin commanders with whom the victors struck deals in order to win power across the country. We had no problem with the pure Taliban, a Kabul resident says. It's what happened since that worries me.

The Taliban movement has always been fragmented, with factions loyal to local leaders who give their allegiance to Mullah Omar. But now, according to foreign observers, schisms are beginning to emerge. If they split, one long-term aid official warns, it will be difficult to keep the country together. That stage has not been reached yet. But for ordinary Afghans, the future--whichever way it goes--is grim.

With reporting by Hannah Bloch/Kabul and Rahimullah Yusufzai/Kandahar