The Taliban's Land of Milk and Honey

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The Taliban's Land of Milk and Honey

Herat has always been different. Perched on the edge of the Margo Desert in Afghanistan, this oasis city was once the cultural, literary and political hub of Central Asia. Now it's the Taliban's own land of milk and honey. Near the borders of Iran and Turkmenistan, the bustling town has become the entrepôt for a lucrative and at times illegal trade: smuggling of consumer items such as electronic goods, computers and used cars that come from Dubai and the Gulf and pass through on their way to Pakistan and the former Soviet Union. Taxes levied on the hundreds of trucks that drive through Herat each day provide the Taliban with the bulk of their income--and finance the war to conquer the last patch of Afghanistan not under their control.

At Islam Qila, the first stop in from the Iran border, more than 100 trucks await their turn to be loaded by gangs of laborers. A couple of traders are negotiating with Taliban officials over a shipment of second-hand Japanese cars, brought in from Dubai through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

Business is booming, says Shaheen Shah, 28, a dealer in Herat's Khorasan currency market. Like many local money-changers, Shah is a Pashtoon from Pakistan who followed close behind the Taliban when they captured the city in September 1995. Hundreds of merchants throng the money market daily, seeking the best rates before finalizing the transshipment of goods, usually to the Pakistan border where the cargoes will be smuggled across duty-free. We can arrange the transfer of money anywhere and in any currency, Shah boasts. By the end of the day about 200 trucks laden with imported computers, washing machines, TV sets, motor parts, wheat, cloth and even candy will have departed north and east along the rutted track that was once a bitumen highway circling Afghanistan.

In Herat, unlike other Afghan cities, extreme poverty does not seem to be a problem. The bazaars are crowded, shops are filled with imported goods and there are few beggars. Before the 9 p.m. curfew people crowd around ice cream and fruit-juice stalls. But this historically Persian-speaking city has not escaped the imposition of extremist Islamic habits as espoused by the Pashto-speaking Taliban. Persian has been replaced by Pashto as the language of government. Women are made to hide beneath the all-enveloping burka, a foreign garment to them. As elsewhere, music and television have been banned. Girls are kept away from schools; men have to wear turbans and grow beards. Intellectually, Herat has come to a full stop. The singers, poets, painters and teachers who gave Herat its reputation as a center of high culture and education have fled to Iran or farther west. Heratis are now opting for business rather than education, says Gulam Rabbani, an academic who stayed. Why spend 10 years to become a professor without any guarantee of a future? Why not sell potatoes?

For precisely that reason, though, the people of Herat are treated with an unusual tolerance by the Taliban. Shops and businesses that remain open after the call to prayer are not automatically raided. The Taliban's vice and virtue squads have been told to act with restraint; some over-zealous teams have been reprimanded and sent back to Kandahar. They don't want to annoy us, says Inyatullah, a 50-year-old trader. So they don't measure the length of our beards or challenge women who are shopping alone without a man. And why not? It is a golden goose for them, says Dad Mohammad, an Afghan businessman. This city earns them everything.