The Taliban have won - now they must join the world

Now that they control 90 per cent of Afghanistan the Taliban are bound to press for Western recognition
IT APPEARED to be third time lucky for Afghanistan's Taliban Islamic movement this weekend as their forces rolled into Mazar-i-Sharif, stronghold of the opposition northern alliance which repelled the southern invaders twice last year. Reports on the extent of the city's occupation remain confused, but even Asad Ullah, spokesman for the most important alliance figure, the ethnic Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostam, acknowledged a defeat. "Our forces have been scattered everywhere," he said. "There is not much we can do at the moment in the north."

So what does the West do now? So far only three countries, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE, have recognised the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate rulers. Britain and the West still recognise the ousted president, the ethnic Tajik Burhannudin Rabbani, which is a source of deep irritation to the Taliban leadership. Before this weekend the militia controlled about two-thirds of Afghanistan. Now that they control nine-tenths of it they are certain to press their case for Western recognition harder than ever.

Taliban spokesmen in Islamabad have not ceased to point out the advantages of their regime. First among these, they say, is the peace they have brought to the areas they control, achieved by a policy of disarmament. Certainly, the lawless bandits that still plague the north have all but disappeared in the south, which has allowed farmers, for example, to drive their produce to market again. Something like normal life has resumed for a population that is utterly weary of 19 consecutive years of war. Even some northerners acknowledge that achievement.

The Taliban, who are mostly Pashtuns, by far the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, claim they have a popular mandate (though this is certainly not the case in the Dari-speaking north); they say they stand for stability, for trade, and for peace under the eyes of God. Afghanistan's neighbours, Iran and Russia, fear that the Taliban intend to export their fiery brand of Islam and have consistently, though not openly, supplied the opposition with money and arms. The Taliban angrily deny the charge, saying their ambitions extend no further than Afghanistan's borders, and blame the extension of the war on "foreign interference."

They may have a point, though the timing of the East African bombings could hardly have been worse for the Taliban in public relations terms. The US's prime suspect for the outrages in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam is the Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden, who makes his home in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan..

Strangely enough, Afghanistan has not joined Libya, Syria et al in the Western consciousness as harbourers of Islamic terrorism. At least, not yet. This may be because Western attention has been directed elsewhere, notably towards the more extreme aspects of the Taliban's faith, and in particular their treatment of women. The uproar that greeted the 1996 edicts banning women from working and going to school, and enforcing the veil, came as a genuine surprise to the Taliban. They pointed out, with some justification, that there was nothing new in their edicts: Pashtuns have been locking up their women for centuries. What business was it of the West to complain, now that the Taliban had come to prominence?

The Taliban had its Western apologists. Some said that allowances should be made for naivety in such a young movement, and that in time, military success would foster a greater sense of international responsibility. After all, the Taliban did not exist before 1994, and it remains, essentially, a militia of students. Its troops are traditionally drawn from the rural medressahs, or religious schools, where orphans from the war with Russia were deposited and educated with no other text than the Koran.

There is little sign, however, that the Taliban are maturing. Indeed, relations with the West have if anything grown worse. A number of high- profile visits by Western emissaries have ended in disaster, notably that of the European Commissioner, Emma Bonino, whom the Taliban's supreme commander, the one-eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar, refused even to see because her delegation contained women. Meanwhile, edicts from the splendidly named Ministry for the Fostering of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice have not diminished, and are ever more Monty Pythonesque in flavour. Ground- floor windows must be blacked out in case passers-by might spot a woman out of her birqa. Pubic hair must be shaved: spot checks were briefly introduced in Kabul's pedestrian subways. Less funny is the Taliban's attitude to the cultivation of opium. Despite a Taliban promise to eradicate the crop they are aided by a four-year, $16.4m UN-sponsored drugs control programme, which seeks to encourage the country's estimated 200,000 opium farmers to plant more wholesome crops in exchange for aid. Production this year has in fact increased by 25 per cent. Some 90 per cent of all heroin in the UK now originates in Afghanistan. There is little doubt that the Taliban are hypocritically exploiting the opium trade to fund their war with the north.

Even more indicative of the Taliban's disdain for the West, perhaps, is its attitude towards the Western aid community. The Afghans desperately need our aid and expertise if their shattered country is ever to be rebuilt. But the Taliban have constantly objected to the presence of women among the aid teams based in Kabul; and earlier this year they demanded that the various aid agencies, for reasons of "management," decamp into a single compound in the capital. The majority of Western aid organisations has now ceased operations in Kabul and withdrawn from the country.

Under these circumstances it is hard to see how the Taliban can possibly expect the West to recognise them as Afghanistan's rightful rulers. Yet expect it they do. The gulf of misunderstanding is as wide as ever. With their victory in Mazaran an important excuse for Taliban intransigence has been taken away. They can no longer regretfully point to the exigencies of war as the reasons for their heavy-handed control of the population; and with the fulfilment of their stated military ambitions, they will be forced to prove their credentials as peacetime rulers. This they cannot do without Western aid. Yet the West, and rightly, refuses to give the Taliban that unless they make some serious concessions in the field of human rights. If they want Western recognition, then the ball is in their court. It is time for the Taliban to grow up.