You can't miss their office: it is the one with the fantastically turbaned and bearded men loitering in silence outside. You can feel their stares as you pass down Old Bara Road. One of them recently squared up to a woman aid worker from Australia as she emerged from the bakery opposite, blocking her exit. He offered no violence - he didn't even speak - but the implication was clear enough: there were to be no unveiled women in their street.
The West, of course, has come to expect nothing less from the Taliban. From the moment they took Kabul last autumn, reports of the unprecedented severity of their version of Islam streamed from the Afghan capital. We have read about hangings for murder and amputations for theft. Music, we are told, is banned, as is the flying of kites. Most infamous of all, of course, is the oppression of women. They have been denied the right to work and be educated, and have been beaten for showing their faces on the streets, and in Kandahar, the Taliban capital, stoned to death for adultery. "The most fundamentalist nation in the world," said John Simpson as he bravely filmed a totem pole festooned with disembowelled television sets - and the West nodded in horrified agreement.
Many Afghans, though, do not see it that way. Nor, even, do a growing number of Peshawar's aid workers, despite the bakery incident. For a start, the Taliban are nothing like as dogmatic as they have been portrayed. "There's a big difference between what the Taliban say and what they actually do," says Stuart Worsley, deputy director of Care International in Peshawar. "Some of the edicts that come out of the madrassas [religious schools] are pure Monty Python, and very often the guys on the ground choose not to enforce them."
Women, in other words, are not automatically beaten for showing their faces; no one is made to pray five times a day; and the education of girls is not universally forbidden. The Taliban is governed by consensus, not by imposition (a tactic which has never worked in Afghanistan, as the Russians found to their cost). Worsley cites the example of Ghazni, where the Taliban proposed converting the local school into a madrassa: when the public complained, the Taliban immediately backed down. "The enforcement of rules usually depends on local tradition," says Worsley.
But even the official line on girls' education is changing: from March 6, the start of the new school term, the Taliban have agreed to reopen girls' schools in the all-important Kabul area. This concession was the fruit of a Unicef brokered meeting in Herat at the end of last month - the first of its kind between the Taliban and a Western organisation.
It is only a small step towards resuming human rights, but its significance is clear. "The Taliban always said they would do three things once they were recognised as legitimate," says Worsley. "They promised to stop exporting terrorism, stop exporting drugs, and bring back the girls' schools. The fact they have given a date for the schools shows that they're feeling more secure."
The Taliban have good reason to feel secure. Although the military advance northward has been checked at the Salang tunnel, no one believes they will ever have to take that obstruction by force, least of all the Taliban themselves. The defence alliance north of the tunnel has been quietly imploding all winter. Inflation among the currencies used by General Abdul Rashid Dostam is reported to have reached 100 per cent per week. In time, the Taliban are convinced, the hard-pressed people of the northern areas will come over to their side.
The men inside the Peshawar political office sit cross-legged and in silence on a carpet. They have the intense light of religious conviction in their eyes; a gun cupboard in the corner is kept discreetly locked. "Our success is due only to the fact that the people want us to succeed," says their spokesman, Amruddin. "We have imposed nothing but peace."
It sounds unlikely, but the Taliban have indeed brought peace. Those parts of Afghanistan that they control - 65 per cent of the population, and a much greater percentage geographically - are now safer than at any period in the last 17 years. The road blocks manned by rapacious or even psychopathic militiamen are a thing of the past. The rural population, no longer in need of guns for self-protection, has been disarmed. Farmers have begun to replant their crops, safe in the knowledge that they will be able to take them to market. Banditry has been eradicated.
"It is possible to sleep at nights now," says Mahmad Amin, who used to be a driver for Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, ex-prime minister and leader of the Hezb-i-Islami party, but is now pro-Taliban. "All Afghans are pro-Taliban," he adds, "except for some educated Kabulis who still think like the Communists." Amin lives at Nasir Bagh, the largest of the Afghan refugee camps that surround Peshawar. He says he intends to return to his country the moment the Taliban have unequivocally won - an outcome of which he, like everyone else at Nasir Bagh, has little doubt.
The Taliban may represent Afghanistan's best chance for stability, but there is more to Amin's optimism than that. It is hard for the West to accept, but the Taliban are, in fact, a popular movement.
"They were quite right to ban music," says Amin. "People had learnt some very bad habits." He goes on to define two kinds of music: the kind where men play the instruments and women dance, which is "disgraceful", and the kind where men play and young boys dance: "That's perfectly OK."
The creed expanded by the Taliban has less to do with Koranic fundamentalism than with Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the Pashtuns, who straddle the Afghan-Pakistani border and account for about half of Afghanistan's population. The basic tenets of Pashtunwali are honour, revenge and respect for private property; its currency is women, land and money.
What has been portrayed in the West as the excess of new Islamic zeal is in fact part and parcel of a far older tradition. That is why the unworldly Taliban were genuinely astonished when they were criticised for confining Kabuli women to their homes - a move intended, they said, for their own protection.
Of course, not all Afghans are happy with the Taliban. And there is a long way to go before their treatment of women can be considered acceptable. Nevertheless, they have brought peace and security to a region ravaged by war; and if they can maintain it, they may be the best thing to have happened to Afghanistan for many years.Reuse content