Afghan holy warriors instil fear of the law

In Charasyab, Tim McGirk meets the well-mannered crusaders of the Taliban

Wali Mohammed is a muscular mullah in combat fatigues, turban and a beard so woolly it looks straight from a gag shop. "We don't believe in heavy artillery or weapons, only in the Koran," boomed this clergyman, who is also a Taliban commander, when I him at his headquarters, an abandoned hospital in Charasyab.

His answer to a simple question, such as wether the Taliban want to seize power in Kabul, ranged over Moses, magic, the Prophet Mohammed and the first Islamic caliphate. It was only when an Australian photographer with an ear-ring, a black beret and a pony-tail asked Mr Mohammed if he could snap his picture that a terse reply was forthcoming. "No, It's un-Islamic." When it was pointed out that no Islamic country does without newspaper photographs or television, he said, "In Afghanistan it will be different. We will allow photographs on passports but nothing else. If you try to take my picture, it will make me very angry."

A fellow Koranic scholar could not let the opportunity pass without trying a desultory attempt to convert the pack of Western journalists to Islam. We declined as politely as possible, and the mullah smiled happily, having at least discharged his duty to save us infidels.

Contrast this almost quixotic approach with that of one rival militia commander in Kandahar who turned bandit, and because he had a tank and a horde of gunmen, nobody in the dusty southern town dared stop him. Lorries driving towards Kabul were forced to pay a toll of 2 million afghanis (about £450) crossing his checkpoint. His gunmen's penchant for young boys was grotesque; any youth that took their fancy was forced to undergo a mock public marriage, then dragged off and sodomised. "It was terrible," one foreign relief worker in Kabul said, "anyone who had a son too young to grow a beard kept him inside the house."

Then came the Taliban, an army of Islamic scholars, mullahs and seminary students, who took up arms to restore order in lawless Afghanistan. Their first big conquest was Kandahar, a town desperately in need of salvation. The Taliban did not launch a big assault. Instead, last October,distinctive in their white turbans, they moved through the city using the Koran and the threat of eternal damnation to scare the bandit mujahedin into surrendering. When that did not work, as in the case of the commander who was "marrying" young boys, the Taliban were merciless. "They lynched the commanders from the gun barrels of their own tanks," said the aid worker.

Now the Taliban are more than 10,000 strong. They bring peace through the Koran, and if that fails, they do not hesitate to use their arsenal of AK-47s, 100 tanks and several MiG fighter planes. Their enemies have scattered; few devout Afghans are willing to risk hell for shooting a clergyman. Professor Abdul Sattar Sirat, an Afghan who teaches Islamic law in Mecca, said: "What is happening is a completely new Islamic movement. You can't compare them with anything that's happened before in Islamic history.''

A Taliban force is camped eight miles from Kabul. Their presence, and relatively peaceful conquest of eight southern Afghan provinces, was the excuse given yesterday by the president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, for not complying with a UN proposal for him to resign and let an interim council try to end the country's bloody, two-year civil war. The UN envoy, Mahmoud Mestiri, said: "The Taliban's spectacular and rapid ascension from Kandahar to Kabul is the reason why Mr Rabbani will not transfer power. Instead, the president will cling to office for an extra month. By then, Mr Rabbani hopes a new UN-sponsored council can be chosen, made up of mullahs, mujahedin, and intellectuals, which is acceptable to Afghanistan's warring ethnic clans and to the Taliban. The Koranic students vowed not to attack Kabul for the remainder of Mr Rabbani's presidency.

Foes of the Taliban dismiss them as reactionary and pro-Pakistani, but those I saw at Charasyab were Afghans. Although little is know about their leaders, they take orders from two councils of clergymen, one in Kandahar and another across the Pakistani border in Quetta. It is in Pakistan's interests to have stable government in Kabul so that it can open trade routes into the emerging Central Asian republics.

Some of Mr Rabbani's advisers claim that the Pakistani military intelligence backed the renegade mujahedin commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, against the President's Kabul forces. When it became apparent that the rebel commander, despite his heavy shelling of the capital, was never able to pound Mr Rabbani into submission, Pakistan switched support to the Taliban. Another theory is that the prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, is covertly backing the Taliban through the Jamat-Ulema-Islami, a fundamentalist party, to thwart her rivals in Pakistan's divided military intelligence unit who were propping up Mr Hekmatyar. As one foreign relief expert in Kabul remarked, "If the perception spread that the Taliban were pro-Pakistani, they would be finished. Nothing unites the Afghans like a threat from outside. Nobody is really sure what lies behind the Taliban's mask."

The Koranic students' honesty and good-manners displayed on their rapid advance through Afghanistan has won many converts. They are like the good mullahs of storytellers: they feed themselves by begging bread. One lorry driver, accustomed to paying bribes at gun point was marvelling that he reached Kabul without having to pay a single coin.

Clinics of the Red Cross and CARE, a US relief agency, at Maidan Shar were left unlooted by Taliban. Steve Masty, CARE's director, found 15 heavily armed Taliban sitting in his office, but the computers and other valuables were left alone. "I'd seen those young faces, that jokey enthusiasm, before - in the 1980s when the Afghans went off to fight the Russians. You look at the other mujahedin and they're all pinch-faced and money- taking."

Despite the Taliban's reputation as fundamentalists, they encourage foreign aid agencies to keep up their humanitarian relief in Afghanistan. One Taliban leader, Mohammed Rabbani, said that the Islamic students do not want to rule Afghanistan. Their aim, he said, is to disarm all the mujahedin warlords who over the past two years have killed over 20,000 Afghans. "We must collect all the guns. Otherwise, there will always be one side fighting against another," said the clergyman.

The Kabul regime is run by Tajiks, from the north, while the Taliban are Pathans from the south. However, the Taliban commander insisted that all ethnic and religious communities should be represented in the next government which takes over on 21 March when the president resigns.

The Taliban peaceful message is what the Afghans, bludgeoned and weary after 14 years of war, want to hear. CARE's Steve Masty said he was stopped by a young mujahedin who said, "give me a job doing anything - even shovelling gravel - that pays 2,000 afghanis (40 pence) a day and I'll gladly give up my gun".

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