A city of spiritual beauty broods in the rubble

War on terrorism
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Kandahar looked much as it did when the Taliban turned Alexander the Great's timeworn city into their political capital seven years ago: ruined, mined and deserted, most of its inhabitants already in the refugee middens of Pakistan.

The Taliban paid around £1.04m in 1996 to take Kandahar without firing a shot (those were the days when you could buy cities as well as warlords with hard cash), and most of the money came from Saudi Arabia, along with taxes on roads and drugs.

The spiritual role in the Taliban life of the city declared the first capital of Afghanistan in 1747, in the reign of Ahmed Shah Durani, was consecrated on 4 April, 1996 when the Pushtu Kandaharis entered the marble-walled da Kherqa Sherif Ziarat, the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet, and brought forth the very robe worn by Mohamed. They took it to the rooftop from which the Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar was speaking, and laid it across his shoulders. Wrapping it around him in the high wind, Omar waited as the crowd proclaimed him Amir al-Momineen, Leader of all Pious Muslims. In just such a way had the Caliph Omar proclaimed himself leader of all Muslims in Arabia after the Prophet's death. Mullah Omar had used this moment to declare a holy war against the regime of President Burhan-uddin Rabbani and his mujahedin government, the very forces which were last night at the gates of Kandahar.

It was ever a place of righteousness and courage. I visited the city in 1980, only days after the first Soviet troops had occupied Kandahar province. Afghan communists patrolled the city by night, Soviet soldiers by day. Yet they vanished each evening when the people of Kandahar emerged onto their rooftops to scream Allahu Akbar, God is great, to the skies. It was a cry of defiance. I spent more than two hours listening to this long declaration-lament which echoed across streets and parks and gardens in an unusual lyrical pattern, one section of the city taking up the call from another.

In the months and years that followed the Taliban takeover, Kandahar was beloved of the Taliban and loathed by the people of Kabul whose pulverised and sepulchral streets no longer merited the status of a decision- making city. To Kandahar came diplomats and statesmen and bootleggers, arms-dealers and drug-runners. Oil company chiefs from Argentina and, yes, from the United States turned up to pay court to Mullah Omar's odd, bearded government. Pakistani embassy staff from Kabul and senior generals in the Pakistani Interservices Intelligence arrived in Kandahar. So did executives of the American oil company Unocal. So did Russian diplomats and senior Saudi intelligence officers.

Under the Taliban's rule, the outward manifestations of crime and pillage finished, often at the end of a rope, while those most ferocious of Islamic punishments for which the Taliban were to become notorious were first practised in Kandahar. The city famous for its gardens and mosques thus became synonymous with the amputation of feet and hands, the urban wearing of the burqa and the prohibition of television and women's education.

That Mullah Omar, untutored and of peasant offspring, should have worn the cloak of the Prophet was an affront to many Afghans and his declaration to be Leader of all Pious Muslims was unprecedented. When King Dost Mohamed Khan adopted the title in 1834, he was fighting foreigners in what is today Pakistan. Mullah Omar declared war against his own Afghan people. Under his rule, Kandahar prospered. His modest offices and home lay alongside the palace of Osama bin Laden – all destroyed in US air and special forces raids over the past month – but the beauty of Kandahar had been torn out during the Soviet occupation when the mujahedin attacked Russian troops in the city.

The Afghan fighters mined the gardens and irrigation ditches and the Soviets used their Hind helicopters to blast away large sections of the old city along with its civilian inhabitants. Nor was Kandahar the haven of peace and legitimacy that the Taliban would later claim. Within a year of their takeover, there were gun battles in surrounding villages as Afghan Pashtuns objected to conscription. The Taliban later executed 18 army deserters in Kandahar jail. The city's Ulema, the religious leaders who surrounded Mullah Omar, one of whom taught him Islamic jurisprudence, became the effective theological power in a land whose internationally recognised capital was only once visited by the man who claimed to be the Prophet's successor.

Arms supplies were regularly flown from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan into Kandahar's newly-equipped airport whose telephone and wireless communications systems had been provided by Islamabad. This same airport was last night reported to be in the hands of Northern Alliance.

But many Muslims will be more anxious to know if the Cloak of the Prophet remains safe inside its museum of marble and gilded archways. Even more of the city's Pashtun population will be living in fear of the revenge of the Northern Alliance. It would be pleasant to believe that the Alliance's gunmen were in the gardens around Kandahar last night, mulling over Tony Blair's calls for restraint. But, somehow, that does not seem likely.