Kabul falls to the tide of the Taliban

Raymond Whitaker reports as a nation steps back in time

Kabul has fallen: it sounds like a 19th-century dispatch to the India Office in London. The sense that Afghanistan is outside the modern world, that it operates by the rules of adventure fiction, will simply be reinforced by the conquering campaign of the Taliban militia and its mysterious one-eyed leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar.

Nor will this image be dispelled by his first act - executing Afghanistan's former Communist leader, Najibullah, and stringing up his body on a traffic kiosk outside the presidential palace.

Najibullah (who, like many Afghans, used only one name) took refuge in a United Nations compound when his regime collapsed in April 1992, but no vestige of the organisation's authority could save him from the medieval revenge of Kabul's new masters.

The romance of Afghanistan - its remoteness, its reluctance to abandon tradition, its elaborate and savagely enforced codes of honour - is also the nation's tragedy.

Najibullah was merely the latest of a series of would-be modernisers who tried to force change on the country, and whose efforts did nothing but set it further back. Not only did he try to impose an alien ideology, he relied on foreign invaders to install and maintain him in power, uniting Afghans against him.

But as many had foreseen, the conservative mujahedin who took over Kabul after his downfall soon fell out among themselves. Under Communism the capital retained many relics of its past, but four years later the Taliban is marching into a city which has suffered worse devastation than Sara- jevo. The mosques and palaces celebrated in classical poetry have been obliterated; even the ancient fortress looming over the city, the Bala Hissar, has gone.

However brutally and misguidedly, Najibullah was trying to drag his nation into the 20th century, and in his time women did not fear to wear jeans and make-up on the streets of Kabul. The mujahedin takeover forced them to cover their heads, but only the poorer and more rural visitors to the city adopted the all-enveloping burka. Despite previous threats, Najibullah remained alive in his UN compound, and foreigners were even able to obtain alcohol, as long as they were discreet.

Now the Taliban seems intent on returning the capital to the Middle Ages. But Afghanistan is sick of war, and the movement's zealots have brought order where the mujahedin were often little more than bandits. Any attempt to retake Kabul by the former government would probably require help from Abdul Rashid Dostam, the Uzbek warlord who has established a virtually independent state north of the Hindu Kush, the world's second highest mountain range, which divides Afghanistan.

Mr Dostam is seeking to build up trade and develop oil and gas reserves, however, and may have little inclination to take on the Taliban and its presumed support in Pakistan. Afghanistan has long been fragmented; now it may undergo partition in all but name.

Does any of this matter in the real world? It does, and not only because all the factions are fighting with the billions of dollars' worth of arms and munitions pumped into Afghanistan when it was a Cold War cockpit. The country's instability enabled poppy growers and refiners to flourish, making it the world's biggest exporter of opium and heroin. This is something the Taliban, for all its austerity, has done nothing to obstruct.

Nor is the Taliban likely to do anything but encourage the many camps which already exist to train Islamic militants from many countries.

"When we have conquered Afghanistan, we will conquer the whole world for Islam," one of its members recently boasted, and intelligence officials who have monitored Afghan links to conflicts in Bosnia, Kashmir, Algeria and Chechnya, as well as events such as the World Trade Center bombing in New York, know these are not idle words.

But the Taliban's adherents are no more the natural rulers of Afghanistan than their predecessors were - in many ways their brand of Islam is as foreign to the country as was Communism. Like those who have held Kabul before him, Mullah Omar might find it hard to control the unruly provinces. If he fails, it could one day be his turn to flee or face execution.

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