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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee
newsIn an exclusive artwork for The Independent, Ali Ferzat attacks Britain's lack of 'humanity'
Life and Style
Man taking selfie in front of car
health
Sport
footballManager attacks Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp after criticism of Diego Costa's apparent stamping
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Manager - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web-based lead generation ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore