Kabul learns to live with its bearded conquerors

Peace of a kind has come to Afghanistan, Tim McGirk finds. But who is behind its new masters?

"Try to imagine that London today had suddenly been invaded by Vikings wearing horned helmets and armour, and that the Londoners had to do exactly what they said," a foreign aid worker commented. "That's what Kabul is like under the Taliban."

Several thousand residents of the Afghan capital fled as the fiercely Islamic Taliban warriors approached the city 10 days ago,. But that is far fewer than the figure of 150,000 originally put about by relief agencies who, rather hysterically, compared the Taliban to the Khmer Rouge. There have been excesses, though, as there would be if Vikings were running London.

Men have been dragged off their bicycles and forced to pray in the mosque, and militiamen have beaten women whose body-length veil was a little short or too transparent. Some 25,000 war widows, many of whom held cleaning or secretarial jobs to feed their families, are now without any wages, because the Taliban has told them to stay at home, and all schools have been closed so that the mullahs in charge of the movement - whose only education is the Koran - can draft new curriculums. The question of whether girls can return to the classroom at all is still under consideration.

In their nightly radio decrees the Taliban recently demanded that all state employees, from airline pilots down to postmen, must wear beards because the Prophet Mohammed did. On the flight into Kabul, the usually smooth-cheeked stewards on the state-run airline, Ariana, all looked like grizzled lorry drivers. The stewardesses had just been told that their job was un-Islamic, and so they sat in the passenger seats, covered in black veils and looking like ruffled crows.

It was the first time I had ever flown into Kabul, however, without having to worry about being hit by a rebel missile, and even though a few Afghans had gone into the toilet to change out of their jeans into the baggy pantaloons preferred by the Taliban, they seemed to think it was a small inconvenience to pay for peace in their country.

That has not stopped them from wondering who their new rulers are, or who is behind them. Several days ago, it is said, a private jet with Pakistani army markings touched down briefly at Kabul airport. It stayed just long enough for a smartly dressed Pakistani officer to climb out and hand two mysterious suitcases to the turbanned representatives of the Taliban.

What was in the suitcases? Stacks of dollars? Instructions from Pakistani military intelligence on how to besiege the last bastion of the former regime, now dug in for a last stand in the northern Panjshir Valley? Or did the suitcases simply contain gifts from a friendly neighbouring government? In Kabul such rumours are as much the food of daily life as nan bread.

The defeated government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose soldiers fled the Taliban advance in every available vehicle, accuses the movement of being nothing more than a pawn of Pakistan and the United States. There is compelling evidence that the Taliban - who started out two years ago, drawing their militiamen from the Koranic schools, the Afghan refugee camps and, later, from the ranks of defeated local warlords - did indeed receive substantial aid from Pakistan.

If the CIA, covertly through Pakistan, is helping the Taliban, it is doubtful that the movement even knows this is happening. The Americans think, quite possibly wrongly, that their interests converge with the Taliban's in several spheres: the movement might act as a barrier to Iran's designs in central Asia; the Taliban executes drug-traffickers (a few of them, anyway) and many of the Arab terrorists who were given protection by the renegade commanders are worried enough about the Taliban to pack up and leave Afghanistan.

It would certainly be naive to think that the Taliban collected enough alms in mosques to equip and feed a militia of over 25,000 men, many of whom speak Urdu, the language of Pakistan. Direct Pakistani involvement may be hard to prove, but diplomats and military experts interviewed in Kabul and Islamabad claim the Taliban may be a creation of Pakistan's Interior Minister, Nasirullah Babar, who has close affinities with the Pathan tribes inhabiting the deserts and craggy badlands of western Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.

The movement first attracted attention when Afghan bandit commanders hijacked a convoy of 30 Pakistani trucks bound for central Asia. The Taliban, led by a six-man council of clerics based in the southern town of Kandahar, rescued the convoy and opened trade routes for Pakistan into the former Soviet republics - long a cherished aim of the Islamabad government. Whether Pakistan can keep its purported creation under control now that it has captured Kabul is another matter.

Islamabad will shed no tears for Mr Rabbani's forces, against whom the Taliban were reported to have launched a final offensive yesterday, but it may be less happy if Kabul's new masters go on to confront another of its clients, the former Communist general, Abdul Rashid Dostam, who has carved himself out a caliphate in the north.

General Dostam, an Uzbek, enjoys cordial political and trading relationships with neighbouring Uzbekistan and other central Asian republics, as well as with Russia. On Friday the Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, joined central Asian leaders in Kazakhstan to consider the danger of fighting in Afghanistan coming close to their borders. Their call for a ceasefire and peace talks was scorned by the Taliban, whose first act on entering Kabul was to drag the former Communist president Najibullah from a United Nations compound, execute him and string up his body.

The Taliban may be more ready to listen to Pakistan's pleas for peaceful and prosperous co-existence with Gen Dostam and his central Asian friends, but at this stage nobody knows. The movement's leader is a reclusive cleric and former Islamic warrior from Kandahar, Mullah Omar, who has only one eye. Last spring over 3,000 clergymen anointed him with the title "Commander of the Faithful", yet so far he has refrained from making a triumphant arrival in Kabul.

"He's not an Ayatollah Khomeini type - but we're not sure what he is or whether he wants to hang on to power," said one Afghan who recently started growing his beard.

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