Kabul pays to keep enemy at bay

TIM MCGIRK

Kabul

Afghan history has proven that Kabul, shielded by a forbidding range of mountains, can only be conquered by treachery. It has happened in the past, and the President, Burhannudin Rabbani, is anxious it should not happen to him.

After 14 years of fighting against the Soviets and then among the victorious Islamic rebel factions, money has become the only guarantee of a warrior's loyalty. So, with the Taliban Islamic militia gathering forces south of Kabul and preparing for an assault, President Rabbani placed an order with his former enemies, the Russians, to print up bales of new Afghan currency notes.

Flown in by Russian cargo planes to the former Soviet military base at Bagram, 30 miles outside Kabul, the crisp new bills were passed out by the jeep-load to commanders in the mud-walled villages and mountainsides along the front.

There was a miscalculation. The new Afghan bills were almost worthless. The money traders near the Blue Mosque were the first to realise that President Rabbani lacked the hard cash and bullion to prop up his gift. When the Afghani began falling against the dollar, wiping out people's meagre salaries, the police shut down the money bazaar. This was the people of Kabul's first sign that the next siege of their devastated city was about to begin.

The Taliban started over a year ago as a mass movement of Koranic students who wanted to put a stop to anarchy and war. Chopping off the hands of thieves and hanging bandit commanders from tank gun-barrels as they went, the Taliban swept through the desert badlands in the west and south, capturing the towns of Kandahar, Gardez, Ghazni and Herat. In Kabul, few believe the students learned to fly helicopters and shoot rocket launchers in their religious schools. President Rabbani accuses Pakistan of aiding the Taliban, whose graphic descriptions of the Rabbani government have not been forgotten by Kabul officials. "They say Kabul is like a well with a dead rat inside," a foreign ministry official recalled.

Just a few miles past the summer palace of Darulaman, holed and blasted at by the warring factions, lies the front line between the President's forces and the Taliban. The two sides are only 200 yards apart, shooting from the windows of abandoned farmhouses, and the air hums with the passage of bullets and larger objects.

Despite the chill, some teenagers on the government side wear rubber sandals. Few of the new Afghani notes had drifted this far down the chain of command. The shaggy youths posed with a rocket-propelled grenade aimed through a hole in the mud wall. "Shall I fire it?," one boy asked. "The Taliban are sure to shoot back. They might kill us." This seemed to be a novelty, a side of war he had only recently discovered.

As we were scurrying through the courtyard of the farmhouse, the oldest boy stepped forward and said apologetically: "It's our tradition to offer you tea but we don't have it." He added: "And besides, the Taliban have artillery-spotters up there. You'd better go."

Unless the Taliban can bribe a government commander or two, their attack on Kabul is probably doomed. It is expected within the next month, unless the government strikes first. Mr Rabbani and his defence adviser, Ahmed Shah Massoud, would probably hit the Taliban base 40 miles south of Kabul, at Maidan-Shar.

If successful, Mr Massoud may attack the Taliban-held city of Herat, whose cultivated, Persian-speaking inhabitants loathe their Pashtun invaders.

President Rabbani's forces are well-armed and have new, powerful allies: India, Iran and, most surprising of all, Russia. After waging a jihad against the Russians for 10 years, Mr Rabbani has become their friend. Not only do the Russians send in fresh supplies of money, they also stock Mr Rabbani with ammunition needed to keep his Soviet-made weaponry firing. India and Iran are propping up President Rabbani to stop Pakistan from meddling too deeply.

The Afghans tell a joke about a zookeeper who has two Afghan hounds that constantly fight. He lets a bear into the dog pen. The two hounds immediately tear into the bear, wounding it so badly that the zookeeper has to rescue the larger animal. Without drawing a breath, the two Afghan hounds resume their fighting. Before, the Soviet Union was the bear that intruded into Afghanistan. The next could be Pakistan.

Pakistan wants to open trade routes from the new Central Asian republics to the seaport of Karachi. It can only do this through Afghanistan, where the roads are bad and vehicles tend to get stolen. Using the Taliban, the Pakistanis have pacified a swathe of the country, from Quetta to the western town of Herat. Ignoring President Rabbani, the Pakistanis have announced plans to build a Taliban-protected road to Turkmenistan. Pakistani banks and consulates have sprung up inside Taliban territory.

This alarms not only the Iranians, whose border lies close to the projected Pakistani road. Some of the rebel mujahedin factions fighting against Kabul are starting to view the Taliban - and their Pakistani mentors - with hackles raised. President Rabbani is holding exploratory talks with his old enemy, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose militia infests the canyons between Kabul and the Khyber Pass.

At least 1 million Afghans have been killed since the Communist takeover in 1979, and 8 million have been displaced by fighting. As the Taliban and the government ready for war around Kabul, many Afghans heed an old superstition. Wasif Bakhtri, a radio announcer, explained. "The mujahedin commanders went to Mecca and swore they would honour peace. They broke that oath, and now Afghans say they have put a curse on their country."

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