Pakistan orders Taliban to end Kabul crackdown

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The self-styled Islamic fundamentalist government set up last month in Kabul by the Taliban militia has been told it has become an international laughing-stock by a Pakistani diplomat sent to advise the regime.

Pictures of Taliban soldiers unravelling videotapes and smashing televisions on the streets of the Afghan capital have played into the Western media's hands and made the regime look ridiculous, the diplomat said.

At a meeting last week with Taliban leaders, the envoy insisted that the movement should soften the hardline Islamic regime it imposed on the city if it wanted to win international support. According to one source, the Taliban have been ordered to "drop the mullah act and behave in a more international manner".

Since the regime took over the city, it has issued a series of decrees which angered people in Kabul and outraged world opinion.

Women have been banned from working and girls from going to school and university. Men have been ordered to grow beards and wear turbans. Western clothes have been outlawed - even traffic police have been told to stop wearing ties, as they are considered "too English".

Details of last week's secret meeting appear to confirm the close working relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban. Despite denials, Pakistan has supported the Taliban movement since it started, providing weapons and financial backing. It is preparing to reopen its embassy in Kabul - diplomats have spent the past week searching for offices in the city.

On Kabul streets there are signs that the Taliban have listened to the advice of their Pakistani advisers. Women, earlier ordered to cover themselves from head to foot in public and told they would be beaten if they left their homes without a male relative, can be seen in the bazaar unaccompanied.

Schoolgirls have been told they will be given automatic passes to this year's examinations without having to sit them. Female Western journalists, banned from Taliban press conferences at first, have been given access to leaders.

An official said the recent softening of the Taliban had been noticeable, but admitted that the new administration faced a dilemma.

"Some Taliban leaders know they have to win international approval but they cannot try too hard or its fighters will think they are selling out to the West and abandoning the Islamic principles they have fought so hard for. The UN has said it will not recognise the new government because it will not allow women to work and girls to go to school. The Taliban know that if they give in and allow girls back to school their fighters with desert them."

Yesterday, Amir Motaqi, who is styled minister for culture and information, tried to please both sides. "We are not against the education of women and girls. We have stopped them from working and going to school because the circumstances are not yet suitable for them to do so. It is not yet possible to give Islamic education to women and children."

He acknowledged that the Taliban needed to win international recognition but said it would never compromise its Islamic principles.

Talk of a truce between the Taliban and former government forces seems to have been abandoned after both sides admitted they could not agree on conditions. Abdul Rashid Dostam, the northern warlord, appeared to join forces with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the former government's military commander, in a big offensive against the Taliban.