Peter Popham in Sarobi: Afghans struggle to make sense of the yawning void of authority

War on Terrorism: Fears
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The Independent Online

Courtesy of America's bombs and missiles, Afghanistan's involuntary experiment in anarchism continues across large stretches of the country.

This is a country running on empty, free-wheeling into the future and it is both exhilarating and alarming to be in the midst of it.

Menace still clings close. Outside the small town of Sarobi, 25 miles east of Kabul, a huddle of dusty houses stepping down to the Kabul river, my guide pointed out a group of black-clad figures moving up into the hills a mile away, almost too small to be made out. "Arabs,'' he said confidently. They were climbing out of the town, into the higher hills cocked with deep caves, the sort of caves that make Afghanistan an awesomely good place to start a guerrilla war.

Perhaps the Arabs, if that's what they were, intend nothing of the sort. But some people in Sarobi are uneasy. A middle-aged man in the town's depleted bazaar told us: "I'm sorry the Taliban are gone. At least they kept some order. At least they stopped robberies.'' Sarobi, like the rest of the country, has been violently stripped of the flimsy, moth-eaten cloak of civil order the Taliban provided.

I asked, what are you doing about protection? "No one is protecting us,'' I was told. "We are looking after ourselves.'' Jalalabad, by contrast, was gripped by something approaching a carnival mood. The streets thronged with bicycles, rickshaws and cars and hundreds of men and boys (and, very occasionally, small girls) just out walking and talking, padding about the town, enjoying the beautiful autumn weather – and tasting with slow relish the luxury of not having to be frightened about anything: not of the Taliban and their religious police and not of the American bombs either.

Abdul Ghaffoor, an engineering student at the city's university, said: "Just a week ago there was nobody on the street. Everyone was very scared because we thought the Americans were going to bomb everything flat. When we realised they were only bombing particular Taliban places, we became a little less scared.''

On Wednesday, the Taliban left en masse, perhaps 1,000 of them. Some Arabs remained, standing in the main street screaming that they were going to die as martyrs – and they, too, melted away, all but two, who were killed in murky circumstances. So yesterday – by chance the first day of Ramadan – was the first day for years when there were neither bombs nor zealots to worry about.

There is, in other words, a yawning void of authority. Now the local tribal elders shoved aside or driven into exile by the Taliban are scrambling to try and fill it. At 9.30am yesterday, Haji Abdul Qadir, a handsome clear-browed figure in his late fifties, stalking out of the governor's residence in Jalalabad where he is staying, and dozens of mujahedin cradling machines-guns fell in behind as he walked to a mosque in a nearby park to offer prayers in memory of Abdul Haq, his brother, killed by the Taliban last month while trying to lead a rebellion against them.

The ceremony preceded the opening of a shura, a council of elders to decide who was going to rule this province. It will last for days – such a messy, traditional exercise in grass-roots democracy involving at least 100 men cannot be reduced to a few speeches and a quick vote. Until the shura gives its decision and all the local factions agree to uphold it, Jalalabad's holiday mood will be shadowed by dark anxiety.

Only in the capital, Kabul, where fears of a meltdown along ethnic lines are highest, has the void been plausibly filled. Kabul is not swarming with Northern Alliance soldiers but they are a strong, palpable presence. Whoever decided there should be a police force drawn from their ranks, and that they should be issued with uniforms, deserves a prize.

At a stroke, these are no longer the rag-tag guerrillas marching from the hills. Men in smart grey uniforms with white peaked caps sit or stand at the city's intersections. Young fighters kitted out in camouflage gear do security duty. None of them are doing much but sitting around: in contrast with Jalalabad, Kabul was deathly quiet yesterday. But they are there in case.

Next week they may all be replaced by a multinational force drawn from Turkey, Malaysia and other Muslim countries. I asked a young Tajik, Abdul Subu, doing sentry duty in his camouflage fatigues outside the Intercontinental hotel, how he felt about that. "Very happy,'' he said. "Especially if they are Muslim troops.''

A student, Munsif Khyber, said: "If they are Muslim peace-keepers it will be better.''

"It would be good to have Muslim soldiers patrolling the city," echoed Mohamed Emil, an ethnic Tajik working as a driver. "Just peace is important for us.''