Taliban prepare for civilian rule

Jason Burke
Thursday 20 August 1998 23:02 BST

PAINTED ON the walls of the grey office block that is the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue are a number of sayings in Arabic.

Two of them are as relevant to the Taliban themselves as those living under their rule, cutting to the heart of the dilemma now confronted by the Islamic militia as they face changing themselves from a successful crusading army - in control of about 90 per cent of the country - into an effective civilian government.

"Don't forget God when you reach the peak of your powers," says one. Opposite: "In every breath there is a taste of death. Nothing is permanent."

To establish a stable Taliban government may well mean, to some degree at least, forgetting God. If the Taliban are to be supported by all the various religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, let alone recognised internationally, some compromise on their religious principles will almost certainly be necessary. Otherwise the rule of the Taliban movement may be as short-lived as the regimes that have preceded it.

So far such compromise does not look likely. Last week Abdurrabman Ahmad Hotaqi, the Taliban's Deputy Information Minister, said that all policies, from public executions to the requirement that men wear a beard longer than a fist's width, would remain the same.

His views were echoed yesterday by two other senior Taliban, the president of Kabul University and a Minister for Internal Affairs, Maulvi Mahmud Waziri, who said: "We do not need to be like any country. We have our own laws and they will not be altered for anyone."

Despite this hardline attitude, the situation is more complex. There are some in the government who realise that the international community is unlikely to recognise the Taliban as the legitimate regime unless they improve their image.

Some also realise that the imposition of their extreme version of Islamic law on the whole of Afghanistan risks alienating much of the population.

The Taliban's laws derive from a mix of Pathan tribal tradition and modern Sunni Muslim fundamentalism. It is alien to much of the country. The more pragmatic among the Taliban know that only a degree of flexibility will keep them in power. But the Taliban face more immediate problems as they try to start running the country. Twenty years of war have denuded Afghanistan of the trained professionals they need.

Some steps are being taken. Over lunch in what was the female students' canteen - before women were effectively banned from higher education - the president of Kabul University explained how he was planning to train a new generation of civil servants. A course in practical diplomacy had just finished, he said, and although only 50 out of 300 had passed he was sure things would improve.

"We have prepared courses in law, agriculture, trade and communication. We are ready to start but we are still waiting for the decree from the government," he said.

He did admit, however, that severe shortages of female teachers and doctors were unlikely to be remedied soon. By ordering women to be taught in separate classrooms, with lecturers and students wearing the burqa, the Taliban have effectively stopped all female further education. Much of the arts faculty has also been shut down - sculpture and music, the Taliban say, are forbidden by the Koran, and economics students are not allowed to learn about credit, debit and interest.

The result is that the only active ministry is the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue. It sends out ever more extreme edicts daily. Recently, the ministry threatened a house-to-house search for television sets and told the people of Kabul to black out ground- floor windows in case passing men saw women within.

In stark contrast, virtually nothing appears to issue from the rotting, half empty Russian-built office blocks that house other departments.

Many of the ministers are very young - the Deputy Information Minister was 26 when appointed - with no experience of administration. Others were appointed to co-opt various Afghan factions into the regime and are rarely in Kabul. Still more are hardened military commanders who scorn paper- pushing and spend their time at the front. The governor of the state bank is a mullah whose education consisted of rote learning from the Koran. Some, it is rumoured, are illiterate.

Some Western diplomats remain optimistic, however. They point out how badly the Taliban want the Afghanistan seat at the United Nations, which is currently held by the former prime minister, Burhannuddin Rabbani, whose military forces are falling apart in the north. Recognition may mean that a lucrative oil pipeline running from Turkmenistan to Pakistan across Afghan soil might finally be built.

"All the Taliban need to show to the outside world that they can reason and be reasonable," one Western diplomat said yesterday. "Then there can be dialogue, we will find common ground and things will improve for everyone."

However, given the third slogan on the ministry walls, his optimism may be misplaced. "Throw reason to the dogs," it says. "It stinks of corruption."

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