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Life Under Taliban article UPDATED

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									                                    Life Under Taliban Cuts Two Ways

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- Karim has never known anything but a world of war.

At the age of 2, he watched the Soviet Union's occupation force retreat from Kabul after a decade-long
guerrilla war. When he was 4, his family fled their mud-brick house as shelling from two rival Afghan
militia, fighting for control of the capital, reduced their neighborhood to rubble. When he was 8, Karim's
family breathed a sigh of relief, as religious reformers known as the Taliban ("Seekers") toppled the
bickering factions that had formed an Afghan government and brought peace to a majority of the country.

In five years, the Taliban has put Afghanistan on the map of the Muslim world as a bold experiment in
"pure" fundamentalist rule. It also has become an international pariah for its ties to terrorist groups, harsh
treatment of women, and other policies. But Afghans - like the world at large - are still coming to terms with
all that this experiment means for their lives.

Until last week, Karim's 13-year-old world seemed finally to be getting better rather than worse. He had
begun taking classes at the training center run by Afghan Streetworking Children in New Approach, or
ASCHIANA. The nonprofit group's acronym means "nest" in Persian. He receives two meals a day, is
learning to read and write, and acquiring future job skills as a landscape painter.

But with the United States preparing for possible retaliatory action against the accused Saudi-born terrorist
leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government that gives him asylum, Karim's life has once again
taken a turn for the worse. "Due to 20 years of war, the sources of income for people and the socioeconomic
fabric of the country have been damaged severely," says Muhammad Naizmand, spokesman for Afghan Red
Crescent, a branch of the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent in Kabul.

Now, with more than a quarter of Afghanistan's 25 million population entirely dependent on aid agencies for
food and other assistance, the social fabric that holds Karim's world together is close to unraveling. Most of
the foreign aid agencies and UN relief workers who ran food and assistance programs have withdrawn, and
the UN's World Food Program estimates that there are now only two weeks of food stocks left in the country.
It's a situation that has many Afghans - both inside and outside Afghanistan - reassessing the Taliban legacy,
and wondering where it will lead them.

Peace and law

"The biggest achievement of the Taliban is they have brought sharia [Islamic law] to Afghanistan," says
Abdul Qudus, an ethnic Afghan and religious scholar who runs a madrassah, or religious school, for young
Afghans in the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan. "They have made a very good peace, they
have collected weapons from the people, they stopped poppy cultivation [a source of opium], they stopped
foreign interference - and especially religious conversions of our Muslims - and they started electricity in
Afghanistan. That is their legacy."

Nasir, a taxi driver in Kabul, takes a much dimmer view, and one shared by many of the Persian-speaking
citizens of Kabul toward the Pushtu-speaking Taliban rulers. (Afghanistan has two official languages, Pushtu
and Persian, and a variety of ethnic groups. These include majority Pashtuns, as well as Tajiks, Hazaras,
Uzbeks, and Turkmen.) "These people don't have any home, any food, any income," Nasir says, gesturing at
a group of widows and their children begging in a busy Kabul market. Like most Afghans interviewed for
this story, Nasir asked that his name be altered to protect his identity. "With the Taliban, the first thing they
build is a mosque and a madrassah," he says. "We need mullahs, but we also need other things too:
engineers, doctors, teachers."
When Karim saw his first Taliban soldiers, driving in on Toyota pickup trucks on Sept. 26, 1996, there was
little to indicate that the public mood might turn against them. The Taliban, unlike the fractious mujahideen
rebels who ousted the Soviets, was able to unify a majority of the country under one regime and bring a level
of peace that hadn't existed here for almost two decades.

In Kabul, and the five other Afghan metropolises under Taliban control, this newfound peace allowed Karim
and his family to rebuild their home. Around the country, Afghans returned by the thousands, restoring a
semblence of the lives they had led in the 1970s, before the troubles began. Hundreds of foreign-aid groups
began setting up food-for-work programs; establishing medical clinics, bakeries, and schools; and beginning
the long, dangerous task of clearing away millions of landmines and tons of unexploded ordnance.

Today, the Taliban claim to control up to 90 percent of Afghanistan, but this figure must be tempered
somewhat by the fact that Taliban forces still face fighting in more than half - 17 out of 32 - Afghan
provinces. As recently as yesterday, fighters from Afghanistan's Northern Alliance - the main Taliban foe -
launched a helicopter attack on Kabul itself, destroying two civilian airliners and detonating tons of ordnance
at an ammunition dump. Even so, in those areas where the Taliban is firmly in control, Afghans say they
feel safer than in previous years. "When the Taliban came in, the fighting stopped," says Ubaidullah, head of
a food-for-work program that is rebuilding homes in a destroyed section of Kabul. "Now, it is OK, there is
no fighting, no thieves, no rapists. There is also no work and no money, therefore there are a lot of poor
people." As fellow workers gather, he pauses. "We have a lot of feelings about the Taliban that I can't tell
you."

A 'pure' Islamic state

But more than anything else, the Taliban aimed at remaking Afghanistan into a nation that adhered to its
interpretation of the pure Islamic society envisioned by the prophet Muhammad. Part of this came from the
utter disappointment many of these young Taliban felt as they watched the mujahideen turn from liberators
into bickering warlords, creating an anarchic state where robbery, rape, and extortion became the rule rather
than the exception.

"If you look at the constituency of the Taliban, they are mostly the lower rungs of society, those who have
little trust in where the world is going," says a Western diplomat in New Delhi with extensive experience in
Islamic societies of the Middle East. "So when the Taliban come in, they say, 'You have no food? We'll build
a bakery. No mosque? We'll go build one. No school? We'll build one, and we'll even give your son free
education in the Koran." "When the son comes home, fed and in new clothes, the first thing he tells his
mother is, 'Mother, I have done bad things to you. I should honor you. I wish you to forgive me," the
diplomat adds. "What mother is not going to be ecstatic about that?"

Even so, the arrival of Islamic law has been greeted with mixed reaction among Afghans. Some in rural areas
say their daily lives have not changed much, since they had followed sharia for decades, even centuries. But
in urban areas, many Afghans resent the strict rules that govern all aspects of their daily lives. Consider the
following list of edicts issued by Taliban religious scholars in Kabul in December 1996:

      "To prevent music.... In shops, hotels, vehicles, and rickshaws, cassettes and music are prohibited."
       "To prevent beard shaving and its cutting. After one and a half months, if anyone [is] observed who
       has shaved and or cut his beard, they should be arrested and imprisoned until their beard is bushy."
      "To prevent kite-flying."
      "To prevent idolatry. In vehicles, shops, hotels, rooms, and any other place, pictures [and] portraits
       should be abolished."
      "To prevent washing cloth by young ladies along the water streams in the city. Violator ladies should
       be picked up with respectful Islamic manner, taken to their houses, and their husbands severely
       punished."

Though the list was long, the Taliban vigorously enforced these new rules through their religious police. The
Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice now patrols every major city of Afghanistan,
armed with whips and automatic rifles. Though Karim says the police largely leave him alone, and
sometimes even give him alms, other Afghans say the religious police perform their tasks with zeal,
checking cars for cassette tapes, monitoring beard lengths, and maintaining social order in a sometimes
brutal fashion. "If you look at the kind of people who are Taliban, they are very poorly educated, and they
stick to the word of the Koran, with no attempt at interpretation," says Frederic Grare, director of the Center
for Human Sciences in New Delhi. "The rule of the Taliban is ruthless, very primitive, and cruel. But
nevertheless, there is rule," Dr. Grare adds. "When Kabul fell in the hands of [recently assassinated
mujahideen commander] Ahmad Shah Masood, where was the rule then? Now, you at least have some
predictability."

Praised on drug control

From the Western perspective, the Taliban's most impressive accomplishment is in the area of drug control.
Until last year, Afghanistan accounted for nearly three-quarters of the world's supply of opium, with much of
the addictive drug reaching Europe, America, and beyond. Even though the Taliban's interpretation of sharia,
or Islamic law, specifically bans addiction, nearly 500,000 Afghan farmers earned up to $100 million a year
from the drought-resistant crop. Local Taliban governments took a 10 percent cut from a zakat, or farm tax.

For years, Taliban officials told Western drug-control officials they couldn't stop poppy cultivation because
of the hardship it would impose on farmers, particularly during a now-three year drought. But this year,
Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar banned opium outright. To the West's surprise, adherence
has been total within Taliban-ruled areas - and without a penny of foreign aid. The UN Drug Control
Program suspended assistance two years ago. "It's really quite remarkable," says Bernard Frahi, director of
the UN Drug Control Program in Islamabad, speaking last March, when UN teams of monitors confirmed
that the Taliban poppy ban was total. "If this had happened in Colombia, where the US is spending billions
of dollars and reducing drug cultivation by maybe 5 percent, this would have gotten the Nobel Prize. But
because it's the Taliban, there's a different reaction."

Diplomatic isolation

Only three nations - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates - have granted official recognition
to the Taliban government. Most Western democratic nations object to the Taliban's authoritarian rule, and
its often brutal suppression of free expression and human rights, especially restrictions on women. But
Western diplomats say the main obstacle for Western recognition is the Taliban's alleged patronage of
militant groups within its own borders. "This has become a breeding ground for radical Islam," says the
Western diplomat.

The US and the West bear some responsibility for creating this breeding ground in the 1980s and early '90s,
as the US encouraged zealous Muslim leaders to recruit Muslims worldwide to come to training camps in
Pakistan and Afghanistan to overturn the Soviet invasion. Once the Soviets left, Western nations lost interest
in the region and distanced themselves from the mujahideen - Afghans, North Africans, Arabs, and even
Southeast Asians - who fought in Afghanistan. More than a dozen of these training camps are still in
operation. Some are thought to be funded by Mr. bin Laden. Authorities believe they trained the perpetrators
of numerous attacks, from from Khobar, Tanzania, and Kenya to Yemen, New York, and Washington. A
major part of their ideology is the overthrow of America, and of less-than-pure Islamic governments in
places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
"They're winning the battle of the minds of the people, and we're losing it ... because we don't speak Arabic
and we don't understand Muslim culture," adds the diplomat. And with little credibility or leverage in the
region, there is little the US and its allies can do to influence Afghanistan, outside of the use of military
force.

Humanitarian aid

Now, more than a week after UN relief officials and foreign aid workers have withdrawn from Afghanistan,
Afghans like Karim who depend on aid programs for food and work are having to rely on other means,
primarily their families. World Food Program officials estimate there are only two weeks of UN food stocks
left in Afghanistan. Already, thousands of Afghans are reported leaving their homes, both out of fear of US
bombing attacks and in search of a stable source of food. Like some 6 million Afghans, Karim and his
family spend their daily lives fending off starvation. Nearly 1 million urban Afghans and 4 million rural
Afghans are almost entirely dependent on food relief.

While more than 400,000 Afghan civilians have lost their lives in the 1990s alone, the humanitarian crisis
has had a particularly hard effect on Afghan children, who make up nearly half the nation's population - 10.3
million of a total 25 million Afghans here. Nearly a quarter of all infants die by the age of 5, mostly from
malnutrition. Only 12 out of 20 school-age boys, and one out of 20 school-age girls, go to school.

Karim's family is so poor that he and his his four brothers must leave the house by 5:30 a.m. and start the
day's work: picking through trash and roadside filth in search of wood, metal, and bits of paper to sell to
scrap dealers. His father is unable to work; his mother earns some money washing clothes and baking bread
for neighbors. On a good day, Karim earns about 30 cents, enough to buy five pieces of bread. His first meal
of the day - a glass of milk and a hunk of bread - comes at 9:00 a.m. at the training center run by
ASCHIANA. Karim gets two meals a day through ASCHIANA. At noon he rushes out to the local bazaar
for two hours to scavenge for wood and metal. "It's dangerous, because there are lots of places in Kabul
where there are mines," says Karim. "There are some mines beside the rivers and in the destroyed areas. We
learn what the mines look like, and how to avoid them."

Karim has never been to school, but after a year at ASCHIANA, he can now read and write. He has even
read the Koran once, and the lessons from that holiest of books in Islam give him hope, he says. But his
favorite pastime, by far, is painting. "I'm learning to be an artist," says Karim, smiling. "I have one wish: to
be a good teacher, so that I can teach others to be good painters." At the end of the day, Karim walks home
with his friends. He's supposed to be gathering scrap metal, but on this day he and his classmates stop at the
playground in Sharinow Park. They take turns pushing a rickety merry-go-round, which tips and sways and
sends some of the boys flying into the dust as it gathers speed. For 10 minutes, Karim's world is like that of
any child in the world, a world of play.

								
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