INTRO:  The Taliban have taken over one of the poorest nations on earth with no immediate prospect of improvement. Nor do their policies point in that direction. They concentrate on dress and behavior, while other problems fester and the country’s economic slide continues. In the last of three reports, VOA’s Ed Warner describes the poverty and disease that afflict a once prosperous country.

TEXT:  The Taliban rule is harsh, especially for women. But harsher still is the condition of the economy. Once prosperous Afghanistan is now among the poorest nations on earth with one of the highest rates of infant mortality and one of the lowest life expectancy.

First the war with the Soviets, then the infighting among Afghans have laid waste much of the country. More than half of Kabul is in ruins, and desperate Afghans have set up stalls amid the rubble where they sell all manner of items, including their household possessions.

The poverty is compounded by a severe drought and by U-N and U-S economic sanctions, ostensibly because the Taliban will not surrender Osama bin Laden, the terrorist accused of bombing the American embassies in Africa and a variety of other acts.

The main concern of Afghans is where the next meal is coming from or the next drink of water in a parched land where rivers have dried up.

Peter Goosens, deputy country director of the UN’s World Food Program, says his agency is busier than ever trying to relieve the hunger and avert starvation:

// Goosens act //

In a normal year, the shortfall of wheat in Afghanistan is approximately 700,000 tons of wheat. This year it is 2.3 million, more than three times as bad as in a normal year. We hope that we can avoid at least some of the more blatant cases of food shortage by trying to get as much food out there in the hardest hit areas before the winter stops us.

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Many Afghans cannot afford to live even in poverty in central Kabul. So their rude homes climb the hills above the city, hardly distinguishable from the earth beneath. They have no electricity or water, which they must lug up twice a day. The trails are rather treacherous, hardly navigable by the old and the lame, although children scamper about them as nimbly as goats.

Out from Kabul, on the sun-baked land, nomads live in  tents waiting for help that never arrives. The deeply bronzed leader of a community of 160 families spreads out rugs, offers bread to his guests and says they are the first in years to come to talk:

// nomad act, Pashto fading to English //

I’m a nomad. I have been living in this Paghman district for four years. The whole district has been destroyed by the drought. We can grow nothing. All our cattle have died from the drought. Nobody has given us a thing. Water is five kilometers away and is not fit for farming, only drinking.

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Health has deteriorated in Afghanistan, with rising incidence of tuberculosis and polio. Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the earnest, intense deputy minister of public health, says there is a worrying increase in cancer in areas of prolonged warfare.

At best, he says, Afghans are receiving sixty-five per cent of the health care they need. There are shortages of everything, including surgical equipment. Since economic sanctions prevent Afghanistan’s three airplanes from leaving the country, medical supplies must come from land. But the roads are so bad that the medicine may have lost its potency by the time it arrives. Nor can Afghan doctors fly to other countries for information and training.

Minister Stanikzai says the greatest health menace is the debris of war; namely, the land mines all over the country:

// Stanikzai act //

There are millions of mines still left in Afghanistan. Those people returning from Pakistan and Iran because they are new, they do not know what happened in this area. They are victims of those mines. More than 700 thousand people have lost their hands, their legs or their eyes. We receive them in this hospital. Every day they come here for treatment and for artificial legs.

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Gradually, the mines are being removed, but it is a slow, tedious process that will take years.

Can the Taliban, as fervently religious as they are politically untried, cope with this massive burden of poverty and destruction? They say wait until the war is finally over and we can turn our attention to pressing domestic needs. Others say unless they change their style of governing and welcome back all the educated Afghans – men and women – who have fled the country, they will not succeed.

The Taliban say much of the opposition to them stems from hostility to Islam. Anis Ahmad, director of Da’wah Academy at the Islamic International University in Islamabad, agrees there is some truth to this, but adds that other versions of Islam do not arouse such opposition:

// Anis act //

It is from day one a faith which has been interpreted differently by different people. And that liberty is given by the Koran, not by the people. The Koran desires that you should use your brain, intellect, analysis, rationalism, and based on that, come up with what you understand and follow it as you understand -not that you impose on others what you understand. So it provides within the Islamic framework enormous liberty and freedom of interpretation.

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The Taliban have enjoyed that liberty in establishing their version of the Koran, say critics. They should respect other versions and even learn from them in a shared effort to attain the ideal Muslim life.