Struggling Afghanistan

A 3 Part Series, All Contained Here

Early reporting on the Taliban for the Voice of America

 

PART I

INTRO:  With the departure of the Taleban, Afghanistan is transformed. Freedom is on display in all kinds of ways. Yet there is an underlying fear it may not last because of the continuing warfare, factional conflicts and the uncertain behavior of foreign powers. In the first of a three-part series, VOA’s Ed Warner, who visited Kabul three years ago under Taleban rule, reports on the city today.

TEXT:  Kites banned by the Taleban are now floating over rooftops in Kabul, a conspicuous sign of the return of freedom to harshly suppressed Afghans.

And there are many other signs: women can show their faces and men can shave their beards without fear of lashing or imprisonment by the patrolling vice-virtue

squad. Music can be heard around the city, movies  viewed. Newspapers are abundant. There is a perpetual traffic jam on once deserted streets. And no more public executions or mutilations.

There is a palpable sense of relief that can be seen on countless faces. Opportunities beckon and Afghans are flocking home from abroad to seize them. Many foreigners are contributing to the new mood and the new economy of unfettered enterprise. Afghanistan is once again moving.

Still a cloud of uncertainty remains. How long can the good times last considering a fractious government whose writ does not extend much beyond Kabul and continued attacks from Taleban remnants and others who enjoy sanctuary across the border in Pakistan?

If the foreign forces, above all Americans, decide to leave, many Afghans say the feuding local commanders or warlords will once again start fighting and in the ensuing chaos, the Taleban or something much like them will return to power by promising security.

Horess Shansab is an Afghan-American film-maker in Kabul who is preparing a fictional movie of a family living through Taleban times. I am an optimist, he says, and so his film will have a happy ending with the departure of the Taleban.

He speaks for many Afghans about the future:

SHANSAB ACT

It looks to me promising, problematic, full of challenge. It is not an easy place to categorize and say it’s one or the other. There is still some instability in the south, and everyone is aware of that and worried. We are hoping that the world will remain engaged in Afghanistan, and there will be increased help and assistance because without that kind of assistance, I do not see a very rosy picture.

END ACT

Afghans must put down the gun and take up the shovel, says Safir Latifi, a Kabul businessman who has opened up an internet café aside his guest house and plans others around the country:

LATIFI ACT

Within the time of six months we will cover all major provinces of Afghanistan and we will be connecting them to the internet. The Internet is bringing unity to this country, making people talk to each other and be connected to each other, which is one of the ways we can encourage the refugees to come back to the country.

END ACT

Nothing is more important, says Mr. Latifi, than to revive the country with projects that can be seen and admired and that will provide jobs – roads, bridges, schools, housing. He thinks that is the best way of countering the armed rebellion that feeds on weakness and despair.

But Mr. Latifi, among many others, says reconstruction is going much too slowly. Above all, the crucial road linking Kabul to Kandahar in the unstable south is only now nearing completion and its surface is temporary and not expected to last.

Mr. Latifi says this is all too typical of the reconstruction effort:

LATIFI ACT

Unfortunately, the world community and especially the United Nations have not been very helpful. The U-N is a big bureaucracy in Afghanistan. This is a U-N sponsored government. Afghanistan is a test field for the future of the United Nations. So the U-N has to be very successful in Afghanistan.

END ACT 

Extremism is gone, say Afghans, to be replaced by bureaucracy. The Taleban wasted no time punishing people who ignored, say, the nightly 10 o’clock curfew. Their successors can take hours to process by hand the simplest forms.

That is no recipe for progress, contends Mr. Latifi:

LATIFI ACT

In Afghanistan we have to have rapid changes. We have to have decision making on a daily basis. We have to take a decision, execute a plan and then go and start it. We cannot wait for a project to be decided for one month, to be decided for three months, to be sent for approval to New York and then be started after two years. After two years, the need for that project will not be there.

END ACT 

But if officialdom is plodding, private help is on the move, says George Nez, an American city planner who has worked in 19 developing countries. He marvels at the number of people in non-governmental organizations who have come to help Afghanistan rebuild:

NEZ ACT

There are over 200 NGO’s from all quarters of the world who are really stitching together Afghanistan. The NGO’s are like a big pyramid of smaller and larger units that contract with each other. The bigger ones contract with the smaller ones. That number astounded me when I got there. There are so many that are actually rebuilding in patches.

END ACT

Mr. Nez says the NGO’s are reinforcing the ill-equipped Afghan government ministries whose budgets do not compare with the funds coming from abroad.

His own specialty is roofing, the casualty of war, earthquakes and old age. He worked for three months this past summer in Wardak province, where there are frequent armed clashes.

People close to him say he was undeterred, just the kind of committed, skilled foreigner Afghanistan needs. He made tools of the weaponry shells littering the area, and he says his Afghan hosts looked out for him:

NEZ ACT

They took such care of me. I was practically locked in every night. They had a kalashnikov in every corner. They had dogs that kept me awake barking all night. Too much protection, and a lot of hospitality. Those people are so appreciative of somebody helping them.

END ACT

George Nez looks forward to seeing roofing on the large area of Kabul that was destroyed by the warlords’ fighting in the 1990’s. He says the work force is in place – Afghans who have returned from abroad and cannot afford Kabul’s sky-rocketing housing prices. So they settle for the remains of houses:

NEZ ACT

They are swarming into the slums, into the devastated war-torn parts of Kabul, for instance. They are just putting some canvas on the broken walls, even several stories up on those devastated buildings. They are building shops on the first floors, and if there is an earthquake – too bad. That is where they are absorbing the population right now. Whoever can afford to start rebuilding is doing it.

END ACT 

Much, much more remains to be done in Kabul and elsewhere. There is no city water or sewage system. People must often walk a considerable distance to fill their buckets from wells perilously close to sewage dumps. In the case of Afghans living in the huts that barely emerge from the barren mountainsides, the trip is steep and tiring.

More progress could be made, says Mr. Nez, if half the work force were not idle. The Taleban are gone, but women are treated much the same, especially in the countryside:

NEZ ACT

Women are not educated, not working in the economy, not running the schools, not running the hospitals, not running the stores, the banks – nothing. It is a country without female brains, skills. This will come, though. The school we are building is essentially for girls, and many of the other NGO’s are heading the same way – trying to educate the women.

END ACT

But as Jila Samee points out, the men will have to be educated first. Director of media relations at the Foreign Affairs ministry, she says the men must learn that bringing women into the work force is not just good for women but for Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries.  

 

PART II

INTRO: With the fall of the Taleban, dramatic change came to Kabul, though certain influences linger on. If the Taleban are gone, they are by no means forgotten. In the second of three scripts, VOA’s Ed Warner contrasts Kabul today with the city he visited three years ago.

TEXT:  The Taleban were extreme, says film-maker Horess Shansab, but explainable. Indoctrinated in the  teeming refugee camps of Pakistan, they promised to bring order, however harsh, to chaotic Afghanistan and end the warlords’ destructive fighting:

SHANSAB ACT

People were longing for safety on the street, for a basic level of security, and the Taleban provided that. Of course, they imprisoned the whole population. There is no better security than in a prison, and that is what they did.

END ACT

Guarding that prison was the notorious ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue. Its patrols scoured the streets for offenders with incorrect beards or any sign of female flesh. Even women’s eyes had to be screened, leading to an unsteady gait. They seemed to be tottering rather than walking down the street.

Punishment was swift and harsh – a lashing, a beating, perhaps imprisonment. It turned out to be dangerous even to report on the ministry, as I discovered. On my earlier trip, my interpreter and I managed to interview its deputy director whom we overheard phoning another mullah. He had just opened an ice cream store, and while the women customers were duly segregated from the men, there was a problem. The women had to lift their veils and expose their faces to eat the ice cream – a clear violation. This matter was discussed at some length until the minister finally relented – perhaps due to our presence – and made an exception of the ice cream store.

The VOA report of this incident infuriated the Taleban who denounced my interpreter as an informer and subsequently jailed him briefly for a different offense. Another reporter who related the episode was threatened with death. It was one thing to criticize the Taleban apparently; it was quite another to make light of them.

Today the Vice-Virtue department has been turned into the General Statistic Office, but the Taleban influence may still linger. We found no one willing to talk about working in that illustrious precinct. Who knows? The Taleban might some day return and resent any disparaging remarks.

Afghans say this partly explains why many women continue to wear the full covering of burkas. Add to that the taunts of men when they see an exposed face and also the force of tradition.

Film-maker Horess Shansab says the Taleban are not entirely to blame:

SHANSAB ACT

Women in burkas existed in Afghanistan before the Taleban, before 9/11. It is a very traditional, tribal society, and in certain parts of the country, burkas were normal. It will take time for education to take hold, for people to slowly change. It will not happen over night. You will not see women in short dresses in Afghanistan any time soon.

END ACT

Mr. Shansab adds that westerners should not press too hard for rapid change. Afghanistan has to take its  time. This he learned when he tried to convince a 35-year old man in the countryside not to keep having children. How could he make a decent life for them all? But I need them to provide for my old age, the man replied. They are his social security:

SHANSAB ACT

The west needs to understand that not everyone is on the same timeline as the west. If it does not, if it fails to understand that, it will only create resentment, ill will and mistrust. I have traveled in parts of Afghanistan where I feel time has stood still. How can I try to force upon the inhabitants of that village views that have evolved in the last two thousand years?

END ACT

The main Taleban entertainment was the weekly execution or mutilation in the Kabul amphitheater. A large crowd had gathered on this occasion – women at a distance. Enthusiastic Afghans urged us forward: “See! See!” they shouted. We saw – two hanged men with bills stuffed into their mouths and ears, signifying their crimes involved money.

Today no blood is shed in the amphitheater, as a frequent spectator explains:

AMPHITHEATER ACT – fade from Dari to English

They cut off the hands of criminals and executed them. Whether it was right or wrong, they did it. Now it is different. Games take place here, including buzkashi, in which teams on horseback try to push the carcass of a goat or a calf through the goal.

END ACT

A portrait of Afghan President Hamid Karzai gazes  benignly down on the proceedings.

Many more animals are now on display at the once threadbare Kabul zoo, but the chief attraction is missing. The majestic blind lion Marjan, who like Afghans had survived shot and shell over the years, died soon after the U-S liberation. His passing was mourned by many Afghans who attended his burial.

A zoo-keeper laments the loss:

ZOOKEEPER ACT – fade from Dari to English

The lion was sick for a long time, and two veterinarians came from England and America, but we were unable to save him. So we buried him in the graveyard for animals. China replaced Marjan with a pair of lions and other animals.

END ACT 

Landmines are not as prevalent as they once were but still claim lives and limbs in Kabul. Some areas of danger are fenced off, but not all. A man on the outskirts of the city says he lost a leg when he stepped on a mine:

LANDMINE ACT – fade from Dari to English

My life is very sad. Before when I had all my body, I was active and could do whatever I wanted. But now that I am disabled I cannot do the work I used to do. I do not get enough money from the government to live on. There was no work during the Taleban rule, but now people who are able to work can.

END ACT

Under the stress of war and deprivation, Afghans have sought refuge in their ethnicity, which leads to tensions.

Horess Shansab recently visited an orphanage in Kabul to do some filming:

SHANSAB ACT

I was greeted warmly at the door by the kids, mostly boys, ages about eight to 12 years old. And when I went further into the orphanage, the first thing they asked me was I a Tajik or a Pashtun? And that, of course, was a very scary moment for me because they are the future of Afghanistan, and one has to pay great attention to how they see themselves, how they see others in Afghanistan.

END ACT

He replied we are all Afghans, but he is not sure the message got across.

Some visitors to Afghanistan say they detect a growing animosity toward foreigners. A Muslim from Sierre Leone says you can tell they don’t like us by the way they look at us. Maybe, but looks can be deceiving.

A proud Afghan, especially if he is an official, can appear imperious at first as if he may be facing combat. But with a little patience he soon relaxes and out come tea and geniality.

Some Afghans resent Americans and want them to leave such as noted scholar Abdul Shakoor Rishad:

RISHAD ACT – fade from Pashto to English

In Afghanistan, as we see it, there is no security, no central government. America has revived the old colonial policy and has not brought peace to Afghanistan. Americans deal with Afghans hostile to the national interest of Afghanistan. They must review their Afghan policy.

END ACT

But Horess Shansab says most Afghans fear a premature American departure:

SHANSAB ACT

They realize that without the Americans, there would be bloodshed on the streets within 48 hours. There would be war. So the American presence is very critical in Afghanistan – not only American military presence but American assistance with reconstruction, rebuilding.

END ACT

In fact, says Mr. Shansab, the most important U-S mission is to give Afghans hope and confidence for their future. 

 

PART III

INTRO: Although the Taleban are removed from power, they continue to fight the government that replaced them. They are abetted by Pakistani sympathizers, and other foreign countries also complicate life for Afghans and undermine their efforts to achieve a viable peace. In the last of a three-part series, VOA’s Ed Warner describes the outside pressures on a divided Afghanistan and its response.

TEXT: Overthrowing the Taleban has brought freedom to Afghanistan but a shaky government. A new constitution is being written and elections are scheduled for next year, but underlying forces are shaping events.

Basically, the same groups that fought one another after the Soviet withdrawal and in the process destroyed much of Kabul, are back in power. It is said that only the international presence keeps them at peace and barely that, since fighting recently broke out between two warlords in the north.

There are now plans to expand the international force under NATO to other parts of Afghanistan, which urgently need more security.

Interior Minister Ali Jalali, a former top official at the Voice of America, is in charge of the nation’s police, some 100 thousand who are not altogether reliable. Mr. Jalali recently broke up a band of robbers in Kabul who were in police uniforms with police vehicles.

He says there are three basic threats to Afghanistan which are intertwined: terrorist attacks from tribal bases in Pakistan, a soaring drug traffic that was partly suppressed by the Taleban and factional fighting among Afghan warlords.

These threats, he says, reflect not so much the strength of the dissidents but the weakness of the Afghan government:

JALALI ACT

National institutions are now not matured. Some are not there. We have to build state and national institutions that will replace influence by individuals. Unfortunately, in many areas, things are influenced by powerful individuals. So therefore, until we build our state and national institutions, we will have these problems of turf fighting, fight over territory, fight over influence in different areas. These will have to be dealt with very cautiously, and we cannot change things overnight.

END ACT

Pressing for change, Mr. Jalali has earned a reputation as the government’s most active minister. He is gradually replacing uncooperative local officials, most recently in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, scene of clashes between rival warlords. President Karzai is regarded as well meaning but slow moving, while some ministers are charged with corruption.

Afghans say if Mr. Jalali chooses to run for president, he could win. But he is not sure he wants to. He is busy enough in his present job, receiving calls night and day from the provinces. Because of the work load and security concerns, he rarely gets to   restaurants or ceremonial functions and travels in an armed convoy even to the nearby presidential palace.

He says what makes his job tougher is foreign interference, in particular the zealots who come out of schools or madrassas in Pakistan determined to kill Americans and Afghans working with them. Many of these jihadists fight in Kashmir as well as in Afghanistan, crossing porous borders with little trouble.

Scholar Abdul Shakoor Rishad agrees that enemies from outside are his country’s main problem:

RISHAD ACT – fade from Dari to English

If there were no foreign interference, if there were no encouragement of those working against the Afghan national interest, Afghans have the capacity to solve their own problems themselves. Foreign countries control various groups within Afghanistan. If these ties can be cut, there will be national unity in  Afghanistan.

END ACT

Abdul Kaliq Fazil, a leader of a newly formed political party, the National Unity Movement of Afghanistan, says outside forces could be countered by the revival of monarchy, a rallying point for all Afghans:

FAZIL ACT

Our royal family is a symbol of national unity. They are able to bring Tajiks, Uzbeks, north, south, west all together and create a nation because Afghanistan was a nation. But during the war because of the interference of neighboring countries, this national unity was destroyed. Now we want to rebuild our national unity.

END ACT

But King Zahir Shah, now approaching ninety, is largely symbol, remembered fondly by many Afghans for presiding over years of relative peace from 1933 to 1973.

While Pakistan is a major concern for Afghans, they do not overlook Russia and the brutal Soviet occupation that led to so many of the current troubles.

At a recent hearing of a Kabul human rights commission, director Lal Gul described the plight of young Afghans who were sent to the Soviet Union -sometimes with their parents’ permission, sometimes  not – to be educated free of charge. With the Soviet collapse, they were abandoned and left to their fate.

Mr. Gul says they were often exploited, beaten, jailed:

GUL ACT – fade from Pashto to English

The history of Afghanistan is full of pain. One major painful story is the fate of thousands of children – boys and girls – who were sent to the Soviet Union during the invasion of Afghanistan. We want the leaders of Afghanistan and the world to hear their voices.

END ACT 

Several women attended the hearing whose children are missing somewhere in Russia. One woman said it is 23 years since she has heard from her son.

MOTHER’S ACT – fade from Dari to English

I do not where he is. I do not have a telephone number or an address. My son was in second grade when I took him to the orphanage because I could not take care of him. From there they sent him to the Soviet Union. I want the Afghan government or the United Nations to bring him to me, dead or alive. I want to know what happened.

END ACT

How to free Afghanistan from foreign involvement? One notion is to put the government in contact with all Afghan elements, good or bad, including the Taleban and urge them to give up fighting and come home again.

With this apparently in mind, former Taleban foreign minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil has been released from U-S custody and according to reports, is opening negotiations with other Taleban who are considered to be moderate. That could eventually lead to Taleban participation in the Afghan government and hopefully end or at least reduce the fighting.

Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University, says by shedding foreign connections, a genuine Afghanistan can emerge:

SAFI ACT

Unfortunately, leaders, parties, members do not have fully the Afghan character, and they cannot transfer it to the Afghan new generation because they have been in Pakistan, in Iran, in other countries. Now they are not even themselves aware of the pure Afghan character. Unfortunately, we have lost our Afghani values here.

END ACT

Easier said than done to recover these values, says Jila Samee, media director at the Foreign Affairs ministry. The long years of war have taken their toll. She finds Afghans have trouble concentrating, as if they are bracing for the next burst of gunfire. Being on edge leads to distraction.

Though venturing outside more than before and filling jobs in government offices, women, she says, still tend to walk with heads bowed as if they are unsure of their status and wary of the future. Emotional problems, suppressed during wartime, seem to be surfacing in a period of relative calm.

There is an authentic Afghanistan, says Interior Minister Ali Jalali. It will surmount its troubles and hold together.

JALALI ACT

Even during the civil war, you did not see even a single instance of secessionist movement. People were fighting for Kabul because they thought Kabul is the center of a country. So they wanted to have a share in the central government. Now many international organizations surveyed the country and found the overwhelming majority of the people want a strong central government.

END ACT

By way of contrast, you can leave Afghanistan for the Persian Gulf – cities of opulence sprung from the desert. And you think, if only Afghanistan had oil.

The Taliban Are Gone, But Influence Lingers

With the fall of the Taleban, dramatic change came to Kabul, though certain influences linger on. If the Taleban are gone, they are by no means forgotten. In the second of three reports, VOA’s Ed Warner contrasts Kabul today with the city he visited three years ago.

The Taleban were extreme, says film-maker Horess Shansab, but explainable. Indoctrinated in the teeming refugee camps of Pakistan, they promised to bring order, however harsh, to chaotic Afghanistan and end the warlords’ destructive fighting: “People were longing for safety on the street, for a basic level of security, and the Taleban provided that. Of course, they imprisoned the whole population. There is no better security than in a prison, and that is what they did.”

Guarding that prison was the notorious Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue. Its patrols scoured the streets for offenders with incorrect beards or any sign of female flesh. Even women’s eyes had to be screened, leading to an unsteady gait. They seemed to be tottering rather than walking down the street.

Punishment was swift and harsh – a lashing, a beating, perhaps imprisonment. It turned out to be dangerous even to report on the ministry, as I discovered. On my earlier trip, my interpreter and I managed to interview its deputy director whom we overheard phoning another mullah. He had just opened an ice cream store, and while the women customers were duly segregated from the men, there was a problem. The women had to lift their veils and expose their faces to eat the ice cream, a clear violation. This matter was discussed at some length until the minister finally relented – perhaps due to our presence – and made an exception of the ice cream store.

The VOA report of this incident infuriated the Taleban who denounced my interpreter as an informer and subsequently jailed him briefly for a different offense. Another reporter who related the episode was threatened with death. It was one thing to criticize the Taleban apparently; it was quite another to make light of them.

Today the vice-virtue department has been turned into the General Statistic Office, but the Taleban influence may still linger. We found no one willing to talk about working in that illustrious precinct. Who knows? The Taleban might some day return and resent any disparaging remarks.

Afghans say this partly explains why many women continue to wear the full covering of burkas. Add to that the taunts of men when they see an exposed face and also the force of tradition.

Film-maker Horess Shansab says the Taleban are not entirely to blame: “Women in burkas existed in Afghanistan before the Taleban, before September 11. It is a very traditional, tribal society, and in certain parts of the country, burkas were normal. It will take time for education to take hold, for people to slowly change. It will not happen over night. You will not see women in short dresses in Afghanistan any time soon.”

Mr. Shansab adds that westerners should not press too hard for rapid change. Afghanistan has to take its time. This he learned when he tried to convince a 35-year-old man in the countryside not to keep having children. How could he make a decent life for them all? But I need them to provide for my old age, the man replied. They are his social security:

“The West needs to understand that not everyone is on the same timeline as the West,” says Mr. Shansab. “If it fails to understand that, it will only create resentment, ill will and mistrust. I have traveled in parts of Afghanistan where I feel time has stood still. How can I try to force upon the inhabitants of that village views that have evolved in the last two thousand years?”

The main Taleban entertainment was the weekly execution or mutilation in the Kabul amphitheater. On one occasion three years ago, a large crowd had gathered – women at a distance. Enthusiastic Afghans urged us forward: “See! See!” they shouted. We saw – two hanged men with bills stuffed into their mouths and ears, signifying their crimes involved money.

Today no human blood is shed in the amphitheater, as a frequent spectator explains: “They cut off the hands of criminals and executed them. Whether it was right or wrong, they did it. Now it is different. Games take place here, including Buzkashi, in which teams on horseback try to push the carcass of a goat or a calf through the goal.”

A portrait of Afghan President Hamid Karzai gazes benignly down on the proceedings.

Many more animals are now on display at the once threadbare Kabul zoo, but the chief attraction is missing. The majestic blind lion Marjan, who, like Afghans, had survived shot and shell over the years, died soon after the U.S. liberation. His passing was mourned by many Afghans who attended his burial.

A zookeeper laments the loss: “The lion was sick for a long time, and two veterinarians came from England and America, but we were unable to save him. So we buried him in the graveyard for animals. China replaced Marjan with a pair of lions and other animals.”

Landmines are not as prevalent as they once were but still claim lives and limbs in Kabul. Some areas of danger are fenced off, but not all. A man on the outskirts of the city says he lost a leg when he stepped on a mine: “My life is very sad. Before when I had all my body, I was active and could do whatever I wanted. But now that I am disabled I cannot do the work I used to do. I do not get enough money from the government to live on. There was no work during the Taleban rule, but now people who are able to work can.”

Under the stress of war and deprivation, Afghans have sought refuge in their ethnicity, which leads to tensions.

Horess Shansab recently visited an orphanage in Kabul to do some filming: “I was greeted warmly at the door by the kids, mostly boys, ages about eight to 12 years old. And when I went further into the orphanage, the first thing they asked me was I a Tajik or a Pashtun? And that, of course, was a very scary moment for me because they are the future of Afghanistan, and one has to pay great attention to how they see themselves, how they see others in Afghanistan.”

He replied we are all Afghans, but he is not sure the message got across.

Some visitors to Afghanistan say they detect a growing animosity toward foreigners. A Muslim from Sierre Leone says you can tell they don’t like us by the way they look at us. Maybe, but looks can be deceiving.

A proud Afghan, especially if he is an official, can appear imperious at first as if he may be facing combat. But with a little patience he soon relaxes and out come tea and geniality.

Some Afghans resent Americans and want them to leave, such as noted scholar Abdul Shakoor Rishad: “In Afghanistan, as we see it, there is no security, no central government. America has revived the old colonial policy and has not brought peace to Afghanistan. Americans deal with Afghans hostile to the national interest of Afghanistan. They must review their Afghan policy.”

But Horess Shansab says most Afghans fear a premature American departure: “They realize that without the Americans, there would be bloodshed on the streets within 48 hours. There would be war. So the American presence is very critical in Afghanistan not only American military presence but American assistance with reconstruction and rebuilding.”

In fact, says Mr. Shansab, the most important U.S. mission is to give Afghans hope and confidence for their future.

Taliban’s Afghanistan

A 3 Part Series, All Contained Here

Early reporting on the Taliban for the Voice of America

 

PART I

INTRO:  After years of fighting, the Taliban seem close to winning control of all of Afghanistan. That would consolidate their very strict Islamic rule of the country. But much of the world is repelled by this government, especially its treatment of women, and refuse to accept its legitimacy without substantial change. The Taliban, eager for international recognition and economic help, must now weigh religious conviction against societal needs. After a visit to Afghanistan, VOA’s Ed Warner provides the first of three reports.

TEXT:  The zoo in Kabul is all but empty, kids clustering around the cages of a few deer and wolves. In grand isolation, a blind lion sits staring into space, the victim of a soldier’s grenade. Somehow this fallen majesty seems to symbolize his city’s decline as well – an immensely sad but still dignified sight, faced with just about the worst that life can offer.

The decline, it is agreed, began with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It aroused a fierce, united and ultimately successful Afghan resistance. But the war continued after the Soviet withdrawal, as the various Afghan commanders fought among themselves, in the process destroying much of Kabul.

Out of this chaos, with a startling suddenness, emerged the Taliban, holy warriors determined to suppress the violence and impose a sweeping version of the Sharia. Backed and armed by Pakistan, they have now won control of almost the entire country, with resistance waning in the northeast.

What inspired such unlikely conquerors untrained in battle and immersed in studies? Mawlana Samiul Haq, director of a madrassa or religious school in Pakistan, was a major influence on the Taliban. He urged his students to go fight for Islam in Afghanistan, and that they did. It is a matter of great pride for him and his school. Last year, there were 15 thousand applications for four hundred places in the madrassa.

Hearty and forceful, Mr. Haq claims only a modest role in Afghanistan:

// Haq act, Urdu fading to English //

We did not create the Taliban. Circumstances did. They are not that happy to be in power. They are students and would prefer to return to their studies. But foreign powers continue to fuel the war in Afghanistan and give the Taliban little choice.

// //end act //

Why doesn’t the west recognize the Taliban for what they are? asks Samiul Haq: the genuine rulers of a nation. Yet they are denied a seat in the United Nations and banned from participating in the Olympics.

For good reason, replies the west, which finds the Taliban baffling and repellant. They seem to have turned the clock back by centuries as they remove women from schools and jobs, patrol the country for infractions of dress and behavior, ban all forms of entertainment and conduct public executions to intimidate any opposition.

That happens to be our culture, says the Minister of Culture, Mawlawi Qudratullah Jamal. We do not tell the West how to behave. Why should they tell us? The Taliban have brought peace and security to war-torn Afghanistan. For this we are punished:

// Jamal act, Pashto fading to English //

The major problem in Afghanistan today is the hardship resulting from the economic sanctions, which have brought such pain and suffering to the people. Afghans did not expect that after the defeat of the Soviet Union, the world would respond by damaging the Afghan economy instead of helping it.

// end act //

Minister Jamal said it is difficult for the Taliban to deal with issues of peace as long as they remain at war. Once it is over, they will be able to make the kind of progress that will be satisfactory to the west

Meanwhile, we welcome western visitors, says the urbane, under-stated foreign minister Mawlawi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil. The Taliban present three faces, notes a critic: warrior, zealot and diplomat. Mr. Mutawakil is the diplomatic presence.

At a press briefing in Kabul, he said the Taliban want to join the international community. Recognize us as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and we will provide you with some of the answers you seek.

// Mutawakil act, Pashto fading to English //

We are saying that we are ready to talk to people. We want to respond to the concerns of people. We want to participate in world affairs. We want to travel abroad, and we want our airline to take us there. We want to work together with the international community on a variety of problems.

// end act //

Mr. Mutawakil wondered why the west had not responded to the Taliban’s pledge to stop the cultivation of poppies for the drug trade. In its place, the country needs foreign investment to revive its collapsed economy.

But can the Taliban manage even if they have peace and help from abroad? Many have their doubts. Over the stressful years, Afghanistan has lost much of its educated population and trained professionals. Life under the Taliban is not likely to lure them back. Nor is their expertise prized by the Taliban, for whom the Koran is sufficient.

Across the border in Pakistan, Rasul Amin is Director of the AfghanistanStudyCenter in Peshawar and a former professor of political science in Afghanistan. He says the Taliban are ill equipped to govern a country:

// Amin act //

They have come from the madrassas with a very narrow mindedness. They do not know about the very complicated mechanism of the state. A state requires policies – economic policies and political policies, social policy, cultural policy, internal policy, external policy, a thousand policies. But their policies are confined to the beard.

// end act //

All Afghan men are required to have a full beard in emulation of the Prophet Mohammad.

Professor Amin says that is a major preoccupation of the Taliban, who neglect more pressing economic matters. Like others in Peshawar, he awaits the collapse of the Taliban and possibly the restoration of the aged king Zahir Shah, now in exile in Rome. They see him as a unifying figure who could rally support among diverse Afghans.

Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani is the past president of the Council of Understanding for the National Unity of Afghanistan, a Peshawar-based organization that calls for a grand assembly of Afghans to determine the country’s future.

He says Afghans are essentially moderate in contrast to the Taliban:

// Gailani act //

They are not representative of the people of Afghanistan. This is the first time in the history of Afghanistan that the mullahs came to power, but I am not sure they will agree very quickly to a transfer of power to the people of Afghanistan.

// end act //

The Taliban have shed their blood and committed their lives to win control of Afghanistan and submit it to the true faith. Now that military victory is in sight, even firm opponents do not expect them to surrender their power.  

 

PART II

INTRO:  The Taliban have established the most extreme version of Islam to be found in the world today. Strict codes of dress and behavior are enforced by a ministry set up for that purpose. Women are banned from most work and from schools. But the Taliban are discovering these rules clash with the needs of their  impoverished country. Outsiders offering help find it hard to work under such rigid conditions. In the second of three reports, VOA’s Ed Warner describes the Taliban’s Islamic regime.

TEXT:  Observers say one agency works well in Kabul: the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Hundreds of recruits eagerly carry out its mandate as they scour the city for any glimpse of female flesh or beardless males.

When they are outside, women must be fully covered, head to toe, with gauze over their eyes restricting their vision. As they trudge along the streets, none too steadily, many begging for money, they have the look of aliens from another planet. While men freely exchange greetings, shake hands and embrace, women remain apart.

Woe to those who violate the rules. Freba Hamidi is a young Afghan women who recently fled with her family to Peshawar across the border in Pakistan. With her face now exposed, she recalls how she once made the mistake of going to shop without complete covering. A Taliban patrol closed in and flailed her with sticks. She received the same treatment on another occasion, when a bit of ankle was showing.

Being a woman, she was fired from her job at a radio station in Kabul; her father and mother had also lost their posts. I think I am a good Muslim, says Freba Hamidi, but the Taliban give Islam a bad name:

// Hamidi act, Farsi fading to English //

Life in Afghanistan is very difficult, especially for women who have been deprived of the right to work and to get an education. And they are all at home. Women used to be able to work for NGO’s, foreign non-governmental organizations. But recently, the Taliban stopped them from working there and threatened to shut down any NGO that employs them.

// end act //

The Taliban say they want to protect women from the promiscuity and decadence of the west. NGO’s would just like to put them to work. Compromise is apparently possible. Told to dismiss their Afghan women who work in a bakery, the UN’s World Food Program removed them officially but rehired them on an informal basis. That seemed agreeable to the Taliban.

In his office at the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the Deputy Minister, Mullah Mohammad Salim, is arguing with another mullah over the phone. The ministry has shut down an ice cream store because female customers were exposing their faces to eat the ice cream. True enough, says the mullah at the other end of the line, but look at it his way: the women are eating apart from men, and that is a good thing. Well, ok, replies Mullah Salim. We will let the store reopen – in what could be viewed, generously, as another act of incremental change.

At the entrance to the ministry, a group of men with wispy beards or none at all are waiting to get documents that will keep them from being punished. One has just returned from several years in Iran:

// refugee act, Farsi fading to English //

They told me I had to cut my hair in accordance with Islamic rules. I did that, and now I’m back to get an exemption for not having a beard so that I will not be bothered by the patrols.

// end act //

As the refugee from Iran was talking, the deputy minister walked out, casually remarking: “You see, we have not detained him.” Other Afghans say it is easy enough to elude the patrols with a little ingenuity.

Much depends on the individual ministry and the man in charge. Mary MacMakin is head of an NGO called Parsa and a popular figure in Kabul. Nevertheless, the Virtue-Vice Ministry imprisoned her for four days for working with Afghan women and then ordered her out of the country. Once she left, the Foreign Ministry called to apologize and asked her to return. She remains in Kabul, fully committed though somewhat more discreet.

There is apparently no division among the Taliban on handling more serious crimes. After a series of explosions in Kabul, several men were arrested and sentenced to death. Two were recently hanged in the city stadium, and their bodies removed to a main intersection to serve as an example to others. Bills were stuffed into their mouths and ears to signify the money they accepted for their crimes.

Deputy Interior Minister Mullah Khaksaar, soft-spoken but emphatic, says the culprits were caught with the explosives and were tried and convicted. The trial, of course, was not public. So there is no way of verifying the accusations.

Minister Khaksaar concedes Taliban security forces need improvement:

// Khaksaar act, Pashto fading to English //

Right now there is no security problem inside Afghanistan. But our security forces are not up to international standards. We do not have proper equipment because so much was destroyed in the years of war. Despite this, we have been able to bring security to the country. The Taliban are dedicated and are not working for personal gain.

// end act //

Mullah Khaksaar, who has also headed Taliban intelligence, says his ministry is planning to establish an academy for police and put them in uniform. Eventually, they will replace the militia of the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.  

 

PART III

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.

// end act //

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.

//end act //

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.

// end act //

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.

// end act //

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.