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Islam's Student-Warriors Greeted as Liberators - for Now

By John ZubrzyckiSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / September 20, 1996


Afghanistan's mystery army is on the march again, having taken Jalalabad, the country's second-largest city, last week with hardly a shot being fired.

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It took only a hundred soldiers of the Islamic student militia known as the Taliban, to take control of this strategic city.

As the unpopular warlords who had controlled the city fled before the Taliban advance, the people of Jalalabad threw flowers, food, and money at the militia, praying that peace might at last be restored. But the euphoria over their occupation of Jalalabad may be short lived. Many people are wary that the movement's Utopian ideals may transform the once-moderate country into a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.

"We want to establish the first truly Islamic state and extend the jihad [holy war] from here," says Saifullah Khan, a young fighter with a distinctive black turban and a Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifle slung casually across his shoulder.

"We will take back all the countries that were once Muslim - from Spain to India," Mr. Khan continues.

The Taliban, who appeared mysteriously on the Afghan political scene two years ago, say they want to turn their war-ravaged country into the world's most ultraorthodox Islamic state, where even music and the playing of games is prohibited. In the two-thirds of Afghanistan already under their control, girls are prevented from attending school, women cannot work, and anyone caught stealing has their arm amputated.

For the people of Jalalabad, however, peace - and not the preaching of the priests guiding the Taliban - is all that matters for now. "The first need is security, here and all over Afghanistan," says Izzah Tullah, a local aid worker. "Until [Taliban] came, every family was guarding their houses at night because of the looting by government soldiers. [Now] people can sleep peacefully."

Life in Jalalabad is returning to normal after government jets bombed the city last Sunday, killing 12 people and injuring scores more. Shops are slowly reopening, but not a single woman can be seen in the markets of what was once eastern Afghanistan's bustling commercial capital. In the former governor's office, Taliban commanders confer about the establishment of a new local council to run Jalalabad. The city's previous governor and his warlords fled before the takeover, leaving behind arms, ammunition, typewriters, and files.

"The people have welcomed us, they were clapping when we came," recalls Muhammad Issaq, a Taliban commander. "The people of Kabul will welcome us too," referring to the citizens of the capital.

The word Taliban means "seeker of religious knowledge." The movement's recruits came from the Islamic schools that served the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, which sprang up during the Soviet invasion. It was from these vast cities of mud brick and tarpaulin that the Taliban began its jihad against the warring factions who turned against each other after overthrowing the Russian-backed regime in 1992. With covert support from Pakistan, they quickly took over the southern provinces of Afghanistan. In March last year made their first unsuccessful assault against Kabul.