KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The atmosphere in the Afghan capital of Kabul has been tense and uncertain over the past week as residents attempted to learn to live with their new rulers, the fundamentalist Taliban.
The Taliban, which appeared out of nowhere two years ago and which now controls about two-thirds of Afghanistan, took control of this war-torn capital Sept. 27 and has since imposed strict Islamic law on a city that was once relatively liberal. Women have been ordered to stay at home and not go out to work and schools for girls closed.
International aid agencies have had their work seriously curtailed and have been forced to suspend programs aimed at women.
At a press conference in Kabul yesterday, the acting foreign minister, Mullah Ghous, appealed to agencies and UN to carry on their work and not focus on women.
"All those aid and relief works ... should not be stopped," he said. "They should not relate their work to particular persons. This country is living in a dismal situation. To strengthen the Islamic state of Afghanistan ... I would ask them to continue ... and I am hopeful that these small questions will be resolved in the future."
But many here say the Taliban appear not to appreciate the full seriousness of the issue, and of the potential disaster facing Kabul's 25,000 widows who have no one to support their families. The temperature is dropping rapidly and a harsh winter is well on its way. "What do we eat?" asks one woman who supports six people.
The Taliban's biggest selling point so far is their restoration of law and order in areas they control. Under the previous government there was a large amount of crime in Kabul, which had many residents living in fear. That fear of crime has largely dissolved, but it has been replaced by a different fear.
Now people are frightened to go out on the street in case they are breaking sharia, or Islamic law. The regular rocket attacks on the city have also stopped, but many people say they would rather have that terror than this. "With the rockets I could have been dead," says one woman. "With this I am dead."
The Taliban have also been looting houses and commandeering cars. They are mainly targeting homes belonging to members of the former government, but aid agencies and ordinary people in Kabul say they too have been harassed.
It is a situation that has left many people in Kabul confused and afraid of the future. Some, particularly those concerned about women's rights, are trying to leave. Up to 250,000 people, out of a population of 1.2 million are reported to have fled as the Taliban swept into town.
The military situation in the rest of Afghanistan is equally unclear. Northern Afghanistan has not been involved in the civil war in recent years and has enjoyed peace and limited prosperity.
The region is ruled by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has had a checkered career, and who enjoys some popular support. He was once the top general of former communist president, Najibullah, who was summarily executed by the Taliban as they took Kabul. Dostum then joined the mujahideen coalition government, which took power from Dr. Najibullah in 1992. Two years later he launched an abortive coup against them and then retreated to the north.
In the fighting between the Taliban and the previous government, he did not pick a side and seemed content to watch and wait.
Observers in Kabul say that the UN special envoy, Norbert Holl, is playing messenger between the Taliban and Dostum. They say a deal may be struck giving Dostum control of the north and the Taliban the south. This move, it is hoped, would allay the fears of Russia and Central Asian nations, which have expressed growing concern about the Taliban's moves northward.
In another military move to obliterate the former government, Taliban forces have already begun fighting near the Panjshir Valley, a two hour drive northeast of Kabul. The 93-mile long Panjshir Valley is the home and base of Ahmad Shah Masoud, the top military commander of the deposed Kabul government. His forces are holed up and holding the Taliban at bay, but it remains to be seen whether Commander Masoud can withstand their attacks in the same way that he successfully withstood a dozen Soviet assaults on the valley during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
For the time being, however, the UN seat still belongs to the deposed government, whose representative is due to address the UN General Assembly on Thursday.
Abdul Rahim Ghafourzai, deputy foreign minister in the ousted government, will no doubt fight hard to retain the seat and highlight the Taliban's poor human rights record.