KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — On most afternoons, Mohammad Hassan, the governor of Kandahar Province and a dominant mullah, can be found seated over a cup of green tea and a bowl of boiled sweets on the sun-drenched veranda of the Taliban guest house.
A battered old Buick covered in a coat of khaki-colored dust lies abandoned in a corner of the garden - a relic of another Afghanistan that 17 years of civil war and now a takeover by a radical Islamic group called the Taliban have all but wiped out.
The Taliban take their name from an Arabic term for religious students. Most are poorly educated and their vision for the country is a narrow, mosque-centered society modeled on village life. In the 75 percent of the country they have conquered since 1994, they have imposed a lifestyle based on a strict interpretation of the Koran that may take the country back centuries.
Mullah Hassan is one of the most powerful leaders of the strict Islamic militia. But there are no guards to frisk the endless stream of visitors wanting to see him. This is the realm of the Taliban and harsh rules of justice threaten anyone who violates the security of the city or dares transgress the sharia or Islamic law.
"The problems of Afghanistan were the result of the people not following ... Islam," the mullah says. "What we are doing here is building a pure Islamic state, according to the Koran."
According to the traditions of the Pathan ethnic group, to which most of the fighters belong, the governor must attend to every guest. To reject them, or fail to offer protection, help, or guidance even in the most trivial of matters, would be unworthy of his status. Wearing a black silk turban, the former commander puts his artificial leg, a legacy of a Soviet attack, to one side as Taliban officials arrive in an incongruous caravan of Toyota pickups and Land Cruisers.
After many bear hugs and handshakes, Mullah Hassan scribbles a note promising funds for the war effort or a small development project and then sends the petitioner away. "We have restored law and order to the parts of Afghanistan we control. That is why the people support us," he says.
Kandahar, the group's headquarters, has been under the control of the Taliban for the past two years, longer than any other city in Afghanistan. It's a two-day drive to the nearest front line, so there are few soldiers carrying guns. Only the steady stream of war wounded arriving at Mirwais Hospital serves as a reminder of the ongoing fighting for control of the strategic roads leading north from the capital, Kabul. The Taliban took over Kabul in September and are now trying to take over the rest of the country.
Superficially, Kandahar bears many of the hallmarks of the Taliban's radical ideology. Music is banned and only the mullah's call to prayer rises above the cacophony of street sounds in the city's crowded bazaars. Women must be clad from head to foot in burkhas, men are not allowed to shave, thieves have their right arm and left leg amputated, and adulterers are stoned to death.
But women can walk alone or in small groups through the war-ravaged streets. Strictly segregated training in tailoring and embroidery for ladies is being allowed, but only under the supervision of other women. Even sports like soccer are tolerated, although cheering and clapping at games draws a sharp rebuke from the mullahs.
"This is only propaganda." says acting foreign minister, Mullah Mohammad Ghaus, responding to a question about the violation of women's rights by the Taliban. "You have been to the bazaars and have seen women out alone. We have not closed girls' schools forever. If they are closed it would not be good for the people of Afghanistan," he says. In the parts of Afghanistan controlled by them, the Taliban clerics have decreed that women cannot work outside their homes or go out alone, and girls have been expelled from schools and colleges.
Until the Taliban controls the whole country either by military conquest or through negotiations, he says, they cannot divert scarce resources to rebuild a segregated education system. The ban on women working is necessary, he says, and will be lifted once peace is restored.
When put into the context of recent Afghan history, it isn't surprising that these rigid strictures, which even the Taliban admit go beyond the bounds of Islamic law, have some support among the residents here.
"Prior to [the Taliban] takeover, there were four rival [rebel] groups fighting for control of the city - murdering, raping, and abducting citizens at will. What right have foreign countries to tell us how to run our society," says Abdul Rahman, a shopkeeper.
Kandahar was an empty shell when the Taliban wrested control in November 1994. Today the city is one of the fastest growing in Afghanistan thanks to its strategic position on the trade routes between Central Asia, Iran, and the markets of Pakistan.
Thousands of refugees have returned, although many, like Humayun Mohammand have kept their wives and children in Pakistan so that they can work and receive an education. "Peace has returned to Kandahar, so why can't the Taliban regime reopen the schools? What life is there for my children if they cannot get an education?"
The Taliban response is that theirs is only a caretaker administration that will eventually make way for a more permanent government. But just how that transition will take place has not been spelled out in detail.
"We cannot have elections straightaway in these circumstances. We will make a [ruling council] and then let the people decide what they want," says Mullah Ghaus, the foreign minister.