Taliban Loses Ground, but Not Its Strict Ways

As opponents besiege Afghan capital, militia is unwilling to modify its radical Islam.

As forces opposing the Taliban militia edge near to the Afghan capital of Kabul, the bombed-out highway leading toward the safety of the Pakistani border is packed with refugees.

But there are many in this war-ravaged city who have no choice but to stay behind and wait for what may be yet another battle in this seemingly endless war.

One of them is 18-year-old Nasim, the eldest of seven brothers. Both his parents were killed in a rocket attack on the city in 1990. Nasim was critically injured when he accidentally stepped on a land mine three years later.

Today he hobbles around on one leg using a pair of crutches and tries as best he can to support his remaining family by cleaning tables at a restaurant in downtown Kabul.

Nasim earns about 9,000 Afghanis (40 cents) a day, enough for about two pounds of wheat but not much else. If he is lucky, he can buy some rice with the tips that he gets. But there is no option of fleeing this beleaguered city. "Where would we go? We have no money and no one who can help us," he says. "We think only of how to fill our stomachs; the rest is up to God."

Hopes that the fighting would finally come to an end were shattered when the Taliban - a group led by orthodox Muslim clerics that control two-thirds of Afghanistan and the capital - suffered a setback in May in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Ever since, an opposition coalition, the Northern Alliance, has moved closer to Kabul.

Even as the United Nations and neighboring Pakistan try to get the parties to the negotiating table, local observers say the two sides are preparing for a major battle on the plains north of Kabul. And while they agree in principle to the idea of negotiating, their preconditions may scuttle any chance of peace.

In the past two weeks, forces of the Northern Alliance have punched through the Taliban lines reaching to within rocket range of the heavily defended capital.

Analysts say that the Taliban are now at their most vulnerable since they launched their religious and military crusade nearly three years ago.

Their ultraorthodox brand of Islam and the group's refusal to share power with other Afghan groups triggered a rebellion that saw thousands of its troops killed or captured.

Nor is there any sign that the group's leaders have learned the lessons of Mazar-e-Sharif and made their interpretation of Islam more palatable to their opponents.

"With the Taliban's myth of invincibility being exploded, disgruntled warlords are making a comeback in different parts of Afghanistan," says Aabha Dixit, a research associate at the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Even if opposition forces succeed in capturing Kabul, she says, the war would still be far from over.

"The ground reality in Afghanistan today is that, while the Taliban are the pre-eminent military force in the region ... the opposition alliance is equally resolute in not allowing the Taliban back into their areas," Ms. Dixit says.

"Afghanistan has lost 2 million martyrs to the cause of implementing the Sharia [Islamic holy law]. Why should we stop now?" asks the thickly bearded Maulvi Qalamudin, acting president of the much-feared Department of Propagating Virtue and Preventing Vice in Kabul. While the Taliban have brought some peace to this Central Asian country, they have frightened many Afghans with their narrow interpretation of Islam.

That Kabul will once again become a battleground is the worst-case scenario that many foreign-aid workers in the city fear is just around the corner.

"The situation has become critical," says Jean-Luc Paladini, the Kabul-based spokesman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "This war has been going on for 18 years now. There is no economic structure, there are more and more poor people, and the price of food and other essentials is climbing all the time," he says.

SINCE the beginning of the year more than 200,000 refugees have poured into Kabul to escape the fighting in the north, stretching to the limit the city's capacity to feed and provide basic necessities for them. The capital's streets are crowded with war widows shrouded head-to-toe in burkhas, begging on the streets. Its bazaars are lined with people selling their last meager possessions to try to make ends meet.

Once the country's premier center for learning, Kabul has seen its student population cut by more than half since girls were forbidden by the Taliban to attend schools and universities. Many male students from other provinces have gone home unable to afford accommodations.

"There are so many needs here it is almost impossible to prioritize them," adds Angela Kearney, field officer for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Assistance to Afghanistan. "There is no way we can get to everybody. The best we can hope for is to build up a safety net for those who are the most vulnerable, like war widows and orphans," she says.

Ms. Kearney calls this one of the world's forgotten conflicts, and aid agencies are beginning to feel the effects of "compassion fatigue" among donor countries. The UN has declared Afghanistan the least-developed country in the world outside Africa. Programs like the UN's land-mine action plan will have to suspend operations by mid-September if additional funds are not received. Kabul is the most heavily mined capital in the world, and each week new casualties have to be cared for at the city's overcrowded hospitals. "It's an uphill struggle," Kearney says. "It is very difficult to attract international donors when there is a war like this going on."

But even if war were to end tomorrow, rebuilding this once-proud nation, which has seen most of its educated elite flee abroad, would be an uphill battle, says the ICRC's Paladin. "It will take years to reestablish the confidence of Afghans living overseas, but the future of this country will depend on them."

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