KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Karim has never known anything but a world of war.
At the age of 2, he watched the Soviet Union's occupation force retreat from Kabul after a decade-long guerrilla war. When he was 4, his family fled their mud-brick house as shelling from two rival Afghan militia, fighting for control of the capital, reduced their neighborhood to rubble.
When he was 8, Karim's family breathed a sigh of relief, as religious reformers known as the Taliban ("Seekers") toppled the bickering factions that had formed an Afghan government and brought peace to a majority of the country.
In five years, the Taliban has put Afghanistan on the map of the Muslim world as a bold experiment in "pure" fundamentalist rule. It also has become an international pariah for its ties to terrorist groups, harsh treatment of women, and other policies. But Afghans - like the world at large - are still coming to terms with all that this experiment means for their lives.
Until last week, Karim's 13-year-old world seemed finally to be getting better rather than worse. He had begun taking classes at the training center run by Afghan Streetworking Children in New Approach, or ASCHIANA. The nonprofit group's acronym means "nest" in Persian.
He receives two meals a day, is learning to read and write, and acquiring future job skills as a landscape painter.
But with the United States preparing for possible retaliatory action against the accused Saudi-born terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government that gives him asylum, Karim's life has once again taken a turn for the worse.
"Due to 20 years of war, the sources of income for people and the socioeconomic fabric of the country have been damaged severely," says Muhammad Naizmand, spokesman for Afghan Red Crescent, a branch of the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent in Kabul.
Now, with more than a quarter of Afghanistan's 25 million population entirely dependent on aid agencies for food and other assistance, the social fabric that holds Karim's world together is close to unraveling. Most of the foreign aid agencies and UN relief workers who ran food and assistance programs have withdrawn, and the UN's World Food Program estimates that there are now only two weeks of food stocks left in the country.
It's a situation that has many Afghans - both inside and outside Afghanistan - reassessing the Taliban legacy, and wondering where it will lead them.
"The biggest achievement of the Taliban is they have brought sharia [Islamic law] to Afghanistan," says Abdul Qudus, an ethnic Afghan and religious scholar who runs a madrassah, or religious school, for young Afghans in the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan. "They have made a very good peace, they have collected weapons from the people, they stopped poppy cultivation [a source of opium], they stopped foreign interference - and especially religious conversions of our Muslims - and they started electricity in Afghanistan. That is their legacy."
Nasir, a taxi driver in Kabul, takes a much dimmer view, and one shared by many of the Persian-speaking citizens of Kabul toward the Pushtu-speaking Taliban rulers. (Afghanistan has two official languages, Pushtu and Persian, and a variety of ethnic groups. These include majority Pashtuns, as well as Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmen.)
"These people don't have any home, any food, any income," Nasir says, gesturing at a group of widows and their children begging in a busy Kabul market. Like most Afghans interviewed for this story, Nasir asked that his name be altered to protect his identity.
"With the Taliban, the first thing they build is a mosque and a madrassah," he says. "We need mullahs, but we also need other things too: engineers, doctors, teachers."
When Karim saw his first Taliban soldiers, driving in on Toyota pickup trucks on Sept. 26, 1996, there was little to indicate that the public mood might turn against them. The Taliban, unlike the fractious mujahideen rebels who ousted the Soviets, was able to unify a majority of the country under one regime and bring a level of peace that hadn't existed here for almost two decades.
In Kabul, and the five other Afghan metropolises under Taliban control, this newfound peace allowed Karim and his family to rebuild their home. Around the country, Afghans returned by the thousands, restoring a semblence of the lives they had led in the 1970s, before the troubles began. Hundreds of foreign-aid groups began setting up food-for-work programs; establishing medical clinics, bakeries, and schools; and beginning the long, dangerous task of clearing away millions of landmines and tons of unexploded ordnance.
Today, the Taliban claim to control up to 90 percent of Afghanistan, but this figure must be tempered somewhat by the fact that Taliban forces still face fighting in more than half - 17 out of 32 - Afghan provinces. As recently as yesterday, fighters from Afghanistan's Northern Alliance - the main Taliban foe - launched a helicopter attack on Kabul itself, destroying two civilian airliners and detonating tons of ordnance at an ammunition dump.
Even so, in those areas where the Taliban is firmly in control, Afghans say they feel safer than in previous years.
"When the Taliban came in, the fighting stopped," says Ubaidullah, head of a food-for-work program that is rebuilding homes in a destroyed section of Kabul. "Now, it is OK, there is no fighting, no thieves, no rapists. There is also no work and no money, therefore there are a lot of poor people." As fellow workers gather, he pauses. "We have a lot of feelings about the Taliban that I can't tell you."
But more than anything else, the Taliban aimed at remaking Afghanistan into a nation that adhered to its interpretation of the pure Islamic society envisioned by the prophet Muhammad. Part of this came from the utter disappointment many of these young Taliban felt as they watched the mujahideen turn from liberators into bickering warlords, creating an anarchic state where robbery, rape, and extortion became the rule rather than the exception.
"If you look at the constituency of the Taliban, they are mostly the lower rungs of society, those who have little trust in where the world is going," says a Western diplomat in New Delhi with extensive experience in Islamic societies of the Middle East. "So when the Taliban come in, they say, 'You have no food? We'll build a bakery. No mosque? We'll go build one. No school? We'll build one, and we'll even give your son free education in the Koran."
"When the son comes home, fed and in new clothes, the first thing he tells his mother is, 'Mother, I have done bad things to you. I should honor you. I wish you to forgive me," the diplomat adds. "What mother is not going to be ecstatic about that?"
Even so, the arrival of Islamic law has been greeted with mixed reaction among Afghans. Some in rural areas say their daily lives have not changed much, since they had followed sharia for decades, even centuries. But in urban areas, many Afghans resent the strict rules that govern all aspects of their daily lives.
Consider the following list of edicts issued by Taliban religious scholars in Kabul in December 1996:
"To prevent music.... In shops, hotels, vehicles, and rickshaws, cassettes and music are prohibited."
"To prevent beard shaving and its cutting. After one and a half months, if anyone [is] observed who has shaved and or cut his beard, they should be arrested and imprisoned until their beard is bushy."
"To prevent kite-flying."
"To prevent idolatry. In vehicles, shops, hotels, rooms, and any other place, pictures [and] portraits should be abolished."
"To prevent washing cloth by young ladies along the water streams in the city. Violator ladies should be picked up with respectful Islamic manner, taken to their houses, and their husbands severely punished."
Though the list was long, the Taliban vigorously enforced these new rules through their religious police. The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice now patrols every major city of Afghanistan, armed with whips and automatic rifles. Though Karim says the police largely leave him alone, and sometimes even give him alms, other Afghans say the religious police perform their tasks with zeal, checking cars for cassette tapes, monitoring beard lengths, and maintaining social order in a sometimes brutal fashion.
"If you look at the kind of people who are Taliban, they are very poorly educated, and they stick to the word of the Koran, with no attempt at interpretation," says Frederic Grare, director of the Center for Human Sciences in New Delhi. "The rule of the Taliban is ruthless, very primitive, and cruel. But nevertheless, there is rule," Dr. Grare adds. "When Kabul fell in the hands of [recently assassinated mujahideen commander] Ahmad Shah Masood, where was the rule then? Now, you at least have some predictability."
From the Western perspective, the Taliban's most impressive accomplishment is in the area of drug control. Until last year, Afghanistan accounted for nearly three-quarters of the world's supply of opium, with much of the addictive drug reaching Europe, America, and beyond. Even though the Taliban's interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, specifically bans addiction, nearly 500,000 Afghan farmers earned up to $100 million a year from the drought-resistant crop. Local Taliban governments took a 10 percent cut from a zakat, or farm tax.
For years, Taliban officials told Western drug-control officials they couldn't stop poppy cultivation because of the hardship it would impose on farmers, particularly during a now-three year drought. But this year, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar banned opium outright. To the West's surprise, adherence has been total within Taliban-ruled areas - and without a penny of foreign aid. The UN Drug Control Program suspended assistance two years ago.
"It's really quite remarkable," says Bernard Frahi, director of the UN Drug Control Program in Islamabad, speaking last March, when UN teams of monitors confirmed that the Taliban poppy ban was total. "If this had happened in Colombia, where the US is spending billions of dollars and reducing drug cultivation by maybe 5 percent, this would have gotten the Nobel Prize. But because it's the Taliban, there's a different reaction."
Only three nations - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates - have granted official recognition to the Taliban government.
Most Western democratic nations object to the Taliban's authoritarian rule, and its often brutal suppression of free expression and human rights, especially restrictions on women. But Western diplomats say the main obstacle for Western recognition is the Taliban's alleged patronage of militant groups within its own borders.
"This has become a breeding ground for radical Islam," says the Western diplomat.
The US and the West bear some responsibility for creating this breeding ground in the 1980s and early '90s, as the US encouraged zealous Muslim leaders to recruit Muslims worldwide to come to training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan to overturn the Soviet invasion. Once the Soviets left, Western nations lost interest in the region and distanced themselves from the mujahideen - Afghans, North Africans, Arabs, and even Southeast Asians - who fought in Afghanistan.
More than a dozen of these training camps are still in operation. Some are thought to be funded by Mr. bin Laden. Authorities believe they trained the perpetrators of numerous attacks, from from Khobar, Tanzania, and Kenya to Yemen, New York, and Washington. A major part of their ideology is the overthrow of America, and of less-than-pure Islamic governments in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
"They're winning the battle of the minds of the people, and we're losing it ... because we don't speak Arabic and we don't understand Muslim culture," adds the diplomat. And with little credibility or leverage in the region, there is little the US and its allies can do to influence Afghanistan, outside of the use of military force.
Now, more than a week after UN relief officials and foreign aid workers have withdrawn from Afghanistan, Afghans like Karim who depend on aid programs for food and work are having to rely on other means, primarily their families. World Food Program officials estimate there are only two weeks of UN food stocks left in Afghanistan. Already, thousands of Afghans are reported leaving their homes, both out of fear of US bombing attacks and in search of a stable source of food.
Like some 6 million Afghans, Karim and his family spend their daily lives fending off starvation. Nearly 1 million urban Afghans and 4 million rural Afghans are almost entirely dependent on food relief.
While more than 400,000 Afghan civilians have lost their lives in the 1990s alone, the humanitarian crisis has had a particularly hard effect on Afghan children, who make up nearly half the nation's population - 10.3 million of a total 25 million Afghans here. Nearly a quarter of all infants die by the age of 5, mostly from malnutrition. Only 12 out of 20 school-age boys, and one out of 20 school-age girls, go to school.
Karim's family is so poor that he and his his four brothers must leave the house by 5:30 a.m. and start the day's work: picking through trash and roadside filth in search of wood, metal, and bits of paper to sell to scrap dealers. His father is unable to work; his mother earns some money washing clothes and baking bread for neighbors.
On a good day, Karim earns about 30 cents, enough to buy five pieces of bread. His first meal of the day - a glass of milk and a hunk of bread - comes at 9:00 a.m. at the training center run by ASCHIANA.
Karim gets two meals a day through ASCHIANA. At noon he rushes out to the local bazaar for two hours to scavenge for wood and metal.
"It's dangerous, because there are lots of places in Kabul where there are mines," says Karim. "There are some mines beside the rivers and in the destroyed areas. We learn what the mines look like, and how to avoid them."
Karim has never been to school, but after a year at ASCHIANA, he can now read and write. He has even read the Koran once, and the lessons from that holiest of books in Islam give him hope, he says. But his favorite pastime, by far, is painting. "I'm learning to be an artist," says Karim, smiling. "I have one wish: to be a good teacher, so that I can teach others to be good painters."
At the end of the day, Karim walks home with his friends. He's supposed to be gathering scrap metal, but on this day he and his classmates stop at the playground in Sharinow Park. They take turns pushing a rickety merry-go-round, which tips and sways and sends some of the boys flying into the dust as it gathers speed.
For 10 minutes, Karim's world is like that of any child in the world, a world of play.