Life under Taliban cuts two ways
Karim has never known anything but a world of war.Skip to next paragraph
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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 Most of the foreign aid agencies and UN relief workers who ran food and assistance programs have withdrawn, and the UN's World Food Program estimates that there are now only two weeks of food stocks left in the country.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."