Afghan Chief Steals Islamist Thunder

Rise of rival Taliban pushes prime minister to impose Islamic law

Afghanistan's new prime minister had a disastrous run the first time he held the post four years ago. Two years into the job he tried to oust opponents in his coalition government, leaving 45,000 people dead and reducing most of the capital to rubble.

Now Kabul's citizens are watching him anxiously, hoping he will do better this time.

But six weeks after taking up his post, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar announced that Islamic holy law (sharia) would be strictly observed and that he would support countries such as Libya and Sudan. But this has done little to win over a country torn apart by 17 years of fighting.

Credibility may be his problem. In Afghan politics, factions regularly split and form new alliances. Statesmanship, Afghans often say, consists in changing sides at the right time.

This could be said of Mr. Hekmatyar, who once again heads the government he previously denounced as "un-Islamic." The new administration, sworn in June 26, is supposedly an interim government that is to organize elections within six to 12 months.

But Hekmatyar's first measures have alarmed Kabul residents and members of the coalition who think he should be more concerned with providing food, water, and electricity.

Soon after assuming power, Hekmatyar closed Kabul's cinemas and banned light music from state radio and television. Besides ordering women to wear Islamic dress, he made compulsory the saying of prayers five times a day.

"The prime minister should be aware that he is part of a coalition government before committing himself to zealotry," one senior foreign ministry official says. "He is trying to live in a utopia - an ideal Islamic world."

The prime minister's main concern, the official says is to be the authoritative voice of Islam, an image he has cultivated over the past 20 years.

Foreign diplomats say Hekmatyar, by bringing a "proper" interpretation of sharia, aims to undercut Taliban, a group of religious students who have taken up arms against the government since 1994 and have quickly taken control of much of this Central Asian nation.

The fundamentalist Taliban, which has imposed sharia in the parts of the country that it controls, has besieged Kabul for the past 10 months. Almost daily rocket and artillery attacks have left hundreds dead and thousands wounded.

Taliban registered its approval of the new prime minister by marking his swearing-in ceremony with the heaviest artillery attack on Kabul this year. While Hekmatyar took his oath in the dilapidated Inter-Continental Hotel, outside 61 people were killed by rockets and shells.

Such attacks are why the United Nations says it is unsafe to base its peace mission in Kabul. This, and a lackluster performance of the last special envoy, Mahmoud Mestiri, has undermined the UN's credibility in a nation torn apart by the disastrous Soviet invasion of 1979-89.

When Mr. Mestiri recently resigned after two years in the post, he admitted what many had suspected - that he knew little about Afghanistan and had not been interested in his job.

It is up to the new special envoy, German diplomat Norbert Holl, who took his post three weeks ago, to restore Afghan confidence in the UN. At his first press conference in Kabul last week, Mr. Holl had tough words for Taliban: "They should learn to listen and not just preach."

Holl spoke with women's groups who have become concerned about their future. Within days of the new prime minister's policy statement, rumors swept through the capital that women would be barred from work, a particular problem in a city where 25,000 war widows must fend for themselves. Women's organizations have held a series of meetings as a warning to Hekmatyar to tread carefully where women's rights are concerned.

"Prime Minister Hekmatyar has invited women to take part in all aspects of life, provided they wear an Islamic hijab [a head-to-toe covering worn by Muslim women]," says veteran state news caster Shafiqa Mohmod Habibi, who heads a women's media association. "He has recognized the social and economic rights of women and recognized that they are an integral part of society. If those rights crumble it would result in the collapse of society."

In his policy statement on July 10, he said that the wish of the 1.5 million Afghans who died in the years of fighting had still not been achieved: "the establishment of a real Islamic system."

The prime minster wants to remove armed men from the streets and replace them with a national, conscripted army. He is also advocating a market economy and encouraging foreign investment. Priorities are heavy industry, gas, oil, and mine exploration.

"Hekmatyar is going to try and show that he has the true Islamic policies," says a Kabul diplomat. "I wouldn't call it competition but it is a challenge to the Taliban."

It is a challenge unlikely to be backed up militarily unless there is a spontaneous uprising among the discontented under Taliban control, according to one top government general.

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