New Turn in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's long civil war reached a critical juncture when fighters of the Islamic Taliban movement swept into the capital, Kabul. Leaders proclaimed a new government and took steps to enforce strict Koranic law - including harsh punishment for criminals and restrictions on women's freedom to work. The disregard of women's rights is so severe that it threatens UN relief operations, according to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Taliban leaders declared they would not tolerate use of their country as a base for international terrorism. And they said they want good relations with the rest of the world - including, pointedly, the US. But any acceptance by the community of nations will demand swift abandonment of brutal methods. So far, the Taliban dismisses Western criticism on grounds that Afghan society is different from the West.

The tasks facing this latest set of rulers in Kabul are daunting. After a decade of war, the country - never economically robust - is in tatters. Agriculture and industry haven't functioned normally for years. Regardless of its other policies, the Taliban's crackdown on crime was welcomed by merchants and working people. At least they could get on with their lives.

It has to be hoped the note of pragmatism sounded by Taliban officials builds into a theme. If they, instead, push a theocratic agenda above all else, and continue their military thrust into parts of the country still held by other groups, Afghanistan's tragic cacophony will only intensify.

And so will the worries of its neighbors. Russia, for one, with its awful recent history of intervention in Afghanistan, is concerned the Taliban could push northward toward former Soviet republics in Central Asia, which are already strife-ridden. Russia's fears of Afghan extremism are linked to its own considerable Islamic population.

To the south, India and Pakistan look on with trepidation. From India's perspective, Afghanistan has been a hotbed of Islamic militancy, spilling fervor and guerrillas into the explosive Kashmir conflict. Pakistan has backed many of Afghanistan's Islamic warriors, including the Taliban. But Islamabad cannot be sure how much influence it retains over the forces it helped nurture.

At the moment the best that can be said is that a cessation of fighting would, in itself, be a blessing. Then the new regime must follow through on helping a battered land and people back to normalcy.

Acceptance by the community of nations will demand swift abandonment of brutal methods.

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