A spiraling controversy over the detention of 24 aid workers accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity has brought Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to a crucial threshold in its relationship with the outside world.
If convicted, the aid workers, with German-based group Shelter Now International, could face the death penalty under the Taliban's strict version of Islamic law. The detainees include eight foreigners from Germany, Australia, and the United States.
Taliban spokesmen say the SNI was caught "red-handed" with Christian literature, including Bibles and Christian films on computer disks.
The group denies charges of religious conversion.
The arrests come at a crucial time for aid-dependent Afghanistan, torn by two decades of civil strife.
International pressure on the Taliban is mounting as donor nations steadily reduce relief and development aid.
Adding to the pressure, are the next stage of United Nations sanctions announced last week, including international monitors in each of Afghanistan's neighboring states to guard against arms flows into Taliban territory.
The sanctions - imposed over the Taliban's unwillingness to hand over accused terrorist leader Osama bin Laden - do not apply to the movement's chief Afghan enemy. The Russia- and Central-Asia-backed Northern Alliance of Gen. Ahmed Shah Masood, which controls nearly 25 percent of Afghanistan from its base in the northern province of Badakhshan.
But potentially more important, the arrests intensify a debate within the Taliban over the future direction of the Islamic revolution.
Taliban moderates argue for lifting some of the religious edicts that the West finds abhorrent in order to bring more development. These include restrictions on education and freedom of movement for women and the treatment of Sikh and Hindu religious minorities. Moderates also opposed the destruction earlier this year of two giant, ancient Buddha statues considered cultural treasures by the United Nations.
Hard-liners, including the religious police and the army, argue that the Taliban is compelled to follow the Koran in creating a pure Islamic society, and that God will supply the needs of the Afghan people in accordance to their adherence to Islamic law. It is this internal power struggle that could determine future Taliban policy.
"I have no reason to doubt that the ideological struggle is going on in Kabul, but as far as certain basic fundamentals of Islam are concerned, such as religious conversion, there is really no difference between a moderate or a hard-liner," says Ejaz Haider, news editor for The Friday Times, a weekly newspaper based in Lahore, Pakistan.
The difference, he says, comes in how these groups implement laws. "If the moderates are in power, they might close down the aid group's offices and throw them out of the country. If the hard-liners are in charge, they are likely to put them on trial and send a strong message to the outside world that this behavior will not be tolerated."
The strong-message advocates appear to be winning out, for the moment.
A Taliban official yesterday ruled out pardons for the aid workers. And Mawlavi Mohammad Wali, Taliban Minister for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the religious police) said that all aid groups would face "severe surveillance by the intelligence, security, and religious organs" to ensure that they do not promote religions other than Islam.
Mr. Haider says the West has missed numerous opportunities to reward the small successes of the moderate wing, such as a ban on the cultivation of opium poppies and greater freedom of movement for Afghan women. "The moderates are on their back foot, because they really don't have much to show for what the outside world would offer them," he says.
Western diplomats, for their part, say international sanctions against the Taliban are in place for a range of issues and cannot simply be lifted because of sporadic "improvements" in Taliban policy. The success in banning opium-poppy cultivation, while impressive, is thus regarded as simply the duty of a responsible government.
What this means for the 24 arrested aid workers, including 16 Afghan nationals, remains to be seen. At present, no foreign diplomats or international agencies have been allowed to visit the detainees. The Taliban yesterday issued visas to US, German, and Australian diplomats, but a Taliban official repeated that they would not be given consular access.
United Nations special envoy Francesc Vendrell, on a long-planned trip to Kabul Saturday, urged the Taliban to show mercy to the detainees, who are entering their second week in custody. "I just hope that they deal with [this issue] with the international principles of fair treatment. And I hope they will give access to the diplomatic representatives of the foreigners."
While much of the attention has focused on the eight foreign aid workers, the position of Afghan detainees may be more precarious.
Those who have experienced Taliban interrogation methods, including Pakistani journalist Salim Safi and other Pakistani journalists working for Associated Press and Reuters, report severe beatings to extract confessions. Most interrogation units are made up of former agents of Khad, the brutal Communist-era secret police agency.
Taliban officials say the arrested foreigners are in good health, but there have been no such assurances for the 16 Afghan nationals employed by Shelter Now - or the parents of 59 boys who attended its classes.
"As they were careless and ignorant toward their children, and in order to be a lesson for others, the elders of these boys have been taken into custody for a few days," said the state-run Radio Shariat, quoting Mohammad Salim Haqqani, deputy minister of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
The 59 children also were taken into custody to "remove from their hearts and minds the Christian teachings," but have since been released.
For their part, Shelter Now officials deny that any conversion was going on at their Kabul aid center. All classes were conducted in front of Muslim elders, and the classes mostly comprised teaching children handicrafts, such as making paper flowers.