Taliban transforms Afghanistan for total war

Religious fervor is high, schools are empty, and rural areas under watch.


At the dilapidated Zarnigar hotel in downtown Kabul these days, a friendly new mullah greets guests. He is tall, has a long, well-groomed beard, a pistol on his waist, and a smile on his face. When children come begging, he hands them rupees. When bombs fall outside, he leads the prayers.

"May Allah give Islam victory around the world - in Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, and Chechnya, but especially today in Afghanistan," he prays in the cramped lobby, where blackened walls are carved with the names of guests. "May God drown the Americans in the ocean of his anger and destruction."

The Taliban has totally transformed the territories it controls since the start of US-led airstrikes and prepared for all-out war. Schools are empty (some people have fled, page 9), and students have been sent to the front lines.

Senior officials have been assigned to lead the country in prayer or monitor dissent in the provinces. Almost every Taliban and every citizen is carrying out a war-related duty. Public administration is now almost entirely devoted to the war effort.

And the supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, warned the US that it will learn a "tougher lesson" in Afghanistan than the Soviet Union did. Mr. Omar told the Algerian newspaper El Youm that Taliban forces had not yet begun the "real war against the Americans because of their technological power." Once the ground war begins, he said, America will lose its edge.

Kabul's Hotel Zarnigar

Back inside the Zarnigar, a senior education ministry official, Haji Rahmat Ullah explains over tea: "Out of our 30,000 education employees across the country, we have less than a few hundred still performing their usual duties. All of our teachers have gone off to the front lines with their madrassah [religious school] pupils. Many of them have been dispatched to the border areas with Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

"The military situation may be under control, but the normal administration of this country has been put aside," he says. He explains that the country's Shura Council, the top religious body, has advised many other officials to head out into the provinces "to keep an eye out for uprisings against the government."

Analysts in neighboring Pakistan say that the Afghan approach to war means total commitment to the cause. Most Afghans have already committed everything they have to the war effort - down to their last rupee.

"Afghanistan is, no doubt, a very weak nation in terms of resources and equipment - things you would ordinarily consider crucial to a war effort," says Wagar Alishah, a history professor at Peshawar University. "But, you see, the Afghans have other things that are required to fight a war. They have willpower and courage backed by religious fervor. Once an Afghan has decided that they are fighting for a just cause, they will pursue it at any cost."

Judging from reports coming from the front lines in recent days, most Taliban warriors, assisted by their foreign, mostly Arab and Pakistani counterparts, are convinced of their cause. In recent days, US Defense Department officials have begun to talk in terms of the Taliban's rugged tenacity, as opposed to earlier descriptions of them as a weak fighting force on the brink of quick collapse.

It is not possible to determine how much of the Taliban's battle against the world's lone superpower is driven by fervor and how much of it is inspired by fear. Dissent is not tolerated, and death by hanging or firing squad is the usual punishment for so-called "traitors."

Still, Afghanistan's transformation into a state of total war is evident from observations and interviews inside the country conducted by a former reporter for the Kabul Times in recent days.

Before the US jets started swooping down on Kabul more than three weeks ago, morality police were assigned to take attendance at most of the city's leading mosques. Too many absentees by one individual meant certain punishment - anything from a public flogging to being locked in a stinking public toilet.

Now, the rules have been rethought to save civilians from coming under direct fire from US aircraft. The idea is to pray wherever you are - whether in the Zarnigar Hotel or, if you are a soldier, right there on the front lines.

Professor Wagar, like several other analysts contacted in Pakistan, says that the "political minders" have less to worry about after three weeks of war than they did three days into it. "With the mounting civilian casualties, it has become less likely that anyone will go against the tide," he says. "For Afghans, as during other invasions throughout history, this has become a war against those enemies that are killing their brethren."

Pakistanis prepare to help

Even ethnic Pashtuns, from the Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan, where blood ties outweigh borderlines in time of war, see it that way as well. Thousands of "jihadis" wielding axes, rifles, and rockets have massed on the border with Afghanistan in recent days and are planning to enter the fray.

The large numbers of fresh volunteers could well alter the military equation on the front lines north of Kabul - and possibly squelch a much-anticipated offensive by the US-backed Northern Alliance.

But yesterday, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan told them not to go - yet. "If they go, there will be a lot of congestion and the probability of mass casualties will be higher. If they are needed, then we will tell them," Abdul Salam Zaeef told reporters.

As he leaps up on a truck headed toward Afghanistan, Atta Ullah, a Pakistani college student, clutched his father's aging machine gun: "I'm not going to wait until the British and American ground forces arrive to start killing kafirs [infidels] and defending my Afghan brothers."

Beyond even fervor and fear, there is a long tradition of warfare in Afghanistan. Anyone who fails to stand against a foreign invader is chastised.

Tradition of war

This tradition was on display several days ago at a checkpoint east of Kabul, where Taliban fighters were beating on upside-down water barrels and singing: "If you are not/not martyred in the Maiwand battlefield/Then Allah is saving you as a shame for the all nation to see."

The song, made famous during the Anglo-Afghan wars, goes hand-in-hand with the legend about the young lady who first sang it. The singer, Malalai, had seized a falling Afghan flag as her terrified countrymen fled a British charge. By shaming the soldiers with her song, Malalai is said to have turned the tide of battle in Afghanistan's favor.

The Taliban authorities are invoking this same concept of "shame" in the latest war against infidels. At a funeral for a young boy killed by the explosion of an ammunition dump in a dusty village on the outskirts of Kabul, a professor of Islamic theology warns the mourners of their fate should they shirk their duty.

"Those who run from this bombardment, will not be included in those who make it to paradise," he says.

No one appears to dissent, as the congregation shouts: "Allahu Akhbar!"

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