In Kabul schools, fear of Taliban return

Students learning English in co-ed schools that proliferated since 2001 view the US skeptically.

Glory and service to country seem to drive the students taking private English lessons in one of the many foreign language schools that have opened here since the Taliban fell. They aspire to be doctors, engineers, and journalists – to elevate themselves above the decrepitude and insecurity they see all around them.

"I want to be an astronaut!" announces 14-year-old Arsalan. So does his little brother. Their friend, Seeyar, is determined to be president.

"He's on the land," says Arsalan. "We'll go to the stars!"

But those youthful dreams – expressed boisterously by these boys and more shyly inside a classroom of a dozen male and female students in their late teens – give way to details of fear about a Taliban resurgence and heartfelt concern about the US intent regarding the Muslim world.

Tamana's family returned to Kabul from Pakistan after US-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001. "When I came, everything was destroyed, and people were destroyed," recalls Tamana, who wants to become a television journalist. "People couldn't say their opinion. They were fighting their brothers."

A pervasive fear is that the string of Taliban suicide attacks, and fighting between NATO and US forces in south and east Afghanistan, is a prelude to the Islamist militia again regaining control.

This recently opened school – along with many other language and computer schools in the capital – would be closed; women would be forced again to wear burqas.

"My family has decided they should remain in Afghanistan for the time being, because we can get an education," says Espozhmai, her hands covered in traditional henna, who was secretly home-schooled by her mother during the Taliban era. "We will decide what to do, if the Taliban takes Kabul."

Afsoon's family is also staying. "We don't want to live like refugees again," she says of the 11 years her family lived in Isfahan, Iran.

"We decided to stay, because my mother said: 'Afghanistan needs people like us to rebuild. If we don't reconstruct it, who will?' " Afsoon recalls of the dinner table conversation.

"I want to fight, to save my country," vows Fareshda, whose gentle face and slipping headscarf belie her desire to take on the Taliban and their uncompromising rules. "My family is happy, because they are in their own country."

"Our problem is our people. They are uneducated. They all the time are used as a tool by someone else," says teacher Shayan. "The first time the Taliban took control of Afghanistan I stayed. But if they come again, I will leave Afghanistan. I can't stand a second time."

So what do these students say are Afghanistan's three greatest needs today?

"Security," says Fareshda.

"Solidarity," says Tamana, the aspiring journalist.

"Peace. We need peace," says Assiya, who wants to be a doctor.

"If the situation stays like this, I'm sure the Taliban will come," says Ahmad, a recently graduated pharmacist who claims the US is supporting the Taliban with cash, because otherwise they "could not fight against the 25 countries of NATO.

"If they come, they will put rules on people," he says, adding that the US should build a wall along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban draw much support. "If they come by force, what can people do?"

Indeed, the Taliban may already be trying to cause harm in Kabul, according to a letter sent recently by the Ministry of Interior to top Afghan education ministers, warning that the Taliban has imported writing pens with a special gas mechanism that will "render people unconscious and clean [erase] their memories."

The Taliban, the letter said, planned to specifically distribute the pens to private foreign language and computer schools where men and women learn side by side.

But the Taliban – and problems of electricity shortages, insecurity, and weak government – are not the only things weighing on these young minds. The class quickly turns into a session in which an American visitor is peppered with questions.

"Why do the Americans attack Islamic countries?" asks teacher Farid. A chorus erupts from the class as students demand an answer.

Shayan tries to explain the reason for Afghanistan: "They attacked to save us from the Taliban and Al Qaeda," he says.

"The US government, especially Bush, is against Islam. He attacks Muslim countries," says Tamana, the journalist-to-be. She dismisses the examples of US-led airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs in 1995, to save Muslims in Sarajevo, and bombing of Serbia in 1999 to relieve pressure on Kosovar Muslims, as "minority" cases.

"Why did the Americans attack Iraq?" asks Farid.

"Why do the Taliban do suicide bombs?" asks Wais, who works in a trendy clothes shop. "Do you think this time the Taliban will be democratic?" he asks sarcastically, prompting muted laughter. "If they come back, we'll have to escape again to Pakistan."

"Why didn't the Americans eliminate the Taliban?" asks Farid, shaking his head.

"We appreciate the role of the US in Afghanistan," says Shabana, a shy girl who hopes to become a doctor. "We want the US Army to be here for a long time. We need your help."

"Apparently they are here to help us reconstruct, to help us stand on our own feet. But we'll be happy if they fight the Taliban now and stop them," says Afsoon. "Unless civilians are harmed by their attacks. They should be very careful."

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