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Afghanistan: War Continues While The Country Suffers

Prague, 26 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - It was a year ago, on September 27, 1996 that armed forces of the Taliban religious movement entered and occupied the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul. The government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and forces loyal to it left the city in disarray. The Taliban appeared victorious.

But today, the fighting between various groups and factions is still continuing and none of the combatants seem to have the power finally to prevail.

Attempts by other countries and international organizations to mediate have met with failure. There is little likelihood that new attempts will succeed. There is no end in sight to the Afghan war, and the country is in ruins.

The capture of Kabul was a culmination of the Taliban's spectacular ascendancy as both the religious and the political movement. In little more than two years since their first appearance, the Taliban swept up from the southeast and gained control of about two-thirds of the country.

They did it with little or no opposition. It seemed at times that the momentum of the Taliban advance alone would propel them through the remaining areas of the country, and perhaps beyond the Afghan territory itself. Alarms went off in Tashkent, Bishkek, Almaty, Moscow and Tehran at the possibility of this radically Islamist movement spreading its influence elsewhere.

The Taliban's interpretation of Islamic tenets has been rigid, prompting shock in many parts of the world. The pictures of public executions and displays of punished victims, including that of former president Najibullah whose body was left hanging by its feet at the center of town for weeks, and of ordinary people being mistreated by the religious students created widespread revulsion.

Then followed stories of prohibitions and demands, said by the Taliban to reflect Shari'a or Islamic law. Women were forced to wear the all-concealing "burqa," they were forbidden to work or attend school, were told not to wear white socks as this could be alluring to men and not to make noise when walking in public. Men were forced to wear beards and attend common Muslims prayers. All were forbidden to listen to music, except Taliban songs, or fly kites as it distracts people from focusing their attention on God when looking to the heavens. No one can use paper bags for fear they are made with recycled paper, some of which may have come from copies of the Holy Koran or other scriptures.

In the meantime, the war has continued. There was no quick follow up after the capture of Kabul. The forces loyal to Rabbani and those led by the veteran commander Ahmed Shah Masoud withdrew to Masoud's stronghold in the Panshir Valley, north of the capital city. They held out there, much the same as they had held out against Soviet occupiers. Eventually, they initiated a counter offensive.

Masoud's actions have become increasingly coordinated with other forces still opposing the Taliban, those under General Abdul Rashid Dostum in Mazar-i-Sharif, the Hazara Shi'a forces, the governor of Herat, and others. In the course of the new alliances the war has taken a distinctly ethnic character. Masoud is a Tajik, Dostum an Uzbek, while the bulk of Taliban forces are Pushtuns.

Once again Kabul came under siege, this time by the opponents of the Taliban. Yet neither side could muster the force necessary to dislodge the other. Masoud's forces have slowly crept to within Kabul's outskirts but their success in one area appears frequently offset by a defeat elsewhere. The front-line constantly wavers.

The Taliban, for example, may be confronted by Masoud's forces around Kabul, but they are still able to attack cities in the Kunduz province far to the north near the Tajik border. The Taliban have also nearly taken the last major city alluding them, Mazar-i-Sharif, on two occasions, despite the daily artillery and rocket duels outside Kabul.

To add to confusion, the Taliban's near success in capturing Mazar-i-Sharif last May resulted in their worst defeat. Lured into the city by a revolt of the commander of the region's forces, Abdul Malik, against General Dostum who was forced to flee to Turkey, the Taliban warriors were then attacked by Malik's forces after they had entered Mazar-i-Sharif. The attack brought hundreds of Taliban casualties, with some three thousand of their warriors captured.

A new Taliban offensive launched in early September brought the religious forces once more to the doorstep of Mazar-i-Sharif. The city linking Mazar-i-Sharif to Uzbekistan, Khairaton, fell to the Taliban forces, cutting off aid that Uzbekistan had provided. The Uzbek government has long been vocal in warning of the dangers the Taliban present to the Central Asian states.

It was now Malik's turn to make a hasty departure from the city. And it brought back General Dostum from Turkey. Dostum and Malik have reconciled in a clear move of convenience. Dostum quickly took command again and has launched a counterattack. Officials in some countries have already expressed their belief that Dostum could soon be back in control in Khairaton.

The continuing war has been costly in many ways. On the international scene Afghanistan has lost the little ground it may have possessed. Its economy is in shambles. Its representatives abroad are split between the warring camps. Only three states recognize the Taliban government: these are Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Afghanistan's seat at the Organization of the Islamic Conference is empty. International humanitarian organizations have cut back their operations, clearly appalled by the Taliban's Islamic rigidity. Afghanistan has become known as a haven for narcotics producers and traders, despite Taliban promises to clean up the trade.

The war, and the political chaos, are certain to continue. While the Taliban is unable to come to terms with their opponents, these opponents themselves are more than often at odds. And there are no prospect that this will change any time soon. This alone ensures that the war of attrition will last and last, perhaps for years to come.