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Review of 2001 Monday, 31 December, 2001, 10:10 GMT
Afghanistan: After the storm
Afghan children
Afghans are hoping 20 years of war are behind them
Kate Clark

After listening to the horror of the suicide attacks on New York and Washington on the radio on the 11 September I knew the Taleban were finished.

Washington would not allow America's most wanted man, Osama Bin Laden, and his hosts, the Taleban, to survive.


This is a country yearning for peace. People keep saying: "This is our country's last chance"

They had been using foreign Muslim fighters - particularly Pakistani militants and Arab followers of Osama Bin Laden - for years in the Afghan civil war.

They were often their shock troops - steadfast on the frontlines and carrying out massacres of civilians and burning villages in the centre and north of the country.

In return, the militants were allowed to train for military or terrorist activities elsewhere in the world. The militants had been quietly killing Afghan Muslims for years.

Everything changed

But when Osama Bin Laden was accused of the American hijack attacks, the world started to take notice of the country where he was based.

America launched a massive aerial bombardment of Taleban positions on 7 October and backed the only anti-Taleban military force - the Northern Alliance.

At the start of this year many analysts had written off the alliance - the grouping of former mujahideen and communist factions who united to fight the Taleban after they lost Kabul in 1996.

Afghan street market
There are hopes the economy will pick up

The alliance had lost the vitally important town of Taloqan and it was only a matter of time, said the analysts, until the Taleban took over the whole of Afghanistan.

Eight weeks after the 11 September attacks, the Taleban were largely finished, the network of foreign Muslim militants destroyed and the Northern Alliance, particularly the ethnic Tajik faction, Jamiat-e Islami, were resurgent.

Reconciliation

The BBC office in Kabul is near what used to be the Taleban's main mosque. Where I used to listen to Taleban mullahs ranting for hours in Pashtu, there is now a Persian-speaking cleric.

His first Friday sermon after the Taleban fled and Jamiat-e Islami forces took over Kabul was marked by furious condemnation of the Taleban's former backer, Pakistan.

The cleric also expressed sorrow for Ahmad Shah Massood - the Northern Alliance commander assassinated two days before the attacks on the United States - who never got to see his men enter the capital.

Kabul mosque
Afghanistan's mosques have changed their message

There was euphoria in Kabul when the Taleban were defeated, but also anxiety that the capital had been taken over by another armed faction.

It may seem strange to the outside world, but many Afghans like the alliance no more than the Taleban.

Most say they just want an end to the rule of armed men, whatever their faction. That has not happened yet. The leader of the new interim government is the tribal leader and former diplomat, Hamid Karzai.

The three other top positions have gone to members of Jamiat-e Islami, all men from the Panjshir Valley.

However, the plan is for the new interim administration to give way to a properly representative government after six months - after the holding of a loya jirga or assembly of the elders.

And even before that, an international force of peacekeepers should be sent into the capital.

I walked back into Kabul ahead of the victorious Jamiat troops on 13 November, hours after the Taleban had fled noiselessly into the night.

It was nine months since the Taleban had thrown me out of the country, claiming the BBC had been biased in its reporting of their destruction of the two great statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan.

Glad to be alive

Meeting old friends in the street in Kabul, we just stand and laugh with delight that we're all still alive - survived the Taleban and the American bombardment.

People describe how they couldn't sleep until the warplanes had dropped their bombs, knowing that they wouldn't be killed that night.


Suddenly people can chose whether or not to shave, listen to music, send their daughters to school

One friend told me how he'd escaped Taleban intelligence during the final days. Another was almost strung up by Arabs as a suspected spy.

Some people still have their beards and turbans - they've worn them whether communists, mujahideen or Taleban were in power.

Others are transformed. One man was a professional army officer who served under every regime since Daoud Khan in the 1970s. I last saw him in his Taleban incarnation - immense black turban, big beard, sombre - the Taleban thought it was ungodly to laugh too much.

He came into my office in crisp, freshly laundered army fatigues, gold teeth glinting as he grinned - I had never noticed them before. It was as if he had been reborn.

Kabul feels like it has been buried alive for years. The Taleban religious police were always particularly brutal in the implementation of their laws here - mistaking Kabul's relative liberalism for communism.

Suddenly people can chose whether or not to shave, listen to music, send their daughters to school. But almost women are still choosing to wear the burqa.

It is no longer compulsory, but they do not yet feel safe enough to walk around their city bare-faced.

Anxiety

There is euphoria at the downfall of the Taleban, but there was also anxiety when Jamiat troops took control of the city.

In the mid-1990s, their soldiers were among those who fought for control of Kabul - leaving 50,000 civilians dead and the population traumatised by rocketing, rape and looting.

Afghan women
Many women keep wearing their burqas for the moment
"When we feel safe", many women told me, "only then, will we take off the burqa."

Those who benefited from the war - the drug barons, foreign militants, warlords and interfering neighbours could still try to wreck the peace settlement.

Even so, after 20 years of civil war and foreign interference by its neighbours and the superpowers, Afghans now have a chance for peace.

Whatever foreign commentators have said in the last two months - that Afghans were warlike, or hated foreigners or were prone to jihad - always sounded ridiculous to anyone who has lived in the country recently.

This is a country yearning for peace. People keep saying, "This is our country's last chance."

Even the warlords seem to be restraining themselves this time - aware that the eyes of the world are upon them.


Our twin towers have also been destroyed

Whatever unhappiness there is with the post-Taleban settlement, no-one wants to be the one to carry their country back into the abyss of interfactional fighting.

What appears to be weakness to the outside world - the apparent ease with which Taleban fighters can re-enter normal society on the back of surrender pacts and peace deals - could well be the saving of Afghanistan.

Inclusive peace

Even after 20 years of war, there is no sense that anyone is excluded from the nation. During the American bombing campaign, there was real grief in Northern Alliance-held areas at the deaths of civilians in Kabul and Kandahar.

Fighters continued to taunt each other by walkie-talkie across the frontlines - trading insults, but also sending greetings to family members on the other side of the line.

Afghans clear rubble
Rebuilding Afghanistan will take years

There are calls from within Afghanistan for those who have committed atrocities to be put on trial, but other Afghans point out that they include communists and members of the Northern Alliance, as well as Taleban.

This is a nation which has survived war, where people are generally still generous and decent, where, despite attempts by leaders to stoke up ethnic tensions, there is no sense in which any group is more Afghan than any other.

Economic hardship has just made Afghan merchants more wily. Open the borders and the economy should flourish.

Despite the bloodshed in Kunduz, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif, many towns and several provinces fell peacefully. There is still much to be hopeful for in post-Taleban Afghanistan.

"But it's nine months too late," several Afghans have said to me - referring to the Taleban's destruction of the two ancient statues of the Buddhas in March.

"Our twin towers have also been destroyed."

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