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Saturday, 15 September, 2001, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
What now for the Taleban?
BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson
By BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson in Islamabad

After eight o'clock at night, in the darkness of Kabul, the loudest noise is the barking of dogs, and the brightest lights are the faint gold of oil-lamps in the windows of the little houses.

This is a society which has been dragged forcibly backwards in time, in the first place by three decades of constant war and upheaval, and nowadays by the strangest manifestation of political and religious fundamentalism anywhere on earth - the rule of the Taleban.

The Taleban themselves aren't a terrorist outfit as such. They show no great interest in the outside world, one way or another

That rule has given Osama Bin Laden free rein - and now, as a result of the horrific events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, it's beginning to look as though the United States may make Afghanistan pay a high price for the political anarchy which has made it one of the poorest, most backward countries on earth.

But, contrary to what you hear from Western politicians, military analysts and journalists, it's not true that the Taleban and Osama Bin Laden are jointly part of some big international terrorist consortium.

Bin Laden is the guest of the Taleban in Afghanistan, and their leader, the reclusive one-eyed Mullah Omar, approves of him and is his personal friend. Hence the scope Bin Laden has to pursue his terrorist activities.

Distinct organisations

The Taleban themselves aren't a terrorist outfit as such. They show no great interest in the outside world, one way or another.

If anything, the news of the terrible attacks in America will have alarmed them. No doubt plenty of them will have felt that it served the Great Satan right - but I think we can be pretty sure that their first and overriding reaction was one of anxiety.

What happens to them now? What will be the future of their strange political and religious experiment?

Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden is in Afghanistan as a guest of the Taleban
In the West we've come to assume that Islamic fundamentalism is instinctively anti-Western. In fact the Taleban owe their existence - born in the refugee camps across the Afghan border in Pakistan in the 1980s - to a deep-seated hatred of the godless Soviet Union which had invaded their country.

The West, in as far as the Taleban thought about it, was on their side. Pakistan's secret services helped to build up the Taleban as a powerful force, and if anything the Americans - who were in close touch with the Pakistanis over Afghanistan - approved.

Even now, at this late stage, I think it is probably true to say that if the United States were prepared to put aside a tenth of the amount which President Clinton spent on firing fire cruise missiles at Afghanistan three years ago, and devoted it instead to food aid and help for the collapsed infrastructure of Afghanistan, that would be enough to win the Taleban over.

It's not going to happen, of course. Instead, the Taleban now face the real possibility that they will be blasted out of existence, in order to deal once and for all with Osama Bin Laden.

Sweeping away the Taleban should certainly get rid of the Osama Bin Laden problem. But will it get rid of the Afghanistan problem?

Bin Laden's great strength up to now has been that the Taleban control 90% of Afghanistan and have imposed their own version of law and order on it.

If that law and order collapse, and we get a return to the general lawlessness and banditry of five years ago, then Bin Laden - who's already got a price of $5m on his head, won't last more than a week before some warlord catches him and claims the prize.

Taleban regime

I don't mean to present the Taleban as some peaceable, bucolic outfit wrapped up in their own religious observances.

The way they have behaved towards women, aid agencies - and not just those which are actively Christian - and towards the population in general, is completely unacceptable in Western eyes.

The other day I watched the turbaned and robed agents of the Ministry for the Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue stride into the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul.

Ordinary Afghans fear they will be targeted in retaliation attacks
They'd come to round up the inoffensive Afghan translators who had been working for the few Western television organisations allowed into Afghanistan to cover the trial of the aid agency people charged with trying to convert people to Christianity.

It reminded me of the old KGB, or Saddam Hussein's secret police, only in mediaeval dress.

The Americans and their allies may well feel now that the time has come to get rid of a virtual state like Afghanistan, a black hole on the map where terrorism can take root and proliferate.

But they'd do well to remember that the basic problem in Afghanistan is the lack of firm, accepted, broadly-based government.

Sweeping away the Taleban, who actually do govern most of the country, should certainly get rid of the Osama Bin Laden problem.

But will it get rid of the Afghanistan problem, which brought the Taleban to power in the first place, and made it a convenient training ground for Bin Laden to operate in?

The BBC's John Simpson reports from Islamabad
"This is a society which has been dragged forcibly backwards in time"
See also:

12 Sep 01 | South Asia
Kabul rocked by explosions
12 Sep 01 | Americas
Who might have done it?
11 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
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