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Saturday, 22 September, 2001, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Afghanistan veers towards chaos
By the BBC's Afghanistan correspondent Kate Clark
I am sitting writing this in Pakistan, but my heart is across the border.
The Taleban threw me out of Afghanistan six months ago, but I am still in touch with friends and what journalists call their sources.
I have had some anguished conversations in the last week with Afghans who are at their wits end.
All for a man whom they did not invite into their country and a government they did not elect.
"Will they really quench their anger by washing out blood with the blood of more innocents?" one man asked me.
There is fear, some anger, and a desperate hope that something positive can be forged out of this crisis - something better than the Taleban or the Northern Alliance, an end to the 20-year old war and to foreign interference - if there is a political strategy as well as a military one.
At the moment, with just the threat of an American attack, Afghanistan is veering towards chaos.
Afghans tell me of armed robberies, looting and massive population displacement.
Fleeing to the villages
They speak of the desperate panic to leave Kabul and Kandahar because that is where people think the Americans will target.
Of the primal urge to go home - to the village, to where one's ethnic group is in a majority.
And the fear in places like Kabul that the opposition Northern Alliance will sweep down and recapture the city.
It is still in ruins from the last time they were in control.
"The world stood by while our country was turned into a terrorist training camp," said one of the biggest mujahadeen commanders from the days of the Soviet Union.
He has been working clandestinely for peaceful change for some time, reaching out not just to intellectuals, but to disaffected commanders from the Northern Alliance and the Taleban.
"We can rise up tomorrow," he said, "and shake off these terrorists but we need a lead from outside, some reassurance, some backing, and better that it comes from the United Nations, not America."
This is what I am hearing from Afghans, again and again - the plea for them to be listened to, to be brought on side.
Many have pointed out that most of the victims of the Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden's jihad have so far been fellow Muslims - Afghans in the civil war.
All summer, the Taleban have been using a scorched earth policy in the centre, west and north of Afghanistan.
It is their attempt to wipe out resistance using special forces - Pashtun Afghans from the Taleban's stronghold in the south, Pakistani militants and Arab followers of Osama Bin Laden.
A week ago, I sat through three hours of film - secretly smuggled out - showing scores of interviews with Afghans who had fled - hungry and frightened - to the mountains.
And then shot after shot of the places they once called home - burned houses, schools, shops and mosques.
People spoke of civilians being killed - there were also pictures of a charred Koran - rescued from the ruins of a burned out mosque.
"Is this Islam?" the people asked.
I am sure there are Afghans who support the Saudi militant, but I have personally never met one.
Most people want the foreigners out of their country. Afghans have always complained about how arrogant the Arabs are.
How even during the days of the jihad against the Soviet Union, they antagonised locals, pulling down flags honouring martyrs' graves, for example - which they considered were manifestations of a primitive Islam.
The Taleban were certainly popular in their early days, when they swept to power by disarming warlords and opening up trade routes.
When I arrived in Kabul in 1999, three years into Taleban rule there, many people said they did not like their extreme rules - bizarre by many Muslims' conception of their faith, "but at least our city is safe, now," was a common sentiment, "our women can walk without fear".
By the time I left Kabul six months ago, the mood had changed.
With power has come corruption and as armed resistance has become stronger, the Taleban's repression of civilians has increased.
Afghanistan has felt volatile for months, bubbling and ready for change.
Afghans from every ethnic group and region have spoken to me, expressing disillusionment or outright hostility with the Taleban.
I knew things were serious when Maoists said they wanted the return of the former King, Zahir Shah.
An awful lot of Afghans have been fantasising about his return for a long time. I did not take it seriously until recently.
He is 87-years old, has been in exile since 1973 and was never a very effective ruler.
But he is a symbol of a happier past - the last legitimate Afghan ruler - and enjoys support from different ethnic groups.
At this juncture, it would not be difficult for Washington to get Afghans on side, particularly if the United Nations were allowed to lead a political mission.
There has never been the sort of anti-American or anti-Western feeling among Afghans which you find in some other parts of the world.
If any complaint is heard against the US, it is that it has not been involved enough.
During the Soviet Occupation of the 1980s, America was the great ally of the Afghan resistance.
Once the communists were defeated and the Cold War ended, Afghans feel they were abandoned by Washington.
It insisted that the last communist president, the widely respected Najibullah, stand down in favour of the squabbling seven parties of the mujahadeen.
They were already fighting each other - and carried on, reducing Kabul to rubble and killing as many as 50,000 civilians in that city alone.
Regional powers - Iran, Pakistan and Russia - backed rival factions and have continued to fuel the civil war.
Afghans are wondering if America will attack and again leave a power vacuum in their poor benighted country.
If America attacks without thought, or care or sophistication or any idea beyond a short-term annihilation of the militants, Afghanistan faces the bleakest future imaginable.
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