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Saturday, 13 October, 2001, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Living in exile
Afghan exiles with Pakistani soldiers
Afghans in exile are worried for the future
By the BBC's Robin Denselow in Islamabad

Last week I attended an event that would have sent a Taleban mullah scurrying in horror to Kabul's Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Correction of Vice.

It was a wedding party of Afghan exiles now living over the border in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Nazifa, the bride, had just married Enayat who once ran a shoe shop in Kabul, before escaping five years ago, just as the Taleban arrived.

Nazifa had obviously done well since then, for this was a lavish affair. There was a band playing Afghan pop songs, and there was Western-style dancing. The younger women had even taken off their head-scarves.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Women have to cover up under Taleban law
An event like this would certainly land him in jail if he was in Kabul, which is why the groom suddenly insisted that the television team with me should leave. The Taleban still have some highly emotional supporters in Pakistan.

One of the guests I'd been talking to was Fatima, an English-speaking girl who planned to study as a doctor, until the Taleban banned all female education. Now, in exile, she was working as a teacher, and she invited me to visit her school, hidden away in a maze of little streets in the outskirts of Rawalpindi.

She was teaching the Koran when I arrived, but to a class that contained as many girls as boys. They were from a Farsi-speaking tribe in Afghanistan - Shia Muslims, who had suffered at the hands of the Sunni Taleban, and had tried to resist.

Painful memories

Fatima had lost two brothers fighting the Taleban, and as we were talking she suddenly burst into tears.

She said she was thinking of her relatives, still in Kabul, opposed to the Taleban, but so poor that they had no means to even try to leave. She wondered what would happen to them.

I thought about Fatima and her relatives when I heard that the bombing on Afghanistan had started and that there had been civilian casualties.

"J" was arrested by the Taleban's Virtue and Vice squad and thrown in jail - simply because he had trimmed his beard

I thought too about the relatives of a young man I'd met, another exile who was so worried about possible Taleban reprisals against his family - still in Kabul - that he begged me not to use even his first name.

"J", as I'll call him, was a university student who, like so many others - including the US Government - had enthusiastically supported the Taleban when they first took over. He saw them as a force that would stand up against the warlords wrecking his country.

He changed his mind when he became a victim of their increasingly extremist brand of Islam. He was arrested by the Taleban's Virtue and Vice squad and thrown in jail - simply because he had trimmed his beard.

He now hated his former heroes, both for their attacks on education, and for having allowed what he called "Bin Laden and all those Arabs" to move in.

Divided opinions

The Taleban have many such enemies inside and outside Afghanistan, just as they have also their highly vocal supporters right across the Islamic world.

Afgha refugees in Peshawar
More Afghans are fleeing to Pakistan every day
There are those who see Bin Laden as he likes to portray himself - a hero standing up for Muslims suffering from poverty or oppression that is blamed on the West.

Afghanistan's exiles are all too aware that this is a dangerous, volatile situation, in which public opinion could swing towards Bin Laden if the wrong moves are made.

So a bombing campaign must avoid further civilian casualties, and must be accompanied by efforts to create a new Afghanistan. But this can only be done if there is a clear understanding of their complex, tribal society.

Complex problem

"J" had initially supported the Taleban because they made a stand against the warlords. But those warlords are now identified with the Northern Alliance, who are largely Tajiks and Uzbeks rather than from the largest Afghani tribe - the Pashtuns - from which the Taleban emerged.

So even those Pashtuns who loathe the Taleban would be hostile to any new government seen to be imposed by the West and dominated by the Northern Alliance.

Taleban supporters
The Taleban enjoy vocal support in some areas of Pakistan
And there could be a dangerous spin-off in Pakistan itself. The Pashtuns have spread across the border into Pakistan, and the ideas and teachings of the Taleban have also been allowed to spread over that border to the madrassas, the religious schools.

The effect of that "Talebanisation" could be seen in the anti-American rioting in the border towns of Quetta and Peshawar this week.

Fatima and "J" - and hundreds of thousands of other exiles in Pakistan - want to go home to a new Afghanistan. But unless the need for a long-term political solution is addressed, even the forced removal of the Taleban and Bin Laden could leave their battered country in chaos.

And the extremist views of Bin Laden could spread yet further.

See also:

10 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan's fault lines
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