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A taleban observer on the streets of Afghanistan
The Forgotten Country


John Simpson

I first went to Afghanistan in 1989. The Soviet Union was pulling out after a bloody war of occupation. I have returned just as the USA is squaring up to the Taleban regime to report on what has happened to this devastated country.

Afghanistan is one of the wild places of the earth, a black hole in the world's consciousness. It is a country full of victims.

Many invaders have tried to subdue Afghanistan - Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British, the Soviets. Few succeeded, none of them for long.

The Russians were here for ten brutal years. Now it's the turn of America and its Western allies to try.

Civil war

President Najibullah
President Najibullah was defeated by the Mujahideen
After the Russians left in 1989, the world paid little attention to Afghanistan.

The Mujahideen, who had resisted the Russians, had continued to fight a jihad, a holy war on the government.

The leader put in place by the Soviets, President Najibullah, was overthrown in 1992. But peace did not come to Afghanistan.

Over the next few years, the fighting between different Mujahideen factions was terrible. When I returned to Kabul in 1996, it was a depressing spectacle. A once attractive city was reduced to rubble.

A new movement, the Taleban, had conquered the south of the country. They had their origins in religious schools on the Pakistan border.

The Taleban were angry that the Mujahideen Government in Kabul had failed to introduce the full force of Islamic law. I travelled to their spiritual home in the southern city of Kandahar to find out who they were.

We were the first Western television team to document just how extremist their form of Islam was. But it was not easy, as the Taleban regarded television pictures as graven images, unholy and forbidden.

By chance we were in Kandahar at the critical moment of their campaign to take power. The Taleban declared a jihad or holy war against the Mujahideen government in Kabul.

For only the third time in a century, the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed was brought out of its shrine in Kandahar and shown to the adoring crowd.

The reclusive leader of the Taleban, Mullah Omar, held the cloak up. It was the first and only time he has been filmed.

The crowd hurled up their turbans to touch the cloak so they could be blessed by it. It's the closest thing to some vast mass movement of the Middle Ages that I'm likely to see in my lifetime.

A new dawn

Destroyed cassettes on display
Destroyed cassette tapes are put on display
The Taleban had a determination to turn their fundamentalist agenda into reality. They wanted to stop the clock of history, and restart it at a very different time.

They used tanks to destroy bottles of Afghan brandy. They ripped out cassette tapes. They forbade music of any kind.

And of course they changed women's lives utterly. Women were ordered to stay at home or cover themselves in the burqua, something they had never worn in their lives. Any infringement of the dress code was ferociously punished.

One woman told us, "Our life is bitter because we're not free. One day I went to the school and the door was closed and they told me that women aren't allowed to come here anymore and should stay at home."

Because the Taleban have turned Afghanistan into this extraordinary black hole, they have attracted some of the most violent romantics of the Islamic cause. One of these, of course, is Osama bin Laden.

Taleban leader Mullah Omar
Taleban leader Mullah Omar, filmed for the one and only time
Bin Laden's personal influence over Mullah Omar has increased. The Taleban regime seems to be becoming harsher.

This isn't a country anymore. It is a territory that has been utterly devastated to suit the rival interests of the outside world. Now I am waiting to report on the next turning point, the destruction of the Taleban regime.

If all the Americans and their allies do now is to defeat the Taleban and replace them with some unsatisfactory substitute, then they will have achieved very little that is serious or important.

The terrible suffering Afghanistan has gone through will just start up all over again. What Afghanistan desperately needs is peace.

See also:

07 Oct 01 | South Asia
Rally for the return of Afghan king
04 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition seeks united front
28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's turbulent history

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