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Kandahar dreamers test Taliban edicts

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Kandahar, Afghanistan

Fazal Ahmad Anis
Fazal Anis is prepared to risk the wrath of the Taliban to produce TV dramas

Nearly everyone who lives in Kandahar city, the capital of Afghanistan's southern province by the same name, has acquaintances among the local Taliban militants.

Fazal Ahmad Anis is one of them.

"We are all people from the same area, and Taliban also have good intelligence inside the city, so they know who's who," he says.

Mr Anis has been hosting music shows for two Kandahar-based television stations for some time, and is now setting up the city's first audio-visual studios where television plays would be produced.

Taliban consider music and television viewing as un-Islamic, and have often spoken to him by telephone about his plans, without overtly threatening him.

"Their message is clear, though, that I should give up my plans, but producing television dramas has been my dream since I was living in the Pakistani city of Quetta as a refugee," he says.

Wry smile

Kandahar, once a major centre of arts and culture in Afghanistan, has many dreamers like Mr Anis.

Naimatullah Zalmay playing chess
Chess is another activity the Taliban considers un-Islamic

In the soothing, air-conditioned atmosphere of Kandahar Coffee Shop - a trendy café with a small library and a billiards parlour - a group of old and young people sit quietly around a table, watching two of them play a game of chess.

One of the players is Naimatullah Zalmay, the head of Kandahar's chess players' association.

He has been playing chess for 35 years, he says, and is among the 14-member national chess team recently selected to play in international competitions.

But like music and TV, chess is also considered un-Islamic by the Taliban and the country's powerful conservative clerics.

When I ask him if he feels threatened by the Taliban, he gives me a wry smile.

"The Taliban's position on the issue is well known, but what do you do when a high official close to our democratic president opposes our request for funds on grounds that we are indulging in un-Islamic activities?"

He doesn't name names, but one of his colleagues later tells me he was referring to Fazl Hadi Shinwari, chief justice of Afghanistan until August 2006 and still considered close to President Hamid Karzai.

Dejection and fear

During the seven years of Mr Karzai's rule, Kandahar city has developed by leaps and bounds.

Multi-storey trade centres have appeared all over the place, roads and streets have been built, and most commercial streets now have wide, tiled pavements.

Isaf patrol in Kandahar
Isaf patrols often require civilian traffic to pull up at the side of the road

But patrols by the US and Canadian armoured cars frequently force civilian traffic off the road, creating dejection and fear among people.

A bomb-shaped "spy" balloon that hangs high over the city and is said to carry US surveillance cameras is a constant reminder that things outside the city are also not satisfactory.

The governor of Kandahar province, Tooryalai Wesa, admits that his government has not been able to break the Taliban stranglehold in some parts of the province.

In some cases, these "lawless" areas extend to within five or six kilometres of the city.

The Taliban have comparatively greater freedom to operate in the provinces of Helmand to the west, Uruzgan to the north and Zabul to the northeast of Kandahar.

Together, the four provinces form the lawless south of Afghanistan.

For now, the most immediate target of the Taliban is to prevent people across this region from turning out to vote in presidential elections, due on 20 August.

If they succeed, it will dent the credibility of the election and may spiral into a political crisis for the government, analysts say.

But if they fail, then Kandaharis hope for greater stability in the future.

Awareness show

And many are willing to have close brushes with the Taliban to achieve this.

Abdullah Abdali, a television actor, has been doing government-sponsored stage shows for public awareness in some of the most dangerous corners of the south.

Last year he went to Uruzgan to act in a play on drugs awareness.

"Going there was no problem, but once we had appeared on the stage, we felt exposed and did not feel safe to return to Kandahar by road," he says.

"We waited there three days for a US forces convoy to roll out to Kandahar, and followed it."

Early this month, he did a six-day election awareness show in Qalat, the capital of Zabul, and again took safety precautions on the return journey.

"We told our hosts - the district election commission - that we were staying the night and would leave for Kandahar the next day. Then we went out, quietly jumped into our van and left. You never know who will inform the Taliban that we are coming."



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