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Afghanistan tests the Taliban

In almost every walk of Afghan life, the strict rules of Islam laid out by the Taliban government are being tested.’s Preston Mendenhall reports.
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At the Ahmed brothers’ barbershop in the capital city of the world’s most radical Islamic regime, haircuts can be dangerous. The wildly popular Leonardo di Caprio cut, dubbed the “Titanic” by locals, has teen-age boys lining up every day, eager to be transformed into American heartthrobs. But the “Titanic” is a serious offense in the eyes of the Taliban, the staunchly anti-Western Islamic militants who rule this nation. Said Ahmed, the older of the two barbers, has been imprisoned twice for his artistry. But business is business — despite the Taliban.

After capturing the Afghan capital five years ago, the Taliban imposed an unbending brand of Islam on a war-torn nation ruined by civil war and the Soviet invasion more than two decades ago. In today’s Afghanistan, thieves routinely have their limbs amputated. Women, banned from pursuing most careers, are executed for adultery. Pop music and dancing are banned, along with television and videos.

Even kite flying and laughing in public are censured. Most recently, the around the world by requiring their minority population in Afghanistan to wear an identity label on their clothing to distinguish them from Muslims.

In short, Afghanistan has been transformed into a feudal, anti-Western theocracy.

Yet despite the iron grip on most Afghans, a two-week journey through this country revealed persistent signs of dissent.

A Talib fighter in Herat sneaks a forbidden cigarette. A taxi driver in Kandahar listens to a quick riff of Iranian pop music on a worn-out tape player.

“There are lots of things that we shouldn’t be doing,” said 20-year-old barber Jalil Ahmed, cutting hair next to his brother, Said. “But we do them anyway.”

The Taliban's beginnings
The road to Taliban rule began when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up the country’s communist government.

When the Soviets pulled out after a humiliating and costly defeat, a ruinous civil war followed. The Taliban, or “students of Islam,” ultimately prevailed, capturing Kabul in 1996. But the price of this victory has been staggering. While Afghanistan exists on the map, the country has ceased to function as a state. Cities have been leveled by war, running water is scarce, health care is nonexistent and only a few are lucky enough to get a grade-school education.

More than a million Afghans were killed in 22 years of conflict — and at least 6 million refugees fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, where half of them remain today.

The government's iron fist
Given these national paroxysms, even the Taliban’s iron fist, which brought a quick end to lawlessness, was preferable to an unending, bloody civil conflict.

But five years have passed since the Taliban seized power. And for many Afghans, of which Talibs make up only 50,000 to 60,000, patience with the militant government is wearing thin.

Fissures in the Taliban code are everywhere. Women still must cover themselves from head to toe in burqas, billowing gowns with only a mesh screen through which they see and breathe. But in Afghanistan’s cities women ignore Taliban edicts that forbid them from leaving their homes without a male relative. On any day, women can be seen strolling without chaperones in busy bazaars. Today’s fashion fad? High heels from Iran, also banned but purchased openly in shoe stores.

Vice and virtue police
But the threat of punishment persists. All Afghans live with the constant threat that fanatic police from the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice will confront them with infractions against Islamic law. Cruising Afghanistan’s main cities in Toyota 4X4 pickups with dark windows, the police patrol for offending citizens. They force storeowners to close shop and attend daily prayers.

These police units, and the Islamic edicts they uphold, are the brainchild of the Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Ruling from a complex on Argri Square in Kandahar, the partially blinded Omar never appears in public. Most Afghans have no idea what he looks like because of an edict issued by Omar that bans photographing humans.

While Omar is respected by Afghans, increasingly his edicts are not. And the barbers Ahmed and Said, with their “Titanic” haircuts, are not the only renegades.

Banned businesses go underground
Mustafa, a photo studio owner in the Western city of Herat, about 30 miles from the Iranian border, defies the ”Tali-bans” every day. He is licensed to take only passport photos — permitted by the Taliban for official documents. But hidden in the back of his busy store is a darkroom where he develops film that Afghans bring from weddings, parties and family gatherings.

Another violation: In a display case at the front of the store, Mustafa, who asked that his real name not be used, sells 35mm cameras and film.

“Of course we break the rules. The Taliban can’t control everything,” said Mustafa, who was arrested once when he filmed a client’s private party. “They smashed my camera and threw me in jail for two days.”

“People are unhappy,” said one Afghan source, a father of four who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The benefits of the Taliban are no longer felt. All their efforts are concentrated on the war (with anti-Taliban forces in the north), and they haven’t been able to rebuild the country. Now we have a drought and our kids can’t get an education.”

Taliban split over future
The public’s disregard for Taliban dogma reflects not only a deep frustration with the movement’s strict laws. The defiance also mirrors an internal split within the Taliban leadership, between moderates who argue that new policies are needed to persuade the U.N. Security Council to ease crippling sanctions and bring economic opportunity to the destitute Afghan population, and hard-liners adamantly opposed to relaxing any of the Taliban’s strict laws, which are loosely based on Sharia, the legal code of the Koran.

At least publicly, Taliban officials are unyielding. “If music has been heard, then it is a violation of the law,” Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakkil told He insisted the “Titanic” haircut fad “has passed.”

But privately even Talibs themselves are opening the door to some restricted activities, like education for women.

Anders Fange of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, which runs nearly 500 rural primary schools, says the group’s “regional directors have been contacted by Talib commanders who want girls’ schools opened in their communities so their own daughters can get an education.” About one-fifth of the students in the committee’s schools are girls.

And members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, an activist group based in Pakistan, say the Taliban has been forced to moderate its stance on many issues.

“If they have loosened restrictions, it is not because of a change in their mentality,” said Sajda, an activist who did not want her full name used for fear of repercussions. “It is the resistance of the people, both women and men.”

Weary Talib fighters
And what of the Taliban fighters themselves, the men who have fought in the name of Islam?

Talibs range from zealots to disillusioned soldiers of nearly a decade of fighting against a chameleon coalition of anti-Taliban forces that now controls 10 percent of northern Afghanistan.

Mohammed, a 22-year-old veteran of the Taliban’s rise to power, smirked when asked about his support of the Talib leadership. “We are fighting for God,” he said sarcastically.

The guiding light of a pure Islamic state has dimmed for Mohammed. With no official salary and a cost-of-living payment of only 100,000 Afghanis — about $1.20 — every month or so, the Taliban is barely able to take care of its own. A single loaf of naan, or flat bread, costs 6,000 Afghanis.

Mohammed is already battle hardened. Captured with 1,500 other Talib fighters and held by northern forces for eight months, only 364 men emerged alive when the two sides exchanged prisoners. “When our captors threw a melon rind on the ground, we would fight over it like dogs,” Mohammed said.

Mohammed said he is scarred for life, and pins his hopes on securing an Afghan passport. “Then maybe I can get into Pakistan and pay somebody to smuggle me to Europe.”

Dreams of a better place
In Afghanistan, dreams like Mohammed’s of a better life somewhere else are visible everywhere. Ice cream parlor and teahouse walls are plastered with posters of far-away places.

The Ahmed brothers’ barbershop is also a shrine to a better life beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Large photos of Swiss chalets, modern office buildings in Arab countries and U.S. city skylines adorn the walls.

For a country at war for 22 years, Afghanistan’s dreams are still big. The Taliban government faces the challenge of making some of them come true.