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Taliban taking advantage of rural Afghanistan's frustration with insecurity and poverty

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2002

QALAT, Afghanistan (AP) — A girls' school is rocketed. Television sets once openly displayed are again tucked away.

The Taliban are here, pamphlets announce, waiting to restore their harsh brand of Islam. And if the Taliban or people like them return to power, many in this deeply conservative region say they will not resist — they are fed up with lawlessness, feel ignored by the central government and fear U.S. forces.

"Unless people are given work and the government in Kabul can establish security outside the bazaars, people will begin to fight them," said Eshanullah, a gaunt, bearded restaurant owner in Qalat, the capital of Zabul province, about 220 miles southwest of Kabul.

In Kabul, the Afghan capital, which attracts most of the world's attention, money and foreign visitors, Afghan and international officials speak of a new era in this war-ravaged country now that the Taliban are ousted and their al-Qaida allies routed.

But in the countryside, especially in impoverished southern provinces dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, the new Afghanistan has been one of disillusionment. In some areas, the old ways are returning.

In neighboring Ghazni province, 20 men with guns now protect the Johan Malaka Ghazni High School for girls, which was rocketed more than a month ago. No one was injured and damage was slight, but the children were badly frightened.

"The girls are coming to school now, but we provide heavy security for them," said Amanullah, a government commander. The rocket followed pamphlets warning parents to keep their daughters at home, he said.

There was no signature on the pamphlets, but Amanullah said they were sent by the Taliban.

Another guard at the school, Zar Marina, said the pamphlets reminded people that TV, movies and music are forbidden under Islam. The rule is not universally acknowledged in the Muslim world, but strictly was enforced by the Taliban before the regime's ouster last year by a U.S.-led coalition.

The Taliban banned education for girls older than 8, and reopening schools for girls was one of the proudest achievements of the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The condition of the Ghazni school, however, reflects the reality of grinding poverty and social inequity that most Afghans face, especially those far from Kabul.

There is no glass in the windows. The rooms are empty except for straw mats. There are many classrooms, but only two blackboards. A scrawl on the wall proclaims: "Oh good Muslims, study the Quran."

Many people assumed better times would follow the collapse of the Taliban. But nearly a year after the regime fell, children in Zabul and surrounding provinces are still malnourished.

Farmers are destitute, their crops destroyed by five years of drought. Orchards have withered without water.

When the Taliban regime fell, most people here were happy, said Mohammed Anwar, his gray beard wispy with age.

"But today we have nothing, no food, no money, no work for our young people," he said. "We thought the foreigners were going to help us, but they haven't."

At a restaurant in Ghazni, a soft-spoken man accused the international community of ignoring ordinary Afghans. He refused to give his name, whispering to his friend: "Maybe I shouldn't have said anything. Maybe they will put me in that prison in America."

Personal safety is paramount in the minds of people here. The Taliban's harsh rules all but put an end to banditry, clan wars and other acts of violence. Freedom has brought that violence back.

"We have had nothing except bad security since the Taliban left," said Adam Khan, a shepherd. "The Taliban were cruel but at least then there was security. Now the police don't pursue anyone."

Two men killed a villager, stole his car and escaped, he said.

"The police didn't do anything," he complained. "But the Taliban, they would have followed them until they caught them."

The idea that the Taliban, or a movement like it, might return frightens the educated urban classes of Kabul, Herat and other major cities, as well as Tajik and Uzbek areas of the north.

In rural Pashtun areas, where tribal traditions and conservative interpretations of Islam are often intermingled, however, the prospect seems less appalling than a life of deprivation, crime and violent death.

On the roadside, men and women beg for money and food. "Do you have bread?" pleads an old woman leaning on a gnarled stick, her face caked with dust. Barely 100 yards down the road, another woman sat with her hands outstretched.

"People don't want the Taliban, but they want security and help from the international community," Abdul Bari, a government commander in Qalat, said. "Until now, they haven't received either."

Bari said most people "support Hamid Karzai's government, but we can't keep living like this. We need help and slowly, slowly Afghanistan will get better."

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