Fear and Crime Follow Taliban Retreat

TALIQAN, Afghanistan -- One week after the Taliban fled this dusty provincial capital to join their comrades defending nearby Kunduz, freedom was in the air. Eleven-year-old boys toting rocket launchers bigger than themselves milled about the central square, playing soccer, flying kites and shooting their AKs into the air. Women briefly lifted their burqas to take a clear look at the workman painting over the Taliban logo on the local school.

I wandered the streets feeling more like Mick Jagger than a citizen of the nation dropping bombs on the locals; a throng of men and boys followed me as I made my way to the market to buy Nescafe and flea powder. Because of Ramadan the bazaar is quiet during the day, but at night the Shah Masood restaurant springs to life. The local specialty is Afghan steak kabobs mixed with eggs (like the country itself, they are interesting but dangerous).

In a scene straight out of the Wild West, fierce gunmen sprawl over the tables, their weaponry laying about as they sing along to Indian movie music blasting from a loudspeaker and occasionally engage one another in fisticuffs. It's hard to believe that just a week ago most of these men were Talibs.

"Of course we will throw away our burqas," a young woman told me at the bazaar, "but we are afraid the Taliban will come back. If they do, they will punish anyone who removes their burqas."

There is uncertainty in the air about whether "the current government", as locals call it, will stay in power. But it's more than that. Women as well as men dread a return to the Mad Max-like state of anarchy that characterized the early '90s, when the Northern Alliance last ruled this country.

From the April 1992 deposal of President Mohammad Najibullah until 1996, when the Taliban dragged him out of a U.N. compound and castrated, shot and hanged him, the Northern Alliance's Islamic State of Afghanistan was less a government than a state of institutionalized chaos. The highways were trolled by rapists and warlords, and the cities became so unsafe that few Afghans dared venture out after dark.

During this period, Afghanistan secured its role as the world's leading supplier of heroin. The Taliban put an end to all that, but at a terrible price -- the rule of law found its pinnacle at 3 o'clock Friday afternoon when criminals were taken to the soccer stadium east of Kabul and subjected to amputation, stoning and execution.

The bad old days, it seems, may be coming back. At this point, the sole expression of government authority here is a lone traffic policeman standing at the Pakistani-style rotary in the middle of the main intersection. By yesterday, even he had repaired to a disused ammunition dump nearby where he could be found fast asleep, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. Half of the male population -- the heavily armed half -- is cruising the streets looking for people to rob. And the drug trade has made a remarkable overnight comeback; pure opium paste is selling briskly a few blocks off the main drag.

The American bombing campaign, which continues to take a toll on Kunduz and much of Takhar Province, has heightened the sense that there are no longer any rules.

I confronted one of the customers at the opium joint: "Isn't that illegal in Afghanistan?"

"Nothing is illegal in Afghanistan," he replied. "You can do whatever you want and no one cares."

"That's not always true," I suggested.

"The Taliban would have cared," he responded, grinding the paste into fine dust and sprinkling it into a cigarette. "But you Americans have gotten rid of them, and now we are free."

Certainly the Taliban's purist vision of Islam has taken a beating. Though people are faithfully fasting during Ramadan, nary a head turns in response to the mullahs' call to prayer. Alcoholic beverages have become the hottest consumer item in town.

"What? You didn't bring wine?" my guide and "fixer" asked me last night, as he geared up for a night of opium-induced haze.

"All the western journalists bring wine from Tajikistan," he scolded. Along with the collapse of legality and religiosity has come a wholesale plunge into the kind of societal cynicism that could mean real trouble if and when the new (and old) Northern Alliance gets its act together.

"In this country it's hard to tell the difference between life and death," the wine aficionado told me between bites of laghman noodles. "So we might as well live a little between all the dying."


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