A wild land that defies control

Post-Taliban rulers will face many hurdles

War On Terrorism : The World

October 11, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan - The villages and towns in the foothills of the Hindu Kush are places of religious devotion, generous hospitality and general lawlessness. And melding them into a modern, post-Taliban Afghanistan could prove extremely difficult.

As a fourth night of U.S. bombing began, leaders of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance were hoping in vain that American planes and cruise missiles would target Taliban positions near the front lines. The alliance wants Washington to do more to help it in its seven-year war with the Taliban government.

But a visit to villages in Northern Alliance-controlled areas makes clear one reason the United States might be reluctant to help the alliance take the place of the Taliban: The alliance has not tamed even those parts of this wild country that it nominally controls.

This is one of the most important opium-producing regions in the world. Bandits prey on travelers in the Hindu Kush. Many villages are ruled by warlords who wield broad power independent of any government and who sometimes back up even polite requests with a gun.

A few days ago, several foreign visitors drove their vehicle over a log lying across the road in a hamlet far from any front. They were halted by the sound of a Kalashnikov rifle being fired into the air. A village chieftain, accompanied by his rifleman, stuck his head into the car. "Welcome," he said in English. "You are our guests here."

He invited everyone in for tea.

Having been at war for 20 years, northern Afghanistan is heavily armed. Not only does every baby-faced teen-ager seem to own a Kalashnikov, but the landscape is littered with ruined tanks and other armored vehicles. The vehicles serve as fences or to hold firewood. Old bombs with fins decorate gardens.

Clan, village and personal loyalties can form a tight weave. One of the bodyguards of Ahmed Shah Masoud, the Northern Alliance military leader who was assassinated last month, still guards his former commander's body on "The Chief of the Martyrs' Hill" north of here. The gravesite, fittingly, is littered with spent cartridge.

This is a devoutly Islamic country. In the towns, the morning call to prayer is delivered through loudspeakers from the mosques. Little girls play and giggle in the streets. When they become women, they will put on pale-blue chadors, their faces masked by mesh screening.

The opium trade flourishes, and hashish is widely available. Afghanistan's wild ways dismay many of its citizens, especially the better educated.

"When will come the rule of law here?" asked Sulemin Nawee, 22, who lives in Jurm, a market town of about 50,000. "We want a good government, like the governments in the United States and Britain."

Anyone wanting to govern Afghanistan as a coherent state would face formidable obstacles. The first is the rugged terrain. Mud-walled villages sit in valleys at the foot of the sawtoothed peaks of the Hindu Kush, and alpine meadows glitter with pristine lakes. But these beautiful mountains chop the country up into scores of isolated geographic regions.

Communications and travel are hard, even between villages in neighboring valleys. There are no telephones. Even in clusters of villages with tens of thousands of people, only a half-dozen might own televisions, powered by generators and receiving the signals from satellites. In any dozen villages, no more than one is likely to have public power.

At best, the roads are dirt tracks. At worst, they are roller-coaster, landslide-prone gouges in the sides of mountains. Most of the bridges are made of wood and paved with stones. And seemingly all roads are under constant repair from the damage inflicted by mammoth trucks.

Poor countries are harder to govern than rich ones, and Afghanistan is miserably poor. The average annual income is $800 a year. Here in the north, the economy depends heavily on wheat. But Afghanistan has been suffering from a two-year drought.

Conditions are no better for people no longer working the land. Village teachers earn the equivalent of $10 a month.

But farmers are prospering on the rich green floor of the Kokschwa River valley. Men in distinctive bowl-shaped wool hats, called pakol, push wooden plows behind oxen to prepare for the planting of poppies.

The crop will be harvested in July, then refined into opium and heroin.

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