The Islamic Nightmare

THE MULLAHS WHO TOOK OVER last week in Kabul, the conquered capital of Afghanistan, made Iran's ayatollahs look like Western playboys. The fundamentalist Taliban movement issued decree after decree through its six-member ruling council, the Shura. Television stations and movie theaters were shut down, and music was banned from the radio. Kabul's 1 million people were ordered to pray five times a day--including two visits to the local mosque, where attendance would be taken. Criminals were threatened with beatings, mutilation and death. Men were given 45 days to grow proper Muslim beards--which are left untrimmed--and were told to shed their Western clothes in favor of traditional Afghan dress.

Women were chastised even more severely. They were sent home from their schools and jobs and were instructed to veil themselves from head to toe, preferably in the suffocating burqa, in which even the opening for the eyes is screened with mesh. Violators of the female dress code were beaten on the streets by Taliban fighters. In a sermon last Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, Syed Ghiasuddin, the acting education minister in the new theocracy, explained that a woman is like ""a rose--you water it and keep it at home for yourself to look at and smell. It is not supposed to be taken out of the house to be smelled.''

The establishment of a severely fundamentalist regime in Kabul set off alarm bells all over the region. Amnesty International accused the Taliban of conducting ""a reign of terror.'' The Iranians, of all people, described Afghanistan's new rulers as ""violent, narrow-minded reactionaries'' and complained that the Taliban was giving all Muslims a bad name. In Moscow, Russian leaders worried about the spread of fundamentalist influence into Muslim republics that used to belong to the Soviet Union. Aleksandr Lebed, Boris Yeltsin's national-security chief, warned that if Taliban forces reached the frontiers of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, ""they will wipe away the Russian border posts and see the road to the north set free.'' One firebrand mullah echoed the warning at a mosque in Kabul. ""We will take Kazakstan, then Uzbeki- stan and then,'' he roared, ""we will take Moscow!''

So far, most of the fears seemed to be exaggerated. The new government was harsh and its fighters highhanded, but no reign of terror had yet developed; many people were apprehensive, but not terrorized. Some of them, particularly men, flouted the new rules with impunity. The Taliban pleased almost everyone by bringing peace to a capital that had seen nearly constant strife since the Soviet intervention in 1979. ""The situation is agreeable,'' said Jawaid, a 19-year-old English-language student. ""Now people are safe, they can buy food, and the markets are overflowing. And prices are going down. Last week a loaf of bread was 1,000 afghanis [about 7 cents]. Now it is only 500.''

At a news conference last week, Shir Mohammad Stanekzai, a spokesman for the new government's Foreign Ministry, insisted that the regime was not cruel to women. ""We are not against women's education,'' he said. ""However, for the time being, the situation is difficult. Schools have been run on Russian lines and have to be changed.'' Until that is done, female students will stay home. Stanekzai said women doctors and nurses had been given permission to go back to their jobs (though few, if any, found a welcome there). The spokesman said the Taliban controlled about 75 percent of Afghanistan. ""It is not that we have conquered these areas by force,'' he said. ""The local people joined us. That is why we moved so fast.''

The Taliban swept all the way to Kabul in little more than two years since the movement was founded in northwestern Pakistan. The name Taliban means ""students of religion'' in Pushtu, the language spoken by Pathan tribesmen. Most of the fighters are simple country boys whose families lived in the conservative south and east of Afghanistan until they were pushed across the border by the Soviet invasion. Many of the fighters don't even speak Dari, the language of most Kabul residents. It is widely believed that Pakistan financed and armed the Taliban (the Pakistanis admit only to providing ""moral support''). The Taliban raised money itself by engaging in the heroin trade, and recently it has acted against Pakistani interests, kidnapping Pakistani officials when government security forces confiscated a cache of Stinger antiaircraft missiles held by the guerrillas. Once they crossed back into Afghanistan, Taliban forces were stunningly successful, rolling through province after province and disarming rival factions of Islamic mujahedin. Their success attracted recruits from Afghan seminaries and from other armies--people who were fed up with the eternal fighting among Afghan factions after the end of the long, U.S.-backed crusade against the Soviet invaders.

The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is a 32-year-old, one-eyed former guerrilla who keeps a low profile. He does not serve on the ruling Shura, and so far he has remained at his headquarters in Kandahar. His rivals are on the run. The former government and many of its supporters fled from Kabul two weeks ago. The last Soviet-backed ruler, Najibullah, was tortured and killed by the Taliban; early last week his body was taken down from the traffic tower in Kabul where it had dangled on display. The military chief of the old government, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was holed up in the heavily fortified Panjshir Valley near Kabul. Another warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, was dug in at Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, defending the strategic Salang Tunnel that runs through the Hindu Kush mountains. Last week Taliban troops were moving out of Kabul to challenge their remaining enemies in the field.

Life in the capital went on more or less serenely. Despite the order of compulsory attendance at religious services, the streets outside Kabul's great Blue Mosque were crowded with men last Friday, especially at the open-air foreign-exchange market on the banks of a nearby canal. No religious police appeared, and no effort was made to enforce the new regulation. Tobacco stores also did brisk business outside the mosque, in the face of an edict banning the sale of cigarettes ""because Muslims don't have the need for narcotics.''

Women faced a harder fate. Relief agencies estimate there are as many as 50,000 war widows in Kabul, many of them the sole support of their children. Working was nearly impossible for such women. United Nations relief officials tried to persuade the new government to allow 1,200 widows to remain employed in a self-help program, making quilts. The government agreed, provided that the United Nations transported the women to work and arranged for each of them to be accompanied by a male relative, an unworkable requirement. ""How can we live like this?'' one woman asked a NEWSWEEK reporter, who interviewed her on the street, turning his back on her to avoid trouble. She said her husband was listed as missing in action, while her brother had lost a leg in the war. ""How can we live without working?'' she asked. ""But we are too frightened to do anything about it.'' Then, spotting a man with a beard approaching in the distance, she hurried away.

The Taliban fighters are country bumpkins, and it still isn't clear whether they can change the big city more than it changes them. ""This is not Islam that they're imposing,'' says a woman intellectual in Kabul, who plans to abandon her possessions and flee with her family. ""It's Pathan tribal culture, backward and primitive.'' A high-ranking official who has served several Afghan regimes agrees that the Taliban need polish. ""They want to return to the old ways,'' he says, ""and they will take some time to learn. Hopefully they will realize that they have to be part of the modern world.'' Of course, the modern world is exactly what the Taliban want nothing to do with. The movement will have to win a huge battle of wills if it is to impose its vision on Afghanistan--a country that never caves in to its conquerors.