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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taliban Rule Makes Enemies of Friends

KALAKAN, Northern Afghanistan -- The old man struck his head in anguish and wiped his face with the end of his turban. "My wife is dead, my son is dead, my four daughters are dead," he said. "Only I am left, no one else."


Behind him, the wails of grieving women arose in a shattered courtyard where a bomb dropped by Taliban aircraft had just killed 11 women and children from two families. Neighbors were still digging desperately in the rubble for another missing child.


Haji Nur Mohammed pulled back the quilts from four beds to reveal the broken, dust-smeared bodies of his and his neighbor's children.


"This is not Islam to bomb poor people," he said. "These Talibans are not Moslems."


Kalakan was counting its dead last week after a Taliban plane had dropped several bombs on this mud-walled Afghan village some 20 kilometers north of Kabul. As a jet roared overhead and dropped two more bombs, throwing up plumes of dust, three women with bundles on their heads and several children hurried through the medieval alleyways, heading to the north for safety.


Kalakan lies in the midst of the lush plain of Shomali, between Kabul and the strategic Salang pass across the Hindu Kush. The entire plain was briefly in Taliban hands this month until local people turned against the mostly good reputation in Afghanistan. When they first took over the ancient southern city of Kandahar last year, now their home base, they were welcomed because they disarmed the quarreling Mujaheddin factions who had controlled the city, swept away the numerous road checkpoints which were strangling trade, and enforced order.


Nearly every Taliban advance since has been made with minimal fighting because local people, exhausted by 17 years of warfare, have welcomed them as potential peacemakers. The people of the Shomali plain apparently thought likewise, but soon tired of the arrogance of these mostly young, Kalashnikov-toting enthusiasts who were convinced that God was on their side.


"When the Taliban arrived, many people wanted them to come," said Haji Ghulam Nabi, a maker of wedding confectionery, sitting on a carpet in front of his shop at the bazaar in Charikar, one of Shomali's main towns. "For the first few days we had very good relations with them, but then they began demanding weapons and taking our young boys and relatives."


On the edge of the Bagram air base north of Kabul, locals tell the same story.


"We thought they were good people," said Faruk, the owner of a fuel shop. "We thought there would be peace, that prices would go down and that we would live well. Then they began to take goods from our shops without paying. They beat our old men and kidnapped little boys. Even the Soviets didn't beat old men."


The Taliban have bombed villages in Shomali almost daily since they were pushed back towards Kabul in mid-October. For the past week, they have been fighting to retain control of strategic hills and two passes guarding Kabul's northern approaches as ousted government forces, led by former defense minister Ahmad Shah Massoud, have struggled to dislodge them.


The Taliban entered Kabul just over a month ago with relatively little fighting. Flushed with victory, Taliban forces then rushed north toward the Salang pass and took over the Shomali-plain towns of Charikar and Jabal-us-Saraj, as well as the key military air base of Bagram.


Local people put up little resistance, almost welcoming these religious scholars, whose movement arose two years ago in Islamic schools in the ethnically Pathan territories along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.


But then, in Charikar's main square, the Taliban announced that strict Islamic Sharia law would be enforced. That the hands of thieves would be amputated and adulterers stoned to death. That women would no longer be allowed to work outside the house. That music was henceforth forbidden. And that every man must grow a beard within a month.


Everywhere in intensely conservative Afghanistan, few women work outside the house anyway, and virtually every man has a beard. But local people objected to being bossed about by people from the south who did not even speak their language. The Taliban are mostly Pathans, who speak Pushtu, while north of Kabul, most people are Persian-speaking Tajiks or Uzbeks.


Furthermore, northern Afghans deride the Taliban as "foreigners" because of the backing they have received from Pakistan.


The Taliban also tried to disarm the local people as they do everywhere to prevent feuding, however this did not go down well. In addition, the people of Shomali accuse the Taliban of taking young men from the streets as hostages.


After two weeks, the people of Jabal-us-Saraj and Charikar had had enough. They banded together and drove the Taliban out, with help from Massoud's fighters who then retook control of Bagram and most of the Shomali plain. Fighting for the southern part of Shomali continues.


After retreating from Kabul to his mountain stronghold in the Panjshir valley, Massoud forged an alliance with the Uzbek warlord of northern Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. While initially reluctant to involve his disciplined troops directly in fighting the Taliban, Dostum has every reason to fear their advance.


A former Communist with close ties to neighboring Uzbekistan, Dostum rules his northern territory, centered on the busy city of Mazar-I-Sharif, with a relatively liberal hand. No one in Mazar wants the imposition of the Taliban's religious puritanism.


While Massoud has reoccupied parts of Shomali, Dostam has sent his troops south to act as a solid second line of defense. In addition, his forces have provided artillery and other support when necessary for Massoud. Over the weekend, Dostum's planes dropped bombs on Kabul -- ostensibly aimed only at Kabul airport though at least one fell in a residential area.


The Taliban's failure to hold Shomali suggests they may have reached the limit of their northward march, calming fears in Central Asia and Russia that they were headed for the borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.


The Taliban are most secure in southern Afghanistan where the fact that they are Pathans and have brought local peace ensures their popularity. In Kabul, a relatively cosmopolitan city with a mixed population of several ethnic groups, including both Persian and Pushtu speakers, they are on much less secure ground.


And everywhere north of Kabul, they are now hated.