11 September 2001>News Stories>Taliban Plead for Mercy to the Miserable in a Land of Nothing

Taliban Plead for Mercy to the Miserable in a Land of Nothing
Barry Bearak . NYTimes. 13 September

The Taliban begged America on Wednesday not to attack a people who "have suffered so much." Afghan children in the parched ruins south of Kabul.

KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 12
If there are Americans clamoring to bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, they ought to know that this nation does not have so far to go. This is a post-apocalyptic place of felled cities, parched land and downtrodden people.

The fragility of this country was part of the message the Taliban government conveyed in a plea for restraint issued late tonight. It said in part, "We appeal to the United States not to put Afghanistan into more misery because our people have suffered so much."

Whatever Afghanistan's current cataclysm, its next one seems to require little time to overtake it. Wars fought by sundry protagonists have gone on now for 22 consecutive years, a remorseless drought for 4. Since 1996, most of the nation has been ruled by Taliban mullahs whose vision of the world's purest Islamic state has at least as much to do with controlling social behavior as vouchsafing social welfare.

The accused terrorist Osama bin Laden has found a home here, angering much of the world. In 1998, America fired a volley of more than 70 cruise missiles at guerrilla training camps reportedly operated by the Saudi multimillionaire. Now, there seems to be the prospect of another barrage, with Afghan hospitality to the same man as the cause.

As fear of an American attack mounted, the Taliban's senior spokesman in Kandahar, Abdul Hai Mutmain, called the few foreign reporters here to issue the statement, which in part defended Mr. bin Laden:

"These days, Osama bin Laden's name has become very popular and to an extent it has become a symbol. These days, even to the common people, Osama bin Laden's name is associated with all controversial acts. Osama bin Laden does not have such capabilities. We still hope sanity prevails in the United States. We are confident that if a fair investigation is carried out by American authorities, the Taliban will not be found guilty of involvement in such cowardly acts."

The statement also said, "Killing our leaders will not help our people any. There is no factory in Afghanistan that is worth the price of a single missile fired at us. It will simply increase the mistrust between the people in the region and the United States."

Whatever else there is to say about this entreaty, one part that is indisputably true is that this land-locked, ruggedly beautiful nation is in absolute misery.

Here in Kabul, the capital, roaming clusters of widows beg in the streets, their palms seemingly frozen in a supplicant pose. Withered men pull overloaded carts, their labor less costly than the price of a donkey.

Children play in vast ruins, their limbs sometimes wrenched away by remnant land mines. The national life expectancy, according to the central statistics office, has fallen to 42 for males and 40 for females.

The prolonged drought has sent nearly a million Afghans about 5 percent of the population on a desperate flight from hunger. Some have gone to other Afghan cities, others across the border. More than one million are "at risk of starvation," according to the United Nations.

Famine is the catastrophe Afghans are used to hearing about. Few yet know of the threat of an American reprisal. The Taliban long ago banned television, and the lack of electricity keeps most people from listening to radio.

The nation's 100 or so foreign aid workers suffer no such telecommunications handicaps, however, and today many of them began to flee their adopted home, fearing either the havoc of American bombs or the wrath of subsequent Afghan outrage.

Around noon, a special United Nations flight evacuated the first of the expatriates. The remaining foreigners are expected to leave on Thursday, as will three, and perhaps all four, of the American parents here to observe the trial of their children, among eight foreign aid workers accused by the Taliban of preaching Christianity.

As foreigners left, the Taliban took unusual precautions: they began searching every vehicle entering government compounds. Visitors were carefully frisked.

But however much the Taliban hierarchy was beginning to fret, streets and bazaars were a picture of normality. Word has spread slowly about the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. And even when everyday Afghans heard the news, there were no accompanying video images to sear the horror into their memories. Personal conversations only carried the dull stimuli of abstract words: hijacked planes and collapsed buildings.

Khair Khana, a man selling fertilizer in a market, knew just a bit about the attack. He thought a plane had crashed into the White House. And he considered the perpetrators, whoever they are, to be "enemies of God," though he also felt "Americans should look into their hearts and minds about why someone would kill themselves and others" in such a way.

He had not thought much about an American retaliation against Afghanistan. When he did consider it, standing in a ramshackle collection of stalls, he shrugged and said: "Americans are powerful and can do anything they like without us stopping them."

Nearby, a tailor, Abdul Malik, saw God's justice in America's pain because, as he understands it, the United States has armed the Afghan resistance to fight against the Taliban. "So they at least now know how it feels in their own country," he said.

As for Mr. bin Laden, the tailor considered judgment of him to be God's affair. "If Osama is Islam's enemy, he should be gotten rid of," he said. "But if he is a good Muslim and wants Islam to prosper and if America wants him dead then we hope he destroys America."

The common people of Afghanistan are often circumspect with their opinions. As one man said today: "Nobody here talks wholeheartedly any more; it can be dangerous."

The Taliban are credited with improving safety. They disarmed the population, they put an end to banditry. But the security has come at a steep price.

Women have been forced into head-to-toe gowns known as burqas and evicted from schools and the workplace. Men are obligated to wear long beards or face jail. Banned are musical instruments, chessboards, playing cards, nail polish and neckties. Cheers at soccer matches are restricted to "Allah-u-akbar,"or God is great. Freedom of speech has bowed to religious totalitarianism.

Various Taliban police forces patrol the streets. Today, in a derelict building that is used as a precinct office, one 25-year-old constable sat on the floor beneath a single dangling light bulb. His name was Muhammad Anwar. He had heard something about the attack in America but he had no idea how many were killed or what cities were involved. Indeed, it seemed unlikely that he had ever heard of New York.

"Attacks like these are not a good thing because Muslims live all over the world and Muslims may have been killed," Mr. Anwar said hesitantly. By his reckoning, Americans were enemies of Afghanistan, as were Jews and Christians. He thought about this a bit more and retracted it partially. "There must have been all kinds of people in the building, not just bad Jews but good Jews, not just bad Christians but good ones."

He remembered something he had learned in his madrassa, or religious school. "It is un-Islamic to kill innocent people," he said.