Byline: Melinda Liu and Joshua Hammer
The road to Kabul is pocked by bomb craters and littered with the accumulated debris of two decades of war: burnt-out husks of Soviet tanks; rusting antiaircraft guns; a crushed truck that had swerved out of control when its Taliban passengers, trying to flee Kabul in a panic last week, plunged over a steep mountainside. It's all part of the scenery now. "Do you like this melody?" asks a young Pashtun truckdriver as he enjoys a scratchy cassette--music that had been outlawed under the Taliban. "Does it sound good?" Clearly he thinks it does: he asks the question over and over, reveling in the syrupy falsetto of a Pashtun love song as his dilapidated Land Cruiser bounces and shimmies toward the capital.
Inside Kabul some Afghan women have removed their burqas, and can freely feel the sun on their faces for the first time in years. In other "liberated" towns, children flew tattered kites, and men joyfully shaved their beards. On a field in Herat where the Taliban used to amputate hands and cut heads off, kids played soccer. And at the Takhar hospital in the northern city of Taloqan, a poster of Taliban rules and regulations had been ripped down and thrown into a closet. Doctors told stories of steel cables that Taliban officials kept at the hospital for whipping patients who "misbehaved." Even the sickest patients were forced to pray five times a day. One young boy was flown to Pakistan two weeks ago after he was shot in the leg by a Taliban soldier. His crime: "He cheered when he heard the Americans were bombing his country," says a hospital nurse.
Rarely in the course of warfare have events--and the conventional wisdom--changed so dramatically. But just as Taliban invincibility turned out to be a myth, so, too, may the notion that the beleaguered Afghans are free at last. Like the Pentagon and everyone else, U.S. and U.N. diplomats were surprised by the Taliban's rapid implosion, and efforts to cobble together a replacement government have lagged far behind the military offensive. The relentless bombing campaign, in fact, may have damaged diplomatic efforts even as it pummeled the Taliban. In particular, it emboldened the minority-dominated Northern Alliance to believe it could now impose its will on other Afghan parties, or at least negotiate from a position of strength. Last weekend U.N. negotiator Francesc Vendrell went to Kabul to persuade Northern Alliance president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who returned in triumph on Saturday, to attend a peace …