Afghan Chief Steals Islamist Thunder Rise of Rival Taliban Pushes Prime Minister to Impose Islamic Law

Article excerpt

Afghanistan's new prime minister had a disastrous run the first time he held the post four years ago. Two years into the job he tried to oust opponents in his coalition government, leaving 45,000 people dead and reducing most of the capital to rubble.

Now Kabul's citizens are watching him anxiously, hoping he will do better this time.

But six weeks after taking up his post, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar announced that Islamic holy law (sharia) would be strictly observed and that he would support countries such as Libya and Sudan. But this has done little to win over a country torn apart by 17 years of fighting.

Credibility may be his problem. In Afghan politics, factions regularly split and form new alliances. Statesmanship, Afghans often say, consists in changing sides at the right time.

This could be said of Mr. Hekmatyar, who once again heads the government he previously denounced as "un-Islamic." The new administration, sworn in June 26, is supposedly an interim government that is to organize elections within six to 12 months.

But Hekmatyar's first measures have alarmed Kabul residents and members of the coalition who think he should be more concerned with providing food, water, and electricity.

Soon after assuming power, Hekmatyar closed Kabul's cinemas and banned light music from state radio and television. Besides ordering women to wear Islamic dress, he made compulsory the saying of prayers five times a day.

"The prime minister should be aware that he is part of a coalition government before committing himself to zealotry," one senior foreign ministry official says. "He is trying to live in a utopia - an ideal Islamic world."

The prime minister's main concern, the official says is to be the authoritative voice of Islam, an image he has cultivated over the past 20 years.

Foreign diplomats say Hekmatyar, by bringing a "proper" interpretation of sharia, aims to undercut Taliban, a group of religious students who have taken up arms against the government since 1994 and have quickly taken control of much of this Central Asian nation.

The fundamentalist Taliban, which has imposed sharia in the parts of the country that it controls, has besieged Kabul for the past 10 months. Almost daily rocket and artillery attacks have left hundreds dead and thousands wounded.

Taliban registered its approval of the new prime minister by marking his swearing-in ceremony with the heaviest artillery attack on Kabul this year. While Hekmatyar took his oath in the dilapidated Inter-Continental Hotel, outside 61 people were killed by rockets and shells. …