The Return of the Taliban: Liberated Women? the Chief Justice Wants to Ban Women from Driving. That's Not the Only Way in Which the Reality in Afghanistan Falls Short of US Claims

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Afghans are about to get their first weather forecast after an eight-year interruption. The Taliban ban on weathermen was the most ludicrous of many strange edicts from the regime that outlawed white shoes, lipstick and the flying of kites.


Mullah Omar's insistence that only God can predict the future meant there was no forecast to warn the Ariana pilot that his plane from Kandahar was flying straight into a storm. He crashed into a mountain, killing all 51 people on board; nor were there forecasts for farmers planting precious seeds at the onset of a drought.

"Ah, the joys of American liberation," said an old Afghan friend, as he told me about the return of meteorology. In fact, while the un-banning of Afghanistan's very own Michael Fish serves as a reminder of the strictures of life under the Taliban, it also highlights something that Washington would prefer went unnoticed. For more than two years, a semi-literate, one-eyed mullah who used to entertain himself by holding a driving wheel and making "vroom vroom" noises has been outwitting the world's most powerful army.

With nothing but bombs and shootings coming daily out of Iraq, the Bush administration--desperately needing a success story before the November elections--has suddenly rediscovered Afghanistan. American troop numbers have been stepped up to roughly 13,000, and in recent weeks there has been a rash of pronouncements about the imminent capture of Osama Bin Laden, as well as a flurry of US officials from Donald Rumsfeld on down, passing through Kabul and making self-congratulatory statements. The US secretary of defence declared that the Taliban had "gone", describing Afghanistan as "a model for freedom and moderation in the Muslim world".


But the "other war", as it is known, refuses to play by the book. Rumsfeld's declarations coincided with the killing of five Afghan aid workers in Sarobi, just 30 miles outside the capital, by two men who stopped their car, ordered the aid workers to stand in line, then shot them one by one. And nobody could fail to notice the heavily armed American body guards flanking the man at Rumsfeld's side, Hamid Karzai, the US-backed president. Paid for by the US State Department, the bodyguards are hired from DynCorp, an American conglomerate that offers private security services: no Afghans can be trusted to protect their leader.

"It's as if the Americans are living on another planet," complained a European diplomat in Kabul. "The pronouncements they are making about this place bear no relation to what is actually happening."

The reality is that two years after the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom, not only do both Bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain at large, but the Taliban have been making an astonishing comeback. Since last summer, attacks in the south and east have become daily occurrences, forcing the United Nations to suspend operations in more than half the country's provinces. For the first time in 25 years of war in Afghanistan, many attacks are being targeted at aid workers--13 were killed in two weeks last month, while in the capital, British, German and Canadian peacekeepers have all been victims.

Despite the growing lawlessness, the Bush administration is insisting that the Afghan presidential elections go ahead in June as scheduled, even though all the other major players--the UN, most European and Nato countries, NGOs and half the Afghan cabinet--have pleaded for a delay. Nobody knows how elections can proceed when a third of the country is a war zone and less than 10 per cent of the estimated 10.5 million voters have registered. But Washington is desperate to declare Afghanistan a democracy and for Karzai to win in order to vindicate its support.

A Karzai victory is by no means assured, however. His lack of a domestic base was illustrated when a senior Afghan diplomat recently met the Queen, who complimented him on his "elegant president". …