In Afghanistan in 1996 the Taliban inherited a profoundly damaged country; and five years later, the tasks of reconstruction and healing were more urgent, even before the US bombing began. The Taliban government’s budget for the last year of their regime amounted to $82 million—and the meagerness of this sum for a country geographically bigger than France only tells part of the story. More than half of the income was expected to come from the semi-extortionate toll taxes imposed by their Mujahideen predecessors and continued by the Taliban; and more than half of those revenues were swallowed by the contingency fund to support the wars against the Tajiks in northern Afghanistan, formerly headed by Ahmed Shah Massoud, and against the Shiite Hazaras in the central highlands. The outlay for development was only $343,000, while the ministry that looked after the madrasas, religious schools, received $14 million, which in turn was five times more than the allocation for the Ministry of Health.
In a country seething with endemic disease, and with the second-highest infant mortality rate in the world, these priorities look nothing but skewed. The outlay for the powerful Ministry of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—which punished those whose beards were not the prescribed eight centimeters long, and those who did not observe prayers and fasts, and worked hard to ensure that male minds remained free of the sinful thoughts incited by the presence of unveiled women—was three times as much as that for development. For Mullah Omar and his advisers from the rural clergy, it was enough to be pious and virtuous, and a healthy Islamic society would be created by itself. And the punishment for those who strayed from virtue was draconian: adulterers were stoned to death, women were known to have the tips of their thumbs cut off for wearing nail polish. Not surprisingly, such cloud-cuckoo-land ideas—partly the result of their limited madrasa educations—and their brutal consequences made the Taliban increasingly unpopular among even the Pashtuns in the countryside who, oppressed by the Mujahideen, had initially welcomed them as liberators.
In the derelict Pashtun village I visited east of Kabul last spring, five months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in an area heavily bombed and mined by the Soviet military, people talked, as they did elsewhere, of the irrelevance—indeed the nonexistence—of the Taliban government and the good deeds of the white men from the foreign NGOs and the UN, who were active all through the last two decades of war, supplying seeds, food, and health care, and who—like the aid workers arrested for allegedly preaching Christianity—worked in constant danger of being kidnapped and beaten up by the Taliban.
There were three Afghans sitting on the floor of the bare, low-roofed room, all of them in their late forties, variously disabled during the anti-Communist jihad, and prematurely aged, even the dim light from the lantern seeming harsh on …