Fears in the last anti-Taleban area of Afghanistan
By Jack Redden
FAIZABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters): Classes of boys and girls sit side by side in schools in this remote northeastern corner of Afghanistan, a sight that has disappeared in the 95 percent of the country that is ruled by the Taleban movement.
Of all the fears expressed in this last enclave of organized opposition to the Taleban, the Islamic group's radical view of women's place in society -- such as the ban on their public education -- is the one most frequently heard.
"If the Taleban come the doors of the school will be closed and we will be at home," said Monira, a young woman teacher at a co-educational school in the old part of Faizabad, capital of impoverished Badakhshan province.
While in Taleban areas women have been largely confined to their homes -- and none can have visible jobs like public education -- the staff of Badakhshan schools are evenly split between men and women.
In the capital, 60 percent of teachers are women, Qudrattallah Dur Khany, head of education in the province, said proudly of the system he has been part of for decades.
The battle that could determine whether this continues is under way about 100 km (60 miles) to the west around the city of Taloqan, which was the capital of the anti-Taleban alliance until its capture in September forced officials to Faizabad.
"One month ago there was a lot of concern because there was warm weather, which is good for fighting," said Fawzia Koofi, a representative of the UN Children Fund who is from Faizabad and makes no secret of her concern about a Taleban victory.
But instead of the rapid Taleban advance on the last pocket of resistance that many expected, their forces have spent the past month on the defensive. Ahmad Shah Masood, the military brains keeping President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government alive, has been pushing back into captured territory in a campaign he maintains will lead to the retaking of Taloqan.
Despite Masood's genius for guerrilla warfare demonstrated against the Soviets in the 1980s, those who have seen both sides of the lines are not convinced he has the military strength needed to retake a city that the Taleban have been reinforcing for weeks.
The arrival of occasional Russian-made aircraft at the corrugated-metal runway built by the Soviet army -- when it was fighting Masood -- is a reminder that he now gets supplies from countries like Iran and Russia that oppose a Taleban victory.
But the numbers do not favor Masood. Neutral observers believe his forces are outnumbered five to one in the Taloqan area. While he has scoured the area for new troops, the Taleban have 95 percent of Afghanistan as a recruiting ground -- not counting the large number they raise among their fellow Pushtun tribesmen inside neighboring Pakistan.
Pakistan, despite official denials, is assumed to have poured in the arms that took the Taleban from an obscure militia of religious students to rulers of almost all Afghanistan in six years.
It remains the sole country in the world to staff an embassy in Kabul recognizing the Taleban, while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the only other countries to recognize the movement.
The military balance is clearly reflected in goals of the opposing sides.
The Taleban sense victory is within reach; they are issuing calls for the other side to surrender. Their opponents, still recognized as the government by almost all the world, appear to be hanging on in hope that something other than Masood's weapons can stave off the Taleban.
"It is the position of the (anti-Taleban) Islamic State of Afghanistan to approve any initiatives that bring peace to Afghanistan," Rabbani said at his Faizabad headquarters, taken over from the provincial governor after the loss of Taloqan.
"They have always announced this proposal in order to have a dialogue not only with the Taleban but also with the Pakistani authorities."
Rabbani does not expect the Taleban to take up the offer, instead calling for international pressure on Pakistan and the Taleban to force them into negotiations. Alternatively, he hopes for a rebellion inside Taleban-ruled territory.
In an interview with Reuters Television, what he did not predict was a military victory that would recapture all the territory his government has lost and put him back in the national capital, Kabul. Outside aid may keep Masood in the field, but any substantial advance is unlikely.
Faizabad, after the scare officials had a month ago when there was speculation they might head over the border into Tajikistan, is probably safe until next spring, when warm weather means full warfare can resume.
But for Faizabad and the rest of the anti-Taleban area -- chronically hungry even in the best of times -- it will be a hard winter. After 21 years of war, some residents inevitably do not share Rabbani's pledge to fight the Taleban indefinitely.
The Taleban have also helped their cause by avoiding the excesses of earlier conquests. Aid workers questioning civilians caught in the battle for Taloqan have not found evidence of the sort of massacres that spread fear in past years.
"If the Taleban wins it all, I think they will change," said an Afghan who has watched their rise in various parts of the country. "They won't be able to keep the same policies they had at the start."
That confidence is unlikely to be shared by the tens of thousands of Afghans who fled the September Taleban attack on Taloqan; many were already refugees forced from homes elsewhere by fighting in earlier years.
It will also find few believers among the women in schools. Pushtun Shuhna, headmistress of a school with boys and girls, is certain the Taleban would close it and the female students would have no future.
"In 95 percent of Afghanistan the girls are finished," she said. "They are only sitting in their homes."