Sat, 12 Feb 2000

'Little Moscow' a big headache for Taleban

By Scott McDonald

KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters): "Little Moscow" has for centuries been a difficult region for Afghan leaders to tame and is now proving troublesome for the ruling Taleban movement.

Khost, about 300 km (180 miles) south of Kabul, has a history of unrest going back to fighting the British in the 19th century.

It was also the scene of battles when the mujahideen, or holy warriors, were fighting the communist government based in Kabul.

Not all of the area's feisty tribes were on the same side though, and the city was nicknamed "Little Moscow" because many of the country's former Marxist leaders came from the region.

And since the Taleban took over the area peacefully about five years ago, there have been several skirmishes over seemingly small issues.

Those differences were at the forefront again when Afghanistan's ruling Taleban sacked the Khost governor in January but denied that local unrest was the reason.

The Taleban said the dismissal of Sayed Abdullah was routine, although it came after reports emerged from Khost that tribal elders had issued an ultimatum to the Taleban to return land they said was taken illegally or they would launch a jihad, or holy war.

The Taleban and local leaders denied reports -- carried in Pakistani newspapers and repeated by businessmen traveling from Khost to Kabul -- that the sacking was carried out after a list of demands had been given to the Taleban.

"This is the first time after the emergence of the Taleban movement in 1994 that the entire administration of a province has been changed due to pressure from the local population," The News newspaper reported.

There have been no reports before of local leaders protesting against the Taleban, who control about 90 percent of the country.

The Taleban responded to the reports by staging a rally of more than 2,000 people at the central mosque in Khost city for several foreign journalists to hear local and national leaders say there were no disagreements.

They also pulled together 40 tribal leaders who sat cross- legged and grim-faced at a news conference.

"There are no differences between the southern provinces, especially Khost, and the Taleban," said Tahir Khan, a leader of the powerful Sabarai tribe.

"Of course, the people have needs for new schools and streets, and we have told the new governor that," he said.

Last year, a dispute over a game in which people knock eggs together to see who has the strongest egg led to the killing of several residents and a Taleban official after the Taleban said the game was un-Islamic.

The Taleban collect and decide how tax revenue is spent but, unlike other parts of Afghanistan, local tribes in Khost enjoy autonomy over cultural and social issues.

Two months ago, residents said another dispute arose when the tribes decided that the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan began a day earlier than the start date adopted by the Taleban.

That caused a confrontation between the tribes and the Taleban over when the festival of Idul Fitri, marking the end of Ramadhan, began.

But the tribes in the area and the Taleban see eye-to-eye on many things.

The Taleban have been heavily criticized for their treatment of women, but those strict measures which limit education and job opportunities for women and force them to wear the all-enveloping burqa veil have been in place in Khost for generations.

The Taleban wanted so much to refute the reports of unrest that they sent top official Amir Khan Muttaqi to Khost from Kabul to speak at the mosque. Muttaqi said the reports were created by people who wanted to break up Afghanistan.

"The first thing they want to do is divide the Taleban, and then also create differences between the tribes and the Taleban," he said.

The atmosphere at the mosque was low-key. When one man got up to chant Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest), no one joined in.

But even though the tribes are ethnic Pashtuns, as are the Taleban, there has been a traditional distrust among the Pashtuns in the east of the country of Pashtuns from the south.

The former governor is from Kandahar, the southern spiritual capital of the Taleban, who took control of Khost peacefully about five years ago, two years before they swept to power in Kabul.

Khost is also the site of the 1998 U.S. missile attack on suspected training camps belonging to Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, who is accused by Washington of plotting the earlier bombings of two American embassies in Africa.

The Taleban were welcomed in many areas as they swept to power because they clamped down hard on crime and created a stable environment after years of war.

A local merchant in Khost said residents were unhappy with how the government was spending money, but added they were not against the Taleban.

"We want better roads. Is this a road?" he asked, pointing at the pot-holed dirt road in front of his stall.