A city of spiritual beauty broods in the rubble War on terrorism


By Robert Fisk

15 November 2001

Kandahar looked much as it did when the Taliban turned

Alexander the Great's timeworn city into their

political capital seven years ago: ruined, mined and

deserted, most of its inhabitants already in the

refugee middens of Pakistan.

The Taliban paid around 1.04m in 1996 to take

Kandahar without firing a shot (those were the days

when you could buy cities as well as warlords with

hard cash), and most of the money came from Saudi

Arabia, along with taxes on roads and drugs.

The spiritual role in the Taliban life of the city

declared the first capital of Afghanistan in 1747, in

the reign of Ahmed Shah Durani, was consecrated on 4

April, 1996 when the Pushtu Kandaharis entered the

marble-walled da Kherqa Sherif Ziarat, the Shrine of

the Cloak of the Prophet, and brought forth the very

robe worn by Mohamed. They took it to the rooftop from

which the Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar was

speaking, and laid it across his shoulders. Wrapping

it around him in the high wind, Omar waited as the

crowd proclaimed him Amir al-Momineen, Leader of all

Pious Muslims. In just such a way had the Caliph Omar

proclaimed himself leader of all Muslims in Arabia

after the Prophet's death. Mullah Omar had used this

moment to declare a holy war against the regime of

President Burhan-uddin Rabbani and his mujahedin

government, the very forces which were last night at

the gates of Kandahar.

It was ever a place of righteousness and courage. I

visited the city in 1980, only days after the first

Soviet troops had occupied Kandahar province. Afghan

communists patrolled the city by night, Soviet

soldiers by day. Yet they vanished each evening when

the people of Kandahar emerged onto their rooftops to

scream Allahu Akbar, God is great, to the skies. It

was a cry of defiance. I spent more than two hours

listening to this long declaration-lament which echoed

across streets and parks and gardens in an unusual

lyrical pattern, one section of the city taking up the

call from another.

In the months and years that followed the Taliban

takeover, Kandahar was beloved of the Taliban and

loathed by the people of Kabul whose pulverised and

sepulchral streets no longer merited the status of a

decision- making city. To Kandahar came diplomats and

statesmen and bootleggers, arms-dealers and

drug-runners. Oil company chiefs from Argentina and,

yes, from the United States turned up to pay court to

Mullah Omar's odd, bearded government. Pakistani

embassy staff from Kabul and senior generals in the

Pakistani Interservices Intelligence arrived in

Kandahar. So did executives of the American oil

company Unocal. So did Russian diplomats and senior

Saudi intelligence officers.

Under the Taliban's rule, the outward manifestations

of crime and pillage finished, often at the end of a

rope, while those most ferocious of Islamic

punishments for which the Taliban were to become

notorious were first practised in Kandahar. The city

famous for its gardens and mosques thus became

synonymous with the amputation of feet and hands, the

urban wearing of the burqa and the prohibition of

television and women's education.

That Mullah Omar, untutored and of peasant offspring,

should have worn the cloak of the Prophet was an

affront to many Afghans and his declaration to be

Leader of all Pious Muslims was unprecedented. When

King Dost Mohamed Khan adopted the title in 1834, he

was fighting foreigners in what is today Pakistan.

Mullah Omar declared war against his own Afghan

people. Under his rule, Kandahar prospered. His modest

offices and home lay alongside the palace of Osama bin

Laden ? all destroyed in US air and special forces

raids over the past month ? but the beauty of Kandahar

had been torn out during the Soviet occupation when

the mujahedin attacked Russian troops in the city.

The Afghan fighters mined the gardens and irrigation

ditches and the Soviets used their Hind helicopters to

blast away large sections of the old city along with

its civilian inhabitants. Nor was Kandahar the haven

of peace and legitimacy that the Taliban would later

claim. Within a year of their takeover, there were gun

battles in surrounding villages as Afghan Pashtuns

objected to conscription. The Taliban later executed

18 army deserters in Kandahar jail. The city's Ulema,

the religious leaders who surrounded Mullah Omar, one

of whom taught him Islamic jurisprudence, became the

effective theological power in a land whose

internationally recognised capital was only once

visited by the man who claimed to be the Prophet's


Arms supplies were regularly flown from Saudi Arabia

and Pakistan into Kandahar's newly-equipped airport

whose telephone and wireless communications systems

had been provided by Islamabad. This same airport was

last night reported to be in the hands of Northern


But many Muslims will be more anxious to know if the

Cloak of the Prophet remains safe inside its museum of

marble and gilded archways. Even more of the city's

Pashtun population will be living in fear of the

revenge of the Northern Alliance. It would be pleasant

to believe that the Alliance's gunmen were in the

gardens around Kandahar last night, mulling over Tony

Blair's calls for restraint. But, somehow, that does

not seem likely. 


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