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Drought, devastation do not dim Afghan pride

By Nic Robertson
CNN Correspondent

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

Kabul streets reflect the daily struggles of life.  

In this story:

Man-made and natural disasters

A growing gap


HERAT, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Cast an eye across the dusty book collection in the Kabul Intercontinental hotel book shop and you'll see numerous volumes on the last 20 years of conflict -- conflict that even now continues to ravage the country.

Look a little harder and you might find an aging 1970s tourist guide, whose glossy images of women and clean-shaven men enjoying traditional pastimes beam out at you from fresh swept streets.

CNN's Nic Robertson reports the Taliban appear to have been successful in their efforts to curtail the production of opium poppies

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Their world is gone. The 1980s Soviet invasion, infighting among the Mujahadin Islamic fighters in the early 1990s, and the Taliban interpretation of Islam have changed the country to a degree that would challenge even the hardiest of snapshot-taking tourists to match those fading guidebook photos.

It's a challenge hardly likely to be met. Few outsiders these days venture here, evidenced by the still air in the hotel foyer thickened by lack of movement.

If tourists did come, they would find a country of immense beauty staggering under the yoke of a medieval existence. Grinding poverty is a way of life amid a crumbling infrastructure that struggles to light even a handful of towns.

Man-made and natural disasters

Since their rise to power in the mid-1990s, the Taliban have been bringing stability and peace to a people traumatized by the factional infighting and brutality of competing Mujahadin regional commanders, each with his own political affiliation.

The same commanders who managed to amalgamate their aggression to drive out the Soviet occupation in 1989 squabbled in the post-Communist vacuum. Their flailing opened the door to the Taliban. Now the religious leaders have only to defeat the pre-Taliban Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Massoud, who leads the opposition, in the Northern Himalayan foothills to take control of the last 5 percent of the country.

Ariana, the Taliban-controlled national airline, flies only a limited schedule under U.N. sanctions.  

Industrialization has never reached this outpost of humanity. The land and the people that are today's Afghanistan were too hard for colonizing nations to conquer. Except for the estimated 10 million land mines and acres of rural and urban destruction, the country is unspoiled.

But even that is changing. Man, having done his worst, is being surpassed by a more divine calamity: the worst drought in 30 years.

Among victims of the drought is one of the country's beauties that managed to circumnavigate the man-made carnage for years. The camel trains of the migrating Kuchi tribe, whose nomadic wanderings brought a vibrant trail of silken color to the mountains and deserts, are disappearing. Their flocks and herds are dead or sold as their seasonal watering holes dry up after three years without rain.

Like half a million of other Afghans, the tribe is now tethered to the rapidly expanding umbilical of aid being pumped into the country just to combat the drought.

Children in Kabul  

Cities are the focal point where hopes of free food ride highest. More than 100 families arrive each day to seek shelter in Herat in northwest Afghanistan, according to relief agencies. Some 12 million people have been affected by the drought, according to the World Food Program -- more than half the country's population. A half-million people have been displaced in recent months, and 3 million to 4 million people are already not getting enough food, the agency said.

On top of the drought, ongoing fighting has forced about 100,000 people to flee their homes, most crossing the border into Pakistan as refugees.

A growing gap

Nothing prepared the Taliban leadership for humanitarian disaster on this scale. Their preoccupation is, as it has been, to win the war and ensure their brand of Islam is followed.

Osama bin Laden attends his son's wedding recently in Afghanistan.  

Edicts by their leader, Mullah Omar, are the effective letter of the law. Treating journalists with respect is one of the latest. Among the most well-known to outsiders: Women should cover themselves in the all-shrouding burka garment and refrain from work except in the health sector; men should grow their beards and pray five times a day. Such demands often bring harsh punishment to those who lapse, and have brought the Taliban strong international criticism from the likes of the United Nations and human rights organizations.

With each edict the gulf of understanding between Taliban and West grows, multiplied many times by the presence of Osama bin Laden. The West demands that Afghanistan turn over the suspected international terrorist. But under the tradition of the Taliban's tribal culture, brought with them from their native region in southeastern Afghanistan, bin Laden is treated as a guest. The Taliban say they will not hand him over without proof of his involvement in terrorist actions.

Afghanistan's currency, the Afghani, is struggling to maintain value.  

Newly imposed United Nations sanctions to oust bin Laden from his Afghan haven look likely to exacerbate the poverty brought on by war and drought, U.N. humanitarian officials say. The local currency has been reeling, down as of this week some 20 percent since December to trade at 80,000 Afghanis to one U.S. dollar, bringing further misery to the hard-hit Afghans.

Now, close the 1970s travel guide and walk out into the hotel lobby. The stifling emptiness slowly yields as porters, receptionists, waiters and kitchen staff, emerging as if from suspended animation, smile and shake your hand in greeting.

Overwhelming in their pleasure to see you, they show no trace of all their troubles save in the fading uniforms and growing beards. Their world may have disappeared, but underneath the piling pressures, pride and dignity blaze out stronger today than any glossy tourist image.

RELATED STORIES: AsiaNow -- Central Asia

Afghanistan Information Center
CIA World Factbook
  • Afghanistan
  • Pakistan
Taliban Islamic Movement
United Nations
World Food Program
U.S. State Department

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