by S. Amjad Hussain
KABUL, Afghanistan - For the Muslim fundamentalist members of the Taliban, history, philosophy, and science are not subjects worth discussing. But curiously, America is.
Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister, a burly young man in his 30s named Abdur Raman Zahid, is typical.
"The West does not understand our ways. I do not believe the West would give us aid even if we start doing things their way. We do not think aid should be linked to humiliating conditions," he said.
Like every member of the Taliban I met, he was humble, polite, truthful - and absolutely self-righteous.
"We need American assistance," he admitted candidly, but in the next breath added, "We cannot accept the unfair conditions that America has attached for such assistance."
He is perplexed that America hasn't given the Taliban credit for bringing peace to the nation - and for officially ending the cultivation of poppies that have long been used to make heroin. Though reports conflict as to how effective the ban has been, the fact is the Taliban has declared poppy cultivation contrary to Islamic law.
Earlier this month, the U.N. Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention said the ban on opium growing imposed by the Taliban last year means that the entire world production of opium will decline an estimated 60 percent this year.
The philosophical canyon separating America and Afghanistan is immense - so much so it is difficult to imagine it being bridged any time soon. No matter how poor their nation is, the Taliban sincerely believes that by adhering to the basic values of Islam - as they interpret them - they can overcome any hardship. And they think they have been charged by Allah with the task of establishing a just Islamic society, and they are grateful for this enormous opportunity.
When I asked Mr. Zahid about Osama bin Laden, he dug in his heels. "Osama bin Laden is our guest, and we are honor-bound to give him refuge. His services to Afghanistan during the jihad [holy war] against the Soviet Union cannot be forgotten."
But what of his terrorist activities since? "We have asked the U.S. time and again to share with us the evidence against him, but they have refused. We have offered to put him on trial in Afghanistan, but that is not acceptable to the U.S. We cannot hand him over to the U.S. because of mere allegations against him.''
However, according to sources, General Moinuddin Haider, the Pakistani interior minister, presented the evidence to Mullah Omar, head of state, in Kandahar early this year, again to no avail. In a recent Washington Times interview, Pakistani military leader Pervez Musharraf said the evidence against Bin Laden is convincing.
Washington has shown some of its evidence to Pakistan, which acts as a go-between, because American does not have diplomatic relations with Afghanistan.
It is hard to imagine a country more politically isolated than Afghanistan today. Only Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan recognize their government. Of these, only Pakistan is seen as friendly, which has cost Pakistan in the world community.
Ironically, it often seems a one-way alliance; the Taliban has snubbed Pakistan on issues from destruction of the Buddha statues to treatment of Muslim minorities.
Yet what Afghanistan's neighbors most fear is that Taliban-style fundamentalism will spread to their nations. Already, the basic fabric of Pakistani society is being undermined by a pervasive drug and gun culture and an unending spread of sectarian violence - all of which are widely attributed to the turmoil in Afghanistan.
And just as is the case in Afghanistan, a widespread and growing sympathy is evident for the Taliban, not only among the Pakistani religious parties, but also the masses. There are even Taliban sympathizers among the top brass of Pakistan's army.
But there is a much larger game afoot as well - what veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid calls "The New Great Game." The game is about oil.
Turkmenistan has large gas and oil reserves, which need a short route through Afghanistan and Pakistan to reach the Arabian Sea. For years, a pipeline project has been begun and then abandoned, over and over. Currently, the war in the north of Afghanistan makes heavy investment in the project too risky.
What does the future hold? As of now, despite all their difficulties, the Taliban remains in full control. The opposition Northern Alliance, despite heavy backing by the United States, Russia, and the West, seems to have no chance of dislodging the Taliban.
That doesn't mean that no change is likely, but when and if change does come, it will have to come from moderates within the ranks of the Taliban's mullahs.
What is clear is that Afghanistan, a nation with a long and tortured history, seems likely to suffer still.
[Surgeon-writer S. Amjad Hussain lives in Toledo, Ohio where he writes a
bi-weekly column for the Op-Ed pages of The Blade.]