by S. Amjad Hussain
KABUL, Afghanistan - It takes up to eight hours of rough driving on a pot-holed and crater-strewn road to reach Kabul from Pakistan's fabled Khyber Pass. Along the way, the devastation is visible not only from the condition of the road - once used by the Soviet forces to move tanks and heavy equipment - but also from the abandoned villages, destroyed irrigation channels, and rusting carcasses of Soviet tanks.
Once this was the approach to the most cosmopolitan city in Central Asia. Now it is a largely forbidden, sandy wasteland. Kabul, a place of fables and enchantment on the old Silk Road, is a mere ghost of its glorious past.
Little of it now conjures up the Arabian Nights. Parts of it resemble Dresden after the horrific firebombing of World War II. But even so, the Afghan capital is often a far better place to live than much of the starving countryside.
Afghanistan today is to western eyes one of the strangest countries in the world.
Devastated by wars, ruled by the shadowy Taliban, perhaps the world's harshest Islamic fundamentalist regime, this is a land that gives sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, who Washington regards as the world's most dangerous terrorist.
And it is a land where few Americans are welcome - and few enter.
Twenty years ago, the Texas-sized nation of 25 million people was among the last battlegrounds in the half-century long Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Following the Soviet invasion in 1978 and a long civil war, it fell at last under the harsh and mysterious rule of the Taliban.
Today, relations between Washington and Kabul are icy. The United States wants Afghanistan to give up bin Laden. The Taliban, just as adamantly, insists that because he is a guest and a fellow Muslim, they are honor-bound to give him refuge.
Additionally, they maintain that Washington has not shown them compelling evidence of Bin Laden's involvement in terrorist acts.
But the U.S. government maintains plenty of evidence links Bin Laden to numerous terrorist attacks, including the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August, 1998, which killed 225 people and wounded more than 4,000.
Enraged and frustrated at Afghanistan's refusal to take the evidence seriously, Washington struck Bin Laden's camps with cruise missiles Aug. 20, 1998, further enraging the Taliban.
When the Afghan leaders still refused to turn Bin Laden over, the United Nations imposed strict sanctions on Afghanistan in November, 1999. That noose was tightened in January, when the U.N. Security Council voted 13-0 to impose a complete arms embargo on the Taliban nation.
The measure, co-sponsored by the United States and Russia, froze Taliban assets abroad and tightened an embargo against flights from Afghanistan.
The embargo is designed to force the Taliban to close the "terrorist" training camps and to hand over Bin Laden. Predictably, the Taliban hasn't budged an inch. They and their head of state, the shy and reclusive Mullah Omar, listen to no one but their interpretation of the voice of Allah.
Earlier this year, the Taliban made headlines by demolishing ancient, giant statues of Buddha in the nation's northwest. Pleas to spare them fell on dogmatically deaf ears.
They responded the same way when the international community expressed outrage at the Taliban's recent decree requiring Afghan Hindus to wear distinctive patches on their clothing.
Today, Kabul is a shocking sight to one who hasn't seen it since the Soviet occupation. Ruins of crumbling buildings, twisted structures, and houses with gaping holes in the walls attest to fierce battles between rival Mujahideen groups.
Ironically, while attempting to destroy each other in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, the Mujahideen ended up destroying their own city.
Today, more than half of Kabul lies in ruin, abandoned. The seat of government technically is still there - but Mullah Omar refuses to live in the capital.
He continues to live in Kandahar, in the south, where he presides over a 10-member "consultative council," called the Supreme Shura. It is probably his abhorrence of the trappings of government and Kabul's cosmopolitan past that keep him there, not the larger city's devastation.
Despite the hardships, Afghanistan's capital and its 2.5 million people function rather well, especially compared with the rest of the ravaged country.
The main bazaars and markets are busy most of the time. There is plenty of wheat flour, cooking oil, and grains from Pakistan. Here and there, a few eating places remain; the aroma of roasted meat from sidewalk grills permeates the evening air.
Fresh vegetables and fruit come from the countryside and are plentiful. Cheap Pakistani and Chinese imported cloth, shoes, electric bulbs, kerosene lamps and other necessities of everyday life are easily available - to those few who can afford the price.
But it is a fundamentally medieval world - one that would be strange and unfamiliar to even natives who lived there a few short decades ago.
For thousands of years, nomads wandered with the seasons, moving from Pakistan to Afghanistan and back in an age-old rhythm celebrated in James Michener's novel The Caravan and the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.
When springtime flushes the desert grass
Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass
But the nomadic life that lasted for millennia has been destroyed. U.N. flags dot vast tracts of land on both sides of the road, warning of deadly mines below.
Afghanistan today is a place where adulterers are put behind a wall and then run over by a tank, and where other criminals are executed by firing squad - and their corpses hung from a crane for the population to view for days.
Kabul is a place of flickering electricity and eerie quiet, broken five times a day by the piercing call to prayer.
How did things come to be this way?
How did Afghanistan come to be the land of the Taliban? Are its rulers indeed fanatic zealots who have turned back the clock - or saviors who have brought Afghanistan out of the clutches of a bloody civil war?
Are there any prospects for better relations with America? And what does the future hold in store for this exotic and unhappy land?
Understanding today's Afghanistan would be impossible without knowing some of the forces that have shaped this hard-to-reach land, behind the mountains of the Hindu Kush. The ancient Greeks and Persians fought over this soil. The nomadic, Buddhist Kushans followed, leaving a deep imprint on the culture.
Islam and a string of Muslim dynasties arrived in the 10th century. Genghis Khan, the Central Asian Turks, the Moguls all held sway for a spell. As the empires retreated, kings from the various Afghan tribes maintained an uneasy hold on the country. The closest thing to normalcy this nation has known was in 1929.
The Afghan tribes jointly chose Nadir Khan king. He was a reformer who sought to bring Afghanistan out of its feudal past - and paid for it with his life. In the four years of his reign, Nadir Khan opened schools, started a legislature with two houses, and sent young Afghans - boys and girls - to study abroad.
Partly because of tribal rivalry, and partly because of opposition to his reforms, he was assassinated in 1933. But his death brought his son, Zahir Shah, to power - and began the longest period of peaceful reign modern Afghanistan has known.
Zahir Shah continued his father's policy of cautious reforms. Finally, in 1973, he was deposed by his cousin and prime minister, Sardar Daud Khan, and sent to Rome to live out his life in exile.
The coup that deposed King Zahir wasn't bloody - but virtually everything that followed was. Within six years, the former Soviet Union engineered three bloody coups and countercoups and set the stage for its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
For Moscow, Afghanistan was a nightmare that often is compared with the American experience in Vietnam. The Afghans do not take kindly to foreigners ruling their country.
Shortly after the Soviet invasion, a rag-tag army of freedom fighters, the Mujahideen, declared they would wage a jihad, or "holy war," against the invaders - and they were as good as their word. Thanks in part to financial and material help from the West, the guerrilla war was bloody and long.
Finally, after a decade of fighting and $5 billion in expenses, the Soviet Union gave up in February, 1989. Nobody knew it then, but that retreat signaled the beginning of the end for European communism. By the end of the year, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and all the former satellite nations had liberated themselves from the Soviets.
But the price Afghanistan had to pay was horrible. Poor to begin with, the nation was devastated. A million Afghans were dead; an additional six million were uprooted and forced to live in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan.
And victory in no way brought peace. The Mujahideen were united only so long as they faced the common foreign infidel. When the Soviets were gone, they took each other on for control of the country, and Afghanistan sank into anarchy.
The nation soon was split into many small fiefdoms, where rival warlords controlled the passage of goods and travelers through their scrap of territory.
The worst features of civil war and gangster culture prevailed. Trade in illicit drugs, kidnapping for ransom, and general lawlessness became the norm.
Kabul was devastated, as different factions mercilessly rained rockets and bombs on parts of the city.
Traders had to pay outrageous sums to move goods over short distances, which meant that much trade simply dried up. The Mujahideen and their warlords responded by further looting an already impoverished country by hauling off and selling every piece of public property they could - including telephone poles and wires.
Life for the common people became an essay in misery. Then, in the spring of 1994, when two girls were kidnapped and raped by a local Mujahid commander in the southern city of Kandahar, a young teacher and his students decided they'd had enough.
What they did next changed the course of Afghan history once again - and heralded the coming of the Taliban.
[Surgeon-writer S. Amjad Hussain lives in Toledo, Ohio where he writes a
bi-weekly column for the Op-Ed pages of The Blade.]