A quarter of a century after the overthrow of the monarchy started Afghanistan on a downward spiral into fratricide and destruction, the Islamic hard-liners of the Taliban movement appear to be on the brink of reunifying the country and imposing their vision of a purist Islamic society.
In a monthlong offensive, Taliban forces have overwhelmed the so-called northern alliance, which defied the Islamic militants for two years by holding on to much of the territory north of the Himalayan peaks of the Hindi kush.With a rush of victories in the past week, the Taliban now hold at least three-quarters of the country and seem poised to surround the last remnants of the alliance forces in two remaining redoubts, in the Bamiyan region of the central mountains and in the Panjshir valley of the northeast.
The Taliban thus appear to be on the verge of doing something that neither the Soviet invaders in the 1980s nor the U.S.-backed guerrillas who ousted them were able to do: bring peace to a weary, demoralized and underfed country of between 15 million and 20 million people.
While Taliban forces continue to push forward against the scattered and retreating alliance forces, which surrendered 14 northern cities and towns in recent days with only token resistance, the historic significance of the moment was proclaimed by the Taliban's representative at the United Nations in New York, Noorullah Zadran.
"After 25 years of struggle, it seems to us that we have finally come to the end of the struggle," Zadran said in a television interview Wednesday with the BBC.
If so, the outcome is full of tragic irony for a nation that seemed set on a diametrically opposite course in 1973, when King Zahir Shah, the last representative of the Durrani dynasty that had ruled the country for 250 years, was ousted in a palace coup mounted by his cousin, Mo-ham-med Daoud.
As president, Mohammed Daoud proclaimed himself a modernizer but lasted barely five years before he was killed in April 1978 in a coup staged by the Soviet-backed Communist Party.
The Communists' program aimed at uprooting the pervasive influence of Muslim clerics, whose support of the Durranis had consigned Afghanistan to a social and economic backwardness that marked the country out in a nation already beginning by the late 1979s to catch up with the Western world. Within hours of seizing the Arg Palace in Kabul, the Afghan capital, the Communists vowed to emancipate Afghan women, achieve universal literacy and move the country beyond its bullock-cart economy.
But now, with a Taliban victory, history may record that the Communists achieved exactly the opposite. The bid to force compliance with the Communist program, especially in the arch-conservative world of the Afghan village, triggered a civil war that drew in Soviet forces in December 1979. In turn, this prompted President Jimmy Carter and later President Ronald Reagan to commit the United States to backing the Afghan mujahedin, the self-styled Muslim holy warriors who drove out the Soviets in February 1989.