KERAT, Afghanistan -- When the crowds were summoned to the main stadium in Herat earlier this month, they went as Romans did to the Coliseum, to watch the grim ritual of death.
First, the crowd sat through a harangue by a Muslim cleric from the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist force that emerged from the chaos of civil war in Afghanistan to take control of more than half the country in the last 18 months.
Then Taliban officials turned their attention to an Afghan man who was said to have been convicted by a Taliban court of a triple murder. After his hands and feet were tied, and a noose put around his neck, he was hoisted slowly by a crane.
Afghans who saw the execution said the man died slowly, jerking spasmodically before finally going limp.
From the crowd, there were shouts of "Allah be praised!" Outside the stadium, slumped against a wall and wailing, were several women, relatives of the condemned man, covered head to foot in the manner the Taliban prescribes.
The new Afghanistan is a world where murderers and "enemies" of the Taliban are hanged from cranes and the barrels of tank cannon, where the execution of others found guilty of killing consists of being shot in the back with rifles by their victims' fathers, and where convicted thieves are subjected to surgical amputations of their hands and arms.
After the anarchy of recent years, many Afghans have welcomed the harsh punishments meted out by the Taliban to some violent criminals.
According to reports published recently in Pakistan, there was an execution carried out in the eastern Afghanistan city of Khost a few days ago.
A large crowd that had gathered on the grounds of a local hotel cheered when a retired Pakistani soldier named Faizullah Khattak fired a burst from a Kalashnikov rifle into the back of an Afghan named Mohammed Ullah who was convicted by an Islamic court of killing Khattak's son, a taxi driver who had crossed into Afghanistan with a passenger last year.
In another execution, the condemned man, an Afghan in his early 20s, was said to have begged forgiveness for killing his cousin, only to be cut down by two bursts of automatic rifle fire by his uncle.
Not since 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led an Islamic revolution in Iran, which borders on Afghanistan only 75 miles west of here, has this region been wrenched so abruptly toward the past. Nor, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the same year, has there been anything to match the Taliban's potential threat of completing a 2,000-mile chain of animosity toward the West -- through Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.
The other macabre twist is that in Afghanistan this hostile force is a mutation of American cold war politics. For the Taliban emerged from the chaos of a war between American proxy warriors and Soviet troops, and is still supported by the arms network of American allies created to challenge Soviet power.
Only a year ago, the rise of the Taliban was greeted with widespread enthusiasm in areas of the country that they now control. Their sudden emergence as a political and military force, from a base in the southern city of Kandahar, was propelled by their pledge to "cleanse" Afghanistan of the killing, rape and pillage that became endemic under the cover of the civil war that ensued after Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1989.
But instead of the relief they promised, the Taliban have plunged millions of Afghans into a new chapter of brutality that echoes the harshness of Afghanistan's distant past.
It is a world where there has been a systematic drive to push women back into purdah, the traditional Muslim arrangement that prevents them from seeing any men outside their immediate families. In Herat, like other places the Taliban rule, this practice has meant a loss of rights most Afghan women had enjoyed for decades.
Under Taliban decrees, women have been forbidden to work outside their homes, except in hospitals and clinics, and then only if they work exclusively with women and girls. Girls have been expelled from schools and colleges, and told that, for now at least, education is for boys only. Girls who were only months from finishing high school, or young women graduating from college, have been told their career dreams are over.
Women wishing to go shopping in the bazaars, or to move anywhere outside their homes, must be accompanied by male kinfolk and wear the traditional burqa, a head-to-toe shroud with a netted slot over the eyes.
The regime imposed by the Taliban, across a 600-mile stretch of territory from Herat in the west to the Pakistan border in the east, is one of such hostility to "modern" influences that the secretive Muslim clerics who lead the movement have ordered public "hangings" of television sets, video-cassette players and stereo systems. In Herat, Taliban fighters have gone from house to house pulling down satellite dishes and antennas, and confiscating books judged to be tainted by Western influence.
As in the Iran of the ayatollahs, the Taliban's rule joins a harsh interpretation of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, with modern forms of enforcement. Herat bristles with Taliban "warriors" in long-tailed turbans carrying Kalashnikov rifles. Some watch suspiciously from rooftops, while others thunder through the narrow, crowded streets of the bazaars in Japanese pickup trucks that were bought for them by sympathetic Arab countries, Saudi Arabia among them.
Along with their puritanical beliefs, the Taliban, since winning control of Herat in September, have loosed a wave of banditry. In the privacy of their mud-walled courtyards, Herat's frightened townsfolk tell of Taliban men bursting in at night, stealing money and gold and cars, and press-ganging men, some as young as 15, for service in Taliban ranks. So far, the townsfolk say, there has been no known case of the Taliban punishing any intruder.
"For 18 years, we lived in hope that things would get better," said an elderly Afghan scholar, one of a minority of professional people who did not flee Herat in the exodus that followed the Soviet invasion.
In a home redolent of a richer past -- a glassed-in orangery looking onto a garden flanked by apricot trees -- the scholar added: "We are ruled now by men who offer us nothing but the Koran, even though many of them cannot read; who call themselves Muslims, and know nothing of the true greatness of our faith. There are no words for such people. We are in despair."
For some Afghans, the Taliban represent the end-product of a war that has worn away what little progress this intensely conservative country made before a Communist coup in 1978 led to the Soviet invasion, a decade of guerrilla conflict, and now, seven years after the Soviet forces left, a seemingly endless civil war. With its cities, towns and villages in rubble, and little left to destroy, these Afghans say, the country has finally reached, in the ascendancy of the Taliban, something close to a primal state.
Apart from their social and religious rigors, the Taliban, who mainly belong to the ethnic Pashtun group that accounts for nearly half the population of Afghanistan, are obtrusive outsiders in Herat. By their customs and by their language, Pashto, as well as by their appearance, they are set apart from the majority in Herat, where the population of 200,000 is mostly drawn from the ethnic Tajik minority, with its own language, Dari, which is a dialect of Persian.
The differences are deeply resented in Herat, a city that was once a major center for the arts and learning, with close ties to the Persian dynasties that were a fountainhead of culture and military skill. In the disdain many people in Herat show for the Taliban there is an element of the superiority people here have always felt towards those outside the Persian cultural tradition, particularly Pashto-speakers from Kandahar. In the bazaars of Herat, Taliban are frequently referred to as "donkey boys," a term commonly used to describe people who are considered crude and uncivilized.
But long before the Taliban seized control here, ethnic and linguistic strains had been sharpened by the war. For 250 years, since Afghanistan came together as a nation, Afghans have had a fierce sense of national pride that has overridden regional attachments. But since the war against the Soviet forces began in 1979, empowering local warlords who made strongholds of every plain and valley, the country has disintegrated into a mosaic of ethnic fiefs.
An Uzbek group, led by Abdul-Rashid Doestam a former leader of a Communist militia, controls much of the north around Mazar-i-Sharif. A predominantly Tajik group led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, a former Muslim guerrilla leader, controls the northeast and the capital, Kabul. A group of ethnic Hazaras, Shiite Muslims with strong links to Iran, dominate in the mountains northwest of Kabul. Ethnic Pashtun groups prevail almost everywhere else.
A woman on crutches, cloaked head to toe as the Taliban demand, makes her way though Herat. (photo by John Giannini)
Of the Pashtun groups, the most powerful is the Taliban. Virtually unknown until September 1994, they gained power first in Kandahar, historically a center of Islamic conservatism. The name Taliban was taken from the Arabic word for students, a reference to the fact that the core group of Taliban came together at Muslim religious schools known as madrassahs in Kandahar and, before that, during the Soviet occupation, at similar institutions across the border in Pakistan.
Reinforced by defectors from the Communist government's armed forces, and backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan -- American allies -- the Taliban thrived on popular disillusionment with the war. After Kandahar, they drove rapidly east and west, meeting little resistance. Mostly, rival armed groups either handed over their weapons, or joined the Taliban. Within six months of taking Kandahar, the Taliban were at the gates of Kabul. Within a year, they had taken Herat.
The drive on Kabul went into reverse when it met with a stiff rebuff from Massoud. But since September, Taliban forces have once again threatened the capital, maintaining a tight siege in a loose alliance with Doestam, whose forces are pressing on Kabul from the north. To the east of the capital a Muslim guerrilla group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun leader who was a favored recipient of American money and arms during the war against the Russians, has recovered from his own defeat by the Taliban a year ago to participate in the siege.
Massoud has predicted a major Taliban offensive, probably about Feb. 20, after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends, and has implied that he is planning his own pre-emptive strike against the fundamentalists. Many in Afghanistan say that the outcome of the next round of fighting between the two groups could be the decisive event in the civil war.
If the Taliban take the capital -- unlikely, but not impossible, in the view of Western diplomats in Islamabad -- the prospect would be for a Taliban government much like the administrations they have installed in 12 of Afghanistan's 31 provinces. In Kandahar, Herat and other places they have taken power, the Taliban rule through a shura, or council, composed of Muslim clerics known as mullahs. Decisions are reached in secret, and announced as decrees. Resistance is punishable by death.
For the moment, Taliban leaders in Herat appear keen to accentuate their reasonableness, at least to outsiders. A Western reporter who spent five days here, and an accompanying photographer, moved freely about the city and took photographs at will, something said to be almost impossible for foreigners in Kandahar. "We see no country in the world as our enemy, even if they want to consider us as their enemies," said Noor Mohammed Akhund, a 32-year-old mullah who is the third-ranking Taliban leader in Herat.
One reason for the less stringent attitude toward Westerners in Herat could be the growing hostility toward the Taliban in Iran, which has joined India and Russia in an airlift of arms, ammunition and other supplies to the Massoud forces in Kabul. The Taliban's brand of militant Islam, despite its superficial similarities with Iran, has done nothing to alleviate estrangements that grow from the 1,300-year-old schism in the Muslim world between Shiites, the majority in Iran, and Sunnis, who make up the overwhelming majority of the Afghan population.
But politics, more than religion, appear to underpin the Taliban's distrust of Iran. From the outset, the Taliban have been strongly backed by Pakistan, a fact that has prompted Iranian religious leaders to denounce the Taliban as part of an American plot to encircle Iran. Recent military preparations by the Taliban suggest that Taliban leaders fear an attempt by the Kabul government, with Iran's backing, to try to recapture Herat.
The Massoud ally who ruled here until September, Ismail Khan, who fled to the eastern Iranian city of Meshed with thousands of supporters, is said to have regained control of several strategic towns south and west of Herat, perhaps in preparation for a possible strike against Herat.
That the Taliban have reason to fear challenges seems clear. Herat residents, anxious to demonstrate the city's capacity to resist outsiders, take visitors on a journey into hills north of the city, where a shrine has been built at the site of one of the worst atrocities of the war against the Soviet occupation.
On a saddle in the hills overlooking Herat, glass canopies have been erected over pits where Afghan Communists massacred hundreds of Herat residents after an anti-Communist uprising in September 1979.
In local lore, the uprising has joined the challenges Herat offered to past conquerors, including Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. But if Taliban fighters visiting the shrine absorbed the message, they did not show it. As they peered into the pits where the victims were buried, taking in the bullet-fractured skulls and bones, the rotting clothing and shoes, and the scattered Afghan currency, they seemed unimpressed. "So? They died," one Taliban warrior said.
Some of the Taliban troops seemed to be as much victims of the situation as perpetrators. In a wrecked school that was rebuilt last year by the United Nations, a group of Taliban warriors huddled together in the cold, the bare concrete floor around them littered with vegetable peels. Among the men, all in their early 20s, there was not one who had ever been to school. "'I've been a fighter ever since I started to grow a beard," said Sher Ali, aged 20. "Since 14, I have been fighting. It's all I have ever known."
Although he has never read the Koran, Ali said he believed that the Taliban, by following its teachings, would be the salvation of Afghanistan. "Everything we do will be according to the Holy Koran," he said. "No negative actions will be allowed. Whatever Allah has commanded, as far as possible, we will do." As for those who defied the Koran, Ali said, tracing a finger first across his neck, then across his forearm, "We will cut!"
A short distance away, another group, this time of women and babies, sat shivering in another bare concrete room, the malnutrition ward of the main Herat hospital. In a city where one in every five babies dies before reaching its first birthday, professional care in the ward relied until recently on a French doctor assigned to Herat by a Paris-based medical charity, Medicins du Monde. But in January, the doctor, after a shoving match with armed Taliban, was ordered to leave the ward under Taliban strictures on the separation of men and women.
The doctor has kept busy working among refugees in a tented camp on the city's outskirts. But the memory of his banishment rankles the Afghan women staff members, many of them barely trained, who are left to cope with the patients. One woman with a small baby had her own concise opinion on the Taliban.
"I'd like to kill them," she said.