In the chilly corridors of power, Taliban officials huddled around space heaters are as defiant as ever about the cause of Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi fugitive whose alleged terrorist attacks and continued sanctuary in Afghanistan have led to new U.N. economic sanctions against the impoverished nation.
"The United States wants us to tie Osama bin Laden's hands and send him to them as a gift," said Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the new foreign minister of the Taliban regime. "We are ready to talk on all issues. We have offered to have him tried here, or to have other Muslim countries judge him. But how can we give them a human being as a gift, especially if his crime has not been proven?"
Muttawakil said today in an interview that he expects only minor long-term impact from the U.N. sanctions, which have grounded all foreign flights by Afghanistan's only airline and frozen Taliban assets abroad since they took effect Nov. 14. He declared that Allah will protect the Afghan people from hardship at foreign hands.
"Every few years the United States looks for someone new to hate. Before it was Libya and Iraq, now it is Afghanistan's turn," he said. "But if they try to harm us, they will gain nothing. Almighty God always accepts the prayers of the innocent and defends those who are trampled upon."
But on the frozen streets of the capital, where families shiver in bread lines or spend the days collecting firewood to burn for warmth, the traditional Afghan welcome for bin Laden, a once-revered Muslim guest, seems to be wearing thin.
"It is our custom to be hospitable to guests, but we would also like Osama to leave because of all the innocent people," said Mohammad Taj, 45, a laborer waiting in line for his daily bread ration. "The people with power will support themselves, and the sanctions will only hurt the poor. America should have more mercy, but the mullahs must solve this problem with the United Nations, too."
Many Afghan people blame the United States and its allies for imposing new economic hardships on them. Last week buildings occupied by U.N. employees in six Afghan cities were stoned or burned by mobs, even though they provide the bulk of food and medical aid to the country.
"We are a weak country now, and America is trying to keep us that way," said Abdul Razaq, 30, a father of five who earns $4 per month as a night watchman. "This is the time they should be helping us, but instead they are aiming these cruel actions against us because of one man."
Bin Laden, an Islamic extremist who has reportedly maintained a base in Afghanistan for several years, is believed by U.S. officials in Washington to have planned and financed the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998, in which 224 people died. Later that month, the United States launched a cruise missile attack against Afghan training camps allegedly under his control.
Since then, Taliban officials have offered to prosecute or monitor bin Laden, but they have refused all U.S. demands to turn him over for trial in the United States. In retaliation, Washington banned all U.S. trade and investment with Afghanistan, and in October the U.N. Security Council threatened further sanctions if the regime did not comply. When it did not, the sanctions took effect.
Although the sanctions do not prohibit food imports, medical relief or trade between Afghanistan and its customary partners in nearby Muslim countries, the sanctions have come at a time of multiple new hardships here. A drought caused a poor wheat harvest this fall, Pakistan's new military government has cracked down on unregulated trade and winter has struck this war-scarred, largely heatless capital with unexpected ferocity.
In addition, the new sanctions have made it more complicated for Afghans to receive cash by mail from relatives abroad, a major source of income in a country where most people do not have jobs, and doctors, for example, earn less than $5 per month. Since all flights into the country are barred, people must travel to Pakistan to pick up mailed money.
Some people in Kabul accused the United States this week of being hypocritical in its pursuit of bin Laden, an important figure in financing the Afghan resistance against occupying Soviet troops during the 1980s.
The United States heavily backed that resistance, but after the Taliban militia seized Kabul in 1996 and imposed harsh Islamic laws, Washington turned against the regime. Now, efforts to capture bin Laden have depressed relations further.
"For America, bin Laden was an angel when he was in the holy war against the Soviets, but now they say he is a spy and a terrorist," Mohammad Mirwaiz, a student at Kabul University, charged. "Many people who did atrocities here during the war are allowed to live in the United States. Why cannot we ask for them to be turned over to us?"
Muttawakil, the foreign minister, asserted that the United States "is known as the world's policeman, but now those police are killing our people with missiles and hunger. . . . I don't know if Osama bin Laden is a hero or not. But now the United States has made him into a big hero."