- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan The Taliban built hundreds of gun positions around its southern stronghold of Kandahar in the days before yesterday's air strikes, possibly preparing to make its last stand in the city.
Foreign journalists are banned from the Taliban-held parts of Afghanistan but an Afghan doctor who spent two days in Kandahar described the intense activity and military buildup.
Anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers were installed behind sandbags along the road from the border and new security measures prevented people from leaving the city, the second largest in Afghanistan.
The Taliban seemed to be concentrating its defenses around the city. Western intelligence officers believe most of the Taliban leadership has already left the capital, Kabul.
Taliban officials demanded money for the war effort from businessmen in Kandahar. Young men were rounded up and taken away from the mosques after Friday prayers.
Extra checkpoints were placed on all roads outside the city, preventing men of fighting age from leaving.
"They are conscripting all the men," said Ahmatullah, a 27-year-old oil trader who fled last week with his wife and two baby daughters. "Everyone is just waiting for war."
Crossing the Pakistan border to Kandahar is like traveling into the heart of darkness. Burned-out Soviet tanks from the last war litter the sides of the road across dusty plains where hundreds of black-turbaned Taliban soldiers are busy digging gun positions.
On the city's outskirts, the orchards of apple, peach and pomegranates are withered and deserted after three years of drought. The only things growing are poppies for heroin production.
Inside Kandahar, entered through a Taliban checkpoint, it first appears that there are no women, until a few appear, scuttling among the mud-walled houses, their faces and bodies hidden under their blue veils.
There are no signs of children. The Taliban closed all but the religious schools, and in the past three weeks all those who can have moved their wives and children away.
Anyone who does not answer calls to prayer is rounded up by the Bin Marouf, the enforcers of the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam. They use sticks and leather belts to drive men into the mosques.
Many of those who fled initially have returned, unable to get into Pakistan and facing starvation in the countryside.
The university, once a renowned center of learning, has closed, while the main hospital has only one doctor and nurse left.
Even prime terror suspect Osama bin Laden's followers have left after years of terrorizing the locals.
Anti-Taliban mujahideen claim to have many supporters in Kandahar but it is impossible to gauge the true feelings of the city's residents.
"I have friends who are Taliban customs officials who would leave if they could," said Ahmatullah, who uses only one name, "but at the moment no one dares speak."
In a small sign of rebellion, some young people have started underground clubs showing American films.
"People are starting to take risks because it's got to the stage where everything is banned," said Ahmatullah. "Our only entertainment is public executions.
"When we were children we spent weekends picnicking at al-Gandhar, among the orchards and streams, listening to music under the stars, eating barbecued lamb and pomegranates, the juice dripping down our faces. Now if you try to go outside the city, the Taliban ask where are you going and why.
"Sleeping has become our hobby as it's the only thing not banned."
Wali Jan, who as an important tribal leader has met Mullah Mohammed Omar several times, said: "I asked him what are people supposed to do for entertainment. 'Look at flowers,' he said."
In rain-starved Kandahar, however, even those have died.
There is little more joy in Kabul, which remained largely untouched during the Soviet occupation but was flattened during heavy fighting between factions in the 1990s.
Kabul's exodus began soon after the United States announced its "war on terrorism." When the expected U.S. bombings did not immediately materialize, however, many trickled back.
As in Kandahar, bin Laden's Arabs and their families, who were once a feared presence, have also disappeared.
Their two-story houses, behind high-gated walls in the affluent suburb of Wazir Akbar Khan, are locked and empty.
"Only poor people are left in the city," said a teacher. "There is no one who could lead an uprising and people are too tired and frightened to fight."

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