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Afghan cities empty as war fears grow

By Kamal Hyder in Afghanistan

TALIBAN-CONTROLLED EASTERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- Residents of eastern Afghanistan who can afford to leave are closing their shops and businesses and fleeing for the countryside in anticipation of a U.S.-led military attack.

With tensions rising, most of the population of the city of Jalalabad, thought to be high on the list of possible targets, has already fled.

Only the very poor, the elderly and the sick remain -- the people who usually bear the brunt of war.

In other towns and cities, many shops have closed and those that remain open are selling their goods at marked-down prices.

The feeling is that war is imminent.

Families with the resources to move have left town or are planning to exit.

Those who cannot afford to leave have resorted in many cases to begging on the streets in the hope of collecting enough money to hire transportation to the countryside.


However, some who have left their homes have been forced to turn back by the lack of water supplies across the country caused by an ongoing severe drought.

Another option for those trying to flee is to attempt to cross over the closed border with Pakistan.

The United Nations is in the process of preparing camps for the hundreds of thousands of refugees expected to arrive if the U.S. retaliates for the terror attacks on New York and Washington.

For the moment food in markets remains plentiful, but prices are far out of the reach of the poor.

The ruling Taliban in Afghanistan have shut down World Food Program operations in areas of the country they control. But it's believed up to two months worth of supplies may have been distributed.

Religious police vanish

In another sign that life is far from normal, the Taliban religious police, once plentiful, are nowhere to be seen.

They have the power to arrest people for not following the Taliban's strict Islamic code and can cite men for infractions like not keeping their beards long enough, or for women not being properly veiled.

It is believed that many Taliban members have joined the exodus and also sought refuge in the countryside.

In Washington, Bush administration officials have been careful to say that they cannot "impose" a new government on the Afghan people.

However, they have been working with a variety of what they call "Afghan nationalists" -- ethnic, religious and political groups in the country and within the Afghan diaspora -- in the hope that they will band together and form a new coalition government themselves.

Hearts and minds

"The question is, have the conditions changed enough so that Afghans themselves can effect a realignment," one official said. "Maybe it is time for the Afghan people to rise up."

Administration officials have told CNN the U.S. wants to use the former Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah as a "rallying force" to bring these groups together.

The U.S. has even used a message broadcast by Voice of America radio from the exiled Afghan King calling on his former subjects to "rescue ourselves from this dangerous situation."

But there is division on the potential return of the king.

It is believed he would be accepted by the Afghan people if he is able to organize his own support base, but not if he is returned to the country by an outside army.

Even some among the king's supporters say that if he is to return he must win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, and not ride into Kabul on a tank.


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