The heart of Afghanistan's Taleban was the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. It was charged with enforcing a strict Islamic code of behavior and severely punishing violators. With the collapse of the Taleban, the ministry disappeared as well. But in the post-Taleban government it has been revived, though it is said in a much gentler version.
Men with wispy beards or none at all waited nervously outside the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Under the Taleban, they needed special permission to go out on the street until their beards reached the required length.
Lacking that permission, they were liable to be beaten by roaming patrols that also flailed women not totally covered. The merest glimpse of an ankle brought swift retribution.
On a visit to Kabul, this reporter listened to a phone conversation between a top ministry official and a mullah who had opened an ice cream store. Men and women were dutifully separated in the store, but there was a problem: women had to expose their faces to eat the ice cream. A real dilemma, which was argued for several minutes until the official relented. There were occasional exceptions.
Closed when the Taleban fled, the famed ministry has now reopened, although Afghan President Hamid Karzai calls it the Department of Islamic Teaching. Its new director, Mohammad Wazir Razi Kabuli, says the president is deferring to western sensibilities. Everyone knows what this revived ministry really is.
He insists it will be a kinder, gentler version. No one will be beaten for infractions, only admonished. Women's rights will be respected, he said, and their education encouraged. Within limits.
Cosmetics are acceptable at home, though not in public, he told the Associated Press. What happens if a woman is caught outside with makeup? That remains to be seen, said Mr. Kabuli, who has a mere 300 enforcers compared to the Taleban's 32,000.
Sam Zia-Zarifi, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the revived ministry is a troubling sign. "What it indicates is that a large part of the people the United States has allied itself with, former Northern Alliance figures, are quite fundamentalist themselves," he said. "They are not as extreme as the Taleban perhaps, but by any other criteria they are actually quite Islamist themselves. They are closer to the Iranians and the more radical sects we see around the world."
Mr. Zia-Zarifi, who has recently returned from Afghanistan, says the fundamentalists within the government feel safe enough now to promote Islamism without fear of a U.S. rebuke.
Freed from their homes, Afghan women can now go to school and to work, says Mr. Zia-Zarifi, but much more freedom is needed. "It is one of the key litmus tests for the Afghan government and for international support of it," he said. "In a country that is desperate for management and for educated people, of course, these women are going to have to have a role. But we are not sure how much the people of the Northern Alliance and the groups that now control the government will accept that."
Mr. Zia-Zarifi says progress can be judged by the activity of the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. The less it has to do, the better.