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In Conquered Kabul

Kabul, Afghanistan

Do you like my jacket?” asked the man who got in the car. It was still barely seven o’clock in the morning on November 13. “I was fighting all night. I got it off a dead Arab. Look.” He was pointing at the Champion label. “If he was dead,” I asked, “then how come there isn’t any blood on it?” He paused before beginning to speak rapidly. “Because he wasn’t dead when I got it off him. He was speaking in his own language, I don’t know what he was saying, he was wounded, he was young, about twenty-four or twenty-five.” I asked, “Was he pleading for his life?” The man said, “I told you, I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I suppose he was.” I have seen this before. It is the time to get worried. Men high on war, crazed even—these situations of conquest can turn nasty quickly.

In the front of the car, the driver was moaning. “Is it safe? What happens if the Taliban shoot my car? Anyway I want more money, you didn’t tell me we were going this far!” I said, “Look, there are people walking on the road, just keep going.” Another car passed us. “Follow that car!” The driver slowed to check with soldiers by the side of road. “Go, go, go!” they shouted. We were now well past what had been the Taliban front line for the last three years. As we went past their trenches, we could see their blankets and tea-pots where they had left them when they fled. By now, we had two more soldiers in the back of the car. They were pretty quiet. They were returning to their unit at the front after having taken the body of a friend back to Charikar, the nearest Northern Alliance–held town, some twenty-five miles north of Kabul.

Then we found the last defenders of Taliban Kabul. They lay in the middle of the road just where they had been shot. There were five of them. The man with the new coat was jumping around, saying, “Look, two Pakistanis and three Arabs.” Their bodies hadn’t been badly damaged and since their corpses were fresh I caught myself looking at one and thinking, “Why don’t you just get up?”

We got back in the car and five miles farther on we hit the traffic jam. Hundreds of Northern Alliance troops, tanks, armor, the works were clustered, all waiting for orders. We were at the top of a pass called Khair Khana Kotal. Kabul was down the hill and right around the corner. We got out of the car and began to walk. “You can’t go any further,” shouted a Northern Alliance commander. So we milled around and wondered what would happen next. There seemed to be quite a few men also milling around at the bottom of the pass and some were now walking toward us up the hill. “Oh, he just came from Kabul,” said Sayed Ibrahim, my translator, as he chatted with a teenage boy on a bicycle. Then a yellow taxi drove up the hill, then another. Then more men, some now embracing the soldiers and friends they had not seen, maybe for years. “OK, let’s go,” I said. We grabbed our stuff and began walking down. Seeing us, the men walking up were laughing and smiling. “Welcome to Kabul City!” shouted one in English.

1.

Kabul, Day One. People were gathering in large crowds talking about the latest news. The Taliban had simply packed up and left. They got in their pickup trucks, some stopping to rob the men who change foreign currency, and then they were gone. All but a few of them. In Sharinow Park, we saw five bodies of men who didn’t get away. They were lying in a ditch. One had his identity photo stuffed in his mouth, one had a banknote sticking out of a nostril, and one had a banknote sitting inside his now half-empty, shattered skull. The crowd said that one of them had tried to climb a tree to escape. Exactly who killed the men and what the banknotes signified were uncertain. Since I had only been in the city an hour or two, I wasn’t yet sure how safe I was either. A mile away we saw the charred and twisted remains of four Arabs. Next to them were the charred and twisted remains of their truck. Some local people kicked and poked at their bodies, and told me that their car had been hit by a rocket fired by an American jet.

Most shops were shuttered and bolted. Looters were dragging furniture from buildings that may have been occupied by the Taliban. There were crowds outside police stations, curious to see their new occupants. They were Northern Alliance men in gray uniforms whom we had seen training up in the Panjshir Valley only a few weeks before. Cars with other armed men were driving around, but they weren’t in uniform. “This is turning nasty,” I thought. Now truckloads of soldiers were fanning out across the city. Within hours, they had moved into all of Kabul’s main buildings. They could be seen at all the city’s main intersections and began patrolling the streets. The looting stopped.

For weeks, the leaders of the Northern Alliance had said they would not send troops into the city if it fell. The US and its Western allies made it clear that they preferred that there be a political settlement before Alliance troops entered the city. In the days before they did so, an increasingly desperate-sounding Pakistani President Perrez Musharraf was saying that the Northern Alliance should not enter the city. But the Northern Alliance doesn’t care for Pakistan, regarding it as the main sponsor of the Taliban. The Alliance leaders said they had to send their troops in because the Taliban was leaving a power vacuum and law and order were in danger.

As we passed the bolted gates of the sacked US embassy, I thought it might be a good idea to call on the Pakistani embassy. Soon after Septem- ber 11 its diplomats had been recalled to Islamabad, but Pakistan remained the only country in the world to recognize the Taliban regime. The embassy guards invited us to climb in through a window into the guardhouse. Both the residence and the embassy had been sacked a few hours earlier. In the residence, the ambassador’s socks and books were strewn about on the floor. One of the books was The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk, which recounts the subterfuge and scheming of the British and Russians in the nineteenth century as they vied for control of this part of Central Asia during the heyday of their imperial ambitions. Scattered in the street outside the embassy were its papers and files. One caught my eye—a piece of paper listing gifts given to top Taliban officials by Pakistan on the Feast of Eid, at the end of Ramadan last year. Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, was given “eight meters cloth + four meters turban silk cloth, black.” I thought, “cheap,” considering that the promotion of the Taliban was a main plank of Pakistani foreign policy and now that policy, like the inside of the embassy, is wrecked.

Over at the ghostly buildings of Kabul Airport a man was taking down the Taliban flag. From the top of the tower, you could see the wing tips of the Taliban’s old MIG fighter jets. Between the tips, there was just a big black mark and a few chunks of metal where the American bombs had hit them. An Ariana Afghan Airlines plane also suffered the same fate. Not far away was Macroyan, a decaying Soviet-built housing development, of the type the Soviets cloned from Bucharest to, well, Kabul. In front of one of its blocks was a huge hole. According to the block manager, Ghulam Destegir, a six-year-old girl died when this American bomb went astray. She was one of perhaps hundreds of civilians—nobody knows the figures yet—who died during the bombing. But he showed no rancor, saying only, “It was a mistake. America is not our enemy and we are glad they have got rid of the Taliban because we were their hostages.” Everyone we saw seemed happy that the Taliban was gone. A small crowd was pressing against me, eager to talk. But my eye caught little Ruhina, aged nine. I asked her what she hoped for now. She said simply, “I want to go to school.”

On Day One, most barbers’ shops were locked, but outside the ones that were open, crowds of men were lining up for a shave or a trim. “This is the busiest day of my life,” said a barber named Parwana, as he clipped off yet another beard. The requirement that every man must have a beard and never trim it was enforced by the Taliban’s feared and loathed men from the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. On the way over to the ministry we stopped to view the control panel and a wheel of an American helicopter that had crashed or been shot down and was now on display under a kind of elevated traffic control box, at the Hotel Ariana. In 1996 it had been used as a gibbet for the body of Najibullah, the former Communist president of Afghanistan, and his brother.

At the ministry building the guards seemed eager to show us around. But all the doors were padlocked. I arrived at the same time as a man from a British tabloid. He kept saying, “Where did they torture people? Where did they beat them?” Apparently, they did neither in the ministry building. Again he was disappointed. We raced up the stairs and he said, “Where is the minister’s office?” He was disappointed yet again. The minister, like all the other Taliban leaders, issued decrees from Kandahar, 350 miles from Kabul, the birthplace and home of the Taliban. Orders were administered by the minister’s deputy, one Salim Haqqani. We got to his office, which was also padlocked. An Italian photographer whipped out a penknife and began fiddling about with the lock. He couldn’t open it and the frustrated tabloid reporter kicked the door in. Yet more disappointment. The prim little office had little of interest in it. On the deputy minister’s desk was a small Taliban flag (which the tabloid man took with him), along with an Islamic calendar, a green pencil sharpener, and a Scotch tape dispenser. The banality of evil, I suppose.

2.

It was getting dark, and there were soldiers everywhere. They were stopping cars and checking them. At a traffic circle, some of them sat on top of sacks of grain and flour. “What’s all that?” I asked. “Oh, we stopped the looters,” they said.

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