With the Northern Alliance

Khoja Bahaudin, northern Afghanistan

A few weeks ago President George W. Bush said something to the effect that he didn’t want to fire off $2 million missiles to hit $10 tents in Afghanistan. Well, I think he said that, but I can’t check, because now I am living in a $10 tent in northern Afghanistan. There is no electricity, no clean water, no paved roads, not much food, and it is only the aid agencies that are staving off famine here. In this part of opposition-controlled northern Afghanistan, close to the border with the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, it has barely rained for three years and choking dust swirls everywhere, entering every pore.

I arrived in the early hours of the morning after a five-day journey from London. On the banks of the Amu Darya, the Oxus River of legend, which marks the frontier between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, Afghan and Russian officials pored over everyone’s documents. Although Tajikistan has been independent for more than a decade, it has fought a war against Islamic insurgents and thousands of Russian troops help guard its frontiers. On the other side, after more document checks, and haggling with pickup-truck drivers, my colleagues and I got to the little town of Khoja Bahaudin. There we were directed by Afghan officials of the Northern Alliance to spend our first night in the country on the concrete veranda of a small building.

When I woke up I noticed that the windows of half the building were boarded over and that the ceiling was black. In fact it looked as if there had been a fire or explosion inside. My suspicions were quickly confirmed. I was sleeping just outside the room where the first deaths of this new war had happened. On September 9, two Moroccans posing as journalists had set up their television camera inside the room to interview the legendary Afghan Mujahideen commander Ahmed Shah Masoud. One of the Moroccans asked, “When you get to Kabul what will you do with Osama bin Laden?” Masoud took a breath to answer but before he did so the Moroccan set off the bombs strapped around his waist; he was shredded, and body parts were scattered around the room. The second suicide bomber survived and ran down to the nearby river, where he was killed. According to one version, Masoud died in a hospital six days later. Another has it that he died within hours but that his death was covered up for six days so as to ensure a smooth succession.

Of course it is impossible to prove a link between the murder of Masoud and the attacks on New York and Washington two days later, but people here have few doubts about it. Osama bin Laden, they feel sure, was giving his Taliban hosts the head of their most implacable foe before moving on to bigger things.

Ahmed Shah Masoud, an ethnic Tajik, was born in 1956, the son of a military officer …

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