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War in the Dark

Khoja Bahaudin, northern Afghanistan

In the Afghan fashion we sat around the edge of the room while a small banquet of rice and mutton was served. We were in Dasht-e-Qala, a village five miles south of the border with Tajikistan. Our host was Alam Khan, the leader of hundreds of refugee soldiers from Mazar-e-Sharif, a key city, fifty miles from the Uzbekistan border, that opposition anti-Taliban forces hope to take.1 When the meal was over, sweets were served as dessert. One of Alam Khan’s aides is Faziludin, who lost his right arm fighting in Kabul many years ago. His wife and children are still living in a village near Mazar-e-Sharif and he has not seen them since the city fell to the Taliban three years ago. I asked him what he would do when he got home. As he sucked his coffee-flavored boiled sweet, he thought a while, shrugged, and said: “I will kill Pakistani, Arab, and Chechen Taliban but not Afghan ones because they are my brothers.”

In 1997, just after the Taliban first entered Mazar-e-Sharif, approximately 2,000 of them were massacred before they were forced to withdraw. Some 1,250 of them were crammed into containers and left to bake to death in the blistering sun. When the containers were opened the bodies were found to have turned black. Paik Chong-Hyun, a UN special rapporteur who investigated the deaths of the Taliban, wrote in his report that many of them were tossed down deep wells, then hand grenades were thrown in, and then the wells were bulldozed over. In 1998 the Taliban retook the city and massacred some 6,000 people in revenge.

Alam Kahn has been fighting for the last twenty-two years, first against the Soviet Union and then in the various civil wars that followed. Most people in Afghanistan are exhausted by war, so I asked this famous warlord if he was, too. “Not only am I not tired,” he said, “but I want to fight Pakistan.” Alam Kahn’s antipathy toward Pakistan, which supported his fellow Mujahideen fighters during the war against the Soviet Union, springs from his feeling and that of his fellows that, after the Communists fell, Pakistan then tried to dictate who would govern Afghanistan and finally sponsored the Taliban. “I don’t want to attack Pakistan,” said Alam Kahn, “but I don’t want Pakistan to attack our country.”

Here in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, in Iran, in Russia, and in the West diplomats and policymakers are frantically trying to put together some form of broad-based government that they hope will form the first post-Taliban administration. None of them is optimistic. A friend of mine who is a senior official at the United Nations in New York told me, “This makes Bosnia look like a kid’s game.”

1.

Since Western journalists cannot go to Taliban territory it is hard to know what Taliban leaders are thinking. Still, that does not mean that we have no idea what some of them are thinking. Here in northeast Afghanistan all the commanders of the opposition Northern Alliance that you meet tell you that they are in touch with Taliban commanders on the other side and that they are involved in discussions with them about defecting. Until now however there has been little hard evidence of such talks.

In one Northern Alliance military headquarters I came across such evidence. The local commander introduced me to a man who looked distinctly uneasy. He wore an elegant black turban with a broad pinstripe design surrounding a colorful cap, but he clicked his worry beads nervously. The man was an envoy sent across the front line by three Taliban commanders who wanted to jump ship. We say don’t shoot the messenger, but in Afghanistan they just might.

The Northern Alliance commander set a condition for my talking to the messenger. I could not reveal the names of anyone involved or the location of the meeting, nor could I take photos. Since no deal had been made and the Taliban obviously did not know that this man was here, this seemed fair enough, especially since it was a question of life and death, and not just for the messenger.

The offers to defect he carried were handwritten on small scraps of paper, which looked like restaurant receipts. I asked the messenger why the offers had not come before the current crisis, and he shifted uncomfortably and said: “Six months ago was not a good time for us, now it is.” In other words, Afghan commanders want to end the war on the winning side. In the mid-Nineties, as the Taliban moved through Afghanistan taking territory, there was, in many places, no fighting at all. The Taliban simply paid opposition commanders to switch sides. I asked General Atiqullah Baryalai, the Northern Alliance’s deputy minister of defense, if he was doing the same now and he simply became angry and denied any such thing was happening. But he denied it in a way that made me think I’d hit a nerve. Still, other Afghans I have talked to don’t think money is a principal factor today. It’s all or nothing, which means “join us or die.”

Although it is clear that many commanders from the Taliban side in northeast Afghanistan want to defect, this does not mean that similar talks are taking place throughout the country. This messenger came from three ethnic Tajik commanders and the Northern Alliance forces ranged against them are also mostly ethnic Tajiks. The Taliban are dominated by Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest single ethnic group. Like a man making a sales pitch the messenger said: “Because we are Tajiks it is very difficult for us to live with their regime. That is why I was sent.”

The messenger’s three Taliban commanders had written that between them they had four hundred men that they could bring with them. If similar such numbers are being discussed along hundreds of miles of front line then this may explain why the Northern Alliance have not yet begun a major push from the east. They may be waiting to see how many commanders from the other side are prepared to defect first, and whether their offers are genuine or made simply to extricate themselves from a difficult but temporary military situation. Two weeks ago the Northern Alliance announced that in a region close to Mazar-e-Sharif a commander called Abdul Kazi Hai had defected with four thousand men. A few days later they admitted that he had now switched back to the Taliban; but they claimed that some of his men had remained with the opposition. Whether Abdul Kazi Hai had ever really defected or whether he actually has four thousand men is of course unverifiable since he is fighting in a region inaccessible to journalists.

2.

Messengers are not the only men crossing the front lines. The town of Farkhar is one of the most inaccessible spots on this jagged front. It lies several hours’ drive from the place where the meeting with the messenger was held. Here boys of military age from the nearby Taliban-held town of Taloqan have been arriving in droves. They are fleeing the Taliban press gangs.

A couple of days after the US bombing of Afghanistan began, Shukib, aged eighteen, had just begun his Pashtun language lesson when the Taliban came to call. Three pickup trucks roared into the school playground and armed men leaped out. They made straight for the main building of Taloqan’s best school, the Abu Osman High School, named after a distinguished poet, and burst into the classrooms. “Six of them came in and they were all shouting at the same time. They pushed my teacher out of the way and they pointed their guns at us.” Shukib knew immediately what they wanted. For some days Taliban soldiers, desperate for recruits, had been cruising the streets of this small town picking men at random.

The men were being sent to the south for rudimentary military training before being thrown into units in Kandahar and Jalalabad, which lie in the Taliban’s Pashtun heartlands. The Taliban fear that putting these men into local units near Taloqan will mean immediate desertion. “They chose the boys who looked the strongest,” said Shukib. “Nobody said anything. When you have a gun pointed at you what can you do? They said: ‘You must do jihad and fight against the Northern Alliance.’ By the time they had finished, some twenty young men had been marched off at gunpoint to be sent to war. With the school in turmoil some boys slipped out through the back of the building and ran home. There are of course no girls in school in Taloqan since the Taliban has forbidden education for girls.

That night, after talking to their families, Shukib and his friend Suliman, aged seventeen, decided to escape into the hills close to the front line. There they made contact with local guides who know the tracks through the minefields and over the front lines. They paid them an $8 fee, which is the going rate to get across to opposition-held territory, and then walked through the night to Farkhar.

Their story is evidence of weakening Taliban morale and strength in northern Afghanistan. But it should not be a guide for the whole of the country since Taloqan is inhabited mainly by ethnic Tajiks. When they got to Farkhar, Shukib and Suliman met up with their friend Said Bismillah, also aged eighteen, who had fled the press gangs a few days before them. “I was at the mosque in a religion school,” Said Bismillah said. “There were about five hundred of us. The Taliban came and asked: ‘Who wants to do jihad against the Northern Alliance? America wants to start a war against us!’ Everyone was afraid so we all put our hands up. I went home to speak to my family and my father said I could not go there again. He did not allow me to do jihad and I did not want to do it.”

The next day Said Bismillah slipped away to begin the all-night trek to cross the front lines. Fearful that someone might report on his intentions, he did not tell any of his classmates what he was planning to do. However he said that in the three weeks since he had arrived, of his class of twenty-five at the Abu Osman High School “ten or eleven are now here.” Even though Said Bismillah is blind in one eye he says, “I have decided 100 percent to go into the army. Afghans don’t want a terrorist regime.”

According to Said Bismillah and his friends the Taliban were desperately short of men, which is why they were resorting to press gangs. Until now every mosque in the Taloqan region was forced to provide one able-bodied man for Taliban forces for a six-month stretch. Since the beginning of the conflict with the US they were now demanding that mosque councils provide up to ten men per mosque and that every household also provide one man.

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    See my report “With the Northern Alliance,” The New York Review, November 15, 2001.

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