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.”


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.


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.

Idle unless they join up, the boys all say that they’d like to leave Afghanistan and come to London. The problem is that, unlike the $8 they paid to the guides to get them across the front lines, the trip to London will cost them $8,000, an almost unimaginable sum here. Still, many do manage, somehow, to scrape the cash together, often because families club together to contribute, hoping that when they get to London or wherever else they succeed in getting to, their relatives will then start sending money home.

First you pay $1,200 to get to Tajikistan,” explained Abdulrioz, aged eighteen, a boy who says he would like to make the trip. “The dealers use the same passport twenty times to get people there, changing the photo every time. After that a Tajik woman will get you documents as her son, and you go to Moscow.” After that there are several different onward routes. Generally the trip takes six months, with money being paid out along the way, and most of those who flee this parched and war-ravaged land are successful in getting out.

Unless this war ends quickly the numbers of people now surging out of the country are likely to soar. Shukib told me that so many boys had now made the first leg of the journey from Taliban-held territory to Farkhar that the Abu Osman High School has had to close.


Apart from the fact that ethnic Tajiks don’t want to die for the Taliban, there are several other good reasons why the Taliban can’t find enough volunteers, at least in this part of the country. When night falls the Northern Alliance attacks their lines with volleys of three-meter-long rockets fired from truck-mounted BM-21 Soviet-era rocket launchers.

The roar is deafening and it leaves the inner core of your body vibrating like a tuning fork. Once the rockets have streaked into the night sky, curving over the mountain range that here divides opposition from Taliban territory, what remains, amid the curling smoke, is exactly the same smell that hangs over a display of fireworks, except that here dozens of people on the other side of the mountain may be dead.

According to Said Mohammad, the officer in charge of the BM-21 at Chosmai Sangi, three miles or so west of Farkhar, the rockets are aimed at targets fourteen kilometers away. Targeting is done in coordination with a spotter on the front line but an accurate report of what is being hit only comes the next day from agents operating inside Taliban territory. The next morning Bashir, an aide to Commander Daoud, who is in charge in Farkhar, said: “Last night the rockets took out three Datsun pickup trucks and killed eight Taliban.”

When the rockets have exploded the silence over the pitch-black front lines is broken only by the menacing sound of invisible American helicopters. The sound conjures up images of Apocalypse Now. The sound fades, then returns, then disappears. Where the helicopters are going or what they are doing is anybody’s guess. In the wake of the first raid by Special Forces on the Taliban headquarters town of Kandahar no Taliban commander can be certain that American or British troops won’t be paying them a visit. No wonder that many commanders, up here at least, far from the Taliban heartlands, are reconsidering their loyalties.


One of the reasons why peace will be so hard to achieve in Afghanistan is precisely because the country has been at war for so long. In 1979, the year of the Soviet invasion, the country was already desperately poor and divided with all sorts of tribal, clan, and ethnic rivalries. What twenty-two years of war have done is to throw the country back to an era that Westerners can only recognize by what they know of their own history, that is to say by recalling the centuries of the crusaders, of religious fanaticism, and of feudalism.

The core of Taliban forces and their foreign legions of several thousand Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, and others can be compared to the crusaders. On the opposition side, where Islam is of course also very important, it is clear that feudal relationships have a central part in the way society works and soldiers are recruited.

I understood this when I was invited to spend the night at the compound of Mohammad Aqa Humayun Khadim, an ethnic Uzbek commander who has a private army of three hundred men, six tanks, and a BM-21 rocket launcher. His soldiers, based in the village of Bolak Kushlaq, three hours’ drive northeast of Farkhar, hold part of the front line facing the town of Taloqan. None of this would be particularly remarkable, except that Humayun, as he is known, is only fifteen years old. He has never shaved but he is married.

With a row of silent elders at his right hand, ready to give counsel if asked or scamper off to buy cigarettes, Humayun held forth for several hours on questions of war and politics, while plowing through a banquet of meat and potatoes. His father, who first recruited Bolak Kushlaq’s village militia during the war against the Soviet Union, died in a Taliban rocket attack three months ago. “I have three hundred soldiers. They were my father’s soldiers and now they belong to me.” Conversation was frequently interrupted by calls coming in from his commanders on the front.

When he left the room to say his prayers an elderly retainer leaned forward and whispered: “All the people loved his father so after he died they called a council and then chose Humayun.” Humayun’s father was grooming him for succession and would leave him in control when he was away. So that is the way it works here. Humayun’s family are big landowners and their fief covers a region which includes twenty-six villages and hamlets. If, when his father died, someone from outside the family had challenged the family for control of the district, then their power and influence would have come under attack. So with the blessing of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary Afghan warlord who was assassinated on September 9, and Bur-hanuddin Rabbani, the Northern Alliance president, Humayun succeeded his father. But, just as young kings in medieval Europe would have their power circumscribed by a regency council, the same applies in Bolak Kushlaq. Humayun’s council is headed by two of his uncles.

The next morning, while Humayun was posing for photos in front of his rocket launcher, one of his uncles, Mohammad Yaqub, told me: “He does not have the experience but this is not such a problem because he has advisers who do. He is also very intelligent but he must accept our advice. We are trying to train him.”

Humayun is a boy worth watching. He speaks with the confidence of a natural leader and can hold his own at the same level as commanders who were fighting years before he was born. But there is a difference. Unlike them he shows an interest in the world outside Afghanistan. He says that when he is older he would like to become president of Afghanistan, but, in the meantime, he needs to study more. “Now the situation is not good but I must find a good English teacher. Rabbani told me that when it was safe in Afghanistan he would send me to London to study. Do you think my bodyguard will have problems with the gun? If I have a pistol would that be okay?”

He also wants to know: “How many Muslims have you got in your country? Did they suffer any revenge attacks after what happened in New York and Washington? How many people can read in your country? Can women get married in your country if they are not beautiful?” To this he adds: “Here it is beauty that counts but if a woman can do things like weave a kilim then she’ll be okay.”

At first sight the story of Humayun would seem to illustrate the problem of child soldiers in Afghanistan. In fact, although there are such soldiers in Afghanistan, this is not a problem that is particularly widespread, as it is in, say, West Africa. There is also the question of how you define a child. While some countries define children as anyone under the age of eighteen, and technically this is the age accepted by the authorities in northern Afghanistan, in fact, boys are really considered to have reached full maturity here at the age of sixteen.

According to Eloi Fillion, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross in northern Afghanistan, the case of Humayun highlights other fundamental problems. “On both sides of the front lines, you have a ‘government’ and an ‘administration’ but, in fact, outside the cities, there is no administrative control at all. This case reflects the reality of Afghan problems. You’ll have the leading family of an area, the father dies and he is replaced by the eldest son, so that’s it. It is like the succession of a king.”

An official at the UN’s Children’s Fund, UNICEF, told me: “Twenty years of conflict has made all children experts at war in Afghanistan. It is a hard life and those that do become child soldiers actually have to support their families. Another problem is that there is not enough to do. There is a lack of schools and activities and playgrounds. If they had these things they would not think so much about war.”

Humayun first went to the front with his father when he was thirteen. “I have been to the front line many times. It is my duty.” Asked about moves in the West and other parts of the world to end the use of child soldiers, he thought a moment and said: “You in the West have the wrong idea. Children make great soldiers. They are strong and fast and they are very brave.”

I called my friend who works at the UN in New York and told her about Humayun. She said that she told the man coordinating the UN’s response to the Afghan emergency that she wanted to be part of any forthcoming UN peacekeeping mission here. He said to her: “What mission?”

Here in opposition-controlled Afghanistan, meetings are taking place to choose delegates for a shura, or council, which in turn, at some date yet to be decided, will meet with delegates who are partisans of Afghanistan’s eighty-six-year-old former monarch, Zahir Shah, who lives in Rome. But there have also been other meetings outside the country, notably in Peshawar in Pakistan, a region with a large Afghan refugee population. Some of these meetings have supported the king, some have not. Some support the Northern Alliance but some do not, fearing that if it comes to power in Kabul it will not have the support of Pashtuns and hence cause a new chapter in the conflict to begin.

In Pakistan, which supported the Taliban until now, all sorts of machinations have begun in attempt to salvage something from the catastrophe. Unverifiable reports speak of secret US- and Pakistani-sponsored meetings in which attempts are being made to break up the Taliban by attempting to lure so-called moderates into dropping Mullah Omar and handing over Osama bin Laden. Names such as Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, the Taliban foreign minister, are allegedly being proposed as possible Taliban “moderates” who might participate in a new broad-based government, while names such as that of Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, the minister of frontier regions, are being singled out as examples of those who would be unacceptable.

Since no decisions have been made, Northern Alliance officials prefer not to talk until they know what the party line is. One such official who did speak, on condition of anonymity of course, gave me a typical on-the-fence response when I asked him whether some “moderate” Taliban members might be included in any new government. He said: “Well, the Taliban as a system is not acceptable for the future of Afghanistan but some people may be. If it is possible that there are some people, they would have the right to participate.”

From my own talks, I suspect that the Northern Alliance leaders are not in the mood for deals yet. As of the end of October, their front lines in the northeast and above Kabul had not moved an inch. They claim to have made advances around Mazar-e-Sharif but extended supply lines and a lack of ammunition had stopped that offensive from going forward. The US has announced some air drops of ammunition to the Northern Alliance and the arrival of some US troops to coordinate air strikes, and at the end of October it intensified the bombing. But, in view of Pakistani fears, the US apparently does not want to help to such an extent that if the Taliban collapses, the Northern Alliance would take over, and feel no need to make concessions to Pashtuns. By contrast Northern Alliance thinking may well be that sooner or later the north of Afghanistan will fall to them so there is no need to make any political concessions until this happens.

In the meantime some US officials have floated the idea of a UN peacekeeping force for a postwar Afghanistan. This has sent shudders through UN headquarters. “What have they got in mind?” said one UN source. “For how long? What would the mandate be? The US would like to move quickly and declare a situation where the UN takes over but we are saying this cannot be rushed. The conditions are not there to think of deploying troops let alone anything else. Who is going to give the troops? Africans? Is the US going to put its troops in harm’s way? That is no joke.”

Apparently taking account of such reactions, Colin Powell said on October 25 that a UN force is unlikely. But he also put forward the idea that a UN action could be somewhat similar to the UN’s mission in Cambodia, when it supervised elections there in May 1993. A peace process became possible in Cambodia because the great powers and Cambodia’s neighbors all concluded that the conflict in that country had gone on too long, that they now all had other interests, and so it was time to impose a solution. This consensus meant that they were able to compel the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese-backed government, and Prince Sihanouk, the former monarch, to make a deal. Following that agreement a UN peacekeeping force was sent into Cambodia alongside UN administrators who then ran the country until elections were held. According to a report in the October 25 Washington Post, Powell

foresees the United Nations playing an important role should the Taliban fall, in particular providing help with public administration until the new institutions of government begin functioning. He said the UN has considerable experience playing this role in other places emerging from war, such as East Timor and Cambodia.

Superficially there are resemblances. The great powers, and all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, want an end to the conflict, and, if the top Taliban leaders are eliminated, they probably have the power to compel the warring factions to come to the table. Afghans are exhausted by the war just as Cambodians were. And, just as a former monarch presided over the transition in Cambodia, Afghanistan’s former king could play a similar role.

That is where the similarities end. A crucial difference is that in Cambodia the conflict did not involve deep ethnic divisions. And, for the moment at least, as the UN source points out, “In Cambodia you had a framework for peace. In Afghanistan you don’t.”

Kofi Annan has recently reappointed Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, as his special envoy for Afghanistan. Brahimi had the same position once before but in 1997 he resigned in disgust at the lies and dissimulations of the Taliban. At UN headquarters an emergency group, officially called the Integrated Mission Task Force, has been formed to coordinate a UN response to the war. One insider told me that Annan and Brahimi had told the Security Council “that a UN peacekeeping force is not feasible and should not be considered, anyway not in the short term. Most of the players have accepted this. A UN force could not be mobilized before three or four months. There would be great difficulty in trying to find troop contributors and the whole history of foreign forces in Afghanistan gives us great cause for concern.”

Instead of such a force other ideas now being considered are, first, a multinational “coalition of the willing” which would include British and American troops or “an Afghan security force, which might be one of the outcomes of a political process.” Some reports have talked of Mr. Brahimi acting as a UN “proconsul” in Kabul while a provisional government establishes itself in power.2 But my UN source in New York told me that the UN is “not planning a UN administration [as] in Kosovo or East Timor. Rather we are thinking in terms of enhanced UN activities in the humanitarian area and a very big reconstruction effort.” He said he has little optimism “because one of the key things needed to happen is the construction of some kind of political authority and I don’t see that happening soon, and until that happens you can’t return the country to any form of normalcy.” So, he adds, “I foresee more bombing and a very difficult humanitarian situation. The Taliban have proven themselves to have far more staying power than anticipated.”

รข€”October 31, 2001

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    See Le Figaro, October 25, 2001, p. 4.