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The Center of the World

Kabul, Afghanistan

As the war in Afghanistan winds down I have a theory. This is that the village of Bagram, some thirty miles north of Kabul, may be the center of the world. In an earlier piece I wrote that on October 31 I had stood in the ruined control tower of the Bagram air base and watched as US B-52s began their first day of pulverizing carpet-bombing attacks on Taliban lines on the perimeters of the base.1 At the time I thought there was something spooky about this. After all, the base had been constructed with Soviet money during the 1950s, and had then been the center from which the Soviet Union had run most of its air war during its occupation of the country from 1979 to 1989. The Soviets had full and murderous command of the air until the US supplied the Afghan Islamist Mujahideen with Stinger missiles, which utterly changed the strategic situation, hastening the Soviet retreat from the country and, in no small measure, contributing to the collapse of communism and the Soviet Empire. Strewn around the air base is the detritus of that war, rusting old MiG fighters and long-dead tanks.

On November 26, almost two weeks after the fall of Kabul to Northern Alliance forces, I came back to Bagram. We drove north from Kabul and, as we passed the area that I had earlier watched being bombed, we saw the incinerated remains of the Taliban’s tanks and vehicles, which had, a couple of weeks before, been on the front line. But, in the view of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and his followers, this hadn’t just been any old front line. It was the front line in their very own clash of civilizations, of their brand of fundamentalist Islam against, as they call us, “the Crusaders and the Jews” and so on.

I knew of course that since the collapse of the Taliban in the north, one hundred or so British Special Forces had arrived in Bagram, along with some Americans. This seemed to reinforce my theory that Bagram is the epicenter of world history. In November 1841, a British imperial force had been annihilated in the next-door village of Charikar, but the following year the British returned. They flattened Kabul’s bazaar, went on a killing, looting, and raping spree in another nearby village called Istalif, flattened parts of Charikar, and then beat a hasty retreat back to British India.

On the runway on November 26 was a large Russian cargo plane. Next to it was a column of Russians dressed in blue uniforms with military vehicles—being greeted by, yes, American Special Forces. Officially, the Russians, who flew in twelve cargo loads of equipment that day, were back as part of Russia’s contribution to the mounting humanitarian aid mission to Afghanistan. But if this is a clash of civilizations, and Bagram is the epicenter, then the Russians are surely laughing at this particular twist of fate. In the battle against fundamentalism, the Americans have done for the Russians in two months what the Russians failed to do in twenty-two years—ever since Bagram was the front line of their war in Afghanistan.

So in recent history Bagram has seen troops fighting for the British Empire and the Soviet Empire; and in the last few weeks it has seen troops fighting for a would-be Empire of Islam and for the United States, an empire in all but name. But here’s the curious twist. Since the most ancient times, thanks to its geographical location, Bagram has been on the front lines of empire, culture, and civilization. Just before World War II archaeologists working at Bagram discovered a fabulous hoard in two small rooms. The guidebook of Kabul’s National Museum says of the collection: “Here are Chinese lacquers, Graeco-Roman bronzes, plaster plaques, and vessels of porphyry and alabaster, Roman glassware and exquisite ivories from India. Together they form the most spectacular archaeological find of the twentieth century.” Perhaps the second century AD was a happier time when, as the guide notes, “the Caesars of Rome and the Han Emperors of China avidly exchanged their most exotic products while bargaining for the spices, gems, and cosmetics of India and Ceylon and the gems and furs of Central Asia.”

Of course, today’s “clash of civilizations” means that the museum is nothing but a virtual shell now. The Taliban smashed a large part of its con-tents because Islam does not approve of representations of the human figure. Much of the rest of its collections were stolen and spirited off to dealers in Pakistan who probably sold most of the treasures, such as the famous Bagram ivories carved with pictures of busty and sinuous Indian girls, to wealthy collectors from the Far East, Europe, and America.2 The second century AD was a golden age of liberalism in Afghanistan compared to now.

1.

When I suggest that Bagram is once again at the center of history, some may say I am exaggerating, although after September 11 it is hard to see why. I have heard it suggested that just as Pol Pot and Enver Hoxha were the nadir (or apogee) of fundamentalist communism, after which there was only retreat, so will the Taliban and al-Qaeda come to be seen when the history of fundamentalist Islam is written. We have to hope this is the case. But some of the evidence I have seen suggests that the ideas they stand for are far from finished. While the US has been bombing terrorist training camps across Afghanistan, the really frightening work, which could threaten much of the world, has not been taking place in inhospitable camps in the desert but in ordinary houses in the center of Kabul.

Following a lead, I went to a house in Wazir Akbar Khan, the wealthiest district of Kabul and an area with many foreign missions and NGOs. Next door to Save the Children is a nondescript house that, until the Taliban fled, was occupied by the representative of a Pakistani charity called Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, or Islamic Reconstruction (UTN). Its president is Bashiruddin Mahmood. He is one of Pakistan’s leading nuclear scientists and a specialist in plutonium. In March 1999 he was decorated by the president of Pakistan in recognition for his thirty-seven years of work on Pakistan’s nuclear program.

In public, UTN’s work in Afghanistan included supplying medicine for major hospitals, helping an artificial limb–manufacturing unit at a Kabul hospital, and studying the country’s mineral potential, including uranium. According to their neighbors, the Pakistanis who lived and worked here fled Kabul along with the Taliban. But the evidence they left behind suggests that they were working on something rather different from worthy projects to help needy Afghans. It suggests that they were planning to build an anthrax bomb.

An upstairs room of the house had been used as a workshop. What appeared to be a Russian rocket had been disassembled and a canister labeled “helium” had been left on the worktable. On the floor were multiple copies of documents about anthrax downloaded from the Internet, and details about the US military’s vaccination plans for its troops. The fact that there were so many copies of each document suggests that seminars were also taking place here.

One of the photocopied documents downloaded from the Internet featured a picture of the former US Defense Secretary William Cohen holding a five-pound bag of sugar. It noted that he was doing this “to show the amount of the biological weapon anthrax that could destroy half the population of Washington, D.C.”

On the floor was a small bag of white powder and in the living room were boxes of gas masks and filters. More than likely the bag contained nothing more deadly than sugar, but sugar could be ideal for demonstrating to students how to scatter anthrax spores from a great height over a whole city. On the desk was a cassette box labeled “Jihad” in the center and with the name of Osama bin Laden handwritten along the spine. In another room were pictures celebrating the terrorist strike in Yemen against the USS Cole, in which seventeen US sailors died.

On a white board on the wall were a mass of calculations and drawings in felt pen. There were also designs of a parachute and several for a long, thin balloon resembling a weather balloon. Arrows and lines suggested that the balloon should be flying at a height of six miles. “Flying” toward the balloon on the board was a sketch of a fighter plane alongside which someone had written in English: “YOUR DAYS ARE LIMITED! BANG.” In a cupboard was a child’s blow-up model of a jet fighter, which had presumably also been used in demonstrations.

Since UTN was run by one of Pakistan’s top scientists, a man with extremely close links to the Taliban and, to judge by newspapers found at the UTN office, very close ideological affinities with Osama bin Laden, this circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that those who worked here were designing an anthrax bomb which would be floated above its target by balloon. It could then either be detonated or, if it was shot down by a fighter, would have exploded, showering deadly airborne anthrax spores over a wide area—as wide, say, as half of New York City or Washington, D.C.

The fact that seminars appeared to be going on here suggests that students were possibly being prepared before being sent abroad on their missions. If this is the case, then graduates of this particular course might well already be living among us.

In September Mr. Mahmood was arrested by the Pakistani authorities but was released soon afterward because the authorities said they had found “nothing objectionable” in his behavior. He has since been detained again along with another nuclear scientist, Chaudhry Abdul Majid, and at least five others from the aid group.

2.

As I write, Kandahar, the Taliban’s last stronghold, has fallen, but Osama bin Laden is still at large. He may well be caught, or more likely killed, very soon, but I suspect that one reason he has kept himself alive this long is that he has some fairly good intelligence sources at his disposal. One evening in early December I went to the village of Beni Hissar, on the southern outskirts of Kabul, which bin Laden had visited at the end of October, escaping death by less than three hours. At the edge of the village is a compound that used to be an al-Qaeda headquarters. The building in the center of the compound has been shattered by US missiles.

Not far from it I met Amin, a twenty-three-year-old Afghan recruit to al-Qaeda who, after September 11, had been sent to Beni Hissar. He told me about Bin Laden’s visit. “There was so much secrecy that we were not even told it was him until afterward. All we were told was that we had to secure the whole village. He arrived in the night, it was after eight, he came in a big convoy of jeeps with 120 bodyguards. When he came into our camp he was completely surrounded by a wall of very tall men. They were so close together you could not see him at all—they were arranged so they could fire in three different directions.”

  1. 1

    See my report “In Conquered Kabul,” in the December 20, 2001, issue.

  2. 2

    A group called the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH) has been working hard to publicize and halt the pillage and destruction of the country’s monuments, museums, and archaeological sites. It is based in Pakistan and can be contacted at spach@comsats.net.pk, or at Suite 13, Block 19, Allah-dad Plaza, G-8/Markaz, Islamabad, Pakistan; or by telephone/fax: 0092-51-2253082. See also their Web site: www.col.com.pk/~ afghan.

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