“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.
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.
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.
The next morning we went to Faroshgar Street, which is where all the best music stores in Kabul can be found. Crowds of people were waving fistfuls of money at the shopkeepers who could barely keep up with demand. Music, of course, was banned under the Taliban so now it was blaring from every shop. The loudspeakers were playing Afghan music performed by singers who now live in exile, as well as Western disco music and Indian Hindi pop, which they love here.
Inside every shop we went to, they were wiping out the Taliban. Quite literally. Under the Taliban the only entertainment permitted was a monotonous religious chanting without instru- ments. So now, as customers eager to get their hands on something new waved their money, the shopkeepers were slapping cassette after cassette into their double recorders to dub the new stuff over the Taliban’s dirges. Of course, this is not to say that there was no music being sold before, but it was sold at high prices strictly under the counter. A shopkeeper named Mo-hammad Jawed showed off a row of cassettes with the names of Taliban singers written on the spine. But not all of them contained Taliban music. Black-market music dealing was a risky business here. During the last five years Mr. Jawed served three one-month sentences in jail after being caught selling banned music. The other music sellers I talked to had similar tales.
Now that music was suddenly legal, I asked whether the prices would come down. I had forgotten the basic laws of supply and demand. Precisely because music was now legal prices had shot up by 50 percent because everyone wanted to hear music and, besides, with the Taliban still controlling the road to Pakistan, new cassettes would be harder to get.
For the people I saw in Kabul, the end of Taliban rule has been greeted with a mixture of joy, relief, and apprehension. If women want to take off the burqa they may do so, but these first days I saw only a few that had. Still, the difference is between wearing the burqa for reasons of custom and tradition and being forced to wear it by law. The apprehension was best summed up for me by Feridoun, a twenty-five-year-old teacher of computer science. Under the Taliban there was no Internet connection. “For a while it will be calm,” he said, but if the members of an inclusive national council do not agree, “then there will be fighting again.” Since this country has been at war for twenty-two years Feridoun has no memory of peace, but he does have a lot of experience of war. And, of course, since Kabul has now lived under four different regimes during the last nine years, nobody can summon up much optimism. After all, they welcomed the Taliban in 1996 because they believed that they would put an end to the bloody infighting of the former Mujahideen, who now form a large part of the North- ern Alliance.
The problem now is that there is no National Council, or Loya Jirga, as they call it. For the last two months there has been intense diplomatic pressure for all the Afghan parties and ethnic groupings, except the Taliban, to come together in a Loya Jirga to help form a transitional government. It is clear that if there is to be lasting peace, all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups must be represented. The Northern Alliance is dominated by Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other minorities while the Taliban come, in the main, from the southern Pashtuns who, at between 38 to 45 percent of the population, are the country’s single biggest ethnic group.
The plan of the Northern Alliance was to flush the Taliban out of the northern non-Pashtun areas of the country where the mostly Pashtun Taliban were regarded as little better than foreign occupiers. But they knew that if their troops entered Pashtun lands, they would become the occupiers. Therefore, they said, they would rely on a Pashtun uprising. By November 14, it looked as though their game plan was working. We heard reports of an uprising in Jalalabad and challenges to Taliban authority in Kandahar; but there was already talk of a future guerrilla war.
How and why did the Taliban crumble so quickly, at least in the north? The single most important factor, of course, was the US bombing. When it began on October 7 it was relatively light. The theory was that if it was too heavy, the Northern Alliance would sweep into Kabul before some broad-based transitional authority was set up. But that didn’t work, because the bombing wasn’t heavy enough to dislodge the Taliban. The policy changed on October 31 when the heavy B-52 bombings of the Taliban front lines began. An hour after they started I stood in the ruined control tower of the Bagram air base thirty miles north of Kabul with General Baba Jan, the local commander of the Northern Alliance. Until the offensive of November 13 they had held the actual air base, from which, of course, no planes had flown for years, while the Taliban held its western and southern perimeters. The plump, former Communist general sat on a chair in the middle of the ruined octagonal control tower and, as each American bomb fell, he said little but jotted down the times and locations of the strikes on a small slip of blue paper. He reminded me of a judge at a figure-skating contest.
At a nearby barracks soldiers whooped with joy as they raced up a ladder to the top of their lookout post to see the planes bomb positions which they said that the US had not hit until now. But not all of them. Many were engrossed in a volleyball match that you could watch while the sky beyond them was streaked with plumes of smoke and dust from across the front line. While the carnage went on a few miles away, we saw families packed into little horse-drawn traps; the horses sported outlandish red and blue bobble decorations on their harnesses, and trotted up and down the main road, close to the air base.
In his tiny shop at Bagram, decorated with a designer’s drawing of a Soviet fighter plane, Haji Zainuddin told me, “So long as they don’t kill civilians I am happy about it, but it does give me a headache.” Between raids an eerie silence settled on the base, one that was broken only by the wind rustling softly through the trees and by fallen leaves swirling between its shattered buildings.
This air base was once the biggest in Afghanistan. It was built with Soviet money loaned to the Afghans as far back as 1955. The Russians lent them the money with a view to their own future strategic interests. In 1979, on the eve of the Soviet invasion, Moscow might have had reason to believe this had been a very wise investment. Just before the invasion began the Soviet military pre-positioned key units here. Then, on January 1, 1980, they used Bagram to fly in Babrak Karmal, the leader of what was to be their client state. He was then taken to Kabul inside a tank. Until the Soviets were evicted in 1989, Bagram played an important part in the Soviet occupation, with planes and helicopters taking off from here in the Russians’ doomed bid to subjugate the country.
Now, after a decade of fighting between Afghans, Bagram’s buildings are bombed-out shells. Wrecked tanks and old fighter jets lie strewn around like discarded toys. In the control tower, equipment is in ruins; there is no glass in the windows and a shell hole in the roof. Unlike some of his soldiers, General Baba Jan appeared to be in no mood to celebrate the beginning of the B-52 strikes. Before the Soviets were driven out he fought alongside them in the Afghan army against the Mujahideen. “This is still not enough to make the Taliban run,” he said. “They need to do more. We have had twenty-two years of war and we Afghans are used to it.” Then he got up, put his piece of blue paper in his pocket, and drove off. For Baba Jan, the carpet-bombing of his enemy by the world’s most powerful bombers was the equivalent of just another day at the office. In the distance, we could see the trails of dust rising behind the Taliban’s trucks speeding to and from the front. Perhaps they were picking up the wounded. To give credit where credit is due, they had to have been very brave.
For the following two weeks the strikes continued but varied in intensity. Some days they were heavy and some days there were virtually none. We guessed that there were a limited number of bombers available and that every day they bombed in several different places. In the days leading up to Friday, November 9, we heard that there were heavy strikes on the Taliban near the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif. However, no one was expecting too much since the Northern Alliance forces there—under the command of General Rashid Dostum, a tough Uzbek warlord, and the younger but widely respected General Ostad Ata—had complained of a lack of ammunition. But the Americans were dropping ammunition to them along with fodder for their horses and donkeys.
All of a sudden the Taliban lines cracked. Northern Alliance forces poured forward while the Taliban ran for their lives. Over that weekend large parts of the north fell to the Northern Alliance while the Taliban stopped fighting and fled. Early in the morning of November 13 thousands of Northern Alliance troops were gathered at Bagram and other front line positions north of Kabul. That day artillery and tank fire pounded the Taliban in evident close cooperation with the US Air Force. Fighter-bombers wheeled and dived in the sky above, while the attacks from a B-52 were awesome. After one pass a giant cloud of dust and earth erupted along a thousand-meter-long stretch of Taliban front line.
Then, at four o’clock in the afternoon, the tanks and the infantry made their move. After some resistance, the Taliban collapsed. Already weakened during the last twenty-four hours by the defection of hundreds of unwilling conscripts and others, they abandoned their trenches and fled. That evening panic spread among the Taliban in Kabul. The Northern Alliance did not expect to take Kabul without a fight but the Taliban had not expected their front line to crumble so quickly. So they packed up their pickup trucks and moved out.
Before I left London at the beginning of October, I thought that all Taliban were hard-line religious zealots. I also took seriously all those maps in the newspapers, full of color and showing swooping arrows tailed with boxes giving troop strengths, numbers of tanks and planes and aircraft carriers, and that sort of thing. But when the history of this war is written the military and other historians who dare to tell the truth will have to admit that a key to understanding this conflict was the donkey. What the maps should have showed was arrows with donkeys. Depending on how many crossed the front line, you could tell whether the Taliban in any particular location were hard-core—or Taliban-lite.
Money makes the world go round, but in Afghanistan nothing goes anywhere except by donkey. You may be a former head of NATO and now a well-paid pundit, but unless you have eaten anything here you cannot grasp some of the essential truths of the Afghan wars, and the very first one of these is that it is all down to donkeys. Before the fall of Kabul I was staying in Jabal Saraj, thirty-eight miles north of Kabul. To get there I drove over the Anjuman Pass on the Hindu Kush. When the jeep got stuck behind a truck blocked in the snow we walked until it was freed. The next day the pass was closed completely. Until the Taliban were driven out of northern Afghanistan there was only one road from the north down to here, through the Panjshir Valley. So you might expect everyone to have been very worried that the gleeful Taliban would now use this golden opportunity to starve the Panjshir Valley as well as such places as Jabal Saraj, Bagram, and indeed the entire region into submission. Not a bit of it. Every day hundreds and perhaps thousands of donkeys were trotting over from Taliban territory laden with food, staples, fuel, and indeed almost everything except for fresh food, which you could buy in the area’s well-stocked markets. And if the products didn’t originate in Taliban territory then they came through it.
From Taliban-held parts of the country came staples like wheat, beans, rice, and sugar, not to mention sweets and rugs. From Iran came biscuits, soft drinks, cigarettes, and tea. From Pakistan came fuel, clothes, textiles, and medicines. From China came radios, batteries, and lanterns. The trade was highly market-sensitive, so the arrival of foreign journalists meant that boxloads of exotic products such as Austrian processed cheese, Heinz tomato ketchup, and bottled water were being strapped onto the poor donkeys.
In principle, the Taliban could have throttled the area by stopping the donkeys, but here money talked, not the ultimate victory of Taliban-style Islam. The sheer volume of goods on the market was so vast that it was clear that this was not a clandestine smuggling operation. It was just a huge money-spinner for Taliban commanders and was highly organized. Goods came by road from Kabul to Giobah, which is four hours’ drive from Jabal Saraj, although only about twenty miles southeast as the crow flies. After one paid a Taliban toll of $10 per donkey, the goods were loaded onto the donkeys, which then crossed the front line. On the other side they were loaded back into vehicles. According to Abdul Wakil, a trader who commuted back and forth to Kabul, there were up to five hundred donkeys working the Giobah crossing.
You don’t have to be very good at arithmetic to work out that the local Taliban commanders were making a fortune here; and indeed, there were also unconfirmed reports that much of the trade was actually organized by them, as opposed to them simply taxing it.
One of the more intriguing questions was just how much fuel was pouring across from Taliban country. With the only road north closed it would be fascinating to know whether the Taliban commanders here were so greedy that they sold the fuel which the Northern Alliance army used to take itself to Kabul.
The donkey story is not just one of those amusing if grotesque tales of war. It is crucial for understanding “the Taliban.” What it underlines is the fact that there are (or were?) two types of Taliban. At Giobah the business was obviously controlled by men who fought under a Taliban flag of convenience rather than a banner of belief and who, when the time came, would switch sides. In fact, on the morning of November 13, I saw a whole group of them going to pay court to a Northern Alliance commander at Charikar. They were not prisoners, they had simply switched sides when they realized the Taliban were done for. They could expect no punishment for their behavior because that is the way war is done here, and it is quite possible that they had been told not to defect earlier because of their valuable services as purveyors of food and fuel to the Northern Alliance.
However, by no means were all the front lines controlled by such amenable, business-friendly Taliban. For those moving goods across to enemy territory where Taliban true believers controlled the front lines, this was a serious business of life and death. Every morning, in the almost inaccessible northern town of Farkhar, which lay just across the front lines from Taloqan, which was until November 11 in Taliban territory, dozens of donkeys could be seen trotting through the mist and into the market. Here I met Braoud, who still had the blood of his friend Najibullah on his clothes. Two nights before, while bringing food across from Taliban country, Najibullah had stepped on a mine. “We were walking very quietly,” said Braoud. “He was five meters in front of me. I saw him put his foot on the mine. It just exploded.” He died a few hours later on Braoud’s back. Najibullah, who was thirty-five, had five children. His wife, in Taliban territory, still did not know that her husband was dead. Braoud said, “Yesterday a donkey was killed and another man injured. It happens every week. The Taliban are planting mines to stop us coming but we still have to do it.”
In Farkhar’s hospital, I met Suleiman. About fifty years old, he contemplated the stump of his newly amputated leg. He and three of his friends had been surprised by a Taliban patrol as they made the nighttime crossing. His friends got away but the patrol confiscated his donkey along with his goods. Then the Taliban ordered Suleiman to “walk” straight into a mine, where they left him for dead. His friends were too scared to come back but they paid a man to rescue him.
Now we know that there were more people who just went along with the Taliban than there were hard-core believers. What we don’t know yet is whether the hard-core are doomed or whether they will manage to rally their troops.
—November 15, 2001
December 20, 2001