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.
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.
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.”
Until September 11 Amin had worked in the Taliban’s Ministry of Education. After that he was sent to Beni Hissar with fourteen others so that the Arabs based here, part of a group of 850 of bin Laden’s foreign legion, could all either fight or carry out other duties. The camp was run by a Sudanese called Abdul Aziz.
When bin Laden arrived he told Aziz that he would leave at eight o’clock the next morning. He had been expected to spend two days in Kabul. “But then,” said Amin, “he got up at five, said his prayers, and left.” Soon afterward everyone in the camp was ordered to get out “because we were told there was a cruise missile strike coming.” The missiles hit at eight o’clock, targeting the house in the center of the camp compound. Immediately after the attack a witch hunt began. “They said we must have a spy in the camp but they could not find anyone,” Amin said.
The fact that bin Laden left earlier than planned implies that he had received intelligence that the camp was about to be attacked. Amin said that the alarm in the camp sounded frequently to warn its occupants to evacuate when there was the threat of an air strike. Bin Laden’s foreign legion was equipped with sophisticated Codan radios, of the type used by the UN and NGOs in poor countries such as Afghanistan, which lack ordinary communications, enabling them to be in touch with others across the country.
Although Beni Hissar had been used as a headquarters for up to four years, the number of Arabs here rose significantly after the US bombings began on October 7. However, fear of air strikes kept the Arabs and others constantly on the move. According to Amin the 850 soldiers who answered to Abdul Aziz came from across the Muslim world but most were Egyptians, Saudis, Lebanese, and Qataris.
He told me: “After twenty-five days we were joined by about forty Arabs who were living in Germany and Italy and who came via Iran.” These Arabs never fought, however, because although they were well equipped and ready, they lost heart when they realized that much of the local population, which had supported the Taliban before, were now shifting their support to Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s exiled monarch. “They said it was not worth it.” In the rubble of the building in Beni Hissar were ripped-up airline tickets, which, when you piece them together, appear to support Amin’s claim. They show that the men had flown from Damascus to Iran on October 29. They presumably then crossed by land into Afghanistan. Until then al-Qaeda members had mostly come via Pakistan, but the war made this difficult and perhaps even impossible.
According to Amin one of the main jobs of the many hundreds of Arab fighters was to try to stop Afghan Taliban from fleeing from places like Bagram when the going got tough. When that began to happen it was the Arabs who were dispatched to stop them. “They ordered them to get back to their positions,” Amin said.
Despite rudimentary military training given to him by the camp’s second-in-command, a man named Tuaib, a Lebanese veteran of the Afghan struggle against the Soviets, Amin was detailed to work on camp finances. He was amazed by the amount of money he and the Arabs were paid. He was to be paid $120 a month and the Arabs received even more, while an Afghan university professor is paid $120 a year. Amin was even more impressed by the lavish meals laid on for the foreign legionnaires. For one week fifteen men were given four sheep, while a relatively well-off Afghan considers himself lucky if he gets two pounds of meat a week.
Unlike most of his colleagues, Amin chose not to flee with the Taliban after Kabul fell. He believes he has some measure of protection because his father had fought with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary Afghan fighter, and been killed in 1992. Massoud died after a suicide bomb attack on September 9, believed to have been planned by Osama bin Laden. Like most Taliban Afghans, Amin is an ethnic Pashtun, but now, despite his hopes, he is a frightened man. He agreed to talk to me only in a moving car, so that he would not be seen talking to a foreigner. He told me that only his mother, his brother, and two friends, who had acted as intermediaries, knew he had worked with the Arabs.
I was not with Amin for long enough to know whether he really believes most of what he says, but even if he does not, it tells us something about the way bin Laden and his men view the world. Amin explained that because the ideology of the Taliban and al-Qaeda does not believe in national states, as opposed to a universal entity of Muslim believers stretching from the Atlantic to Indonesia, their rout in Afghanistan was not a defeat but just a withdrawal, which left its fighters free to fight another day. I asked him what he would have felt if bin Laden had been killed that day in Beni Hissar, and he said simply: “Everyone who works for Osama is like Osama. So after Osama it might be Abdul Aziz or someone else. Everyone loves him.” Then I asked him whether he would be prepared to die as a suicide bomber, killing women and children in the West. He said: “Inshallah“—God willing—“I will go. It is our way, it is the way of Allah because these people are unbelievers.”
Sales of guidebooks to Afghanistan have not been strong during the last two decades, so the bookshop in Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel (no running water on most floors, and bring your own sleeping bag) still has plenty of copies of Nancy Hatch Dupree’s 1977 Afghanistan left on its shelves. It is perhaps the most extraordinary guide I have ever read. It was published just two years before the Soviet invasion of this country began the cycle of recent wars. After no more than twenty-four years this has become a guide to a country that no longer exists, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire or British India. Once there were schoolgirls in miniskirts in Kabul. In two months I have never seen the face of a girl older than seven. Even in post-Taliban Kabul most women are firmly covered in their burqas.
After two months of war, I took a day off. Armed with Ms. Dupree’s guidebook I went to the zoo. But here there is no day off, because the story of the zoo is the story—the tragedy really—of Afghanistan in miniature, but with animals for victims.
The zoo opened in 1967, and Ms. Dupree wrote admiringly about it: “A lion, a gift of Germany, has a regal run beside the Kabul river; the kangaroos from Australia have settled in nicely; the raccoons from the United States are raising a family. A three-year-old elephant presented by the Government of India arrived by air in June 1973.”
The elephant died in a rocket attack eight years ago when the Mujahideen forces that had fought the Russians were fighting one another. The zoo lies in a district that was shelled and rocketed mercilessly by one faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The elephant house remains a ruin; the elephant is buried nearby. The kangaroos and raccoons are long gone; either they died, escaped, or were killed. But the “German” lion is still here. His face is lopsided and he can barely walk. He is almost totally blind because someone threw a hand grenade at him after he killed his brother, who had climbed into his run to tease him. “There are crazy people everywhere,” sighs Sheer Agha, the zoo’s director. Two years ago another man went into his run and suffered the same fate—but that time, there was no revenge. Today nineteen species live among the ruins, including several monkeys, two porcupines, two wolves, some eagles, a wild cat, forty rabbits, a bear, and a deer. During the grim months when Hekmatyar’s forces were rocketing Kabul, Mr. Agha and his fellow workers could not come to work. “But,” he told me, “when the shelling died down, we would bring food and the guard who was here would give it to the animals. When we could not come he gave his own food to the animals.”
Nancy Hatch Dupree writes glowingly in her guide about the zoo’s “considerable collection of fish and reptiles from all over the world… added with the opening of an aquarium in July, 1974. In addition, there is a very fine Zoological Museum…which was reopened in May 1972 after two years of modification and expansion.” The entire collection was destroyed by Hekmatyar’s rockets—along with what little hope remained after the Soviet years, which had already snuffed out the spirit of the carefree city of the 1970s. Then it had become a magnet for Western hippies and also shared something of a glamorous reputation among Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, and others—much like the similarly doomed Beirut.
It was during this bout of fighting that Mujahideen soldiers ate the deer and the rabbits, because, says Mr. Agha, “the guard could not stop them.” I asked him if they also ate the elephant after it was killed and he laughed and said, “No, that is not permitted by our religion.” But, surprisingly, Mr. Agha told me that he did not believe that the months of Hekmatyar’s rocketing were the worst time the zoo ever faced. “It was the Taliban period,” he says. “They were always bothering people and they were uneducated and threw stones at the animals. Once a Taliban commander came here and asked who was responsible. I said, ‘I am,’ and then he asked me: ‘Is there one sentence in the Holy Koran which says we should have a zoo?’ I said that there was not, so then he said, ‘Please take all the animals out.’ I went to the mayor, who was a little better, and he gave me a paper which I showed whenever we had any other problems.” Mr. Agha reflected: “The Taliban were not at all sympathetic, they did not like scientists, only mullahs.”
After the Taliban fled Kabul on November 12, there was no money for food for the animals, so Mr. Agha was reduced to begging the market traders for credit. Now, however, he says that the new interim government has kept its promise and sent him cash. Still, the staff have not been paid for three months and very soon their numbers are going to grow. Women who worked at the zoo and were then banned will soon be coming back to their jobs. “They are very happy,” says Mr. Agha, who is also hopeful that somehow he will find money to rebuild his zoo.
In one cage a bear has a bloody, unhealed wound on its nose, the result, Mr. Agha says, of his being beaten with a stick by a Taliban seven months ago. Mr. Agha said: “Please tell the world about our plight so that people can come and help us.” He was, of course, only talking about the zoo, but he might have been talking about his country.
On December 5 Afghans convened by the United Nations and meeting near Bonn in Germany agreed to form a transitional government that would take power on December 22. They also agreed that a UN-backed multinational force should be deployed in Afghanistan. However, what exactly it would do, for how long, and how big it would be remained unclear. Skeptics believe that the deal is untenable. They point to the fact that three of the most important jobs, the ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, all go to three Tajiks from a small area of the Panjshir Valley who were all close to Ahmed Shah Massoud. It is also not yet clear whether the mainly Pashtun south of Afghanistan will relapse into the anarchy which plagued it in the years before the Taliban took over.
The leader of the transitional government is Hamid Karzai, a powerful forty- six-year-old Pashtun tribal leader, and a supporter of Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s former king. He is also well educated, Westernized, speaks good English, and was deputy foreign minister in 1992. He spent much of the 1980s living in the US and he is a man whose views have chimed well with those of the US in the recent past. On July 20, 2000, he gave evidence to the Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, which was holding a hearing called “The Taliban: Engagement or Confrontation?” He told the committee that the terrorist presence in his country could not be removed without strong international support.
The coming weeks and months are Afghanistan’s moment of opportunity. Its people are desperate for peace and normality and have no love for the warlords who have ruined their lives for so long. But it will take both Afghans and the “international community”—i.e., the US, the Europeans, and a few others, including Muslim countries like Turkey who could offer troops for peacekeeping forces—to make sure that the chance is not lost. Afghans need to compromise among themselves and put the interests of their country above their own narrow ethnic interests. The responsibility of Western countries is not to do what they did after the Soviet defeat, which was to lose interest in Afghanistan once their own concerns had been satisfied. By now these may be somewhat mundane observations—but it does not make them any the less true. We failed Afghanistan before and now we are paying the price. Future historians shouldn’t have to look for the roots of a US decline in Bagram.
—December 20, 2001
January 17, 2002
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 [email protected], 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. ↩