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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.