Nic Rosen – Times Online December 7, 2008
The highway that leads south out of Kabul passes through a craggy range of arid, sand-coloured mountains with sharp, stony peaks. Nomadic Kuchi women tend to camels as small boys herd sheep. There is nothing to indicate that the terrain we are about to enter is one of the world’s deadliest war zones.
On the outskirts of the capital we are stopped at a checkpoint manned by the Afghan National Army. The soldiers are suspicious of my foreign accent. My Afghan companions, Shafiq and Ibrahim, convince them that I am only a journalist. As we drive away, Ibrahim laughs. The soldiers thought I was a suicide bomber. Ibrahim did not tell them that he and Shafiq are mid-level Taliban commanders escorting me deep into Ghazni.
Until recently, Ghazni, like much of central Afghanistan, was considered reasonably safe. But now the province, 100 miles south of Kabul, has fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture there often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the Taliban regime, or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Farmers increasingly turn to the Taliban, not the American-backed authorities, for adjudication of land disputes.
By the time we reach the town of Salar, only 50 miles south of Kabul, we have already passed five tractor-trailers from military convoys that have been destroyed by the Taliban. The highway, newly rebuilt courtesy of $250m largely from US taxpayers, is pocked by immense craters, most caused by roadside bombs planted by Taliban fighters. As in Iraq, these improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are a key part of the haphazard but lethal campaign against coalition troops and the long, snaking convoys that provide logistical support.
We drive by a tractor-trailer still smouldering from an attack the day before, and the charred, skeletal remains of a truck from an attack a month earlier. At a petrol station, a crowd of Afghans has gathered. Smoke rises from the road several hundred yards ahead. “War,” says Ibrahim. “The Americans are fighting the Taliban.”
Shafiq and Ibrahim use their mobile phones to call their friends in the Taliban, hoping to find out what is going on. Suddenly, the chatter of machinegun fire erupts, followed by the thud of mortar fire and several loud explosions that shake the car. I flinch and duck in the back seat, cursing as Shafiq and Ibrahim laugh at me. “Tawakkal al Allah,” Shafiq lectures me. “Depend on God.”
As we wait at the petrol station, Shafiq and Ibrahim display no indignation; to them, a military battle is a routine inconvenience. They buy a syrupy fizzy drink called Energy. Two green armoured personnel carriers from Nato zip by, racing towards Kabul. Shafiq and Ibrahim laugh: it looks like the coalition forces are fleeing the battle.
After an hour, the fighting ends and we get back in the car. A few minutes later, we pass the broken remains of a British supply convoy. Dozens of trucks — some smouldering, others still ablaze — line the side of the road, which is strewn with huge chunks of blasted asphalt. Finally, as night falls, after another checkpoint, we reach Ghazni province.
“From now on, it’s all Taliban territory,” Ibrahim says. “The Americans and police don’t come here at night.”
Shafiq laughs: “The Russians were stronger than the Americans. More fierce. We will put the Americans in their graves.”
To see at first hand how the Taliban operate, I had contacted a well-connected Afghan friend in Kabul and asked him to make the introductions. He knew many groups of fighters in Afghanistan, but said he would only trust my security if those I accompanied knew that they and their families would be killed if anything happened to me. Through a respected dignitary I was connected with Mullah Ibrahim, who commands 500 men in the Dih Yak district of Ghazni. (To protect Ibrahim’s identity, I agreed to change his name.)
Now in his forties, Ibrahim has been fighting with the Taliban since the 1990s. He walks with a limp: he lost his right leg below the knee in the civil war, and he had undergone surgery the week before to repair nerve damage suffered in a recent firefight. At first he told me his wounds were from an American bullet, but I later learnt he had been injured in a clash with a rival Taliban commander.
Before setting off, I had bought several sets of salwar kameez. I had grown my beard to pass as an Afghan, and had supplemented my Arabic and basic Farsi with a week of Berlitz classes in Pashtu, the language spoken by the ethnic group that dominates the Taliban. The book Berlitz gave me was clearly designed for military purposes. It offered a helpful list of weapons, and provided the Pashtu translation for a host of important phrases: “Show me your ID card.” “Let the vehicle pass.” “You are a prisoner.” “Hands up.” “Surrender.” The book did not include the phrase I needed most: “Ze Talibano milmayam.” “I am a guest of the Taliban.”
On a Saturday afternoon, Ibrahim picks me up in a white Toyota Corolla, its dashboard covered in fake fur. His friend Shafiq is behind the wheel, wearing a cap embroidered with rhinestones. Afghan culture places a premium on courtesy, and Shafiq is unfailingly polite. Almost casually, he says he has personally executed about 200 spies, usually beheading them. “First I warn people to stop,” he says, emphasising his fair-mindedness. “If they continue, I kill them.”
Shafiq, who fought the Soviets with the mujaheddin, now commands Taliban fighters in the Andar district of Ghazni. “Andar is a very bad place,” an intelligence officer in Kabul tells me. “The Taliban show a lot of confidence and freedom of movement there.” While coalition forces have focused on driving the insurgents from the south, they failed to maintain a buffer in central regions like Ghazni, where the Taliban now routinely pull people off buses and execute them.
In the darkness, we roll into the village of Nughi. We no longer have mobile-phone reception: the Taliban shut down the phone towers after sunset to prevent US surveillance from pinpointing their position. Shafiq manoeuvres the car on the bumpy dirt road between mud houses. We are led to a house where a group of young Taliban fighters emerges, several carrying weapons. We greet the traditional way, each man placing his right hand on the other’s heart, leaning in but not fully embracing, inquiring about the other’s health and family. Ibrahim, who has promised to protect me on the trip, decides to go home.
With the moon lighting our path, Shafiq and I follow the Taliban to another house, entering through a low door into a guest room with a red carpet on the floor and wooden beams on the ceiling. A dim bulb barely illuminates the room. A PKM belt-fed machinegun and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher lean against a wall, next to several rockets. We are joined by Mullah Yusuf, Ibrahim’s nephew, who serves as a senior commander in Andar.
Yusuf has dark reddish skin and a handsome face. He wears a black turban with thin gold stripes and carries an AK-47. A boy brings a pitcher and basin, and we rinse our hands. We drink green tea and eat a soup of mushy bread called shurwa with our hands, followed by meat and grapes.
Yusuf became a commander last year, when the Americans killed his superior officer. He sleeps in a different house every night to avoid detection. A year and a half ago, he was injured in his thigh by a US helicopter strike. He joined the Taliban in 2003 after studying at a religious school in North Waziristan, the region bordering Pakistan. He took up jihad, he tells me, because foreigners have come to Afghanistan and are fighting Afghans and poor people. “The Americans are not good. They go into houses and put people in jail. Fifteen days ago the Americans bombed here and killed a civilian.”
According to the United Nations, 577 Afghan civilians were killed by coalition forces up till August, two-thirds of them in air strikes.
Once the foreigners leave, insists Yusuf, the Taliban will negotiate peace with the Afghan army and police: “They are brothers, Muslims.” What’s more, he says, girls will be allowed to go to school, and women will be allowed to work. It is a stance I will hear echoed by many Taliban leaders. In recent years, recognising that their harsher strictures alienated the population, the Taliban have grown more tolerant. They have even been forced to adopt technologies they once banned: computers, television, films, the internet.
After we finish eating, Shafiq opens a shed to reveal another white Toyota Corolla. The men load the rocket-propelled grenade launcher and four rockets into the car, along with the PKM machinegun. We drive on dirt paths to the village of Kharkhasha. Arriving at Shafiq’s house, we enter the guest room in darkness and sit on thin mattresses. A small gas lamp is brought out, as well as grapes and green tea. Shafiq joined the Taliban in 1994, he says, because they wanted peace and Islam. Shafiq has met Osama Bin Laden twice. He was impressed by Bin Laden’s knowledge of Pashtu. He has also met Mullah Muhammad Omar, the self-styled “commander of the faithful” who is now in hiding across the border in Pakistan, where he rebuilt the Taliban with the help and protection of Pakistani intelligence. Shafiq hopes Mullah Omar will return to lead the country, but other Taliban leaders no longer view him as the only option.
The next morning, we get back into the Corolla, loading the PKM, the RPG launcher and four rockets into the trunk. Shafiq and the machinegun are in the front passenger seat. Yusuf drives, his AK-47 beside him. Another Taliban fighter rides a Honda motorcycle alongside, an AK-47 strapped to his shoulder. They have promised to take me to see the Taliban in action. Yusuf points to a police checkpoint. The police know him, he says, but do nothing to stop him. “Every night I go on patrol, and they don’t fight me,” he says. “They don’t have guns; they are afraid.” Shafiq recently bought two Jeeps from the police, who told the Interior Ministry that the vehicles were destroyed in an attack. “The police are highly corrupt,” a senior UN official in Kabul tells me.
In the village of Khodzai, we visit a commander at a mosque where eight men and two boys sit on the floor, drinking tea. When they aren’t attacking checkpoints or ambushing convoys, the Taliban spend most of their time praying or listening to religious lectures. The men ambushed the Afghan army two days earlier in a nearby village, killing 20 Afghan soldiers. “The Americans do not come here,” their commander says proudly. “We control this area. The Taliban is the government here.”
Suddenly a coalition military helicopter swoops low overhead. Throughout the war, the US has compensated for its lack of troops by relying on aerial shows of force: it’s possible to go for days in Ghazni without seeing a single coalition soldier. I clench my fists in terror, waiting for the helicopter to fire at us, but the men ignore it and laugh at me. My fear may be comic but it’s not misplaced: a month after I leave, an air strike in Andar will kill seven suspected Taliban fighters. To my relief, the helicopter flies off.
The men leave on their motorcycles to patrol the countryside. As the Taliban have adopted the tactics of Iraqi insurgents, they have become far more brutal than they were when they ruled Afghanistan. To sow insecurity, they enter villages and bypass traditional tribal mechanisms, waging a campaign of social terror. Shafiq tells me of the trials that the Taliban hold to prosecute collaborators. Suspects are given a hearing by a qazi, or judge, who orders those convicted to be beheaded.
With the targeting of civilians now sanctioned by the Taliban, top commanders compete for prize catches, stopping cars in broad daylight and checking mobiles to determine if they are worthwhile captives. As we drive deeper into Ghazni, we enter territory where such rivalry is now as lethal as the rocket launcher in the Corolla’s boot. As the Taliban insurgency spreads, it has fallen victim to the tribal rivalries and violent infighting endemic to Afghanistan. “The leadership is totally fragmented,” a senior UN official says.
In the middle of a sandstorm we head to a local shop, pulling up with the PKM in plain view and Taliban chants blaring from the car’s speakers. The people in the shop greet Yusuf warmly. He buys shoulder straps for AK-47s. Then, as we pass through a nearby village, we are stopped by a bearded man on a motorcycle. An AK-47 is slung over his shoulder, his face partially concealed by a scarf. He demands to know who I am. Shafiq tells him I am a guest. The man asks me if I am Pashtun. “Pukhtu Nayam,” I say, drawing on my Berlitz lessons. “I am not Pashtun.” He glares at me and rides off.
Arriving at another mosque, we find a dozen men inside. A large shoulder-fired missile is on the floor, an anti-armour weapon. Shafiq tells me we are waiting to meet the commander who will approve my trip. This is news to me.
I thought my trip had already been approved. Suddenly the angry man on the motorcycle bursts in holding a walkie-talkie. He barks at the fighter to stop talking to me until the men’s commander shows up. A judge, he says, will decide what will happen to me. On hearing the Pashtu word qazi, I start to panic. As Shafiq made clear earlier, a meeting with a judge could end with decapitation.
I am ordered to get into a car with the angry man and the other strangers, who will take me to the judge. To my alarm, Shafiq says he will join Yusuf, who is praying in the mosque, and catch up with us later. He seems to be washing his hands of me. I have been held by militias in both Iraq and Lebanon, but in those situations I could speak the language and talk my way out of trouble. Now I am in one of the most desolate places I have ever seen, far from any help and unable to speak more than a few garbled words of Pashtu. Trying to contain my mounting sense of helplessness, I tell Shafiq that I am not leaving him — I am his guest. Once I am out of his control, I will be at the mercy of men who kill almost as routinely as they pray. Brandishing their rifles, the men shout at me to get into their car.
Yusuf comes out and tells me to get into our Corolla. He won’t leave me, he says. He puts another man with an AK-47 in the car to guard me. As I wait, a standoff ensues. Frantic, I send text messages to contacts in Kabul to tell them I’m in trouble. In the tense silence, my guard’s mobile phone goes off abruptly: the ringtone is machinegun fire, accompanied by a song about the Taliban being born for martyrdom.
My mouth goes dry from fear; I feel as though I have lost my voice. My friend in Kabul who helped arrange the trip gets through to Shafiq. He tells him he should not leave me, that I am Shafiq’s responsibility and he will hold him personally responsible if anything happens to me.
We sit in the car for more than an hour, windows up. The sandstorm is still raging, and it’s impossible to see more than a few yards ahead. Men with guns flicker into view, only to vanish in the blinding haze. Finally, Shafiq tells me I can get out. The angry man and his companions depart, taking the rocket launcher with them. Thinking it is over, I put my hand on my heart as they leave, to indicate no ill will. Then Shafiq tells me there has been a change of plan. He has been ordered to escort me to visit a rival commander, a man called Dr Khalil, who will determine what will happen to me.
I later learn that I have been caught in the midst of the bitter and often violent infighting that divides the Taliban. Ibrahim’s recent injury, it turns out, was the result of a clash between his forces and a group of foreign fighters under the command of Dr Khalil. The foreigners wanted to close down a girls’ school, sparking a battle. Two Arabs and 11 Pakistanis commanded by Dr Khalil had been killed by Ibrahim’s men.
As we leave to meet Dr Khalil, the car jolts forward in the sandstorm, rocking back and forth on the stony path. Yusuf tells me not to worry — if Dr Khalil tries to take me, he will fight them. It is the only reassurance I have. I struggle to find a signal for my phone, cursing as the bars appear and disappear. I reach another of my contacts. “I spoke to Dr Khalil,” he says. “If they behave bad with you, don’t worry — they just want to punish you.”
Shafiq also tells me not to worry, that he will die defending me if necessary. My only hope, I realise, is Pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of hospitality — the same tradition that forbade the Taliban from handing over Osama Bin Laden to the Bush administration after September 11. Unfortunately, young Taliban fighters are substituting their own authority for tribal customs. “All the old rules have broken down,” an aid official who has spent two decades in Afghanistan tells me.
Our car crawls through the empty desert. I ask Shafiq if Dr Khalil is a good guy. “He’s like you,” Shafiq answers. “No Muslim is a bad man.” His faith in the brotherhood of Islam does little to reassure me. “Don’t worry,” Shafiq says. “The Doctor has a gun, and I have a gun.”
Ibrahim calls to say that he has reached a Taliban leader in Pakistan, as well as someone in the United Arab Emirates, and they have promised to call the Doctor and tell him not to harm me. “The Doctor will fight with me, not with you,” says Shafiq, seeming to warm to the idea of bloodshed. My contact in Kabul calls again. “They might slap you, but they won’t kill you,” he tells me. “It’s just to punish you for coming without permission. They might keep you overnight as a guest. You are lucky you called me.”
Later he tells me that the Doctor had assured him that he would not “do anything that isn’t sharia”, or Islamic law. This is little consolation, even after the fact, since the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia includes beheading. “I’m a martyr, I’m a star,” the car’s tape deck chants. “I will testify on behalf of my mother on Judgment Day…”
We finally arrive at a mosque somewhere between the villages of Gabari and Sher Kala. The Doctor, I am told, is waiting for us inside. As I enter, I inadvertently step on a pair of Prada sunglasses — just as the Doctor walks in. A burly man with light skin and a dark brown beard, he picks up the bent glasses and examines them sombrely. His hands are thick, enormous. He wears a white cap with palm trees and suns embroidered in white thread. He straightens the glasses and puts them on. My heart sinks.
After everyone prays, the Doctor orders the others to leave the room except for Yusuf. His voice is low and gruff. We sit on the floor. I apologise for entering his territory without permission. He accuses me of being a spy for the Afghan army. He asks how I got a visa to Afghanistan. I tell him I am here to write about the mujaheddin and tell their story. If I like them so much, he sneers, why don’t I join them?
The Doctor asks about my contact. I say he fought with the mujaheddin from Jamiat-i Islami. The Doctor scoffs, saying the man never fought the Soviets. Then he gets to his feet and announces that he is going to make calls to Pakistan to inves-tigate me. We will have to spend the night in the mosque; he will return in the morning. As I try to protest, he stalks out.
I sit glumly on the floor in the guest room. A few minutes later, Shafiq sticks his head in and says “Yallah” — Arabic for “Come on.” I jump up, relieved to get out of there. The Talib fighters sitting with us insist that we drink the tea they have made. I hurriedly gulp it down and step out into the darkness, eager to get away from the mosque. But Shafiq has more bad news: we will have to return in the morning. My mind flashes to the videos I have seen on the internet of victims being decapitated by jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We get in the car and Shafiq drives slowly along nearly invisible paths, the moonlight obscured by dust. When we reach his house, he carries a television into the guest room and turns on the generator. We watch coverage of the attacks we drove by the day before on Al-Jazeera, then an Indian soap opera on an Afghan channel. The women are dressed in revealing western attire. I am amazed that Shafiq would watch something so anathema to the Taliban. It’s okay, he tells me: “It’s a drama about a family.”
I wait impatiently for the phone network to go back up. When it does, one of my contacts in Kabul tells me that he has spoken to senior Taliban officials who told the Doctor not to harm me, but the Doctor continues to insist I am a spy. He thinks the Doctor is trying to assert his independence and exchange me for a ransom. He tells me that Mullah Nasir, a one-armed Kandahari who serves as Taliban governor for Ghazni, is also trying to secure my release. I try to get Shafiq to drive me to Ghazni’s capital, but he says that if he doesn’t return me to Dr Khalil, he will be arrested.
In the end, I am saved by the same official who authorised my trip. According to my contact, the Taliban minister of defence called Dr Khalil and ordered him to release me, warning the Doctor that he would be “f***ed” if anything happened to me. My contact says I will be let go this afternoon, but that once we are on the road we should take the batteries out of our phones to prevent anyone from tracking us: “This Doctor, he is a very nasty guy. He might send somebody to kidnap you on the way, and then I can do nothing for you.”
As we wait for the Doctor to arrive, Shafiq has other problems to deal with. His nephew has been arrested by a Taliban patrol after being spotted walking with a girl. Shafiq secures his release, then other Talib fighters call to complain that they heard music coming from his house the night before. Exasperated, Shafiq protests that it was only Al Jazeera. He doesn’t mention the Iranian singer.
A few hours later, Dr Khalil finally shows up. He examines my passport and leafs through my notebooks, asking me to show him the photos I took. “Zaibullah Mujahed said I should hit you,” he says, referring to the chief Taliban spokesman. “But I will not.” Rifling through my bags, he seems particularly fascinated by my toothbrush. Puzzled, he riffles the bristles with his finger, trying to deduce their purpose.
For a man who has spent much of the past 24 hours contemplating whether I was worth more to him dead or alive, the Doctor is now surprisingly friendly. “What can I do for you?” he asks, a model of courtesy. I cautiously ask him a few questions. He tells me that he studied at an Islamic school in Pakistan before entering medical school in Afghanistan. He says he is fighting to restore a government of Islamic law. God willing, he adds, it will take no more than 30 years to rid Afghanistan of foreigners.
We pile into the Corolla and drive off to meet Ibrahim, loading an RPG into the trunk just in case. Dr Khalil gets behind the wheel, with Shafiq beside him holding the PKM. As we drive through the Doctor’s village, he points to its outer limits. “This is the border between the Taliban and the government,” he says, now jocular and relaxed.
At the edge of town, close to the main road, the Doctor gets out of the car, followed by Shafiq, holding his PKM. The locals appear stunned. They stare, immobilised, their daily routine interrupted by the sudden appearance of two heavily armed Taliban commanders escorting a large foreign man in an ill-fitting salwar kameez. The Doctor stops a pick-up truck and orders the driver to take us to the bazaar. We part warmly.
Arriving at the bazaar, we find a tense, apologetic Ibrahim waiting for us. Like my contact, he was worried that the Doctor had set up an ambush for me on the road. “I should not have left you,” Ibrahim says. “I was lazy. That was my mistake.”
On the way back to Kabul, we dodge more craters in the highway. The military trucks I saw burning two days earlier are still smouldering by the road. Children play on the blackened vehicles, removing pieces for salvage.
Back in Kabul, we all have lunch together at the office of my friend where I first met Ibrahim. My friend teases me for sending him so many text messages — more than a dozen — and reads some of them aloud. Everyone laughs, relieved that the ordeal is over. I look at Ibrahim, wondering if he would have taken me hostage himself under different circumstances.
To return to Kabul from a feudal province like Ghazni is to experience a form of time travel. The city is thoroughly modern, for those who can afford it: five-star hotels, shiny new shopping malls and well-guarded restaurants where foreigners eat meals that cost as much as most Afghans make in a month, cooked with ingredients imported from abroad. If you can avoid falling into the sewage canals at every pedestrian crossing, and evade the suicide bombers who occasionally rock the city, you can enjoy the safety of Afghanistan’s version of the Green Zone.
But the barbarians are at the gate, and serious attacks are getting closer and closer to the city each day. On my return to Kabul, I discover that the Taliban have fired rockets at the airport andat the Nato base; the UN has been on a four-day curfew; and President Karzai has cancelled his public appearances. The city is being slowly but systematically severed from the rest of the country.
“The road from Kabul to Ghazni is gone,” an intelligence officer tells me, “and most of the rest of the roads are going. The ambushes are routine now, which tells you that the Taliban have a routine capability.” Parwan province, bordering Kabul to the north, has also become dangerous. “All of a sudden we see IEDs on the main road in Parwan and attacks on police checkpoints,” he says. “It’s the last remaining key arterial route connecting Kabul to the rest of the country.”
The Bush administration is placing its hopes on presidential elections in Afghanistan next year, but everyone I speak to in Kabul agrees that the elections will be a joke. In Pashtun areas controlled by the Taliban, registration would be virtually impossible, and voting would invoke a death sentence — effectively disenfranchising the country’s dominant ethnic group. Real elections would require the co-operation of the Taliban — and that, in turn, would require negotiations
with the Taliban. The war, in effect, is already lost.The Bush administration believes it can stop the Taliban by throwing money into clinics and schools. But even humanitarian officials scoff at the idea. One says: “Two years ago you could build a road or a bridge in a village and say, ‘Please don’t let the Taliban come in.’ But now the hearts-and-minds business doesn’t work.”
It is foolhardy to believe that the Americans can prevail where the Russians failed. And it is too late for Bush’s “quiet surge”, or even for Barack Obama’s plan for more robust reinforcements in Afghanistan. More soldiers on the ground will only lead to more contact with the enemy, and more air strikes will only lead to more civilian casualties that will alienate even more Afghans. Sooner or later, the Americans will be forced to negotiate, just as the Soviets were before them.
Bush vowed that he would never allow the Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan. But they have already returned, and they appear to be winning. As a high-ranking Taliban leader said recently, “You westerners have your watches. But we Taliban have time.”
First published in Rolling Stone magazine
Last updated 09/12/2008