The Other Ground Zero
As delegates of the fractious power groups in Afghanistan gathered in Germany at an elegant mansion around a polished round table, huddling with diplomats in tailored suits, they used phrases like "coalition," "power-sharing" and "broad-based government." A world away, in the country those delegates came from, three fresh corpses--dead Taliban fighters--lay on a dirt street in Kunduz. Flies gathered around their heads and their gaping mouths, and a crowd gathered too. "Punjabi Taliban," a gap-toothed old man dressed in a colorless turban and a cloak hissed to me, gesturing at one of the bodies. Another man shook his head, "Kandari Taliban," he said. "Thank you," piped a barefoot boy in a ragged vest, parroting some English he heard somewhere, and holding up his thumb. No doubt the bodies would soon go to one of those windstrewn expanses of land, marked by mounds of dirt, that are the ubiquitous graveyards of Afghanistan.
Kunduz, a strategically placed town with a population of about 200,000, had been the last stronghold of the Taliban in Northern Afghanistan. After a battle and a siege, after broken agreements and betrayals and US bombing, it had collapsed. From one perspective, this was victory in the war against terror and Taliban repression, the final consolidation in the north. But from another angle, on the ground, it also looked like the beginning of the breakdown of any semblance of stability, as if victory were unbinding the knot that tied enemies together. "It's back to square one," says one old Afghan hand. "Former commanders want to move back into their former kingdoms."
For more than a week, the front lines along the barren scrub miles from Kunduz remained unchanged as the United States bombed Taliban positions. Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and his competitors but temporary allies were assaulting from the east, west and north. When the town fell, it came as no surprise, after the blitzkrieg by alliance forces. But among the motley townspeople milling about the main street, dodging soldiers, there was no evident rejoicing. There was barely a smile, except on the faces of the notoriously undisciplined troops of the Northern Alliance walking the streets, and crammed into ancient Russian transport trucks, aging tanks and brand-new Toyota pickups they squabbled over as they defeated the Taliban. Here, people weren't digging up hidden radios from storage and dancing in the streets. There was not a single woman to be seen. An injured man covered in a red blanket, his face blank in trauma, was wheeled in a rough-hewn handcart toward the hospital, as a crowd followed along, shouting. Within hours of the victory, pictures of the Northern Alliance's assassinated leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and its ostensible leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, were posted in the square.
Aside from the dead, I saw few immediate signs of the defeated Taliban. One terrified Pakistani was found and dragged to the city center, where he was beaten and then hauled away in a truck. The foreign Taliban were the ones who held out the longest here, the ones who refused to surrender. Seen as occupying invaders from Chechnya, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere, they are the ones who draw the most contempt. Asked about the fate of such foreigners, 28-year-old Mohamad Azrat, a mujahedeen in the bed of a pickup truck, riding with his comrades in Kunduz and toting an rocket-propelled grenade, leers and draws a finger across his throat. Then he says the Taliban appeared to have committed suicide before the Northern Alliance even arrived.
When Mazar-i-Sharif fell earlier in November, 600 Taliban were found dead. The operating assumption is that it was a massacre, although no forensic investigation is likely. The International Committee of the Red Cross says it's trying to register POWs, determine the number of killed and wounded, and keep the varying alliance forces advised of international humanitarian law. Still, "we are not naïve," says Roland Sidler, the white-haired, well-traveled head of the local efforts. "This is war." I'd seen a gleaming Red Cross SUV at the Northern Alliance headquarters in Taloqan, and clean-cut, sincere young negotiators had been offered access to prisoners. But the fall of Kunduz appeared to render the tenuous agreement obsolete.
If the foreign fanatics who joined the Taliban are treated brutally, at the same time there seems to be an almost eerie acceptance of the others--the local Taliban who fought and enforced brutal codes and strictures. Many such members of the Taliban have not been disarmed. Instead, they have been released with their weapons, as if this were a baseball game and they had simply struck out and were waiting another turn at bat. Locals said Taliban soldiers could be seen strutting the raucous bazaar in Taloqan, the Northern Alliance's regional headquarters, even before the battle was over. Moreover, some Afghans have difficulty articulating the real difference between the Taliban's beliefs and those of the Northern Alliance. One ethnic Tajik who fought with the mujahedeen against the Russians in the 1980s put it this way: "They're really the same. They are fighting for land and money and power."
In Kunduz, a pharmacist, Fayez Mohammed, kept his shop open through the day, doling out medications and advice to the soldiers who strolled in and watching the fighting through his window. "Nobody liked the Taliban, they torture, they are cruel," he said. His shelves are packed with vitamins and antiflatulence syrup and pills brought from Iran, Pakistan and China. When one of his customers, bristling with cartridges like Pancho Villa, finally left, Mohammed continued getting his thoughts together. "I'm scared about the future. I'm worried the fighting won't stop."