The Other Ground Zero

The Other Ground Zero

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.


Northern Afghanistan

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.”

As the sun sets in Kunduz on Monday night, an alliance commander, who looked a little like Fidel Castro and gave his name only as Hussein, said the Taliban who would not surrender were chased to the west. A loudspeaker blared, warning of an impending curfew, drowning out the commander’s voice. A few Northern Alliance leaders attached to the staff of General Mohammad Daoud Khan approached my translator and me. It’s time to go, he said; this street might look safe for now, but foreigners shouldn’t be around here after dark.

As the opposition forces edged closer to total victory in the region, tensions actually seemed to heighten. There was no longer an established front line. On the way back to Taloqan in the dark, past a thirty-foot crater in the road and between gangs of fighters, there was only silence.

Previously in Taloqan, children had hawked bread at the bustling bazaar, barefoot merchants lounging in their stalls sold pomegranates and apples by the light of kerosene lamps, men at the local restaurants ate rice and lamb after their Ramadan fasts, with smoke rising from the grilling shashlik, and boys yelled at their mules, thwacking away with sticks. Strangers would look at Westerners and put their hands on their hearts with a slight bow in the ancient Central Asian manner. But this night, victory in hand, there was just dark settling in the streets, and a few armed men patrolling, their allegiance unknown.

That evening, in the city, another journalist was killed, the eighth since this war had started. Western journalists in Afghanistan have been laden with cash, stashed in money belts, shoes and anywhere else it can be hidden. Each one carries enough money to make an Afghan family rich beyond its dreams for life. The journalists carry the most recent laptop computers and satellite phones, powered by generators in a country without electricity, where the mass of the population live in misshapen mud huts.

The latest victim was shot in a house about fifty yards from where I was staying. A Swedish cameraman with two children at home, he had been talking on his satellite phone to his wife earlier in the evening, planning a vacation. Past midnight, four armed men broke into a house where he and his crew were staying. According to the crew’s translator, at first the gunmen threatened to kill the entire group. Foreign invaders, they said, would die. The translator begged the fighters to save their lives. It’s Ramadan, he said, these men have families; they don’t have guns. Three journalists were spared–but the cameraman took an AK-47 round in the chest and died on the way to the city’s wretched hospital.

By the early morning, a group of journalists huddled at the rented house of the European Broadcasting Union and smoked anxiously outside. A gracious and experienced gray-haired Swedish television correspondent, who has covered some of the most violent parts of the world, was crying, mourning his lost friend. “Why did they kill him?” he asked, over and over again.

It’s no secret that the Taliban, in spite of their atrocities, were tolerated by the West because they stabilized a violent country by smothering it. Now, it was as if the end of the front line, the victory at Kunduz and the seeming consolidation of power had brought an end to that brutally enforced stability. Fighters may not have been in position anymore, but it seemed they were everywhere.

The next morning convoys of journalists abandoning Taloqan started on the bone-jarring, six-hour drive over desert dust back toward Tajikistan. A TV network let me ride with them, and a rented mujahedeen warrior lounged awkwardly in the back of the pickup truck, with an AK-47 and an ornate handmade-leather shoulder holster for easy access to more ammunition. Shy, he smiled and put his hand over his heart in the ancient Central Asian manner. By then, according to the accounts reporters were getting on their satellite phones, the conference in Germany was under way, and the participants were haggling politely, without guns, about some theoretical Afghanistan of the future.

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