KABUL – Upper middle class families like Sayed Nabi Hashimi’s are extremely rare in Afghanistan. Hashimi, 54, is the chief pilot of Ariana – the Afghan national carrier, founded in 1955, still under United Nations sanctions, and with practically all its planes bombed by the United States.
Hashimi lives in a spacious two-storey house with a well-tendered garden, along with his young wife and three kids, including a four-month-old baby. The older boy, aged seven, is studying computing with a private tutor at home. Hashimi drives the only Chevy in Kabul: he imported it himself from Dubai in one of his flights.
Hashimi recalls that on Monday morning of November 12, the day that Kabul was liberated, “there was a lot of looting, by local criminals.” The looters wanted to take his car. He had to call 10 people, among relatives and friends, to protect his house. Barhanuddin Rabbani – the president of the UN-recognized Islamic State of Afghanistan – has a house very close to Hashimi’s. He was not so lucky. “Around 60 people entered his house and took everything away.”
Hashimi used to live literally surrounded by Taliban – who confiscated the best houses in his neighborhood. There was an Al-Qaeda guesthouse across the street – “with more or less 40 Arabs, but they fled the first day of the bombing.” For Hashimi, “the worst thing for the people of Afghanistan is no education.” He hates the Taliban with a vengeance. “Everybody had to wear a turban, even to go to school. They were brainwashing all Afghan children. You could bring a kilo of heroin to Kabul, but I had to smuggle English textbooks for my children.”
Hashimi also hated the communists who occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, but the Taliban were in a class of their own. “For one year, I boycotted the Taliban.” He is sure that Pakistan “is playing a double game in Afghanistan.” He does not believe in the UN peace plan. “If you think that Hazaras and Pashtuns will sit on the same table to form a government, you must be dreaming. They are only used to fighting.” And he is convinced that “there will be many more terrorists 10 years from now.”
Hashimi, still a handsome man, is nothing less than Ariana’s living legend – the man who saw everything in his three-decade career. We met on a visit to the Ariana main offices in Kabul – when most of the pilots talked to us in a mixed Romanov-Soviet style room with velvet chairs, a faded tribute to a more glorious past when the airline had Pan American as a shareholder, 1,500 employees and seven weekly flights to Europe. Ariana never flew to Pakistan, though. Its last international flight was to Jeddah, during Haj, in April 2001. Its last scheduled flight was on October 7 – a Kabul-Kunduz round-trip. And its last flight to date was on the next day, when a Boeing 727 was flown to Logar for safety, just before the American bombing.
Captain Jamaluddin and flight engineer Abdul Fateh say that “the Taliban needed us. The relations were good. We had to wear beards. They didn’t have any crew: they only liked mullahs. They did not understand aviation, agriculture or politics.” Before the UN sanctions, Ariana operated a domestic schedule of about 18 weekly flights, linking Kabul with Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz and Herat, using five Antonov 24s and three Boeing 727s. According to the pilots, one Boeing 727 and the five Antonovs were destroyed by the American bombing.
Ariana “may” have two aircraft left: an old Tupolev Tu-154 M in Mashad, Iran, and a Boeing in Shandan, a military airport near Herat. While we were talking, corporate secretary Feda Mohd Fedawi was writing a telex to the new Herat governor, Ismail Khan, to send somebody for an on-site investigation: it’s impossible to simply pick up the phone and ask, because there are no working phones. Fedawi says that “if the Boeing is OK, we could be back in business within a week.”
Although conceding that Al-Qaeda operatives constantly boarded Ariana domestic flights, they say that they “never saw these kinds of Arabs coming from Dubai.” Also, they say that “we didn’t bring any arms from Sharjah [in the United Arab Emirates], weapons usually came overland from Pakistan.” And if an Al-Qaeda operative was to travel disguised as a pilot or a an engineer, “we would recognize him, because we’ve been working together for 20 years.” All Ariana pilots and engineers were trained in the late 70s, in Miami. “After the Soviet intervention,” says secretary Fedawi, “we were sending them to Lufthansa in Germany and also to Air France, and for the last six or seven years to Royal Jordanian, in Aman: they did the maintenance of the 727s.”
Regarding the Arabs, the pilots insist that they would be easily spotted “because they always look angry.” One of the pilots tells the eye-opening story of an Arab who castigated a steward because he was serving Pepsi to “kaffirs” (infidels) on a domestic flight. Most of all, the pilots are adamant: “We never carried anything that was property of Osama bin Laden.”
Secretary Fedawi’s words are more nuanced. He says, “maybe sometimes the Taliban authorities asked for a plane to carry their armed people from one city to another.” And if there were any Arabs on international flights, “they did not come as fighters. They must have come as normal passengers, with passports. It’s not the airline’s responsibility to verify these documents, it concerns immigration.” Concerning the possibility of Al-Qaeda operatives flying as pilots, he adds, “If these Arabs were trained as pilots, it was in secrecy: we would have known. We have not trained new pilots for six or seven years now. And for the Antonov 24, we train them locally.” The Taliban authorities, says Fedawi, seldom left Kandahar. “The minister of civil aviation came here only once or twice a year. Everything was controlled by telephone.”
Hashimi, relaxing in his own house, told us a completely different story. He said that “when communists ruled, Ariana was their private airline. When the mujahideen ruled, it was the same thing. And when the Taliban ruled, it was the same thing. You see, this is not a democratic country. So they used it as they wanted. The Taliban used it as a military airline.”
Hashimi was the commander of flight 801 from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif, a Boeing 727-200 – the airline’s most modern plane – hijacked in the beginning of 2000 and involved in an odyssey across Tashkent, Aktapunsky (in Russia), Moscow, and Stansted, near London, until its final destination in Kandahar. There was nothing political about it: the hijackers and their gang just wanted to leave Afghanistan.
But most of all, Hashimi was the commander in many crucial flights from the United Arab Emirates between 1997 and 1999, which brought, according to him, “many Arabs and Chechens, and a lot of weapons.” Hashimi says that the cargo “was always in big boxes. We never knew what was inside. It was always very heavy.”
Hashimi is absolutely positive that the senior management in Ariana was distributing false Ariana identity cards. These were very easy to forge. In addition, he says that in the Emirates, “they don’t check passports, visas are not required, and the general declaration for each flight can be easily reproduced. And it was very easy to get an Ariana uniform.”
The implication of Ariana management in “secret activities” is not far-fetched, considering that the president, the communications director and the controller of Ariana were all Taliban. “On their very first day in power in Kabul, the Taliban installed their people in Ariana.”
Hashimi says that “all flights were overnight. When the crew arrived, the planes were already loaded, in a military area of Kandahar’s airport. Sometimes we had 14 to 15 weekly flights to and from Sharjah. And sometimes we had special flights.”
One of these special flights happened during the mujahideen government, in 1996, a few weeks before the Taliban took over Kabul. Hashimi relishes retelling the story. “Some Sudanese people came and wanted a charter plane. They got it. I was the captain, with a flight engineer, two co-pilots and attendants. The Ariana head office had permission for a few countries, but not for Saudi Arabia. The flight was Kabul-Jalalabad-Sharjah-Khartoum. The Sudanese said that by the time we got to Jalalabad, the permit for Saudi would be OK. They said that they would bring some cargo and take it to Sharjah. In Jalalabad, we went to the governor’s house and waited. They called, and we took off. They said in Dubai that we would get our permission by telephone. When we were flying close to Jeddah, the controller asked. ‘Where are you going, you have no permission!’ Five minutes later, they said ‘You can cross, but on the way back you need permission.'”
Hashimi says that the crew waited for five days in Khartoum for their “cargo.” “Our plane had two configurations: with 56 passengers and with 79. They wanted 84 passengers. They asked how many extra seats we wanted. They installed the seats overnight. In the end, we flew women, children, clothes, rickshaws, old bikes, mattresses, blankets. It took three days to get a permission to fly over Saudi. We finally reached Jalalabad early in the morning. And then I knew we had transported the bodyguards and the families of bin Laden’s inner circle. At the airport in Jalalabad, all sorts of important people came to see them, in six or seven big cars. This was before the Taliban took over. Abdul Qadir may have been there. And Sayyaf as well.”
Hashimi does not know for sure if Osama bin Laden was on that flight. “The Sheik” – as Kabulis used to refer to him – may have been a passenger. After all, nobody knew his face, and still today average Kabulis in the bazaar gape when confronted with their fist-ever bin Laden pic. More than five years after this “special flight” – with the Taliban now converted into a guerrilla force – bin Laden is still alive, hiding in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. One thing is certain though, he won’t be on the next Ariana flight.