KABUL – The feeling on a splendid late autumn afternoon is one of absolute elation. Thousands of beardless, grinning Kabulis are cycling about, enveloped in their dark brown blankets, welcoming the Northern Alliance patrol units in their brand new Russian-made combat fatigues.
This joy, though, is juxtaposed with images of death – endless carcasses of bombed buildings. Trucks loaded with TV sets speed past in the direction of liberated Jalalabad. Women walk around unescorted, many of them burqa-less. A Fiddler-on-the-Roof look-alike taxi driver plays his Indian pop music cassettes at ear-splitting volume while performing Formula-1 stunts in his white-and-yellow Corolla.
He takes us to the remains of the house of the Taliban’s former minister of education, Amir Mutaqqi, gutted by formidable American precision bombing. He also takes us to the former office of the ATC – a United Nations-sponsored demining agency – near the airport, totally destroyed by American imprecision bombing. Ragged kids roam about collecting precious scrap metal. Welcome to the ultimate 21st Century Devastation Showpiece: Liberated Kabul.
We arrived in Kabul a few hours before the beginning of Ramadan, not by the north – like the Northern Alliance – but by the improbable east, by taxi, through the mountains, straight from a Jalalabad voided of Taliban a few days earlier. In Jalalabad, the mujahideen were so excited they were about to eat their rocket launchers. They said that they comprised no less than 20,000 fighters, mostly from Nangarhar province, but also from the neighboring Kunar, Laghman and Nuristan regions – all of Pashtun majority areas. Brandishing their Kalashnikovs in front of the governor’s palace, they stressed that the Pashtuns were united. An anti-Taliban Kunar was a big surprise: according to surefire sources in the pakistani border city of Peshawar, this was to be the Taliban’s strategic retreat headquarters.
There were absolutely no Taliban at the Pakistan-Afghan border. There was not even a border. The Durand Line that officially divides the country had just melted away, as if in a dream. On the way to Jalalabad we were saluted like we were in the Paris-Dakar rally. Everybody was out in force in Jalalabad – previously a Taliban stronghold – wanting to know who would decide their future. A shura (tribal council) was hastily convened to determine power: 100 wise men representing the wishes of a key Afghan province bordering volatile tribal areas in Pakistan. The mujahideen said that they had captured nine Arabs, but a few thousand had fled in the direction of Kandahar, soon after Pashtun commander Azad Ali entered the city. Some would be hiding in the hills and caves of Nangarhar. There was virtually no gunfight.
The next day we finally learned for sure that Abdul Qadir, the de facto man in control of Nangarhar province, had been elected by the shura as the new governor. Qadir, a former governor, is the brother of Abdul Haq – the 1980s jihad commander executed by the Taliban during his mission to convince Pashtun commanders to subvert the Taliban rule. Ironies of history: as Ahmed Shah Masoud, the Lion of the Panjshir, only conquered Kabul after he was murdered, Abdul Haq only conquered eastern Afghanistan after he was executed.
The bloodless fall of Jalalabad was even more surprising than the fall – or the Taliban’s “strategic retreat” – from Kabul, according to Mullah Omar’s perverse formula. Nobody saw anything because of the dazzling speed of the facts accumulating on the ground, and because there were absolutely no reporters to verify whatever happened. It is amazing how a state is capable of melting away without leaving any traces.
In Jalalabad, the only remains of Taliban rule are a few white billboards with black Koranic inscriptions. The Radio Shariat building is in ruins. Only less than a week ago, according to the mujahideen, the streets were empty: everybody was afraid of the Taliban and afraid of the devastating American bombing.
By this time it was clear that eastern Afghanistan was living an involuntary experiment in anarchy. Anarchy under control – by the Northern Alliance – but with some worrying signs already in the horizon. On the way to Kabul we passed through Khuram, a former village totally destroyed by bombing, with more than 100 civilian deaths. The survivors are now grinning to passing cars and trucks from the dusty roadside.
In Sarobi, the danger is palpable. Sarobi clings to a strategic pass – ideal for staging guerrilla operations. The local population is hyper-religious, and pro-Taliban: “They guaranteed law and order,” says a crowd in the dreadfully poor bazaar. And in a curve of the road, between the naked Tagao mountains, our translator – an engineer student in Jalalabad, born in Kabul – points in the distance to a column of Arab fighters, clearly visible as they march towards their caves. The guerrilla army is in place and ready to strike at any moment.
Liberated Kabul is all smiles, even fighting the Islamic-induced daylight hunger of Ramadan. About 10 minutes after five in the evening everybody grabs a bucket and drinks from water pumps on the sidewalks, and eats plenty of delicious potato pancakes from street stalls. There are pressing rumors that Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance’s minister of foreign relations, fluent in English, the Alliance’s de facto spokesman, has presidential intentions.
The splendidly dilapidated Kabul Intercontinental – an early 1960s bossa nova relic which should be packed for a permanent exhibit at the Design Museum in London – is the new epicenter of the media planet. Ultra high-tech digital equipment worth the GNP of a cluster of Afghan provinces is now camped out on the roof of the hotel, in one of the poorest corners of the world. And still the media is struggling to put all the pieces of the puzzle together as as no-one knows for sure what is happening in allegedly divided Kandahar – the news trickle in via Pakistan – or how may Taliban are actually encircled in Kunduz city.
It is a great pleasure to meet again young Jabah, a Kabuli, our translator during an interview with commander Masoud, the last he gave in the Panjshir before his assassination in Khwaja Bahauddin by an Al-Qaeda suicide commando two days before September 11 – a “gift” to Mullah Omar from his best mate Osama bin Laden. “Everybody is happy, but not very happy because he is not here,” says Jabah, visibly moved. Every Northern Alliance truck or jeep in Kabul displays a Masoud photo.
Saturday morning in Mandaii bazaar, near Kabul’s famous Blue Mosque, the largest in Afghanistan: scenes straight from a Central Asian take of a Renaissance Brueghel painting. Probably for the first time since the late 1970s the streets are absolutely thronged with people feeling normal, relaxed, under no pressure at all.
Piles of Afghani notes change hands in the money market. Before September 11, the official rate was 66,000 Afghanis to the dollar. Now it is 40,000 Afghanis. The money changers say that the Taliban looted the market before fleeing. All the fresh money comes via the United Arab Emirates, American dollars changed into Afghanis. Young, educated Kabulis are adamant: they and everybody else are in favor of the return of former King Zahir Shah. Some are keen to remind us, “Please give thanks to Tony Blair and George Bush.” They say that even before the Taliban fled, “kids were flying kites and women were going to the market alone.” This means that the Taliban, discreetly, spent days preparing their flight.
In the middle of the hustle and bustle we find Palwan Janagha, a celebrated wrestler in the Afghan national team during three successive Olympic Games: Tokyo (’64), Mexico (’68) and Munich (’72). Palwan claims that he is just 48. For the past 20 years he has had a shop in the bazaar, fixing broken bones and supporting his family of eight. He is wildly happy with the liberation. And he is of course in favor of Zahir Shah.
In the bombed-to-oblivion (during the mujahideen wars) and predominantly Hazara neighborhood of Karte Sakchi – not far from the prison where the Taliban used to lock up men with short beards – there is a Shia mosque where Hazaras flock to their prayers on Wednesdays and Sundays. The Hazaras – descendants of Genghis Khan’s army – were routinely harassed and massacred by the Taliban. Thousands of them still live in the extremely poor surrounding bare hills.
A Hazara man who came from Uruzgan province six months ago, because of the drought, sells dates and dried fruit to invisible customers. He says, “there were too many Pakistanis and Arabs in Kabul. Now I’m very happy.” He doesn’t bother about the heavy presence of the Northern Alliance in town. “We just want peace.” Like virtually anyone else, he wants Zahir Shah back. “I don’t know if he can control our country because he’s been away for more than 20 years.” But it does not matter. “Long live the king” is the new mantra. Zahir Shah was the monarch during an Afghan golden age, when Afghanistan was a proper country, not a heap of spectacular ruins.
Afghans want their country back. Muhamad Ali, an old man, remembers vividly life under Zahir Shah, when he was a shopkeeper. He remembers the wild street parties during the anniversary of independence – usually celebrated at the end of August. Today, Muhamad Ali is a beggar. He says, “the Northern Alliance is not bad,” but he is hoping to “kiss Zahir Shah’s hands.”
The ministry of interior is where the political action is swinging in Kabul. It’s being entirely run by the Northern Alliance military – mostly Panjshiris. There is a uniform behind every desk, beside their inseparable walkie-talkies, portable heaters and the Afghan flag, not the white Taliban version but the green-white-and-black Islamic State of Afghanistan version.
Some rooms even have working phones – another tribute to miraculous Afghan handiwork. The acting minister of interior is Younous Qanooni, probably the busiest man in Kabul at the moment. At the office of brigadier Salam Ichan, every morning we are told to wait for Qanooni and then come back the next day. It is surprising that a machinery of government is running after all – and relatively smoothly. Kabul feels exceedingly “normal.”
Ali Ahmad spent three months in a Taliban jail. His “crime” was to have a brother living in Khwaja Bahauddin, in northern Afghanistan: for the Taliban, this meant that he was a collaborator. Ali took us back to his cell in Kabul jail. He lived in a lower bunk on cell number 5, a tiny compartment, with 22 other inmates who were later reduced to 15. Ali explains that the real Taliban motive for keeping him in jail – with no trial – was that they wanted the Ali family house. This is absolutely in line with a Taliban policy outlined to this correspondent by Masoud himself last August: Masoud said that the Taliban were engaged in repopulating Kabul, expelling as many Afghans as possible and bringing in Pakistanis and Arabs.
A prison guard tells us that 40 Taliban had manned the compound. They all left at about 7 pm on Sunday, the day before Kabul fell. There were 800 prisoners at the time. The prisoners escaped at 10 pm. And the Northern Alliance forces arrived at the empty prison on Monday morning. Now it’s not that empty: there are six new “guests,” including one-legged Wali Muhamad, wearing dark glasses even inside the corridors: he was caught selling heroin in Kabul. The Northern Alliance also caught “some Arabs and Pakistanis,” and 10 Afghan Taliban, according to the prison guards, but they were taken to the “intelligence police,” an unidentified new body that should be answering to the interior ministry.
The UN was quick to return to Kabul, with spokesman Eric Falt proudly announcing in the Intercontinental vaults, “The UN international staff returned to Kabul after 65 days.” The mission, led by Francesc Vendrell, deputy special emissary to Afghanistan – with 10 members from 10 countries and seven different agencies – has a Herculean, or more appropriately Genghis Khanian task ahead. On the political front, Vendrell met again with UN-recognized Afghan President Barhanuddin Rabbani (the previous time was in Dushanbe), and for the first time with Rasool Sayyaf, a key element in the bag-of-tricks United Front (the Northern Alliance plus everybody else, minus the Taliban). Vendrell is certainly meeting everybody and his neighbor – including commander Mohammed Fahim (the acting minister of defense), Qanooni, Hazara leaders, and sooner or later representatives of shuras in the Pashtun south.
The whole political carrousel now spins around the new bible: the Brahimi plan, concocted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special representative, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. The extremely complex Brahimi plan is inexplicable to the average Kabuli in the bazaar – who just want Zahir Shah back. And it is inexplicable to most other people for that matter, including UN officials.
As far as the Northern Alliance is concerned, it is a waste of time: after all, there is already a “government” in place. Anyway, the plan breaks down roughly into five steps, as Eric Falt explained: 1) A conference of all Afghan factions – including moderate Pashtuns – leading to an agreement; 2) a loya jirga (Grand Council), according to Afghan tradition, leading to; 3) adoption of a constitution; 4) another loya jirga to ratify the constitution, and; 5) the creation of a new government.
Meanwhile, Masoud, the hero, survives in Kabul as a legend. And so does the sheik, as Kabulis call bin Laden – in many parts of the world. Between controlled anarchy and euphoria, between the bombing apocalypse and a deep yearning for peace, the hardcore Taliban nucleus, the Al-Qaeda Arabs and fugitive supreme bin Laden prepare to spend the Afghan winter hiding in their caves, and they are deadlier than ever. In Afghanistan, all players should remember that history always repeats itself – not as farce, but as tragedy.