THE SHAMALI PLAINS – General Baba Jan, one of Ahmad Shah Masoud’s trusted commanders, is a jovial fellow in his late 40s. He points to the hills facing Bagram Airport, about 60 kilometers north of Kabul. Eight Taliban tanks are facing us on a 120-degree angle. But they are more than 5 kilometers away. The general comments: “You know what’s behind those hills? Taliban training camps. They may now hold something like 50 or 60 fighters, including Uzbeks, Kashmiris and Chechens. And their logistical support comes from Osama bin Laden.”
This is the calm before the storm. This was just three weeks ago. At the time, no one could imagine that two Arab suicide bombers disguised as journalists in northern Afghanistan would try to assassinate the commander of the Northern Alliance forces fighting the Taliban, Masoud himself. And no one could possibly imagine that only two days later, a bunch of so-called Arab-Afghans – professionals of jihad affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (the main Arab Islamist movement, founded in Egypt in the late 1920s) – would perpetrate the deadliest terrorist attack in history, on the heart of economic and military American power.
Getting to Bagram is in itself an eerie experience – especially coming from the spectacular mountainscape of the northern Panjshir Valley. We suddenly drift into the Shamali Plains, badly affected by drought and once the scene of endless battles between the Soviets and the mujaheddin, later between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. As we drive toward Bagram, we are within shooting distance of Taliban tanks. It’s almost surreal to imagine that if the deserted paved road was not cut, we could be in Kabul in less than half an hour. But this has been a frontline for at least five and a half years.
At the top of Bagram Airport’s derelict control tower, General Baba Jan says the Taliban fire almost every day. There is an enormous hole in the tower, caused by a rocket. There is a constant war of attrition between two checkpoints, separated by only 500 meters, with a village in the middle. All the inhabitants fled the fighting. Some can be found in refugee camps in Pansjhir Valley. But a lot can also be found in the Jalozai camp near Peshawar, in Pakistan – living in infinitely more miserable conditions. It is almost certain these latter refugees eventually will be deported back to Afghanistan.
On the other side of the airport there are an additional three or four Taliban checkpoints, according to the general. Their shots cannot reach Bagram, because their range is a maximum 3 kilometers. Children living in the region come to Bagram by bicycle to see their fathers fighting. The mujaheddin proudly exhibit their war wounds and trade jokes. They burst into laughter every time the Taliban fire a shot way off target. All of the enemy’s communication – in Pashto – is monitored by radio. Some of the mujaheddin, like Mungal, are only 14 years old. Mungal is a volunteer in Masoud’s army. His whole family died in the war. His best friend is a rocket launcher.
There’s a lot of talk in the area about the situation in Kabul – only that virtual half-an-hour drive away. The Kabulis now refer to the Taliban as “dirty souls” – in a free translation from Dari, their Persianized language. The mujaheddin comment there are now lots of hardcore Arabs from the Wahhabi sect working in the Taliban ministries, menacing non-governmental organization officials with a systematic campain of slitting throats.
The Taliban intelligence services, according to locals who have been to Kabul recently, now ressemble those in power during the hated dictator Najibullah’s regime: “It’s a well structured organization, with 12 branches. At the Ministry of the Interior, they are totally Pakistani,” says a mujaheddin. “There’s no more security,” says another, “Kabul is full of robbers in the middle of the night. Nobody can complain, because that would be un-Islamic. The population is fed up. But sooner or later the youth will resist.”
During the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s, 300 to 350 planes could take off on any given day from Bagram. When the mujaheddin were in charge of Kabul, from ’92 to ’96, the airport was also controlled by Masoud’s forces. But since the Taliban took Kabul in ’96, the strategic airport has already been captured four times. The first two times, the Taliban maintained their position for 6 months, and then for one month. The general quickly adds that “last time, two years ago, they could not hold it for more than three days.” Some of the Taliban attacks are highly coordinated – with jets, tanks, helicopters and infantry: “We can be attacked anytime.”
But this very week, it was the Northern Alliance’s turn to attack – in retaliation for the Arab-Afghan assassination attempt on Masoud. Commander Bismillah Khan, also posted in the Shamali Plains, attacked the vicinity of Kabul with two helicopter gunships and medium-range Russian missiles, destroying two Taliban planes at Kabul Airport and hitting an ammunition dump. The world thought at first this was the beginning of the American-sponsored Great Incineration of the Taliban regime.
General Baba Jan has no doubts about Pakistani interference in the ongoing Afghan tragedy. On the close relationship between Pakistan’s intelligence services and the Taliban, he prefers to quote an Afghan proverb: “If you start feeding a dog, one day he will want to bite your leg.” Like all of Masoud’s commanders, he describes an intimate relationship between the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. These are exactly the same actors who are being singled out by Masoud’s Northern Alliance as the perpetrators of the American tragedy.
The Taliban-ISI-Osama connection may not make as much sense as the Osama-Arab-Afghan-Muslim Brotherhood connection, but it’s far from being far-fetched. The extremely cosy relationship between Afghans and an array of Middle Eastern groups started to be forged in the ’80s, during the jihad against the Soviets. America simply cannot forget that an alliance including the CIA, Saudi intelligence and the ISI ultimately established an international network to support the mujaheddin – and the whole thing was coordinated by the Muslim Brotherhood. This is how a lot of Arabs of the radical Islamic kind came to fight in Afghanistan.
The hub of this informal network was Peshawar, the tribal area capital in Pakistan. It was directed by a Palestinian-Jordanian affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdullah Azzam; and by none other than Osama bin Laden himself. Bin Laden even directed a foundation in charge of recruiting and financing the jihadis. This was how the Middle Eastern religious and political debate started to infiltrate the Afghan mujaheddin mind.
It was a deadly cocktail: a mix of so-called “salafism” (an Islam theoretically close to an ancestral view) and the ultra-conservative Saudi Wahhabi brand. Sooner or later these Arab-Afghans started to oppose the natural, easygoing Sufi way of the Afghans. They openly declared themselves in favor of the destruction of shrines – this would climax, under the Taliban, in the orgy of destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. And to top it all, they did not understand the jihad as a struggle against communism, but against any kafirs (infidels), especially those belonging to Christianity and Western civilization. This – the triumph of what we could call the “Saudi model” – is the root of the neo-fundamentalism of the Taliban. A tragic development when seen in retrospect, because these so-called Arab-Afghans started to come to Afghanistan with the encouragement of the Americans themselves.
There’s no better way to meet the Taliban and Osama’s deadly Arab-Afghans than to visit the prison in the Panjshir Valley where the Northern Alliance keeps its prisoners of war. It is an inevitably spectacular location on a plateau on the base of a hill, surrounded by rock face, on a bend of the Panjshir River. According to Commander Mushtar, in charge of prisons since 1975, Masoud’s forces hold 342 POWs, plus 22 foreigners. Not all of them were captured in battle: 95 were captured with various “documents,” and are accused of spying for the Taliban.
It is quite an experience to enjoy the midday Panjshiri sun surrounded by a bunch of professional killers. At any time they could run amok and transform their visitors in hostages. But they would have nowhere to run, faced with rock face or river. They have permission to go to the river five times a day to perform their prayers and ablutions. Mushtar says the occasional escape plan is inevitably thwarted.
Their treatment, the same for Muslims and non-Muslims, is quite extraordinary even compared to the best Western prisons – one more confirmation of the legendary graciousness of Panjshiri natives. Mushtar says the emphasis is on “respect for humanity.” The food is the same for everybody – administration personnel included. This is in stark contrast to the dreaded Taliban prisons, which Mushtar describes as “very difficult on our prisoners: it’s everybody in only one room, with no permission to get out, and they only eat a piece of bread 3 times a day.”
The foreigners – part of Osama’s international jihad army – include a handful of Pakistanis like Muhamad Assam, from Karachi. Another prison in Takhar province even boasts a kind of tourist attraction: Chahab, an English Taliban inmate – in fact a Pakistani Muslim with an English passport. There is a suspicious Uighur from Xinjiang, western China, who says he only wants to go back to farming. And there is Ali, a most improbable character from Iraq. Ali maintains he is a member of the Iraqi opposition, an enemy of Saddam Hussein. He was supposedly trying to go to Tajikistan via Afghanistan, so that later he could get to Russia. It’s a bit of a long way round for someone who could easily cross the Iraqi-Jordanian border.
Mushtar promptly dismisses Ali’s version: “Everybody here claims their innocence. But most of them, when they are caught, had already spent six months being trained by the Taliban.” Ali’s documents apparently are fake: “He had a recommendation from the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross). We phoned them and they said they had never heard of him.”
Most of the prisoners predictably say they just want to go back to tending their sheep when the war is eventually over. Some say they want to keep on fighting for the Taliban and Islam. And some, unlike Ali, definitely don’t bother to pose as a victim. They are the genuine jihadi article. Asked what would be the first thing he would do after leaving jail, an ex-major of the Pakistani army didn’t even blink: “I will kill you.”