How the Taliban saved me from the angry Afghan mob

Exclusive: for three days after the US strike, Jason Burke waited for the backlash. Yesterday the UN flew him to safety in Pakistan
Click to follow
IF THERE is one place in Afghanistan to be when the Americans bomb Osama bin Laden it is, odd though it may seem, Kandahar. It may be the headquarters of the movement which has sheltered and funded him and whose leader is a close friend and son-in-law, but only the Taliban have the authority to maintain order. In many ways it is to them, as well the United Nations, that all of those who have been evacuated from Afghanistan in the past few days should be grateful.

As the American strikes went in I was sweating and swearing in a narrow street in this southern desert city trying - unsuccessfully - to meet someone said to be in touch with Mr bin Laden. I had been given the name of a restaurant which seemed not to exist, and, after hours of rushing through the darkening alleyways, had returned to the United Nations compound to hear the news of the attack on the BBC.

The next time I would see those streets would be yesterday, as a five- car convoy raced through an almost deserted city under the noon sun to get to the airport. The long-awaited plane had finally come.

Little news had filtered through to the small compound in Kandahar where, with seven expatriate aid workers, I had sheltered from what seemed to be an inevitable backlash for three days.

We had heard about the shooting of two foreigners in Kabul - yesterday it was announced that Lieutenant-Colonel Carmine Calo, an Italian UN military observer, had died in hospital - and we knew that a UN office in nearby Lashkagar had been stormed and looted. But it was only on the tarmac at Islamabad yesterday evening that we learned that the compound in the western city of Herat - from which workers had been evacuated on Friday - had been attacked and that armed gangs in Jalalabad, having looted the UN offices there, were seeking new targets.

No doubt in Islamabad and New York, where the decisions for evacuation were being made, the situation must have looked different. But stuck in the middle of a city of 100,000, 200 miles south of where the cruise missiles had struck, the sense of isolation was strong. There was ample food and water in the UN compound, as at the Red Cross nearby, but neither could have withstood even the most half-hearted of bombs.

On Thursday night few of us slept much. Every truck rumbling up the dirt track outside sounded like the stamping of an angry crowd's feet, every jeep horn signalled the arrival of Taliban soldiers.

Mr bin Laden has built a house less than 300 yards from the UN compound in Kandahar. He uses it infrequently now but it is home to Mullah Omah - the reclusive cleric, known as the Commander of the Faithful, who leads the Taliban. The two are good friends and are said to go off fishing together, with hand grenades, after prayers on a Friday.

A mile south west of Kandahar airstrip, on the edge of the desert that runs to Iran, Mr bin Laden has another residence - used as guerrilla training camp, and ringed with minefields.

It was clear to all of us in the UN compound that our safety depended on the Taliban. Only they had the authority to protect us - if they wanted to.

Keeping to the compound for our safety, it was impossible to know what the mood was like in the city. It was clear that the inhabitants would hear very quickly that something had happened - quite what they would be told was another matter. My driver, who had spent two days wrestling his Toyota Corolla Estate down the 300-mile road from Kabul, asked me apologetically if it was all right if he stopped working for me. Now that the Americans had invaded Afghanistan, he said, it was not safe for him.

We heard that a rally against foreign intervention was planned on Friday morning. There was concern that the mullahs might whip up a frenzy. When we heard that the governor of Kandahar, Mullah Mohammed Hassan Rachmani, known as a hardliner, would be attending, it was clear that it was in many ways an acid test of the Taliban's attitude towards us.

The rally went off peacefully, and, as Friday afternoon turned to Friday night, we began to relax. Apparently the United Nations had decided that an immediate full scale evacuation might compromise their neutrality so, though we were assured there were two planes on standby, they believed the immediate threat had receded.

But in the compound, despite the calm in the town outside, the decision seemed bizarre. New York would be drafting a carefully worded statement to make clear, without taking sides, that the UN expected the Taliban, as per a memorandum of understanding signed earlier this year, to guarantee our safety.

It appears that they did. Local staff told us that groups were being organised in town for an attack but that the Taliban had kept them in check. The authorities even said they would provide guards for the compound.

A strong faction in the Taliban, apparently the strongest, appreciate the regime's need for international recognition. In two months' time there is a meeting of the UN committee which will decide what to do with the Afghan seat in the international organisation, currently held by the ousted government of Burhanuddin Rabbani. His troops are clinging to a few strongholds in the north of the country. Some have even linked the timing of the Taliban's successful summer offensive to the decision that will be made on the UN seat.

International recognition would give the Taliban diplomatic access, the pre-requisite for most loans from international funding organisations.

The question is whether the Taliban can improve its international profile, moderate its style and win friends overseas without losing support from their more radical followers at home, as well as the backing of men like Mr bin Laden.