The old man with hollow cheeks looked straight into my eyes. "We will never hand over Osama bin Laden, and we will be glad to fight America! And if you are not careful we will capture you and take you back to Afghanistan with us!"
I had been looking for refugees: driving through the ash-grey moonscape of Baluchistan towards the Afghanistan border, past grey hills, dry as pumice and pocked with holes, past dilapidated townships wilting in the hot sun. An aid agency in Islamabad had told me there were 20,000 refugees coming through the Chaman border, fleeing the destruction that was on its way. But the Afghans I found on the road were not hungry and desperate.
Like the old man in the van who threatened to kidnap me, they were angry – breathing fire and brimstone.
How will the people of Afghanistan react, if and when the Americans begin to bomb their country? The theme being repeated by observers recently returned from Afghanistan is that the Taliban, already deeply unpopular with their fellow countrymen, will rapidly collapse in the event of an attack. "So long as it does not result in an occupation," wrote one commentator on Afghan affairs, Michael Rubin, this week, "ordinary Afghans will welcome American and British assistance in freeing them from a terrorist regime."
The West would like to see a short, sharp war – though President Bush himself has recognised the contradictions involved in, as he put it to several Congressmen last week, "sending a $2m missile into a $10 tent to hit a camel in the butt" – resulting in the vaporising of the Taliban followed by a quick transition to a regime the West could live with, while grateful Afghan civilians applaud joyously from the sidelines.
But if the views of Afghans recently arrived in southern Pakistan are reliable, this is wishful thinking. The Taliban is certainly unpopular with the people it tyrannises, and it provides an appalling quality of governance. It is just about irredeemable. Only one thing, in fact, could redeem it for its people: the threat of invasion by non-Muslim infidels.
I set off in a battered taxi from the desert city of Quetta, and, halfway to the Afghanistan border, we turned off and headed towards a refugee camp called Saranan. We lurched off the metal road on to a dusty track and bumped for a mile until we came to the enormous settlement in the desert: acre after acre of mud homes enclosed by high mud walls. Knots of Afghan men crouched in the shade of the walls, a young boy pulled a plastic lorry on a string, while more children scooped dirty water from a puddle.
There in the camp we met Mohammed Sarwar, a young Afghan in a brown cloak and turban with brown eyes and a gingery beard and the rolling, piratical gait which seems to be the birthright of the Pathans of Afghanistan. Sarwar is a medical student in Kabul. "I came direct from Kabul yesterday," he said, when he had climbed into the car. I wanted to know if it was true that people were abandoning the city in huge numbers and fleeing to the safety of Pakistan. "No, not many people are leaving," he said. "They are getting ready to fight. All Afghans will fight the Americans, both young and old."
I showed him a photograph in a Pakistani newspaper of a truck coming through the Khyber Pass crossing into Pakistan with dozens of Afghans clinging to the sides. He was not impressed. "The men are bringing their women out," he explained. "Then they will go back to Afghanistan and fight. The people of the Taliban are the sons of the Afghan people, so everyone supports them."
We drove back to the road and set off towards Quetta. Just beyond a police checkpoint, a beaten-up old Japanese van was parked, crammed full of Afghans. I approached with my taxi driver. In the front passenger seat was a man in his 70s with hollow cheeks who ignored the hand I extended to him. His message was brief. "People say we Afghans are hairy people," he spat, "and it's true: we have long beards and long hair, we have hairy ears – and we have hairy hearts, too. We will never hand over Osama bin Laden, and we will be glad to fight America!"
Could these views be typical? At the refugee camp, we had picked up an Afghan called Mohammed Ayub, born and raised in Quetta, who is a teacher in the camp, and now we were giving him a lift back to his home in the town. I asked him for his opinion. "It is true," he said, "that the Taliban is much hated. But the Afghans are uniting to fight. They are defending their country.
"For Afghans, fighting is a very good thing," he went on. "All the names we Afghans are given are warlike names, lion, tiger and so on. But we have been fighting too long: you ask any Afghan and they will tell you that what they want is peace. But in this situation, if you are Afghan you must fight against America. The people of Afghanistan are uniting to fight America."
The world's memory is conveniently short. Afghanistan's chronic problem is that its people are constantly fighting among one other: since the expulsion of the Russians in 1989, the internecine fighting between rival warlords has never let up. Only one thing can persuade them to come together, and that is the threat of invasion by non-Muslims. The invasion by the Soviet Union's Red Army in 1979 prompted them to come together and fight; the invasion by the British 130 years before had the same effect.
Given the Afghans' immense pride in the fact that they have never been conquered, the one thing likely to restore the Taliban to the status of popular heroes that it enjoyed seven years ago is an attack by the West. However truly terrible the consequences, many will happily rally behind the flag.Reuse content