Death came out of an autumn sky yesterday that was as blue and cloudless as it was on that fateful September morning in New York.
Horsemen fording the rapids of the Kokche river paused in midstream to look. Locals crowded on top of crumbling mud walls. The day was so clear you could see the sun glittering off the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush in the far distance.
In what seemed to be slow motion, clouds of black smoke started to rise silently from the crest of the ridge opposite, in a neat row. Then the sound came, a series of deafening explosions that cracked over our heads and went on rolling up the valley into the distance.
The Americans were carpet bombing the Taliban on the front line. Above, two huge B-52 bombers left vapour trails across the sky as they turned in lazy circles over the valley, dropping salvo after salvo above the Taliban positions.
Over the radio, Northern Alliance fighters said they could hear the Taliban soldiers crying out as the bombs fell. "We cannot stay here, we cannot hold these positions under this bombing. It is impossible," they were said to have cried.
A Northern Alliance soldier sat perched on the barrel of a Russian tank on Alexander the Great's hill-fort at Ay Khanoum, grinning as he watched the smoke clear. An Afghan singer wailed mournfully from a portable radio. A few metres away, another fighter was testing out a brand new rifle, loosing off a few rounds over the river. People were still crossing, perilously close to the path of his bullets.
"We are happy so long as the bombs kill the Taliban, and don't kill civilians," said the fighter sitting on the tank barrel. But carpet bombing does not discriminate. There was no news of civilians yesterday, but there are villages close to the front line on this side, and probably on the Taliban side too.
From another radio came the voice of Ahmed Zaheer, a much-loved Afghan singer who was assassinated years ago. "You broke your promise," he sang. "You abandoned me. If you came back now, it would be too late, you would find me dead."
It could be a lament for Afghanistan, whose mujahedin were heroes in the West when the Russian planes showered these valleys with bombs. But the American money dried up when the Russians left, and Afghanistan dropped out of view. Now the West has returned to an Afghanistan whose people are starving, living without shelter in wretched refugee camps, a country torn apart by 22 years of war.
Now the Taliban, who say they are fighting a jihad as the mujahedin once did, are the enemy. Now it is American bombs that are falling.
General Sherendel Sohol was surveying the damage. While the bombs were falling, the area was closed off to journalists, and the rumour was that American servicemen were on the fort, directing the bombing. General Sohol said bitterly: "If the Americans had helped Afghanistan after the Russians left the way they helped the mujahedin, the attack on the buildings in their country would never have happened."
General Sohol was not a mujahid. He fought on the Russian side in that war, for the communist government led by Najibullah. Now he is a member of the Northern Alliance, and the Americans, once his enemies, are his allies. "We have to fight together," he shrugs. "We have a common enemy."
Afghanistan is a land of changing allegiances. General Sohol spent years fighting the mujahedin led by Ahmed Shah Masood in the Panjshir valley. But when the Taliban seized Kabul he decided they were worse than the mujahedin and threw his lot in with his old adversary. "I wanted order for my country," he said. "There is no order with the Taliban. I always respected Masood. He took me in because we are both from the Panjshir."
The ironies of this war are many. Masood's forces spent years fighting the Russians – now Russia is their main arms supplier. They wear Russian army fatigues, without even removing the Russian flags from the sleeves. New Russian tanks keep arriving. And the new rifle that the fighter was testing over the river was from Russia.
General Sohol said: "The Americans do not know what they're getting into in Afghanistan. People here have fought for so long, they think nothing of killing. They kill a man as easily as they kill an animal for food."
People were dying yesterday under the American bombs. The United States has been carpet bombing front lines across Afghanistan for days in what appears to be an effort to clear the way for a Northern Alliance attack.
But the Northern Alliance has been losing the war here for years. A trader who had just crossed the front line by donkey said the Taliban soldiers on the other side greatly outnumbered the Northern Alliance troops. "The Taliban are much strong-er," he said.Reuse content