Jalalabad, Afghanistan's most eastern city, is free and at peace. The Taliban cadres have melted away without a fight and their Arab comrades have also left for fresh fronts. Yesterday, the men who have replaced the Taliban brought us here to see the new reality for ourselves.
"All is calm now,'' armed guards outside the governor's residence in the city told us, some of them with freshly shaved chins. "The city has been quiet since 6pm last night.''
Since the capture of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif by the Northern Alliance at the weekend, the situation in this important city, capital of the province Nangahar that borders Pakistan, has been confused. Fighting in the city was reported as recently as yesterday afternoon but at 5pm the gates of Torkham, the border post at the far end of the Khyber Pass, swung open and a convoy of coaches carrying the vanguard of the world's press, including The Independent, streamed through.
We were the guests of Haji Abdul Qudir, the veteran Pushtun guerrilla commander and elder brother of Abdul Haq, the fighter who was executed by the Taliban last month while trying to foment rebellion inside Afghanistan.
Abdul Qudir and his other brother Din Mohammed are now the de facto rulers of Jalalabad and its province. Until yesterday it was claimed that another mujahedin commander, Yunus Khallis, was the new strongman in the province, but he appears to have been elbowed aside. The anti-Taliban stance of the two brothers is well known, but the allegiance of Khallis is not. The situation in Afghanistan has changed so fast this week that all outsiders have been left flat-footed.
Reporters have been trying to get into Nangahar province through Torkham for days now without success. On Wednesday the Pakistani authorities would let no one in and no one out, not even Afghans, even though the Taliban had abandoned their own checkpoint at the border.
Yesterday Pakistan's Press Information Department posted a notice on its gate advising journalists of an indefinite ban on trips through the Khyber Pass that leads to Torkham. But within hours of the notice going up it was out of date. Mid-morning yesterday a call came through from Haji Abdul Qudir's office: A trip to Jalalabad was being set up for the afternoon. It seemed too good, and too simple to be true.
For two months the more headstrong among the 1,300 foreign journalists reporting the war from Pakistan have been trying every trick to get across this border. Several have disguised themselves by putting on burqas; a Paris Match journalist, who made it as far as this city was unmasked here, then stoned and imprisoned. Only last week three journalists driving in from the north were killed in a Taliban ambush. We drove over to Qudir's mansion. Like other grandees in Afghanistan's endless war Qudir lives in style.
His house is large and flamboyant, designed in the manner known as "Punjibi Baroque'' it is only minutes away from the teeming chaos of the Afghan black market where smuggled hashish and washing machines and everything in between are offered at low, low prices. But Qudir and others like him have arranged lives of considerable ease and elegance for themselves.
Grizzled mujahedin veterans sat on the lawn of Qudir's house, and in the carpeted hall inside, chewing over the stunning events across the border. Upstairs a plump, jovial man in an Afghan beret put our names and affiliations on a list. By 1pm more than a dozen buses were lined up outside. We climbed in. The line of buses set off then stopped again. Rumours circulated that the Pakistanis would never let it happen, that the delay was due to another upsurge of fighting. But at 2.30 we finally got going.
Traffic streamed both ways along the narrow, rutted road that winds through the Khyber Pass. "Yesterday there was no one on this road.'' The young Pushtun journalist on the seat in front of me said. But today there were jams, and the pick-ups and mini vans scrambled and squeezed for advantage. The lifeblood is returning to Afghanistan.
The young Pushtun's own story was a typical one of violence and displacement. Nine years ago, he and his family fled their home in Kabul. "Our neighbours threw hand grenades into the house,'' he said. "They were Hazara and they were taking revenge for a massacre of Hazaras that had just occurred. But we weren't to blame for the massacre. It was nothing to do with us. We shot them all dead.''
At exactly 6pm our bus swept through the wide-open gates at Torkham into Afghanistan with no formalities of any sort. The light was already beginning to fade. The scenery was lunar, ash grey, rocky plains and the bare hills beyond, no habitations.
Twenty minutes later a red light flashed across the road a couple of hundred yards ahead: a rocket or a mortar that buried itself in the ground beyond the verge, sending up a plume of smoke. "It's just for fun,'' said the young Pushtun. "It's their way of making you welcome.''
In the villages, men and boys crowded at the side of the road to watch us go past, this strange inexplicable phenomenon. In some places they merely gaped; elsewhere they whistled, laughed, cheered and banged the sides of the coach.
What would we find in Jalalabad? Another Grozny, signs of ferocious battle, heaped ruins? The reality was an anti-climax. Our welcome to the city was another in the day's succession of chaotic traffic jams. Then we came upon the bazaar, which was shabby and dusty, but bustling with people; the electricity was on, huge Nan breads were being roasted in grimy dens at street level while in restaurants above the citizens were settling down to eat. And to discuss, no doubt, this amazing week.Reuse content