Patrick Cockburn: A land darkened by the shadow of the Taliban

Letter from Kabul: Eight years after the war to overthrow the Islamist regime, one part of Afghanistan is beginning to flourish again – but it's very much the exception

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I spent the war which overthrew the Taliban in 2001 in a town called Jabal Saraj just north of Kabul. It was miserably poor and extremely dirty, but it was firmly held by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and a good place to wait for the start of the US-backed offensive against the Taliban.

Jabal Saraj stands at the southern end of the Panjshir valley, a main opposition bastion under both the Communists and the Taliban. The town itself had been ravaged by war. The main bridge had been blown up and replaced by a bizarre temporary structure made out of captured Taliban armoured cars heaped on top of one other. The front line with the Taliban ran 20 miles to the south, the trenches cutting through the well-watered villages of the Shomali plain.

When I was there, the people of the Panjshir and Shomali plain were doing badly even by Afghan standards. Offensives and counter-offensives by the Taliban and anti-Taliban forces had made it almost impossible to live and work there. Much of the population had fled. The fruit orchards and fields were full of lethal little anti-personnel mines and the irrigation system had been wrecked. On the Taliban side of the line, which ran through Bagram airport, the villages had been systematically blown up or burned and some 140,000 people turned into refugees.

Eight years later, the people of the Shomali plain and the Panjshir valley are among the not very numerous winners in the Afghan conflict since the fall of the Taliban. Having once lived in one of the most dangerous places in the country, they can now count their towns and villages as very safe. Victors in the war, they were well positioned to win jobs and contracts in the post-Taliban era. Yet the reasons why they have done well help to explain why so many other Afghans are doing badly.

I drove north out of Kabul last week to visit the places where I had spent the war in 2001. In any case, if I wanted to leave the capital I did not have much choice about the direction I would have to take since all other routes are dangerous. Taliban squads travelling on motorcycles frequently set up checkpoints in Logar province on the road 30 or 40 miles south of Kabul and kidnap or kill any foreigner or Afghan connected to the government. The route going east through the Kabul Gorge to Jalalabad has also been attacked. I asked a member of the Afghan parliament from Bamyan, north-west of the capital, if it was safe to visit his province. "There are two roads there and one is very dangerous because the Taliban control it," he replied judiciously. "The other road is safe so long as you have armed bodyguards." On the second route men dressed in police uniform had recently stopped and killed six drivers and guards in two vehicles carrying money for a local bank.

The road out of Kabul was very crowded. For many in the city it is the only one that can be used to spend a day in the countryside. It is also a crucial lifeline for US and Nato forces. Their military supply routes to Pakistan are vulnerable to the Taliban on both sides of the border. Ironically, the Pakistani truck drivers carrying equipment for western troops to fight the Taliban are allowed safe passage only because the transport companies pay the Taliban commanders not to attack them.

Charikar used to be a dismal, impoverished, half-empty market town near Bagram airbase, through which ran the Taliban front line. Today it is full of trucks carrying fruit and vegetables to the capital from the farms and orchards of the Shomali plain, while crowding the road going in the opposite direction are petrol tankers and huge container lorries going to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

I had been in Bagram where General Baba Jan, an important Northern Alliance military commander in charge of the area, used to show journalists the Taliban positions from the half-ruined control tower of Bagram airport. I asked what had happened to the general and was told he was doing well, having become security chief of Kabul and later of Herat in western Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era. He no longer has an official position, but is said to have won a highly lucrative contract to supply US forces in their Bagram headquarters.

After the fall of the almost entirely Pashtun Taliban, the Northern Alliance commanders, mostly Tajik and Uzbek, were best placed to enter the new ruling elite. We drove along the Salang valley, where the road from the Shomali plain winds steeply upwards through the Hindu Kush mountains to the Salang tunnel, which is the only all- weather road linking northern and southern Afghanistan.

The scenery was magnificent. The Salang river had turned into a torrent as the mountain snow melted. There was a thunderstorm, and the dark cliff walls beside the road were illuminated by flashes of lightning. I used to come here in 2001 to visit General Bashir Salangi, a warlord who belonged to the Northern Alliance and controlled the Salang tunnel.

Even in the treacherous world of Afghan politics, Gen Salangi had achieved fame by secretly doing a deal with the Taliban in 1997 to allow thousands of their fighters to swarm through the tunnel – a potential catastrophe for the Northern Alliance. Gen Salangi had then blown up the mouth of the tunnel, trapping the Taliban, whose men were promptly slaughtered by Northern Alliance troops waiting in ambush. Since 2001 Gen Salangi has flourished in a series of senior posts.

The careers of generals Baba Jan and Salangi underline a complaint made to me by an observer in Kabul. "Whoever is meant to be in charge of our government," he said, "we still seem to see the same old faces which we have known since the early 1990s." Criticised for relying on former warlords and unelected tribal leaders, President Hamid Karzai may not have much choice but to look to these traditional power-holders.

One big change on the roads north of Kabul is that the bridges have all been rebuilt. These, almost without exception, had been blown up in the wars. The rebuilding of the roads is not quite as complete, but they no longer look and feel like rocky river beds. Jabal Saraj is once more a prosperous truck-stop town. The bridge made out of old Taliban armoured personnel carriers has been replaced by a new concrete structure. Reconstruction of bridges and roads, at the centre of the US aid effort, has the additional advantage of allowing American military forces to move around more easily.

Could the prosperity of this part of Afghanistan be repeated in the rest of the country? It is not very likely. Rather to their own surprise, its people, thanks to the US intervention provoked by 9/11, turned out to be victors in the war with the Taliban. Their well-irrigated fields were always more fertile than the rest of the country. They also benefit from the troubles of others as they control the one safe route out of Kabul that is not beset by Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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