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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Web Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Web Designer is required to join a f...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Business Development Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to develop an ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron has reiterated his pre-election promise to radically improve the NHS  

How can we save the NHS? Rediscover the stiff upper lip

Jeremy Laurance
 

Thanks to Harriet Harman, Labour is holding its own against the Tory legislative assault

Isabel Hardman
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor