The Afghan prelude: the overthrow of the Taliban in the aftermath of September 11

Patrick Cockburn was one of the first journalists to enter Afghanistan after the September 11 attack in the US, and reported from a rebel-held village north of Kabul. Here, in the second in a series of excerpts from his new book, is his eyewitness description of the country during the war against the Taliban

Patrick Cockburn
Tuesday 19 April 2016 16:23 BST
Northern Alliance fighters on the front line against the Taliban near Jabul os Sarache in 2001
Northern Alliance fighters on the front line against the Taliban near Jabul os Sarache in 2001 (Getty)

24 September 2001

Our ageing Russian-built helicopter flies into the Panjshir valley from the north, high over desolate, brown hills. We land at Changaram, a narrow point in the valley where lush, green fields and terraces cling to the sides of the mountains.

All along the narrow dirt road are signs of the armies that have tried to fight their way into the Panjshir over the past quarter of a century. I stop counting the carcasses of burnt-out and long-abandoned Soviet tanks after a few miles. In some places, old tank treads have been used to fill in potholes in the road. The top of another tank can be seen just below the surface of the river.

The Panjshir valley – perhaps the greatest natural fortress in the world – is one of the last strongholds of the Afghan opposition. It points like a bright green arrow at Kabul, which is controlled, like the other nine-tenths of the country, by the Taliban militia.

In the garden of his headquarters at Jabal Saraj, a dusty town 20 miles from the front line, Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister of the Northern Alliance, the main opposition grouping, is in a cheerful mood. He sits surrounded by flowers, and for some reason a small, yellow canary has been placed beside him. Abdullah, a suave, engaging man, has for years tried, with limited success until two weeks ago, to interest the rest of the world in his views. The Afghan opposition felt itself to be alone, even abandoned.; suddenly, world leaders from Washington to Tokyo are repeating everything it says about the Taliban.

Abdullah has one serious worry, however. It is extraordinary that the US appears to be relying on Pakistan and above all on Pakistan’s intelligence service to go after the Taliban, he says, reasonably. This “is the same deadly organisation which created the Taliban. It is now meant to be acting against them. But I assure you that Pakistani intelligence has people in it who are as fanatical as bin Laden or Mullah Omar.” Among the Afghan opposition, hatred of Pakistan for creating the Taliban is almost visceral.” The world may be waiting for the war to start but here it has been going on for 20 years.

Aerial footage of 9/11 attacks

25 September 2001

After almost a quarter of a century of war, Afghanistan has become a land of donkeys and tanks. Most Afghans live in conditions of terrible poverty. On the main road between Kabul and the mouth of the Panjshir valley, we meet two men waiting with donkeys and broken down carts for passengers. In countries such as Afghanistan I often look at people’s shoes to see how poor they really are. In this case the two men, called Abdul Hamid and Abdul Haliq, are wearing the cheapest green plastic sandals. But there are only three of them. Abdul Haliq has lost one plastic sandal and is too poor to replace it.

They say they have little knowledge about what is happening in the outside world. They live with 150 other people in no-man’s-land. “When the Talibs open fire, we go away,” says Abdul Hamid. “Our main problem is that we don’t have enough water. We try to farm the land.” Yet there is interest in what is happening further afield. As we talk, an elderly man with a dark blue turban arrives in a donkey cart, holding a primitive battery in a wooden box. He tells us: “We have no electricity. I bought the battery because I wanted to listen to the radio so I can hear the news about Afghanistan.”

7 October 2001

From a hilltop 40 miles north of Kabul, across a clear night sky illuminated by half a silver moon, I see flashes on the skyline as the Allied air strikes begin. Under a canopy of stars, plumes of fire are visible across the flat, heavily populated Shomali Plain, which leads to the outskirts of Kabul. Distant thumping reverberates across the still air, signalling the long-awaited turn in the fortunes of the anti-Taliban forces dug in along a front line that snakes within 25 miles of the city.

As the horizon lights up with anti-aircraft fire, Taliban and opposition forces begin to blaze away at each other with artillery. At one moment, there is an explosion high above Kabul, which may be a missile directed at Allied planes overhead. At another, there are flashes of white light, almost certainly anti-aircraft fire. From the rocky hilltop overlooking the village of Jabal Saraj there is a straight view south towards the Afghan capital.

Northern Alliance in the fight against Taliban forces in 2001
Northern Alliance in the fight against Taliban forces in 2001 (Getty)

Mass defections from the Taliban are expected now, but changing sides is not easy in present-day Afghanistan. One young Taliban deserter crossed enemy lines just hours before the bombs started to fall. Khan Jan, a 23-year-old with a turban and black beard, unwillingly conscripted into the Taliban army, says he waited until 4am to make his escape. “By then the other soldiers were all sleeping,” he tells me. “I did not feel any fear because I took a heavy machine gun, a Kalashnikov and a pistol.”

For a man who must have been close to death during the delicate and dangerous process of deserting the Taliban, Khan Jan seems perky and relaxed. “I owned a small shop, just a booth, in Kunduz city in the north,” he explains. “One day two Taliban came and said I should come with them. Then they put me with 70 other people in a helicopter and flew us to Sedarat camp in Kabul.” Khan Jan, like most of the others picked up in Kunduz, is a Tajik, while the Taliban are primarily Pashtun.

13 October 2001

Conditions here in a small village in Afghanistan’s Panjshir valley are atrocious. But after three weeks we have settled into an odd sort of routine. I arrived as one of a small group, given lodgings in an official “guest house” run by the opposition Northern Alliance. But with 200 foreign correspondents now crammed in to the village, the overcrowding is severe. We are billeted in the former home of the manager of a local cement factory.

Initially we had two lavatories between 15 people. Now we are down to one for 45. The Afghan definition of a lavatory is little more than a hole in the ground. Four of us share a room; we sleep on the floor with a cushion and a blanket. But if conditions are testing for us, the villagers live in circumstances of medieval poverty and hardship.

The village, with a population of about 2,000, has only a few tiny shops, one selling second-hand women’s shoes from Europe and Pakistan. There are so few things to be bought and so many $100 bills in circulation, thanks to the international media influx, that the value of the dollar to the Afghani has halved locally in the past three weeks. We have electricity only between 3pm and 9pm, and the generator is unreliable. It gets dark at 6pm and, with winter not far off, it is getting cold. The dust storms are frequent and blinding and play havoc with our equipment. I managed to buy a car battery to run my satellite phone for a few minutes every day so I can send my copy.

Dysentery is a constant hazard. You get it from the water or eating the vegetables. One of my colleagues was struck down the other day and I took him to the nearest hospital. Then I got the symptoms myself. I get up at 6am every morning to race to the washroom and toilet before everyone else.

You get a breakfast of tea, bread and jam and a hardboiled egg. For dinner there is rice. There is what passes for a restaurant in the village. It also serves as a hotel – after the meal, people settle down on the low carpeted tables to sleep for the night. These days a lot of the customers are fighters carrying machine guns.

5 November 2001

We drive through the village of Jorm, a huddle of mud-brick houses surrounded by trees in an upland valley in northern Afghanistan. Suddenly, about 50 people run towards us in a bewildered panic. As they come closer, we see that two of them are carrying children with faces covered in blood. We stop and ask a man beside the road what has happened. He says a mine exploded – one of the thousands of devices that litter this land after two decades of war.

Villagers, almost all men, mill about in ineffective confusion. Even in this emergency, Afghan women do not leave their houses, apart from one old woman who cradles a boy’s head in her lap. She is wailing and rocking to and fro, but she has not even wiped the blood off his face.

We find that three small boys are injured, not just the two we had originally seen. One of them, Barot Mohammed, aged 10, lies on the stony ground, bleeding heavily from wounds in his right leg where pieces of flesh have been torn away by the blast. His left hand is wrapped in a sodden brown bandage, but whatever it covers looks too small to be a fist. The boys are so drenched in blood that I cannot see how badly they are wounded. One of them is half sitting up, clutching his stomach. None of the men, some armed with submachine guns, seem to know what to do.

Through our driver, Daoud, whose knowledge of English is limited to about 20 words, we ask where the nearest hospital is. They reply that it is in Baharak, a market town about an hour’s drive away, but they have no car or truck. I am with two other correspondents, one from France and the other from Spain, with whom I have driven in a sturdy Russian-made jeep through the mountains from the Panjshir valley north of Kabul. None of us knows much about first aid, or has any bandages, but it seems possible that unless the boys receive help soon they will bleed to death.

My two colleagues volunteer to stay behind in Jorm to make room for the children in the small jeep. We lift them in, wrapped in blankets. None of the three cry out or make any sound other than a whimper, either because they are in shock or because Afghan boys are expected to endure pain without complaint. Two older men also cram themselves into the jeep. One is the boy’s uncle. He says the boys are brothers. Barot Mohammed is the oldest and the other two are called Rajab Mohammed, 7, whom I saw clasping his stomach, and Najmaddin, 5, who does not seem quite so badly hurt.

It is a horribly bumpy ride to Baharak. Daoud is a highly skilful driver and the dirt road, by Afghan standards, is not too bad. But even so the boys are jolted up and down as he nurses the jeep across deep gullies where streams cut across the road. Rajab’s eyes, deep-set and very dark like those of most Afghans, keep closing and his head falling sideways, as if he is dying.

The hospital in Baharak, a typical dusty market town, represents the best hope of safety for the boys. There are no lights inside. I walk through several rooms shouting for a doctor. I see two women in the distance and explain about the mine explosion. They cluck sympathetically, but do nothing, presumably because they are not wearing veils. Finally a man appears who says he is an assistant doctor. In a cluttered room with two operating tables he begins to treat Najmaddin. Another doctor called Dr Suleiman arrives and a German nurse called Mathias, an energetic looking man with long brown hair, offers to come and help.

With three doctors and nurses treating the boys, I am more hopeful. When I ask the assistant doctor how they are, he says “good, good” in an absent way. He and Mathias work on Barot’s right arm, which has deep cuts in it. But when they gently remove the blood-sodden bandage on his left hand, only the little finger is left. Barot must have been holding the mine or shell in this hand when it exploded. It had ripped away four fingers, leaving white tips of bone sticking out of the flesh. “I’m afraid we’ll have to cut away the whole hand,” says Mathias, sadly shaking his head.

A little later Dr Suleiman reveals that Rajab has a puncture wound in the abdomen. He says both boys must go for surgery to a proper hospital two hours’ drive away in the large town of Faizabad. As we leave, Dr Suleiman is saying he will look in the bazaar for somebody with a car.

This is an extract from ‘Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East’ by Patrick Cockburn, published by OR Books, price £18. The discount code readers can use for 15% off ‘Chaos and Caliphate’ is: INDEPENDENT

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