~By Tarquin. I finally reached Kabul after Christmas by Airbus magic carpet. We glided in over Pakistan and the brown, rugged hills of the North-West Frontier, which gave way to the snow-clad fortress of the Hindu Kush.
It’s little wonder that the Americans haven't been able to find Osama bin Laden & Co. down there. Both geographically and politically, this is extraordinarily wild territory.
The Faqir of Ipi, the Waziri leader who led an insurrection against the British and later the Pakistanis, evaded his enemies in the same terrain for decades. Some 40,000 British and Indian troops spent the 1930s and 40s trying to locate him and his tribesmen and failed.
I have been staying in Wazir Akbar Khan (named after the son of the former anti-British king Dost Mohammad), the wealthiest neighbourhood
in Kabul. The streets are laid out on a grid with Western, two-storey houses that date back to the 60s and 70s. Since 2001, there's been a lot of new construction here, all of it funded by former Mujahideen commanders and drug lords. Many of
their houses are enormous and extraordinarily ostentatious, especially when viewed in the context of Afghanistan's poverty.
We visited one of these modern-day palaces on New Year's eve. According to the foreign tenant, it is owned by the police chief of one of Afghanistan's major cities. This individual is paid a salary of something in the region of $50 per month.
time I stayed in Wazir Akbar Khan was in 1995. At the time, Kabul was held by
Ahmed Shah Massoud and a weak coalition of factions who had all fought one another in the past. Most of Kabul lay
in ruins, destroyed by the Mujahideen during their offensive against
Najibullah's Communist regime (which collapsed in 1992) and subsequent
To add to its woes, Kabul was again under siege, this time from a new militia that had emerged from the Pushtun heartland. At the time, no one knew much about the Taliban - only that they were being funded by Pakistan, possessed a seemingly limitless supply of ammunition and cash, and travelled around in brand new Toyota pick-ups.
The house where I stayed had no glass in the windows; the panes had all been blown out by explosions and replaced with plastic sheeting. It was virtually impossible to sleep. Shells and missiles hit the city ever few minutes; at night, the sound of thuds woke me with a start.
I found a city virtually deserted and the population on the verge of starvation. The only source of food came from ICRC, which was airlifting grain into the airport. I remember watching food being distributed in the middle of the city. Desperate men and women of all ages begged and scrambled in the mud for handouts; children crouched under the ICRC trucks scavenging for spilled grain.
One day I visited the Kabul orphanage. It was like something out of Oliver Twist: the ‘canteen’ was teeming with dozens of malnourished kids dressed in rags. Most of them were visibly shell shocked. For lunch they ate bowls of watery onion soup and stale naan. One little boy, who said he wanted to be President when he grew up, asked me to tell the outside world about how the Afghan people were suffering. He wanted the international community to intervene to stop the fighting. I told him that I would do my best. But I knew that no one gave a damn about Afghanistan. As far as Britain and America were concerned, the Afghans had served their purpose.
I came back to stay in Wazir Akbar Khan the day after the Taliban
‘conquered’ the city. Massoud and his men had fled to the Panjshir
Valley. Najibullah had been dragged from the UN compound (where he’d
been under house arrest since 1992) and butchered.
I found the streets around Wazir Akbar Khan full of Taliban celebrating. Some dragged TV sets from houses and smashed them to pieces; others stopped passing cars and confiscated audio cassettes. These they broke open, twisting the tape around the barrels of their Kalashnikovs.
I recognised many of these young Talibs, these so-called ‘religious students’. That is to say, I’d lived in Peshawar in 1989 and 1990 and seen the circumstances in which they’d grown up. They’d known only refugee camps and talk of jihad. Ignorant and uneducated, their heads had been filled with simplistic, fanatical ideas by village mullahs trained in radical Islamic seminaries funded by certain Gulf states. Perhaps most significantly, these young men had been conditioned to despise women and to marginalise their role in society.
A day or two after reaching Kabul, I came face-to-face with one of these mullahs. I had gone with a couple of other foreign journalists to interview a local Kabul commander who had betrayed Massoud’s coalition and joined the Taliban (almost certainly in return for a large wodge of Pakistani cash). This commander was not yet attuned to the harsh Taliban style of doing things. So when turned up at his HQ, he happily invited us in for tea and answered all our questions. This was a fantastic break: our first official Taliban comment.
But then, after about twenty minutes, something extraordinary happened. Suddenly, the door to the room burst open and in strode a huge bear of a man with one eye, one arm, a large grizzly beard and an enormous black turban. Over his shoulder was slung a Kalashnikov. He took one look at AP's Kathy Gannnon, who was wearing a headscarf with her face exposed, roared in Pushtu and attacked our host, beating him around the face with his one good hand.
We sat watching in horror, convinced that we would be next. Then, very slowly and in silence, we gathered up our equipment and, one-by-one, filed past the Mullah, through the door and made for our waiting car vehicle. I was convinced that we would be beaten up or arrested or the Taliban would smash up our equipment. But thankfully, we were allowed to leave unmolested.
Kabul became very scary after that. The Taliban banned everything,
from music to kite flying, and forbade women from working. A curfew was
introduced and at night the streets were patrolled by young, macho
Taliban high on hashish. On the first Friday (the Muslim holy day) after their conquest, I visited
Kabul’s main mosque and watched passers-by being forced inside at
Meanwhile, rumours circulated of executions and disappearances. One Afghan colleague likened the atmosphere in the city to the so-called ‘Reign of Terror’ of 1929 when an illiterate brigand, Bacha-i-Saquo, seized the Afghan throne and set about executing his enemies by impaling them on stakes and blowing them to pieces on the mouths of cannons.
One day, a group of Taliban paid a visit to the house in Wazir Akbar Khan where I was staying. They were not unlike any other Afghans I had met in that they refused our invitation to tea. They said that they were looking for a young man who worked for us; he was wanted for questioning.
Abdullah, who was Panjshiri, was not at work that day, and we told the Taliban that we did not know where he lived. The Taliban assured us that they would return the next day for him.
After the Taliban left, we went to find Abdullah to warn him; we suggested that he leave Afghanistan. But his father was sick and his family was concerned that if he fled, he would be stopped at a checkpoint, which could make matters worse.
The next day Abdullah came to the house. A number of other foreign journalists waited with him. When the Taliban arrived, we went out into the street to explain that Abdullah was a tea boy, a non-combatant. But they would not listen and took Abdullah away. We decided to follow the Taliban's vehicle, to see where they took our friend. But the Talib spotted us, stopped by the side of the road and made it clear that if we did not turn around there would be dire consequences.
Abdullah was not released for several days. During his captivity, I believe he was tortured.
I didn’t return to Kabul until 2005. By now the houses in Wazir Akbar
Khan had been vacated by Osama bin Laden and Co. and rented by
foreigners working with aid agencies, diplomats, warlords and wealthy
Afghans returned from years of exile. Many of the streets were
barricaded with blast-proof concrete barricades. Armed men
working for new private security firms patrolled the gates and walls.
Kabul had become like Peshawar during the jihad. Luxury 4-by-4s rolled through the streets. Everywhere you looked, signs indicated UN and NGO offices. Exclusive restaurants catered for ex-pats earnings thousands of dollars a month, many of whom seemed oblivious to the recent past and blatantly insensitive to Afghanistan’s fragile culture.
I soon found that history was repeating itself, that the Banana Republic of Afghanistan was now run by America. Once again, the country's destiny appeared to lay in the hands of foreign powers.
I decided to do a story about women anti-narcotics police. When I contacted the appropriate Afghan ministry, I was telephoned by a certain American organisation. I found out later that this organisation was funded by the CIA. It's role was to generate ‘good PR’ for the Afghan government.
The two American gentlemen I had to deal with were staying in a house in Wazir Akbar Khan. I went there for lunch and found myself sharing pizzas with half-a-dozen Romanian ‘security advisers’, hired (presumably at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a month) to provide round-the-clock security for my two American hosts. These Romanians, who said little and rarely took off their black sunglasses, were working under the command of a swaggering American - goatee, shades, baseball cap, foul mouth - who told me he had worked ‘in a lot of shit holes’. From what I could gather, he had never served in a regular army.
When I travelled with these gentlemen to visit a US Federal Drug
Enforcement Administration training facility, we set out in two big Land Cruisers. The American security chief and his
Romanians brought along a bewildering array of firepower. My driver
kept a loaded Kalashnikov on his lap and a pump-action shot gun in a
holster next to his seat. Every time the Land Cruisers were forced to
come to a halt in traffic, his finger curled around the trigger of his
From their conversation, it became clear to me that they regarded the Afghans with contempt.
I came away in 1995 feeling pessimistic about the future. I had collected a good deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan was being squandered through inefficiency, poor planning, corruption and a lack of vision. It struck me that the international community was repeating the same mistakes of the past, looking for a quick fix in circumstances that required a plan for decades ahead.
But over the past few days back in Wazir Akbar Khan, I’ve found some cause for
optimism. Not because of the international community’s presence here (although the security that ISAF provides and the reconstruction of
hospitals, schools and wells is obviously welcome). Nor because of Afghanistan's
leadership, which everyone says is corrupt to the core. It is the attitude of many ordinary Afghans I've talked to that gives me hope.
For all their country’s woes (and God know you don’t have to go far in Kabul to see how and impoverished people are), those I’ve spoken to seem more up beat about the future. They talk of rebuilding an Afghanistan that can rebuff outside interference and their expectations of the outside world seem more realistic.
They also remain extraordinarily resilient.
Take my new friend, Mahfouz.
He grew up during the civil war and worked as a shoeshine boy on the streets of Wazir Akbar Khan. Since then, he's got himself a basic education, taken evening classes in English, and landed himself a job with a foreign news organisation.
At just 19, he’s having to support his family (his father is dead) and says he won’t marry until he’s at least 30. ‘I have to make sure my brothers and sisters get an education first,’ he told me. ‘I want them to become doctors and engineers.’
But Mahfouz, who lives in a simple mud house with no running water or electricity, is also talking about learning another language (maybe German or Arabic) and is interested in studying mathematics. Being around Mahfouz, I get the feeling that he is capable of accomplishing almost anything.
Copyright © 2006 Tarquin Hall