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KABUL IN WINTER
IN THE STREETS
I went to Afghanistan after the bombing stopped. Somehow I felt obliged to try to help pick up the pieces. I was a New Yorker who had always lived downtown, and for a long time after the towers fell I experienced moments when I couldn't get my bearings. I'd turn a corner and draw a blank. I'd have to stop to look around and think for a minutewhich way is home?as if all these years I'd relied on some subliminal sense of the mass of the towers behind me, or perhaps a shadow over my shoulder, so that I knew which way was which. I'd seen George W. Bush come to town to strut and bluster among the ruins, and as I watched him lug the stunned country into violence, my sorrow turned to anger and a bone-deep disappointment that hasn't left me yet. Surely America was capable of some act more creative than bombing a small, defenseless, pre-destroyed country on the other side of the world, or so I believed. Four thousand collateral civilian deaths in Kabul brought no consolation for the death of thousands, from around the world, in the fallen towers of the city that had so long been my home.1 I thought America had lost its bearing too. So I left.
I came to Kabul by air, as most international travelers do,because roadways in Afghanistan discourage overland travel. That was in December 2002, just about a year after the United States gave up on bombing the countryside to flush al-Qaeda out of the mountains where they'd holed up. In retrospect, high altitude heavy bombing was clearly not the best way to attack specific small bearded men on the grounda practice Colin Powell called "bomb and hope"but it shattered the country and made a mess of the roads.2 They were already a shambles after twenty-three years of warthe Afghans fighting the Soviets, and then fighting each other. The Americans complained that by the time they got there, a month after September 11, 2001, in search of Osama bin Laden, there were no good targets left to bomb, but they bombed anyway. A year after they stopped, some of the main roads were still impassable while others were shell-pocked and worn down to the bare rocks of the roadbed. Rusting carcasses of Soviet tanks and upended armored personnel carriers lay along the track like fallen dinosaurs. Bridges had been blown up, and some of them had been replaced by makeshift structures that spread across the water like rafts. There were land mines everywhere, more per square mile than any place else on earth. Truck drivers stepped from the road to piss and lifted off in clouds of dust. So the way to travel was by plane.
In 2002, Ariana Afghan Airlines was the only international commercial carrier that could deliver me to Kabul, but it conducted business with a kind of blithe spontaneity unknown to airlines that sell you tickets in advance for scheduled flights. Unless you had influential friends or money for "gifts," you caught an Ariana flight by showing up in Dubai or Islamabad and asking around. They were doing the best they could, I supposed, considering that only months before American bombsights had locked on the Ariana fleet parked at Kabul Airport. I flew into Dubai in the middle of the night and snooped around the terminal, looking for an Ariana counter or an office. Nothing. A cleaner in the women's toilets,a small, dark woman from Sri Lanka named Gloria, led me to a café table in the lobby of terminal 2 and sat down to chat about the good working conditions in Dubai. The rich rulers of the Emirates, she said, respect the working class and take care of them. She'd been working in the women's toilet for nine years. (It was very clean.) The work was not too hard. The salary was good and she got fifteen sick days yearly besides her paid vacation. She'd earned enough to buy a house near the beach, and she invited me to stay with her if the flight didn't materialize. I was on the verge of changing my plans when she pointed to a young man hurrying toward the café, lugging a big black briefcase. He was dressed in black trousers and white shirt like any waiter in the West. "That's him," Gloria said. "That's the ticket man."
He opened the briefcase at a nearby table and began to write out tickets by hand. Business was cash only, as if even then with a plane on the runway and tickets passing into passengers' pockets, the company might still have to skip town. "Kabul," I said and put down $185. "Kabul," the man said, writing out the ticket. When he finished with me and a crowd of men wearing perahan-o tombanthe long tunic and baggy pants of the Afghan man's national outfithe shoved the money into his briefcase and hurried away. For another couple of hours we waited, joined by other passengers sufficiently well-connected to warrant tickets in advance. Then someone at a gate called out "Kabul," and we rushed forward in a mighty wedge, afraid of being left behind. The men shouldered the women aside and jostled one another through the door. I followed with two or three other Western women, and we found ourselves on a bus where the men already occupied all the seats. When the bus reached the airplane, the men jumped up, plowed through the women, and charged up the gangway. "It's the culture," said a young British woman who'd been standing next to me, reading the look on my face. "Men first." She was returning from leave to her job with a United Nations aidprogram in Afghanistan. "Wait 'til you see the Afghan airports," she said. "They shut the women in a little room and don't let us out until the men are nicely comfortable on the plane."
The plane was olda gift from Indiabare bones and not crowded. There were no movie screens, no glossy magazines, no duty-free sales. The flight attendants were men, except for one young woman who carried a tin teapot up and down the aisle. She clutched a pale pink scarf over her face and politely averted her eyes as she addressed the passengers: "Tea?" The plane climbed out of Dubai and crossed the Gulf. Then we were over Iran where dark mountains rose in clumps like fortresses. The pilot announced that we had passed into Afghan air space. The passengers applauded. The wave-washed desert below was dark and dun-colored and forbidding, with no sign of village or road. Desolate. Then a river appeared, and fields and enclosuressigns of life after allas the terrain began to gather itself in ridges rising toward a horizon white with snow and ice. The Hindu Kush. Then we were flying over mountainstreeless, featureless mountainsnot the discrete picturesque peaks of Swiss postcards but a random snarl of jagged rocks, as if a great swath of the earth's surface had been thrust up from beneath. Men in caves perhaps, striking back. At last the plane topped the mountains and swung into a broad deep bowl that opened out before us, pale in the bright sun and thin air. Above the center of the bowl, trapped by a hedge of mountains, lay a mass of black smog, dense and opaque: a tangle of twisted strands of oily soot and smoke, like a great pot-blackened Brillo pad. Here and there it thinned to reveal aspects of the city beneath: flat roofs, dirt roads, a ruined fort. Then the plane descended into that soup and the light dimmed.
I GOT SICK RIGHT AWAY. EVERYONE DOES. IT'S NOT JUST THE ALTITUDE. It's a kind of initiation for new arrivals from more fortunate lands that enjoy such luxuries as unleaded gasoline and pollutioncontrol. The airport stinks of petrochemicals. Outside the odor is the same, and on the drive into town, my nose closes, stuffed with dust. Breathing becomes an effort and then a struggle. Within days my chest feels bruised and aching from the job of staying alive, and my head hurts through and through. I envy the Afghans their impressive and practical high-bridged noses, the natural air filters of people in arid lands everywhere. It's depressing to realize that people like me, with small pitiful noses unsuited to life in this high, dry, dusty air, have been winnowed from the local populace over the course of generations by natural selection. And now I'm being winnowed myself, suffocated not just by incidental illness but by inexorable natural forces that find me ill equipped. Under such pressure, my nose wheezes and drips. It cries out for pity and attention. Weeks later, at gatherings of "internationals"as Western aid workers, diplomats, smugglers, and spies are knownI spot the telltale tissue clutched in the palm or thrust up the sleeve of the newly arrived. Some never get well. They always look pained, their eyes narrowed against the grit and glare, their noses dripping, their tissues close at hand. I am among the lucky ones who somehow adapt, against all odds, to the new environment; like some fishy creature that learns to live in air, I develop the ability to breathe after all in dust.
Before the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, a pair of French photographers, Roland and Sabrina Michaud, roamed the country for fourteen years, documenting the land and its people. You can look back now at the pages of Afghanistan: The Land That Was and see a panoramic shot of Kabul, taken in March 1968 from the height of the Bala Hissar (the High Fort) and spread across two pages of the book. The caption offers this description: "The city rolls around the Kabul River. In the area south of the Pul-e Khesti (Brick Bridge) mosque, bazaars alternate with labyrinthine narrow streets interrupted by a great commercial avenue, Jada-e-Maiwand."3 The river is there, wide and full, zigzagging across the pages. In the foreground stands a maze ofsmall mud-brown houses, while the broad avenue beyond this residential quarter is lined with three- and four-story buildings, the facades painted in shades of blue and umber and cream. The air is so clear that you can count the windows in the miniature houses, distinguish nearly twenty carsgreen, white, blackand half a dozen buses on the streets, see the dark-clad people strolling the riverbank, and even make out the tiny clustered villages far in the distance beyond the outer limits of the city. You can identify some buildings that still survive in KabulPul-i Khesti Mosque, the mausoleum of Timur Shah, Shah-do-Shamshira Mosquebut you couldn't make the same photograph today. On a good day, even with the best equipment, the picture would appear blurry and smudged, shot through the soft focus lens of smog and dust.
Kabul in winter is the color of the dust, though the dust is no color at all. It's a fine particulate lifted by winds from old stone mountains and sifted over the city like flour. It lies in the streets and drifts over the sidewalks where it compacts in hillocks and holes. Rain and snowmelt make it mud. Mountain suns bake it. Cart wheels break it down. Winds lift it and leave it on every surfaceon the mud houses and the mud walls that surround them, on the dead grass and trees of the park, on shop windows and the broken sign of the cinema, on the brown shawls of men in the streets and the faces of children. Dust fills the air and thickens it, hiding from view the mountains that stand all around. Dust fills the lungs, tightens the chest, lies in the eyes like gravel, so that you look out on this obscure drab landscape always through something like tears.
The city stands alone in thin air, ringed by mountains. Some small outcrops intrude upon the city itself, scattering houses on their lower slopes; and the bed of the Kabul River, emptied by longstanding drought, slips between them to wind through the heart of town. The sun falls behind the Paghman range to the west of the city and rises again from peaks known vaguely asthe Eastern mountains. (In all my time in Kabul I never came across a decent map that could tell me the proper names of things. The best maps were printed in PolishKabul's own Polish jokebut I don't read Polish, nor did anyone else I met.) These neighboring slopes are secondary ranges of the Hindu Kush, the massive mountain chain that extends some seven hundred miles eastward across the heart of Afghanistan, climbing all the while to culminate in the heights of the Karakorum and the Himalayas. To Kabulis, the city sheltered in a broad, shallow bowl at six thousand feet seems to be the center of everything.
In truth, it stands on the way to everything else. One road leads north, over the Hindu Kush, to the Turkistani steppes of Central Asia stretching away toward Russia. Another tracks south to Kandahar, and west across the desert to Herat and Iran. Another heads east, following the old course of the Kabul River as it plunges between the sheer rock walls of Tangi Gharu gorge and runs on toward Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent beyond. Commerce goes out along these tracks, and trouble comes in. At the eastern edge of the city, atop a rocky promontory, stand the ruins of the old Bala Hissar, demolished more than a century ago by British forces to avenge the murder of a British envoy. In return for performing such services, General Frederick Roberts became Lord Roberts of Kandahar, a hero so famous in his own country that when his bust was later placed in London's St. Paul's Cathedral it was inscribed simply "Roberts." The old stone walls that once shielded the fort still soar above the river, commanding a view of the long approach to the gorge where the waters spill into the steep descent. They recall a watchful time when Kabul had some means to protect itself, some power.
The walls date back to at least the fifth century, to the time of the Hephthalites, the White Huns, who swept southward from central Asia and swamped the once-great civilization of the Kushans. In its glory days during the second century, the Kushan empire exploitedits fabulous location midway along the Asian caravan routeknown as the Silk Roadto gain wealth and political power, doing business with the Caesars in Rome and the Han emperors in China. At that time the Kushans' great King Kanishka maintained two capitals: a winter retreat to the east in Peshawar in what is now Pakistan, and summer quarters at Kapisa just north of Kabul near the modern military base at Bagram, built by the Soviets and now occupied by twenty thousand Americans. French archaeologists working at Kapisa in 1939 unearthed an amazing Kushan treasure trove amassed through trade: stacks of exquisite ivories from India, lacquers from China, bronzes from Rome, and bas reliefs and glass from Alexandria. After King Kanishka died, power struggles brought civil war, while developments in Rome and China disrupted trade; and soon the declining Kushans fell under the authority of the Sasanian Empire of Persia (now Iran) to the west. Then came the ravaging Hephthalite horsemen who built the great walls of Kabul's Bala Hissar, strong and thick, to ward off other anticipated invaders. The Kushan treasures long displayed in Kabul's National Museum were thought to have been lost or destroyed in recent wars, but they were resurrected again after the fall of the Taliban and the American invasion of 2001. Museum workers had hidden them away.
I learned most of this ancient lore reading An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, a locally famous guidebook published in Kabul in 1970 by the Afghan Tourist Organization and written by Nancy Hatch Dupree. She was already known in Asia for her work with education and rural communities when she married Louis Dupree, the foremost anthropologist working in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s and an important chronicler of its past. With her husband she traveled to remote regions of the country and lived for months at a time in obscure villages near archaeological digs where prehistoric pot shards were sifted from the dust. In that way she learned nearly everything there was to know about the past andpresent of this small piece of the planetabout the size of Texasthat had come to be called Afghanistan. How she must have loved it then, an adventurous woman with a scholarly bent, dazzled by new discoveries, sitting up at night under the stars with her husband, talking. I can't keep it all straight, the dynastiesthe Ghaznavids, the Ghorids, the Mongols, the Timurids, the Moghuls, the Safavids, the Durranisrising and falling in succession, shifting the seats of power here and there across the map of Central Asia and the Middle East, expanding empires and the very map itself beyond the former edges of the world only to see it trimmed anew as power fragmented in family quarrels or crumbled under hoofs of unknown horses. In all those centuries, what we call Afghanistan was never a nation, really, but a tract of landscape, or rather scattered valleys of habitable land amid deserts and impassable mountains, like a chessboard upon which political games were played by forces from afar who wandered in to wreck the place and pass on. No one knew from which direction the next wave would come.
The guidebook follows Afghan roads once traveled by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan and Marco Polo, the last of whom luckily was merely sightseeing. The history all reads more or less like the history of the Kushans who also actually came from someplace elseforced from their grazing lands along the Chinese borderand because they were nomads shifted the seat of government from Afghanistan to Pakistan and back with the seasons until their whole enterprise imploded in civil war. The history all reads more or less like recent events too. It is full of eerie resonance.
Like this: "Turning south, covering 75 miles in two days, he quickly subdued ... rebels [in Herat] and moved on ... along the Hilmand and from there relentlessly pushed on into ... Kandahar and Ghazni, on to ... Kabul-Charikar, up the Panjsher Valley and over the Khawak Pass to ... Kunduz. The two chief cities ...Tashkurghan and ... Balkh, surrendered without resistance."4 This blistering campaign might have been waged only recently by the brilliant mujahidin commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, or by the conquering Taliban, but in fact it was led by Alexander the Great of Macedon in the spring of 329 B.C. The description of another later dynastythat they "stood for law and order, orthodoxy in Islam, and a return to cultural traditions"might also refer to the Taliban, but in fact it concerns the Samanids who ruled in northern Afghanistan in the city of Balkh at the turn of the tenth century.5
After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, there were no more guidebooks. So when the international humanitarian community in Kabul expanded after the fall of the Taliban, a local bookseller bought up the stock of Nancy Hatch Dupree's book and put it back on sale. It was still indispensable, though it had become a ghostly book. So many of the sites described had been destroyed. In the summer of 2002, two humanitarian aid workers assembled a sixteen-page pamphlet of information essential for internationals, labeled it A Survival Guide to Kabul, and gave it to the boys who sell newspapers in the streets for distribution. (The boys got to keep the money from sales.) By 2003, that pamphlet had expanded, acquired a glossy cover, and become Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide. A new section on sightseeing began: "There's a lot to see in the city, even if most of it is wrecked."6 But still you need Dupree. You wander through the ruins of Kabul, with your old musty-smelling copy of her book in hand, examining the black and white photo-illustrations of what things used to look like in the old days, when there was peace.
AFTER THE BOMBING, NEWLY PROSPEROUS ENTREPRENEURS, truckers, traders, smugglers, opium dealers, traffickers, and other suddenly flush locals and returned expatriates began to buildagain amid the ruins of Kabul, so that by 2003 the great expanse of wreckage was randomly punctuated by tall new houses adorned with curves, columns, and spiraling staircases and finished in garish tiles of purple, green, and orange, like exotic castles in some tropical theme park. The style is known locally as "Pakistani Palace" though it's said to have originated in the Gulf States among drug dealers with a need to launder profits and a taste for domestic pretension. In Kabul, the palaces draw attention to themselves, shouting of money, and overshadow the mud-colored rubble so familiar to Kabulis by now as to be scarcely noticeable. You can drive through the wreckage, as foreign journalists used to do so often before Iraq eclipsed Afghanistan in the news, and hardly register that your mind is growing numb. They're still therethe blasted buildings that appeared in newspaper photos and on TV as graphic backdrop for flak-jacketed reporters who couldn't find words to describe what they saw in that ruined city that seemed to them as lonely as the moon. Surreal was a word they used a lot. They compared the devastation of Kabul to that of Dresden after the fire bombings of World War II. They had not personally witnessed the destruction of Dresden, of course, but it must have made them feel vaguely better to be able to locate the catastrophic damage in this way, as something familiar, something quite natural in human history, something that just happens in war.
As ruins go, most of those in Kabul aren't particularly dramaticnot like the snarl of twisted steel and concrete slabs that once was New York's World Trade Center. Kabul wasn't built of steel and concrete, but mostly of mud bricks. So the city's ruins are bare-boned skeletons, like the building that housed the Department of Traffic: floors and roof collapsed inward and stacked like pancakes aslant thin brick pillars that lean into air. Or fragmentary facades of business establishments, block after block of storefronts that open into nothing. At what was the finest cinema the circular iron staircase still winds upward, visible throughshell-shattered walls. At an old teacher training institute, the roof spills over the entrance. At the monumental mausoleum of King Nadir Shah, high on a hill overlooking the city, the sun shines through holes in the dome that still balances atop shell-pocked columns. The broken marble sarcophagi of the king's family lie scattered in the grass below. You notice these details, but then they begin to blur as the wreckage goes on, block after block. The rubble of tumbled neighborhoods still has not been cleared away, except in patches as someone finds money and a reason to do it. You drive the city streets, perhaps sightseeing as a morbid postconflict tourist, or just trying to get to a meeting, and you see the smash-up stretching on foreverwhole districts leveled as if struck by some great quake that cracked the Richter scale.
I LIVED IN A CENTRAL DISTRICT OF KABUL CALLED SHARE NAU, the "new city." The area was shabby and dust-covered and not at all like the classy upper crust neighborhood it once had been, but for the most part it was still intact. My tiny room was located above the office of Madar ("Mother"), an organization founded years before by an American woman named Caroline to help the widows of Kabul. I'd come across it on the Internet and offered myself as a volunteer. Caroline had lived in the country off and on for almost forty years, so I figured that she would know better than most would-be helpers what to do. She'd started her life in Kabul in the sixtiesthe almost mythical good old daysas an American wife, part of a lively circle of expats scattered about town, living in comfort with Afghan servants, riding horses for fun, and doing exactly as she pleased. Her children had long since grown up and gone back to America. Her husband too. But Caroline had come to be at home in this place where she could live easily in the moral limbo reserved for Western women and where she could still, even in her seventies, do exactly as she pleased and do some good besides. She had become a sort of Afghan: warm, generous,willful, intransigent, combative, and utterly without fear. But she was a kind of Afghan widow herself, living on her own, which may help to explain why she wanted so much to help the widows of Kabul, of whom there wereby the time the mujahidin's factional battles for the city ground down late in 1994some forty thousand at least. (Four years later, in the heyday of the Taliban, the ICRC numbered the legions of Afghan widows throughout the country at ninety-eight thousand.)7
Normally, an Afghan widow and her children would be taken in by relatives, her husband's or her own, but war had decimated families and scattered them. In 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul, the widows' difficult situation became desperate. The Taliban ruled that no woman should leave her house unless she was escorted by a male relative, but thousands of war widows had no male relatives left. Husbands, fathers, brothers, sonsall gone. Imprisoned in their homes, the widows would starve. (This is the crisis depicted in Osama, the award-winning movie by Afghan filmmaker Siddiq Barmak; a widow who lives with her mother, also a widow, dresses her young daughter as a boyOsamaand sends her/him out to support the household.) Caroline had responded to the situation with programs to teach widows to sew and embroider and weave at home, and she sold the things they made so they could feed themselves. She started secret schools toomany of themfor girls the Taliban refused to educate. The Taliban found out what she was doing. They raided her office and arrested her staff. Never having seen computers before, they beat the staff women for watching "television" and hauled them off to jail; and when Caroline insisted on going to jail with them, the Taliban expelled her from the country. She moved across the border to Peshawar and kept on working until the Taliban fled from Kabul. Then Caroline returned to find the widows still therestill destitute, still hungry, still in need of help. She rented a new office and carried on.
I'd been in Kabul only a few days when Lema, Madar's Afghan office manager, asked me to go along to help hand out old clothesto the poor. I wasn't prepared for the long drive through the rubble or the hovels where we called, but we had a job to do, Lema said. Some American churchgoers had been moved to send aid to Afghans. They'd sent a raft of old clothes to an American army chaplain with instructions to distribute them to the "deserving poor" of Kabul, and he in turn had brought them to Madar and asked us to give them away. (They'd sent electric blankets too, though Kabul had no electricity.) Apparently the chaplain didn't have time to do the job himself, or he didn't know where to find the deserving poor, but the women of Madar knew.
We drove into Karte Se, District Three, where wreckage lay all about us. I felt as if I too had been smashed. But then, as I began to breathe again, I noticed signs of life in the fallen houses: a bit of laundry drying in a window, a kettle on a cook fire in the street, a ragged carpet hung across a blasted doorway. People were living in the ruinsas many do to this dayin houses somehow untouched, or in rooms patched together in buildings only partially destroyed. The businesses were gone, and the stores, so it was hard to see how people managed to live, but these were their shelters.
The car stopped on a dirt road well away from the main street, and Lema and Nasrin, Madar's staff manager, hoisted two bundles of clothes and led the way along narrow paths between broken mud walls to a wooden gate that opened onto a courtyard. Nothing grew in the hard packed earth; a few thin hens pecked the dust around an old cistern. At the end of the yard stood a tall mud-brick house, its broad window holes covered with plastic, its door with a blanket that was thrown aside by a tiny shawl-wrapped woman who hurried to us with outstretched hands. We followed her under the blanket into a foyer piled with fallen bricks and climbed a flight of stairs to a part of the second floor that was still intact. On the landing a small cooking pot simmered over a charcoal burner, tended by a daughter-in-law whose tiny baby layswaddled beside the fire like a trussed chicken. At the top of the stairs, another daughter-in-law gestured to a curtained doorway. We slipped off our shoes to enter a long bare room. There five or six children were huddled on the floor under the edges of a quilt that had been draped over a low table to enclose the space beneath it. Later, when the cooking was done and the food served, a brazier of hot coals would be slipped under the covered table to warm the family as they ate. This arrangementthe sandeliis as close as most Afghans come to central heating, and even before the coals are brought, the imagined warmth is a comfort. Still the children crept out to watch with wide eyes as Lema and Nasrin sorted three piles of clothes and baby things on the floor, one pile for each woman.
I hung back, feeling the cold rising from the bare mud floor through my socks. The plastic at the window flapped in the wind. Lema gestured toward my digital camera, which she had asked me to bring along, and signaled that it was time to take pictures. She directed the mother and her daughters-in-law to squat on the floor, each one with her pile of old clothes. The three women did as they were told, stone-faced. They drew the corner of their headscarves over their faces and raised their eyes to the camera with the blank look of those who have already endured every indignity. I turned to Lema. Humiliating was the word I wanted, but it seemed beyond her English vocabulary.
"Do you think they feel bad?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "Make photos."
"We show we give these things. We show we not steal them. Very important. Donors want see. Make photos, please."
I too did as I was told, though I tried to lighten the moment. I coaxed the children into the pictures and passed the camera around so the women could see the images of their offspring on the tiny screen. (Where were the men? I wondered, afraid to ask.So many had vanished.) I asked the women and children to pose for one last photo in the yard, a photo of all the family with Lema and Nasrin too. Lema told them to smile, and they did.
WE DROVE ON THROUGH THE WRECKED DISTRICT, CLIMBING THE slope at the base of a mountain, and looked out over rubble that stretched as far as we could see. "Gulbuddin," Nasrin said by way of explanation. She meant Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hizb-i Islami, the party of extreme Islamists that received the lion's share of secret American, Saudi Arabian, and Pakistani aid to the Afghan resistancethe mujahidinduring the Soviet occupation. Gulbuddin and his radical partylike most modern Islamiststraced the origins of their ideology to the Society of Muslim Brothers, a political movement founded in Egypt in the 1920s by a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna to protest British imperial rule in his country. The Brotherhood worked peaceably to advance social welfare and justice and the cause of Islam. The British responded with the standard techniques of oppression, alternately trying to court or to crush the organization; and after Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in the 1950s, he applied even more rigorously the same tactics of cooption and repression. Nasser also turned to the Soviets for aid and arms, prompting the US to send covert assistance to the Muslim Brothers, thereby initiating a Cold War flirtation with radical Islam that would last until 9/11.8
The Brotherhood predictably grew stronger and some of its members more extreme. One of them was Sayyid Qutb, a novelist and critic and longtime civil servant in the Ministry of Education who began as a political moderate and devotee of English literature and became the leading theoretician of radical Islam"the founder of Sunni fundamentalism."9 Like Mohammed Atta and his 9/11 collaborators, Sayyid Qutb also lived in America for a time. Sent by the Ministry of Education to study at ColoradoState Teachers College (now the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley in 1948, he earned a master's degree in education, turned down a chance to study for a doctorate, and returned to Egypt in 1951. He had found what we proudly call "the American way of life" revoltingdriven by materialism, warped by racism, obsessed with sex, and partial beyond reason to Israel.10 Our vaunted democracy seemed to him merely an attempt by men to usurp the role of God, who alone has the right to rule. Thoroughly repelled, Qutb turned fully to Islam as a complete ideology, "a total civilization," to be defended by all means, including violence, from enemies within and without: that is, from Egypt's unjust (un-Islamic) military dictators, and infidel Americans like us.11
Imprisoned for his political views, he wrote the letters collected as the Islamist manifesto, Signposts along the Roadalso translated as Milestones. The full weight of the repressive secular state pressing upon Qutb and his Muslim Brothers in prison had the effect of forging his thought and firing it beyond his earlier writings on social justice, beyond the nonviolent reformist stance of the Brotherhood, beyond even the influential teachings of the Islamic revivalist Abul A'la Mawdudi, his Pakistani contemporary, who was the first to call for a universal jihadthat is, a revolutionary struggle to seize state power "for the good of all humanity."12 Qutb agreed with the call for universal jihad, but he sought to go beyond the state to abolish secular systems and governments and find "freedom in the realization of Islam in society under the authority of God."13 In Signposts, he calls upon Islamists everywhere to seize power throughout the Muslim world, and he provides the religious and moral justification for using lethal violence against nonbelievers. Just as George W. Bush claims to use armed invasion and regime change to "spread democracy," Qutb argues that Islam is obliged to liberate people through armed jihad, delivering human freedom by force.14
Qutb was executed in Egypt in 1966, but his manifesto had a life of its own. By then Islam was struggling against both communismand capitalism, and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was worried enough in 1971 to pledge one hundred million dollars to al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest Islamic university in the world, to promote Islamic education. Signposts must have circulated among the students there. It soon reached Kabul University when young Burhanuddin Rabbanifuture president of Afghanistanreturned from al-Azhar as a professor of Sharia law and translated it into Dari, a variant of Farsi (Persian) that is one of the two principal languages of Afghanistan. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar read Signposts in Dari at Kabul University. Osama bin Laden studied it in Arabic in classes at Jedda, where Sayyid Qutb's brother Mohammed was one of his teachers. Mohammed Atta must have read it too.
As a student in the American-sponsored Faculty of Engineering at Kabul University in the early 1970s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar distinguished himself as an extreme ideologue, given to enforcing his faith through violence. An American professor who taught him in those days, or tried to, remembers that Gulbuddin assaulted women students who appeared on campus in Western dress. Some report that he threw acid at their unveiled faces and at the legs of those who wore short skirts. The professor remembers that he more often beat them up. "He's a psychopath," the professor says. "He should have been locked up then."15 In fact, he was locked up, though only briefly, early in 1973 when he was charged with murdering a Maoist student; and that's why he had to miss the gathering of professors and students who met at the home of Professor Rabbani to form a shuraa leadership councilfor the growing Islamist movement. Rabbani and his associates were Islamic intellectuals, and though most of them were provincialsnot sophisticated Kabulisthey were not regressive fundamentalists like the men of the next generation who would form the Taliban. They were well acquainted with the systems of Western thought that had given rise to the West's advanced technical developmenta level of modernization they, like SayyidQutb, both admired and coveted for the Islamic world. They wanted to fashion upon the basis of Islam a thoroughly modern political ethosa new Islamist ideology capable of both participating in the modern world and countering Western imperialism. When these men met at Professor Rabbani's house to formalize their organization, later named Jamiat-i Islami (Islamic Society), this was the forward-looking project the group had in mind.16 But they put the murderous Gulbuddin in charge of political activities.17
The Islamists were not the only ones making plans. On July 17, 1973, while King Zahir Shah was out of the country, his cousin and former Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan, with help from Kabul's young communist parties, proclaimed a new Republic of Afghanistan and named himself head of state. Soon he began to arrest those who seemed to threaten his power, from both the left and the right. In 1974, when he arrested Ghulam Muhammad Niyazi, dean of the Sharia faculty and leading proponent of the Muslim Brotherhood, and two hundred of his associates, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar fled to Peshawar, along with Burhanuddin Rabbani and most other leaders of the Islamist movement. There Gulbuddin had a decided advantage, for he is a Pashtun, a member of the most numerous and troublesome ethnicity on both sides of the border.18 (Rabbani, by contrast, is a Tajik, a member of a northern minority.) Gulbuddin appealed to pro-Islamic, pro-Pashtun contacts in the Pakistani government that soon named him official liaison for all exiled Afghan Islamic parties. And there, in 1975, he broke with Professor Rabbani's Jamiat-i Islami to start Hizb-i Islami (Islamic Party), his own far more radical faction.19 There would be seven principal parties in Peshawar when all the lines were drawn. By the time the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to rescue the heavy-handed communist regime that had replaced Daoud, and the United States stepped up secret aid to help the Afghans whip the Soviets, Gulbuddin and Hizb-i Islami were already the darlings ofPakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the brother agency through which the CIA would funnel billions in American aid to Afghan "freedom fighters."20
No one suspected at the time that the Afghan resistancethe mujahidinmight actually defeat the Soviet army. The Americans seemed to know very little about Afghanistan and successive administrations had no Afghan policy to speak of, except to make things tough for the Soviets. So the CIA simply doled out money and weapons to the ISI, which skimmed a generous fee and passed on the rest to the mujahidin.21 The ISI spread the rewards around among several factions, apparently to incite competition and discourage Afghan unitywhich might have inspired Pakistan's own radical Islamists to rise upbut Gulbuddin and Hizb-i Islami always came out way ahead. He became the favorite of America as well, and of America's good chums the Saudis and Saddam Hussein.22 He used their aid to sabotage his fellow mujahidin parties, even as they fought against the Soviets; and he undermined especially his archrival, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military commander of Jamiat-i Islami. Another Afghan leader said of him, "Gulbuddin's problem is that he kills more mujahidin than Soviets."23 Gulbuddin never appeared to care much for the Soviet war. He fought his biggest battle against fellow Pashtuns for control of the poppy fields in Helmand Province.24 He apparently cared most about advancing himself, his prosperity, and his own notions of radical Islam.
After ten years of fighting the resistance, the Soviets gave up and went home, leaving a passel of mujahidin parties squabbling over plans for peace. In the absence of a common enemy to inspire at least the occasional illusion of unity, the resistance split along the fault lines of ego, Islamist ideology, and especially ethnicity. The dominant Pashtuns of the south and east (who speak their own language, Pashtu), the northern Tajiks and Uzbeks, and the Hazaras of the central highlands, Shi'a Muslims whoseAsiatic features, attributed to descent from the Mongol troops of Genghis Khan, make them the most identifiable and universally persecuted minoritythese are merely the largest groups, each with its own internal rivalries arising from subtribal structure, geography, and history. The Soviets left the communist puppet President Najibullah, former head of the secret police, in charge of the government; and to shore up his presidency they handed over all their heavy weaponry to his army, and three billion dollars in annual aid as well. President Najibullah himself was changing his stripes, trying to make his governance acceptable to both the resistance parties and the international community. Professing a policy of "national reconciliation," he embraced Islam, dropped Marxism/Leninism altogether from the platform of the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, and gave the PDPA a new and appealing name: the Homeland Party. He offered Ahmad Shah Massoud the job of minister of defense.25 The jihad against the Soviet invaders was over. Why couldn't the mujahidin lay down their arms and go home? Why couldn't his government standdevoutly but moderately Islamic, a bulwark against crazy Islamist extremists like the psychopathic Gulbuddin? These were good questions.
The answers lay with the CIA and the ISI. They shifted their sights from the Soviets to the stooge they left behind, determined to oust President Najibullah. Pakistan wanted to replace him with a stooge of its own, Gulbuddin; and the United States, bent on carrying its covert anti-communist war to the bitter end, went along.26 The scheme also matched Gulbuddin's ambitions, and he still had plenty of weapons left over from the jihad to turn upon Kabul. In 1990, with the connivance of ISI, he teamed up with Shahnawaz Tanai, President Najibullah's own secretary of defense, to stage a coup. The far-left communist diehard seemed an odd comrade for the far-right religious fanatic, but they shared the tribal heritage of Ghilzai Pashtuns in a country where identity counts more thanideology. Besides, Gulbuddin was never one to sacrifice an opportunity for a principle. In preparation for the coup, he tried to buy off President Najibullah's army, bribery often being the surest way to victory in Afghanistan. He got money to do it from Osama bin Laden, who was working at the time in Peshawar, in collaboration with ISI, to overthrow two presidents, Afghanistan's Najibullah and Pakistan's own Benazir Bhutto, both designated enemies of Islam.27 But in the event, most of Najibullah's army stood by him and the coup failed. Furiously, Gulbuddin turned once again upon his rivals in Jamiat-i Islami and murdered thirty of the party leaders, including some of Ahmad Shah Massoud's top military officers. He was still casting about for more enemies when, in 1991, the UN came up with a plan for President Najibullah to relinquish power to an Afghan interim government to be selected at a gathering of all the resistance parties headquartered in Peshawar. Remarkably, the leaders of the parties agreedthough not, of course, Gulbuddin.
Then the Soviet Union dissolved, and with it went the Afghan state. On January 1, 1992, by prior agreement, the defunct Soviet Union and the United States ended their proxy war on Afghan territory by stopping all military aid to both the Afghan government and the mujahidin. Soviet shipments of food and fuel to Kabul stopped as well. Things fell apart. All that was left of Afghanistan was, in the words of historian Barnett Rubin, "hyperarmed networks of power."28 The stage was set for the internecine battles of parties and tribes to erupt in civil war for control of the capital and the country.
In April 1992, President Najibullah vanished into hiding while resistance leaders in Peshawar still dickered over plans for the Afghan interim government to which he was supposed to surrender power. Gulbuddin moved upon Kabul again to seize it for himself. Massoud's forces entered the city to turn him back. Massoud, fighting in alliance with another northern army, the Junbish-i Milli-yi Islami (National Islamic Movement) militia of the UzbekGeneral Abdul Rashid Dostum, claimed Kabul for the resistance leaders of the government. Their new agreement, reached the next day, called for a council of leaders from all the parties to serve with an acting president. That post was to be filled for two months by the moderate Islamist Sibghatullah Mujaddidi, followed for four months by Professor Rabbani. After that, a shura was to be convened to choose an interim government to serve for the next eighteen months, at which point elections would be held. (Never able to work together, the Peshawar parties had settled for government by rotation.) Massoud, who had declined to claim Kabul for himself, was named secretary of defense. On April 28, 1992, members of the Islamic Jihad Council arrived from Peshawar in a caravan of battle-gray pickup trucks (provided by Saudi Arabia) to proclaim the new Islamic State of Afghanistan.29
But the state embodied in the person of President Najibullah had already disappeared; and the would-be Islamic state of the Peshawar Accords quickly shattered in a power struggle among the four most powerful factions, split largely along ethnic lines: Rabbani and Massoud's Tajiks of Jamiat-i Islami, Gulbuddin's Pashtuns of Hizb-i Islami, Dostum's Uzbeks of the Junbish militia, and the Shi'a Hazaras of Hizb-i Wahdat (Unity Party). They laid claim to different parts of Kabul and preyed upon the citizens, looting homes and government buildings. And all through the summer of 1992 Gulbuddin bombarded the city with rockets, still trying to claim the capital as his own. In due time, Acting President Mujaddidi handed over his impotent office to Professor Rabbani, but Rabbani in turn declined to give it up. Instead, he convened a shura of dubious authority to ratify the continuation of his government for another eighteen months.30 So the fighting continued. It was a civil war of sortsGulbuddin against Rabbani and Massoud, Pashtuns against non-Pashtunsbut it was a civil war stirred by outsiders (Pakistan's ISI, the Saudis, Osama bin Laden) in the vacuum created by the abrupt departure of outsiders (the Soviets and the Americans) and subject to infinitedeadly variations as commanders shifted sides and sold their services. Before the year was out, more than five thousand civilians were dead, and close to a million Kabulis had fled the city.31
Afghans were shocked that an Afghan would destroy an Afghan city, and the capital at that. All these years the mujahidin had tried to fight by traditional rules, keeping their firefights well away from towns and villages so that civil life might go on even in the midst of war. People went about their business and tended their farms as best they could. Even the mujahidin fighters went home to plow and plant and harvest as the seasons came around. When they had to kill an Afghansome informer or government collaboratorthey did it in the street. Even in wartime they wouldn't enter a man's house to search or to seize him, for every man's house was his own. Yet here was Gulbuddin month after month, year after year, lobbing rockets into the mud-brick houses of Kabul. Massoud's forces too ran amok in neighborhoods of the Hazara minority, raping, mutilating, and murdering without mercy. Was it something about all that foreign aid, all those years on the armaments dole, or was it incessant war that changed the rules of engagement? According to the ICRC, about 20,000 people were killed between April 1992 and December 1994 in the fighting that followed the "liberation" of Kabul from its "communist" government.32 Other sources put the death toll at 50,000 and claim as many as 150,000 wounded.33 Almost three-quarters of those who survived had to flee from their neighborhoods to other parts of the city or the refugee camps of Jalalabad and Peshawar. The state had disintegrated and the urban center shattered, scattering citizens like bits of shrapnel. Gulbuddin's rocket attacks from the outskirts of the city went on.
Then it was the turn of the Taliban to storm Kabul. They didn't come, as it sometimes seemed, from nowhere. They came from Kandahar, in the south, from the heart of Pashtun country. They had that historic claim to the capital and the country, for Pashtuns had held power in Afghanistan for more than 250 years; butthey made their case and won converts at first on moral grounds. Some of the leaders had fought as mujahidin, and many had been wounded during the long wars. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid notes that the Taliban leadership was "the most disabled in the world," and visitors facing a gathering of its one-eyed, one-legged, fingerless officials did not know "whether to laugh or to cry."34 The Pashtuns from Kandahar had fought the Soviets and the Najibullah regime under the leadership of their traditional tribal elders, and they had never received the wealth of arms and money doled out to the ideological Islamist parties in Peshawar. After the Islamic government took charge of Kabul, they went home, and many of them who were mullahs went back to their madrassas to study and to teach; but they could not escape the anarchic in-fighting, banditry, rapacity, and corruption of heavily armed mujahidin commanderswarlordsrun amok. The warlords preyed upon the caravans of powerful Pakistani truckersthe so-called transport mafiaand wrecked their plans to extend their traditional smuggling ventures in Afghanistan, via Kandahar, to Iran and Central Asia. Mujahidin leadership had failed to bring peace, and traditional leadership that might have put things right broke downthe old leaders dead or discredited or driven off or bought. So the one-eyed, one-legged mullahs discussed these matters and chose a leader of their own, the pious Mullah Mohammad Omar, a thirty-five-year-old wounded jihadi veteran of landless peasant stock who ran a tiny mud-hut madrassa in a Kandahari provincial village. Then, with divine guidance, they came up with an agenda: to "restore peace, disarm the population, enforce Sharia law and defend the integrity and Islamic character of Afghanistan."35 They called themselves Talibanstudentsfor that is what most of the leaders were.
The Pakistani government of Benazir Bhutto had a different but related agenda: to open a safe trade route through Afghanistan for the transport mafia. So it was not exactly coincidental that the Taliban's amazing first victory took place at a truck stop. InOctober 1994, some two hundred Kandahari Taliban took Spin Baldak on the Pakistan border from the hands of the Pakistani Frontier Corps; and they went on to seize a nearby mujahidin arms dump that held, among other treasures, eighteen thousand Kalashnikovs. The Taliban thanked Allah for this bounty, but most commentators credit Pakistan for the faked conquesta ruse by which the ISI began to assemble behind the little band of righteous mullahs a massive modern military operation.36 A couple of weeks later, the Taliban rescued a hijacked Pakistani truck convoy, hanged the local warlord who'd held it up, and went on to take control of Kandahar, the second largest city in the country. Tens of thousands of young Pashtun students rushed out of refugee camps and ISI training camps in Pakistan and out of Saudi-financed fundamentalist madrassas along the border to join the triumphant Taliban. These young boys were, as Ahmed Rashid describes them, the flotsam of war, thrown up on "the beach of history" with no memory of country or clan or family or village life, no occupation or skill, no education but the Quran, no past but war, no identity but in Islam, no acquaintance with women or girls, and no hope but in reclaiming their homeland for the Islamic caliphate.37 They moved on Kabul, but in March 1995 Massoud drove them back, delivering the Taliban's first defeat. Massoud turned them back from Herat too, the city that anchored the western end of the trans-Afghanistan truck route. But in September 1995, they took it. And then they moved again on Kabul.
In Kandahar, Mullah Omar donned a robe said to have belonged to the Prophet and proclaimed himself Amir-ul Mominin, or Commander of the Faithful. Osama bin Laden gave him three million dollars to buy off mujahidin commanders who stood in his way. Then for ten months the Taliban laid siege to the capital, shelling it from the south just as Gulbuddin had done. They were holy warriors no more, restoring "peace" to lawless Kandahar, but a well-armed, well-trained juggernautPakistan's proxy armyin Afghanistanbent on conquest of the country.38 President Rabbani used the time to build alliances with other leaders, including Gulbuddin, in hopes of concluding a peace settlement. But just when it seemed he might succeed, the Taliban, backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (who always lied and said they had nothing to do with it), launched an attack more massive and more swift than any ever planned by any Afghan. Gulbuddin, realizing that his old benefactors in the ISI had thrown him over for the Taliban, had struck a deal with his longtime enemy Rabbani to join the government, and with Massoud to help defend Kabul. But in the event, in September 1996, having drawn Massoud's forces south of their defensive line in the city, Gulbuddin's men stood aside as the Taliban advanced against them. Seeing the trap too late, Massoud withdrew his forces to his northern stronghold and let the dying city go.39 The Taliban entered Kabul, took Najibullah and his brother from the UN compound where they had hidden, beat them, castrated them, dragged them behind a jeep, shot Najibullah, strangled his brother, and hanged them both from a post outside the presidential palace for citizens to see. The city had been, for a second time, liberated.
Kabulis say that in leaving the city Massoud, at long last, took pity on them. Of Gulbuddin they ask, "What kind of man shells his own people?" Standing that cold winter day with Nasrin on the hillside above the city, I wondered what kind of foreign aid makes it possible. Nasrin gestured beyond the ruined neighborhoods before us to the location of gun emplacements in the far distance. Her face looked fierce. She had a way of drawing her eyebrows down into one sharp black line when she felt pained, as she often was by memory. A Gulbuddin rocket had hit her house when she was a girl and killed her father. She had lost most of her hearing in the blast. "Gulbuddin," I said loudly, looking out, to show I'd got the message.
Everything about the Afghan civil warsthe interminable internecine battles for power, sparked, sponsored, and prolonged byforeign powersleaves the observer perplexed by inexplicable aims and baffled by shifting alliances. So many leaders. So many parties. So many doctrinaire varieties of "true" Islam. Here in Kabul the lines are clearer. There was Ahmad Shah Massoud, a man of prayer and a reader of poetry, greatest of mujahidin commanders, leader of the Northern Alliance, "Lion of the Panjshir Valley," nemesis of the Soviets, andunheard of among Afghansa man who had declined proffered power. Many revered Massoud as a national hero, and after his assassination in 2001, arranged by bin Laden, as a shahid, a martyr. Others swept up in the storm feared him and displayed his image as a kind of talisman, a badge of allegiance announcing: "I am on your side. Please don't shoot me." In Kabul his picture was everywhere: in shop windows, in homes, on windshields and car bumpers, on the plastic fob dangling from the office key I'd been given. Massoud's intense, deep-set eyes gazed over the city from an enormous billboard high on the mountain near our office. At night it was illuminated, and as I lay in my bed I could see his bright tragic face rising over the capital like the moon. Historical complexities dissolved in a simple proposition. Massoud was the good guy. And on the other side was Gulbuddin.
We left the car, carrying bundles of old clothes. The next house lay up a steep, narrow passageway, icy and slick with sewage. A wooden door in the wall opened into a yard from which a staircase led to an upper room. I slipped off my shoes and ducked under the door quilt. In the dim light, I could just make out the forms of two women who stood against the wall. A small voice rose from the sandeli that occupied the center of the room, and looking more closely, I saw the brown, beaked, toothless face of an old woman who huddled there in the quilt that draped the table. She spoke to Nasrin about the two women who were her daughters-in-law, and about their children, who were there too, huddled under the table, and about her son who had fought withMassoud and later been imprisoned for a long time and tortured by the Taliban. "That is why he now has gray hair," she said, gesturing toward the doorway where he stood. Nasrin and Lema sorted the clothes. I took the required photographs. "Winter kills the old woman," Lema said in English. The gray-haired sontall, erect, dignified, silent, and barefootescorted us over the frozen ground to our car.
Heading back to the office, we stopped to buy bread at the silo. Or next to it. What Afghans call the silo (pronounced "see-low") is an immense multistoried granary and bakery built in the 1950s by the Soviets in a Cold War foreign aid campaign to win the hearts and minds and bellies of Afghans who, as it turned out, much preferred their own traditional naan to heavy "modern" bread. The Soviets built silos in other big cities too, in Mazar-i Sharif and Kandahar, perhaps preparing even then for the appetite of an occupying army. The tall yellow silo in Kabul stands on a broad avenue, and it was here, Nasrin says, that fighters sometimes set up their guns to mow down citizens in flight from rocket attacks. The windows are shattered now, and the walls are full of shell holes. I know without Nasrin having to tell me. Gulbuddin. But somewhere in the gutted silo someone still bakes heavy loaves of dense brown bread. A metal shipping container in the yard serves as a shop where we select a few loaves from a stack on a makeshift table. Then near dark we drive back to the office in silence along the drought-dried riverbed, filled with flimsy flea-market stands, across the Pul-i Khesti bridge, and through the city center, past the shell-shattered Kabul Hotel, closed indefinitely for renovationwhere in 1979 Afghan police "rescuing" the American ambassador from kidnappers "accidentally" killed himto the broad, broken streets of Share Nau. All the way I hold in my arms the big, round, comforting loaves of bread. At the office, I leave the bread in the kitchen and go upstairs to my own tiny room and light the sawdust fire.
THE LITTLE NGO I BEGAN TO WORK FOR, TRAINING HIGH SCHOOL English teachers, was just one of many. Some NGOs had worked in Afghanistan throughout the Soviet occupation, the civil wars, and even the reign of the Taliban, providing food, medical care, schooling, and other services to suffering citizens failed by a succession of competing governments. Others, like Madar, had moved during the Taliban time, on principle or under duress, to work with Afghan refugees in Pakistan or Iran. But with the fall of the Taliban and the promise of massive international aid, NGOs returned to Afghanistan and multiplied. By 2002 there were about eight hundred of them in Kabul. Two hundred were international organizations, including some big ones with familiar names like CARE, Red Cross/Red Crescent, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the International Rescue Committee, but most were smaller outfits with acronymic monikers that gave no clue to their purpose or function.40 About six hundred NGOs were Afghan organizations that relied on the UN and the aid programs of foreign governments for the money and technical support to carry on their work. ACBAR, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, is the organization charged with keeping track of all the others. It prints an alphabetical list of all the NGOs, with contact names and numbers, fat as a big city phone book.
The agencies of the UN and foreign governments, international NGOs, and independent for-profit "contractors" occupy big houses, the former homes of upper class Kabulis, in prime neighborhoods such as Share Nau and Wazir Akbar Khan. Project directors and visiting consultants use the rooms as offices and living quarters; they set up desks for their staff in the spacious hallways. Huge generators installed in the yard power the computers, printers, copiers, fax machines, and cell phone rechargers vital to their work. (As improvements are made to the dodgy electrical grid and rains revive the river, power appears in Kabul, butintermittently and always by surprise.) In winter, generator-powered heaters and blowers warm rooms and corridors alike to temperatures suitable for Americans and Europeans. Afghans entering these buildings for the first time are amazed, believing that houses are not meant to be so unnaturally overheated, nor Afghans either, who are accustomed to keeping their jackets on indoors. Afghans are used to their own institutions, like the high school where I soon began to teach: without desks, without chairs, without blackboards, without sanitary facilities, without electricity, and without heat.
The foreigners with the biggest budgets pay unheard-of rents for the privilege of occupying the finest houses in Kabul, with the result that more and more landlords evict their Afghan tenants in favor of deep-pocketed outsiders. The ousted tenants tumble to the next level of housing, and so on down the line until those tenants at the bottom of the rent market are forced out to squat in the ruins or join the city's roving homeless. Sooner or later everyone has to move house. Workers jeopardize their jobs by leaving the office early to make the rounds of rental agencies, searching for a new home. Yet they need their jobs to pay for the housing. It is a delicate balance. Each new lease negotiation with the landlord forces tenants to fork up or move on. Civil servants and teachers, at the low end of the salary scale, are pushed farther and farther from their offices and schools. They ride the unreliable buses to workmen in the back, burqa-clad women piled like laundry bags in the few seats reserved for them at the frontand every year the trip grows longer. One hour, two hours. It's only a matter of time before these white-collar professionals try to leave their essential jobs in the schools and universities and government ministries and find work at international agencies.
The internationals pay high salarieshigh by Afghan standards anywayso that an uneducated man driving a car can make more money than a professor at Kabul University or the head of a hospital, the chief of police, or a cabinet minister. The man whodrove me to my teaching job every day made three times the salary of the high school teachers in my class, all of whom were on the downward slide in the game of moving house. I was not surprised when they asked me to show them how to write Western-style resumes. Of all the educated men and women competing for menial jobs with international agencies, those who have English and computer skills are most in demand. The English-speaking husband of one of my students leaves his administrative job in the Ministry of Education to work for the UN as a driver. A deputy minister becomes a dispatcher, a school principal becomes a translatornot the work they hoped to do in life, the work they trained for, but at least they don't have to move again. They can pay the rent. The lucky ones, they float upon the sea of international benevolencehundreds of millions of dollars of promised foreign aidwhile others are swept under. Administered through the UN, USAID, and assorted governmental and nongovernmental organizations, international assistance inflates an artificial economy, parallel to but well removed from the economy of everyday Afghan life. (The drug trade is an even more powerful engine, pumping up the artificial economy, but it's a homegrown, traditional moneymaker that doesn't pretend to serve the average citizen.) Some of the new money finds its way into the pockets of Afghan shopkeepers, tradesmen, and provisioners. A sign on an Afghan-owned grocery store popular with internationals reads HAPPY ALL THE TIME. But living in the midst of such plenty, most Afghans are poorer than ever.
MEMBERS OF THE GREAT ARMY OF FOREIGN INVADERSTHE ex-pat aid expertsare always going somewhere. They drive around Kabul looking for meetings, looking for each other, looking for a decent meal. At times in Kabul, when work is stymied, the very act of driving around can seem to lend some purpose to life. For those on the go, Kabul offers an immense fleet of yellow andwhite taxis, mostly beat-up Toyota Corollas, some with the driver's seat on the left and somefor an additional challengeon the right, and many equipped with ski racks for reasons incomprehensible in a country where nobody skis. But taxis are subject to breakdowns, and taxi drivers who don't understand instructions in English cause frustrating delays. For fearful internationals there is the additional question of security: how do you know a taxi is really a taxi? So aid agencies maintain their own vehicleswhite Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers are very popularand their own full-time drivers, all men. Hundreds of these vehicles, neatly emblazoned with acronyms, take to the streets of the capital each daystreets already crowded with bicycles, horse carts, donkey carts, pushcarts laden with fruits and vegetables or old clothes, big wooden flatbed trailers pulled by tough old men, money changers flaunting wads of bills, touts peddling mobile-phone cards, legless panhandlers on makeshift go-karts, beggar women in dirty burqas, and poor boys flogging newspapers or waving tin cans that waft the smoke of burning asafoetida to ward off evil and to elicit tips. The streets themselves are bad, full of potholes and piles of rubble and garbage. After a snowfall they grow slick with ice or mud.
Guiding vehicles through these clotted streets is the job of Kabul's traffic police. Each wears a handsome, broad-shouldered woolen coat and trousers the color of army blankets, spiffed up by a Sam Browne belt of white vinyl. They have white vinyl hats to match, like members of a marching band, and red and white paddles, suitable in size and shape for ping pong, each equipped with a big red reflector and the words STOP POLICE printed in red in English. Under the terms of international agreements that divvied up the task of reconstructing Afghanistan, it fell to Germany to train the police, but when I first arrived that project was just getting under way. The police were still improvising. They'd wave their paddles to urge on traffic in one direction while vehicles stuck in cross traffic honked their horns. When they let thehonkers go, the newly halted motorists would hit their horns. The din was unrelenting. Drivers rolled down their windows as they crept past to yell curses at the policemen, and occasionally an officer would swing his snazzy STOP POLICE paddle into some snarling driver's teeth. But mostly the traffic cops seemed remarkably restrained, even unconcerned. They dragged easy chairs and sofas to the middle of the traffic circles, where they could often be seen lounging, passing the time of day, while all about them swirled chaos, unattended. Eventually a few traffic lights were installed in the center of town, and every now and then the cops would rev up the generators that powered them and sit back, laughing, to see what the drivers would do. It seemed a kind of revenge.
Kabul is a big cityat least a couple of million people and growing fast with the influx of returning refugees. It sprawls around, between, and behind a number of steep, rocky hills. A few key roads connect the disparate parts of the city, but many of these arteries are still in ruins or closed for purposes of "security." So making your way around town can be supremely difficult and often impossible. Drivers try a likely route and if they reach an impasse, they turn around, retrace their path, and try another. To prevent traffic-snarling U-turns, the traffic police put large chunks of concrete down the center of the main streets, but drivers team up to wrestle them aside so they can double back. As things are, you can spend hours driving to and fro, looping this way and that, or stuck in stalled traffic, never actually arriving at any destination.
I drove around mostly with a man named Sharif. I'm a better driver than Sharif, but I was not allowed to drive myself. Sharif and I were doomed to twindom by the Afghan national ethos of sexism that requires the male presence almost everywhere, particularly behind the wheel of a car. Wherever I went, Sharif went too; and often we went together nowhere at all. I declined to sit in the back seat, where women belonged, but always sat up front with Sharif so I could take in the sights of the busy streets. Stoppeddead in a traffic jam in the middle of the street, Sharif would lean back, adjust his testicles under his long perahan, and pop a cassette into the tape deck. Islamic prayers. Sharif is devout. Sharif also speaks pretty good English, having spent time as a refugee in Pakistan.
I liked himin between prayers, we chattedand he seemed to like me, though he refused to believe that back home in the States I drive a truck. Trying to illustrate the odd concept of driving regulations, I once told Sharif, "In my country we drive in lines." He said, "In your country is very many foreign customs." He preferred to tell me about Kabul. "In Taliban time," he said, "was no cars. No taxis. Nothing in streets. Now many, many cars." Unlike most Kabulis, Sharif thought this was a happy development. He himself owned three cars and a truck, all of which were part of the daily parade around Kabul, so Sharif made a very good living even when he was stalled at an impassable roundabout or caught in a snarl of pushcarts, playing his pray-along tapes or listening to patriotic country crooners on the US military radio station.
Like Thursday mornings, for example, when we were always stopped dead by the procession of certified war casualties making their way to the Ministry of Martyrs and the Disabled to collect their weekly stipends. Early in the morning they straggle through the streets: women in tattered burqas faded to a dull dove gray and men wrapped against the cold in pattus of military brown. They come from the side streets singly or in twos and threes, assembling themselves into a grave parade of the lame, the halt, and the blind, like some medieval pilgrimage to the shrine of a healing saint. One-legged men, victims of land mines, hobble on their Red Crescent crutches. This is the country of one-legged men. These, the officially disabled, drag their shattered bodies over the rough pavements of the wrecked streets, stopping traffic at every crossing. They press on amid the honking horns, seeking no miracles, no cures, but merely a small handout: thewherewithal to make it through another week. Every day the mines that salt the roadsides and the dead orchards and the fallow fields explode to create new martyrs and new casualties, officially disabled. Every Naw Roz (New Year's Day) thousands of Kabulis visit a hillside shrine in the midst of the city and somebody steps on a mine. That year it was an eighteen-year-old boy who lost both legs. And every week the Thursday procession to the Ministry of Martyrs and the Disabled grows longer and more belligerent. They are Kabul's most aggressive pedestrians.
But not the only ones. One bleak December morning, when Sharif and I were thoroughly stuck, I watched an old man approach, walking toward us at the edge of the street. He was tall and upright, and handsome with his white beard and fine silk turban. Another man bicycled past us from behind and proceeded toward the old man. Just as they were about to pass each other, a car lurched sideways, forcing the bicyclist to swerve. He ran into the old man, who stumbled but regained his balance and stayed upright. He spun around quickly and smashed his fist into the cyclist's jaw, knocking him into the street with his bicycle on top of him. At that, a young man passing by socked the old whitebeard, who went down backward with his feet in the air and his fine turban in the dust. A traffic policeman, waving his paddle overhead, rushed out from among the stalled cars and clubbed the young man, who reeled backward, caught a heel on the curbstone, and sat down hard. In a moment he was up again, yelling at the policeman. A fifth man, who had been casually leaning against a garden wall taking the feeble morning sun, strode forward. He stepped between the young man and the traffic policeman with his arms extended, palms outward, holding the two apart. It is the pose of the peacemaker. It is also the pose of crucifixion. The old whitebeard picked himself up and delivered a brutal blow to the proud, unprotected chin of the peacemaker, who flew back into the wall against which he had been lounging only moments before and slid down to sit in a deflated heap atthe bottom. The whitebeard licked his knuckles, set his turban straight, stepped over the fallen bicycle, and went on his way. It was all over in seconds. Sharif was laughing. "Mujahidin," he said. And all at once Afghanistan, which had seemed so baffling, began to reveal itself.
AFGHANS ARE FAMOUS FIGHTERS. FIERCE, IMPLACABLE, RUTHLESS, bold, savage, brutalthese are the adjectives attached to them in history books. Their reputation seems exaggerated considering how many times the land was overrun and the cities sackedby Alexander, coming and going, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and other less memorable maraudersbut all that is ancient history. In more recent times1747 to be exactmodern Afghanistan began to take shape as a kind of tribal confederation when one Ahmed Khan was elected shah, more or less democratically, by an assembly of Pashtun men. Taking the name Ahmed Shah Durrani, he established the Durrani dynasty that was to last, with one brief interruption, until the communist revolution of 1978.41 Hamid Karzai's presidency, advertised in America as the advent of "democracy," seems rather to Afghans to be a Durrani restoration, for Karzai comes from a powerful Khandahari Pashtun family of the Popolzai line, the lineage of Ahmed Shah Durrani himself. The Pashtun tribes lived then and now mainly in the south and east of Afghanistan and in even greater numbers in northwest Pakistan, their lands having been divided in 1897 when Sir Mortimer Durand, then foreign secretary of the government of India, drew the notoriously permeable border line that bears his name. Generations of Pashtuns dreamed of establishing the unified country of Pashtunistan; many still do. But instead they remain the largest and most influential ethnic group in Afghanistanthe center of Kabul is Pashtunistan Squarewhile over the line in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, Pakistani Pashtuns threaten to rejoin their Afghan brothers and take with them a substantial chunk ofPakistani landscape.42 There are at least twentysome say more like fiftyother ethnic groups in Afghanistan: Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkoman, Nuristani, Aimaq, Farsiwan, Baluch, and so on. But for centuries the names Afghan and Pashtun have been used interchangeably. Afghans are equated with Pashtuns, and Pashtuns are tough.
The British diplomat and historian Martin Ewans, once head of chancery in Kabul, describes "the main characteristic of the Pushtoons" as "a proud and aggressive individualism, practiced in the context of a familial and tribal society with predatory habits, a part feudal and part democratic ethos, an uncompromising Muslim faith and a simple code of conduct."43 That simple, hard-edged codethe Pashtunwali-obliges them to be hospitable, even to their enemies, and to provide sanctuary for strangers. (These, the more generous provisions of Pashtunwali, help to explain the Taliban's refusal to hand over their paying guest Osama bin Laden.) But the code also obliges them to seek revenge for the slightest affronts to their honorfor insults, real or imagined, to their name or their property, a category that includes women. Revenge, of course, breeds revenge, so that murderous feuds, vendettas, and battles involving individuals, families, and clans have long been the stuff of everyday Pashtun social life. The most important political body is the jirga, or assembly, in which every man is entitled to an equal say, or an equal insult. Pashtuns grapple for power, yet they think so little of authority that the descriptive phrase "fiercely independent" has become a cliché. They'll follow a clan-head or khan as long as it serves their purposes and no longer, so that a leader is stuck with the task of ceaselessly demonstrating his fitness to be followed. Factor in Islamic inheritance practices that divide a man's property equally among his sons, giving none a clear economic advantage, and you have the basis of democracy, or in a rugged landscape of scarce resources, constant fighting and factionalism and "brother-war."
In the past, about the only thing that gave Pashtuns pause intheir incessant quarreling was the appearance of an outside enemy. Nothing inspires Pashtun unity like the need to expel an invader, and given the global politics of the last couple of centuries that usually meant the British. Historians like to speak of modern Afghanistan under the Durrani shahs as a "weak buffer state" of little significance except as a no-man's-land between major players in the global political gamerather like the mangled calf carcass that powerful horsemen struggle to possess in the Afghan sport of buzkashi. From the north, the Russian tsars ogled Central Asia and beyond it, British India. Afghanistan lay in the way. The British, who had set up shop on the subcontinent with the East India Company, countered with a "forward policy"tilting toward something like George W. Bush's pushy "preemptive war"designed to keep Afghanistan dangling from the British horse. During the nineteenth century, Russian and British emissaries, spies, adventurers, and soldiers danced back and forth for decades in what historians call the Great Game, and it was they, not the Afghans, who drew the borders of Afghanistan. (One early British emissary noted that Afghans didn't even have a name for their country, but near the end of the nineteenth century Amir Abdur Rahman began to refer to it as "Yaghistan," a name variously translated as "land of the free" or "land of rebels."44)
For their part, the Afghans fought among themselves for the right to succeed Ahmed Shah Durrani, and the shahs and khans who came after him, in one city or sector or another. Few were as efficient as Zaman Shah, a grandson of Ahmed Shah Durrani who grabbed power after his father's death in 1793 by all at once locking up his more than twenty brothers and blinding the eldest. For most would-be successors, the brotherly battle was messier, bloodier, and more prolonged. What Western historians describe as "anarchy" prevailing in Afghanistan"anarchy" that sometimes "justified" a "forward policy"was mostly tribal Pashtuns being Pashtuns.
Early in the nineteenth century, a bold and popular Pashtun leader named Dost Mohammed came to power in Kabul andgradually expanded his rule to other Afghan cities and regions. But the Russians were expanding toosupplying the shah of Persia with military advisers and urging him to advance against Herat and Kandahar. The Russian threat was matched by the British. Unable to enlist Dost Mohammed to serve their interests, the British determined to reinstate their own puppet on the throne in Kabul; and Dost Mohammed, like so many subsequent Afghan leaders, found himself in the middle of the foreigners' fight. In 1838, 20,000 troops of the Army of the Industogether with 38,000 camp followers, 30,000 camels, a big herd of cattle, and a pack of foxhoundsinvaded Afghanistan, and by August 1839, they had restored to his palace in Kabul a Pashtun reject: the deposed, exiled, and aged Shah Shuja (a lucky brother who had escaped the efficient Zaman Shah). According to George Eden, Earl of Auckland and governor general of India at the time, the British meant not only to block Persian (and Russian) encroachments from the west, but also "to establish a basis for the extension and maintenance of British influence throughout Central Asia"; but in an official manifesto, they justified the invasion in loftier terms. They said that once the new ruler was installed "by his own subjects and adherents" and once he was "secured in power, and the independence and integrity of Afghanistan established, the British army will be withdrawn." Historian Martin Ewans notes that the words they chose for this pronouncement are "uncannily similar" to those the Soviets would use to justify their invasion in 1979.45 (The Soviets too meant to stay only a few months.) They also smack of the spin of the Bush Two administration that installed its own Shah Shuja in the person of Hamid Karzai.
Perhaps it's too obvioustoo cheap a shotto mention here the old saw about those who don't know history being doomed to repeat it, for everybody knows that Bush the Lesser doesn't read history or much of anything else and thus may remain to this day the only person in the world who doesn't know that whatfollowed the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1838-39 was the greatest military defeat in all of British history. Having won the war"mission accomplished"the British seated an unpopular puppet. In the interest of "security," they maintained in Kabul a full brigade of troops, soon seen not as liberators but as an occupying army. The troops swaggered about, drank in public, used and abused Afghan women, and consumed food supplies while Afghans went hungry. There was unrest among the Afghans and uprisings here and there, but the British remained steadfast and cheerfully optimistic about the eventual success of their noble venture. Then in November 1841, Alexander Burnes, an officer in the Bombay Artillery and special emissary to the Afghan throne, was murdered together with his brother by a mob that overran his Kabul house. Three weeks later, during truce negotiations, Kabuli insurgents murdered William Macnaghten, who, as senior adviser to the governor general of India, was the chief representative of the British crown in Kabul. Macnaghten was mutilated and beheaded, and his body was put on show in the Kabul bazaar.
The British agreed to withdraw, for they had too few troops on the ground to defend themselves against a full-scale insurrection. The Afghans promised the soldiers, their families, servants, and hangers-on safe passage through the wintry passes leading out of Afghanistan, then harried them through the snow and slaughtered the last of them at a place called Gandamak. A brigade of 4,500 soldiers, followed by 12,000 civilians, marched out of Kabul on a January morning. Three thousand are said to have died the first day of exposure, even before the Afghans attacked. By the fourth day, only 120 soldiers and 4,000 followers were still pushing on through the snow. Two days later there were only 80. When they turned to make a last stand at Gandamak, there were 20. It is said that 6 mounted officers raced on from Gandamak, but only one man, badly wounded, the army physician Dr. William Brydon, rode in to the garrison at Jalalabad.
As things turned out, there were other survivors; the followingyear, a mighty British "Army of Retribution" that set upon the land to rape and murder and pillage returned with more than two thousand rescued captives and defectors. But it makes a better story if you don't know that, if instead you focus on the misery and terror of the English people straggling through the snowthe handsome young soldier, the woman clutching her baby, the pathetic little boy clinging to the hem of her capeas the pitiless Pashtun tribesmen fire at them, such easy targets, from the rocks above. It makes a better story if you imagine poor, brave Dr. Brydon, bleeding badly, as good as dead really, hanging on the neck of his dying horse as it stumbles on toward Jalalabad, and somehow surviving to tell the terrible tale. That's the version the British have never forgotten. From an Afghan perspective, of course, the story is different.
When the British returned to even the score, they burned the Kabul bazaar and ravaged the countryside. Then in 1842, having reestablished Britain's reputation as a fearsome military power, they declared the Anglo-Afghan War at an end and left the country much as they had found it, with Dost Mohammed back in power. He ruled for another twenty years, dreaming of Afghan unity in the midst of fratricidal Pashtun power plays that climaxed in anarchy again at his death. Apparently having learned little from their experience, the British launchedonly forty years latera Second Anglo-Afghan War as fruitless and costly as the first. The aim once again was to counter the Russians and advance British "influence" in Central Asia. When it was all over in 1881, the British secretary of state for India described an outcome that again sounds eerily familiar. "As the result of two successful campaigns, of the employment of an enormous force, and of the expenditure of large sums of money, all that has yet been accomplished has been the disintegration of the State which it was desired to see strong, friendly and independent, the assumption of fresh and unwelcome liabilities ... , and a condition ofanarchy throughout the remainder of the country."46 There was a Third Anglo-Afghan War as well, in 1919, that lasted only a month. Afghan King Amanullah had proclaimed a jihad, demanding full independence from British suzerainty; and the weary British, weakened by the First World War, scarcely put up a fight. Handing Amanullah what looked like a diplomatic victory, they cut Afghanistan loose. But they also cut the subsidy the king needed to bring his country into the modern world. Afghanistan would be independent, but still poor.
There was another result of the Anglo-Afghan wars. As British journalists, politicians, and historians retold again and again the bitter story of the bloody retreat from Kabul, Afghans seemed to grow ever larger and more savage. They acquired in the minds of the British, and by extension the West, an abiding reputation as a race of barbaric and treacherous fighters, without scruple or mercy, inhabiting forbidden territory. Afghanistan's "principal claim to fame throughout history was as a passageway and death trap for invading foreign armies," wrote one American journalist.47 The Afghans, left with a bitter distrust of outsiders, withdrew into isolation and fought among themselves, sometimes with a ferocity that confirmed the world's opinion. It was a hundred years before any great power invaded Afghanistan again, only to meet the same fierce and canny fighters. When the Soviets gave up, in their turn, after a decade of bloody war and crept slowly north again toward home, Afghan mujahidin of the Northern AllianceMassoud's menmade them fight for the road through the heights of the Salang Pass and picked them off (such easy targets) one by one.48 But by then the Western perspective had changed; the Afghans were whipping our enemy, and we were on their side. When Peter Jouvenal, the BBC cameraman who won awards for his coverage of the Afghan wars, later set up a small hotel for journalists in Kabul, in a house where Osama bin Laden was said to have visited one of his wives, he wryly named it Gandamak Lodge.
Most Western reporters covering the wars lacked the long view of history, but from the comfortable, frustrating distance of their hotel rooms in Peshawar, they were oddly drawn to the notorious savagery of the Afghan guerillas. To many young journalists high on adrenaline, the height of reportage was to travel "inside" with the mujahidin. Smuggled across the border from Pakistan, snuggly bundled in ski jackets, they'd slog along with the Afghans, now known as "freedom fighters," moving at night to avoid detection. Encumbered by gear and unused to the altitude, they had a hard time keeping up with the lean, hardened fighters who traveled light and moved fast. Some confessed that the Afghans packed them in on mules, like any other heavy baggage. But somehow their own inability to keep uptheir own softness and flabmade them all the more enamored of their superhuman hosts. One journalist wrote, "In them we saw a stronger, more heroic version of ourselves."49 Reportage sometimes read like fan mail, tinged with a kind of homoerotic glorification of manliness, yet safely homoerotic because these tough, fierce, idealized bearded warriors seemed the very pinnacle of macho masculinity. Who wouldn't take a chance to hang out with such boys? Charlie Wilson, the womanizing, coke-snorting, alcoholic Texas congressman credited with extracting from the US Congress multimillions in covert aid to the mujahidin, claimed as his reward a short hike with the freedom fighters during which he was allowed to fire a rocket launcher all by himself.50 As George Crile tells the story in Charlie Wilson's War, it was the high point of Wilson's sorry life, though it's possible that his Pakistani handlers, unwilling to risk a klutzy congressman's neck in Afghanistan, actually staged the event in Pakistan. Pakistan's ISI had played the same trick on CIA Director William Casey, taking him by jeep in the dead of night to a fake Afghan mujahidin camp not far from Islamabad.51
So the Afghans, all through the Soviet war and the civil wars that followed, handily maintained their historic reputation as the most ferocious fighters on the planet. But facts sometimes got lostor skewed in this romantic vision. Poverty, for one thing. Lots of mujahidin traveled light because the clothes they stood up in were all they had. They lived "like Spartans," reporters said, when in fact they lived like Afghans. Islamism, for another. Those fierce freedom fighters, trained and armed with Stinger missiles by the CIA, were Islamic jihadis. And at least 35,000 of them were not Afghans at all but volunteers from 43 Muslim countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far EastAlgerians and Egyptians, Saudis and Kuwaitis, Pakistanis and Uzbeks, Filipinos and Uighurseager to die for their faith in Afghanistan, or elsewhere on another day.52
The Afghan fight was always about ideology. But American policy was stuck in the Cold War and skewedas it is once againby righteous religiosity. Bill Casey, CIA director from 1981 to 1986 and a devout Catholic, welcomed Islamic militants as natural allies of the Catholic Church in the battle against godless Soviet communism. 53 Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze asked George Shultz, secretary of state in the Reagan administration, for American help in limiting the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, but nothing came of the request.54 Instead, throughout the Soviet occupation, the CIA went on training those "Arab-Afghan" Islamic jihadis in Pakistani campsat a cost of about $800 million.55 It brought their Pakistani and Afghan teachers to camps in the United States to be schooled in many lethal skills.56 So the Arab-Afghans imported to fight in Afghanistan were nothing like the native mujahidin who were described by Robert D. Kaplan in Soldiers of God as "neither complicated nor fanatical."57 The Afghans fought for their families, their villages, their land, while the exotic Arab-Afghans fought for a cause. As one former homegrown mujahid put it to me, "We Afghans were fighting to live. They were fighting to die for Islam." Moderate Afghans warned the United States: "For God's sake, you're financing your own assassins." 58 And indeed, almost all the leaders of militant Islam worldwide and of every subsequent major terrorist attack can betraced to the Afghan war.59 But Americamore vengeful and devious than any Pashtun and too clever by halfsecretly armed the righteous anticommunist cause and created a godly monster.
The homoeroticism was real enough, though it was a rare Western male journalist who reported propositions received from manly Afghans. How could you square that with official notions of military manhood? (What would it do to Charlie Wilson's appropriations if Republican congressmen got wind of it?) But a male Australian journalist friend (very straight) confessed that when he traveled with the mujahidin, he could scarcely sleep for the sound of soldiers bonking. He said the way the mujahidin carried on gave new meaning to the terms "mountain pass" and "strategic advance." It scared him to death. It scared and demoralized the Russians too. Stories abounded of Soviet prisoners of war gang-raped by the manly men of the mujahidin, though the mujahidin switched to raping women once they hit the streets of Kabul. Stories of rape and sodomy of abducted girls and boys were common as well, and they are writ large in the founding myths of the Taliban. Mullah Omar and his men are said to have won over the citizens of Kandahar when they rescued a "dancing boy" from the clutches of two rival warlords and again when they hanged a Kandahari mujahidin commander responsible for the abduction and multiple rapes of two teenage girls.60
The widespread rape of women wasn't much noticed officially, for many of the rapists in Kabul were thought to be Massoud's men; and by that timethe time of the civil warsMassoud was the lion of Western journalists.61 (In an idolatrous bio-documentary on Massoud, a French filmmaker dares photograph only the bare feet of wives and daughters serving the dinner they've prepared. "They have their traditions," says the English voiceover, as if keeping women locked away is merely a quaint custom and their servitude an effect of nature.) But then, throughout the wars, women were scarcely mentioned at all. Wartime journalism in Peshawar was "a self-consciously macho activity," accordingto Robert D. Kaplan, and Pakistan's Northwest Frontier "a Wild West, sepia-toned outpost of masculinity." Inside Afghanistan, Kaplan remarked upon some "moving tents with narrow holes for the eyes," but another observer reported that women were "not even in the background ... just not there."62 So you can read book after book about Afghanistan in which the term Afghan clearly means only "adult male Afghan"; and many reputedly excellent books of contemporary reportage and history written by men contain not a single sentence about women or children.
Sometimes those Western male reporters tracking the mujahidin seemed to suffer subliminally the absence of women. One saw in the mountains the shape of "a young girl's breasts." Another, reporting for Harper's, described a mountain pass that looked to him like a vagina. Afflicted by similar spasms, Soviet journalist Artyom Borovik describes an Afghan road that "like a hooker, swung its curvaceous hips back and forth."63 But most seemed content with the company of men and the invisibility of women. After arriving unexpectedly, long after dark, at a modest home in a remote village, British author Jason Elliot writes: "An ample meal appeared. How these minor feats are conjured into existence without any apparent interruption in the rhythm of affairsno matter the number of unexpected guestsis one of the perpetual and mysterious delights of travel in Afghanistan."64 What kind of journalist can't trace this mysterious delight to its source behind the curtain? To those barefoot women who carry out, night and day, the hospitality of Pashtunwali that makes the Afghan men such famous hosts? (Answer: The same kind of journalist who doesn't realize that the real function of this Pashtunwali hospitality is to detain him, to consume his time, to keep him from looking around the village.) And what Western woman would describe such hospitalitypreparing an "ample meal" for unexpected guests in the middle of the night without running water or electricity or refrigeration or a decent lamp, without even Minute Rice or a tin of beansas a "minor" feat?
In our time the fierce, implacable, ruthless, savage, treacherous Afghan man is irresistible. Western women fall for him too. When I told friends in humanitarian aid work that I was going to Afghanistan, they all smirked. "Get a good driver!" one said. "So what does that mean?" I asked. "You don't know? My god, where have you been?" And then I got the storiesperhaps apocryphalof this woman or that, working for CARE or Save the Children or the American Embassy, whose assigned driver was just so gorgeous thatwell, what would you do? Everyone knew the story of the newly married wife in the State Department power couple (or was it USAID?) who went to Kabul on a brief mission and ran away with her driver. All the stories end there, like romantic movies, with the chemically charged couple dashing off. Nobody knows, or nobody tells, the "ever after" part. I met one American womana fortyish, twice married, independent businesswomanwho'd arrived as a charitable volunteer and married an Afghan man in Kabul. I invited her to join me in language lessons I was taking from an excellent male teacher. "My husband would never let me talk to another man," she said. "He loves me too much." I could see she was pleased. He was very good looking. A few weeks later I heard that her husband had taken a second wife in Dubai. I met another American humanitarian who was obsessed with a slim, handsome (married) Afghan driver. For weeks he did his best to avoid her and escape to other work. She wrote into her project budget a staggering fee for car and driver, and when a lax donor agency handed her the cash, she bought herself the man of her dreams.
I DON'T KNOW IF AFGHANS ARE ANY BETTER OR WORSE THAN ANY other guerilla soldiers anywhere. I don't know whether they're any more fierce or more ruthless, more courageous or more relentless than any other men under any circumstances fighting for their lives. I do know that the Afghan men I knew, many ofwhom had fought with the mujahidinmen I taught, men I employed or worked with or worked for or met in passingwere polite, soft spoken, solicitous of their families, considerate, and kind. To a man, they were hungry for peace. And as for my driverthere was the placid, chubby, hardworking, and devout Sharif. He often brought us eggs from his mother's chickens.
But give a man like Sharif a vehicle and he will drive like a commando. Give a man a horse and he will ride headlong into a wild game of buzkashi, beating off opponents to snatch at a bloody calf. Give him a Kalashnikov or a Stinger missile and he will take to the mountains with the mujahidin. The impulse is the samesome desperate scramble for survival grounded in the certainty that despite the claims of kinship and qawm, family and friendship, religion and party, each man is on his own. This is his psychic state: solitariness, an aloneness, deep and abiding. It's a state of mind bred perhaps by generations of struggle with an exacting land, brutal poverty, and murderous enemies, and confirmed by the recent quarter century of unremitting war. Perhaps because there have never been any lasting sources of authority in Afghan lifeno durable monarchy, no clerical hierarchy, no reliable aristocracy of intellect or wealtheach man seems to feel that he is on his own against impending chaos. Alone, he will attach himself, if the opportunity presents itself, to some benefactor, some khan or commandersome landowner or warlordsome man in charge, to guard against impending violence.
But khans and commandans have only as much power as they can amass in their lifetimes. The landowner's wealth is divided among his sons, so that none is the equal of his father and all are thrown into combat with one another. As for the commandan with his private militia, his power is as ephemeral as his life is short. Even the mullah who may exert some small influence in village life represents no established seat of power, no papacy or bishopric, but is rather a kind of freelance artisan tending to local religious needs the way the village carpenter attends to the needfor furniture. The Afghan's nation isn't even a nation really, but a failed state, a mere passageway, a battlefield, a buza goat torn between horses in geostrategic games. As for the men who've tried to rule it in the last century, five were assassinated, four were exiled, two were executed, and onethe Taliban's Mullah Omarrode off on a motorbike and disappeared. The last time a ruler died peaceably in office of natural causes was in 1901, and since then only two men have handed over power, grudgingly, to another lawful ruler, and one of them, Sibghatullah Mujaddidi, had no real power to give up. So nothing lasts: no authority, no institution, no man. Life is always starting over, like another round of buzkashi, and each man must grab again and again for the goat. Perhaps he would like to be gentle, but the game is rough and only one man can win. Perhaps he would like to be loyal, at least to his family and friends, but the pressure of circumstance makes him ever watchful for the main chance. Perhaps he would like to be at peace, but danger lies all about.
Some Afghans, sometime, must have led lives of quiet harmony and discipline, for who else planted all the orchards and the vineyards, tended all the mulberry trees, dug with infinite patience the endless irrigation jouies, fenced all the fields with stones, built the high mud-brick walls of the farmsteads throughout the landnow shattered and destroyed? But what chance had those small people against the powers of the outside world? Outsiders offered Afghanistan political "expertise" and above all military "aid," and the more aid Afghans got, the more they fought. It's a simple equation. Historian Barnett Rubin puts it this way: "Because the number of mujahidin depended on the number of weapons availablethe supply of volunteers was endlessmore military assistance meant more mujahidin."65
The Carter administration sent $30 million in military aid to Afghanistan in 1980 and $50 million in 1981. By 1984, Reagan had upped it to $120 million and secured a secret promise from General Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan to help the mujahidin. In exchangeReagan waived a US policy banning assistance to countries with nuclear research programs, sent Pakistan the third biggest chunk of the foreign aid budget, and turned a blind eye while bombs were built.66 (Years later, after the war against the Soviets was over, the administration of Bush Senior suspended aid to Pakistan, claiming to be dismayed that its ally had somehow become a nuclear power.) In April 1985, as the Soviets prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan, Reagan signed National Security Directive 166 authorizing a more aggressive policy: that we use "all means available" to drive them out, and Congress jumped on the war wagon with $250 million. All the while the US cleverly paid the Chinese to make Soviet-style weapons for the mujahidin, so that captured weapons would not give away American involvement in the dirty Afghan war. (Mujahidin commander Abdul Haq once complained of the waste of having to fire off a lot of SAM-7 missiles to get the hang of how they worked, because they'd come with instruction manuals written in Chinese.)67 The US also secretly diverted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons allocated as Afghan aid through the back door to Iran as part of Reagan's Iran-Contra scam, but plenty of weapons still reached the Afghans as well.68 Aid climbed to $470 million in 1986, and for the first time the US shipped laser-guided Stinger anti-aircraft missiles into the Afghan arms pipelinestate-of-the-art weapons that had never before been distributed outside NATO. (The frantic effort to buy them back from people who could use them to shoot down our airplanes is still going on.)69 In 1987, even as Soviet troops were making their way out of the country, American military aid reached $630 million. The Soviets completed their withdrawal in February 1989, but US military assistance rose to $700 million for the year.70
Only then did the administration of Bush Senior take a look at the politics of our aid beneficiariesparticularly our longtime ally, Gulbuddinand call for a speedy political settlement "sidelining extremists." Belatedly the US cut off aid to Gulbuddin'sradical Islamist organization, but the Saudis and other Arab states picked up the slack. All along Saudi Arabiabirthplace of regressive Wahhabi Islam and the most conservative theocratic Islamic state in the worldhad been matching American aid dollar for dollar and then some, bringing combined aid to the mujahidin to about $1 billion a year. The Saudis also picked up the tababout $1.5 million per monthfor transporting weaponry across the Pakistan border into Afghanistan, using Saudi Red Crescent offices in Pakistan to handle the money. US aid allocations to other mujahidin factions droppedonly $280 million in 1990but they kept coming, while the Soviets continued to send aid to the Afghan government of President Najibullah in Kabul. Barnett Rubin tallies the assistance: "If we add the approximately $5 billion in weapons sent to the mujahidin during 1986-90 and a conservative estimate of $5.7 billion worth sent to Kabul, Afghanistan's total weapons imports during the period eclipsed those of Iraq and were at about the same level as those of Japan and Saudi Arabiawith the difference that personal weapons accounted for a much higher proportion of imports to Afghanistan." The country probably received more personal weapons than any other country on earth, and more than Pakistan and India combined. But maybe that wasn't quite enough. In June 1991, two years after calling for a swift political settlement, Bush Senior authorized an off-budget transfer to the mujahidin factions, then engaged in civil war, of $30 million in Iraqi weapons captured in the first Gulf War.71 Perhaps George Senior simply wasn't paying attention. A CIA official later told Steve Coll of the Washington Post that when he mentioned the Afghan war to the president in passing, Bush Senior "seemed puzzled" and "surprised." The president asked, "Is that thing still going on?"72
Once the Soviets left Afghanistan, the jihad was at an end. Iran advanced the position of moderate Islam: that the fighting must stop. But the US was still embarrassingly on the side of the Islamic extremists and against the sovereign government of Afghanistan,which it still regarded as a Soviet tool. So it made sure the warfare would go on. It backed an ISI scheme to rally all the mujahidin factions in one big push to capture Kabul and oust President Najibullah. Pakistan wanted to install its own friendly puppet (still Gulbuddin) in Kabul, while the single-minded Americans thought only of piling more humiliation on the battered Soviets. Mujahidin field commanders, including Massoud, said they couldn't capture Kabulthey were guerilla fighters, untrained for frontal assault and siege, and they didn't attack cities or civilians. But the ISI and the CIA claimed they could do it, if only they received a little more military aid and a little practice in urban warfare. So the US sent still more arms through the Peshawar pipeline, while in Islamabad, US ambassador Robert Oakley sat down with Pakistani officials, and not a single Afghan, to plan an attack on Jalalabad, the largest city on the way to Kabul.73 Meant as a warm-up for the assault on the capital, the slow-motion siege of Jalalabad was a prolonged disaster, as the mujahidin commanders had predicted, with thousands slaughtered on both sides and among the civilians caught in between. But by that time the mujahidin party leaders, who had spent far too many years squabbling over the arms buffet in Peshawar, seemed to have forgotten all about the people they were supposed to be fighting for. Cut loose like kites with severed strings, they drifted ever upward into the thin air of extremist ideology and personal ambition. Then on the first day of 1992 the US and Russia shut down the buffet, leaving all those hungry party leaders, all those desperate men, and all those weapons. What did they expect? It's easy to blame Afghanistan's "backwardness" and tribal ferocity for the bitter civil wars that followed Soviet withdrawal, but in the quality and profusion of their armaments the Afghan brothers were thoroughly modern and up to date.
THE AFGHANS FOUGHT, AND THE AMERICANS WENT HOME. WITHIN two years, the new Clinton administration, under pressure fromcongressional Republicans to stop wasting money on miserable little chaotic countries, shut down all humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan. At the CIA Afghanistan receded into the background.74 Then the black-turbaned mullahs of the Taliban barreled out of the Pashtun south in their Saudi pickup trucks, and students came in their thousands out of the Saudi-funded madrassas of Pakistan, and they crept over the countrywelcomed at first for the "security" they brought to wild and wartorn towns of the south, for opening the roads so food could get through, for the "peace" that entered war-weary lives when they hanged another warlord from the turret of a tank. But then, right away, they cracked down on music and television and kite flying and women and girls and white shoes and nail polish and men whose beards were not long enough to grip in your fist and those whose turban tails dangled at an improper length. Theirs was not the modern Islamist ideology the intellectuals of Kabul University had envisioned. It was a volatile mix of dictates pinched from such arch-conservative Islamist sources as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Pakistan's Jamaat-i Islami, from Sayyid Qutb and Abul A'la Mawdudi, from the ultraconservative version of Indian Deobandism taught in Pakistan, and the radical Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia promulgated in Pashtunistan by Osama bin Laden and his Afghan mujahidin commander, Abdul Rasul Sayyafall stirred into an idiosyncratic fundamentalism that looked longingly backward to the seventh century and the exemplary life of the Prophet. It was a totalitarian theology that banned toothpaste, all brands, as a product unendorsed by Muhammad and unmentioned in the Quran. All over Afghanistan, people resisted this onslaught of fervid religiosity, and Massoud offered his Northern Alliance as a bulwark against it; but the United States, which had meddled so long and so recklessly in Afghanistan, declared a new policy of neutrality in what it called a "civil war" between the Taliban and Massoud.
At first, the US actually welcomed the Taliban and their fiercebrand of law and order. This is where oil comes into the story, in an episode demonstrating that even a country with no oil at all cannot escape the machinations of "American oil interests." They led the Taliban welcoming committee.75 They had long been scheming to funnel the oil reserves of the Caspian areaperhaps the last great oil deposits on earthto Pakistani seaports by way of a pipeline laid across Afghanistan. (In the football parlance so dear to Texas oilmen, this is the equivalent of making an end run around Iran.) The big problem was security. It doesn't pay to lay an oil pipeline through a war zone, and the bloody warlords kept on fighting and holding up construction.
Luckily for the oil interests, the Taliban seemed well on the way to liquidating the mujahidin and making way for one sweet deal. Twice in 1997 Taliban leaders visited Washington to meet with officials of the State Department and the American oil conglomerate Unocal. The oil company confesses to having spent between $15 and $20 million on the project, a sum that includes the salaries of plenty of ex-State Department officials hired to help negotiate the deal. Among them was Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, a longtime Pentagon planner and adviser to Donald Rumsfeld, later named by oilman George W. Bush to be special envoy and subsequently ambassador to Afghanistan and then Iraq. (Another player at the table was Hamid Karzai, representing Unocal in negotiations with the Taliban.) At the time, Khalilzad urged the administration to "engage" with the Taliban, arguing that "The Taliban does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practiced by Iranit is closer to the Saudi model."76 Never mind that the Saudi modelthe Wahhabism followed by Osama bin Ladenthoroughly oppresses women and ignores basic human rights; it's a model American oil profiteers can do business with. So they tried hard to do business with the Taliban. Eventually the project fell through, largely because the Taliban could not perfect "security" while Massoud went on fighting and bin Laden was busy blowing things up. But hope dies hard. After the Taliban fell, the US sentas ambassador to Afghanistan one Robert Finn, an expert on Caspian oil. He was replaced in 2003 by Khalilzad, who soon came to be regarded in Kabul as the real boss behind Karzai. But when he left for Iraq in 2005, security in Afghanistan was still a joke, and the pipeline was but a pipe dream.77
While the US was courting the Taliban, Massoud turned to Iran and India for help, and he arranged to buy military equipment from the vanquished Russians and the Russian mafia. Meanwhile the fortunate Taliban had only to hold out their hands for money, arms, supplies, training, and intelligence from America's peculiar alliesPakistan and Saudi Arabiaand Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement. In February 1998 bin Laden called a press conference at his Afghanistan base to announce the formation of an international radical Islamic coalitionthe International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusadersresolved to carry out violent attacks on the United States. The group's manifesto, written by bin Laden, was signed by radical Islamic leaders from Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Kashmir. On August 7, 1998, teams of Islamic suicide bombers funded by bin Laden and trained in Afghanistan attacked the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and in the same week in Afghanistan, the Taliban, aided by Pakistan's ISI and 28,000 "Arab-Afghan" suicide soldiers from the Saudi-funded madrassas of Pakistan, captured Mazar-i Sharif and massacred thousands of its citizens.78 Soon after, Ahmad Shah Massoud wrote a letter to the US Senate.
Massoud protested that Pakistan and its Arab allies had handed over his country to "fanatics, extremists, terrorists, mercenaries, drug mafias and professional murderers."79 He asked America to break its old habit of letting Pakistan run its Afghan policy and help him instead in his war against the Taliban, Pakistan's ISI, and Osama bin Laden. (Later, after 9/11, Afghans would ask why the US wasn't bombing Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia, instead of them.)80 But the USthe Clinton administration nowthought Massoud an unsuitable ally because he made money in the poppy trade,though mujahidin leaders, notably Gulbuddin, had been doing so all along. (Indeed, the Afghan-Pakistani drug business had exploded along the mujahidin supply lines from a little regional opium traffic to the world's biggest heroin operationwith the tacit blessing of the CIA.)81 And Pakistanthe military dictator Pervez Musharraf nowalso told Clinton to "engage" with the Taliban. Clinton, like the string of presidents who preceded him, did what Pakistan said, perhaps because the advice so perfectly coincided with what he'd been told by the Unocal folks at home. By "engaging" with Taliban "moderates," he hoped to persuade them to hand over bin Laden. In the aftermath of the African embassy bombings, he'd lobbed some missiles at bin Laden, but the Monica Lewinsky scandal left him powerless to act again. And so American policy remained in thrall to Pakistani intelligence, which trained and protected the Islamic radicals America feared, and to Saudi Arabia, which funded the enterprise. The Saudis sent millions to bin Laden and the Taliban, while the Pakistani ISI made a show of turning over a few small, expendable al-Qaeda operators now and again whenever American patience seemed to be wearing thin.82 The only political voices in the United States raised against the Taliban were those of feminists who complained that Afghan women had been stripped of all human rights. But for a long time that was not enough to cause the Clinton administration to choose the other side. Women in America, it seemed, didn't have much clout.
Despite the official policy of neutrality, Richard A. Clarke, national security adviser on counterterrorism to four presidents, proposed that the CIA support Massoud against the Taliban on the grounds that "if Massoud posed a serious threat to the Taliban, bin Laden [who supported them] would have to devote his arms and men to the fight against the Northern Alliance rather than fighting us."83 But the CIA found the work "very, very, very risky" to their safety and reputation, should such a secret operation ever come to light.84 The CIA also now claimed to be low on cash. So itdelivered only some small token payments to Massoud, and radio equipment to encourage him to listen in on the Taliban. In exchange it pressured him to deliver the big prize, Osama bin Laden. Legal niceties prevented the CIA from asking Massoud to "kill" bin Ladenthe Clinton administration felt obliged to play by the rules of international law and diplomacyso they tried instead to persuade Massoud to capture alive a man who was continually surrounded by one hundred heavily armed jihadi bodyguards. But Massoud was weary of America's self-absorbed policy. (They thought only about bin Laden; he thought about his country.) If his men undertook this suicidal mission, he asked, what was in it for the people of Afghanistan? After so many years of fighting, Massoud must have been weary of America's fastidiousness, tooof its refusal, after twenty years of meddling, to take sides, declare the Taliban an enemy, and set aside the legalities that protected bin Laden. Massoud said American policy was myopic and bound to fail. By 1999 al-Qaeda was already operating in sixty countries, including the United States, and the plot that produced 9/11 was under way.85
Massoud holed up in the north, as he had done at times during the Soviet occupation, and waited. Around him he began to gather allies: formidable mujahidin commanders such as the Herati leader Ismail Khan, the Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Abdul Haq, a Pashtun in exile whose wife and children had been murdered by bin Laden and the Taliban; and Hamid Karzai, sometime Unocal negotiator and scion of a powerful, exiled Kandahari Pashtun family that had backed the Taliban in 1994 and then in 1999 rallied Pashtuns against them. (Hamid's father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, who led the defection, was assassinated in Quetta in 1999.) Even former King Zahir Shah joined the alliance as Massoud gradually assembled something rare in Afghan historya moderate Islamic royalist multiethnic coalition. It seemed it might be the groundwork for a nation. Washington Post editor Steve Coll, trying to pin down Massoud's place in history, argues that "Afghanistanafter 1979 was a laboratory for political and military visions conceived abroad and imposed by force ... . A young, weak nation, Afghanistan produced few convincing nationalists who could offer an alternative, who could define Afghanistan from within. Ahmed Shah Massoud was an exception."86 Kabulis who survived the anarchy and destruction of the mujahidin's brother wars, Kabulis who remember the rapes and atrocities and executions of the mujahidin years, Kabulis who long for nothing more than peace may take a dimmer view of the man who wouldn't stop fighting. Yet even people who remember all those things will tell you that Massoud was different.
When the second George Bush slid into the White House, Massoud was still waiting for America to spot its enemy. He could not have been optimistic. Bush the Lesser was himself a born-again religious fundamentalist who believed in imposing his beliefs on the world by force, the mirror image of bin Laden, and cluelessthe first American president in memory to boast of his own ignorance, parochialism, and religiosity. Condoleezza Rice, then his national security adviser and a Cold War specialist, seemed to think the Taliban was armed by Iran, which was in fact sending aid to Massoud. Richard Clarke immediately sent her an urgent counterterrorism agenda, including again his proposal to aid Massoud and even bomb Taliban infrastructure, but his proposals went nowhere. The whole Bush neocon teamRice, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and the restwere so focused on star-wars missile defense and oil and snatching Iraq that the urgent security briefings of outgoing Clinton antiterrorism experts seemed not to register at all. Nevertheless, during the first six or seven months of the new administration, US intelligence services noted such dramatic increases in threatened terrorist attacks that at last the suggestion to make tentative provisions to send covert aid to Massoud sneaked into a proposed national security plan. It took many months to get everybody together for a meetingthe new president was so often on vacationbut at last the plan wasadopted.87 Miraculously, it seemed that the administration of Bush the Lesser might consider giving Massoud the help he needed. Massoud and his allies, of course, were the same moderate forces the US might have backed a decade earlier had policy not been parceled out to Pakistan by administrations given to indifference or greedthe kind of greed that doesn't want to bust up profitable friendships with the Saudi royal family or blow a chance to lay hands on Central Asian oil. It's an irony of this long sad story of slapdash American foreign policy that the Bush Two teamwho knew nothing about Afghanistan and cared less, except of course for the oil pipelinewould be the ones to back the better man. But it's not the last irony. Five days after the new national security plan was adopted an al-Qaeda suicide bomber aimed a fake TV camera at the chest of Ahmad Shah Massoud and hit the detonator. Two days after that was 9/11.
Massoud was still a presence in Kabul, and from my window I could see him looking out over the city from the mountaintop billboard. I could study his facethe deep lines of the furrowed forehead and the eyebrows drawn down into knots above dark, deep-set eyes of blistering intensity. It was his tragedy to see more than others who dictated the fate of his country from offices far away. On one side of our divided world stand the privileged nations, especially our own, exercising the discipline of "whatever it takes" to buy some illusory sense of security; and on the other, the miserable little failed states that serve as battlefields for our proxy wars, their patriots our puppet soldiers, their civilians our collateral damage, their societies the rubble through which our "democracy" marches ever onward to the open market. Barnett Rubin says it well: "The developed country does not, as Marx thought, show the backward country its future; the fragmenting countries show the integrating ones the dark side of their common present. The violence and decay of Afghanistan is the reflection ... of the violence that created and maintains our security."88
Massoud must have dreamed of security too. His hair was saltedwith gray and his back was bad, and his life had been spent at war. Among men who glamorize war, he had become the greatest hero; but he must have known that among women, who scavenge the shards of war, he seemed another gunman, like the rest. In his last years, he designed and built a modest home for his family with a library for himself. The library had big windows that looked out over the Panjshir Valley and bookshelves to hold the works of the Farsi poets he loved. I read somewhere that he laid the carpet himself. He was a weary soldier who must have wanted to go home. He lived with his wife and children in that new house for only twenty days. Then he was murdered by outsiders in the pay of an outsider, another "former protégé of the United States," Osama bin Laden.89 He hadn't even finished unpacking his books. Whose fault was that?
IT WAS FEBRUARY WHEN CAROLINE AND I AND ANOTHER VOLUNTEER named Helen set off for Mazar-i Sharif, and no time to travel in the mountains of Afghanistan. But the winter had been long in Kabul, and we needed a change. Caroline wanted to go to the fabric bazaar in Mazar-i Sharif to search for new materials for her projects. An early warm spell in Kabul convinced us that the worst of winter was over, and we learned when Caroline sent her driver, Hasan, to inquire at the truck stop that the road over the Hindu Kush was open. "They'll be playing buzkashi now," Caroline said. "If we're lucky, we can see the real thing." That settled it.
Caroline's little NGO owned no vehicle that could make the long climb over the mountains. We would have to hire one. So we set off before dawn for the marketplace on the northern outskirts of Kabul where trucks and private vehicles-for-hire waited for passengers. Hasan insisted on coming with us, all the way to Mazar-i Sharif, to look after Caroline and provide at least the appearance that we were properly escorted by a man. (An excellent driver, he'd operated a private long-distance travel service untilthe Taliban beat him up and stole his bus.) For half an hour he went up and down the line of vans and SUVs for hire, negotiating with drivers until he struck a deal for a Toyota Town AceAfghans pronounce it "Tunis"and a dreamily handsome driver named Marouf. We climbed in, arranged our water bottles and our bags of bread and hard boiled eggs and tangerines around us, and settled in for a lovely drive. It was to be our little holiday.
In the gray light of dawn we drove north across the Shamali plains, past the rusted tanks and overturned personnel carriers along the roadside, the barren farmlands and broken vineyards, the orchards of skeletal trees, the mud-brick walls of farming compounds melting into the land. Dust to dust. At Jabal ul-Saraj, where the road forks northeast to the Panjshir Valleywhere Massoud had stood again and again against the Soviets: six times before he reached the age of thirtywe crossed the river on pontoons laid beside the shattered brick piers of the old blown bridge, within range of the rusty gun of a Soviet tank half submerged in the stream. We kept to the main road, heading due north into the foothills along the Salang River, and the land began to rise. The river ran clear and glacially blue. At each bend, flat-roofed mud houses clustered on a south-facing shoulder of mountain. There the stream was edged by terraced patches of garden, and where it pooled into eddies, dotted with duck decoys cut from sheet-metal and fixed in place. The sun overhead was bright in the clear air, the sky a brilliant cobalt that deepened as we climbed higher and higher into snow.
Marouf gripped the steering wheel with both hands, fighting the rough road, and moved the Town Ace right along, as if he had not a moment to lose. On the dashboard red plastic roses tossed their heads with every bump and lurch. From the middle of the windshield, Ahmad Shah Massoud looked down at us, wearing his familiar, bemused sidelong smile. Occasionally Marouf reached out quickly to touch the photograph, whether for luck or in homage I couldn't tell. Like Massoud, Marouf was a Tajik. He worethe same woolen vest, the same rough woolen cap. He'd had his own bad luck. He'd driven over a land mine, he said, and it blew him apart. He spent six months in the hospital and then went back to driving. "What else can I do?" he said. Whenever he left the vehicle you could see that he was oddly short, as if when the doctors put him back together there'd been a piece missing from the middle of his torso. He walked funny too, one leg goose-stepping, and the other flopping along behind. But when he took his seat behind the wheel, you couldn't tell. Since the mine accident he'd had four children in six years. He said he was in a hurry to get home to his wife.
When we'd left Jabal ul-Saraj, about two o'clock in the afternoon, Hasan had said we'd reach the Salang tunnel in an hour. Built by the Soviets in 1964 to ease the flow of goods (and soldiers) between Afghanistan and the Soviet republics of Central Asia, this highway, crowned by the tunnel, was the main route between Kabul and the north, and in winter the only one. War with the Soviets had nearly wrecked it, and later, in 1997, Massoud blew up the southern end of the tunnel to trap fleeing Taliban troops who had captured Mazar-i Sharif only to have the people rise against them. Most of the rubble had been cleared, but the tunnel hadn't been fully repaired. Traffic moved officially in one direction only: north one day, and south the next. Now the road we traveled grew rougher, slowing us down, and the traffic thickened ahead of us. One hour. Two. "There it is," I said, when I saw that at the top of the long snowy slope before us the road disappeared behind a wall of concrete posts. But that was only the first gallery, Hasan saidthe first of many stretches where the road had been cut into the side of the mountain and covered with a concrete roof supported at the outer edge by concrete pillars. The galleries were meant to protect the road from avalanches, which in theory at least, could spill over the roof, but we came upon one gallery that had been completely swept away only the day before. A few surviving pillars canted out at odd angles over the slope, and fardown the mountain others lay scattered near two upended trucks protruding from the snow. "Barfkuch," Hasan said. He was always ready with a lesson in Dari, the language Helen and I struggled to learn. Barf, we knew, meant snow. But kuch? "Kuch, Kuchi," Hasan said. Kuchis are Afghanistan's wandering nomads. Barfkuch is snow on the move.
We climbed higher, switching back and forth with the twisting road, skidding now on snow and ice between deep drifts banked along the roadside. We swung around the last turn below a long gallery and slid into a traffic jam. Frightened cows looked down on us, peering over the hand-painted sign on the tailgate of a Pakistani truck: KING OF THE ROAD. Marouf fixed his eyes on those bland bovine facesor was it on the sign?and all his vibrant energy suddenly blew skyward as if the cone had lifted off some boiling internal volcano. He leaned out the window to scream at the truck driver. He punctuated his remarks by spitting at the cows. The truck driver screamed back. Marouf jumped out and stormed toward the truck as best he could with his curious lurching stride. But he must have seen that beyond the cattle truck was a tanker, and beyond that a line of lorries and brightly painted Pakistani trucks, minivans, and SUVs, white Land Rovers emblazoned with UN acronyms, Taliban wagons (pickup trucks with tinted windows), and battered Toyota Corolla taxis. All stuck in a traffic jam bigger than any I'd seen in the streets of Kabul.
He retreated, grumbling and howling curses. Ahead of us, many drivers were putting chains on their vehicles, and Marouf did the same with Hasan's help and mine. Against Hasan's advice, Marouf lashed the chains tightly in place with nylon rope. The vehicles ahead began to inch forward, and Marouf was ready. He punched up a tape at top volumesome double-time pummeling of drumsand revved the engine. He swung wide toward the edge of the road, gunned the Town Ace forward, and spun the wheel hard to cut in front of the cattle truck, leaning from the window to curse the other driver. Someone in the back of the cattle truck threw a rock thatthunked on our roof, but Marouf was already skidding past the fuel tanker into the dark gallery. A little Corolla sped around the other side of the tanker into our path, cutting us off, and Marouf howled with rage. "Look at this," he shouted. "There is no one in charge. It is shameful." He bashed the rear of the Corolla and laughed when it skidded and sideswiped the gallery wall. I glanced at Helen, who was clutching the seat. Caroline shook her head and said apologetically, "They like to be first, these men."
And so we went up the mountain in constant combat with a hundred other guys all determined to arrive before anyone else at the same place. Men leaped from their vehicles and ran up and down the line yelling directions and curses at other drivers. Then they jumped back in, bent on filling the next open space in line, wherever it might occur. Two vehicles forged ahead, blocking each other and the road, and while the two drivers raced their engines, drivers trapped behind them ran forward on foot to shout conflicting orders about who must do what. "A melee," Helen said. Caroline said, "Mountains can be so peaceful," and got out to walk with Hasan tagging after her for propriety's sake. Soon one of our tightly lashed tires came off the rim, just as Hasan had warned, and Marouf launched himself into a paroxysm of rage, as if he had truly lost his mind. I got out and started the tough job of disentangling things while Marouf pounded the road, screaming and waving his fists in the air. I looked up to see the cows go by. KING OF THE ROAD.
We entered the last gallery just as the sun dropped out of sight, turning the high peaks luminous white, then pink. Inside the gallery it was already black as night. The air was thick and gray with exhaust. Headlights couldn't penetrate it. They cast only a pale and eerie glow through which dark silhouettes loomed and vanished. Snow had blown into the spaces between the pillars and frozen there in ominous arcs that hung over the vehicles like great waves about to break. Men on foot emerged from the murkstrange, looming shapes, shouting.
When at last we left the gallery, it was night and the stars were brilliant in the black sky, the air thin but clean and cold. Soon we were stuck again. Before us the road disappeared in a long pool of water that stretched away between sheer walls of snow and ice as tall as a house. It was the entrance to the tunnel, blocked by a Corolla that had sunk to the door handles in the icy wash. Drivers stood all around, barking orders at the Corolla driver. "Help me, my brothers," he cried. "In the name of the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, give me a push." The men hollered back, "Push yourself." At last three passengers crawled out the windows of the Corolla, sank to their hips in the icy water, and pushed until the car rose up and disappeared into the tunnel. Marouf gunned the Town Ace and we plunged into the little lake. The water covered our headlights and we sailed on in darkness until the Town Ace rose again, slithering up a ridge of ice, and dropped into the tunnel.
There the road was almost smooth, though pocked with deep craters filled with sand and slush. Fifteen minutes later I caught a flash of stars overhead, shining through a hole in the ceilinga "Massoud hole," Hasan called itand then we were out again in the still, cold night. The inside lane of the narrow road ahead was filled with hundreds of trucks headed south, parked now with the engines swathed in tarpaulins for warmth, waiting for morning and their turn at the tunnel. Forced into the outside lane, we crawled downhill in the dark, creeping from one icy switchback to the next. The other drivers, perhaps exhausted by combat or fearful of the drop that lay at the edge of the icy road, fell into something like a line to inch down the mountain.
We stopped at the first chaikhana, collapsed on the floor of a little room upstairs, and slept for a few hours. Before dawn we were on the road again with Hasan driving to give Marouf, and all of us, a rest. The mountains pressed upon us in the darkness, their great gray shapes more felt than seen, until at first light they fell away into rolling farmland. Gradually the earth grew dry and stony, and cliffs rose to enclose us again. We wound through along narrow canyonHasan said this pathway through the last mountain had been magically made by the Caliph Ali himselfand then there were caravans of camels in the road and domed houses of red earth and at last the broad Turkistani plains that stretched away in one long, clean line to Mazar-i Sharif.
We women checked into a hotel. Caroline paid Marouf something extra to take Hasan back to Kabul, and they left at once to catch the southern traffic through the tunnel. Two weeks later, when we got back to Kabul, we learned that Marouf had abandoned Hasan halfway up the mountain. He asked Hasan to get out and check the tires, then drove off alone, taking Hasan's blanket with him. Hasan hailed a truck and paid the driver for a ride, but they got stuck overnight in a gallery near the top of the mountain. He bought a few pieces of wood from another driver who was chopping up his truck bed with an ax; he made a little fire, but he couldn't get warm. They finally reached the tunnel only to find that the military commander in charge had closed it indefinitely because of the threat of avalanches. The drivers, in a fury, attacked the commander's soldiers and seized their weapons. They broke down the door of the commander's office and beat him nearly to death. The soldiers produced the frozen bodies of three men who had been caught in the last avalanche, the one that had swept away the tumbled gallery we had seen. The drivers were not impressed. They beat the soldiers. Then they got back in their trucks and drove through the tunnel. The next day Hasan reached his home in Kabul where his wife restored him by massaging his frostbitten feet and legs with salt. That same day a series of avalanches closed the Salang Pass, and it remained closed for a month. Later I asked Hasan if he knew why Marouf had tricked and abandoned him. He shrugged and smiled and said, "It is our custom."
Ignorant of Hasan's homeward journey, Caroline, Helen, and I were stuck in Mazar for a couple of weeks, waiting for a plane. After Caroline finished the business she had come to do, she said,"Would you like to see some buzkashi? Or did you have enough of it on the drive up here?"
Helen said, "I'd like to see the kind they play with horses." And so we walked out to Dasht-i Shadian to watch men on horseback pull a dead animal to pieces in the course of a cold afternoon.
WHEN WE REACHED THE PLAYING FIELD, THE CALF HAD ALREADY been killed. It lay on the ground, still stretched west, toward Mecca. Its head was gone, and its legs splayed at impossible angles. The hoofs had been hacked away. An old man was inscribing a circle in the dirt around the carcass with the heel of his boot. The wind spiraling out of a gray and sunless winter sky lifted the tail of his faded cloak. Behind him, turbaned men were already gathering in the concrete bleachers, greeting their friends with a hand to the heart and a barrage of salutations. "How are you? How is your health? How is your family? How was your night?" They clutched their brown woolen blankets around them to keep out the winter chill and turned their hatchet faces toward us, swiveling row by row to watch our ascent as we climbed to the top of the stands.
Horsemen materialized in the dusty air. Singly and two by two and ranked like cavalry shaping up for war, they rode out of the distance. They emerged from the dusty streets of the city that lay beyond the far side of the field and from the barren land that fell away on either side. They came on at a walk, so as not to tire the horses, dark figures moving steadily, converging on the field of play; and as they drew near, so that we could distinguish from the stands their turbans, their bright saddle blankets, the tassels tossing on the bridles of the eager horses, the air grew electric as if they rode to us enveloped in the force field of their own excitement. Some began to circle in front of the standstrotting, jostling one another, racing away and back again. Caroline clapped her hands. She said, "This is the real thing."
I glanced behind us to see a white horse trotting toward thestands. His rider wore a turban of pale silk and a padded winter chapanthe long cloak of the northern tribes that live here beyond the Hindu Kush. It was striped in dark colors that had faded with age to a uniform gun metal gray. President Karzai wears a chapan on state occasions, in his trademark bright green and purple stripes, always looking starched and pressed; but Karzai wears it in ceremonial style, draped from his shoulders with the extralong sleeves falling free like the tails of a cutaway. The rider wore his chapan like a coat, with the long sleeves pleating into folds along his arms, and the hem of the garment spread across the rump of the white horse that was well dressed itself in tassels and silver buckles and a bright striped Uzbeki saddle blanket.
The rider goaded the horse with his heels but held him back with hard hands so that the animal had nowhere to go but up. He danced up and down while the rider affected nonchalance.
"He's the tooi-bashi," Caroline said. "He's like the master of ceremonies, or something."
"So what does he do?" Helen asked. Helen was a nurse, perpetually organizing things. She liked to know how systems worked.
"Well, what you see. He rides around. He runs things for the tooi-walathe khan who sponsors the gamesso the khan can sit back and look important. I suppose it's a ceremonial thing, but somebody always has to be seen to be in charge."
I pulled my camera out of my pocket as the tooi-bashi approached just below us. He saw it at once. He snatched at the reins and kicked the horse sideways to face me. Through the lens I watched the horse brace his neck and open his mouth wide, grappling with the iron-barbed bit. He reared, carrying the rider aloft as pedestrians scrambled to get out of the way. For a moment they hung there in the air, the exotic horseman and the wild-eyed airborne horse framed against the dull expanse of dusty plain and far distant mountains, and then the rider relented and released his grip on the reins. Caroline was thrilled. She'd been a horse rider herself in earlier days and imagined that she was one still. AfterI'd volunteered to come to Afghanistan to help with her work, I'd sent her an e-mail to ask about the weather. "What's the winter like in Kabul?" I was packing. I had practical choices to make. "Do I need boots?" The answer, when it finally came, said nothing about the weather or the vexing issues of footgear and the proper weight of a winter coat. It said, "Please bring some good potato peelers and mouse traps for very small mice that are eating the kitchen towels. If you want to ride, bring your own saddle." As the winter wore on, a dozen potato peelers disappeared from the kitchen in the cook's pocket along with a dozen traps for very small mice, while Caroline, lost in nostalgia, spun tales of thrilling horseback rides she'd taken in the fields of Kabul forty years before. Then meadows lay all about and the grass was green and the brimming irrigation jouies just right for jumping. That was before the land was laced with mines, of course. Before the rocket attacks and the bombs. Huddled by the woodstove in the darkened office on winter evenings, sharing a meal of leftover rice and bread, Helen and I would listen to the voice burbling out of the shadows. It came to me then, slowly, that Kabul in winter is a state of mind, a mix of memory and desire that lifts like dust in the wind to hide from view the world as it is.
"Isn't he wonderful?" Caroline said.
The tooi-bashi was performing, kicking his horse around, hauling on the nasty bit until the animal reared again and lurched back to earth. I put my camera in my pocket, and he soon rode on.
"You didn't show him his picture," Helen said.
"He didn't ask. He didn't want to see it," I said, thinking no photo would match the image he must hold in his mind of himself when his chapan was new and bright-striped, and his beard dark and fierce. "He just wanted somebody to be impressed enough to take his picture."
"No," Caroline said. "He wanted everybody to see him having his picture taken. It shows how important he is. When people talk about this match, they'll mention his name."
"And will they mention the photographer?"
Caroline laughed. "Afghans are very creative," she said. "Very poetic. Wonderful storytellers." No one loved Afghans more than Caroline. They could do no wrong. She too would carry in her mind the image of the proud tooi-bashi on his prancing horse, cutting a sharper figurebigger and more handsomethan he appeared in the digital photograph where I could clearly read the frayed edges of saddle blanket and chapan, the scarred face of the horse, the grizzled look of the old man's beard. You could not be in Afghanistan very long without learning that facts are feeble things. Never mind that you are old and poor, and your horse too is thin and wheezy. Presentation is everything, a display of the dauntlessness that keeps an old man, or a crippled country, going through the darkest times. Make your horse stand on its hind legs and dance, and you may make a name for yourself, a name that may be mentioned when Afghan men gather in the evenings to tell tales.
The tooi-bashi reappeared on his white horse, parading along the edge of the playing field to the center of the stands, to a kind of covered pavilion, carpeted and strewn with cushions. There he turned to salute a fat-bellied, bearded mogul who had just arrived in a white Toyota sedan and taken his place upon the platform's lone easy chair. Lesser dignitaries and followers disposed themselves on the carpets at his feet.
"There's the tooi-wala," Caroline said. Just then he lifted his hand, and at the signal the tooi-bashi goaded the white horse to rear once again and spin to face the playing field. A rank of horsemen disengaged themselves from the pack and rode forward to salute the khan. They were big hard-faced men, dressed in dark tunics and high leather boots and leather skull caps edged in fur, the outfit of professional buzkashi players, the chapandazan. Most of them probably were farmers for much of the year, doing the heavy work of farmers, but when the cold weather came on and the crops were gathered and the buzkashi season began again,a local landowner would send out a message to his fellow khans who in turn would summon their best riders, and the farmers would put on their spurs and their leather hats and ride away to vie for the prizessilk turban cloths and piles of moneyprovided by the generous host. Now, at some invisible signal the chapandazan ranged themselves close to the circle where the dead calf lay, while all around them closed a pack of a hundred or more eager horsementhe khans for whom the chapandazan rode and the khans' followers, the sawarkaran. The chapandazan drove their big, strong horses forward, chest to chest, and everything seemed to stop as horse met horse.
"Can you see what's happening?" Helen said.
"They're trying to get hold of the calf," Caroline said. "See them jostling?"
"I can't see anything but dust," Helen said.
A horse rose on its hind legs. It lifted its head and chest for a moment above the struggle. Another horse squealed. Whips rose in the air and thwacked horses' rumps. The whole pack seemed to move as one, inching forward and back across the circle where the carcass lay. I caught sight of one chapandaz only to see him disappear, reaching down, I supposed, among the hoofs of the struggling horses. Then all at once the mass seemed to loosen and a few horsemen broke free. They raced down the field, and we could see the calf dangling by one leg in the grip of a chapandaz riding a fast black horse. A second chapandaz closed in and leaned from his saddle to snatch at the carcass. ("Every calf has four legs," says an old Afghan proverb: there is more than one way for a canny man to win.) The two riders, with the calf suspended between them, galloped beyond the edge of the field, up the bank at the far end, and circled back into the mass of horsemen. They broke from the pack again at midfield. The black horse was still in the lead. The rider leaned far back over the horse's rump, then threw his body forward and jerked the calf from the grip of the other chapandaz. He raced toward the stands. Freeand clear now of the pack and even of the rival rider, he dropped the calf in front of the tooi-wala's pavilion and spun his horse away.
"He made it!" Caroline cried.
The victorious chapandaz accepted his prize money from the tooi-bashi. Then he tugged at the saddle girth, snugging it for the next mad dash, and turned the black horse again to the spot where the mangled calf carcass lay. Around him closed the other chapandazan and the great mass of sawarkaran while boys on bony cart horses trotted around the edges, ready to give chase when the calf grabber burst from the pack at a gallop.
"I can't see a thing," Helen said. "It's like trying to watch a stampede."
Caroline laughed. "It's buzkashi," she said.
IT'S KNOWN AS AFGHANISTAN'S NATIONAL SPORT, IF THE KALEIDOSCOPIC array of clans and tribes can be said to share a "national" pastime.90 Here, north of the Hindu Kush, where the mountains of central Afghanistan give way to the steppes of Central Asia, generations of nomadic horsemen raced across unbounded plains, barren but for the seasonal stand of grass that fed their animals. Some say these wild riders invented the game of battling on horseback for possession of a carcass, while others say they merely adapted it from the sport of Genghis Khan's Mongol invaders who played a kind of equestrian soccer with a human head. The northern horsemen fought over a goat, the buz of buzkashi. The sturdier calf used today holds together better and prolongs the game, and its greater weightperhaps a hundred poundsputs a premium on the size and strength of both rider and horse.
Afghan landowners and warlords have long enhanced their popularity and power by sponsoring buzkashi matches, just as the fat tooi-wala in the easy chair was doing now, but in former times the meets might last for many days. The local khan recruitedfriends and neighbors to help him organize the festivities and host distinguished guests. He issued invitations and arranged feasts. He put up the prize money and appointed an official to oversee play, while he sat back to watch the games, like a general gazing upon the field of battle, in full view of his admiring guests. If the games were a successthat is, if lots of players came and no contingent rode home in a huffthe sponsoring khan would grow in reputation as a worthy leader who knew how to handle things. Riders returning to their distant homes would spread his fame.
So important was buzkashi to the political life of certain regions of Afghanistan that an American Foreign Service officer stationed in Kabul in 1972 chucked his diplomatic career to write an academic dissertation about it. G. Whitney Azoy was attached to the US Embassy when, at a social gathering at the Afghan Foreign Ministry, an Afghan friend revised his life with a single suggestion: "If you want to know what we're really like, go to a buzkashi game."91 Azoy abandoned his diplomatic desk for American academia and soon returned as a newly minted anthropologist to the fields of play. Research, he called it. I'd come across a copy of his dissertation, published in 1982, on the bookshelves in our office, affectionately inscribed to Caroline, a fellow horse lover. Tucked up in bed, with the quilt pulled up to my chin, I'd read by the light of a kerosene lamp Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan, as had every other foreign journalist trying to make sense of the place, and I thought of it now as I sat in a chill wind on a cold concrete bench among straight-backed, silent men riveted to the rush of horses in the rising dust.
The struggle going on before us was merely the superficial showa power game of "the first order"in Azoy's scholarly analysis. Behind the clash of chapandazan lay power games of higher orders where the political fate of khans and even kings and communist dictators might be decided. The winning chapandaz gained fame and more silk turban cloths than he could possibly use, while the successful khan gained more followers, more power overhis neighbors and his region. In 1953 it occurred to Mohammed Daoud, then the ambitious prime minister of Afghanistan, that the government headed by his cousin and brother-in-law, King Zahir Shah, could consolidate its power by sponsoring in the capital the symbolic spectacle so popular in the country's northern reaches. To celebrate the king's birthday, the government brought buzkashi south over the mountains to Kabul.
But it was country buzkashi come to towntransformed from wild game to regulated sport. It was played in the eighteen-thousand-seat Ghazi Stadiumwhere more recently the Taliban conducted public executionsconfined by concrete walls. It began at a set time. It proceeded according to newly written rules. Traditional buzkashi required a rider only to carry a carcass free and clear of all other riders to win the round, but the new sport required him to race around a flag on the far side of the field and deposit the carcass within a scoring circle. The sport was dubbed qarajai buzkashi, the term qarajai, or "black place," suggesting the new spatial limits that traditionalists found very black indeed. Spectators complained that the rules reduced the game to repetitive back and forth, more like tennis than rodeo. The great mass of mounted khans and sawarkaran, who might join by the hundreds in a riotous northern meet, were banned from the playing field. Kabul buzkashi was to be restricted to chapandazanand worse, the chapandazan were to play in teams. In the wild country matches one chapandaz might block another's rival, but such cooperation among competitors was a thing between men, one to another, that had to be earned. It was voluntary and fleeting. A team was something else again that seemed to encumber a man with prescribed allegiances. The Afghan National Olympic Committee selected chapandazan to represent each province and issued them flashy matching uniformsbut the peculiar concept of teamwork never took hold. Why assist another man when you might grab the calf and the prize for yourself?
In 1973 that question apparently struck Mohammed Daoud,whom the king had eased out of the office of prime minister. While the king was away in Italy, Daoud proclaimed the new Republic of Afghanistan and named himself president, prime minister, foreign minister, and minister of defense as well. Five years later Daoud himself was shot down in the Saur (April) Revolution that installed Noor Mohammed Taraki as head of a communist regime. Taraki's portrait replaced Daoud's in the stadium, and the annual buzkashi tournament was staged as usual in another public demonstration of the power of the state.
Taraki was a lifelong political activist and sometime agent of the KGB. He had founded the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in 1965only a few years before the Islamist intellectuals of Kabul University began to organize their contradictory vision of a future Islamic state. But Afghan communists, being Afghans, could not agree among themselves. Early on, they split into two parties: Taraki's hardline Khalq (The People) and the more moderate Parcham (The Banner). They sabotaged each other's coup attempts. Kabulis joked that the difference between them was merely modish: Khalqis sported bushy black mustaches while Parchamis were clean-shaven.92 Perhaps it was true, for at last they managed to reunite and seize power. Now, subsidized by the Soviets, Taraki was impatient to create the new, thoroughly up-to-date Afghanistan of his dreams, organized along Marxist/Leninist lines. But as Louis Dupree remarked, Marxism in Afghanistan was doomed to be "more Groucho than Karl." The PDPA comrades were mostly intellectuals, educated in the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe, and Egypt, and members of the small Kabuli urban middle class. Their country had no industrial proletariat85 percent of Afghans were nonliterate peasants and nomadsso they had to impose a "grassroots revolution" upon the masses from the top down, and from the relatively sophisticated capital to the tribal villages of the hinterlands. They turned to the army to get the job done and to enforce upon the peasantry the new "working-class ideology" promulgated bygovernment officials.93 (In Italy, years later, exiled King Zahir Shah observed that sending young Afghan men to be educated in the Soviet Union had been "a mistake."94 He might have said the same thing of those who went to Egypt and returned as Islamists.) Resistance began at once and spread across the country. In Herat thousands died in protests against new government policies, especially the revolutionary proposal that a compulsory nationwide literacy education program should include girls and women.
The Soviets were determined that the Afghan experiment in communism should not fail. Quickly they sent in "advisers" to dilute PDPA policies so that citizens might swallow them. But by that time the factions of the PDPA had fallen out again. Taraki's Khalqis used their moment in power to obliterate potential opponents: functionaries of the old regime, political activists, Islamists, mullahs, Maoists, teachers, students, army officers, bureaucrats, disaffected ethnic groups, and the clean-shaven comrades of Parchami persuasion. The reign of terror brought mass arrests, disappearances, betrayals, torture, executions, and a prison for thousandsthe notorious Pul-i Charkhi, ringed by mass graves. Whole clans were executed, whole villages massacred.95 This was political buzkashi played dirty and for keeps.
President Taraki was next. Within a few months his own vice president, Hafizullah Amin, who had organized the violent communist coup that overthrew Daoud, organized the murder of Taraki as welland many more executions as he speeded up the drive to get to the bottom of the enemies list.96 PDPA membership was small, never more than 5,000 men, but before the comrades were through they had killed, by their own report, more than 12,000 people imprisoned at Pul-i Charkhi. Later, reports prepared by others put the number executed between the April 1978 revolution and the Soviet invasion of December 1979 at 27,000. Add to that the number of murdered and missing persons in the countryside, and the total number of citizens who "disappeared" under the Khalqi regime climbs to somewhere between 50,000 and100,000.97 Despite Amin's murderous efficiencyor perhaps because of itthe Soviets concluded that the American-educated Amin was "working towards a defeat of the revolution and ... serving reaction and imperialism."98 They suspected then, as many Afghans do to this day, that he was in the pay of the CIA. By that time, the American secretary of state Zbigniew Brzezinski was also "working towards a defeat of the revolution" by starting a secret program to aid the Afghan counterrevolutionaries, the Islamist mujahidin. His devious plan was to draw the Soviets into an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, to give the Soviets "their Vietnam," and it seems to have worked.99 On December 27, 1979, three months after Amin came to power, airborne Russian troops stormed Amin's palace and killed him. They took control of Kabul and installed another PDPA puppet president, Babrak Karmal. The next day Russian motorized divisions crossed the Amu Darya riverthe Oxus of ancient timeson Afghanistan's northern border to take over the rest of the country.
Buzkashi went on as usual. The 1980 Kabul Buzkashi Championships were staged as a celebration of the Saur Revolution that had first brought the communists to power. The puppet Karmal dressed up for the press like a chapandaz. His vice president gave a resounding speech proclaiming buzkashi "a manifestation of the spirit of the struggle of our people."100 But all over the country the people struggled against the Soviet invaders. From Dasht-i Shadian in Mazar-i Sharif, the real home of buzkashithe venue Azoy calls the Yankee Stadium of the gamecame word that some fifty Soviet soldiers, invited to attend a meet, had been slaughtered on the site. By 1982 the Kabul tournaments had been canceled and assemblies of men on horseback banned throughout the country. From helicopters, Russian snipers picked off mounted men.
If Zbigniew Brzezinski is to be believed, America can take credit not only for secretly stoking a ten-year-long war in somebody else's country but for starting it in the first place.101 StansfieldTurner, CIA director at the time, reportedly worried that the US intended to "fight to the last dead Afghan," and he questioned whether it is right to "use other people's lives for the geopolitical interests of the United States."102 But cold warrior Brzezinski seems to have been free of such qualms, and Turner too went along with the program. And then, once the Soviet invaders were gone, the US, like some fat tooi-wala, stood the mujahidin to a few more rounds of play. By the time the Americans opted out of the game and quit Afghanistan in 1992, nearly two million Afghans had been killed, according to the UN, and another 600,000 to two million maimed. More than six million Afghans had fled to Pakistan and Iran to become the world's largest population of refugees of a single nationality. Another two million Afghans had become internal refugees, in flight within their own country. And at least a million and a half had been driven insane by ceaseless war. Considering that there had been only about sixteen million Afghans to begin with, at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979, the UN figures meant that in the midst of the brother wars half the people of Afghanistan had already been killed or wounded, or driven from their homes or out of their minds. And still the battles went on.
ON THE WAY BACK FROM THE STADIUM, A MAN OFFERED US A LIFT to our hotel. He said he had graduated from Education University in Kabul and become a teacher in Mazar; but when the Taliban came and burned the schools and killed many of the teachers, he fled with his family to Pakistan. He'd returned to start a construction business, rebuilding schools, apparently at a profit. He drove a big sedan. (The source of capital was always a mystery.) "We need the international forces to take charge," he said. "We need them to keep us in order until we can disarm the country. We must disarm the country, but sadly we can not do it." He paused for a moment, reflecting upon this conundrum, and then he went on to explain. "We all killed people, you see." He said it matter-of-factly."Someone's father, sister, daughter, brother. So we are all subject to revenge. We can not put down our arms because we are all guilty. I am a Tajik, not a Pashtun, but this is a problem for us all. It is our code. What can we do?"
I thought of the half-dozen young, scared American soldiers who had wandered into our buzkashi game. Wearing flak jackets and full combat gear, they had walked into the tooi-wala's pavilion carrying their automatic weapons at the ready. The Afghan men around us sat perfectly still, but they watched as the soldiers exchanged some words with the tooi-wala and his men. Then three of the soldiers handed off their guns and strolled onto the field. At a sign from the tooi-wala, three Afghans dismounted and led their horses to the soldiers. One soldier struggled to mount, with the help of an Afghan, while the horse spun in circles. He was barely in the saddle when the horse took off at a gallop. An Afghan gave chase on horseback, grabbed the reins, pulled the runaway to a stop, and helped the soldier get down. A second soldier was carried off in another direction and dumped in the dirt. The third soldier thought better of the whole thing, turned the horse he'd been offered back to the Afghan owner, and strode to the pavilion to pick up his gun.
"Oh dear," Caroline said. "I'm afraid they've made a very bad impression."
Helen defended them. "Look what good sports they are," she said. The first two soldiers had made their way back to the pavilion, swaggering in their funny-looking too-tight uniforms, and now they were laughing, too hard, with the khan's men.
"They're such youngsters," Caroline said. "I don't think they knew what they were getting into."
Later we saw them again in the marketplace, stationed in a wide semicircle among the shops and stands, and they did indeed look like youngsters, aiming their guns at a crowd of Mazari women clad in white burqas who stood together in silence like a gathering of ghosts. The soldiers had established a perimeter inthe heart of the bazaar around a store where their lieutenant was shopping for carpets. They were in charge.
BACK IN KABUL, WHERE EVERYONE WAS TALKING OF BUSH'S THREAT to invade Iraq, we persuaded Caroline to rent a television set so we could watch international news. She went off with Hasan and returned with a portable set and a satellite dish. We installed the TV in the big unused sun parlor on the second floor above the office. It was a high-ceilinged room, lined on two sides with tall windows to take advantage of the winter sun. A gulkhana, the Afghans call it. A flower room. It was meant to be our office, but since the Kabuli smog so often dimmed the sun, the room was rarely warm enough for work. So we all worked downstairs, near the woodstove, while this room stood empty. It was my favorite place. It looked to the west, over the low rooftops of Share Nau and an old citadel just beyond, to the distant mountains of the Paghman range. I'd often come here at sunrise to watch the snowy slopes turn the color of flamingoes and then pale again to pearly white. In the late afternoon I'd come here to read, wrapped in a woolen pattu, curled in one of the big red easy chairs, glancing up now and again at the darkening mountains until the light grew dim and I closed my book and lost myself in watching them slowly slip away into the night.
Then it would be nearly time for the news, and Helen would join me. We'd fire up the generator on the balcony just outsidewe rarely had city electricityand turn on the set. We watched the BBC World Service and EuroNews and Al Jazeera and Al Arabia and Deutsche Welle and the English-language broadcasts of Iranian television and whatever else we could get. Hungry for news, we became skilled channel surfers, swooping between highlights here and there, catching the wave that seemed to be rolling, on every channel, in every language, toward certain disaster. From another quarter we heard the voice of the mullah, amplified andprojected into the street below from the big mosque on the corner, condemning (according to a neighbor's translation) the infidel warmongers, the bloodthirsty crusading Christian devils, the Great Satan Bush.
One evening we chanced upon Fox News and the official American spin: Afghanistan, now at peace, had been rebuilt. For hours we cursed and swore at the TV set, but for once we couldn't change the channel. Fox News told us that America had bombed Afghanistan to save the people from the evil Taliban regime and that the Taliban had been totally defeated.103 But at that point, in February 2003, Taliban were still fighting near Kandahar and in the east around Jalalabad. And to repel the American enemy, they had long since teamed up with al-Qaeda andwould he never go away?Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (When I left the country in 2005, they were fighting still.) The Taliban had been, after all, a powerful movement that swept through the country and wiped out or co-opted almost all the mujahidin commanders the US had been so crazy about. Neither demonizing the "regime" nor changing it could make the Taliban evanesce. Many Talibs had shaved their beards and changed the color of their turbans and melted into the population. Some were still in the government. A lot of Taliban propaganda had seeped into the minds of men and stuck. Fox News also told us that Afghan women had been liberated, that they had thrown off their burqas and gone back to school. Yet the chief justice of the Supreme Courtone of those Taliban types still in the governmenthad just publicly condemned equal education as "evil." In Herat the warlord/governor Ismail Khan had forbidden men to teach girls, and the girls' schools had closed. In Jalalabad, bombs had demolished two girls' schools in the previous week, and a woman teacher had been murdered. Caroline still maintained the neighborhood schools for girls she'd started in the Taliban time because parents felt it wasn't safe to let their girls walk to public schools. Every week brought news of girls abducted from Kabul streets. Only the day before, in broad daylight,Hasan had seen two Afghan soldiers drag a flailing burqa into a car.
As for the peace that America had brought to Afghanistan, the American Embassy in Kabul was a forbidding fortress, hidden behind walls of concrete and sandbags, bristling with razor wire and armed guards waiting for attack. (That was before the US started building its new billion-dollar fortress embassy, largely underground.) And everywhere in Kabul the streets were full of armed men: Afghan soldiers, American soldiers, ISAF soldiersGermans, Brits, Dutch, Turksof the international security force. The ISAF troops moved through the streets fast in convoys of armored vehicles; helmeted soldiers manned the gun turrets. Sometimes they accidentally ran people down. Then there were the unknown men, many in odd uniformsgray, green, blue, brownand many in plain black clothes and shades. Who were they? Who did they answer to? Who knew? Months before, the Karzai government had vowed to disarm the private militias of warlords all over Afghanistan. That included the militias of General Dostum, the Uzbek leader in the north, and his Tajik rival Atta Mohammed; but only the week before a Dostum man had gunned down the wife and daughter of one of Atta's right-hand men. The two "disarming" sides had found enough weapons to go to war again, and who would stop them? Both Dostum and Atta were members of the Karzai cabinet. This is the same Dostum who fought by the side of Massoud in 1992 to save Kabul from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and then in 1994 teamed up with Gulbuddin against Massoud and the Rabbani government to shell the ruined city one more time. Over the years he'd fought beside and against nearly everybody else, and in the end they'd all been defeated and run out of the country by the victorious Taliban to the applause of many Afghans who'd had enough of mujahidin anarchy, atrocity, and exile. But the US, getting things wrong again, had rehabilitated the discredited commanders by inviting them to a conference in Bonn in December 2001 to reconstitute themselves as the newAfghan regime. (In March 2005, President Karzaithe same President Karzai who had vowed repeatedly to disarm the warlordswould name Dostum chief of staff of the army; and US ambassador Khalilzad would commend the choice.) The presence of men like Dostum in the cabinetmen who might just as well be tried for war crimeswas a peculiar feature of the Afghan peace.
Afghanistan, we learned from the TV, had been "rebuilt" thanks to millions of dollars of international aid pouring into the country. Where was it? That was the question we'd heard asked of American ambassador Finn only weeks before. At a big meeting of international aid agencies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Afghan head of an Afghan NGO had stood up and barked his rude, ungrateful question at the ambassador who was even then going on about all that American aid was doing for Afghanistan. "Where is it?" the Afghan said. "We have not seen it." The room went quiet with embarrassment. All the internationals present knew how aid works: that most of it goes to support the experts and contractors and bureaucrats of the "donor" nations, providing cover (and more tax dodges) for the rich in the guise of helping the poor. Ambassador Finn explained to the impatient Afghan that the "lion's share" had been spent on necessary "start-up costs" such as renting and refurbishing "appropriate work facilities"all those nice big housesand equipping them for "appropriate standards" of international living and work. Perhaps next year, he said, the benefits of aid would "trickle down" to ordinary Afghans. (Two and a half years later a candidate for the Afghan parliament would run on the slogan, "Where did the money go?") But at the time there was an unofficial freeze on humanitarian activities in Kabul; no one knew whether funds appropriated to rebuild Afghanistan would actually be delivered, or whether programs once started could be finished. International aid, such as it was, was on hold or drying updiverted to the looming war in Iraq.
Fox News went on describing a mission accomplished in a place they called Afghanistan, a country utterly unlike the one in which we lived. One night, as we sat in the dark to save generator power for the TV set, we heard some no-name right-wing think-tank prowar neocon talking head explain that America could speedily repair any incidental damage to Iraq's infrastructure, just as it had done in Afghanistan. Security, water, electricityall those things Kabulis had learned to live withouthe said had been restored in Kabul "in no time." Even in the dim glow of the TV, I could see that Helen was weeping. "Please can we go back to the BBC?" she said, and we never watched Fox News again.
We had no way then of knowing that for almost a year the White House had been snatching from Afghanistan the US spies and special forces once aimed at al-Qaeda and secretly mustering them for the crusade against Iraq. The number of Americans on the ground was never largelittle more than a hundred CIA agents and three hundred special forces personnelbut by then the CIA was gone from Herat and Mazar-i Sharif and Kandahar; and the manpower of Task Force 5, the covert commandos supposedly hunting for Osama bin Laden along the Pakistani border, had been cut to the bone.104 But at night we heard the planes. The deep drone of the big cargo carriers rattled the windows and woke us from sleep, and then we heard the whoosh of fighter jets, high up. There seemed to be more now, every night, just before dawn. Before long, I would be sitting in front of the television in the dark, wrapped in my pattu, watching bombs drop on Baghdad.
THE MORNING AFTER THE BOMBS BEGAN TO FALL I WENT DOWN TO the street as usual and found Sharif sitting in his car at the curb. How could I say "Salaam aleikum"Peace be with youwhen my country had just started a war? I said instead, "Chittur asti?"How are you?and climbed into the front seat. He didn't answer. He didn't return my greeting. This in a language and a countrywhere ritual greetings are a prolonged ceremony as essential to life as air. The shock of Sharif's silence took my breath away. He threw the car in gear and we bumped down the street past the mosque where the loudspeaker was blaring another message from the mullah, though prayer time was long past. "This day is different," I thought, though the pale sun soaking the dusty morning air seemed to cast the same thin gray light as yesterday and the day before. Sharif pointedly turned on the radio news in Dari and cranked the sound way up.
I looked at him more closely, this man with whom I'd shared the morning drive each day for months. He'd done well for himself. But I knew the price he'd paid. Sharif had told me the story, and one day Caroline had taken me to visit the site of his family's farm near Paghman, the cool hillside village where once King Amanullah had built his summer palace and picnicked with the Kabul elite. We had walked to the end of the village and climbed the low rise in the foothills, just under the mountains of the Paghman range, where the old family farmhouse had stood. It was a beautiful site, watered by flowing jouies, sheltered by the mountain, warmed even in winter by the eastern sun. There one day during the Soviet occupation, Sharif's father was blown up by a mine planted next to a mulberry tree in the orchard behind the house. The Soviets knew that Afghan farmers liked to squat next to a tree to relieve themselves, and that's where they put the mines. Later, when the Soviets had agreed to leave the country, they rolled the tanks through Paghman village one last time and shelled the abandoned villas of Kabul's upper class just for spite. Part of the little farmhouse was blown away. And later still, when the Soviets were gone and the Afghans were fighting among themselves, a solitary rocket came whistling out of the bright sky one sunny winter's day and fell into the garden at the back of the house where Sharif's older brother stood talking to their grandfather while a little girl, a neighbor, sat on the garden wall and chatted to the family's milk cow. After the blast Sharif's grandfather wasdisoriented and dazed. The cow and the girl and Sharif's older brother were dead. When he told me this story, Sharif said: "Then I must leave school. I must be grandfather and father and old brother." He was about fourteen at the time, and he'd taken care ever since of what was left of his family.
He'd come to Kabul to work for Caroline, who'd known the family from the old days, before the Soviets, when she'd been part of the expat elite who summered in the hills of Paghman. During the Taliban time, the police had arrested Sharif fifteen times because he worked for the infidel American woman. Each time he paid them money to be released, and each time the price went up. He gave them fifteen thousand Afghanisall that he had. The next time Caroline put up two thousand dollars to free him. But they arrested him again and held him for twenty days. They accused him of being a Christian. To make him confess they beat his feet with steel cables and broke the bones. His feet still hurt, he said. He wore big, wide shoes. But all this time he'd looked after his little brother, Kabir, supporting him in school, taking him to English lessons, keeping close watch on him, prodding him to do the things Sharif might have done himself if things had been different.
I reached over and turned down the radio. "You're very angry this morning, Sharif," I said. "It's about the bombing, isn't it?"
He was silent for a long time, chewing the ends of his mustache. Then he said, "You bomb Afghanistan. Many people killed. But we also happy Taliban go away. You say you help us. Now you bomb Iraq. Go get oil. Next maybe Iran? Syria? Will you bomb our brothers everywhere?"
"I don't know," I said.
"Already you forget Afghanistan," he said. "Just like before. Russians go. Americans go. What you care about Afghanistan? Nothing. Let them fight. Let them kill each other. You can watch. Like chicken fight in Babur's Garden." Sharif pushed a tape into the deck and a high, keening voice filled the silence with unutterablegrief. It was a familiar Shi'a lament about the slaying of the Caliph Ali's son Husain and infant grandson on the plain of Kerbala sung by a woman whose voice seemed to groan with pain. He had played it before one cold, rainy day when he'd driven me to the Panjshir Valley to see the place where Massoud lay dead. It was the saddest music I have ever heard.
"You Americans," Sharif said. "You are children. You think of today only. What about years to come? What about promises you made in year last?"
So there it was. He had believed in the American promisethat this time we would not abandon his country, and we had betrayed him. We promised aid that most did not see. We promised reconstruction that didn't happen. We promised a new democratic government and installed the same old warlords. We promised peace that didn't come. We promised loyalty that lasted no longer than General Dostum's alliances. Yet Sharif would have been loyal to America, and to President Karzai, if we had given him the chance.
"I'm very sorry, Sharif," I said. "I'm angry too." The music soared around us, bringing tears to my eyes. "Please don't be angry with me, Sharif. This man Bush who does this, he is not my president."
Sharif had stopped the car, trapped by traffic behind the Italian hospital. He turned to me, wordlessly, a face full of sorrow and disdain, and I knew that he saw me plainly for what I was: another American who would not take responsibility for what my country did to the world. I saw him too: another very old young Afghan man, standing alone, on ruined feet, in a wintry garden where who knows what might fall out of the sky.
KABUL IN WINTER. Copyright © 2006 by Ann Jones. Photographs © 2006 by Ann Jones. All rights reserved.. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.