Military history



Kabul, Afghanistan, September 1998


Only This

THEY LED THE MAN to a spot at the middle of the field. A soccer field, grass, with mainly dirt around the center where the players spent most of the game. There was a special section for the handicapped on the far side, a section for women. The orphans were walking up and down the bleachers on my side selling candy and cigarettes. A couple of older men carried whips. They wore grenade launchers on their backs.

The people are coming, a voice was saying into the loudspeaker, and the voice was right, the people were streaming in and taking their seats. Not with any great enthusiasm, as far as I could tell; they were kind of shuffling in. I probably had more enthusiasm than anybody. I had a special seat; they’d put me in the grass at the edge of the field. In America, I would have been on the sidelines, at the fifty yard line with the coaches. Come sit with us, they’d said; you are our honored guest.

A white Toyota Hi-Lux drove onto the field and four men wearing green hoods climbed out of the back. There was a fifth man, a prisoner, no hood, sitting in the bed of the truck. The hooded men laid their man in the grass just off midfield, flat on his back, and crouched around him. It was hard to see. The man on his back was docile; there was no struggle at all. The voice on the loudspeaker said he was a pickpocket.

“Nothing that is being done here is against God’s law,” the voice said.

The green hoods appeared busy, and one of them stood up. He held the man’s severed right hand in the air, displaying it for the crowd. He was holding it up by its middle finger, moving in a semicircle so everyone could see. The handicapped and the women. Then he pulled his hood back, revealing his face, and he took a breath. He tossed the hand into the grass and gave a little shrug.

I couldn’t tell if the pickpocket had been given any sort of anesthesia. He wasn’t screaming. His eyes were open very wide, and as the men with the hoods lifted him back into the bed of the Hi-Lux, he stared at the stump of his hand. I took notes the whole time.

I looked back at the crowd, and it was remarkably calm, unfeeling almost, which wasn’t really surprising, after all they’d been through. A small drama with the orphans was unfolding in the stands; they were getting crazy and one of the guards was beating them with his whip.

“Get back,” he was saying, drawing the whip over his head. The orphans cowered.

I thought that was it, but as it turned out the amputation was just a warm-up. Another Toyota Hi-Lux, this one maroon, rumbled onto midfield carrying a group of long-haired men with guns. The long hair coming out of their white turbans. They had a blindfolded man with them. The Taliban were known for a lot of things and the Hi-Lux was one, jacked up and fast and menacing; they had conquered most of the country with them. You saw a Hi-Lux and you could be sure that something bad was going to happen.

“The people are coming!” the voice said again into the speaker, louder now and more excited. “The people are coming to see, with their own eyes, what sharia means.”

The men with guns led the blindfolded man from the truck and walked him to midfield and sat him down in the dirt. His head and body were wrapped in a dull gray blanket, all of a piece. Seated there in the dirt at midfield at the Kabul sports stadium, he didn’t look much like a man at all, more like a sack of flour. In that outfit, it was difficult even to tell which way he was facing. His name was Atiqullah, one of the Talibs said.

The man who had pulled his hood back was standing at midfield, facing the crowd. The voice on the loudspeaker introduced him as Mulvi Abdur Rahman Muzami, a judge. He was pacing back and forth, his green surgical smock still intact. The crowd was quiet.

Atiqullah had been convicted of killing another man in an irrigation dispute, the Talibs said. An argument over water. He’d beaten his victim to death with an ax, or so they said. He was eighteen.

“The Koran says the killer must be killed in order to create peace in society,” the loudspeaker said, echoing inside the stadium. “If punishment is not meted out, such crimes will become common. Anarchy and chaos will return.”

By this time a group had gathered behind me. It was the family of the murderer and the family of the victim. The two groups behind me were toing-and-froing as in a rugby game. One family spoke, leaning forward, then the other. The families were close enough to touch. Sharia law allows for the possibility of mercy: Atiqullah’s execution could be halted if the family of the victim so willed it.

Judge Muzami hovered a few feet away, watching.

“Please spare my son,” Atiqullah’s father, Abdul Modin, said. He was weeping. “Please spare my son.”

“I am not ready to do that,” the victim’s father, Ahmad Noor, said, not weeping. “I am not ready to forgive him. He killed my son. He cut his throat. I do not forgive him.”

The families were wearing olive clothes that looked like old blankets and their faces were lined and dry. Everyone was crying. Everyone looked the same. I forgot who was who.

“Even if you gave me all the gold in the world,” Noor said, “I would not accept it.”

Then he turned to a young man next to him. My son will do it, he said.

The mood tightened. I looked back and saw the Taliban guards whipping some children who had tried to sneak into the stadium. Atiqullah was still sitting on the field, possibly oblivious. The voice crackled over the loudspeaker.

“O ye who believe!” the voice in the loudspeaker called. “Revenge is prescribed for you in the matter of the murdered; the freeman for the freeman, and the slave for the slave, and the female for the female.

“People are entitled to revenge.”

One of the green hoods handed a Kalashnikov to the murder victim’s brother. The crowd fell silent.

Just then a jumbo jet appeared in the sky above, rumbling, forcing a pause in the ceremony. The brother stood holding his Kalashnikov. I looked up. I wondered how a jet airliner could happen by such a place, over a city such as this, wondered where it might be going. I considered for a second the momentary collision of the centuries.

The jumbo jet flew away and the echo died and the brother crouched and took aim, leveling his Kalashnikov at Atiqullah’s head.

“In revenge there is life,” the loudspeaker said.

The brother fired. Atiqullah lingered motionless for a second then collapsed in a heap under the gray blanket. I felt what I believed was a vibration from the stands. The brother stood over Atiqullah, aimed his AK-47 and fired again. The body lay still under the blanket.

“In revenge there is life,” the loudspeaker said.

The brother walked around Atiqullah, as if he were looking for signs of life. Seeing one, apparently, he crouched and fired again.

Spectators rushed onto the field just like the end of a college football game. The two men, killer and avenger, were carried away in separate Hi-Luxes, one maroon, one white. The brother stood up in the bed of the white truck as it rumbled away, surrounded by his fellows. He held his arms in the air and was smiling.

I had to move fast to talk to people before they went home. Most everyone said they approved, but no one seemed to have any enthusiasm.

“In America, you have television and movies—the cinema,” one of the Afghans told me. “Here, there is only this.”

I left the stadium and walked in a line of people through the streets. I spotted something in the corner of my eye. It was a boy, a street boy, with bright green eyes. He was standing in an alley, watching me. The boy stood for a few more seconds, his eyes following mine. Then he turned and ran.

IN THE LATE AFTERNOONS the center of Kabul had an empty, twilight feel, a quiet that promised nothing more than another day like itself. There were hardly any cars then, just some women floating silently in their head-to-toe burqas.*1 Old meat hung in the stalls. Buildings listed in the ruins.

One of those afternoons, a thin little shoeshine boy walked up to me. He was smiling and running his finger across his throat.

“Mother is no more,” he said, finger across the neck. “Father is finished.”

His name was Nasir and he repeated the phrase in German and French, smiling as he did. “Mutter ist nicht mehr. Vater ist fertig.” He dragged the finger across his throat again. Rockets, he said. Racketen. His pale green eyes were rimmed in black. He did not ask for money; he wanted to clean my boots. Then he was gone, scampering down the muddy street with his tiny wooden box.

Kabul was full of orphans like Nasir, woebegone children who peddled little labors and fantastic tales of grief. You’d see them in packs of fifty and sometimes even a hundred, skittering in mismatched shoes and muddy faces. They’d thunder up to you like a herd of wild horses; you could hear the padding of so many tiny feet. Sometimes I’d wonder where all the parents had gone, why they’d let their children run around like that, and then I’d catch myself. The orphans would get out of control sometimes, especially when they saw a foreigner, grabbing and shoving one another, until they were scattered by one of the men with whips. They’d come out of nowhere, the whip wielders, like they’d been waiting offstage. The kids would squeal and scatter, then circle back again, grinning. If I raised a hand, they’d flinch like strays.

If a war went on long enough the men always died, and someone had to take their place. Once I found seven boy soldiers fighting for the Northern Alliance on a hilltop in a place called Bangi. The Taliban positions were just in view, a minefield in between. The boys were wolflike, monosyllabic with no attention spans. Eyes always darting. Laughing the whole time. Dark fuzz instead of beards. They wore oddly matched apparel like high-top tennis shoes and hammer-and-sickle belts, embroidered hajj caps and Russian rifles.

I tried to corner one of the boys on the hill. His face was half wrapped in a checkered scarf that covered his mouth. Abdul Wahdood. All I could see were his eyes. I kept asking him how old he was and he kept looking over at his brother. His father had been killed a year before, he said, but they fed him here and with the money he could take care of his whole family, $ 30 a month. “My mother is not weeping,” Abdul said. I could see how bored he was, and his friends definitely noticed because one of them started firing his Kalashnikov over our heads. That really got them going, laughing hilariously and falling over each other. Two of them started wrestling. My photographer and I calmed them down and asked them to pose in a picture with us, and they lined up and grew very grave. After that they stood behind us in a semicircle and raised their guns, not like they were aiming at anything but more like they were saluting. Then a couple of men appeared on the hilltop bearing a kettle of rice and the boys descended on it. The Taliban came down the road a few months later. I’ve got the boys’ picture on a bookcase in my apartment.

I DROVE IN from the east. I rode in a little taxi, on a road mostly erased, moving slowly across the craters as the Big Dipper rose over the tops of the mountains that encircled the capital on its high plateau. The cars in front of us were disappearing into the craters as we were climbing out of ours, disappearing then reappearing, swimming upward and then out, like ships riding the swells.

I passed the overturned tanks of the departed army, the red stars faded on the upside-down turrets. I passed checkpoints manned by men who searched for music. I stopped halfway and drank cherry juice from Iran and watched the river run through the walls of the Kabul gorge. There was very little electricity then, so I couldn’t see much of the city coming in, neither the people nor the landscape nor the ruined architecture, nothing much but the twinkling stars. From the car, I could make out the lighter shade of the blasted buildings, lighter gray against the darkness of everything else, the scree and the wash of the boulders and bricks, a shattered window here and there. A single turbaned man on a bicycle.

One morning I was standing amid the blown-up storefronts and the broken buildings of Jadi Maiwand, the main shopping street before it became a battlefield, and I was trying to take it in when I suddenly had the sensation one sometimes feels in the tropics, believing that a rock is moving, only to discover it is a reptile perfectly camouflaged. They were crawling out to greet me: legless men, armless boys, women in tents. Children without teeth. Hair stringy and matted.

Help us, they said.

Help us. A woman appeared. I guessed it was a woman but I couldn’t see her through her burqa. “Twelve years of schooling,” she said, and she kept repeating the phrase like some mantra, like it would get her a job.

For the first time I was talking to a woman I couldn’t see. I could trace the words as they exited the vent, watch the fabric flutter as she breathed and spoke. But no face. No mouth. “Twelve years of schooling,” she said. She had a name, Shah Khukhu, fifty, a mother of five, missing a finger and a leg. She was hiking up her burqa to show me.

“For five years I have been living here,” she said through the vent.

I wondered then and often afterwards how the Afghans endured the pain, there was so much of it. Five years in the rubble with nine fingers and five children and one leg and no husband: surely a pain proportional to injury would not in its mercy allow a woman like Shah Khukhu to survive. Forty thousand dead in the capital with no electricity. Two-year-old babies with artificial legs. They screamed, yes, and they groaned, groaned in particular, like the Northern Alliance soldier shot in the head and carried on a donkey for twelve hours to a hospital with no medicine. He made a low moaning sound. Sometimes I thought it was my own imagination: I couldn’t comprehend the pain or the fortitude required to endure it. Other times I thought that something had broken fundamentally after so many years of war, that there had been some kind of primal dislocation between cause and effect, a numbness wholly understandable, necessary even, given the pain, but which had the effect of allowing the killing to go on and on.

One day near Kandahar I came across a minefield, which was hardly extraordinary in itself, and next to it a man named Juma Khan Gulalai. The field was bright and green. Gulalai was a butcher and he’d set up his table there, his apron and knives at the ready. Every day, Gulalai explained, a goat would wander into the green grassy field to graze for its meal and step on a land mine and blow apart. Gulalai would walk into the field and retrieve the carcass—braving the mines himself as he did—throw the old goat up on the table and carve up its meat for sale.

During the famines, you’d hear about people who sold their children to pay for food. There was the kid from Sheberghan who’d tried to run off with a girl coveted by a warlord; a horse had been tied to each of the boy’s limbs and set running in different directions. There were millions of land mines like the ones in Gulalai’s field, layer after layer of them, whole archaeologies of mines; Soviet, then mujahideen on top of that, then Taliban, then muj again, exploding dolls and Bouncing Bettys and plastic mines that would still be exploding a thousand years from now, because they don’t, like the corpses, decompose. At one point twenty-five people each day were stepping on land mines in Kabul, and meanwhile the warlords were busy laying new fields as quickly as they could. Afghanistan was like the mouse in the laboratory, flipping the switch over and over again to shock itself. Maybe it was just despair.

“So many people died before us, we don’t give a damn,” Gulalai said.

Gulalai stood at his table and fingered his knives. Six months ago, he said, a close friend, Sarwar, walked into the field and exploded.

“Sometimes, I dream that I myself am blown up here.”

As I stood there with my notebook and my pen talking to him I watched a group of children gather on the dirt path on the other side of the field and jump excitedly at my presence. I yelled at them not to, but they ran anyway into the minefield, cheering as they came to meet me, like kids springing across a playground. They were out of breath when they arrived.

Why did you walk through the minefield? I asked young Wali Mohammed, who was smiling and panting.

“Going around, that would take longer,” he said.

People didn’t believe me when I told them. Once I sat with Gulham Sakhi, a member of the country’s Hazara minority, a refugee, father of five. We were in a house in Peshawar and he was telling me of a massacre at the hands of the Taliban from which he and his family had run away a couple of weeks before. I was using a translator, and Sakhi, numb and depressed, kept using the Dari words barcha, which meant “spear,” and tabar, which meant “ax.” I still have the words in my notebook. My translator was having trouble understanding, so I asked him to ask Sakhi to slow down and tell us what the Taliban fighters had done. And Sakhi told me, in the lifeless way that he was speaking, that the Talibs were doing with the barcha what anyone would do with such an instrument, they were pushing them into people’s anuses and pulling them back out of their throats. He and his family had come on foot.

“We walked across deserts and mountains,” he said.

THERE WERE HOSPITALS in Afghanistan filled with patients, burned and twisted; they just didn’t have any medicine or any doctors. There were schools, plenty of them, at least in the cities, only they were empty. Kabul University, on the edge of town, looked like one of those old black-and-white photos of Dresden in 1945, blasted and razed and deserted. There was music, wonderful, rising stuff. You could see the music, even if you weren’t allowed to listen to it, long streams of torn-up cassette tape ripped out and strung up on telephone poles, heaps of it, like the discarded guts of some animal. All the accoutrements of a functioning society had been in place once, and now they were gone.

One day I stood in the shattered window of the Pamir Supper Club on the rooftop of the Kabul InterContinental Hotel. The place had been dropped by the chain many years before.

“Ah, it was such a very good view,” said Sher Ahmad, a hotel employee.

I followed Ahmad’s eyes out the blown-out window. The mountains swept down and into the ruins and then up again, past a string of shot-up cars and pockmarked water tanks, to the barren ridge that encircled the city. Ahmad sported the mandatory turban and beard, and a white, drooping robe favored by the Pashtuns. His two front teeth protuded slightly over his beard.

“I’m the food and beverage manager,” Ahmad said, pausing for effect. “No food, no beverage!”

He laughed, but only for a second. Ahmad stepped back from the window and walked through the broken glass and overturned chairs of the club.

“This place was not always like this,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to his hotel or his country.

In the late 1960 s, Ahmad said, the capital’s social scene revolved around the Kabul InterContinental, playing host to foreign leaders like “Indira Gandhi, Mr. Bhutto, and all kinds of Saudi princes.” Women walked around in miniskirts, he said; gin and vodka flowed from the hotel’s many bars. Foie gras and champagne were flown in from France, cooks from Germany and Switzerland.

“There were no beards then, no turbans,” Ahmad said, stepping amid the rubble. “Nothing like this. It was very beautiful then. We had everything: music all the time, cigarettes, people smoking. We did not fear that we would ever be short of anything. Our only concern was that our guests were happy.”

Then things started to slip, Ahmad said, and his nostalgic air departed. The coups and reprisals, the Soviet invasion and its retreat. Then the mujahideen, who had beaten the Soviets, turned on one another. By 1992, Ahmad said, the foreign staff of the hotel had fled, the guests were down to a trickle. “European people finished,” he said. He was standing in a pile of overturned tables.

“We hid in the cellars then,” he said.

By the mid-1990 s, Kabul had become a battleground of competing warlords. Each held his own corner of the city: Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik commander; Dostum, the Uzbek butcher; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Islamist fanatic. There was a galaxy of lesser hoods and gangsters, ever ready to switch sides for a bigger bag of cash.

Every warlord had a fief, and every fief its own checkpoint, where neither a man’s cash nor his daughter was safe. At one point, Kabul was divided by forty-two separate militia checkpoints. Hekmatyar’s missiles rained from the outside. For two years the capital was dark, without electricity. Sher Ahmad and his colleagues could only watch from their spot in the hotel.

“Massoud shoot here,” he said, pointing at an odd angle out the window.

“Dostum shoot here,” he said, gesturing to a hill.

For a time, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik professor close to Massoud, took possession of Kabul and proclaimed a government. The United Nations bestowed its recognition. Massoud was the real power, though his fighters were beholden to no one. In neighborhood after neighborhood, they plundered and raped. One night, Ahmad recalled, they barged into the Kabul InterContinental.

“Massoud’s people, they took carpets, the forks, knives, and plates,” he said. “Waving their pistols. Bring me vodka. Bring me whiskey.”

Ahmad walked over to one of the few tables still standing and pointed to a plate. “Now, there is just junk.

“I like all the people of the world,” he said, his eyes growing sadder. “Just not soldiers.”

In 1996, after four years of street fighting, and more than forty thousand civilian deaths, Taliban fighters swept into the city.

“We had five bars, and they tore all of them out of the walls,” he said. “They pulled down all the paintings. All the posters. Even the postcards in the gift shop. They burned those, the ones that had people on them.”

One of the Taliban men used a cable to slash the faces from a pair of friezes depicting the giant sixth-century Buddha statues that stood in the central part of the country. The frames still hung on the walls. At the time, the Buddhas in Bamiyan still stood, too.

Somehow, Ahmad said, he and the other hotel staffers managed to save a hundred television sets, dragging them down into the vault in the basement, where they remained on the day of my visit. The Taliban militiamen smashed the rest. The staff rescued a thousand bottles of cognac and wine as well.

Later in the afternoon, as I sat down to a dinner of cold lamb and wilted lettuce in the lightless hotel restaurant, Ahmad reappeared, holding a faded hotel brochure. It showed a young man, clean-shaven, wearing a red tuxedo and holding a large tray of cakes and pastries. Behind the waiter stood a tall, blonde European woman in a tennis dress, and another in a bikini. The young man was smiling broadly.

“This was me,” Ahmad said.

Then he looked at the photo, staring back at it in wonder.

IN THE SAME SHATTERED café, a waiter approached my table, hands behind his back, bowing slightly.

“What would you like to drink?” he asked. “A screwdriver, a Bloody Mary? Ha ha ha!”

In Afghanistan, the brutality and the humor went hand in hand; the knife with the tender flesh. There seemed no collapse of their fortunes in which the Afghans could not find some reason to laugh.

In my many trips to Afghanistan, I grew to adore the place, for its beauty and its perversions, for the generosity of its people in the face of the madness. The brutality one could witness in the course of a working day was often astonishing, the casualness of it more so; and the way that brutality had seeped into every corner of human life was a thing to behold. And yet somewhere, deep down, a place in the heart stayed tender.

I sat in a mud-brick hut near Bamiyan, the site of a gnawing famine, and a man and his family pressed upon me, their overfed American guest, their final disk of bread.

“Please,” said the bedraggled man, his face mottled with white patches. “Please take.”

Once I drove into the town of Farkhar in northeastern Afghanistan and rolled up to a collection of brick sheds called, improbably, the Kodri Hotel. During the hotel’s long periods of inactivity, its rooms were used to store potatoes, and the place reeked of them. The toilet was a field out back.

As darkness enveloped the town, I heard a knock on my door. It was an emissary of the local warlord, Daoud Khan, who wanted to convey how much prestige this visit by an American reporter conferred upon him. Was there anything he could do to make the visit more comfortable? I suggested that a generator would be most welcome.

Sure enough, after a time, some men carried in a generator, a smoking, clattering thing, and a dim electric light was soon glowing in the darkness. Then the same men carried in a television, an antiquated and overweight Sharp with a seventeen-inch screen. And then they connected it to a satellite dish, which had been sitting all along on the Kodri Hotel’s mud roof.

By night’s end, amid the rattle of the generator, I sat on the floor of the potato shed with the Afghans watching Michael Jackson sing “Blood on the Dance Floor” on MTV. A soldier, perhaps sixteen years old, appeared at the door, leaned his Kalashnikov against the wall and sat down, rapt before the glow of the television.

Khoob,” he said in Dari. “Great.”

MAN, THEY WERE scary. You’d see them rolling up in one of the Hi-Luxes, all jacked up, white turbans gleaming; they were the baddest asses in town and they knew it, too. One of them would be sitting across from you in a restaurant, maybe picking at a kebab, looking at you from across the centuries, kohl under his eyes, and you knew he’d just as soon kill you as look at you. Dumb as a brick, but that hardly mattered. Great cultures are like that. Always have been. The Greeks, the Romans, the British: they didn’t care what other people thought. Didn’t care about reasons. Just up and did it. The Taliban: their strength was their ignorance. They didn’t even know they were supposed to care.


They pulled me out of a taxi once. I was in Herat. I’d been trying to take photographs of women from the back seat of the taxi. Floating blue ghosts. We’d stopped and I’d popped off a couple of shots and my driver, an Afghan, saw the Talibs and froze. I was banging on the front seat to go, just go, but he froze. The Talibs pulled me out of the taxi and one of them raised his gun to my head so I pulled out a business card, embossed with gothic letters, Los Angeles Times, very impressive, a get-out-of-jail-free card. The Talib grasped it, looked at it and threw it in the street. I might as well have handed him a starfish. My interpreter, Ashraf, a Pashtun like the Talibs, thank God, walked around the taxi to the man with the upraised AK and began to murmur something in Pashto. I didn’t know what he was saying, but as he spoke, he reached out and grasped the Talib’s beard and began to stroke it gently, running it through his hands, like he was putting a cat to sleep. Slowly the Talib relaxed his arms and put down his gun and told us we could go. It was like a magic trick.

You could just imagine the waves of Talibs running into the minefields, exploding and running and exploding. Carried along by some vision, some sweating emptiness. I met Hamidullah under a mulberry tree in Kandahar, sitting on the ground with a bunch of other amputees. He was a Pashtun kid from Kunduz, twenty years old, a Taliban soldier for many years. “We have seen more battles than the hairs on our head,” he said. Hamidullah had been with a Taliban unit that was charging one of Massoud’s posts when he stepped on a land mine, which blew off his left leg. He held out his right arm to break his fall and it hit another land mine; that exploded, too.

“God knows how long I lay there,” Hamidullah said.

As I stood over Hamidullah, he looked up at me with the dreamy eyes of a child. Hamidullah said he’d learned to dress himself with his remaining hand, learned to cinch the knot on his tie-up pants, taught himself to write with his left hand. He was still hoping to get married. He picked up a pen and a notebook and drew a cartoon face with a big, wide smile, but his future kept coming back to him.

“It’s Afghanistan,” Hamidullah said. “I’m finished.”

The old men, the leaders, were walking junkyards, metal and bullets and shrapnel, heaped over with holes and scar tissue. They’d walk in on peglegs with ill-fitting plastic arms, and when they plunked down in their chairs it was like watching the frame of an old car collapse. They had these handsome oversize features, jutting chins and enormous hands. They’d pour their tea from the cup and slurp it from the saucer, loud, because it was cooler that way. They’d look at you and you’d think, Jesus, they are not killable. They’re from another world. They beat the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union fell apart.

People loved them—a lot of people did, anyway, at least at first. You’d ask someone about the Talibs and the first thing they’d say is they tamed the warlords. You couldn’t drive across town, they’d say. The warlords would be fighting it out in the middle of the city, slugging it out for turf, like gangsters do, for the right to tax and steal. Massoud’s men would defeat Dostum’s men, set up their rackets and take their revenge. Then Hekmatyar and Sayyaf and Khalili and only the Holy Prophet knew who else.

“It was like a long and dark night,” Mohammed Nabi Mohammedi said one night in Kabul. Mohammedi was a Taliban commander who had fought through the civil war. He sat in a red upholstered chair in a small room off the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel.

“Afghanistan was divided into fiefdoms,” he said. “Each commander was only accountable to himself. They were fighting for power, they were fighting for plunder. The real purpose of jihad had been forgotten. The people had lost all hope.”

Mohammedi stared straight ahead, avoiding any eyes. He might as well have been talking to himself.

“The biggest scourge was the checkpoints,” he said. “The commanders, the warlords, they would loot and plunder and violate all who passed. Rape and violate the women. In this city, Kabul, the capital, there were checkpoints on every block. They were a plague on the people.”

Mohammedi was an old man, with weathered skin and a gray stringy beard. But he was tough and hard and honest, you could see that in his eyes, and he was as straight as a two-by-four. As I listened to him that night in the little room off the hotel lobby, I found myself admiring the old warhorse. Anarchy had taken over, and the Taliban were the only guys mean enough and dark enough to wrestle it back to dusty earth.

“The Taliban heard nothing but God,” Mohammedi said. “They brought order to a country that had become lawless. Who would have imagined that they would have been victorious over all these commanders, who had become so powerful and cruel?”

The commander paused, as if wondering himself.

And I felt sorry for him, too. Mohammedi was a hick, a yahoo from the countryside, and he seemed to know it. And he seemed to know we knew it, I mean we in the West. He was like a kid from Appalachia come to the big city, toothless and staring at the skyscrapers. All he wanted was to be accepted.

Once, in Kandahar, one of the Taliban ministers called a press conference, and his aides pleaded with the Western reporters who were in town to come along. When a group of women reporters showed up, the Taliban minister and his aides grew flustered and confused. They huddled across the room. The reporters stood in the doorway. The Talibs were talking and waving their arms. Then one of them walked over to a window and held the draperies in his hand. He motioned with his arm to the women. “Would you mind standing behind the curtain during the press conference?” he asked. The women laughed and walked out. The aides frowned in disappointment.

“We are not drug addicts, we are not illiterate—we can run a government,” Mullah Mohammed Hassan, the governor of Kandahar, said a few days after I met Mohammedi. Mullah Hassan had lost a leg fighting the Soviets. He’d hobbled into the room and fallen into his chair, removed his prosthesis and rubbed his stump.

More than anything, what seemed to bother the Taliban leaders like Mohammedi and Hassan was the refusal of the United Nations to extend them formal recognition even though they’d conquered 90 percent of the country.

“Why won’t they accept the Taliban?” Mullah Mohammedi pleaded. “I don’t know what we have done to earn the enmity of so many countries.”

THE BOYS FILED OUT of the school and gathered around me. Their beardless faces shimmered in the morning light, and their turbans framed their faces in diamond shapes. A lone adult male stepped forward.

“Our teachers are all at the front lines,” said the young man, named Hassan. He was twenty.

I was in Singesar, two hundred miles from Kabul in the southwestern desert, in the Taliban heartland. The men who had not already gone to war had done so a few weeks before, as the Taliban geared up for its next big offensive somewhere far away. With the men gone and the women shut inside their homes, Singesar was a children’s village.

“I have been here since I was five,” Hassan said. “We have all come for our religious education.”

With his clean-shaven face and innocent eyes, Hassan looked as young as the boys around him. But he was a serious young man, and he was running the madrassa while the adults were away. In sandaled feet, he led me through the village and told us the story of the one-eyed man named Omar.

“He lived in a simple hut,” Hassan said. “He was a man of few words.”

Hassan pointed to a mud-brick house next to the mosque.

“He would come early in the morning and lead prayers, and then take tea and sit in that room until noon studying the Koran alone,” Hassan said. “He didn’t talk much, only to his friends.”

In the war against the Soviets, Omar was a brave fighter, never more so than on the day he was gravely wounded. The Soviets had laid siege to Singesar, Hassan said, firing a missile into the town’s mosque. Shrapnel flew into Omar’s right eye.

“Omar just got hold of his eye, took it out, and threw it away,” Hassan said. He’d not seen the battle himself, of course; he was too young, but the tale of Omar’s eye had the power of a founding myth.

After the Soviets were defeated, Omar returned to Singesar and founded the madrassa where the children were now studying. Omar watched with growing weariness as his country slipped into chaos. When word reached Singesar that two warlords were fighting over the rights to a young boy, Omar decided he’d had enough.

“He had a dream,” Hassan said, pausing on a sandy path. “A woman came to him and said, We need your help; you must rise. You must end the chaos. God will help you.”

“He only had one rocket launcher and thirteen guns in the village,” Hassan said. “That was in 1994.”

Omar gathered eight men in Singesar and moved out, attacking the first checkpoint on the highway nearby. He hung the commanders from the barrels of tanks. As Omar’s men moved toward Kabul, they lopped off the hands of thieves, beat transgressors with cables, killed adulterers with stones.

Since capturing the capital, Hassan said, Omar had moved to Kandahar, just a few miles down the road. That, more than Kabul, was the real capital of the Taliban. Omar was said to be living in a new house built by his wealthy friend, a veteran of the jihad named Osama bin Laden.

Hassan stopped before a small building. In Singesar, the Taliban had built a concrete mosque on the site where Omar used to pray. It was the village’s only monument to its leader.

“It is like the sun is always shining on us,” Hassan said.

MOHAMMED WALI, the Taliban’s minister for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice, hobbled into the Kandahar office on crutches. He sank into his overstuffed chair, exhaled, and looked over his visitors, a group of Western reporters. He gave a small, constipated smile. Wali had the uncompromising face of a scold, but his injury gave him a touching vulnerability. He said he’d stepped in a hole and twisted his ankle.

“Welcome,” he said. “You are guests here.”

Someone asked him to describe his duties.

“We try to promote virtue—being nice to neighbors and widows and orphans,” Wali said. Then he paused, as if he had run out of things to say on the subject. It was clearly the other part of his portfolio, the vice, that he wanted to talk about.

“Everything we forbid is forbidden by the Holy Koran: liquor, gambling, drugs; if a woman is without purdah, that is also a vice.”*2

An aide placed a bowl of sugar-coated nuts on the table between us. Wali ignored them.

“We also try to prevent the taking of pictures of human things,” he said. “Though sometimes there is a need.”

Passports, for instance, Wali said.

“We also prevent music and dancing, these kinds of things,” he said. “Watching of television and of VCRs.”

I thought of Wali’s foot soldiers, the young men in white turbans who cruised the streets in their Hi-Luxes.

“We also ask men to grow beards,” said Wali, who had a large beard himself. “Men should grow a beard, and they should trim their mustaches.”

Trim their mustaches?

“The mustache should not cover the lips,” he said.

Wali shifted uncomfortably in his seat, taking the weight off his bad ankle.

“We also get hold of men who do not have beards,” he said.

Wali talked about his life a little. Like his fellow Taliban leaders, Wali had fought against the Soviet invaders and helped crush the warlords later on. For thirteen years, during and after the fighting, he had studied in Pakistani madrassas, mostly memorizing the Koran and learning the principles of modern jihad. Seven of those years, he said, were at the Darul Uloom Haqqania, one of the largest madrassas in Pakistan and a school attended by hundreds of Taliban fighters.

The subject turned to women. What about the burqas? someone asked.

“A woman must cover her beauty,” Wali said. “If she goes to the market, then the violation is intentional. And she must be punished.”

What was the penalty for that? he was asked.

“Maybe,” he said, “we beat her with a stick.”

White socks, Wali said, were off-limits, too.

“They draw attention to the ankles,” he said.

And music? Nobody could understand that, I said.

“Whenever the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, heard music playing, he would put his thumbs in his ears,” Wali said. “This is in the Hadith, the record of the Prophet’s life. This is well-known.

“Whatever the Holy Prophet did,” Wali said, “we must follow.”

We moved on to petty crime and matters of the heart.

“There are certain serious sins,” Wali said, turning in his chair, bothered by his ankle again. “A thief, for instance. Islam says that you have to amputate his hand.”

I thought of the men in green hoods. An aide came into the room and whispered something in Wali’s ear. He picked up as if there had been no interruption.

“Adultery—if the couple is unmarried, then eighty lashes,” Wali said. “If they are married, then rajim— they must be stoned to death.”

Until that point, September 1998, the Taliban had found it necessary to stone to death only one pair of lovers, a forty-year-old woman named Nurbibi and her lover and stepson, Turyalai, age thirty-eight. The pair were each buried up to their necks on a Friday in Kandahar. Taliban guards made separate piles of stones for each.

And until then, as far as Wali knew, the Taliban had prosecuted only five cases of homosexuality.

“We push a wall on top of them,” he said.

The wall-push method was unique in that it contained an element of mercy. If the condemned survived, he or she was allowed to walk away.

“Two of them survived,” Wali said. “If someone survives, he survives. If he is killed, he is killed.”

The most serious offense, Wali said, was murder, and I’d already seen the punishment for that.

“A murderer has to be punished with death,” Wali said. “If a person commits a murder, then he will also have to meet the same fate at the hands of the victim’s family.”

Wali introduced an Arabic word, qisas, meaning “revenge.” His eyes brightened. Life for life, he said.

“For you, there is life in qisas,” Wali said. “In revenge there is life.”

Wali turned back to the subject of virtue.

“We try to promote virtue,” Wali said. “We try to persuade people to pray five times a day. We are asking people to be kind to each other, and to widows and orphans.”

It was here, he said, that the Taliban played a vanguard role.

“The Koran says, Among the believers, there must be a group of righteous leaders. I think I am part of that group.”

Wali acknowledged the burden his task entailed, but he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“On the surface, it looks like I have a difficult job,” he said. “But I am willing and happy in my work.”

With that, Wali lifted himself out of his chair and hobbled out of the room on his sprained ankle.

Talking to Wali that day, and Mohammedi and the other Talibs, it seemed obvious enough that what lay at the foundation of the Taliban’s rule was fear, but not fear of the Taliban themselves, at least not in the beginning. No: it was fear of the past. Fear that the past would return, that it would come back in all its disaggregated fury. That the past would become the future. The beards, the burqas, the whips, the stones; anything, anything you want. Anything but the past.

AT THE KHYBER PASS, I flagged down a crumpled white Lada from another age. A driver named Javed, wearing a hajj cap but no turban, took off, driving into the craters, mountains staring down. At the checkpoint, the Talibs poked and pawed and waved us through. Soon Javed tossed his hajj cap onto the dash, reached under the seat and found a cassette. He removed the tape already in the player, koranic readings, slipped in the new one and turned up the volume. Hindi Pop was now blaring through tiny speakers. Our eyes met in the mirror.

Dissent was best expressed in cars. Cars were among the few places you could feel safe talking to people. “Educated people don’t fight,” Humayun Himatyar, a shopkeeper in Kandahar, said from the driver’s seat of his parked car. He was looking straight ahead. I was in the back. “That’s why there are no schools. If you’re educated, you won’t fight. All the Taliban wants is war.” He wasn’t doing badly, he said, clearing a dollar a day. It was much worse before. Seven militias had controlled different parts of the city. “They put a tax on everything—meat, milk, bread. Even for parking your scooter they charged a tax. If you resisted, they beat you. Now the militias are gone, and if you go out at midnight, you will have no fear.”

Himatyar kept half turning to speak, correcting himself, and looking ahead. “If you don’t show up at the mosque, they’ll go out looking for you, they’ll come and get you and drag you to the mosque. Maybe they’ll beat you,” he said. “My daughters can’t go to school. My sons—they’ll come one day and take them to the fighting.” A pause. I could hear him breathing. “That’s the worst thing.”

Sometimes on the street a woman would pass and you’d hear something from behind the vent in her burqa. Sometimes it was light and flirtatious, sometimes a little darker.

“I was a teacher of Persian,” one of them said once from behind her vent. “This is like a death.”

ONCE I WENT IN by air, in a propeller-driven airplane. Looking down, I could practically see the border, where the world ended and the unknown began. The earth turned darker and more bare, the veins of snow tracing the mountainsides, everything shrouded in clouds and mist.

I was with Bill Richardson, America’s ambassador to the United Nations then, and he had come to see if he could persuade the Afghans to stop fighting. We flew first to Kabul, where Richardson met with the Taliban leader Mullah Rabbani, the second in command. Richardson came out after a couple of hours and said he thought he had a deal. He said something about the rights of women.

Then we flew in our plane to Sheberghan, where we were met at the runway by Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord. Dostum had fought for every side over the past twenty years, even ran a militia for the Soviets, and he helped raze Kabul after the Soviets left. He was the warlord who tied the horses to the boy’s limbs, or so they said. When the Taliban came to power, Dostum vowed he would not submit to a government under which “there will be no whiskey and no music.”

Dostum wore a black suit and a tie that day. He had a flat, Central Asian face, cropped hair and a black mustache; he looked like a cross between a professional wrestler and a funeral director. “I heard you were a cigar smoker,” Richardson said, stepping off the plane and holding out his hand.

Sheberghan was on the Afghan steppe, flat as a tabletop and treeless as far as you could see. Next to our plane sat a pair of MiG-21 fighter jets, Soviet made, rusty and tan with the green triangle of the Afghan flag. We drove in slowly toward the middle of town on a winding road, and as we did we passed a row of Bactrian camels, the kind with two humps, each jutting off at oblique angles. The camels eyed us as they walked together.

Richardson seemed eager, and he had an old CIA hand with him, Bruce Riedel, of the National Security Council. Dostum led us to the stadium, where we sat for a match of buzkashi, a kind of polo game played with the carcass of a goat. The horses roared up and down the field, and the militiamen beat and savaged one another, at one point nearly crashing into the viewing stand. Richardson played along, being the diplomat, and Dostum laughed and guffawed and rocked back and forth in his seat.

Then they went to Dostum’s villa, ornate and monstrous as you would imagine. I waited outside. As I loitered in the street, I met a group of women who had been gathered there to greet Richardson when he came in. There were five of them, physicians it turned out, and they had walked over from Jozjan Hospital. They wore their white medical coats and the casual head scarves that Uzbek women wore that barely concealed their hair. They were hoping to meet Ambassador Richardson. They seemed genuinely frightened.

“You know what will happen if the Taliban come to Sheberghan,” one of them said.

Her name was Habiba Muyesar, a gynecologist. She was thirty-four. She was modest but self-possessed, and she wore red lipstick and a black head scarf. She looked at me with pleading eyes.

She’d been trained in the Soviet Union, she said, at a medical school in Kazakhstan, and had flourished during the Soviet occupation. Dr. Muyesar had practiced in Kabul, working at the Malali Maternity Hospital, stayed through the civil war and fled to Sheberghan as the Taliban entered Kabul. She had four children.

“We have an arrow in our hearts,” she said.

The sun was getting low. The security guards were talking hurriedly among themselves. Darkness was not a good time to be moving in Afghanistan. The front lines were not far away.

Just then Richardson stepped out of the palace wearing a buoyant look. Dostum stood at his side, still in the black suit, glancing around.

“I believe we have an agreement,” Richardson said.

It was a cease-fire, Richardson said, to be followed by face-to-face talks between the Taliban and their foes.

“It shows our sincerity, not our weakness,” Dostum said, looking at no one in particular.

With that, we piled into our cars and raced to the landing strip. We were on the steppe again, and the ruby-red sun was sinking into the great flat horizon. As the engines on our Beechcraft started whirring, Dostum’s men loaded enormous handwoven maroon carpets into the hold of the plane. The warlord gave us a wave as we climbed inside. It was just dark.

“I looked into the eyes of the Afghan people today and saw that they want peace,” Richardson said.

A few minutes later, as we were gaining altitude, the interior of the cabin began to flash and sparkle. There were great booms of light coming from the outside. I thought we had flown into an electrical storm.

“Lightning,” I said aloud.

“Artillery fire,” a colleague said.

I leaned toward the window. Enormous orange explosions illuminated the scene. I could see them but not hear them from inside the plane, big orange flashes unfolding slowly below. There were silhouettes of mountains and men.

The Taliban overran Sheberghan a few months later, roaring across the steppe in their Hi-Luxes. I took a photo of Habiba Muyesar that day, and I still have it with me: the loosely covered hair, the red lipstick, the bright, pleading eyes.

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