Military history

CHAPTER 2

Forebodings

AHMAD SHAH MASSOUD sat in the grass and talked of escape. His enemies were closing in, as they had been for most of his life. He’d run out of territory; though this, too, was hardly new. His ragtag army was surviving on child soldiers and old Soviet helicopters. The Taliban, just down the road, would be coming soon.

But here in his mountain hideaway in Farkhar, in the far north of his country, on the sacred holiday of Eid, Massoud put aside his present crisis and allowed himself a moment to reminisce. Sitting in a white plastic chair in the green grass, he remembered it all over again: the seven Soviet invasions of his native Panjshir Valley, the seven narrow escapes. The retreat from Kabul in 1996, when the Taliban had him surrounded, and when, for all that, Massoud had slipped away with his army intact. And the Taliban offensive of only two years before, which had very nearly wiped him out. Massoud had gone to Friday prayers then and given a rousing speech, which echoed from mosque loudspeakers up and down the valley.

“I said that if anyone surrendered to the Taliban, his name would be recalled in the mosques for generations to come,” he said.

When Massoud finally got around to talking about his current predicament, he no longer looked like the dashing young warrior he used to be. He still wore the signature flat woolen cap, cocked at an angle, which gave him the look of an artist. He still lapsed into French, which he’d learned at a Kabul lycée many years before. Turning to the battle at hand, Massoud looked instead like the aging general he was, living off the past, and hoping against the ache in his bones that he could rally his men one last time.

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He leaned over and sketched the front lines on my map.

“Here, here and here,” he said, scribbling with a pen. “In a very short time the Taliban will attack.”

Massoud spoke of a new tactic: pouring nails in the roads to flatten the tires of the dreaded, onrushing Hi-Luxes. On a sheet of paper, he sketched a three-pronged nail with which he would blanket the roads. And then leaned back in his chair. It seemed a fanciful thing; a desperate musing—nails in the roads. And then Massoud spoke of an older, proven tactic: drawing the invaders into the valleys and cutting off their ways of escape. “In this way we can hold out forever,” he said.

He took a final sip of tea and tossed the dregs over his shoulder.

“If there had never been a war,” he said, “I would have been a very good architect.”

Massoud knew his end was near. I could see it in his eyes, in the nostalgia. He did not know, of course, how the demise would come, or when it would come. He could not foresee, for instance, that in just two years a pair of Tunisian men sent by Al-Qaeda would come to his camp posing as journalists and, not far from the white chair and the green lawn where he now sat, explode a bomb inside a camera, two days before the September 11 attacks.

The battle had changed fundamentally in the past couple of years, Massoud said, his face growing serious. The Taliban were still fighting, but they were being sustained by foreigners: Pakistanis and Arabs. The Taliban machine would have collapsed long ago without Pakistani advisers, money and volunteers. And the Arab fighters were the toughest, most fanatical of them all, many of them holdovers from the jihad against the Soviet Union.

“The Arabs are just across the front lines,” Massoud said. “We can hear them on the radio at night. Arabic and Urdu.”

I was sitting in the grass. I must have looked skeptical.

“Would you like to see the Pakistani prisoners?” he asked.

We drove in an old Russian jeep along a dried riverbed strewn with boulders. The way was treeless and bleak. At nightfall we arrived at a squat stone building where a man named Rahmatullah greeted us holding an oil-burning lantern. The place was called Lejdeh, he said.

Rahmatullah held up the lantern and there was a rustle of bodies. And then the glow of many eyes. The prisoners were huddled together under dun-colored blankets. There were 106 Pakistanis and 55 Afghans, Rahmatullah said, captured in different battles over many months.

I felt as if I were peeking into one of the madrassas in Pakistan, filled with young men being exhorted to fight. Except it wasn’t in Pakistan, it was here, in the far north of Afghanistan, twenty miles from the border of the old Soviet Union. They had come a long way.

I’d come a long way, too. When I’d arrived in the Indian subcontinent a couple of years before, I hadn’t given much thought to militant Islam. So many other things seemed more urgent, more interesting. The militant Islamists were dangerous and busy; four Americans were murdered in Karachi not long after I landed. But until that evening in the stone prison, I’d never felt the force of the faith, had never seen its power to inspire men to move hundreds of miles from their homes just so they could fight.

Rahmatullah picked out five Pakistanis and led them to a smaller room. They sat before me, listless and blank, their faces slack with resignation. I goaded them to speak.

“The moment I stepped off the plane, I was captured,” said Abdul Jalil, a Pakistani from Baluchistan, the oldest among them at thirty-seven. He was still befuddled by his strange journey.

“I never fired a shot,” he said.

The mullah at his mosque had pushed him to fight for the Taliban, he said. Go and fight for God’s law, the mullah said. And so Abdul Jalil, an illiterate laborer, boarded a bus bound for Quetta, the provincial capital, found a Taliban soldier and signed up for the cause. The Talibs packed him off to Mazar-i-Sharif. He’d been in prison for two years.

Then there was Faiz Ahmad, seventeen, wearing a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, a hajj cap and no beard. He seemed listless like the others, but when I asked him a question, he came alive.

“It is written in the Koran that we must kill the nonbelievers,” Ahmad said. “My teacher taught me this.”

Ahmad’s teacher happened to be his father; he taught at a madrassa in the Punjab that had been sending boys to Afghanistan for years. One of Ahmad’s brothers, Zahid, had died fighting the Soviet Union. When Ahmad told his parents that he wanted to avenge his brother’s death in the new jihad, they blessed him and sent him on his way. Ahmad said he’d fought in many battles before his capture near Kabul a few months before. He seemed about as close to a perfect specimen as the Taliban could imagine.

“There is no end to the jihad,” Ahmad said. “It will go on forever until doomsday.”

After that, there wasn’t much to talk about. I got up and the jihadis filed back into their cell. Rahmatullah walked me out, holding the lantern. For a jailer, he seemed a decent man, holding no grudge against the men in his charge. The International Committee of the Red Cross, he said, had even inspected the place. “We are all the children of Adam and Eve,” he said.

IN THE SUMMER of 2000, Kabul was filled with chatter about the Arabs. About how they were taking over the Taliban. About how Osama bin Laden was keeping the movement afloat with his money—with bags of American dollars his men carried into the city every month. Another story going around had it that the Arabs were running a training camp for jihadis outside of Jalalabad—a place where they practiced the black arts of assassination and hijacking. My favorite story concerned volleyball: every Friday, a group of Arabs would meet for a game at a court outside of town.

One day I walked into one of Kabul’s few upscale groceries, a small corner shop on Chicken Street that carried imported cheeses and meats. I was wandering down one of the aisles when my Afghan interpreter, Farid, grabbed me by the arm, pulled me outside and rushed me down the street.

“There were Arabs inside,” Farid said. “If they had seen you, they would have killed you. The Arabs here are crazy—crazy.”

I believed Farid, who assured me—in the privacy of my hotel room—that he loathed the Taliban. Farid was a young physician; he had somehow managed to get a medical degree in the rubble of Kabul University. Translating for the Taliban was the only job he could find. I believed the stories about the training camps. And I believed the stories about the Arab volleyball game and about Osama’s bags of cash. But after several days in Kabul, I still had not seen any of the Arabs myself.

Then one day Farid and I stood in line at Kabul International Airport waiting to board a commercial jet to Kandahar. By the summer of 2000, Ariana Afghan Airlines was down to two planes: a decrepit Boeing 727 and a Soviet-made Antonov-24, which because of international sanctions, were flying without the benefit of spare parts. Two other planes had crashed. The airport itself, a favorite target of Massoud’s rockets, lay in ruins.

As Farid and I waited in line for our tickets, we found ourselves next to a group of a dozen women. They were dressed in the mandatory head-to-toe burqas, which rendered them invisible, except for the shoes that peeked out from the bottoms of their suits. And what shoes they were: stylish, expensive shoes, high heels, low heels and flats, of the latest Italian styles. Possibly Ferragamos. The women were speaking Arabic, with Saudi accents.

“I could be shopping in Paris, but instead, I am here, in this awful place,” one of the women said to another through the vent in her burqa.

The other women nodded in agreement.

“Yes, my husband has to be the tough-guy warrior, fighting for Islam,” another huffed. “He thinks it brings him closer to God. And so here I am.”

“We are stuck here,” a third woman said, “in this cursed place.”

All the burqas nodded.

Third World

I CAME OVER on a ferry. I’d left my car in the street in Weehawken; didn’t even bother parking it. The police weren’t letting anyone onto the ferries that day; they were only taking people off of Manhattan, not into it. After some persuading on my part, a policewoman waved me aboard. If I hadn’t known something terrible had happened I might have guessed, just by the looks on people’s faces. The men and women were drawn and silent, and remarkably well dressed, like they were coming from some formal disaster. Nobody was looking back over their shoulder; even though, by early afternoon, there was much to see. The whole sky.

By the time I reached Manhattan the initial shock had passed. A middle-aged woman sat on a curb in Midtown sobbing, her black purse with a gold snap sitting next to her. I looked into one of the temporary hospitals that had been set up in a storefront north of Canal Street and saw that it was empty. Stretcher after empty stretcher. The volunteers trying to busy themselves. All the empty beds: only later did it occur to me why.

Walking in, watching the flames shoot upward, the first thing I thought was that I was back in the Third World. My countrymen were going to think this was the worst thing that ever happened, the end of civilization. In the Third World, this sort of thing happened every day: earthquakes, famines, plagues. In Orissa, on the eastern coast of India, after the cyclone, the dead were piled up so high and for so long that the dogs couldn’t eat any more; they just lay about waiting for their appetites to come back. Lazily looking at one another. Fifteen thousand dead in that one. Seventeen thousand died in the earthquake in Turkey. In Afghanistan, in the earthquake there, four thousand. This was mass murder, that was clear, it was an act of evil. Though I’d seen that, too: the forty thousand dead in Kabul. I don’t think I was the only person thinking this, who had the darker perspective. All those street vendors who worked near the World Trade Center, from all those different countries, selling falafel and schwarma. When they heard the planes and watched the towers they must have thought the same as I did: that they’d come home.

It took me several hours to reach the site, getting around all the police checkpoints. I had to walk over to the East River, then down along FDR Drive, and then I looped down around to the southern end of the island, near Battery Park, and walked in that way. It was nearly dark by the time I got there. I remember how quiet it was those last few blocks walking in, everything covered in the thin white dust, the heart of Wall Street, empty and silent. It was as if all the sound had been pulled into the hole in the ground a little farther up.

As I moved in closer, my eyes went to a gray-green thing spread across the puddles and rocks. Elongated, unrolled, sitting there, unnoticed. An intestine. It kind of jumped out at me, presented itself. It’s amazing how the eyes do that, go right to the human flesh, spot it amid the heaviest camouflage of rubble and dirt and glass, as if it were glowing green in an infrared scope. I saw the same phenomenon later on, at a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, the Orthodox volunteers with their spatulas and bags, frantically running and scooping every bit of flesh, no matter how tiny, to save the various souls. Down here, in what had been an intersection south of the Twin Towers, I stood and looked at the gray-green mass, thought about whose it was, how it got here; whether, for instance, it had come from one of the airplane passengers, or from one of the people inside one of the buildings. Or even, against the odds, from one of the hijackers. Above me stood one of the airplane landing struts, maybe thirty feet high, snapped off and lying at an angle in the street, looking like the collapsed wing of some enormous bird. The tire was still filled with air.

In the glare of the spotlights and the fire I could see several dozen firemen standing atop an enormous slag heap, perhaps eight stories high, of metal and wreckage and I couldn’t tell what else. The firemen were pulling things out and peering inside, on their knees, talking to German shepherds. I started a conversation with a fireman who was getting a cup of water. The fireman was maybe in his midfifties, Irish, with a large, square jaw. He didn’t look the least bit tired. He had settled down and had a good pace going, I think; he was not as frantic as I imagined he had been a few hours before, when his buddies had died by the hundreds. Maybe he didn’t know yet. He said they’d discovered some sort of cavern, an air pocket in the giant heap of slag. They couldn’t get in there themselves, the fireman said, so they were sending dogs in, and the dogs had cameras attached. In case there was someone still alive in there. “We’re seeing a lot of spinal cords,” he said.

I went into the building marked One Liberty Plaza, just across the street. The inside was well lit from the fire outside. There were racks of cashmere top coats and woolen sweaters, the fall line; I was in Brooks Brothers. I groped in the dark of the stairwell and walked up to the second floor into some sort of an office, perhaps a law firm. It looked like a scene in a movie where the reel had stopped dead. A bagel with a bite taken out of it, the cream cheese still on the end of the white plastic knife. A telephone fallen from its cradle. A Styrofoam cup tipped over, the coffee stain spread across the desktop. A pen next to a half-written telephone number. I think they survived, the people up here, probably ran out in a panic. I walked over to the bay windows, which were blown out, of course, and stepped out onto the ledge. I was looking right into the thing, now just an unintelligible mass of fire. I stood there for a while looking in, wondering about the battery in my cell phone, and realized I was not alone. There was another person on the ledge with me, a photographer, standing quietly, long blond hair. He was snapping pictures in a casual way, raising the camera and bringing it down to his waist, like he was shooting families at a picnic. We stood together for a while and watched the fire.

I walked around some more that night, dodging the cops, calling in a few things to the newsroom on my cell when I could get through. I walked up into One Liberty Plaza again and into Brooks Brothers and toward the back, by the fitting rooms. It was 3 a.m. I lay down in a corner on the carpeted floor and tried to sleep but couldn’t; it was too cold. I had run out of my house in a gallop that morning and hadn’t brought a jacket. I got up, looked into one of the racks and pulled out a gray cable-knit sweater, size XL. The sweater hung over me like a potato sack, way too big, but it wasn’t like I was going to try on another size.

Later that night I was awoken many times, usually by the police. Once when I came to, a group of police officers were trying on cashmere topcoats and turning as they looked in the mirror. There was lots of laughter. “Nice,” one of them said, looking at his reflection, big smile on his face. “Look at that.”

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