Military history



ON A CLEAR DAY you could see the B-52 s overhead, their contrails marking the sky in long, white streaks. They seemed to float up there, so high above; sometimes, given their altitude, they took half an hour to traverse the whole horizon. The exhaust plumes hung in the air long after the planes had moved on, so on some afternoons the whole sky would be looped and crisscrossed, white against the blue, like a work of abstract art.

It wasn’t just the bombs they dropped that were so unnerving; it was the lumbering, dissociative way they let them go. One of the bombers would make an appearance, usually at thirty thousand feet, a tiny gray V in the sky, all the way from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean three thousand miles away. Gliding like a crane. Then, without warning, the sharp, titanic bursts, the clouds tumbling upwards, the ground moaning as if something crucial in the world had broken off and fallen away. And then you’d look up and there the plane would be, arcing, plodding, moving across the great blue sky.

Sometimes at night, working late in the mud-brick hut, I’d hear the faint wup-wup-wup and rush outside and if I was lucky I’d see a blackened silhouette against the star-flecked night. A helicopter without lights, here then gone. The Americans were here, the Afghans said, but I didn’t see any of them until much later.

On the morning the bombing started, the windows in my house clinked and rattled for minutes on end, like a tea service in an earthquake. I drove as fast as I could as far as I could, forded the Kokcha River on a horse, ran crouching through the muddy Northern Alliance trenches, reached the most forward post and peeked my head over the top. The Taliban positions were just in view, only three hundred yards away. A rolling green field lay between. Up and down the Taliban trench line, the blasts from the bombs had left gigantic circles of blackened grass, like the footprints of some huge beast, fifty feet wide. Blackened hoof after blackened hoof, concentric and overlapping. The bombs had hit the trenches precisely, gone directly inside. And there, across the field, rose the turbaned head of a Taliban soldier, looking to his right, then to his left; amazed, perhaps, that he was alive.

I felt sorry for those Taliban fighters, I really did. Just sitting in their trenches. Trapped. Uncomprehending. Waiting to be bombed. I was right about that, right about what they’d felt. I saw the Taliban prisoners afterwards, dirty and frightened, and all they talked about were the bombs. For the Taliban, the waiting was the worst. A B-52 would appear in the sky, drop a bomb or two and then begin its great U-turn toward its home on Diego Garcia. The B-52 s took forever to make that turn, arcing slowly and grandly, turning like an aircraft carrier. And just when I thought the B-52 was finally headed south, headed home, it would keep turning, keep circling back, and then I knew that it was coming back for another run. Sometimes it would take half an hour. And then I’d imagine the Taliban guys in their trenches, fiddling with their prayer beads, looking up, waiting.

In the end they just ran. Up near the Tajik border, where I was. The Americans bombed every day for three weeks, and when the Northern Alliance commanders fired a few tank rounds and sent their men out of their own trenches to go and fight, the Taliban held on for a couple of days, even counterattacked. And then finally they just gave up and ran. I never saw it, never saw the Talibs running, but I walked through their empty positions later on. Stepped on the charred grass, walked into the craters, picked up the odd rifle. It wasn’t hard to imagine what the Talibs were feeling when they finally climbed out of the trenches and ran. Glorious, horrifying release.

The whole war was about the B-52 s, at least in the beginning. A few weeks later, at the siege of Kunduz, the last of the Taliban units started surrendering, driving out of their own front lines, and all their trucks were smeared with mud. Doors, hoods, even windows, covered with mud. To hide them from the B-52 s. Driving across northern Afghanistan soon after, I saw the wreckage everywhere: the Hi-Luxes and the old Soviet Kamaz trucks, the tanks and the Toyotas, overturned inside the craters, shoes and shreds of clothing splayed in every direction. Boom.

THE HILLS AROUND Kunduz were glowing pink when the silhouette of a solitary man appeared on the horizon. He was barely visible in the setting sun, a speck, yet even so he had captured the attention of the Alliance soldiers. They watched him. He was walking from the Taliban lines, toward the Northern Alliance lines, alone. The city he was walking out of, Kunduz, was under siege, with thousands of his brethren trapped inside. It might have been the scene from a Saturday afternoon matinee: the lonely sheriff walking determinedly out of the sunset.

As he got closer we could see him a little better: black hair spilling over his shoulders. Hollow cheeks. Wide, deep-set exhausted eyes. Billowy white dishdasha*3 running to his shins. No gun. Finally the man crossed into their ranks, and the men put down their guns and gathered round him. “Welcome, my friend,” one of the Alliance soldiers said, wrapping his arms around the hollow-eyed man. He put his arms on the man’s shoulders, then his hands to his cheeks, like he was an old friend. “It is good to see you after so long.”

People fought in Afghanistan, and people died, but not always in the obvious way. They had been fighting for so long, twenty-three years then, that by the time the Americans arrived the Afghans had developed an elaborate set of rules designed to spare as many fighters as they could. So the war could go on forever. Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got under way. Shirts today, skins tomorrow. On Tuesday, you might be part of a fearsome Taliban regiment, running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs again, holding up your Kalashnikov and promising to wage jihad forever. War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.

Battles were often decided this way, not by actual fighting, but by flipping gangs of soldiers. One day, the Taliban might have four thousand soldiers, and the next, only half that, with the warlords of the Northern Alliance suddenly larger by a similar amount. The fighting began when the bargaining stopped, and the bargaining went right up until the end. The losers were the ones who were too stubborn, too stupid or too fanatical to make a deal. Suddenly, they would find themselves outnumbered, and then they would die. It was a kind of natural selection.


One of the Afghan militia commanders with whom I traveled, Daoud Khan, was a master of this complicated game. He was portly and well dressed, and he ate very well. The Afghans spoke of him in reverent tones, but he didn’t seem like much of a warrior to me. He’d never fought for the Taliban himself, but thousands of his former soldiers were now in the Taliban ranks. Why kill them when he could just bring them back to his side?

Khan captured his first city, Taloqan, without firing a single shot. He did it by persuading the local Taliban leader, a man named Abdullah Gard, to switch sides. Gard was no dummy; he could see the B-52s. I guessed that Khan had probably used a lot of money, but he never allowed me to sit in as he worked the Taliban chieftains on the radio. The day after Taloqan fell, I found Gard in an abandoned house, seated on a blue cushion on the floor, warming himself next to a wood-burning stove. His black Taliban turban was gone, and he had replaced it with a woolen Chitrali cap just like that of Ahmad Shah Massoud. “All along, I was spying on the Taliban,” Gard said, his eyes darting. No one believed him, but no one seemed to care.

The commanders were vain but rarely pompous. Pir Mohammed, an Uzbek commander, was a dead ringer for Genghis Khan; on our first morning together we shared a breakfast of roasted sheep hearts. (Daoud Khan’s breakfasts were far more lavish.) Pir had a bullet hole in his face, and two more in his stomach, which he revealed to me by pulling up his shirt, in the style of LBJ and the scar over his gallbladder. I met Pir at his mountain base on the overlook to Taloqan, his hometown, which had fallen to the Taliban fourteen months before. He’d set up a television set in his bunker, kept it going with a car battery, and one Friday we sat together and watched a flickering game of women’s tennis beamed from Russia. A few weeks later, after Taloqan fell, I saw Pir again, this time at his old home in downtown Taloqan. “Welcome back,” one of the Taliban soldiers had painted on the wall inside. Pir laughed, but not a lot.

Even the fighting, when there was fighting, had a desultory feel. Artillery duels typically consisted of a Taliban shell sailing into the Northern Alliance lines, and then a response; a rocket or two, fired by the Alliance half an hour later. I saw the first such duel while still in Tajikistan, standing on the banks of the Amu Darya River with the Afghan frontier on the other bank. “This isn’t fighting,” Asrat Pulodov, a Russian border guard, said, watching a Taliban shell sail errantly into the dirt. “This is a joke.”

On the first night of the long-awaited offensive against the Taliban, carried out at the urging of the Americans, the Alliance commanders bombarded the Taliban lines and then, as night fell, sent their men forward. Yet when I arrived the next morning, the Alliance soldiers stood more or less where they had the day before. They’d run, and then they’d run back. No one seemed surprised. “Advancing, retreating, advancing, that’s what you do in war,” Yusef, a twenty-year-old Alliance soldier, told me with a shrug. He was sitting in a foxhole.

It wasn’t that the Afghans were afraid to fight, it was that they’d fought too much. And now, given the opportunity, they wanted to avoid it if they could. “My dear, I am your brother, you know how much affection I have for you, there is really no point in resisting anymore,” Mohammad Uria, a Northern Alliance commander, said into his radio to a Taliban commander a few miles away.

Of course, there were plenty of Taliban soldiers who wanted to fight forever. Fight to the death. They were the Pashtuns from Kandahar, for the most part, a different breed. “I’ve seen them run right into the minefields—they want to die,” Pir Mohammed said, shaking his head in awe. But where I was, in northern Afghanistan, many if not most of the Taliban soldiers weren’t from Kandahar, they were from the north—Tajiks and Uzbeks who’d switched sides when the fearsome Kandaharis rolled in. Now the northerners wanted to quit. The one group of people who really took fighting seriously were the foreigners—that is, the Americans and Al-Qaeda. They came to kill.

“KUNDUZ HAS been captured!”

The cheer went up through the ranks of the Northern Alliance soldiers, and everyone started piling into cars. They’d cut a deal, and there would be no bloodshed. Kunduz had fallen. The Taliban had given up. The Alliance soldiers, hundreds of them, marched along the main road toward Kunduz, now just a few miles away. I was on a hill, overlooking the approach, standing near Daoud Khan, the well-fed warlord. His men were just outside of Kunduz when the rockets started vaulting out of Taliban lines. You could hear the explosions through his radio. Khan’s face suddenly lost all its color.

“I don’t know what is happening,” Khan said, jerking his head about. “We made contacts with commanders in the city. They told us they would embrace us.”

General Khan scampered down the hill, jumped into his sedan and sped away. Taking their cue from their commander, hundreds of Alliance soldiers began to retreat, running, throwing their guns, falling down, falling under car wheels, yelling and shouting, trampling each other in a panic to get away.

“Let me on, let me on!” soldiers yelled, leaping onto the back of our truck. What seemed like an orderly Afghan-style surrender had, in Kunduz, been a double-cross. And the double-cross had turned to a rout. Men were run over by trucks in the pandemonium, caught under the wheels. The bodies of the rocket victims were left behind in the road. The retreat stretched more than a mile, a broken line of cowardice and confusion. I was in my Toyota Hi-Lux. Perhaps thirty men had jumped onto our truck and we drove at whatever speed we could gather. Finally we were stopped by a Northern Alliance soldier firing his Kalashnikov into the air. “Anyone who passes I shoot!” he said.

I found Pir, my Genghis Khan look-alike, a few days later. His cheeks were more sunken than usual. Four Taliban commanders he’d been negotiating with no longer answered their radios, he said. Pir dragged a finger across his throat. Refugees coming out of the city were saying the same thing; that the Al-Qaeda fighters who had crammed into the city—Arabs, Chinese, Uzbeks—were killing anyone who even spoke of surrendering. Kunduz, it turned out, was different. There would be no pickup basketball. It would be a fight to the death.

“All the trucks are full of foreigners, and every truck has a translator,” Ibrahim Hoxar, a refugee who walked out of the city, told me.

With a little help from the Americans, the Afghan way reasserted itself a couple of weeks later. The B-52 s and now F-16 s pounded Kunduz; every morning, I sat on a hill and watched the bombs. It took about two weeks. Whatever the foreigners might be doing in there, the Taliban units started surrendering again. One sunny afternoon I stood at the outskirts of the city, in an abandoned town called Amirabad, and watched a dozen muddy Toyota trucks rumble out, each of them filled with Taliban soldiers.

Mullah Abdullah, one of the surrendering Taliban chieftains, stepped from his truck and embraced Daoud Khan. His men did the same.

“Hi, how have you been?” a Northern Alliance soldier said to a Taliban fighter, a tank driver named Mullah Gulmir, age twenty-seven. The two men embraced.

“Fine, thanks,” Gulmir said to his old friend, “and you?”

Gulmir said he’d first become a soldier in 1992, at the age of seventeen, when the mujahideen entered Kabul and took it from the collapsing Communists. Then, Gulmir had signed on with one of the most famous of warlords, Rasool Sayyaf. When the Taliban threw the mujahideen out of Kabul in 1996, Gulmir left Sayyaf and joined them.

“I joined the Taliban because they were stronger,” Gulmir said. “I’m joining the Northern Alliance because they are stronger now.”

As the Taliban and Northern Alliance soldiers embraced and hugged, one of Khan’s deputies, Mohammad Uria, looked on and gave a knowing smile.

“Yesterday, my enemy,” Uria said, “today, my brother.”

THE BODIES OF the Taliban soldiers lay stiff and straight at odd points across the intersection of Khanabad Road and Chugha Street. The big toes on their bare feet were tied together, in the Islamic burial tradition, and their white turbans had been unfurled to reveal bullet holes through the tops of their heads. Their eyes were frozen open wide, staring upward. Their mouths were parted slightly, giving their faces improbable looks of surprise.

“They didn’t have a car,” said Muhammad Ashraf, twenty-five, standing over the body of a Taliban soldier whose name nobody knew. Kunduz had fallen the night before. “They couldn’t get away, like the rest of them. When the Northern Alliance soldiers came, they killed them.”

Not far away, a Taliban fighter named Abdul Hadid sat on a curb and looked up in terror as a crowd of soldiers encircled him. Only minutes before, Hadid had been shot through his left ribs at the Kunduz fruit market. He was barefoot and trembling. It was nearly dark.

“Where are you from?” one of the soldiers shouted. “Where are your friends? Where is your gun?”

Hadid’s robe was soaked with urine. He tried to say something but the soldiers shouted over him. He looked up at a pair of Westerners.

“I have a friend in Germany,” he said.

A Northern Alliance commander put Hadid into a horse-drawn wagon and took him away. He said he was taking him to the hospital.

In the Kunduz town square, Alliance soldiers were herding the Talibs into the backs of their trucks. They bound their hands and pushed them in. It was too late for deals. A crowd had gathered round to jeer and cheer.

“Long live the Northern Alliance!” they said.

“Short life for Mullah Omar!”

“Short life for Osama!”

A cheer went up, though I was not sure whether it was for themselves or for their new masters. The uncertainty hung on everyone’s lips like a secret; I finally found someone who explained it.

“Well, the Taliban are finally gone,” said Zulgai Zabihullah, a twenty-one-year-old medical student. He said he’d gone to school without his turban for the first time in four years. “But I do not think I will celebrate today. Not yet. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe I will celebrate tomorrow.”

“Why wait?” I asked him, but he just shook his head.

In the street in front of Zabihullah, a group of Northern Alliance soldiers were manhandling some Talib prisoners into the back of a Hi-Lux. The hands of the Talibs were bound with strips of clothing. In the front of the truck, in the driver’s seat, sat a youngish-looking man with a beard and turban and flowing hair. He had a gun. I said hello, and to my surprise he recognized me.

“My friend,” he said.

It was Mullah Abdullah, the same Mullah Abdullah I had met two days before in Amirabad, when he was a Taliban commander. Two days before, Mullah Abdullah had taken three hundred of his Taliban soldiers out of Kunduz and crossed into the lines of the Northern Alliance and surrendered. Now he was helping take his erstwhile comrades prisoner.

“They are Taliban and I’m Northern Alliance now,” Abdullah said. He gave a sheepish grin.

It had happened that fast: Abdullah quit the Taliban, went behind the Alliance lines, got some sleep and joined the attack. He might never have left his Hi-Lux.

“I’m waiting for the order from my commander, and I will kill them,” he said.

I walked around to the back of Abdullah’s truck and chatted with one of his former comrades, a young Talib named Amanullah, now a prisoner. His arms were bound behind him. A large crowd had gathered around Amanullah, and some were beginning to taunt him. He was biting his lip.

From the bed of the truck, Amanullah told me he’d joined the Taliban at the urging of his religious teacher, Mullah Agha, when he was a student in Ghazni. The mullah, he said, urged him to help wage jihad against the heathens. The heathens, the mullah said, were near Kunduz. And so Amanullah joined up and made his way here.

“He told me to fight the nonbelievers,” Amanullah said.

As the taunting grew louder and the truck prepared to take him away, Amanullah said he had reconsidered the concept of jihad. “The Taliban are believers, and the Northern Alliance are believers, too,” he said.

“Only I am a nonbeliever now,” Amanullah said, looking at his hecklers, “because I allowed myself to be tricked.”

The truck rumbled away.


IT HAD BEEN an unusually warm November day, and now, after the sun had set, a breeze was carrying the sounds through Taloqan’s streets. They were the words of Ahmad Zahir, an Afghan singer of romantic reputation who bore a remarkable resemblance, in life and in sound and even in his thick black pompadour, to Elvis himself.

Laili Laili Laili, dear

You’ve broken my heart

You never came back to me

You’ve killed me with longing…

You’ve broken my heart.

The song seemed to carry a decade’s worth of dashed hopes, and the Afghans tilted their ears toward it, rocked their heads to its steady beat. The Taliban had held this city in its grip for fourteen months, though not long enough, I gathered, to corrode the television sets and cassette players the locals had wrapped in plastic and hidden underground. By nightfall, the machines were out of the ground and sending forth a gleeful cacophony.

I chose one melody and followed it a little way into Habibullah’s Restaurant, then up to the counter and then overhead and then to a false wall that had hidden the cassette player for so many months. The music was pouring out of its tiny, tinny speaker, and it was so loud that I could scarcely hear Habibullah himself, who was seated cross-legged on a pillow. The cassette player had sat inside the secret cabinet during the whole of the occupation. “I haven’t listened to music in two years,” he said. I found another man, Asif, who had just hooked his battered Emerson television to a gasoline-powered generator and slipped a bootleg videocassette of Titanic into its built-in player. The opening credits were flickering on the screen when Asif looked at me, and he appeared younger and somehow lighter-looking than anyone I had seen in a long time. He had taken off his turban, and his beard was already gone. There wasn’t much to say. He laughed and turned to his movie.

I walked into the street and the breeze was still wafting, pushing open the burqas of the women who were walking by themselves and with each other, unaccompanied by the men. I listened to their friendly murmurs as I walked past them, then stepped into Aman’s barber shop. Aman was standing shin-deep in a pile of beard cuttings. There were four other customers waiting their turn. “All day long, they’ve been coming,” Aman said, clipping, circling his customer. “It is the best day I have ever had.” One of the Taliban’s rules had decreed that while they would not generally quibble with the length of a man’s hair it was imperative that his bangs not cover too much of his forehead, lest such hair get in the way when the man knelt and pressed his head to the ground to pray. Halfway was the limit. So, Aman explained, the vice and virtue police would sometimes sit in his shop and check on the forelocks of his customers. Occasionally, they would drag a man off for a beating or a night in jail.

The last customer who took the chair was Ismail Isat, who looked like just another bearded Afghan but who was soon revealed to be, after twenty minutes of Aman’s work, as handsome and chiseled as a movie star. Isat thought so, too; for several minutes after his cut and shave he remained in the chair, moving his hand across the freshly clipped beard, amazed at the face he saw in the mirror. Then he swiveled round and spoke to everyone in the room: “I’ve got nothing against beards, you know; in fact, I used to wear one myself. The problem is when someone tells you that you have to grow one,” he said. By now it was past closing time. Isat and a couple of other men lingered for a while as Aman swept up a small mountain of beards. Then the owner stopped, realizing that there was one thing that he had forgotten to do. “Tomorrow,” Aman said, “I am going to cut off my own beard.”

DOSTUM, THE UZBEK warlord, was standing amid the bodies. There were hundreds of them, Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners, shot down and bombed after they’d rioted at the giant fortress prison called Qala Jangi. The Taliban had surrendered a couple of days before, offering themselves at the gates of the city. Dostum wore a jacket of soft black leather, and he’d wrapped his face in a blue silk scarf. Only his eyes showed.

The prisoners, about two hundred of them, lay about in angular, improbable poses: legs stuck up in the air, arms twisted around necks, fingers curled over palms. Dead horses lay with them throughout the yard, frozen and arched. Soldiers from the Northern Alliance were examining the human corpses with care, prying boots from feet and rings from fingers.

Dostum unfurled the scarf, revealing his face. The eyes were brutal, but he looked younger than his forty-seven years. After the September 11 attacks, when the Americans had decided to take out the Taliban, they had gone first to Dostum. “Dostum fights,” one of the Americans told me. With the B-52 s above them, Dostum had captured Mazar-i-Sharif, the first city to fall. Now among the bodies, Dostum seemed at ease, even a little exhilarated. He was back. A television crew was pushing its way through the crowd.

We’d rolled into Mazar-i-Sharif when the riot was still unfolding. It had happened like this: after the Taliban had given up, the Northern Alliance had corralled the prisoners into Qala Jangi and, with the help of CIA paramilitaries and Special Forces soldiers, had begun to interrogate them. The presence of the Americans agitated the Arab prisoners, and some of them pulled guns and grenades that had gone undiscovered. One of the Americans, Johnny Mike Spann of Winfield, Alabama, was killed. The riot spread, and the Alliance guards in the towers opened up with their guns. The Americans called in the F-16 s.

Now, with the riot crushed, the walls of Qala Jangi were pockmarked from bullets a thousand times and toppled from the bombs. I did not know it at the time, but as Dostum surveyed the carnage, about eighty more prisoners were hiding in the basement below. One of them was John Walker Lindh, the jihadi from northern California. Bursts of machine-gun fire echoed through the yard.

Dostum was chatting with his aides when Catherine Davis of the BBC came close. She pressed her microphone into his face. Are you not shocked by the number of dead? Davis demanded of Dostum, of the ferocity of the fight inside the fortress? What is your explanation?

Dostum seemed stunned at first, but he quickly recovered.

Jang,” he said with a shrug, using the Dari word for “war.”


I CAME TO A HOUSE in a ruined part of town. The sky was gray and the yard was strewn with rocks and old metal and wires. It was one of the makeshift prisons that had popped up across Mazar-i-Sharif when the riot at Qala Jangi began. The place was being guarded by Hazara militiamen who, curiously, were wearing camouflage uniforms that looked brand-new. It was a strange pattern for camouflage, dark green with bright yellow splotches.

I found Nasir inside, in a room without windows. He was on the floor, shirtless and shivering, covered by an old blanket. A bullet wound festered in his right arm. He was from Saudi Arabia, the other prisoners said.

I didn’t have a lot of time. The war was winding down and people were scattering and disappearing. Things and people that were here today would soon no longer be. “After we talk to them,” Syed Wasiqullah, one of the Northern Alliance commanders, told me, “they’re finished.” He dragged a finger across his throat.

I crouched next to the prisoner on the floor. He looked very young. His eyes were floating and he was groaning under the blanket. A slice of stale bread sat on a green plastic plate on the floor next to him. “He needs some fruit,” one of the prisoners said.

“Dying,” I wrote in my notebook.

“My name is Nasir,” he said, “and I am twenty-one.” He was an Arab, with dark skin and full lips. But his face and limbs were long and thin, giving him the delicate, elongated look of a man painted by El Greco.

Nasir had grown up in a middle-class neighborhood in Riyadh, he said, graduated from high school, even had American friends. In Riyadh, he used to meet the Americans at the Pizza Hut near his home. “The Americans were my friends,” Nasir said. “I talked with them. I stayed with them. Some of them were speaking Arabic to me.”

He’d been on Hajj, he said, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, when a fellow Saudi who called himself Abu Mali approached. It was the spring of 2001, only six months before. The war against the infidels, Mali called it; would you fight against the infidels? Nasir said yes, he would go to Palestine to fight the Jews. Abu Mali said yes, of course, we will send you to Palestine. So Nasir went to the bank and withdrew 3,000 rials—about $ 800—and called his father to tell him.

“He was very angry with me,” Nasir said, staring upward from his place on the floor. “He forbade me from going.”

Nasir had never defied his father before, but this time he did, eager to do something special with his life and make his family proud. Before fighting in Palestine, Abu Mali told him, Nasir would have to go first to Afghanistan to receive his training. So Nasir used his 3,000 rials to fly to Karachi with four other recruits, and he rode on the back of a motorcycle across the border into Kandahar.

There on the floor, Nasir resumed his groans and winces.

“I am in much pain,” he said. His voice squeaked and he began talking in gasps. I reached into my bag and handed him a banana and an orange. His eyes didn’t follow them, and he left them on the plate.

Once his military training began in Afghanistan, Nasir said, he discovered that he lacked the zeal to be a soldier of the jihad. He wanted to go home, he said, but he was out of money. He asked Abu Mali about Palestine. Soon, Abu Mali said, and Nasir carried on.

Then the day came, Nasir said, that he was pronounced a soldier in Kandahar with several other Arabs. They were gathered together in the training camp when a tall and long-limbed man, another son of Saudi Arabia, stood before them and spoke.

“I didn’t know the face of Osama at the time,” Nasir said. “People pointed to him. They said he was a good man.”

“Very quietly he spoke,” Nasir said. “Osama said, This is the way of jihad. If you are killed—in Palestine, in Chechnya, in Kashmir—you will help these people become free.”

It was not long after that, Nasir said, that Abu Mali left for Saudi Arabia. The leaders who remained told Nasir that he would not be going to Palestine, after all. It was September 2001, and there was a jihad to be fought right there in Afghanistan.

“I told them I wanted to go home,” Nasir said. “I told them I did not want to fight against other Muslims.”

Still, Nasir went along, packing his bags and riding to Kabul in the back of a pickup truck. From there, he flew aboard a Taliban plane to Kunduz, which Northern Alliance troops were by then rapidly encircling. Once in Kunduz, Nasir said, he volunteered for unimportant jobs to keep him away from the front lines.

He’d been in Kunduz for ten days when the Taliban surrendered. A truck carried him with the others to the Qala Jangi fortress in Mazar-i-Sharif. And then the riot broke out, and after hiding in a horse stable for two days, he scaled a wall and ran. “Home,” he said to himself as he zigzagged through the bazaar. Then he was shot.

Lying on the floor, Nasir said he had given up his dreams of the jihad. He said he did not care for bin Laden. More than anything, Nasir said, he wished he were the naive young man he had been only a few months before.

“You can tell them, I will never come back here again,” Nasir said. “All I want is to sit with my mother, and my father and brothers and sisters.”

A guard entered the room, one of the Hazaras. “Leave now,” he said. Nasir took my pen and notebook and wrote his name and address. “Nasir Fahd Al-Riaz; Al-Dakhl Al-Mahdood, Al Saudia Arabia.” He wrote it himself in English; even used the semicolon.

“Can I ask anything of you?” Nasir said from his spot on the floor. “Before they kill me, could you please get in touch with my parents?”

He moaned again, and the guard motioned for me to leave.

I never found Nasir after that, never found a record of his name—not in any of the Afghan prisons or even at Guantánamo Bay. After I left the country, I called one of my colleagues in Saudi Arabia and gave him Nasir’s name and address. He never found the family.


THE VALLEY FLOOR was flanked by escarpments and scattered with yellow canisters the size of Pepsi cans. Smooth yellow cans, folded in the snow, lethal to the touch. Cluster bombs, the mess left behind. A pair of Afghan men walked among the unexploded cans, picking up pieces of shrapnel. Metal scavengers. “Osama was living there,” Mohammad Zaman said. He pointed to a crater. “This was Osama’s camp.”

The camp, known as Melawa, had been a mujahideen base in the 1980 s, a place the holy warriors had used to attack the Soviets. Melawa lay within a rugged stretch of valleys and caves called Tora Bora. In the 1990 s, when Osama came back to Afghanistan, he’d come back to Melawa. Then, in December 2001, when the Americans had him cornered here, he departed again.

“I saw Osama many times,” Zaman said. Zaman was long and thin and slightly haggard, not unlike the man he was describing. “Osama was rich like a king. He did not allow any of the villagers to come here. He did not give us jobs. As a result most of the people did not like him.”

Zaman carried on with his work, stepping around the yellow canisters with the grace of a big cat.

I stepped into the crater. It contained the remnants of a building: a collapsed roof, splintered beams, fallen walls, papers and rubbish. Rummaging around, I found a shoe with a melted sole, a green jacket, a belt with bullets. I picked up a paperback with seared pages that was the size of the New York phone book. It was Al-Qaeda’s training manual, written in Arabic. The book was a how-to on waging a terrorist campaign; there were diagrams for shooting down an airliner, blowing up a bridge, cleaning a rifle. I rustled in the wreckage and pulled out a notebook. This one was handwritten, in Uighur, a language of the Muslims of western China. Every page was filled with calculations, every letter carefully drawn, all the lines perfectly straight—the author had been a serious student. Throughout the book were diagrams that contained the English initials “TNT.” On the inside front page, the student had jotted down some notes to himself. “Don’t ask when the class is going to end,” he wrote. “Always be honest.”

I walked for a couple of miles across the Melawa valley. The landscape rolled out barren and sandy like a beach in winter. The only water came from a small stream that curled back up into the escarpments. Most of the caves were little more than tunnels, barely high enough for a man to crouch in.

I came to a group of men picking through splinters and bricks. One of the men, Sahar Gul, was holding up pieces of his home and looking them over as if they were relics from another age. Until recently, the rubble had been a hamlet called Khan-i-Merajuddin. “Everything is finished,” Gul said, glancing up at me from the rutted ground where he stood. Six members of his family had died here, he said.

Osama had come on horseback to Khan-i-Merajuddin the night of November 30, Gul said. He came with a dozen Arabs to see a friend, Merajuddin, who’d kept the camp at Melawa supplied with food and mules. By then, the bombardment of Tora Bora was already well under way. The news about Osama that day reached the nearby bazaar. Then it reached a local warlord. Then it reached the Americans.

The bombs fell on Khan-i-Merajuddin at 4 a.m., a few hours after Osama had galloped off. The villagers were waking up for their Ramadan meal; some of them were already outside, which is what saved them. “I heard he was here for dinner, but I never saw anything with my own eyes,” said Gul Nabi, another of the survivors. Nabi was sitting on a brick that had been part of his home. Most of his family—two wives and seven children—was dead, he said. Nabi had buried them in a new cemetery a few steps away. There was a son who survived, Ahmad, with a single leg. The cemetery contained forty-six graves, each marked by a plank of splintered wood. It was impossible to know who was in which tomb, Nabi said. “All these people in pieces,” he said. “Six legs, six hands.” The two men, Gul and Habi, stood at the head of the graveyard, wrapped in blankets against the cold wind.

A few days after the bombing, a helicopter landed in Khan-i-Merajuddin, Gul said. An American had gotten out. He had a beard. He took some photographs of the village, of the cemetery. Then he got back in the helicopter and flew away.

IN THE AFTERNOONS, I started running laps around the track at the Kabul sports stadium. It was the same stadium where I’d sat at midfield nearly four years before and watched the Talibs put a man to death. Running around the track, I tried to recall that scene, find some evidence of it in the grassless patch in the center. But by then the field had been taken over by men playing soccer, who trampled the spot over and over without giving it a moment’s heed. From the stands, rising above us, stood a giant, larger-than-life mural of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the guerrilla leader with an architect’s dreams. The Afghans would gather in the bleachers underneath it, wearing Chitrali caps just like his.

Massoud’s men were in Kabul now, and one of them, Dr. Abdullah, had become foreign minister for the new government. Abdullah had become famous with reporters as the Afghan official with just one name—it used to drive the editors crazy back home. We need a second name, the editors would say, and so, in many newspapers, Abdullah became Abdullah Abdullah, the deputy foreign minister of the Northern Alliance. Abdullah was an ophthalmologist by training, yet with his pale face and dark beard and three-piece suits, he looked more like a silent movie star.

“There were times when I wasn’t sure we were going to make it,” Abdullah said, seated at the desk in his new office in the Foreign Ministry building. He was still getting used to his new circumstances. “We had nothing, you know. So many years. Even the satellite phones, we couldn’t pay for them. There was no money. Nothing. Massoud and I, in the bad times, we used to wrestle. Massoud liked to wrestle. That was what we did. We wrestled each other on the floor. We would really go at it, really test each other on the floor. We were like children.” Abdullah smiled, recalling the moment, and then he started to weep.

In the stadium years before, during the executions, the orphans would gather at the entrance and surge and squeal, and the Taliban guards would beat them back with switches and whips. Now, when I went running in the stadium, young boys were offering to shine my shoes. “Hey mistah! Hey mistah!” they called, and sometimes I thought they remembered me from before. When my newspaper opened an office in Kabul, we put two of the kids on the payroll. We called them “Team Shoeshine,” and our only condition of employment was that in the morning they go to school. Kabul is a muddy city, and we had a lot of reporters, and the two boys cleaned our boots every afternoon and lined them up in rows outside the front door.

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