On the morning of September 11, 2001, two stories were competing for the headlines in Kabul. The first story concerned the confused aftermath of an event that had taken place two days earlier in the Panjshir Valley. There, two Tunisians posing as journalists had blown up the iconic commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massood. After that, the whole country was jumpy.
No one would confirm Massood’s death. The Northern Alliance feared it would devastate a badly demoralized force already squeezed by the Taliban into a small mountainous corner of the country. One spokesman for the alliance said that Massood would be holding a press conference within days. Another one said he was being treated for his injuries just across the border in Tajikistan.
The truth was that he had died instantly. Mohammed Omar, one of Sayyaf’s commanders who had been with Massood, later told me: ”œMassood died right away. It was a difficult time for us ”” day by day we were being isolated by the Taliban. Militarily we were not doing well. The morale of our troops had rested in Massood’s hands.”
The second story in the news that morning was unfolding in Kabul, where attention focused on the ongo- ing month-long trial of eight Christian aid workers, including two young and very naive American women who had been accused by the Taliban of prose- lytizing ”” which was banned by the government. Heather Mercer, who was just twenty-four, and Dayna Curry, who had celebrated her thirtieth birth- day in Taliban custody, had tried to convert an Afghan employee at his home, putting not only themselves in danger but also the Afghans they were trying to convert.
I had spent most of September 11, like the day before and the day before that, at the Supreme Court building, hoping to see the aid workers or to talk to the chief justice. When I returned to the office, it was just past 6 p.m., local time, or 9 a.m. in New York. The satel- lite phone rang. The Associated Press foreign editor, Sally Jacobsen, was on the line. Her voice was calm. She called to tell me that a passenger plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. There was only confu- sion. No one knew whether it was an accident or a terrorist act, though once terrorism had been suggested, the name of Osama bin Laden became part of the conversation almost at once. He had become almost synonymous with terrorism: Virtually every attack against the United States in the pre- ceding four years had been traced back to him and his al Qaeda organization.
While Sally was on the phone, the second plane slammed into the other World Trade Center tower. She hung up immediately. We knew what it meant.
In Afghanistan, it was surreal. There were no televisions. Afghans couldn’t see those horrific images of the planes smashing into the World Trade Center towers, images that played over and over again and were burned into people’s minds world- wide. As the events unfolded, I felt as though I was on another planet. I, too, had no television, only a small radio. I fiddled with the dial, straining to hear through the wall of static, but could only find a Persian-language BBC channel. I couldn’t see what was hap- pening or understand what I was hear- ing. After about thirty minutes, Amir Shah said a third plane had hit the Pentagon. By this time I didn’t know what to think. And before I could digest that latest piece of news, Amir Shah began to shout so excitedly I could hardly understand him that there was a fourth aircraft missing, pre- sumed hijacked by terrorists. I couldn’t imagine what the target might be, in fact I could hardly understand what was going on. We were in a vacuum. But I also knew we were about to be at the center of a violent and powerful storm. I pictured Afghanistan encased in a giant cocoon, cut off from the out- side world yet tossed smack into the middle of the inferno that raged that day in the United States. We knew only one place in Kabul where we could find a satellite television: the United Nations guest house.
There, finally, I saw the horror inflicted by the four planes, hijacked, the controls taken over by madmen who had turned them into giant human-filled missiles and had driven them into the heart of America.
Could such a plot really have been masterminded from inside this back- ward country? The Taliban regime was not fired by the pan-Islamic dream that inspired some of the mujahedeen or bin Laden and his al Qaeda. They were backward tribesmen, most of whom had never even seen a comput- er. There was reportedly one computer in Kandahar, but it was controlled by Mullah Omar, who had no idea how to use it. He had never even turned it on. Mullah Omar was known to have come to Kabul only once, secretly, just for the purpose of inspiring his soldiers north of the city. It was widely said at the time that he hurried back to Kandahar, saying Kabul was too busy and too big.
Mullah Omar’s idea of perfection was a world of simple truths that resembled Islam in the seventh centu- ry. The five years he ruled Afghanistan had been characterized by an attempt to go back in time. This regime banned recycled paper for fear Qurans had been destroyed and recycled into paper bags, banned women from wear- ing white socks because it was consid- ered provocative, and relied mostly on radios to communicate.
But radical Islamists, some of whom had been in the country for decades, were not so backward. Bin Laden possessed sophisticated commu- nications. I had talked to people who had seen them in northeastern Kunar Province, had heard him speak and heard foreign languages spoken back. One person reported having seen a North Korean with bin Laden teaching him about chemical weapons. He and Aymen al-Zawahri ran a global organi- zation. They alone in Afghanistan had the money and the means to plot and execute the 9/11 attacks.
Less than three hours after the attack, the Taliban’s foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, called a press conference at the war-ruined Intercontinental Hotel. The hulking five-story hotel, which perched on a hilltop overlooking the capital, was riddled with rocket damage from the years of mujahedeen rule. It was dark and dank. We gathered around a long table in a groundfloor meeting room. Muttawakil, a stocky man with a round face and bushy black beard, looked genuinely distressed. He con- demned the attack and denied any Taliban involvement. He said he didn’t know the whereabouts of bin Laden: ”œI don’t know where he is but I can tell you he isn’t in this hotel.”
We didn’t know where Mullah Omar was, either. Later, a friend who had been in Kandahar on September 13 said the Taliban told him Mullah Omar had gone to Baghran, northwest of Kandahar. The Taliban would not hand bin Laden over to the United States, Muttawakil said, but they would be willing to put him on trial in Afghanistan. The Taliban wanted proof of bin Laden’s involvement in the attacks. Muttawakil wasn’t anti-Western. He had tried to find a middle ground between the Taliban and the West. He had negotiated with the United Nations on several occasions, seeking assistance that would give strength to moderate voices and weaken the hard- liners, who eventually won out. When Muttawakil left the hotel that night, the US reaction to the attacks was still unclear. We had no way of knowing that it would be nearly a month before the United States would strike back. But Amir Shah succinctly expressed the fear of many Afghans: ”œMaybe America will set Afghanistan on fire.” Outside the UN guest house, the streets of Kabul were totally unchanged. On television, it was clear the world had turned on its axis; but in Kabul, it seemed as it always seemed, a little sluggish, dusty and dirty, the smell of open sewers nearby. Traffic was light; most people used bicycles. Except for the Taliban vehicles, the only other cars you usually saw on the streets were battered old yellow taxis.
That night a few cars swerved down the potholed streets, their drivers heading home. Stores were closing. Electricity had been restored to most parts of Kabul, but not everyone had power. Open sewers ran along the side- walks, and the few streetlights that worked were dingy and dim. In Kabul, there were no celebrations over the news from New York.
I fell asleep that night sure the world would never be the same. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by a phone call from the AP head- quarters in New York because CNN was reporting that Kabul was under attack, possibly from the United States. Kabul was under curfew, so I couldn’t go out to see what might be happening. It took me a few minutes to collect my thoughts. Suddenly, the house shuddered ”” and I did too. I was awake now.
New York was still on the phone. I was cautious and said it sounded like incoming rockets. There had been no jets and the concussions weren’t pow- erful enough to be bombs. From the balcony, I could see explosions from the neighborhood of the airport about two kilometers away. But there were no large fireballs. I could smell the acrid smoke lingering in the air. It was a confusing time. No one knew what to expect, whether to think the United States might retaliate immediately or wait. Before even twenty-four hours had passed since the attacks in the United States, the United Nations sent in three emergency flights to evacuate its staff. Of the eighty UN staff in Afghanistan, only four remained in Kabul. But ordinary Afghans didn’t think that the UN evacuation itself meant a retaliatory strike was immi- nent. Afghans were accustomed to the United Nations pulling out its interna- tional staff during particularly trou- bled times. It wasn’t clear when, or if, there would be a way back into Kabul by air after September 13. There were three flights that day, all of them evac- uating international aid workers and their families. Once they had gone, it almost seemed too quiet, that eerie calm before a storm. All that remained in Kabul was a handful of International Red Cross workers.
The next day, September 14, was a Friday, the Muslim Sabbath. The mosques were full. The Taliban preach- ers in every mosque railed loud and hard against the United States. They warned of a possible attack and urged the faithful to find their strength in their faith. Most people just wanted to be left alone, and I couldn’t find any- one who wanted to give Osama bin Laden refuge.
In Afghanistan, bin Laden, as well as Arab and foreign fighters, were called ”œguests.” Mullah Omar, on more than one occasion, said it went against Afghan and Pashtun tradition to deny a guest sanctuary. Most Afghans, after 9/11, seemed to disagree. ”œPeople are fed up with the guests. All our life has been burned by war and now because of them we will only get more,”
Mohammed Haroon, who owned a confectionery store in Kabul, said that day, returning from the mosque.
A Taliban echoed him: ”œThese Arabs are not on the side of our nation. They are here for their own aim. I am afraid for our future.”
By September 14, all Westerners had been ordered out of Afghanistan. The order, it would seem, was bin Laden’s doing. Afghans didn’t see Westerners as spies, not even the Taliban. But the Arab fighters saw a spy in every Westerner. Al Jazeera televi- sion reporters stayed, as did Islamic charity organizations. But everyone else, including the Red Cross, had to go. Pakistan was closing its border with Afghanistan. I left Kabul that day.
Mullah Omar was given a choice: Hand over bin Laden and his al Qaeda network or be attacked. Pakistan, which until then had sup- ported the Taliban wholeheartedly, was called upon by Washington to open talks with Mullah Omar to per- suade him to hand over bin Laden.
General Mahmood Ahmed, the chief of the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, led a group that also included some Muslim clerics. They went to Kandahar, supposedly to convince Mullah Omar to do the right thing.
The general was a religious zealot very much like Mullah Omar. He had been central to the military takeover of Pakistan in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf. A hawk with pan-Islamic visions, he had been a staunch sup- porter of jihadis both from Pakistan and elsewhere. This was the man Musharraf sent to negotiate with Mullah Omar.
People present at the meet- ing and within the ISI revealed that Ahmed had a message for Mullah Omar quite different from the one that Washington had pressed his government to convey. He took the slow-talk- ing Taliban leader aside and urged him to resist the United States. He told Mullah Omar not to give up bin Laden.
Ahmed traveled several times to Kandahar, and on each visit he gave Mullah Omar information about the likely next move by the United States. By then Ahmed knew there weren’t going to be a lot of US soldiers on the ground. He warned Mullah Omar that the United States would be relying heavily on aerial bombardment and on the Northern Alliance.
Two weeks after the attacks on the United States, the immediate fear of a devastating retaliatory strike had passed and some within the Taliban had begun to think they could survive a US assault. After all, one Taliban told me, they had survived the US missile attack in 1998. Could this time be worse? He had no idea of the firepower the United States could bring to bear.
They had no concept of the magni- tude of the events that had occurred in the United States. Neither Osama bin Laden nor Pakistan’s ISI chief explained to Mullah Omar the extent of the devastation that would be linked to his name and his movement. Instead, bin Laden talked to Mullah Omar about the Hadiths (the sayings of the prophet). Bin Laden debated the Quran at length with Mullah Omar and brought up the words of Islam’s prophet that exhort the faithful to keep faith with fellow Muslims, to protect them against aggressors.
From Ahmed, Mullah Omar got military pointers. Mullah Omar didn’t know what targets the United States would hit. The Afghan military didn’t have any real command-and-control system; their antiaircraft defenses were guns on hilltops. Mullah Omar also didn’t know what weaponry would be available to the United States. He did- n’t know anything of the ”˜daisy cut- ters’ that could supposedly reach deep into caves and destroy everything inside. He couldn’t even conceive of a sophisticated fighter jet. Mullah Omar’s only experience with US fire- power had been the Tomahawk cruise missiles attack of 1998, which had done very little damage.
General Mahmood Ahmed also met other Taliban allies, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, a former muja- hedeen who had been to the White House during the 1980s Soviet inva- sion of Afghanistan, who was allied with the Taliban. He was also close to bin Laden and al Qaeda, whose train- ing camps were in eastern Afghanistan’s Khost region, controlled by Haqqani.
Had he wanted to, Haqqani could have handed the United States the entire al Qaeda network. Pakistan’s ISI chief warned him against it. Just days before the strike on Afghanistan, Haqqani made a secret visit to Pakistan. He met Ahmed in Rawalpindi, where the military is headquartered, just a few miles from the Pakistani capital. Ahmed told him to hold out, that he had friends across the border.
When the strike finally came on October 7, 2001, only a few thousand US soldiers were amassed to launch a ground offensive against the Taliban. Even among the Americans at the US Embassy in Pakistan, there was surprise at the small number of American ground forces deployed.
A former defense official with decades of experience in the region said: ”œThose of us in the embassy were puzzled in the runup to Operation Enduring Freedom as to why so few troops were being put on the ground to defeat the Taliban. In hindsight, though, the administration’s apparent plan for a follow-on campaign in Iraq explains the small number of boots put on the ground in Afghanistan.” Instead, the United States and its coalition partners relied on the Northern Alliance.
It was an astonishing act of dele- gation. The Northern Alliance had close links with the Arab militants, with such men as Aymen al-Zawahri, who had been in Afghanistan since 1985. The small number of US forces that were put on the ground in Afghanistan had to rely on these Northern Alliance soldiers for their intelligence, which might explain why they were unable to find either bin Laden or Aymen al-Zawahri.
Both bin Laden and al-Zawahri had been members of Sayyaf’s muja- hedeen group and in close alliance with Sayyaf, who was the Northern Alliance’s deputy prime minister.
The Northern Alliance soldiers were also poor fighters. The Taliban had driven them into a small corner of the coun- try. After the death of Ahmed Shah Massood, they became demoralized and leaderless ”” hardly perfect allies.
It was American and British bombing that won the war, not the Northern Alliance soldiers. Early on in the offensive, the Northern Alliance soldiers did make a push for the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif ahead of any heavy bombing. They were easily beaten back by the Taliban. When the city finally fell, it was after massive bombing of Taliban positions and front lines, which drove the Taliban either out of the city or to sur- render. Some of the hard-line clerics in Pakistani religious schools closed them down and sent their students to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. They fired them up with the spirit of jihad and sent them across the border, sometimes by the hundreds. The stu- dents, some as young as sixteen, didn’t know what they were getting into.
The Taliban didn’t allow photog- raphy or videotaping. But Amir Shah was brilliant, brave, and uncanny, and he managed to do both. He had a handheld video camera, and one day when he was filming, a couple of Taliban soldiers surprised him. He thought fast. With one quick motion he put the camera to his ear, pretend- ed it was a radio, and said: ”œBrothers, it’s the BBC.” They had seen so few cameras that they believed him.
During the first weeks of the war, Amir Shah would call each night in Islamabad, his voice a rapid whisper. Only I would speak to him because he had to be fast, using as few words as possible to get the information out.
Each day we pleaded with the Taliban to let me return, and each day the answer was the same. I wasn’t alone trying to get into the Taliban’s Afghanistan. There were hundreds of reporters camped out in Pakistan, going every day to the Afghan Embassy pleading for permission to go to Afghanistan.
Eventually, because of Amir Shah’s persistence, we succeeded where every- one else had failed. No other foreign reporter was allowed in. Amir Shah got permission from the information min- ister, Qadratullah Jamal, who con- vinced Kandahar to make an exception.
Getting into Afghanistan was important to me not just to cover the Taliban but to report on ordinary Afghans, caught again in another con- flict not of their making.
I was allowed to bring our photog- rapher, Dimitri Messinis, a big strap- ping Greek with a sensitive and beautiful photographer’s eye and an expansive and generous heart that embraced the Afghans he met.
My first night back in Afghanistan was October 24, 2001. At 9 p.m., sud- denly everything went dark. Every night at the same time, the Taliban shut off the electricity, plunging the city into black- ness, apparently unaware that pilots in those fighter jets flying overhead didn’t need lights to see their targets.
Jets roared distantly overhead until one came closer. We waited and watched from the upstairs windows of our darkened house. The sound of the jet engine changed, growing louder as the jet dropped altitude, preparing for a bombing run. ”œListen,” Amir Shah whispered. A powerful concussion shook the house, rattling the windows in their frames. It was scary. But more frightening was Amir Shah’s soft whis- per: ”œOh my God. Oh my God.”
The second night was worse. Powerful explosions, one after anoth- er, pounded the ground throughout the night. An ammunition depot was hit nearby. The detonations were deaf- ening. Heavy artillery exploded, rock- ets roared. All the Taliban could do was take aim at the fighter jets with their antiquated antiaircraft guns. The pounding of the bombs was relentless.
A telephone ringing in the one house in Kabul in which a Westerner was living could quite easily arouse suspicions among our Arab neighbors, who already thought any Westerner in Kabul could only be there to guide the US and British fighter jets overhead.
Those first days were filled with uncertainty. It wasn’t clear where the Arab fighters had dispersed to. Were they on the front line north of Kabul? Had they returned to the city? Would they know I was in Kabul? What would they do if they found out? Amir Shah was nervous: For three weeks he would have the only Western journal- ist in Kabul to worry about, as well as himself and his family.
The Taliban’s information minister, Qadratullah Jamal, had warned me that not everyone welcomed my presence. He was referring mainly to the Arab mili- tants, but he also thought that residents terrorized by nightly bombing raids might attack the only Westerner in town. As I listened to him, my eyes fixed on his bushy black beard and turban, I was struck by the irony of the fact that the only Western reporter that the Taliban, the most misogynistic of regimes, had allowed back into Kabul was a woman.
I remembered a comment from a Taliban visa officer at the end of a par- ticularly heated discussion. He stopped talking, looked at me, and said: ”œWe have a name for a person like you ”” a man.”
It was hardly a surprise when, in the first few days of my arrival in Kabul, military intelligence stormed our office, grabbed our equipment, and hauled us off to a compound, on the southeastern edge of Kabul, referred to as Intelligence No. 2. An intelligence officer thought I was in Kabul secretly, without Taliban approval.
His tone was belligerent. He was ready to throw me in jail or out of Kabul. But Amir Shah had all the per- mission slips he needed. The signature on them was that of the Taliban’s prime minister, Mullah Hassan, the second most powerful authority in the movement after Mullah Omar.
It was good enough for the com- mander, who relaxed noticeably and offered us green tea. He pulled out a pis- tol and waved it in my face, not in a menacing way, but to show me what he would use to face down the US soldiers. He bragged, ”œI need this for when the American commandos come.”
This office was large and dirty. The brown carpet on the floor was stained and turned up at the edges. The coffee table was caked in dust. The com- mander said he and his staff spent most of their time in the basement because of the bombing.
The windows were open as a pre- caution: Should a bomb drop nearby, the glass wouldn’t blow in. I didn’t feel particularly comforted. I could hear fighter jets overhead. It was mid-after- noon. I hoped they wouldn’t bomb out of schedule. As much as I wanted to return to the safety of the house I was living in, the commander wanted to talk. We sat there for another thirty minutes sipping sugary green tea in greasy old cups that appeared not to have been washed since the war began.
By November 12, 2001, it seemed the Taliban could not hang on much longer. They had already lost Mazar-e- Sharif and much of northern Afghanistan. A battle continued to rage in northern Kunduz Province, and southern Kandahar was still in Taliban hands. But it looked as if Kabul would fall.
Amir Shah talked by telephone to Abdul Rasul Sayyaf of the Northern Alliance. The United States had stated publicly that the Northern Alliance would keep its private militias out of Kabul once the capital fell to prevent chaos, thieving, and killing. By night- fall, it was clear that the war had begun a new phase. Targeted rocketing broke out, which meant that our neighbor- hood, full of the Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, and Pakistani jihadis, would be extremely dangerous.
We decided to leave the house and the neighborhood, but first we drove, in reverse, a half a block to a house where, two days earlier, the Taliban had let the BBC bring four people into Kabul. They crammed into our small yellow taxi, and together we decided to try to get to the Intercontinental Hotel, just fifteen minutes away.
We could hear the B-52s overhead. The devastation of war was encroach- ing: I looked to the side and saw a destroyed pickup truck. Four Arabs had been killed when a missile slammed into it. We didn’t stop until we came to a Taliban road- block, which was a scene of utter chaos.
Four pickup trucks blocked our way, all packed with Taliban soldiers armed with rifles and rocket launchers and talking nerv- ously, shouting into static-filled two-way radios, yelling into our car, screaming at us in Pashtu.
They wanted to know what foreign- ers were doing in Kabul. Their voic- es were hysterical, full of accusations about America, about the planes and the bombing. It wasn’t good. Amir Shah spoke softly. He cajoled them, showed them our documents. It seemed to take forever. We could hear the jets over- head. They were bombing, and we were right in the middle of a perfect target, dozens of Taliban in pickup trucks. Just as I was trying to decide whether to get out of the car and hug the nearest wall, a motorcycle roared passed. It was carrying two Arab fighters.
Eventually, they let us go. We had one more checkpoint to get through and then we would be at the Intercontinental Hotel. At one of the checkpoints, a young Taliban had been ordered to accompany us. He was nervous. He clung to a small handheld two-way radio into which he kept chattering. He was still receiving orders from someone, but it was obvi- ously just a matter of time before com- munications and the Taliban command broke down.
At 9 p.m., like clockwork, the power went off and the Intercontinental Hotel, still riddled with gaping holes from the muja- hedeen years, was thrown into dark- ness like the rest of the city. I went to my room, which was right next to Amir Shah. I had a candle and lots of matches. I lay in bed in the dark, lis- tening to and feeling the crashing con- cussions of the bombs, followed by the antiaircraft fire.
Every now and again, I would light my candle just to reassure myself that I knew exactly where it was. What I didn’t know was that the Taliban leadership had already planned their departure. They had met at 6 p.m. that night at the home of Mullah Hassan, the prime minister. While US and British bombs pum- meled their foot soldiers on the front lines north of Kabul, the Taliban lead- ership discussed strategy. They would decide how to leave, where to go, where to set up the new front line, where to regroup.
The Taliban leaders gathered at Mullah Hassan’s agreed to meet some- time after 10 P.M. at a small place called Durrani, about fifty miles south of Kabul, with the intention of estab- lishing two new front lines, one at Durrani and another southeast of Kabul at Sang-e-Nowishta. In fact, they failed: The bombing drove them fur- ther south toward Kandahar.
Amir Shah and I stepped out on the hotel balcony at about 6 A.M. on November 13. The sun was just peek- ing over the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains. We left the hotel and went back to the Taliban check- point that had been so frightening the night before. It was deserted. We kept driving. A few scattered bodies across from the UN guest house appeared to be Arab fighters. Four more burned bodies lay slumped inside a charred pickup. The blister- ing bombing campaign administered by the United States and Britain had driven the Taliban out of Kabul and had allowed the Northern Alliance to walk in. The alliance forces brought with them their militias, who took over the homes abandoned by the Taliban, rampaged through some neighborhoods, and stole from resi- dents. People were frightened. They mostly stayed indoors.
On November 13, as we picked our way back to our shattered office, the only thing we knew for sure was that the battle for Kabul was over. The Taliban were gone.
Excerpted from I Is for Infidel ”” From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan, by Kathy Gannon, PublicAffairs Books, New York, 2005.