It just proves you should never say never. It was only when the “Zarbati”, or supposedly crack troops, suddenly started moving forward on Sunday that we realised something really was afoot. Back on Major Danger’s front-line roof, just west of the Soviet-era Bagram airbase, I listened as Commander Mowlana Abdurahman outlined the plan.
“We’ll attack through Qarahbagh [a village on the front line] and, once we’ve taken that and broken the line, the Kapisa boys will swing round Taloquan Hill and follow the New Kabul Road.”
Sunday evening was a rumour-fest. Ammunition was being stockpiled at General Babajan’s HQ at Bagram; the main thrust would be along the Old Kabul Road; the attack would start at two the next morning . . . at one o’clock in the afternoon . . . only after heavy US bombing, due to start at eight the following day.
Monday dawned with a sky full of mare’s tails. The six or more B-52 strikes left arcing vapour trails from east to west and back. Looking up, I saw a question mark formed at 36,000 feet, which seemed rather apt. The level of bombing was certainly up, but nowhere near as intense as we had been led to expect. The momentum created by the attacks and the liberation first of Mazar-e-Sharif and then a string of towns and provinces across northern Afghanistan had shifted to the southern front. The attack started at two o’clock.
For weeks, the United Front (or Northern Alliance) commanders across the spectrum had been saying that they would go only to the gates of Kabul, and there, having secured the city, they would send in a police force to curb looting and violence. George W Bush and Pervez Musharraf had both called on the United Front not to take Kabul, but privately the men in the field said they wouldn’t be stopping outside a city from which they have been exiled for six years. Tuesday would tell.
The road past the last front-line post was forbiddingly empty. A general detritus of war littered the road. Blackened dust, scraps of metal, the odd boot: evidence that action had taken place there recently. There were no bodies that we could see, just a burnt-out vehicle and, in several places, enormous craters courtesy of the Pentagon. But after several miles, military vehicles camped up at the side of the road showed that this territory had changed hands. United Front fighters happily waved and offered chai (tea) from blackened kettles. We pressed on.
As we drove, I wondered how Kabul would receive its liberators. As the final few miles rolled dustily behind, tanks shared the wide tarmac road with makeshift rocket-launchers and an assortment of press vehicles. On the road, only men and boys came to stare at their liberators. As yet, and throughout the day, even women in demure burqas were hardly in evidence.
An enormous congestion of people and machines spread across the dual carriageway. United Front soldiers squatted and sat on armoured personnel carriers and tanks. Many were hugging relatives and friends among the stream of men walking up the hill from the city. Ahead, Kabul glinted in the early light. There was no way the United Front was not going to fill the power vacuum created when, we were informed, the Taliban had left at two in the morning.
This was a muted welcome. No flower-throwing, shouting and screaming, or even effusive handshaking. The shadow of past horrors at the hands of the Northern Alliance in 1992-93 perhaps gave pause to many people who were relieved at the Taliban’s sudden departure.
We continued to drive into a town that seemed to be having a siesta. People were about, but most businesses were shut. Food vendors sold fresh vegetables and fruit in the roadside markets, and I did see one restaurant open for business, but mostly people were just wandering around, testing what it felt like not to have the Ministry of Vice and Virtue on their back the whole time. A number of boys flew freshly minted kites, to the glee of the younger ones – an activity proclaimed as anti- religious by the Talibs in their wisdom and their heyday.
A crowd of roughly 300 was gathered around the body of a Taliban fighter who had missed the bus and been shot. The scene grew particularly savage when the television cameras came along. The lifeless body was kicked and jumped on by people who would never dream of doing such a thing under different circumstances. Later, another Taliban soldier, possibly of Arab origin, received slightly more dignified treatment, his body partly wrapped in a blanket. He had been summarily executed, I think. The exit wound on his forehead indicated that he had at least been accurately shot from behind.
Characteristic as such scenes are at liberation, it must be said that there were very few – perhaps no more than 20 in the whole sprawling city of dust. All in all, as liberations go, this one was mild and restrained. The United Front has certainly occupied the city, but there was little serious fighting, so the lust for revenge was significantly diminished. Perhaps the Taliban did their enemy the greatest of favours by an incomprehensible combat-free withdrawal. Contrary to the expectations fostered in the west by Pakistan, the United Front has taken the capital and boosted its humanitarian profile.
Perhaps General Alim Khan was right when he said: “We are the soldiers of peace for Kabul.”
Tim Lambon is working with Channel 4 News in Afghanistan