The Taliban fighter was lying on the ground beside the tank, his breathing sharp and shallow. Flies festooned his pantaloons where blood from his wounds caked the cheap grey cloth. The man’s face was a gaunt mask edged by black Jesus hair and a scraggly goatee. He was one of four prisoners. Later, I learnt his name was Hares.
“We captured them yesterday when they were trying to escape,” said Kamrahn, the commander, nudging a puffy-faced Pakistani, Jawad Hussein, with his boot. Despite the winter cold, the sun was hot and bright in the clear sky of Afghanistan. The prisoners squinted up at us. Two, both foreigners, were wounded. The others, two Afghans, were merely dishevelled.
Kamrahn shrugged when asked about the injuries. “They resisted and tried to run away. One of them killed a soldier.”
Apart from the gunshot wounds, the prisoners didn’t look as if they had been beaten up. They sat and lay on blankets their captors had provided. Rudimentary first aid had been administered. When asked whether he intended to get the wounded to medical attention, the commander said that, as a matter of fact, the transport they’d been waiting for had just arrived. Minutes later, the two injured prisoners were lying in the back of a pick-up truck, moaning as they jolted along the bumpy road.
Their removal to the hospital run by Emergency, an Italian NGO, illustrates the way in which this phase of the United Front’s war against the Taliban has been prosecuted. With restraint. Everyone, from the citizens of Kabul to the honchos at the UN, dreaded the United Front capturing Kabul. President Bush warned against it; General Musharraf made dire predictions about the likely result. A week later, it looks as if they were wrong.
Someone said the former Northern Alliance had grown up. It certainly defied world opinion by entering Kabul, but so far its plan has worked. There are no tanks on the streets. The only soldiers are guarding military bases and ministries. Even on 13 November, as the United Front forces filled the vacuum left by the disappearance of the Taliban, the only checkpoints were on the roads in to Kabul, where units were stopped before being assigned strategic positions around the city.
Nobody I have asked has heard a single shot fired since this city was occupied. After the terrible fighting which happened following the fall of the Afghan communist regime in 1992, the return of the former mujahedin groups under the umbrella of the United Front was widely feared. But the safety catches have been kept on “lock” this time, and Burhanuddin Rabbani’s leadership council is at least paying lip-service to the idea of a broad-based, multi-ethnic government.
By Wednesday, the day after the takeover, Kabul looked absolutely normal. Shops were open. People were on the street. It was business as usual. Kabulis have experienced so many changes in living memory that they flow around the event like molten metal in a mould, their routines quickly changing to the shape of the new regime. Within days of the power shift, one electronics shop had sold 160 television sets.
Those who reject the restrictions of tribe and clan – the wealthy and the educated – have mostly emigrated to places where their emancipation fits in. Many of the houses left by such exiles were used as safe houses by the Taliban’s foreign legion. Now, it is the press who stay there.
When we reached one house, an eye- witness said the Arab Taliban who had lived there for four years had left in a convoy of 20 or more vehicles the night the United Front arrived in Kabul. Among the rubbish were documents in Arabic that named Osama Bin Laden as the patron of a jihad organisation of Egyptian origin. Others praised the actions of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind mullah imprisoned for the first attack on the World Trade Center eight years ago. There were numerous maps among the papers, including one of Nairobi, where the al-Qaeda network destroyed the US embassy in 1998. The witness claimed that a mine-detection team had taken away boxes of C4 explosive blocks and detonators.
So, although things may not have turned out as expected, the US war on terror has seriously disrupted the activities of a network of dedicated Islamic fundamentalists. The problem is that they have not been eliminated, merely shifted.
Meanwhile, the United Front government has moved to occupy the rather decrepit ministries in Kabul. NGOs are gearing up to start aid flights through the repaired airport in Bagram, policed by British troops. And Commander Kamrahn is doing house-to-house searches for goods looted from the aid agency warehouses.
Ominously, he has also put his two Afghan prisoners in a shipping container. “Just as a temporary jail,” he said. But it sounds like an unpleasant echo of the method of execution practised by both sides last time Kabul changed hands: prisoners were placed in containers and left to die in the heat of the desert. Maybe Kamrahn is just short of somewhere to hold detainees.
Tim Lambon is working with Channel 4 News in Afghanistan