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  1. Long reads
3 December 2001

Drop the bomb, pass the buck

In Afghanistan, everybody distrusts everybody else. They even despise themselves. By Gaby Rado in Ku

By Gaby Rado

We had just arrived in the centre of Kunduz when a bystander came up to me. He was one of several hundred men – not a single woman – who had gathered at the intersection of the two main roads into this city of 220,000 people. The junction was marked by a kind of traffic police watchtower, its windows smashed. The crowd was crawling over it, and the first western TV crews were setting up their tripods on its raised concrete plinth.

“Afghanistan is very bad country,” said the man.

“Why?” I asked.

“Everybody wants to go out from Afghanistan. Very bad country.”

I found myself in the role of having to defend his country’s reputation. “It is not a bad country. No country is bad. Maybe leaders are bad. The people are usually good.”

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It was a tough one. Ten minutes beforehand, I had seen two bodies covered in the black cloth of their Taliban turbans. They were lying by the side of the road. One had clearly been shot in the centre of his torso, where the cloth was soaked with blood. It was already infested with flies. What had happened to the other victim was not so clear. Someone briefly pulled back the cloth, and his face seemed to be covered in bruises. I noticed that his feet were tied together with some dirty white cloth. Across the street, a group had gathered around the back of a pick-up truck. There were six or seven men sitting down, their arms tied behind their backs with cloth, and three mujahedin, with guns, conversing with the crowd.

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“Prisoners,” said my translator. “They are Pakistani.” I had become used to the instant way Nassir, my translator, could identify foreign Taliban fighters. On the previous two days, we had seen large groups of defectors streaming out of Kunduz. At first, they had been Afghan Taliban, but later there were Chechens and Uzbeks. Nassir had taken one look at them and immediately noted their nationality. Nassir, now in his early twenties, was born around the time when Afghanistan began its descent into the abyss.

Journalists had been prevented from driving into Kunduz until about midday on Monday, because there was still shooting going on. Even now, the atmosphere was not one of joyous liberation.

“Last night, there was bombardment,” said the man who had approached me. He mentioned a name, which Nassir told me was a place somewhere in the north of Kunduz. “They killed mujahedin.”

“Who, the Taliban?” I asked.

“No, the bombardment. Aeroplane dropped bomb. Kill many people.”

I asked Nassir to clarify things. The man kept pointing to the sky. It could only have been US bombing. Nassir said that, apparently, a mistake had been made, and the Americans had bombed the United Front (Northern Alliance) instead of the Taliban.

“Are you sure it was last night?” I asked. We had seen the vapour trails of many B-52 bombers on previous days, but not the day before. From late afternoon on Sunday, the United Front had moved forward from its two-week-old front line just outside the town of Khanabad, east of Kunduz, and had driven towards Kunduz itself. By early evening, the United Front commander General Mohammed Daoud had declared that he was in control of Kunduz.

We drove through Kunduz, its dusty bazaars disrupted by lorries carrying the United Front’s multiple rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns. Groups of uniformed men in camouflage caps patrolled the streets, lending at least some credibility to the United Front’s claim that it had a security force of several hundred men in Kunduz to maintain law and order. It appeared to be working, as we heard hardly a single shot fired during the time we spent there.

Kunduz, like Mazar-e-Sharif, has an old fort on the outskirts of town, built on a natural sandstone hill. There’s a moat filled with rocks and refuse, crossed by a ramp. We drove across it, up a sharp slope, and found ourselves on a large plateau surrounded by low walls. The bombardment had left blackened wreckage in its wake. Several large vehicles had been hit – armoured cars, lorries, mobile anti-aircraft units. All around us on the stony ground were empty shells and their casings. Groups of uniformed security troops and mujahedin with their Kalashnikovs and sandy robes stared at the scene. We were told that the Taliban had withdrawn from the fort the previous evening, and that the United Front was established by midnight. The bombs came some time after that. Five civilians were killed or injured.

According to General Daoud, who spoke to a group of us in the garden of his temporary headquarters, the fault lay with his fellow United Front commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum is an Uzbek, Daoud is a Tajik. From his base in Mazar-e-Sharif, 100 miles to the west, Dostum had apparently asked the Americans to bomb the fort at Kunduz, at the same time as he was calling down air strikes to crush the uprising of Taliban prisoners at his own fort in Mazar. If the story is true, Dostum’s reasons will likely be lost in the confusion of war. What is certain is that, as things stand, Daoud mistrusts Dostum, the Tajik mistrusts the Uzbek, the Afghan mistrusts the foreigner – and he even despises himself a little. Let the coalition make sense of that.

Gaby Rado is in Afghanistan for Channel 4 News