New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Long reads
21 January 2002

How horses and planes beat the Toyota pick-up

Kate Clark reveals the hitherto unrecognised role of transport, old and new, in the Afghan war

By Kate Clark

If peace comes to Afghanistan, thank the cavalry as well as the planes. Indeed, the defeat of the Taliban may prove to be the last use of cavalry in the world – almost a century after horsemen were ditched everywhere else.

Between the retreat of the Soviet Union armies in 1989 and the entry of America in 2001, war in Afghanistan settled into a largely low-tech mode. The Taliban swept to power in the late 1990s with their revolutionary use of the Toyota, four-wheel drive, open-back pick-up. The equivalent of the Panzer tank in Europe during the Second World War, this vehicle enabled Taliban troops to scorch over the country’s rough terrain. The fighters – crammed into the backs of the pick-ups, lolling, legs over the sides, wearing flip-flops, black turbans and shalwar-kameez and carrying Kalashnikovs – turned into a fierce new force that swept through the south with barely a fight, before weighting into more serious opposition in the centre and north.

The Toyota pick-up, however, was not invincible. When war erupted in the winter of 2000, anti-Taliban forces positioned south of Mazar-e-Sharif, rediscovered an old element in their arsenal – the cavalry. Ethnic Uzbek horsemen are famous in Afghanistan. Riding swiftly and quietly over the brows of the region’s sandy hills, they surprised and overpowered isolated Taliban outposts. The sandy terrain went against the Taliban; their pick-ups proved slow and ponderous compared to horses, and the Uzbek militia seized a number of towns.

At this stage in the war, the Taliban had control of the Afghan air force and they bombed the region. But the Americans then turned the war around: their own bombers and missiles quickly defeated the Taliban air force, then slowly crushed their ground forces.

Opposition commanders described how the beleaguered Taliban garrison at the town of Bamiyan took to their pick-ups every day, keeping on the move for fear of a direct hit on their headquarters. “Are you going to attack them?” I asked one opposition commander. “No, we’re just waiting for them to exhaust themselves and run out of petrol,” he said.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

The Toyota’s days as the king of Afghanistan were numbered in the face of America’s overwhelming aerial might. Meanwhile in the north, the Uzbek cavalry pushed back the Taliban forces: the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif – the first place where the Taliban were defeated – was achieved at least partly by men on horses.

Nowadays, the familiar scene of the Taliban driving their Toyotas through the streets of Kabul is gone. Any pick-ups that the Taliban did not use to escape to the south were seized by the Jamiat-i-Islami faction (comprised of ethnic Tajiks) of the Northern Alliance when they swept into the capital. Huge numbers of new pick-ups and land-cruisers brought in by the flood of new UN agencies, NGOs and media operations have invaded the city.

Now the streets of Kabul are also full of Russian Jeeps – which arrived from the north with the troops. While the Taliban could import posh Toyotas from the Gulf and Pakistan, Jamiat were always constrained to what they could bring in across the border with Tajikistan. Russian Jeeps are the hardiest, most indefatigable, most uncomfortable vehicles I have ever ridden in – with body parts bolted together and ill-fitting windows that leave passengers covered in a film of dust within minutes. Commanders make them plush – fitting curtains, quilted seat covers, fans and drinks cabinets between the front seats (always containing a Thermos flask of black tea) – but any comfort was always entirely visual.

The Bonn Agreement gave overall control of the interim administration to Hamid Karzai – a widely respected Pashtun tribal leader – who has no armed men at his disposal. Jamiat leaders, who are Panjshiris (their main power base is in the Panjshir Valley), were given the defence, interior and foreign ministries. Defence minister Mohammed Fahim is also now heading up intelligence. His employees are career men who were first trained by the East German Stazi in the communist era: they have always survived by serving as highly effective and widely feared interrogators for whoever is in power in Kabul.

Where Pashtuns used to walk proud in the city, Panjshiris are now on top. “We were oppressed by the Taliban,” said a father and son, who said their butchers’ shop had been seized by men who said they were relatives of General Fahim. “The Taliban closed our shop because our landlord is Panjshiri; now the Panjshiris have stolen our livelihood from us.”

At present, the armed groups and tribal factions seem to be biding their time. No one wants to be seen as the group that re-ignites the civil war and takes Afghanistan back into the abyss. Diplomats, speaking privately, say the key is the loya jirga – grand consultative assembly – due to be held in June to establish a more representative government. If the loya jirga is not rigged, if those interim ministers who are not chosen to continue in office hand over power voluntarily, if security is brought to all parts of the country, peace stands a chance. If not, the Toyota pick-ups and horsemen may well prove their usefulness once more.

Content from our partners
The power of place in tackling climate change
Tackling the UK's biggest health challenges
"Heat or eat": how to help millions in fuel poverty – with British Gas Energy Trust