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JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN—The Khyber Pass, the road that leads west into Afghanistan, is a rutted single lane of hairpin turns and washed-out macadam. Thousand-foot granite cliffs loom on all sides. On low plateaus, local residents can occasionally be seen carrying bundles of produce on their heads or playing cricket—the wicket made of rocks—the dirt playing fields cradled in a brown, craggy landscape that extends as far as the eye can see.
The border crossing is at the town of Tor Khama, little more than a dozen decrepit stores and a small army post. Soldiers in black shalwar kameez stand by the gate, each armed with a Kalashnikov and a rubber hose, used to beat back the crowds that gather on the Afghanistan side to seek entry or peer for long hours through the barbed wire at what for them is the promised land. For the desperately poor Afghans, Pakistan is a big step up, a place where one can make $500 a year. Through the gate, beyond the queue, one can see the sign that reads, “Afghanistan, the sacrifice country heartly welcomes you with pleases.”
On Saturday, November 17, a hundred or so journalists were waiting at Tor Khama. Their fixers—the men they pay to translate and arrange interviews—milled about impatiently or offered small bribes to get their employer’s passport shuffled to the front of the pack. “He is very, very happy now,” reported one fixer after delivering a small gift of about $17 to the post commander.
The road on the other side is an empty expanse of blacktop, deserted for miles. The Taliban pulled back from the area three days ago, but are known to be in the area. Many journalists have come this far, but now they look down the deserted stretch of road and balk at the prospect of a nighttime ride into territory harboring groups of armed men. (Two days later, on Monday, four journalists are killed on this road.)
Those who push on soon pass Toyota pickups with small groups of men in the beds; machine gun barrels and the cone-shaped heads of rocket–propelled grenades sprout around them like unruly weeds. Pakistan’s uniformed soldiers are gone, and in their place, one sees ragtag bands of fighters by the side of the road, hunched around an occasional heavy machine gun emplacement.
Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, is one of Afghanistan’s most strategic cities, straddling the Grand Trunk Road, a crowded two-lane that runs from India, through Pakistan, and into Afghanistan. The city is dusty and quiet on the first night of Ramadan. The covered sidewalks, wood-frame shops, and groups of armed men on the street corners give Jalalabad the air of the Old West.
At the Khaled Modern Guest House, $7 gets you a small room with some quilts, but no bed. Mujahideen, the soldiers of Afghanistan’s tribal warlords, wander the hallways, ostensibly to provide security; more likely it is to strengthen warlord Hazrat Ali’s hand against his rivals in the post-Taliban era.
It was only a few days ago that the Taliban pulled out of Jalalabad. Local tribal leaders and respected scholars called a meeting with the Taliban. They had been warned that the Northern Alliance was preparing to move on Jalalabad, so the tribal leaders and scholars were withdrawing their support of the Taliban in order to avoid civilian casualties and looting.
The Taliban leaders pulled out immediately. Their soldiers had no need to; they simply took off their turbans, trimmed their beards, and joined up with Hazrat Ali, Haji Zaman (newly arrived from his home in France), or one of the other lesser warlords who descended on the city the next day. Haji Abdul Qadeer, governor before the Taliban took power in 1996, immediately reclaimed his post.
Spin Gul is a former Taliban fighter who was not so fortunate. In 1996, when he was 18, the Taliban came to Jalalabad. “They restored peace,” recalls Spin Gul. “Before they came, this was a war zone. The mujahideen were fighting among themselves.” Spin Gul became a follower of Mullah Ahoun and Sudder Ibrahim, two men he considers great leaders. What did they teach him, he is asked. “They taught me how to fight and kill,” he replies with no hint of irony. His unit was at Mazar-i-Sharif last month when the bombs began to fall. He describes scenes of horror, chaos, and carnage. “I lost at least 25 friends who were killed,” he says. “I hate America.” But the bombing had its desired effect. He took off his turban, left his gun behind, and made his way back to Jalalabad. “I’ll join up again with the Taliban if they come back,” he says.
As repressive as the Taliban have been, they may indeed be the only stability this region is likely to see. The newly arrived mujahideen leaders talk of brotherhood and downplay their differences. The reality is much more complicated. There is a military base on the outskirts of Jalalabad that was bombed a few weeks ago. Its grounds are littered with burned-out Soviet T-55s, rocket launchers, and armored personnel carriers. Several buildings have been blasted almost beyond recognition—there are craters 30 feet in diameter where their foundations once sat. Unexploded cluster bombs are scattered around the base, a lethal danger to the children working in the fields a hundred yards away.
On Sunday, Hazrat Ali’s forces are patrolling the road in front of the base. His forces have been given the security detail for the province, and they stop each car heading toward the city, checking for weapons. Five Toyota pickups try to pass by. They do not need to be checked, since their cargo is plainly visible: two dozen fighters armed with a small arsenal. These mujahideen are from Haji Zaman’s camp. When the spoils were divided a few days earlier, Zaman and his followers were given control of the military installations. They feel the bombed-out base is their territory.
“You have to lay down your weapons,” Ali’s men tell them.
“We are in charge here,” Zaman’s men respond. “It is you who have to surrender your weapons to us.”
The two commanders stand in the road, arguing furiously, occasionally pausing to shout into their radios. The tension increases, and Ali’s men pull their RPGs and machine guns out of their trucks and take up positions behind the brick perimeter wall, training their weapons on their supposed allies. Zaman’s men are caught out in the open and they sit mutely, knowing a move to pick up a weapon could result in a massacre. Nearby, the boys are tending sheep in a grassy field bordered by a grove of eucalyptus trees whose leaves rustle softly in the breeze.
In the end, the situation is resolved peacefully. But barely four days into Jalalabad’s post-Taliban era, factions of the same mujahideen forces that helped reduce the country to rubble in the civil war of the early 1990s are once again pointing weapons at each other. The future for Jalalabad, and Afghanistan, is uncertain at best. Many locals are anxious, waiting for the trouble to begin.
Yet people seem to be carrying on as before. Little in their lives has changed, they say. They can now listen to music on Radio Kabul; the men can shave their beards if they so choose. But in Jalalabad, at least, the anticipated emancipation of women will not be forthcoming. “We are Pashtun,” explains Rafi Saeed, a Jalalabad resident, referring to the tribe to which most here belong. “Our women wear the burka. And we do not send them to school. That is always our custom.” On the streets, men too poor to afford donkeys pull carts laden with produce and bales of cotton. Late in the afternoon, the call to prayer is heard. Along the side of the road, in farmers’ fields, in front of small shops, men and boys sink to their knees and begin to pray, as they have for centuries.
“Talking Jihad: Three Views of One War” by Michael Kamber
“The Forgotten Refugees: Stranded for Decades, 2 Million Afghan Refugees Struggle to Survive in Pakistan” by Michael Kamber
“After the Taliban: Could a Coalition Government Withstand Afghan Rivalries?” by Michael Kamber