TALIQAN, AFGHANISTAN—Afghans are different from you and me. We live in a world in which more people are alive than have ever lived and died. Theirs is the diametric opposite. Afghanistan is defined by things that used to be: people, ideas, Buddha statues, cities. Journalistic hyperbole has no place here; even the most abused adjectives fall short in a country where Soviet tank treads serve as speed bumps. The poor are poorer than words can describe, the anarchy of 11-year-old soldiers more prevalent than anyone would care to admit, the destruction so complete that, as upon viewing the Grand Canyon for the first time, the brain can’t process the quantity or perfect genius of the horror.
Like Three Kings come to life, this third Afghan war is characterized by surreal boredom, for locals and foreigners alike, with a dash of genuine death tossed in just to keep things interesting.
Nowhere is this truer than in the provincial capital of Taliqan. Dozens of Western journalists, a few from the country that started this whole thing, scurry about this town, captured by the Northern Alliance just days ago, wallowing in inanity as they place bets on their own chances of coming home alive.
“So,” my new neighbor, who rode a Northern Alliance tank into the city for The Washington Post, asks me seconds after my arrival, “What are you doing for power?”
Laptops and satellite phones and shortwave radios have us paying taxi drivers $20 a shot to drain their car batteries, running foul-smelling generators over the four-day road trip over the Tajik border, and endlessly clicking the annual rechargers from REI. Lost in the lust for direct current is the oft-told yet incomprehensible statistic of the average salary—$1.40 per month—and even paying the $20 to recharge the phone isn’t pushing that buck-forty very far.
“Who’s your translator?” is the second question any Euro will ask you, because a bad translator can cost you both your story and your life. A good one, on the other hand, doesn’t have to speak English. He fixes things with the foreign ministry so that you can go to the front, scores you a cheap rental car—ideally with a cigarette lighter so you can recharge your sat phone—and finds you food during the Ramadan new day witching hours. At night, the bombs come.
The siege of Kunduz, which is important because the place sits at the intersection of two of the five paved highways in the country, rages 20 miles to the west. Mostly the bombs, big 5000-pounders according to Saloqhan, a jovial Northern Alliance commander who briefs me every morning, fall on the Taliban sector of Kunduz. One night a bridge vanishes; the next a residential neighborhood goes up with nary a mention on American television.
“We don’t care if we get killed,” an Uzbek fighter named Khalev reassures me as he poses with his shiny AK. “What is important is to bomb the foreigner Taliban so they will come out and we can kill them.” And the collateral damage? “It should not be mentioned as it would cause Americans to doubt themselves.”
Ever since the Taliban defenders of Kunduz reneged on their surrender offer with a ferociously lethal ambush of their would-be conquerors, the Alliance has adopted a nationalist stance: Afghan Taliban will be welcomed into the warm bosom of indefinite imprisonment, while Pakistanis, Chechens, and other foreign volunteers will be executed en masse.
Donald Rumsfeld’s statement that the U.S. is happy to take no prisoners in Afghanistan is taken seriously by Afghans of all political persuasions. “As long as we are alive,” I hear a Taliban commander inside Kunduz tell his Alliance counterpart over a military radio, “we will fight.”
“You should surrender to prevent more killing,” his Alliance counterpart reasons.
“Your killing or my killing?” the Taliban officer closes.
Sometimes the bombs hit the residential neighborhoods of this Northern Alliance-held city. It’s intellectual calculus of the lowest sort, the per capita odds of you yourself getting hit by a bomb are tiny, akin to winning the lottery or getting that big promotion. And yet every night the bombs come again.
The important thing is to leave your windows open. It gets very cold at night, around 20 or 30 degrees, but there isn’t any heat anyway. At first the ground shakes; then a rush of air punctures the window. A Swiss radio journalist is at the Red Crescent Hospital next door having shards of glass extracted from his body. “That’s what happens when you don’t leave the window open,” his convoy mate, a writer for the British newspaper The Guardian, smirks. Twenty-four hours later the Brit is in the same hospital, unlikely to survive an encounter with Taliban POWs he was interviewing.
The journalists have reasons to be fatalistic: We’re dropping like flies. Three killed, then four carjacked and killed by the Taliban near Jalalabad a week ago, then three more. None were killed in battle, Ernie Pyle-style. All were carjacked or mugged. The Alliance helps by turning us into targets; they force us into caravans of rented vehicles containing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, traveling across remote dustscapes, with no more control on human behavior than the estimated 5 million mines planted among the spindly trees alongside the road.
When the sun comes up nine and a half hours ahead of and a thousand years behind ground zero, the war commute begins.
Tanks and trucks and Japanese rental cars with Dubai plates zoom west across the desert, dodging donkeys, potholes, and piles of wheat drying on the asphalt—and every now and then a group of refugees from Kunduz. The drama is purely theoretical; in practice the sight of teenaged girls in brightly colored dresses, toting ridiculously tiny bags containing everything they own, becomes instantaneously mundane. Likewise the front itself, which has become such a local institution that it now has its own parking attendants for visiting journos.
Self-proclaimed experts on the differences between the various kinds of mines speculate on the F-16 circling the hamlet of Bangi, just outside Kunduz. “He’s not going to drop,” says Lance from the BBC. “Once they drop they establish a straight line and get the hell out of there.” If you squint, you can make out a Taliban bunker a half mile down the valley on a perfectly sunny day. “They’ve been trying to hit us all day,” Lance notes. “They know we’re here.”
Lance is right. After a few hours photographing and sketching Alliance troops, the heat gets to me, and I hop into my car for the drive back to Taliqan. On the way home, I call my mom to wish her a happy Thanksgiving.
A few minutes after leaving Bangi, the Taliban score a coup; they take out the journalists’ parking lot. Some guy from Finnish radio comes to the back of a truck, bleeding from rocks that are still somewhere inside him. And after that, all hell breaks loose when a Taliban commander drives down the road to surrender himself, a pile of guns, and a Ford Expedition.
There’s a scramble for the keys to the SUV booty; 25 Northern Alliance soldiers are wounded and one is killed in the ensuing fracas. The visceral thrill that normally pairs up with such brushes with death is oddly absent. In just 24 hours, the place where I was standing a few minutes earlier will be pulverized by mortar shells, and the town I’m living in will be randomly bombed by air force dipshits. Mostly, though, it’s a mind-numbingly dull existence. For one thing, I engaged in mere tourism where the locals are born pro. For another, the advantages of life over death aren’t quite as apparent here as they are back home.
In the evening they send us back to T-town. “You should go home,” Alliance commander Daoud informs the assembly of dehydrated writers and cameramen after another day where the main camera-ready action on the front has been an exchange of bodies.
“What are these guys dying of, old age?” someone asks. We want blood, Robert Capa soldiers falling back dramatically, arms splayed. The closest we get is puffs of smoke in the distance where people and buildings used to be and a camel blown to smithereens by a mine. “We want to stay for the bombing,” I tell Daoud. “We’ve been waiting for hours.”
“If you stay after dark,” he warns, “some of my troops will rob you. And maybe worse.” There’s something tantalizing about this possibility. For one thing, I’d have something to write about. For another, it might jump-start the motions and bowels locked solid by days of fending off stooped old ladies in burkas pulling at my clothes in Central Asia’s ultimate form of aggressive panhandling. Maybe the sight of all of those guns—every other male carries at least one pointed at me—might spark my sympathy for the millions who lie under graves of stones and green flags hanging limply from mangy sticks.
More likely, some dumb fuck would shoot me just for the hell of it. I don’t care to be number 11, not tonight.
So I go home to a dinner of French biscuits from Qatar with a side of Ashi-mashi orange cola, and wait for the bombs to come.
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