KHANABAD, AFGHANISTAN—For several weeks the little boy soldiers and journalist war tourists lurked at a curve in the highway a few kilometers east of Kunduz, waiting for things to open up. American bombs had driven the Taliban and their law-and-order-at-any-price mores to their southern redoubt in Kandahar. All that stood in the way of the Northern Alliance becoming the government of North Afghanistan was an estimated 30,000 diehard Talibs holed up in the otherwise uninteresting provincial capital down the dusty road.
Modern warfare, even in preindustrial Afghanistan, requires asphalt. The road that goes west from the Northern Alliance stronghold of Taloqan to Kunduz continues on to Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city north of the Hindu Kush. The Alliance needs Mazar in order to get U.S. weapons and troops across the Uzbek border at Termez, and to run supplies down to Kabul and west to Heart on the Iranian border along the nation’s main highway, A76, one of the five paved roads in the whole joint. You need Kunduz to keep Mazar to keep Kabul to keep from becoming the main event at someone else’s mass-execution fiesta.
Traditional Afghan treachery kept the siege entertaining. One Taliban surrender offer after another was followed by torrents of gunfire aimed at their would-be conquerors. “This unacceptable behavior is the influence of the Pakistanis, Chechens, and other foreign elements among the Taliban,” Alliance general Daoud announced sternly. “These Arabs will be sent before a judge and executed.”
This being Afghanistan, where the only truth is that everything is a lie, nothing of the sort occurred. The Pakistanis flew back home, possibly to rejoin Osama bin Laden’s beleaguered but well-funded posse (most people here believe that he fled to Kashmir months ago, more likely than not with the help of the CIA), causing many Western media types to wonder aloud whether the Alliance was maturing into the kind of realistic entity that could govern and unify this quintessentially unruly place. Afghans, on the other hand, recognized their new government slipping back into its old ways. Once again, lawlessness, even murder, was going utterly unpunished.
Before George W. Bush decided to avenge September 11 by reordering the Afghan political landscape with daisy cutters, the Northern Alliance was an internationally recognized government with hardly any territory to its name. President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Islamic State of Afghanistan had presided in Kabul from 1992 until the 1996 rise of the Taliban, but constant civil war between Rabbani and two warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, caused even more devastation than the Soviet war and plunged the country into anarchy.
Though at the price of personal freedom, most famously for the women who were transformed into null social factors, the Taliban’s fierce brand of discipline was welcomed by most Afghans when they pushed Rabbani’s gang into internal exile in Badakhshan province in the mountainous northeast near the Chinese border. Most people expected the Taliban to finish off the Alliance and its 5 percent share of real estate by 2002 at the latest. World Trade, saturation bombing, and the traditional preternatural ability of Afghans to react to changing times with instantaneous personal reinvention turned that 95 to 5 equation upside-down in a month. The Northern Alliance didn’t so much conquer Afghanistan as buy it with your tax dollars.
Despite the usual human rights concerns, a few hundred POWs executed here and there, Alliance troops mainly behaved themselves fairly decently by lenient national standards. Even the renewal of factional infighting between Rabbani and Dostum over which army would rule Kunduz after the Taliban departed involved more words over tea than impressive explosions. The question was: Would that decorum descend into the Mad Max-esque mayhem of the early ’90s? And given how the Alliance came to capture so much of the country by Talibs hitting their local barber shops and trading in their turbans for Ahmad Shah Masood’s trademark Nuristani hats, would the Alliance become Talibanized or vice versa, and what would any of it mean?
Even as shells were still flitting about Kunduz’s main drag and dawdling Talibs were holding out at the airport three miles away, the answer became clear: In the New Afghanistan, anything goes. Kunduz’s newly liberated bazaar, always a festival of free-wheeling capitalism in Central Asia, instantaneously assumed an even more manic tone. Until November 26, the notoriously violent officers of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (or, informally, the Religious Police) thrashed and jailed men whose beards were too short and women whose burkas showed a little ankle. On the 27th, for 300,000 afghanis (about $5) you could rent a TV, DVD player, and a grab bag of discs of dubious parentage overnight. Television, banned by the eminently uptight Taliban as decadent and foreign, had survived its rule in secret stashes. But now the titles have expanded from such third-world staples as Schwarzenegger’s Commando and Van Damme’s Universal Soldier to Thounders Boobs (sic), Climaxic Dyldoos (sic), and for mujahideen whose sexual preferences extend beyond or in lieu of their permitted four wives, Manroot, Twice as Long.
“You should see Thounders Boobs,” my 20-year-old translator, Jovid, told me. “It really is quite excellent.”
Certainly any society that fetishizes women by cloistering them even when they’re walking down the street—that much certainly hasn’t changed, even in the cities—offers a natural market for dirty-movie entrepreneurs. But the post-Taliban sex life of Afghans is transforming more than just their wet dreams.
Many Afghans are doing the unthinkable: They’re dating, or to be more specific, fucking without permission. A week and a half ago, the only way you could get laid here was to get hitched to your parents’ friends’ child—and you never got to see what was behind door number one until it was too late. People dodged this convention occasionally, but if they got caught by the Religious Police they were offered a choice—being stoned to death or buried alive. “If I want her to come to me, she does,” Jovid confided about his girlfriend. Neither of their parents know about this “secret love.”
“Do you two have sex?” I asked.
“Of course!” he brightened.
“And if she gets pregnant?”
“In Afghanistan this kind of relationship is just like marriage.”
What a difference a few thousand cluster bombs make: Afghanistan has evolved from the Hephthalites and the Sassanids to Home Fries in 10 days. And it’s not just kids: Married women are getting busy on the side while their husbands kill their countrymen at the airport. “The important thing,” one thirtyish woman said, “is for him not to know about your secret love.”
This brought up an intriguing issue. What about prostitution? Not to worry, half a dozen unrelated sources assured me. Men were pimping their daughters to the highest bidder all over town. The going rate: $100 per night, and an impressive variety of ages and ethnicities—Uzbek, Hazara, you name it—were available.
Striking about a culture condemned by Iran for taking Islam too far is the fact that few Afghans bother to heed the call to prayer. In neighboring Pakistan, taxi drivers stop their cars in the middle of the street, whip out a prayer mat, and get busy chatting up Allah whenever a nearby loudspeaker belches out a mullah’s beseeching cry; here no one even bothers to blink or roll their eyes as they line up at the bustling opium market to score some Friday night rhapsody to go along with a screening of Thounders Boobs. No one is frying up a meal of pigs’ feet wrapped in bacon, at least not yet, but that’s more of a concession to regional culinary preferences than strict adherence to Islam.
Even the daytime Ramadan fast, the only aspect of the Muslim religion still universally observed after Taliban logos started getting painted over, fell by the wayside just days later. Countless vendors fired up their grills and began serving up beef and lamb kebabs to eager customers in mid afternoon. “Isn’t that illegal?” I asked one such entrepreneur. “People are hungry,” he shrugged. “They’ve been fasting all day.”
Even that simplest of Muslim prohibitions, the stricture against drinking alcohol, is yesterday’s news. “Please bring wine” is the second line you’ll hear after being invited to dinner. The third is: “How about whiskey?” Supplies are sparse, but the way things are going, expect a fully stocked Cork-N-Bottle to open in Kunduz within minutes.
Petty thievery, punishable by amputation until late, has made an impressive comeback in this brave new world of no payback. Throngs of boys blowing off their madrassa studies to hang around the Afghan version of the mall bumrush the slow, the dimwitted, and the foreign, dozens of little hands eagerly snatching watches from wrists and bundles of afghanis from pockets. Gap-toothed graybeards of 40—halve the age Afghans would appear in America to guess their real age—chortle as these children of the corn grab burkaed butts and scamper off to shoplift Iranian sweaters and Chinese lighters.
The ample supply of opium here comes as a real mystery. About a year ago, the Taliban government had announced that Afghanistan, formerly exporter of half the world’s heroin, had virtually eradicated its opium crop by the edict of Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The world didn’t trust but did verify, and it turned out to be true. No one at the bazaar could explain where the bricks of brown paste had come from so quickly, but they didn’t much care: “It is so much cheaper than food,” a toothless codger reasoned.
While I talked to him, a fellow journalist arrived with breaking news: Taliban prisoners had tried to escape in Mazar-i-Sharif and were engaging U.S. and British commandos in a ferocious firefight. Secret Talib cells had ambushed Alliance forces in Taloqan and Dasht-e Qal’eh. Northern Afghanistan, it seemed, was once again in play.
“I’d better go home and smoke this while I still can,” the old man told me. “I’m glad I didn’t shave my beard.”
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“Gimme Danger: Drearily Awaiting Death on the Front Line” by Ted Rall
“Mujahideen Come Home: Things Change—and Remain the Same—in Post-Taliban Jalalabad” by Michael Kamber
“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