'I kiss the Koran, put it in my pocket and then shoot them'
By James Meek in Rui Aab Salam, Afghanistan, The Guardian, 13 November 2001
The dizzying speed of the Taliban collapse has been such that the movement's most committed followers - by repute, foreigners, from countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - have come to seem like phantoms.
The scale of defections from the Taliban side to the Northern Alliance in the past few days makes Talibanism look like a syndrome, an expedient form of madness, rather than anything resembling loyalty or belief.

Yesterday the Guardian was present as alliance commanders negotiated the surrender of some 5,000 nominally Taliban fighters, holding a vital stretch of road in Parvani province, north-west of Kabul.

The collapse of resistance in the district, centred on the town of Ghowrband, means alliance forces outside Kabul now have an open road to the newly liberated north of the country, via Bamian, even before the Salang tunnel on the main road to Mazar-i-Sharif is unblocked.

Commander Ahmad, in charge of alliance troops on the front line facing Ghowrband, said there had been thousands of foreign Taliban, together with hundreds more fleeing the north, in the district, together with the 5,000 local men who were fighting on the Taliban side.

Yet by yesterday, as Ahmad negotiated by walkie-talkie with Taliban commanders, the foreigners seemed to have melted away. Were they ever there? And if not, what was it about the newly not-Taliban which had made them so very Taliban just a few days earlier?

The foreigners walked across the mountains to Kabul, Ahmad said vaguely. And the 5,000 locals - well, they had been Taliban, and now, somehow, they were not Taliban any more.

The local enemy first contacted Ahmad on Sunday night, as the scale of the Taliban rout became clear. Yesterday at noon they called again. Ahmad squatted with his radio and his sub-commanders on a grassy mountaintop, in front of the stubby, unchiselled gravestones of the cemetery of the village of Rui Aab Salam, haggling over the terms of the deal.

As they talked, Ahmad's chief of staff, Dadiallah, sat on a blanket, drinking tea and digging his hand into a flyblown dish of dried mulberries, and fumed over what he saw as Pakistani and US interference in the alliance's right to enter Kabul.

"These mojahedin, they have the right," he said. "I've fought for 30 years. If I don't go into Kabul, who does? Arabs? Pakistanis?"

Ahmad returned, grinning. The surrender terms had been sketched out. The three most senior local Taliban commanders were switching sides and taking 100 other commanders, 5,000 men and 50 miles of road with them.

In the valley floor far below, by the Ghowrband river, local men with shovels were clearing a road which had been blocked in a desperate attempt to stop the Taliban's own blitzkrieg, two years earlier. They were shovelling stones out of a shipping container which sat across the road and using the stones to fill in the missing bits of the road.

So confident were the alliance commanders that they were remaking the road even before the nitty gritty of the surrender was worked out. They were already thinking of how to help their friends - the previous day their enemies - get to market. "When the enemy surrenders, we deal with them as our friends," said Ahmad. "Like our brothers. There will be no revenge."

That is if they are local. If they were foreign Taliban, Ahmad would act differently. "It's been said they should be given to an international court, but personally, if I catch them, I'll kill them all," he said. "I won't forgive them."

Wasn't there something in the Koran about mercy? Dadiallah cut in: "I will respect the Koran, and kiss it, and put it in my pocket, and then shoot them."

By 5pm, it was almost dark, and the villagers were still frantically clearing the road. A 10-year-old boy in a white skull cap manoeuvred a wheelbarrow inches from the precipice.

In the middle of the village, fighters stood around, waiting for the newly not-Taliban to arrive. Somebody brought rounds of freshly baked corn bread wrapped in a cloth and the kerosene lamps came on in the mud houses fastened to the sides of the gorge. One light came on thousands of feet above the river, on a high peak, one of the alliance's frontline posts, strung out opposite the Taliban along the ridges west of Kabul, a memorial to the harshness, loneliness and boredom of the soldier's life in this long war.

A mile further up the road, at what was until recently the last point before no man's land and well within Taliban small arms range, Ahmad was still walkie-talking. He stood in the midst of a horseshoe of soldiers, lit by the light of a video camera held by one of his men.

"There'll be nothing between us," he said into the radio. "We're like two brothers. What's done is done. The past is the past."

The voice of the Taliban commander replied. "That's fine. I've spoken with all the commanders and they agree. We're coming." There was a pause, then: "We want to come, but what about the mines?"

"The mines will be cleared," said Ahmad.

"Then we'll come."

In the deep darkness, the starlight not reaching to the bottom of the gorge, the mine clearers set off to do their work. "They know where the mines are," said Ahmad.

A huge blanketed alliance fighter took my hand and led me between two rows of white stones marking the way through another minefield, to a stone bunker warmed and lit inside by a single lamp. Inside the commanders sat cross-legged, trying to explain notions of loyalty and friendship.

"Up until two days ago, these people were in no mood to surrender," admitted Ahmad. "They resisted us."

Dadiallah said that the surrendering local Taliban had been forced to fight by outsiders. "When the Taliban took Ghowrband, the people living there had nowhere else to live, and couldn't cross the lines. They were obliged to stay and protect the lives of their families."

But were they obliged to fight their former neighbours? Yes, according to commander Qaisur. "There was no way out of the situation. A man had to fight. If he didn't, he would be killed."

Another commander, Haji Sidiq, said he had a cousin on the Taliban side of the lines. He did not sound forgiving. "In our fighting with them, several people have been killed, others have lost legs and been blinded. At times the two sides wouldn't even return the bodies of people killed on each others' territory."

Ahmad pointed at Qaisur and Sidiq, sitting next to each other, the best of comrades, loyal alliance commanders. "These two people used to be on different sides," he said. "One was for Rabbani, the other was for Hekmatyar. They fought very strongly against each other."

Ahmad was not exaggerating. The fighting in the 1990s between the forces of Burhanuddin Rabbani, now the alliance's figurehead president, and the Pakistani-backed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was bloody and bitter. Yet here were these two old rivals, together in one bunker, trusting and close - for now.

Dadiallah said that he had fought against his present commander, Ahmad, for 15 years, when he was an Afghan army officer and Ahmad was a mojahed. Then they had fought together for 15 years.

He pointed to the Guardian's interpreter, who like all good Muslims prays five times a day. "And he's a communist!" Everyone laughed. It was 8pm. The Taliban were due at nine. Except that they were not Taliban any more. They were friends. Until the next time.

[Terrorism] [Mainpage] [What's New?]