Playing Games

by Elizabeth Rubin | November 5, 2001

YESTERDAY, IN A field encircled by willow trees and surrounded by close to a thousand men of all ages, a dozen whip-wielding horsemen cantered around and into each other, grabbing after the carcass of a headless goat. A burly man in knee-high sheepskin boots, baggy woolen trousers, and a thick, black wool cardigan that barely stretched over his shoulders, hunched over the headless sack of goat he'd hitched between his horse's belly and his stirrup and managed to gallop to the edge of the playground, around a flag post, and back into center field to bulldoze his wild, dusty white horse through the others and drop the goat into one of the two pits that serve as goalposts.

The man was Nour Habib, commander of the town of Gulbahar. His horse is one of the best, worth $15,000, but not for sale. And the game is buzkushi, a kind of Afghan polo. It's thrilling and dizzying to watch. The men, their horses, the colored saddles, and whips are shrouded in swirling dust. Often you can't tell whether there are any teams or rules, which is why the game is frequently used to describe the politics of the ethnic Uzbeks. They're a Turkic people, mostly in northern Afghanistan, whose commander, Rashid Dostum, a rich, womanizing, old-time warlord, infamous for allegiance-swapping, is now in a pitched battle to wrest the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif from the Taliban. The United States is supposedly helping him do that. But, for the past week, Northern Alliance commanders here—both north of Gulbahar, in the Panjshir Valley, and south in Parwan province around Kabul—have felt like they're inside a Buzkushi dust cloud, bewildered by America's military and political aims.

As the horses rolled around, scratching their backs in the dusty pits during a recess, Commander Habib said that the game was a good way of relaxing his men. "It's good for their morale," he told his audience under the boiling mid-morning sun. "It helps dissipate their anger and aggression." Since the U.S. military campaign began 17 days ago, commanders have been awaiting permission to retake Kabul, the ultimate prize. "If it were my decision I'd go to Kabul in an hour, but the decision is with our leaders," said Habib. But listening to the Dari-language BBC, or Iranian radio, or Voice of America in Persian, they've discovered that even their leaders are not calling the shots anymore. To them, once again, Afghan soil has become the staging ground for external imperial battles.

Meanwhile the soldiers wait. One evening I visited a command base for a mountain range northwest of Kabul. We walked up the sandy slopes followed by trails of children. A crimson sun set behind the range. In a cleft in the hills, I met a field commander and his young men—all of them welcoming and undyingly dedicated. Through their high-resolution binoculars, they pointed out tiny, robed Taliban soldiers, in silhouette against the night sky, climbing up and down a distant mountain ridge. A little further south, across the Bagram airfield about 35 miles north of the capital, every night this past week you could watch dozens of Taliban pickups moving supplies and men to the front line. Yet U.S. planes were nowhere in sight. Why, the commander asked, is America bombing Kabul and not the front lines?

It was something of a rhetorical question. It's well known that, since the beginning of the war, Pakistan has been pressuring the United States to avoid bombing frontline Taliban troops in order to prevent the Northern Alliance from marching on Kabul. What the commander really wanted to know is why the United States still supports Pakistan when everyone, he said, knows that Pakistan is the source of both the Taliban and international terrorism? Why didn't the United States bomb the terrorist training camps in Pakistan a long time ago or stop its madrassas from pouring out new Taliban fighters? "We're such a poor, destroyed country, that there are no real consequences for bombing us. It's cheap," the commander complained. "But if America really wants to get rid of terrorism in this region she's going to have face Pakistan." Everywhere I turned up this last week, the sentiment was nearly the same.

 

ON FRIDAY AFTERNOON, the Muslim Sabbath, hundreds of Panjshir mujahedin packed in two Russian-made military trucks were stuck on a bridge in the Gulbahar, at the southern end of the Panjshir Valley, waiting for a train of donkeys laden with straw to pass. En route to the front, the fighters cheered themselves on by shouting to the men in the nearby teahouses and bazaar: "Long Live Islam. Down with Pakistan." To Western ears, these calls are a confusing muddle of allegiances and fractures. But to Afghan eyes, it is America's relationship with Pakistan that appears Byzantine and ruthlessly self-interested.

That became even more obvious the next morning, when an instructor at the military academy in Jabal Saraj addressed a thousand Northern Alliance reservists on a field littered with dead Soviet tanks. Their General Fahim, he told them, was on a tour of foreign countries. An Islamic council of 60 leaders from the Northern Alliance and 60 from the exiled King of Afghanistan's party would meet in Tashkent to decide on the future government of Afghanistan. Then he added: "Pakistan is the source of terrorism. Pakistan created the Taliban. Pakistan supported Osama bin Laden. And the president of Pakistan told the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that the Northern Alliance should not be part of the future government of Afghanistan. We must fight not only with terrorists but with the supporters of terrorism." The crowd cried out on cue: "Long Live Islam! Down With Pakistan!"

And I heard the refrain yet again on a visit to another Northern Alliance leader, General Anwari. His office in Gulbahar is a two-story building perched over a river and overlooking a car mechanic's junkyard, equipped with satellite phones and a small black-and-white Sanyo television that was showing an old BBC documentary of the mujahedin struggle against the Soviets. Anwari is the leader of the Harakat-i-Islami, a Shia party of the ethnic Hazara, who come from the Hazarajat, the central provinces in the Hindu Kush. The Hazara's Mongol features, it is said, are the result of intermarriage between the warriors of Genghis Khan and the indigenous Tajik and Turkic peoples. The Hazara have suffered ruthless massacres at the hands of the Taliban. Fingering his yellow prayer beads, Anwari's deputy said, "After the attack in New York and D.C., the U.S. put pressure on Pakistan not to support the Taliban, and so they've created an open-minded Taliban." Is America that naive, he wondered? There is no such thing as a Taliban who is open-minded or moderate. As my translator, an engineering student from Kabul, added, Taliban means student, but it also implies close-minded.

We had heard this before, and were going into a near coma from the propaganda and the heat, when suddenly an elderly man with Asian eyes and a wild laugh bounced into headquarters to see the general. He was, of all things, a professor of molecular biology, dressed in a black velvet blazer, a twill Scottish cap, and silk argyle socks. Speaking to me in English, Professor Ali kept referring to the unwitting men in our company as "those other fundamentalists." ("I bet they won't shake your hand," he said to me several times.) "I describe them as living in a vestigial state of evolution," he added with a howl. "It's fun to tease and fight them. They are just suckers and so boring. Aren't they?" he asked. "Admit it, I'm the first person today who's spoken to you honestly, no? We are completely beset in this country by extremists on all sides."

The professor lived and studied in Boulder, Colorado, for twelve years but, when he returned to visit his family in 1982, the Communist regime in Kabul wouldn't let him go back, so he headed up the medical faculty there. Later, when the Taliban stormed Kabul, he fled to Mazar-e-Sharif, where he established another medical faculty. Still, even the worldly professor knew who the enemy was. Whenever the satellite phone rang or the other men in the room fell into a discussion, he would lean over and whisper about Pakistan. "I am quite sure they are cheating your government," he said. "They know where Mullah Omar and bin Laden are. The ISI [the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence] knows every single hideout in this country, but they'll never tell."

The next day, at the professor's insistence, we stopped by his university office near the new airport being built for the Northern Alliance. There he pulled out a map and began drawing circles with his finger. "There it is," he said. "It's one of only two places he could be hiding." He was talking about bin Laden. The region was called Shahristan, in the southern province of Uruzgan, where Mullah Omar was born, a region of high, inaccessible mountains with hundreds of caves--about 34 degrees by 67 degrees on a specialized map. The professor said he'd received information from his former medical students that they'd spotted bin Laden there 15 days earlier. "I read that five million dollars is the reward for people who offer information on his whereabouts. I could have gotten it but I was scared for my family. So now I'm telling you," he said.

There is, of course, history behind this hatred. The Taliban's primary recruiting grounds were the madrassas of Pakistan--in particular, the madrassa of Samiul Haq, a religious leader who has been a member of the Pakistan National Assembly and a senator. His madrassa, Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania, graduated at least eight Taliban cabinet ministers and dozens of Taliban governors, military commanders, judges, and bureaucrats. Located on the Islamabad-Peshawar highway, it has a boarding school for 1,500, a high school for 1,000 day students, and twelve smaller madrassas. As Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban, has written, in February of 1999 it was the most popular madrassa in northern Pakistan. Haq sets aside at least 400 places for Afghans and 60 more for students from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, often members of the radical Islamic opposition.

"Haq is in constant touch with [Mullah] Omar, helps him deal with international relations and offers advice on important Sharia decisions," writes Rashid. "He is also the principle [sic] organizer for recruiting Pakistani students to fight for the Taliban." In 1997, Rashid writes, Omar asked Haq for help in the battle for the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. "[Haq] sent his entire student body to fight alongside the Taliban." The following year, through Haq's negotiations, a number of local schools shut down for one month and sent 8,000 students to Afghanistan. This support, writes Rashid, a journalist in Lahore and one of the most knowledgeable sources on the Taliban, is separate from the regular reinforcements the Taliban receive from Pakistan's government, its established Islamic organizations, and its intelligence services.

 

OVER THE WEEKEND I drove back into the Panjshir Valley, where the river runs fast and autumn is in full swing, to the Northern Alliance's Ministry of Justice prison not far from where Ahmad Shah Massoud lived. There are a few soldiers posted on the mud-brick square complex, but security is based largely on the prison's inaccessibility: To reach it you must wade through the river and then cross a suspension bridge made of narrow sheets of metal. Daily life for the prisoners mimics the madrassa schedule they followed in Pakistan, which is where most of them come from. They sleep 25 to a room, their narrow mattresses lined up side by side. From the log rafters, they hang their belongings: Adidas sacks, plastic bags, tea kettles, blackened cooking pans, bloodied beef bones on a string. They stack Korans of every size on small shelves. They wake up before sunrise for ablutions and morning prayer. The rest of the day is parceled out between fetching water, Koranic study, prayer, and meals.

The director—a doctor, comedian, and propaganda artist—brought in a slew of prisoners. They've all been detained for between two and five years. They have no radio, televisions, or magazines and, had journalists not begun showing up at the prison, they never would have known what has happened over the past six weeks. The first man we met was Faqir Mohammad Darwesh, who started his fighting, at 15, against the Russians. He had only had three years of school and said he couldn't read or write. He had one glass eye, permanently wide open with the bottom eyelid sagging, a full beard, a mustache, and robes. He'd met Mullah Omar when Omar was a commander with the Islamic Movement based in Pakistan. Yes, he said without inflection, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were good because they were done in the name of Allah. If any Muslims died there, that's OK: They were worshipping money and they'll go to Allah anyway. He'd vaguely heard of Osama bin Laden and thought he might be a terrorist but didn't know much about him.

Much stranger was Saluddin Khalid, a young prisoner with hyperthyroid eyes, plastic glasses, a long beard, dark skin, and brown long robes who, it was said, came from Pakistan. He sat forward on the balls of his feet and said very quickly in English: "I am a member of a fundamentalist organization called Harikat Islam. I was fighting in Khost province for two years and then in Kashmir for a year, and then I came back to Afghanistan." Then, after my translator left the room, he said very fast, "Everything I'm telling you is a lie.My real interview was taken by the International Red Cross. The number is 31930. I was a Sunni Muslim from Iran working against the government, and I escaped to Pakistan, where I became an Islamic master writing for the Islamic magazine. Because I was Persian they sent me to Kabul and I was surrounded by them. I hid my ID because I thought their connection with Iran was too good and they'd send me back. I never imagined they'd arrest me if I said I was from Pakistan. First they made me into an officer of the Pakistani intelligence services [ISI] and after a year I had to dish out this Islamic fundamentalist line, that I want to control Afghanistan."

At that moment my translator returned, and Khalid began again: "I am happy about the attacks in New York and D.C. America helps Israel with three billion dollars in aid to kill Muslims. We will continue our fighting in Pakistan and America with our secret cells and fight against the enemies of Islam." At first I believed him. But Daud, my translator, didn't believe the story, noting that Khalid's accent seemed Pakistani. He was, he surmised, probably a Pakistani changing his story to discredit the Northern Alliance.

Then there was Abdul Ghalid from Xingyang province in China. A thin man with a goatee and white skullcap, Abdul had first gone to live with relatives in Pakistan. In the late 1990s he then went to Kabul, where he attended an Islamic school for free, with a stipend from the government. There he learned not only the tenets of Taliban fundamentalism but also a modicum of military training and terrorist tactics. Had he not been caught, he almost certainly would have returned to China to ignite a separatist movement with his newly learned skills.

 

ON SUNDAY U.S. planes circled north of Kabul around the Bagram airport, then nose-dived toward their target, dropping two bombs each from their underbellies. All week long everyone had been complaining that the United States was refusing to bomb the Taliban's front lines. Now a new round of grumbling ensued: Why was the bombing so minimal? On Monday I went to the Northern Alliance side of the line, in the village of Qala-e-Nasru. El Harim, a commander there, was in his early forties and unmarried. His room at headquarters was decorated with cartooncolored posters of Islamic sites and Koranic stories, and photos of his youthful days with the mujahedin, when he looked like a Hell's Kitchen biker in square mirror glasses, or standing in a field with Massoud surrounded by looming poppies. He led us through a minefield, on a narrow stretch of treadupon dirt, to his perch in the trenches. There he polished his black army boots for the tenth time and looked 400 meters across the fields to the mud-baked Taliban buildings that housed his old friend, Sharif.

Sharif and El Harim grew up together in the village of Qala-e-Nasru. Together they went to primary school, shot their first Kalashnikovs, at 17 joined the mujahedin, and five years ago fought against the Taliban invasion on Kabul. Then, four years ago, Sharif joined the Taliban forces. It was inevitable, El Harim said. "He is Pashtun"--the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan from which the Taliban are largely drawn. Shortly before the United States began bombing Taliban positions in Kabul, Sharif and El Harim told their soldiers to hold fire. They emerged from their trenches and traversed the fields between them, meeting in the no-man's land of Rabat. Sharif no longer looked like the man El Harim knew years ago. He'd lost an eye from a bullet fired by El Harim's men. His face was scarred and his leg damaged from stepping on a mine, laid by El Harim's men. Sharif asked El Harim what he and his troops should do. "I told him, `Your time is over. There's no way for you.' I told him, `You are with terrorists from Arab countries and Pakistan, and you should get out, join us, and save yourself.'" Sharif promised that he'd join his old friend soon. After two more meetings in no-man's-land, El Harim realized his friend was duping him to gather information about potential American attacks and the strength of the Northern Alliance. "I won't meet with him again. He's chosen his way and decided to fight us until the end," El Harim told me.

El Harim had his walkie-talkie with him and we decided to find out whether Sharif regretted his decision.

"Sharif, Sharif. Are you listening? How was the bombing last night?" yelled El Harim, laughing his head off. There was a crackling, and then Sharif appeared on the frequency.

"Our morale is high. The bombs are just landing in the desert. Besides this is not new for us. We've seen it all before from the Russians."

"How are the Arabs with you?" El Harim asked.

"There are no Arabs and no Pakistanis. We are all Afghans fighting for peace."

"Why do you hate Americans?"

"All of them are human beings. We never said anything against America."

"Why then did you attack New York and Washington?"

"It's not us. They have no proof for that. Islam says it's not good to kill anyone."

"Why are you protecting bin Laden?"

"Osama is a Muslim mujahedin. He never did anything. It's just lies from America.... It's not good to kill poor Afghan people without any proof."

"Why did you join the Taliban?"

"I am a mujahed Islamic soldier and because the Taliban are mujahed we joined them to finish the war between all these factions."

I asked El Harim to ask Sharif how he'd feel if he accidentally killed his old friend. Sharif replied: "I'm not your enemy and I don' t want to kill you. You should leave this front line and don't fight with us."

For his part, however, El Harim wasn't troubled by the idea of killing his old friend in a firefight. "He's no longer my friend. One hundred people of this village were killed in fighting in these two years. There were many from there and here killed and many dead bodies were in front of our house and we exchanged the bodies for burial."

 

IT WAS A late-afternoon scene from Breugel's harvest paintings. Silhouetted dusty mountains, russet autumn grass, and orange leaves. An indifferent horse grazed as American planes flew overhead. Shouting men led us up to the roof to watch the American bombs fall. In the courtyard below lay an unexploded rocket of a past war. Someone continued hammering to repair his kiosk. Children coming home from school stopped to stare at all the spectators on the street.

That evening we drove through the tunnel of golden-leafed trees that winds through Bagram village. The road is flanked on either side by mud-baked walls, which defend garden plots from the street. We climbed the Bagram air tower to the headquarters of the beefy, jovial, former Communist General Baba Jan, one of the savvier generals around. A storm was blowing in. Half the sky was black. The other half was illuminated by a quarter moon and a giant star. On the not-so-distant horizon we watched dozens of yellow lights making their way to the front line. "You see they have such confidence they don't even turn off their lights," one of Baba Jan's soldiers said of the Taliban. Baba Jan estimated that there are some 6,000 Arab, Chechen, and Uzbek mercenary fighters reinforcing the Taliban. The figure is possibly grossly exaggerated, but there are certainly some, and they've been amassing on the front line around the airport.

As U.S. bombers flew overhead, Baba Jan looked out of the watchtower, its glass panels now gone. He was gravely disappointed that the Americans were not even attempting to hit the yellow lights across the way—which should have been easy targets. And so he fired up his walkie-talkie and ordered his men to begin an artillery barrage themselves.

This article originally appeared in the November 5, 2001 issue of the magazine.

 

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