Where does the rubble end and the ground begin?
In the slow weeks before the Taliban fled Kabul, weeks of B-52 vapour trails drawn across blank blue skies, of sporadic bombing and constant rumour, it was easy to find General Abdul Basir. He kept open house in his office, a small, single-storey building at the mouth of the Salang Valley. Bare mountains crowded close on every side, shutting out the light. Basir was building a grander suite of brick and stone nearby but work was sluggish. Sometimes it seemed as if, among all the commanders of the Northern Alliance in that part of Afghanistan, he was treading water. The pre-paid card for his satellite phone had expired, so he could no longer make calls; people could only call him. I never heard the phone ring while I was there. His entire catering operation was run by a single boy, cheerful and anxious, who had not only to make the tea and the rice and lentil pottage which was the General’s staple lunch for guests, but pour water over their hands before they ate and give them a towel.
Basir was almost always available for a chat. Some of the foreign journalists who went to see him began to ask themselves the Groucho Marx question: do I want to interview a general who has time to be interviewed? There was a pair of tanks parked outside his building, but a better symbol of his style was the sofa which he had placed in the little elevated yard leading to the entrance. Sometimes visitors would arrive and he would be sitting there on the sofa in the open air, a few retainers nearby, including his chief of staff, Delagha. Meetings would move from the sofa to a furnitureless reception room inside which, in traditional Afghan fashion, everyone would sit on mattresses arranged around the edge, talking, eating and, if necessary, sleeping in one spot.
The first sight of Basir, 36 years old, pale-skinned, with a long nose and a well-trimmed beard, must have disappointed visitors who expected an Afghan general to be a hard man in combats. Basir tended to wear a beige suede parka over his shalwar kameez. He had two disconcerting habits in conversation. One was to take an object from someone while they were talking – lift a pen from their pocket, for instance – examine it, and put it back without saying anything. The other was to change his expression abruptly, for no clear reason, from beaming, laughing, happy to sullen, gloomy, sulking. He could perform these micro mood-swings once a minute. Both expressions had something of the child in them.
I liked him, and I wasn’t the only foreign journalist who did. He was generous, hospitable and friendly. Despite the problem with his phone, he was well-informed. Not long before it happened he told me that Mazar-i-Sharif would be the first Afghan city to fall to anti-Taliban forces, and that its fall would precipitate a general Taliban collapse. He also said that the US would only make the Taliban stronger if they went on bombing their front lines as feebly as they had been doing. A few days later, the US began to bomb more intensively.
In local military terms, Basir was a powerful man. In the mainly Tajik north-eastern areas of Afghanistan, which the Taliban had never conquered and the Red Army had only pretended to control, the measure of a commander was how well in he was with the supreme mujahed, Ahmad Shah Massoud. This was even more the case after Massoud’s assassination, on 9 September; the light of Massoud’s favour still shone on Basir, despite an episode in the 1990s when he is said to have taken money to allow the Taliban passage through his territory.
Before the fall of Kabul, Basir was responsible for the Salang, a valley rougher and less green than Massoud’s Panjshir. But the Salang, too, had its villages of mud houses stacked into forts on outcrops and ridges of naked rock, looking down on little plots of corn, groves of mulberry trees and the willows by the river. From each village Basir drew a tithe of men for his irregular army: every ten days the General’s captains would stand on the road by the villages, fire a single shot from a rifle, and wait while a handful of conscripts emerged from behind the ramparts carrying household weapons – rocket launchers, automatic rifles, machine-guns – as old as they were. They would replace the previously recruited detachment from their village, serving in the trenches on the far side of the blocked road tunnel which in pre-Taliban days had linked Mazar and Kabul. It was a feudalism of sorts. Basir was no aristocrat, and he did not hold the Salang in fief. Yet the male villagers were in some sense his vassals, and he Massoud’s.