There was no safety drill on the Ariana Afghan Airlines flight to Kabul, no embarrassed air hostess pretending to blow up a life-jacket. Perhaps they thought it unnecessary in the face of greater dangers. The descent was terrifyingly steep, in order to evade mujahedin rockets fired from the mountains which encircle Kabul. And the plane excreted magnesium flares to fool any heat-seeking Stinger missiles. The Arrivals Lounge at Kabul International Airport was an empty room. There were no customs or immigration officials because a rocket attack on the Airport had forced its evacuation five minutes before our plane landed. The rocket attack also meant that the baggage handlers refused to unload the plane. I hitched a lift in a UN jeep to Kabul’s only grand hotel, wearing my hot-weather Delhi clothes and shivering in Afghanistan’s chilly autumn.

Twice that day I returned for my luggage – but soldiers wouldn’t allow me into the Airport complex, even though the rocketing had finished. Angrier and colder, I returned the following morning. They allowed me into the Arrivals Lounge but wouldn’t let me near my very visible suitcases. Screaming ‘I am a guest in your country,’ I jumped over a narrow dividing-wall and grabbed my luggage. They screamed back, and a minuscule soldier came out from behind a trolley and pointed his Kalashnikov at my stomach, making some ratcheting noise with it to indicate its readiness for action. I regained my temper and apologised politely in broken Persian. Ten minutes later, having whispered three all-powerful syllables to the soldier, I and my bags were in a taxi on the way back to the hotel. Those syllables – BBC, the name of my employers – carry a lot of weight in an Afghanistan which is desperate for the love of the international community.

That evening I sent my first despatch down a crackly phone line to London which took four hours and a ten-dollar bribe to obtain. The people at the BBC’s Foreign Traffic, where incoming despatches are recorded, didn’t seem very interested and hadn’t been told I was in Afghanistan. The following day I was a superstar in Kabul. I walked into the press department of the Foreign Ministry and officials crowded around me to comment on my despatch, which they’d heard on the morning bulletins of the BBC’s Persian and Pashto language services. Shopkeepers, money-changers, taxi-drivers, even a group of soldiers guarding the entrance to the Salang Highway, knew of my presence in the country from listening to my reports.

Kabul is a city-state which holds sway over a few other towns and cities in Afghanistan. But the territory beyond the mountains surrounding it is bandit country, with the mujahedin sporadically controlling tracts of land which allow them to rocket the city: more than twenty people were killed in rocket attacks during my week-long stay. All land routes to Kabul are cut off from time to time. When I arrived, the Salang Highway – the crucial land-link to the Soviet Union – had been cut by the mujahedin for more than a week, thereby imposing a blockade on the city. The effect on Kabul was devastating – prices of foodstuffs and fuel spiralled and there was a lot of defeatist talk in the bazaars. On my third day, a well-directed Scud missile attack cleared the Highway of guerrillas, a large convoy got through, prices tumbled and the city returned to its cocky self – that of a place which still functions despite 11 years of civil war and thousands of deaths.

Kabul has been written off many times. Many of its inhabitants had heard and even believed Western press and intelligence reports of its imminent fall as the Soviet troops withdrew last February. It did not happen. It is not likely to happen. It was only ever likely to happen if the mujahedin had been able to instigate a rebellion against the Najibullah regime from within Kabul. The mujahedin are quite simply not equipped militarily for a sustained assault on the city. Kabul contains people who still support them, however. And once I had shed my Afghan Foreign Ministry minder, they were easy to find – on the streets, in the cafés and the bazaars. But they weren’t a happy lot: the mujahedin stock in the city was falling, they said, because of the random rocketing of Kabul. But they also admit to a more important reason for the mujahedin failure. The Soviet pull-out has removed the one thing that united them – the infidel foreign occupier. Now they are killing each other. The romantic Western image of the mujahedin as glamorous guerrillas fighting to rid the world of Communism is crumbling as fast as the Berlin Wall.

Meanwhile Kabul’s present rulers have lowered the public profile of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which invited in the Soviet Union ten Christmases ago, and they have embraced Islam with a fervour that has surprised and embarrassed the city’s mullahs. Members of the PDPA, which remains the power behind the coalition Government, denied to me that they had ever been socialist. Having never been part of the Soviet bloc, their counter-intuitive argument goes, we have no need of glasnost. Glasnost there is, though – a special, partial, wartime glasnost where everybody knows that there are limits on what Kabul’s trendiest new newspaper Akhbar-e Haft can say: but no one knows quite what those limits are. A society – ‘most definitely not a political grouping’ – of old ministers and public servants from the time of the former king Zaher Shah (now in exile) has been formed. Its members are so self-abnegating, so terrified of overstepping the mark, that they are almost inclined to deny they exist. But they do. Their ideas are broadcast on state television and radio, and that in itself is a sea-change in the politics of Kabul.

The war has stunted Kabul’s growth. It has few high-rise buildings, large areas of the city are without running water and electricity, there is little traffic, and the city feels uncluttered despite a dramatic growth of population over the last few years – more than two million people are thought to live there now. There are serious food shortages which are likely to cause malnutrition during Kabul’s harsh winter, as they did last year. On the other hand, there is a glut of caviar and vodka bartered by departing Soviet soldiers for electronic goods smuggled in from Pakistan. One surprise is the huge quantity of goods on the shelves from Pakistan and China, both bitter enemies of the Najibullah Government. For most of the war, indeed until the battle for Jalalabad earlier this year, the road to Pakistan remained open to private traders, bringing goods from Peshawar, home of the mujahedins’ political leaders, to Kabul. They say that if you have the money there is nothing, except Western newspapers, that you can’t buy. One grocery shop on the main shopping thoroughfare, Chicken Street, had just two products for sale: Chinese toilet rolls and those little see-through plastic boxes of individually-wrapped Ferrero Rocher chocolates that you can buy in Sainsbury’s these days. They are more expensive in Kabul.

The vodka, the caviare and the Afghan Army’s military hardware are the longest-lasting signs of the nine-year Soviet presence in Kabul. There are still rumours of Soviet military officials helping Afghans run the Scud missile base, but I was unable to substantiate them. One incident, though, stood out. A group of journalists was flown in a helicopter gunship to a beautiful valley just outside Kabul, with babbling brook and mujahedin minefield, to examine a recently-captured rocket base. Travelling with the mainly Western press corps was a Soviet television crew, accompanied by a huge man who reminded me of Rambo – last seen fighting on the side of the mujahedin against the Najibullah regime in Rambo Three. Revolvers, magazines, bullet-proof armour and a sub-machine-gun festooned his body. A Swiss journalist thought that this image of an armed Soviet citizen would make a fine picture for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and snapped him. Rambo grabbed the film and exposed it. This bizarre incident later produced the first official Afghan Government complaint to the Soviet Embassy that anybody could remember.

An even more bizarre incident however, followed. A triumphant Afghan soldier suddenly appeared showing off an unusual trophy. At first sight, it looked like a mud-splattered fur wrap. On closer examination it turned out to be the top half of a human head. A dushman, he said, a mujahed. An English-speaking officer scuttled over: ‘Let me explain ... The mujahedin were fighting and the loser’s head was cut off. The winner took his body home as a prize.’ Our Foreign Ministry spokesman looked jumpy. ‘When an Afghan dies in fighting,’ he elaborated, ‘it is an Afghan tradition to carry his body away to bury. His name was Muhammad al-Ghazia. Look, it is written on his cap.’

Kabul feels claustrophobic, both because of the proximity of the snow-capped mountains and because you can only leave the city by air. It’s also subdued. A ten o’clock curfew curtails all night-time entertainment, and the place feels dead after dusk. It is still very much a city at war, but also a city used to war. The desire for peace is universal, and even among ruling circles there is a desire to compromise in the hope of a return to the days when Jalalabad was a holiday resort, not a battlefield. The regime is desperate for international support, and its nervousness about what foreign visitors might say can be extreme. On my final morning I had a quarrel with the telephone operator at the hotel, who had decided to double my phone bill. After a long harangue about how poor he was, I split the difference and gave him fifty dollars. I was then ushered into a taxi by my minder and made for the Airport. I checked in, went through customs and sat waiting for my flight. Fifteen minutes before the plane was supposed to leave the head of airport security came up to me. ‘Mr Miller – BBC? ... The Minister of Finance wishes to speak to you.’ Prison seemed to beckon. We went to the security chief’s office, phoned the Ministry, only to be told that the minister was on his way out to the Airport. Ten minutes later he appeared: ‘Mr Miller, I wish to apologise for the mix-up over the telephone bill. Please come again. It was accidental. Do not think ill of our country.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences