Vol. 24 No. 1 · 3 January 2002

Where does the rubble end and the ground begin?

James Meek

3255 words

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.

I went to one of the Salang villages, Baghalala, on the day the recruits were being sent to the front. As a male stranger, I wasn’t allowed to go into the fort. Behind its walls women go unveiled. Outside, they wear the burqa. If I had gone in, everyone would have been, at best, hideously embarrassed. At worst, someone might have felt the need to kill me and my interpreter for the affront to the women, or rather the affront to the men whose women they were.

Instead, after the recruits had gone, we sat in a mulberry grove by the river: Zabed Abdul Qadir, a local commander, and my interpreter, Muhammad. Qadir poured tea from a big brass kettle while I asked him about the effects of more than two decades of war on the community. The collapse of the postal service was one of the more trivial consequences that he mentioned, but there was something moving about a village that hadn’t received a letter for 21 years.

One of the hateful results of the long conflict, Qadir said, was that the young people in the village had grown up illiterate. I asked him what had happened to the schools in the valley. The Taliban destroyed them, he said. But this made no sense. The Taliban never ruled in the Salang. I told Qadir I didn’t understand. Instead of translating the question, Muhammad – who lived in a village further up the Salang – answered it for me. It was the mujahedin who had destroyed the schools during the fight against Communism. They had burned the schools and killed the teachers, he said. According to Muhammad, the mujahedin wanted their young recruits to be illiterate because that way they would be more pliable, although the reality was probably that the mujahedin saw schools and teachers as symbols of the unwanted modernity of the godless Communists. Muhammad had his own axe to grind. He was a former officer in the Soviet-backed Afghan Army, and regretted the passing of a Communist regime which had meant jobs, education, healthcare, roads, order. At the same time he wasn’t defending the Red Army, which during its retreat from Afghanistan through the Salang in 1989 killed 1300 people, mainly civilians. Qadir watched, frowning, as Muhammad and I talked in a language he couldn’t understand. Eventually Muhammad translated my question. Qadir paused, then burst out laughing and punched Muhammad in the shoulder. ‘You told him!’ he said. Muhammad laughed, too. Qadir said something and Muhammad translated: ‘He’s ashamed of what they did, killing the teachers.’ But he didn’t look ashamed, only sheepish.

Although I never found out what Basir was doing when the schools were destroyed, it became clear later that he, too, was concerned about the literacy of Afghanistan’s surplus of men with guns. After November’s change of power in Kabul – ‘fall’, let alone ‘liberation’, seems the wrong word, given the overnight vanishing of the Taliban – I found him at the city’s western edge, in a world of ruins. There is something especially hopeless about a ruined mud building. In a dry climate, mud, strengthened with wooden beams, is a good medium for building. You can make the walls strong and level, you can plaster and paint them, you can put in window frames. But if the building is struck by a shell or a bomb or a rocket, as thousands were in Kabul in the 1990s, it is not easy to tell where the rubble ends and the ground begins. The remnants of houses struck by US missiles a few weeks before had the same patina as the mud of the ancient city of Merv in Turkmenistan, five hundred miles to the north-west, which was ruined centuries ago. You don’t rebuild with mud, any more than you rebuild a sandcastle which has been washed away by the tide. You start from scratch.

Basir had been given control of the headquarters of the Communist-era Afghan Army’s Seventh Division, just outside the city. The divisional barracks and workshops, set in unusually green fields, had been heavily bombed, but the Taliban’s arsenal didn’t seem to have been much affected.

Grinning, Basir put his arms round me and gave me a cheek to cheek greeting. ‘There are two hundred warehouses of ammunition here, all full,’ he said. I said maybe he should think about blowing it up. ‘It’ll be needed,’ he replied. I wasn’t sure whether he was joking. Basir and Delagha had salvaged a set of new-looking, undamaged tanks: T-62s, smarter than the knocked-about T-54s which had been parked outside his old Salang office. The new Basir fleet was sitting on the road, as if ready to be moved back to the General’s northern base, a bargaining counter in warlord conflicts to come. But he was sending out mixed messages that day. It was the hardest time for a warlord: when the sweetness of victory risks curdling into a sour peace. ‘Once I would have taken all this ammunition and these tanks back to my base,’ he said. ‘Now I’m fed up. I’m just going to leave them here.’

We drove back to Basir’s new HQ, a large, solid, light-filled building where workmen were covering glassless windows with clear plastic sheeting. The building stood opposite the vast, derelict hulk of the old King’s palace, its walls and most of its roof still standing, though the fabric was full of shell and bullet-holes. A little further back and higher up the dusty, vegetation-free hillside was the slightly smaller palace where the Queen had lived. They were fifteen minutes’ walk apart – not that they had needed to walk. On either side of the broad royal highway leading back into Kabul there were parched mud humps with dead, dark window holes, the remains of destroyed residential blocks. Basir pointed out a hilltop from which, during the inter-Afghan fighting of the 1990s that did most of this damage and killed fifty thousand people, the Pakistan-backed warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had fired his cannon. Basir and his people had fired back. Other factions, including irregulars loyal to Rashid Dostum from the North-West, Hazara militia from the centre of Afghanistan and, eventually, the Taliban themselves, had fired enough shells and rockets into the city to keep the USSR’s factories busy for months. One of Basir’s tasks was to make sure the Hazaras didn’t come back – not armed, anyway. For the time being the warlords in Kabul are all more or less on the same side, from one ethnic group, the Tajiks. It may not be the worst outcome, but it isn’t good.

Basir had inherited a Taliban major-domo. The man had simply stayed on and was comfortably serving his new master. His entrance was one of two interruptions as we sat chatting. The other was Delagha, bringing a sheaf of papers for Basir to sign. Otherwise the General didn’t seem too busy. We talked about his future.

‘This Seventh Division which you see, it is under my control. I will protect it. When there is a government I want to become a corps commander here,’ he said.

And what if the government didn’t want him to be a corps commander in some conventional, warlord-light, pan-Afghan army of the future?

‘Then I will quietly leave and live out my life as an ordinary citizen.’

It seemed unlikely that he would do that. As he pointed out, it was unlikely that he could, even if he wanted to. ‘When President Rabbani steps aside,’ he said, ‘and there’s a new man at the helm, if that government doesn’t want me to be in the army, I will not be in the army. But I believe that any possible future government will not be in conflict with me. I don’t have any other profession. I’m not a specialist in any other area. I’m only a specialist in war. The only other thing I could do would be to go into business. When everybody else was going to university I was going to fight.’

Basir explained that twenty years earlier he had been in the tenth year of one of the lycées, the elite secondary schools of Kabul, when the students launched a strike against the Soviet occupation. ‘I shouted “Death to the Soviet Union! Death to the Government!” louder than anyone. They arrested some of my classmates. When my friends were put in prison I ran away to Salang. Ahmad Shah Massoud had already come to the Panjshir. So I got weapons from him. I became a mujahed, then a commander.’

How do you take the warlords out of the equation when, like Basir, they are themselves not sure what they want, and when they will not admit openly, perhaps even privately, what drives them: the baronial power that comes with their status or a raw love of fighting? Basir did hint that he could be bought off by the powers trying to steer the postwar settlement. ‘I will step down if the countries and companies involved will provide written guarantees to repair the destruction caused by the civil war,’ he said. ‘They must consider the dead. The families of the war dead must be provided for. Invalids and widows must be given special help. Several commanders are illiterate. They have continuously fought for freedom. They also need certain benefits.’

Kabul has a lot of bookstalls. From the balcony of the Spinzar Hotel in central Kabul I could see one with an English sign above it advertising ‘Bookselery of Zabewellah’. In the warlord incubators that were the northern valleys, I didn’t see any. I saw no one reading, except for an outdoor class of boys learning the Koran by rote, and nothing on sale that could be read. Basir’s concerns were for the illiterate commanders’ future employment prospects, but what about the consequences of ignorance in their present jobs?

It is said that while measuring out his days under UN protection in a compound in Kabul, Muhammad Najibullah, the deposed Soviet-era President of Afghanistan, was working on a translation of Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game. Najibullah’s attempt to warn successive generations of the dangers of allowing Afghanistan to be used as a pawn by foreign powers was cut short, so the story goes, when the Taliban took Kabul, seized him, tortured him and hanged him from a traffic policeman’s booth outside the Presidential palace.

Professor Ghullam Sarwar Humayun is the former head of the Dari Department at Kabul University, a specialist in Dari epic poetry and Persian literature of the 10th and 11th centuries. A few months after the Taliban took over they had engineered his dismissal from the university because, he said, he was a Tajik, and refused to promote Taliban favourites. Humayun told me a more prosaic version of the Peter Hopkirk story. It hadn’t been Najibullah who had translated The Great Game, but his assistant, Ishaq Tuhi. The book had been published: Humayun showed me a copy. Later, I tried to buy one for my interpreter at a couple of bookstalls, but they hadn’t heard of it. It wasn’t that Najibullah had been murdered before he could pass on the warning: the Afghans had not been paying attention when it was published.

Humayun lived with his family in a relatively comfortable villa in a walled courtyard in a smart area of Kabul where there had been little destruction. Under the Taliban, the house had been the venue for an underground literacy class for women and girls, taught by the professor’s daughter-in-law. Had they been caught, the consequences for the family would have been severe. Sitting cross-legged on his mattress, speaking in good English and looking out confidently from behind thick spectacles, Humayun described how he had been a member of a university delegation which had gone to see Ahmad Shah Massoud in the early 1990s to plead for a resolution of the civil war. Massoud listened politely. Nothing came of it.

I asked Humayun whether future generations might see today’s warlords differently from those who had suffered at their hands: whether they might one day be portrayed as tortured, noble, tragic figures, much as the Dari poets painted their warriors. The professor was having none of it. ‘Massoud was fighting for the liberty of the people, for right against wrong. He was a hero of the Tajik people. But the age of the epic has gone. It will not return,’ he said. ‘Now is the age of democracy and the vote. We should distinguish between two types of war. One is for aggression, another is for defence. Epic literature, of which I was a teacher, told the story of the defence of the country against aggressive foreigners. Today they are fighting against their own countrymen. Epic literature is the literature of a nation, not a tribe. These are tribal wars. One tribe fights against another.’

I saw Basir once more before I left Afghanistan. He invited me for dinner in the large Kabul villa he had expropriated from a fleeing Taliban. Should the original owners reappear, he said, he would give the property back. The room was the same as always – no furniture, mattresses around the edge – but there were rich rugs on the floor and an electric heater. There is no electricity in the Salang. Basir had shed his parka. He sat next to Delagha, watching Muhammad and me eat spicy mutton soup. He was, as always, a kind host. We didn’t stay long, but while we were there, something odd happened. Basir needed a handwritten pass, the usual ID in Afghanistan. Instead of writing it himself, he got Muhammad to do it, from his dictation.

When we were driving back to the hotel, I asked Muhammad why Basir had got him to write the pass.

‘He’s illiterate,’ Muhammad said.

‘What about the story of him leading the strike in the tenth class at the lycée?’

Muhammad laughed. ‘He was never at any lycée.’

‘Well, what about when Delagha brings those papers in for him to sign?’

‘He doesn’t read them. While he’s looking at them, Delagha is talking in his ear, telling him what they’re about.’

When General Basir talked about illiterate commanders needing certain benefits, he was talking about himself. Maybe he wanted a pay-off. Maybe he wanted to be a warlord for ever. Or maybe he just wanted to meet someone brave enough to tell him it was time he learned to read.

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