Tim McGirk gets sidetracked on his way to Kandahar
Friday, Nov. 23, 2001
Inside Afghanistan. At last. After weeks of signing up on countless lists, sending in dozens of ID photos and trying to ingratiate myself with any bearded man who pops through the iron gate of the Quetta consulate of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, I'd about given up hope of entering the last remaining Taliban strongholds. Then, last Monday, the Taliban started issuing visas to every reporter in sight. TIME magazine was right up there with Mexican TV and Swedish radio.
Maybe they were just trying to rake in some pocket money from visas, $30 apiece, before the Pakistanis closed down the consulate. Or was it a trap? Did they think that our presence might make the Pentagon hesitate before bombing Kandahar? If so, it was a bad guess.
I looked at this visa and thought: by the time I get across the border, the Taliban's domain probably won't be any bigger than this yellow stamp inside my passport. So the race was on to get across the border. Trouble was, I wasn't alone. There was a stampede of 200 other hacks, with their fixers, drivers translators and in some cases, cooks. The charge was led by the TV networks.
The Taliban may ban television to their people, but they're not dumb. They understand its glittering global power. They wanted television; we print journalists were nothing more than pilot fish following in the wake of the network leviathans.
That's OK with me. I was across the border at last, heading towards Kandahar. At a roadblock were two authentic Taliban with AK-47s. In a land where all men are obliged by law (and a good beating) to grow a beard two fists long, you can tell the Taliban by their turbans, which are white or a more sinister black. These guys had festooned their rifle straps with ribbons of cassette tape, banned music confiscated from passing cars and buses.
Forget Kandahar. After the roadblock, they herded us off to a high-walled compound in a place called Spin Boldak. Aside from one foray to a refugee camp whipped by dust storms, they've kept us inside this compound for two days now. The only diversion is watching our Taliban guards tossing stones at the hundreds of Afghans perched on the wall, fascinated by our high-tech equipment and foreign female reporters who aren't hidden in a burqa, an outfit which turns a woman into a pup tent with feet.
In Quetta, a friend was drinking tea with some Afghans, and two woman walked by in burqas. It was almost like the women were in mini-skirts. Hidden under yards of cloth, who knows...they could've been toothless hags. But the Afghan men's imagination was inflamed. They swooned when a breeze hugged the women and made it possible to see the slightest contour of their hips, a fluttering of the burqa around their ankles. So maybe you can understand why there are hundreds of Afghans perched on the wall of our compound watching the four or five women in the press corps here.
Yesterday afternoon, we were visited by the private secretary and spokesman for the Commander of the Faithful, Mullah Omar himself.
I swear, anyone who counts in the Taliban is either missing an eye, a hand or a leg, or is barely old enough to have grown a beard. This all-powerful vizier, named Tayab Agha, was 25. The Kandahar police chief is the same age, and I've heard that he roars around in a brand new Hi-Lux with a Metallica sticker on the hood. (He got his job a few years back pulling Mullah Omar out of the rubble after truck bomb exploded outside his house.) Maybe now, when his Islamic caliphate is collapsing around him, and his big buddy, Osama bin Laden, has crawled deep underground, Mullah Omar doesn't trust anyone within his ranks whose zealotry might be tempered by common sense. "The Prophet and his Followers had to retreat sometimes, but the Almighty Allah will help us prevail against America. We will fight until we are killed," says Agha, whose English is soft yet fierce.
So why did the Taliban run? These holy warriors say that they can't wait to soar from the battlefield straight to paradise, a garden of fountains and beautiful women who are not wearing burqas. But once those 15,000 pound "Daisy-Cutter" bombs started falling, exploding in a lethal fuel-air mixture that kills everything in a 600-yard radius, it doesn't mater how fanatical you are, or how gorgeous you believe the women are who waiting for you in paradise. Every instinct of survival kicks in, and you run. The only difference between the Afghans and the Pakistani and Arab guest fighters is that the Afghans who were in the frontline trenches had the presence of mind to turn around and rob their non-Afghan comrades of their money and wristwatches before they took off. Welcome to Afghanistan!
Someone's come to our compound to tell us we can either go back to Pakistan or wait two more days to see if it's safe enough for the Taliban to let us go down the road to Kandahar. I'm staying.
Submitted By: Anonymous
Dec 3, 2001 16:48