Ivan Watson reported near the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in December 2001. Photo by Khoseraw Habibi/© NPR.
I landed in northern Afghanistan on the morning after the first American bombs started falling on the Taliban. I flew in from neighboring Tajikistan on an old Soviet-made cargo plane crammed with journalists. It was October 8, 2001. My first images of the country were of an unpaved dirt runway, a donkey, and a mud hut. Add a rusty Kalashnikov to the picture, and that pretty much sums up Afghanistan at the start of the 21st century.
I arrived carrying a Nera satellite phone, a sleeping bag, and some clothes — better prepared than some of my colleagues, who didn’t have sleeping bags. With almost no electricity in Afghanistan, I’d left my laptop behind, which meant for the duration of the war I’d write my reports in longhand.
Aside from a fortunate few correspondents in Kabul, the foreign press had little choice but to cover the American bombing campaign from two fronts. Many journalists camped out with the Northern Alliance in the dusty town of Khoja Bawdeen, not far from the Tajik border. Others made their way down the Hindu Kush, to the Shomali Plain north of Kabul.
As the crow flies, these two fronts were only a few hundred miles apart. By land, it was a grueling three-day trip. Four-wheel drive vehicles lurched and slammed on stone and dirt tracks through the mountains or traveled for miles in shallow riverbeds where Afghan drivers had to inch across bridges made of little more then a few wet logs. Occupants disembarked to watch from the river’s edge. On this same journey, Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison lost his laptop when his vehicle rolled down a riverbank; it was later, when he tried to replace the computer in Kabul, when he stumbled on what would become a well known hard-drive full of al-Qaeda documents.
To get to Shomali, I joined a friendly BBC camera crew. It took us two days to cross the snowy 14,000-foot heights of the Anjuman Pass. We nearly gave up on the first day, after a blizzard forced us to turn back, and spent the night in a stone hut at the foot of the mountain. Several days later, Keith Richburg of The Washington Post scaled the same pass with two other colleagues — on horseback. They nearly froze to death when they, too, were caught in a snowstorm.
Everyone who crossed Anjuman knew there was no going back. Winter would soon block the escape route to Tajikistan. Some reporters joked that we’d be spending Christmas in Kabul. No one dreamed that the Taliban would collapse before Thanksgiving.
Reporting What I Saw
Having heard stories about the Afghans’ mythical fighting prowess — and having now seen these tough people operate in freezing mountains dressed in little more than salwar kameez and sandals — it was hard for me to imagine that American air strikes would make much of an impact on the Taliban. In fact, complaints about American tactics were heard among Northern Alliance commanders. At roughly 4 p.m. each afternoon, it seemed, American warplanes would drop a few large bombs on Taliban positions along the front lines of the Shomali Plain. One day, as we stood on the roof of a mud hut watching two plumes of black smoke rise in the distance, a Northern Alliance fighter waxed nostalgic about Soviet carpet bombing, saying "Why can’t you bomb like the Russians did?"
With the frontlines basically static, reporters were left to explore one of the most isolated, war-torn places in the world. It was tough to find a translator who spoke a smattering of badly accented English, and cars were even harderto find and much more expensive, since only warlords seemed to own them. And it was physically uncomfortable. Still, this was a remarkable journalistic experience for a relatively unseasoned 25-year old reporter, as I was back then.
At the start of the assignment, the head of NPR’s foreign desk, Loren Jenkins, gave me some excellent advice. "Only report what you see." Leave the reports about the size and frequency of air strikes in far-off cities like Jalalabad and Kandahar to the Pentagon correspondents. My job was to be the eyes and ears on the ground. I was to report only what was happening directly in front of me — even when I had little idea what was going on. And that was often the case, since none of the reporters had any direct contact with the American military in Afghanistan.
Our only exposure to the American military was with its war planes, but they flew so high they were usually out of sight. Some days I would set up my satellite phone on the roof of a farmhouse about a mile from the frontline and then call NPR. As I narrated live to tape, I tried to describe the scene: Afghan farmers working in their orchards and fields, oblivious to the ominous rumble of invisible jets flying high overhead. Then I’d describe the sudden flash and smoke of an air strike in the distance and, a few seconds later, I’d hold my microphone out to catch the sound of its rumbling explosion.
One day, the sleepy calm of the Afghan countryside was interrupted by the sound of a small white propeller plane — the first we’d seen here. It circled twice and then banked towards the eastern side of the Shomali Plain for a landing. I raced towards the plane in the truck I had, and I was the first journalist to greet several Western-looking men in civilian clothes as they unloaded boxes of gear from the aircraft. Confused, I walked over to them and asked, "Are you journalists?" They looked up at me, surprised, until several Afghan guards appeared and began roughly pulling me away. Several American newspaper reporters interviewed me that night. All we could report was that for the first time a small fixed-wing plane had landed in Northern Alliance territory carrying foreigners and that they might or might not have been U.S. military or intelligence personnel. Later, we learned that small American Special Forces teams were on the ground in the area "painting" Taliban targets with lasers for the U.S. warplanes.
One daily challenge was finding electricity to charge my satellite phone, which was the only link I had with the outside world. When I asked about electricity in one remote frontline village, locals opened the nearby dam on a small pond. The water rushed through a small mill and generated just enough power to light a single light bulb in the village hospital — and charge my phone — until the water ran out 45 minutes later.
At the Salang Pass in Afghanistan, Ivan Watson interviews a shopkeeper at the entrance to the Salang Tunnel. Photo by Ash Sweeting/©2006 NPR.
At Salang, another high mountain pass, an Afghan guide led me through the mile-and-a-half long Salang Tunnel, which had been dynamited by slain Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud during a battle against the Taliban. Using a small keychain flashlight, the bearded guide raced down the freezing tunnel, around small mountains of wreckage and debris, carrying a backpack full of supplies for fighters who lived in a bombed-out power station at the other end of the tunnel.
I wrote that story, but never got the chance to file it because that night the frontline of the war finally moved. Far to the north, the notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, backed by U.S. warplanes and Special Forces soldiers on horseback, had stormed the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The next day, I traveled to the entrance to the Panjshir Valley, to the home of Yunus Qanuni, a top Northern Alliance official who is now speaker of theAfghan lower house of Parliament. He had been talking to other journalists throughout the day and was clearly delighted to confirm the news. Speaking to me and another reporter in Dari, Qanuni pointed at a map to show Dostum’s progress and then explained that an attack would soon be launched from Shomali towards Kabul. "I hope during this week or two weeks’ time we will arrive or reach at the gates of Kabul," Qanuni said — or at least that’s how my struggling interpreter translated his words.
Little did we know, but the daily American air strikes were devastating the Taliban forces. Even veteran reporters with extensive previous experience in Afghanistan had not taken into account that this was not the guerrilla war against the Soviets of the 1980′s. This time the Taliban forces were entrenched in a more classic military struggle. This left them in the unenviable position of having to defend fixed frontlines against laser-guided bombs and missiles dropped from airplanes.
Retracing What Happened
On reporting trips I’ve made back to Afghanistan after the war, I’ve interviewed some who fought in it. "Why did you attack us from the sky?" Mullah Rocketi complained, during one recent conversation. He is a stocky former Taliban commander who five years ago had been posted along the Shomali front. Today, Rocketi — so named for his skill with rockets — holds a seat in the Afghan Parliament, but he is still bitter about his defeat. "It wasn’t fair," he said.
Samad was a 21-year-old Taliban foot soldier deployed on the Shomali front, along with other Afghans, as well as some Pakistanis, Arabs, Turks and Chechens. (Samad is not his real name, but one we used in our interview.) "When we first learned that the Americans would attack the Taliban," he said, "we didn’t care. We thought they would fight us on the ground." Samad, who is now a shopkeeper, estimates 35 of his friends were killed as they hid in trenches and huts during the weeks of American bombing.
On November 12, 2001, the Northern Alliance finally launched its offensive towards Kabul. From a frontline village, I watched these warriors disappear into the smoke and dust of battle, accompanied by the sound of explosions and crackle of gunfire.
"I did expect to die that day," said Hayatullah, who was part of the first wave of Northern Alliance fighters. He is now an officer in the Kabul police force. Hayatullah did not know it at the time, but the day before the assault, most ofthe Afghan Taliban fighters had quietly abandoned the frontlines, without informing their foreign comrades. "From our group, nobody remained here," said Samad. "But later on I found out the Arabs, they were not informed and they remained behind."
The Northern Alliance forces initially faced fierce resistance, but then advanced steadily across a blighted landscape of burned orchards and uprooted vineyards, evidence of the Taliban’s six-year campaign to pacify the local population. By nightfall, the opposition was at the gates of Kabul. Along with other journalists, I entered the Afghan capital the next morning on foot, following several hundred victorious Northern Alliance fighters who sang an anthem as they marched into town. Caught up in the moment, I was startled when something hard hit me in the head. It was a candy, my smiling translator told me, thrown by a celebrating resident.
Surprisingly, we saw very few bodies. On the road to Kabul, we’d passed a few burned Taliban corpses, and in Kabul’s central Charinaw Park, I stared at a young Pakistani, who had been beaten to death on a basketball court. For the most part, though, the Taliban had abandoned the city without firing a shot. "My commander told me it was a tactical retreat, since we could not resist those bombs" Samad recalled. "[He said] we should go back to our villages. And when we see an opportunity we should start to fight again, against the Americans and the Northern Alliance."
New Strategies, New Threats
Five years later, it is a resurgent Taliban that is knocking at the gates of the Afghan capital. Its forces have returned to tactics the Afghans perfected during the Soviet occupation, as they rely on ambushes, land mines, and cross-border raids. They have also adopted strategies not used before in Afghanistan’s long history of conflict — suicide bombers strike on a near weekly basis and militants distribute DVDs late at night that show the grisly beheading of captives, a propaganda tactic taken directly from the Sunni insurgents fighting far away in Iraq.
Five years after the overthrow of the Taliban, there have been some remarkable developments. Cross-country travel has been transformed, with some major roads paved, and domestic flights now link major cities. In Kabul, confident Afghan women shop in bazaars dressed in headscarves, not burkas, while young men with slicked back hair and loud shirts prowl the city’s new shopping malls and wedding halls with cell phones proudly in hand.
But outside Kabul, many Afghans say their lives have hardly changed since the Western money started flowing into their country. There is still no electricity,little running water and, with the exception of the booming opium-producing industry, few prospects for employment. The image of smiling Afghans, dressed up in their holiday finest, proudly voting in national elections has long since faded, replaced by anger at rampant corruption displayed within the government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
During the past two years, my reports from Afghanistan have reflected this growing disenchantment, along with the country’s deteriorating security situation. Many southern and eastern provinces long ago became too dangerous for foreign journalists to travel to and work in.
On May 29, 2006, even downtown Kabul became a no-go zone. For an entire day, an angry mob tore through the Afghan capital, setting fire to businesses and foreign aid organizations. The riot was triggered after an out-of-control U.S. military truck slammed into rush hour traffic, killing and injuring several Afghans. After the accident, a crowd began hurling rocks at American soldiers who, some eyewitnesses say, opened fire on the civilians. The incident occurred on the same broad avenue where, five years earlier, Kabul residents once welcomed arriving Northern Alliance fighters and foreign reporters with showers of money, flowers and candy.
Ivan Watson began reporting for NPR from West Africa in 2000. For the past five years he has been an NPR correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey roaming across Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. He was last on assignment in Afghanistan in December 2006.