Excerpt from: Peace Meals

Dec 8, 2017

Chapter Four -- Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs

High on Valium and potent Afghan hashish, Najibullah balanced his Kalashnikov rifle on his left shoulder and reached for the jelebi: a pyramid of honey-colored, deep-fried rings of hot, syrupy dough stacked on a street vendor's dusty aluminum folding table by the side of a potholed dirt road. He hooked one jelebi with his long index finger, raised it above his head, lifted his bearded face, and, crooning a Bollywood jingle in a tentative falsetto, began to nibble at the sugary doughnut like a tropical bird, swaying slightly to the rhythm of a song that he alone could follow.

Our clunky Toyota minivan was parked near a bustling outdoor bazaar in the wooded foothills of the Spin Ghar range in eastern Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was believed to have been hiding in a honeycomb of caves, tunnels, and bunkers outside the town of Tora Bora. The mountain complex had been a favorite hiding place for generations of Afghan fighters--warriors who had fought against the British, then the Soviets, then against each other, and now against U.S.-led forces. It had been so elaborately upgraded over the years that by 2001 it was said to have its own ventilation system and a power supply provided by hydroelectric generators.

Whatever had been in these massive caves on the border with Pakistan was being destroyed at that very moment. It was December 2001, and the Battle of Tora Bora was under way--a massive, joint aerial and ground attack by American forces trying to smoke out the terrorist mastermind and a thousand al Qaeda and Taliban fighters believed to be hiding with him. I had come to Spin Ghar to write about this battle.

Guided by U.S. special forces commandos and backed by scruffy Afghan guerrillas, the Americans were pummeling the caves with a dazzling array of ordnance delivered by B-52 bombers, F-14 and F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, and AC-130 gunships: "daisy-cutters" (fifteen-thousand-pound bombs that, when they explode, create a blast wave that kills everyone within roughly three acres, leaving in their wake enormous charred craters and very little else); bombs equipped with sensors known as JDAMs (for "joint direct attack munition") to guide them to their targets; cluster bombs packed with dozens of bomblets that could wreck roadways and runways and cripple infantry (and, as I had learned in Mengchuqur, civilians unfortunate enough to happen upon them later); and TV-guided air-to-surface missiles that weighed three thousand pounds. I could feel the impact through the soles of my feet miles away whenever the heavier payloads struck the caves. The echo of occasional gunfire ricocheted off the steep slopes, making the firefights seem both dangerously close and elusive.

A week earlier, Najibullah had been holed up in an abandoned mountain barn near one of those caves, fighting al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Snow had coated the mountains outside, and Najibullah had been freezing in his light summer clothes. Now he was kicking back after a lifetime of war: the Eastern Shura, a loose coalition led by tribal elders who opposed the Taliban and therefore had allied themselves with the United States, had finally prevailed in this corner of Afghanistan--although it was impossible to say that the area had been purged of the Taliban, just as it would have been wrong to say that the Eastern Shura had established complete control. The mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where many Taliban fighters had found refuge, was not really guarded by anyone on either side. Some members of the militia were still holding out around Tora Bora, taking potshots at American special forces operatives and Western journalists who crawled about sections of the mountainside. Some had blended in with the local population: in line with a long-standing Afghan tradition, which allows the victor to choose, at will, between violently punishing the defeated foe and granting him complete forgiveness (this code of war also permits the victor to double back on his choice unpredictably at any given moment), the Eastern Shura had allowed most local Taliban fighters to walk free (theoretically, they were supposed to surrender their weapons). The locals, mostly ethnic Pashtuns, had largely supported the Taliban regime, and Najibullah believed that many al Qaeda members, too, had gone into hiding and were being sheltered by villagers in hamlets like the one where we were buying sweets--a cluster of mud-brick and straw huts clinging to the glaucous mountainside. Perhaps, Najibullah mused, bin Laden was also hiding in one of these villages, disguised as a shepherd with a coarse camel wool blanket draped over his head, shoulders, and back.

"There they go! There they go!" Najibullah had yelled earlier that day, pointing excitedly out the car window at two men in dark turbans walking down a village street. "See how they try to hide their eyes? They are former Taliban fighters!"

He rolled down the window, leaned out, and, shaking his gun--the same beat-up Kalashnikov he had carried since he was twelve--shouted at a passing villager:

"Where are you hiding the Taliban, huh?"

The villager ignored him. Our driver, Yarmohammad, decided that it was best, for the sake of our safety, not to stop.

But then Najibullah spotted the jelebi vendor and ordered Yarmohammad to pull over. Najibullah had been smoking hashish all morning, and now he had the munchies. We had to respect that. After all, this man--with his addiction to tranquilizers, his unpredictable mood swings, his little juniper hash pipe, and his disconcerting tendency to lean out of our car window and fire his gun across the valley just for fun--was our bodyguard.

I made Najibullah's acquaintance in December 2001, toward the end of my second trip to Afghanistan. The journey had begun right after the Taliban regime fell and its army surrendered Kabul and most major Afghan cities and towns, in November. David and I had once again floated into the country across the Pyandzh River from Tajikistan, on the diesel ferry. The day we arrived two gunmen had shot and killed a Swedish television cameraman, Ulf Strömberg. Taloqan, a city in northern Afghanistan a few hours' drive from our first stop on this trip, the hospitable compound of Mahbuhbullah the Tomb Raider. Mahbuhbullah had heard about the killing on his handheld AM radio and told us as soon as we drove up to his house.

Strömberg was the eighth journalist to be murdered in the country in four weeks. Earlier that month, two French radio journalists and a writer for a German magazine had been ambushed and killed after a rocket-propelled grenade blast threw them off an armored vehicle driven by the men of an anti-taliban rebel commander in northern Afghanistan. A week before Strömberg's killing, four Western journalists driving in a convoy on the stretch of the ancient Grand Trunk Road between Jalalabad and Kabul--where bandits had waylaid their prey for centuries--had been forced out of their vehicles, marched off to the side of the road, and executed. The journalists' drivers, who had managed to escape, relayed the assailants' defiant words: "You thought the Taliban was dead? The Taliban is still here!"

That was true. Wherever we went during our second trip to Afghanistan, we saw members of the deposed militia wandering around in their black turbans. Maybe they still listened to their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, on the shortwave radios every man in Afghanistan seemed to carry in the folds of his robes. Maybe they had heard the one-eyed mullah's promise of a fifty-thousand-dollar bounty for every Western journalist they killed.

David and I huddled on Mahbuhbullah's earthen porch, poring over the newswire reports about Strömberg's death that we had downloaded onto David's laptop. We had not known him. But it was easy to imagine that Strömberg had been just like us: an unarmed journalist trying to find a compelling way to bring the news from this faraway, tragic land to the audience back home.

Reporters who cover wars put a huge amount of faith in the idea that none of the people we are writing about would ever find a reason to aim their guns at us. As obdurate as this notion may seem to anyone who has not traveled to a war zone, or anyone who has fought in one--especially given that reporters do get kidnapped and killed in wars--our almost uncritical faith in the kindness of strangers is the only thing that emboldens unarmed geeks with thousands of dollars in our money belts and, usually, few combat skills to venture into places where civilians are being killed, whether by accident or intent, by the dozen daily.

This is also the main reason we react with such shock when one of our number is targeted and killed in such a place.

Recipe: Jelebi