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The Last Days of Vice and Virtue
Early in the morning on September 11, 2001, deep amid the jagged heights of the Hindu Kush, something terrible took place. When teenager Noor Ahmed arrived that day in Gayawa to buy firewood, he knew it immediately: there was no call to prayer. Almost every village in Afghanistan has a mosque, and normally you can hear the muezzin's tinny song just before dawn, signaling the start of a new day. But for the first time that he could remember, there was not a sound. The entire place seemed lifeless.
He walked down a narrow goat trail, toward low houses with enclosures of mud brick, and saw that the gates of many of them had been left open. The smell of burning rubber hung in the air. Near a creek, something brown lying in the yellow grass caught his eye, and he stopped to look at it. It was a disfigured body, caked in dried blood. Noor Ahmed took a few steps back and ran to the mosque, but it was empty. He knocked on the door of a neighboring home. It, too, was empty. He tried another one. Empty. Then he came upon an old mud schoolhouse, its front gate ajar, and stopped to listen. Stepping inside, he walked through a long yard strewn with disassembled auto parts and empty motor oil canisters. Finally, when he pushed his way through the front door, he saw them huddled in the corner: men and women, toddlers and teenagers, more than a dozen in total, clutching each other, crammed into a single room.
"Everyone else is dead," one said. "If you don't get out of here, they'll kill you, too."
In wartime Afghanistan, secrets are slippery things. The Taliban had planned a surprise attack on Gayawa, but the villagers had known for days that the raid was coming, and those who could had hired cars or donkeys and moved their families down into the valley. But this had been a hard, dry, unhappy summer. Times were not good and many villagers could not afford to leave, even though they knew what might await them. Of those who stayed, only the few hiding in the schoolhouse, where the Taliban soldiers never thought to look, escaped untouched. The rest met an unknown fate.
Back then, Gayawa was near the epicenter of a brutal, grinding war between the government of Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban, and a band of rebel warlords known as the Northern Alliance. In their drive to crush the resistance, government troops waged a Shermanesque campaign, burning down houses and schools, destroying lush grape fields that had for generations yielded raisins renowned throughout South Asia, and setting whole communities in flight. In the region surrounding Gayawa, the Taliban enforced a blockade, allowing neither food nor supplies to enter. Those who attempted to breach the cordon were shot.
America's war had yet to begin, but on that September 11, Afghans had already been fighting for more than two decades. The troubles dated to 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded a largely peaceful country and ushered in a decadelong occupation that left it one of the most war-ravaged nations on Earth. The Russians withdrew in defeat in 1989, and in their wake scores of anti-Soviet resistance groups turned their guns on each other, unleashing a civil war that killed tens of thousands more and reduced to rubble what little infrastructure the country still had. Rival gangs robbed travelers at gunpoint and plucked women and boys off the streets with impunity.
In 1994, a fanatical band of religious students—the Taliban—emerged to sweep aside these warring factions and put an end to the civil war. On a fierce platform of law and order, they forcibly disarmed and disbanded many of the militias that had been terrorizing the populace and brought nearly 90 percent of the country under their control. For the first time in more than a decade, peace took root in much of the land. Criminality and warlordism vanished, and the streets became safe from rape and abduction.
In the process, however, the Taliban instituted a regime of draconian purity the likes of which the world had never witnessed. Moral and spiritual decay had dragged the country into civil war, the Taliban believed, and a puritanical version of Islamic law offered the only hope for salvation. All music, film, and photography—which the Taliban regarded as gateway drugs to pornography and licentiousness—were banned. They caged up women in their homes, executed adulterers, and whipped men of flagging faith. They prohibited, with only a few exceptions, all female education and employment. They outlawed the teaching of secular subjects in school. In many cities, roaming packs of religious police under the authority of the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue saw to it that no one missed the mandatory five-times-a-day prayer. All men were required to wear a fist-length beard and were beaten and jailed unless they complied.
A land of Old Testament rules, the Taliban's Afghanistan was brutal and vindictive. Relatives of murder victims were invited to gun down the accused; thieves had their hands lopped off; and obscurantist religious clerics, often semiliterate, decided matters of jurisprudence. If it were possible to distill the zeitgeist into a single devastating moment, it would be the Taliban's infamous demolition of two massive fifteen-hundred-year-old Buddha sculptures. Among South Asia's great archaeological treasures, the statues were brought tumbling down in an effort to rid the country of "false idols."
Yet Taliban rule did not go unchallenged. Remnants of some of the defeated militias fled to the mountains north of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, where they regrouped in 1996 to form the Northern Alliance. For the next five years, Taliban troops fought a bloody campaign to subdue the north, meting out the greatest punishment to villages along the front line, like Gayawa.
Years later, I visited Gayawa to try to understand the Afghan world as it had appeared on the eve of 9/11. Some of the Taliban's old, rotting observation posts were still standing, and many houses remained abandoned. Memories of those war years lingered, and the rancor echoed in conversation after conversation. "The Taliban were evil. They were tormentors," Noor Ahmed told me. After finding those survivors in the schoolhouse on the morning of September 11, he had fled the area, returning only months later after a new government had assumed power. "They weren't humans. The laws you and I abide by, they didn't mean anything to them."
As I met more villagers in the area, I found that many of their stories centered on a particular roving Taliban unit, a feared team of disciplinarians who journeyed from village to village demanding taxes and household firearms. "Their leader was a tall man named Mullah Cable," said Nasir, a local. "We heard his name on the radio. He traveled a lot. He would search your house looking for weapons, and when you swore you didn't have anything, he'd bring out his whip, a cable. That's where his name comes from. He was a clever man—I don't know where he was from, but he was very smart. He was one of the first to use a whip on us like that. After a while, all the Talibs started carrying whips."
Mullah Cable. The very name spoke of the strange language that Afghans had acquired in decades of war. No one in Gayawa knew quite what had become of him. "When the Americans invaded," Nasir said, "all those Taliban vanished like ghosts."
I first saw Mullah Cable on an early winter evening in Kabul, the hour of dueling muezzins, dozens of them crooning from their minarets. It was 2009, and more than one hundred thousand foreign soldiers were on Afghan soil battling an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency. When I approached him, he was pacing uncomfortably in a park, hands in his pockets, his eyes shifty, a black turban stuffed into his pocket. Tall and lanky, he stood with his shoulders hunched, as if he were carrying some dangerous secret. He wore glasses, unusual for an Afghan. Tattoos flowed down his arms and henna dye covered his fingernails. When he smiled, gold teeth glistened. Only his thick, spongy beard and a missing eye, a battlefield injury, placed him unmistakably among his Taliban comrades. Even without such telltale marks, though, as an Afghan you can never truly hide—a cousin, or an old war buddy, or a tribal chieftain somewhere would know how to find you. So I had tracked him down, and after months of effort I finally convinced him to speak to me.
"I don't come here often," he said. "Kabul is a strange place. I'm a village guy. I need the open spaces and fields to be able to think." As the typical Kabul evening smog settled in, commuters headed home, many with their faces wrapped in handkerchiefs. Toyota Corolla station wagons and minivan taxis, with arms and heads poking out, rattled by. A Ford Ranger police truck passed us, making Mullah Cable nervous. He had slipped in from the surrounding countryside and was worried about being noticed. We took shelter in a taxi, moving slowly through the darkening streets as we spoke in the back.
Almost a decade after battling the Northern Alliance, he was still fighting—now against the Americans. Though he didn't mention it, I later learned that the band of guerrillas under his command in the province of Wardak, a few dozen miles southwest of Kabul, had assassinated members of the US-backed Afghan government, kidnapped policemen, and deployed suicide bombers. On numerous occasions, they had attacked American soldiers. He fought, he told me, for "holy jihad," to rid his country of foreigners and to reinstate the Taliban regime.
This much I had expected, but he also surprised me. He admitted to not having received a single day's worth of religious instruction in his life. He could read only with great difficulty. Maps were a mystery to him, and despite his best efforts he could not locate the United States. In fact, growing up he had only the foggiest notion of America's existence. He cared little for, and understood little of, international politics. He had no opinions about events in the Middle East or the Arab-Israeli conflict. And even though he had been a Taliban commander in the 1990s, after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 he had quit the movement and for a time actually supported the new US-backed government.
This is what fascinated me most: How did such a person end up declaring war on America? Nor was he alone. It turned out that thousands of Talibs like him had given up the fighter's life after 2001, but something had brought most of them back to the battlefield just a few years later. I wanted to learn his story. At first he was skeptical. "I don't understand why it matters," he said. "My story isn't very special. I think you won't find it interesting." I assured him that I would, and for a year we met regularly in the backs of taxis, in drowsy dark offices in Kabul, or out in the countryside. In his tale I found a history of America's war on terror itself, the first grand global experiment of the twenty-first century, and a glimpse of how he and thousands like him came to define themselves under this new paradigm—how they came to be our enemy.
As with so many Afghans, the beginning was hazy. He could not state where exactly he had been born, although he believed it was somewhere on the squalid outskirts of Kabul. Nor did he know when he was born, so he wasn't sure if he was three or five when the Russians invaded in 1979. That war had unfolded mostly in the countryside, and people in Kabul spoke of it the way they spoke of foreign countries, as something far off and vaguely interesting. But the Russian retreat, followed by the outbreak of civil war in 1992, brought the conflict home to the capital, and eventually he enlisted in a local militia. It was an "aimless life," as he put it, until the Taliban swept into power in 1996, inspiring thousands of young men to rally to their cause. He was one of them.
The Taliban provided a welcome home for unsettled youths like him who were repulsed by the chaos. In their regimented order he found a sense of purpose, a communion with something greater. "You have to understand," he explained, "we felt like we were the most powerful people in the world. Everyone was talking about the Taliban. The whole world knew about the Taliban. We brought good to this country. We brought security. Before we came, even a trip to buy groceries was a gamble. People stole, people raped, and no one could say anything.
"Under our government, you could sleep with the doors open. You could leave your keys in your car, return after a month, and no one would've touched it."
On the battlefield against the Northern Alliance rebels, he had risen quickly in the ranks, first leading a few dozen men, then heading a fifty-man unit, and finally establishing himself as one of the top commanders on the front line. By 2001, he was directing a force of a hundred or so fighters tasked with trekking through the mountains near Gayawa, hunting for rebel sympathizers. He was also chief of police for a district north of Kabul, occasional director of military transportation and logistics, and the sole authority responsible for disarming the population in any newly conquered territories. It was in this last duty that he acquired his nom de guerre, one that, in those days at least, he had carried proudly.
For five years, the fighting between his Taliban forces and the Northern Alliance ground on. For every insurgent hamlet put down, it felt as if another sprang up in its place. Then, on September 9, 2001, in the first suicide strike in Afghan history, a pair of young Arab men posing as journalists assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary leader of the Alliance. Rebel forces were thrown into disarray. For the first time, Mullah Cable could sense the prospect of total victory. On September 10, he and other Taliban commanders launched an offensive across the entire front line. By the morning of the eleventh, they had swept into the strategic village of Gayawa.
"We were on the verge of something great," he recalled, "but everything changed after the planes hit. That was the biggest mistake that ever happened to us."
Early on the morning of September 12, 2001, in the cracked, war-eaten office building housing Kabul's Foreign Ministry, a few turbaned Taliban officials sat watching the news on a flickering television—the only sanctioned set in town, as all moving images had been banned. As they stared at replays of the Twin Towers collapsing into an apocalyptic pile of burning ruins, President George W. Bush's warning flashed across the screen: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."
It was a moment some Taliban officials had long feared. To the most pragmatic among them, Osama bin Laden and his retinue of followers had been nothing but trouble since they had landed in 1996. The Arabs of al-Qaeda spoke a different language, practiced a distinct culture, and even followed a different form of Islam from their Afghan counterparts. Bin Laden was waging international jihad to overthrow US global hegemony, while the Taliban were concerned largely with politics within their country's borders. Bin Laden railed against the West, and his acolytes bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, while the Taliban were seeking Western diplomatic recognition. Quickly, America's bin Laden problem had become the Taliban's as well. The two sides met throughout the late 1990s in an attempt to work out a solution, but cultural and political divides proved insurmountable. The Taliban agreed to place bin Laden on trial, but Washington, not trusting the impartiality of Afghan courts, demanded his extradition to US soil. The Taliban, for their part, doubted the objectivity of the American legal system. They agreed to hand him over only to a neutral Islamic country for trial, which Washington rejected.
The failed talks fueled Taliban hard-liners, who reminded their colleagues that bin Laden was helping bankroll the war against Alliance rebels. Both sides looked to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar for direction, but the enigmatic, one-eyed Commander of the Faithful, as he called himself, happened to be one of the most inscrutable and reticent heads of state in history. In his five years in power, he had never appeared on television; outside of a pair of grainy photographs, there is no visual record of his existence. During his reign, he traveled just twice to Kabul from his home in the southern city of Kandahar. He did not give speeches and avoided the radio. Indeed, to some Afghans he seemed a mythical figure conjured up by Taliban propagandists, an emblem of piety and virtue meant to serve as a focal point for Taliban rule.
The reality, however, was far more mundane. A lowly village preacher and minor figure in the anti-Soviet resistance, Omar had found himself, through an unlikely turn of events, thrust atop a fledgling state. As a mullah, a preacher qualified only to lead Friday sermons, he was at the bottom of the country's informal Islamic hierarchy, beneath a class of theologians who could interpret the scriptures and issue religious rulings called fatwas. Omar was a religious parvenu, a small-time priest giving orders to bishops. Projecting theological credibility to his more lettered colleagues, and by extension to the entire Muslim world, was everything, and the symbolism of surrendering bin Laden to non-Muslims would have been damaging to the very soul of the Taliban project. Their legitimacy as a state, such as it was, rested upon the notion that Islamic law had saved the country. In their view, they had ended the anarchy and bloodshed of the civil war by restoring society to its Islamic roots and submitting everyone—warlords and foot soldiers, landlords and peasants, men and women alike—to God's law. How then could Omar justify extraditing bin Laden and subjecting him to the vagaries of secular Western justice? Bin Laden's presence was a problem that he saw no way to resolve. "Osama is like a chicken bone stuck in my throat," he once admitted. "I can neither spit him out nor swallow him."
Taliban pragmatists could see all too clearly the dangers that would befall them if the impasse continued. A week after the 9/11 attacks, they visited Omar in his modest Kandahar home. "We pleaded with him for hours" to expel bin Laden, one of them recalled, "but it was as if he covered his ears."
On September 20, President Bush increased the pressure, declaring: "The Taliban must act, and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate." When Taliban officials again went to see Omar, however, they found him in a defiant mood. "You just care about your posts and your money, your ministries," he said. "But I don't care about mine."
Behind the scenes, though, he was scrabbling for a face-saving solution. Twice he sent his top deputy to meet covertly in Pakistan with the Central Intelligence Agency's Islamabad station chief, Robert Grenier, in hopes of arranging bin Laden's transfer to a neutral third country—but Washington stood firm on its position of an unconditional handover. Meanwhile, Omar's intransigence was costing his government the few foreign supporters it had to its name, which became painfully clear when Pakistan, its key ally and patron, severed ties and sided openly with the United States.
Sinking into depression and paranoia, Omar was often on the verge of tears. He spent nights in a bunker underneath his home, a gas mask by his side due to rumors of an impending American chemical weapons attack. He restricted visits to his home to a few close aides and deployed troops to guard important armories and airstrips. Senior Talibs sent their families to Pakistan to wait out the inevitable.
Then, in late September, two developments gave Omar a glimmer of hope. First, Pakistani intelligence agents showed up at his home—without their government's knowledge. Contravening dictator Pervez Musharraf's stated policy, they pressed him to resist the invasion to the very end and assured him that he would have allies in Pakistan. It was the opening move in a perilous double game that the Pakistanis would play for the next decade. Second, senior Taliban figures, who until then were a threat to defect, decided to toss their lot in with the regime. "I was an original Talib," one said to me later. "I fought against the Russians with these people. We took Kandahar together. We almost died against the Northern Alliance. I realized that we couldn't abandon each other now, even if we disagreed."
In early October, President Bush warned the Taliban that "time is running out." A thousand troops from the US Tenth Mountain Division landed in Uzbekistan, near the Afghan border, while CIA agents and Special Operations Forces soldiers had already slipped into northern Afghanistan to work covertly with the Northern Alliance. Omar, meanwhile, kept himself and his family hidden in his bunker, passing messages to the outside world through a courier. On October 6, he received word from Pakistani agents that the American attack was imminent. That night, he gathered his senior lieutenants and delivered a last rousing address. "My family, my power, my privileges," he told them, "are all in danger, but still I am insisting on sacrificing myself, and you should do likewise."
The next evening, a few minutes before nine p.m., residents in Kandahar city saw the night sky flash a blinding white. In his bunker, Mullah Omar felt the house shake violently. The American war had begun. A missile had scored a direct hit on his compound, destroying a section and grievously wounding his ten-year-old son. Desperately clutching the child, he ran outside and, with the rest of his family, squeezed into an old Corolla. They sped to the hospital, where Omar begged the doctor to help his son. "He had very bad abdominal injuries," the doctor recalled, "and a badly fractured femur in his right leg, and we could not save him."
Distraught and furious, Omar jumped back into the vehicle and shouted to the driver, "Go! Go to Sangesar!" They raced through the narrow streets toward the village, where Omar had extended family, as dozens of townsfolk emerged from their homes to watch. On reaching the outskirts of Sangesar, everyone sprang out and hurried off on foot. Moments later, a missile slammed into the vehicle, blowing it to pieces. The Taliban leader and his relatives disappeared into the village. He would never be seen in public again.
In Gayawa that night, Mullah Cable saw the darkened sky light up without warning in flickers of hot white and orange. He found it, in an odd kind of way, beautiful. He could tell that the bombs were off in the distance—in Kabul, probably, where the Taliban had many military installations. He glimpsed his men watching the sky, their silent faces briefly exposed with each strike. No one knew what they would do should the bombs reach their camp, except retreat to their bunkers and pray.
But not a single bomb fell anywhere near Gayawa that night, or the night following, or any other night that week. Mullah Cable began to consider the possibility that he had put too much stock in the Americans' technological prowess. In serious wars, there was no substitute for living and fighting in the mountains, for planning ambushes, coordinating artillery, and storming the enemy by sight and sound and gut alone. The Americans, on the other hand, hid behind the clouds, as if they knew all too well the fate of those who'd preceded them. By the fourth week of October, it was looking as if they would leave just as mysteriously as they came. "I thought the war would be over quickly, and then we could get on with things," he recalled.
Even when the strikes eventually hit the hills nearby during the first days of November, Mullah Cable remained unworried. His camp was too small, too insignificant to be picked out from above. Every night the planes would fly overhead without incident and disappear into the jagged country to the north, and the earth would tremble and the mountain peaks would light up, and his men would watch and talk about the pilots and wonder at their motives. It was only after one bomb struck close to their camp, in a neighboring valley, that they decided to go see for themselves what destruction the planes could bring. A group of the fighters assembled to investigate, but Mullah Cable opted to stay behind because his last pair of shoes had worn down to soggy rags. "Can you imagine?" he asked me later. "We were out there fighting for our country and God, and I didn't even have shoes." For days, his footwear problem had been all he could think about.
From his mountain perch, he watched his fighters drive their pickup trucks down the bluff away from the camp, then turn a corner and disappear. Over the radio, he heard them exchange greetings with another group of Taliban soldiers.
At that moment, a jet shrieked past, turned sharply, and dropped a series of bombs just where they had gone. The explosions were massive and deafening. "My teeth shook, my bones shook, everything inside me shook," he recalled. An enormous cloud of smoke rose above the mountains. All he could do was stand and watch.
The walkie-talkie had fallen silent. He waited for hours for some word. Finally, he decided that he had no choice but to go see for himself.
He drove into the basin and turned the corner and then stepped out of the vehicle. Oh my God, he thought. There were severed limbs everywhere. He inched closer. There were headless torsos and torso-less arms, cooked slivers of scalp and flayed skin. The stones were crimson, the sand ocher from all the blood. Coal-black lumps of melted steel and plastic marked the remains of his friends' vehicles.
Closing his eyes, he steadied himself. In five years of fighting he had seen his share of death, but never lives disposed of so easily, so completely, so mercilessly, in mere seconds.
"There's one still alive!"
He looked to see a villager coming toward him from a clutch of nearby houses. Inside one, he found his good friend Khoday Noor. Mullah Cable took his hand. "Khoday Noor! Khoday Noor! Can you hear me?" Noor stared back blankly. His right side was paralyzed and blood was draining from a wound in his back. They loaded him onto a vehicle, but he died en route to the nearest town. "He was just a young guy, a conscript," Mullah Cable recalled. "He had no reason to die."
Back at the camp, Mullah Cable washed his clothes and washed them again, but the smell would not go away. Those were men he'd known for five years down there in the valley—five years of mountain living, of meals and prayers shared. He sat there counting up the children they'd left behind.
The remaining men in the camp gathered for a dinner of naan and tea and offered theories about how the Americans spotted the convoy. Some said that they had advanced airplanes that could roam high above the clouds for days without refueling, picking out targets as they pleased; or that they could see every Talib in the country with a special type of flying camera, which beamed images back to commanders in the United States. Night washed over the mountains, the camp fell quiet, and Mullah Cable retreated to his bunker to try to catch some sleep. As he lay there considering the day's events, he experienced something he'd never felt before about the Taliban: doubt.
Later that night, news came in over the radio: after a day's bombardment, 880 fighters were missing across the front lines. Eight hundred and eighty, he thought to himself—what kind of unimaginable power was this? Outside, his men stayed up, chatting anxiously until just before dawn, when villagers arrived with more grim news. They had found the body of the local Taliban governor—a powerful, feared man—cut clean in half.
In just two days, they had suffered more losses than he'd witnessed in the previous three years. He needed to calm down and think clearly. The trouble was, he hadn't slept since the bombing. That afternoon he retreated to his bunker for a short nap, but still sleep would not come. Instead, he stared at the ceiling for hours. A few of his fighters entered with rumors that whole Taliban units had defected up north. He said nothing.
In the evening, a message from supreme leader Mullah Omar, still in hiding, came by radio: "The people are suffering, but this is a test we shall pass, God willing." The test was from God himself, Omar said, and the goal, he explained, was "martyrdom."
Mullah Cable simply couldn't believe it. To defend his country he would take deadly risks, suffer cold mountain nights, go for months without his family—he would do it all, gladly, but martyrdom? Talk of martyrdom from a man in hiding? For reasons he did not fully grasp, the Americans were trying to kill him and everyone around him. The Northern Alliance was still trying to kill him. And now, he realized, his own leaders were encouraging his death.
Then and there, he decided not to die in the service of hopeless causes. A thousand armies at Mullah Omar's command could not stop a power like the Americans, not with the sort of jet he had watched eviscerate his comrades. If his leaders were planning to abandon him to such machines, then he would abandon them first.
He went over to see his men, who were busy checking provisions and talking among themselves. He knew that the scent of cowardice in his decision was unmistakable. He wasn't the type to run or shirk responsibility. But it would be criminal to ask his fighters to sacrifice themselves for Mullah Omar, a man they'd never even seen. He gathered them together. Jets were shrieking overhead and the mountains echoed with booms like some otherworldly storm, and a few of his men were already in tears. "Go home," he said. "Get yourselves away from here. Don't contact each other." Not a soul protested.
By morning, messages from other commanders were flooding in over his walkie-talkie, proclaiming battle plans and announcing this or that new mission. In communiqués broadcast on the national radio, the same words were on every fighter's lips: martyrdom, jihad, infidels. They formed the quintessential elements of their argot, forged from years fighting the Russians and the Northern Alliance warlords. Yet it was only talk, aired for their superiors and perhaps for each other. Mullah Cable figured that in reality, Talibs everywhere were probably defecting. After all, hundreds of commanders up and down the front lines don't just spontaneously announce missions at the same time, not without prior coordination. He was sure that only the Arabs of al-Qaeda and their foreign allies would fight to the death because they had nowhere else to go. Retreating to their home countries was simply not an option. As Afghan natives, however, the Taliban could hold out hope that they'd be allowed to return to their home villages in peace and, when the chaos ended, start afresh. This was how things had gone for decades. His countrymen had learned to switch sides when necessary or give up the fighter's life entirely—anything to survive.
As Mullah Cable stood shoeless atop his mountain base, he considered his fate. If he somehow could make it out alive, he promised himself that he would abandon politics forever. He'd get a job with his in-laws, who owned a shop in Kabul, where his wife and children lived. But getting there would not be easy. Chaos reigned: rumors were pouring in of fighters across the front lines throwing their weapons in ditches and fleeing. They were bribing locals for shelter, or heading off to their home villages—and often dying in the effort. The Taliban's crumbling forces were up against a thousand or so highly motivated Northern Alliance rebels, a seemingly endless stream of American warplanes, and CIA agents and Special Operations soldiers directing the whole effort. The enemy was barreling toward Kabul—at this pace, Mullah Cable figured they might reach it any day—and he knew that he had to get there first to have any hope of making it into the city.
The fifty-mile journey along serpentine dirt roads through the mountains was hazardous and unpredictable. Capture by the Northern Alliance would mean detention and possibly death, a logic he understood all too well given how the Taliban had treated their own captives. And if his own superiors caught him fleeing, he would fare no better. Worst of all, with fighters switching sides in droves, he could trust no one. It was every man for himself, a world with no comrades, only enemies.
He walked over to the few fighters still in the camp. He hugged each in turn, boarded a Toyota HiLux pickup truck, and drove off alone.
It was November 6, 2001, and the war was about a month old. The first winter winds were gusting through the valleys and avalanches were tumbling majestically down the distant peaks of the Hindu Kush. But driving through small mud villages, past fields of wheat and corn, Mullah Cable kept his eyes fixed on the road. The trip proved humiliating. Whenever locals glimpsed his HiLux, a signature Taliban vehicle, gunshots soon followed. In one village, he saw even housewives firing out from their windows. From then on he opted for the spine-jarring back roads, and eventually he made it to Parwan, the next province.
He crossed a bridge and noticed that there was not a car or pedestrian or goat in sight. He glanced up, but the sky was empty. Groves of fruit trees stood in rows, Soviet war ruins lying here and there between them. He drove on, the road sloping down into a broad plain. He passed clusters of abandoned mud houses and neglected fields and then, up ahead, he saw vehicles approaching. They soon pulled up before him, blocking his path. Men in white turbans jumped out and pointed their Kalashnikovs and shouted. There was little he could say or do. Before he knew it, he was assailed by fists and rifle butts and shoved unceremoniously into the back of a vehicle. Someone shouted that he was a coward for forsaking his country. In the front seat, a Taliban commander turned to him and said, "We kill people like you."
From their turbans and their accents, he knew that this was no ordinary Taliban force. This was the Palace Guard—"crazy Kandaharis," as he used to call them: elite special forces from the Taliban heartland provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. They were taking him back to the front lines.
Later that afternoon he was pressed back into service. For three days, he and other captives were ordered to fire on various Northern Alliance outposts and to guard weapons caches. At nightfall, he was shackled and tossed into an improvised prison.
By the third day, their food supplies were dwindling. Men were melting snow to drink. A fellow captive begged Mullah Cable to shoot him and end his misery. He began to wonder if he should have held out longer in the mountains and kept his unit together. It had been foolish to assume that the Taliban would simply fall over, not with these brutish Palace Guards keeping everyone in the fight. Maybe the Taliban were stronger than he'd suspected. Maybe this war would take months or even years.
But how did any of that matter? It was no life, sleeping in the mountains, hiding from killer machines that he could barely see, watching friends erased in a flash. Even if the Taliban stood for a hundred years, he decided, he would never go back. But he couldn't stay here, either.
He had certainly gotten out of worse before. Two years earlier, during a routine inspection near his mountain camp, he had come across a shepherd boy guarding his animals with particular zeal. Something didn't seem right. Mullah Cable had questioned the boy, and, when he clammed up, he ordered his men to inspect the flock. Pulling back the wool on one sheep, a Talib found a gun firmly tied to its belly. They searched the others. Every single one bore a weapon. Mullah Cable headed back to the camp and found his weapons cache nearly empty. It was only then that the boy spilled the truth: Northern Alliance rebels had been bribing villagers to steal from the Taliban's weapons stock, in the process bulking up their own supplies. Mullah Cable's unit was now nearly defenseless.
It would take much too long for backup to arrive. That evening, as the sky dimmed, panic had spread among the unarmed fighters. As the Talibs prepared to flee, the first fusillade of gunfire rang out not far away. From the sound of it, the rebels would be reaching the camp's front entrance in minutes. Mullah Cable scanned the darkness for an escape route. In one direction was a road heading straight downhill, right into the enemy's clutches. In the other, a small knoll. According to his spotters, rebels were circling around and about to close in on that, too. Then he looked at his truck, idling nearby, and inspiration struck. Calling over a Talib, he ordered him to drive up the knoll with headlights off, then turn around and drive back down, headlights on—and repeat, again and again. From the rebels' vantage point, it would appear as if vehicle after vehicle of reinforcements was flooding into the camp. He then got on the radio—which he knew the rebels monitored—and let slip that thousands in backup were on their way. Soon enough, the firing died down. His sentries breathlessly called in with news that the rebels had broken ranks in retreat. The unit was saved.
That had been back before the whole business with the Americans, when he was the confident commander of hundreds. Now a prisoner of his own side, he stood there silently as the Kandaharis hurled obscenities at him. Without food, however, he and the other detainees could hardly lift their Kalashnikovs, let alone march through the mountains. It was only then, the end of his third day in captivity, that the Palace Guards finally agreed to head to the nearest town to collect supplies. The captives assembled in a row for inspection, and when the guard saw Mullah Cable and another man in a shoeless state, he selected them both to take along.
They were brought to a small bazaar where men and boys were crowding around a few stalls and vendors were calling out their prices. The Kandaharis fanned out in every direction, and Mullah Cable and his fellow captive were dispatched to collect bread. When he neared a pyramid of tomatoes, he glanced back at the Kandaharis, who were busy looking over vegetables and talking among themselves. Slipping behind the tomatoes, he whispered to the other captive, "Follow me!" They broke into a sprint and just kept running.
It was long dark when they arrived at a level plain stretching south to the horizon, an open country of old mud huts and mud streams known as Bagram. Mullah Cable stopped in a field to examine his feet, now bruised a dark purple. All around him were the remains of a major Soviet military base, the fields littered with the detritus of that now-ancient occupation: rusting tanks, orphaned turrets, decaying mountains of wheelless jeeps, and, a short walk away, a gigantic, corroding warehouse made of corrugated iron—the perfect place to spend the night.
As he worked to pry open the door, a pair of headlights appeared in the distance. He moved faster as they careened toward him. Before he knew it, a jeep drove right up and armed men jumped out. Another Palace Guard patrol. He and the other captive were kneed and slapped and ridiculed and thrown into the back of a jeep. During the ride, Mullah Cable cried out from the pain of men sitting atop him and the broken road beneath him. When he tried to speak he was hit with something hard.
The Taliban camp, when they pulled in, was already a frenzy of activity. News over the radio told that Alliance rebels were pulling close, and a guard handed him a Kalashnikov with the words, "Don't be a coward." Not long after, the night erupted in gunfire. Men were shouting orders in the darkness. It was being said that the rebels had reached the front gate, but he could not see anything in that direction save the hills, dark against the sky. He fired wildly and then thought better of it, tossed his weapon aside, and broke for the rear exit. He was nearly out of the gate when something stopped him in his tracks: a pair of makeshift sandals that had been carved out of old army boots. Fortune was finally on his side. Strapping them on, he headed down the main road into the black night.
Some hours later he came upon another fleeing captive who reported that the camp had fallen and the surrounding fields were teeming with Palace Guards trying to find their way home. They, too, were not eager for martyrdom.
A twelve-hour walk to Kabul lay ahead. The road was lifeless, no sound anywhere but for his sandals on the gravel. He neared some darkened mud houses and slowed to see if anyone might be home but then changed his mind and kept walking. Some hours passed and fatigue set in. He came upon another row of houses that stood in perfect silence. Suddenly a flashlight blinked on and a voice yelled, "Stop!" Men in turbans were gathered ahead, and his heart sank.
A Taliban officer stepped forward. "Where are you going? he asked, sounding nervous. "Who are you?"
Mullah Cable had to think quickly. "I was up in Bagram visiting family. I'm on my way back to Kabul."
The officer studied him. "What kind of shoes are those? You don't look like an ordinary person." Mullah Cable responded with more lies, whatever came to mind, none of which made much sense. It turned out he had stumbled into Qale Nasro, a garrison town still in Taliban hands. The soldiers conferred, not knowing quite what to do. In the end, they decided to keep him at their guard post for the night.
When he awoke at dawn, the soldiers were already deep in discussion. They looked tense, clutching their walkie-talkies and listening to reports on the advance of Alliance rebels. It would be thirty minutes, or an hour at most, before the rebels reached Qale Nasro. The soldiers no longer seemed to have the slightest interest in him. Without hesitating, Mullah Cable slipped away and returned to the main road heading to Kabul.
He walked for hours as the sun climbed steadily overhead. When a minivan taxi appeared, he ran to catch it and it rolled to a stop, but the driver took one look at him, with his Taliban-style black turban and strange sandals, and refused to unlock the door. The two men negotiated through the open window. Mullah Cable pressed his case, repeating that he was a civilian visiting family up north, and the driver continued to look him up and down and kept the door locked. Finally, Mullah Cable unclasped his gold Swiss watch. A gift from his beloved brother, eight years deceased, it was the most valued thing he owned, the only item of luxury he'd allowed himself in the mountains. The driver took it and let him in.
They drove south. Mullah Cable wondered if the shame of what he had just done would ever leave him. What would his brother have said? It was all happening too fast. Just weeks before, he would have been driven anywhere he wished, by taxi or passing civilian alike, for free.
The van continued on. Had Mullah Cable looked at the country passing him by, he would have seen rows of ruined grape trees standing bare against the sky. He would have seen flame-blackened one-room shops, and mud houses with missing doors and windows and outer walls. It had all been done by his people, by the movement he had sworn his life to, but he saw none of it. Instead, he stared blankly ahead, wondering about the days to come, the friends he'd lost, and the end of life as he knew it.
Late on November 12, 2001, Mullah Cable entered Kabul. He found a hollow city. The roads were cratered, just as they had been when he'd left for the mountains all those years before. Shops and restaurants stood shuttered, and there was almost no one about. Crossing the Kabul River, he stared at the stinking mixture of mud and trash and goat droppings. He walked through neighborhoods he hadn't seen in years, where refuse sluiced down hillside drains into street gutters. The stench of sulfur and human waste was smothering. Up in the mountains, he'd forgotten how little governing the Taliban had done outside their drive for security and order. Everywhere he looked, there was nothing but spectacular neglect.
Near the city center, he arrived at a small house and for the first time in months saw his wife and daughter and the panoply of cousins and uncles who shared his roof. As they hugged, his relief was profound. He wanted nothing more than to stay in their company and live quietly and honorably. Peacefully. He hoisted up his sore feet and told them everything, and they listened with great concern and admiration. They said they didn't know what they would have done had he not returned to them. It was not long before they left to prepare dinner and he drifted off to sleep.
That evening, he awoke to visitors. Two cousins from the outskirts of town had heard that Northern Alliance rebels would be entering Kabul in the next day or two. As he ate his meal, Mullah Cable considered the news. He understood what everyone in town had long known: the civil war had compartmentalized Afghanistan's nearly forty ethnic groups into political blocs. The Taliban drew their recruits almost entirely from ethnic Pashtuns, who made up about 40 percent of the country, while the Northern Alliance typically gathered support from ethnic Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek minority communities. Now most Pashtuns, even those who disliked the Taliban, felt anxious about the prospect of Northern Alliance rule.
When Kabul fell, he knew, not a single Talib would be left alive. It would be madness to stay. But where could he go? No province seemed safe, and the possibilities of retribution—at the hands of Alliance rebels, the Americans, or even civilians—bloomed in his imagination.
Only one option remained, and he could not deny it. The next morning Mullah Cable sold everything he owned to the neighbors, raising about $1,000. He, his wife, his daughter, and two other relatives squeezed into a minivan taxi. They passed the southern gates of Kabul, then the hills circling the city's edge, and finally Bala Hisar, a set of mud-walled castle ruins that the Taliban used for storage. Mullah Cable watched as men climbed out of the castle windows, weapons in hand. Looters. Government vehicles were being stolen. He knew then that Kabul was falling, and that it would be lost forever.
The taxi emerged onto a broad, vacant escarpment, and the road curved southeast. It was empty in both directions. Dark brown mountains lay in the far distance; beyond them, Pakistan. On the radio, the BBC was reporting scenes of jubilation in the city they had left behind. He sat deep in thought. The ignominy of his flight fit no narrative he knew. You worked hard, were clever and careful, and through patronage or charisma you became someone who mattered. You were brave in battle and loyal in life, and it paid off—but not for him. He was escaping like a common thief, turning his back on the movement that had made him who he was. "That was the beginning, I can tell you that," he recalled years later. "That was the start of my depression. I was thinking, What will happen to me? I pressed my face against the glass. I was crying, but I didn't want anyone to see. It felt like the sky was falling."
Two mornings later, Mullah Cable and his family arrived at a small way station at the foot of the dark brown mountains. They waited through the day until a smuggler appeared, and Mullah Cable spoke with him briefly. Just ahead was a stand of pine trees, and the group left their taxi behind and headed toward it on foot. Soon they found themselves making their way through a thick forest. A few miles ahead lay the tribal badlands of Waziristan, a region of Pakistan home to "murderers, backbiters, and thieves," as he explained to his wife. It was terra incognita for him, but he had heard enough tales of travelers being robbed and knifed there, or kidnapped and never seen again. Worse yet, Pakistan's official policy was to arrest any Talib they found.
With the smuggler as their guide, they headed off the path, hacking their way through the bracken, clearing their way as they went. Every so often, they were directed by the smuggler to lie motionless on the ground. Mullah Cable looked at his wife, suffering these hardships in silence, picking her way through the trees in her burqa. Guilt welled up in him, guilt for her ordeal and for having ever gotten mixed up in politics. He told himself that she shouldn't have to pay for his sins. The smuggler had given him a hunting rifle, and Mullah Cable decided that if someone came for his family he would fight to the death. "If I tell you to run," he told her, "just do it. Don't ask me, and don't wait for me."
After many hours they emerged into a clearing. A smooth, paved highway, a sight he'd never seen anywhere in Afghanistan, stretched out before them. Some time later, a truck rolled to a stop and picked them up, as arranged. Once they were on their way, he noticed the driver staring at him. "I've been doing this for a long time," the driver said. "But I've never seen anyone as anxious as you."
They drove on as the highway curved through forests of pine and holly. Every so often a Pakistani military vehicle trundled by and Mullah Cable ducked his head out of view. He knew that if he were caught he'd be turned over to the Americans or banished to a Pakistani prison, and the thought filled him with anger. What had it all been for? A mad village preacher throwing away the country for nothing?
The forest thinned into a broad clearing. Up ahead, straddling the highway, stood a military checkpoint. They drove up and the driver waved and the Pakistani soldier nodded and they continued on. They drove through a second and third checkpoint, and Mullah Cable was not even questioned. He could not make sense of it.
They crossed a dried riverbed and came upon street after street of low mud-brick houses. The driver announced that they had reached the town of Miram Shah. For the first time in three days, Mullah Cable and his family sat down to eat. The next morning they set out again, heading for the anonymous streets of the port metropolis of Karachi.
Back in Afghanistan the bombing continued, but the Taliban's end was near. Thousands of their soldiers were fleeing, and while some made it back to their home villages, the less fortunate among them ended up in Northern Alliance hands. Many of these were executed, including hundreds who were locked inside giant containers and suffocated to death. Though he didn't realize it, Mullah Cable had only narrowly escaped a similar fate. Shortly after he left the Taliban garrison town of Qale Nasro, rebels overran the outpost and seized whomever they could find. A New York Times reporter traveling with them learned that a Taliban soldier hiding in an irrigation ditch had been dragged out, stripped of his belongings, and shot. For good measure, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher was then driven into the corpse's head.
When his family reached Karachi, relief washed over Mullah Cable. If he could keep out of sight of Pakistani authorities, he could begin to piece together a Taliban-free future. He had a new world to look forward to, a new set of possibilities. A life at peace.
Copyright © 2014 by Anand Gopal