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Chak and Awe

By
May 15, 2011

The Taliban is alive and active. James Fergusson recounts his face-to-face meeting, in a mine-protected Afghan village, with one of the feared group’s most powerful figures.

taliban-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by isafmedia

The road to Chak was marked by a painted sign so small that Hafiz, our generously paid driver, almost overshot it. We were supposed to have reached the turnoff before dark, but we were late starting out and dusk had already fallen as we left the false reassurance of the tarmac. We bumped along a track for a mile until our headlights picked out a beaten-up Toyota waiting on the verge. As we slowed to walking pace, a hooded figure with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder dashed out from behind the parked car and came bundling through the passenger door of ours in a tangle of cloth and rifle strap. The first car had already shot off in a cloud of dust and the new arrival, anxious not to hang around, tersely ordered us to speed up and follow it.

The track wound gently upwards among low, dimly seen hills. Soon we came to a fork. Our guide directed us to the left. Almost immediately we came to another fork. This time we went to the right and rejoined the same track as before. We went on like this, weaving rapidly between inconsequential, gravelly hillocks in a way that I suddenly realized was anything but random. One look at the concentration on Hafiz’s face confirmed it: We were in a Taliban minefield. There were dozens and dozens of possible routes to the valley entrance ahead and each of them, I learned, was coded with a letter and a number. On some routes an IED could be deactivated by punching a certain number into a mobile phone, and reactivated in the same way once the vehicle was safely past: a twenty-first-century version of a medieval drawbridge.

The sides of the valley closed in as we entered Chak proper, a place that epitomized the rural Pashtun ideal. The farmers lived as they had always done, in houses built of rocks and mud behind high compound walls, all organized into densely packed villages. The district is famous for its apples and apricots that grow in tidy orchards along the riverbanks, or higher up on artfully canalized terraces cut into the spectacularly steep valley sides.

We stopped at last in one of the villages and climbed out, stiff from the bumpy journey. The sound of a propeller engine was audible the moment Hafiz switched off the ignition, causing us new arrivals from the city to glance sharply upwards at the cold October sky. I had never heard a military drone before, and it was too dark to spot it now, but there was no doubting what it was.

Our guide, laughing at our nervousness, explained that there was no danger. The drone was just a ringay, the local, onomatopoeic nickname for a small camera drone. It was the armed versions, the larger-engined Predators and Reapers known as buzbuzak, that we needed to worry about—and this definitely wasn’t one of those. I imagined some CIA analyst in Langley, freeze-framing a close-up of my face and filing it under “Insurgent.” In this valley, no one but the Taliban moved about in vehicles after dark.

A group of men materialized from the darkness beyond the road, swathed in pathos and the swirling vapor of their breath. At their center was Abdullah, who seemed hugely amused to see me again.

“You came back,” he laughed, clasping my hand. “You really came back!”

He led us along the bank of a stream and across a small field to the side door of a mud-brick farmhouse. A steep, narrow staircase let into a perimeter wall of astonishing thickness led to a cell-like hujra that was lit by a pair of flickering hurricane lamps.

His personal record, he said, was eighty-one trucks destroyed in a single, memorable night. Not for nothing did the Americans call his stretch of road “the Highway of Death.”

Abdullah grinned as we settled on to the floor cushions. “So, which of us would you say has aged the most since the last time?”

I had to admit that there was gray on my chin that hadn’t been there four years previously, while he, in his late thirties, seemed almost entirely unchanged: the same intelligent, darting eyes set in a handsome, weathered face above a thicker-than-average black beard.

“You’re using the same notepads, I see,” he went on, nodding at the pocket-sized reporter’s pad I like to use. “Things must be going badly for you if you still can’t afford bigger ones.”

It was a good joke, but also a reminder that Western journalists rarely if ever visited Chak—and almost never interviewed the Taliban face-to-face. Some of his subordinates were staring in outright fascination; Abdullah confirmed that the last Westerner he had spoken to anywhere was me. I had published a photograph of myself at that meeting, sitting cross-legged between two masked and heavily armed fighters, in my book A Million Bullets, a copy of which I had brought along as potentially useful proof that I was the author I claimed to be. I need hardly have bothered: Abdullah knew all about the book, and had even seen the photograph reproduced online.

“On a Danish website,” he specified. “You, with two of my boys. It was very good!”

I hadn’t planned on presenting Abdullah with the book. It felt a little too fraternal; a bit Hanoi Jane. Now, nevertheless, I found myself writing a dedication in the flyleaf.

“To Commander Abdullah,” I wrote. “In the hope of a better future for Afghanistan.”

Over tea, the pattern of Abdullah’s busy guerrilla life began to emerge. He spent his winters over the border in Pakistan, recuperating and rearming for the next arduous fighting season that began again each spring. He had carried out twenty “operations” in 2010, most of them military in nature and mostly in Wardak, although not all. Taliban High Command had taken to using Abdullah, a rising star in the organization, as a kind of strategic enforcer in the country’s hotspots. That summer, for instance, he had been posted to the Jalalabad region; in 2008, he had spent three months in the south. But it was his achievements in Chak, the valley where he was born, that he really wanted to discuss.

The devastation his men had wrought on NATO convoys on the Kabul-Kandahar highway had not been exaggerated. Abdullah claimed to have destroyed “hundreds” of vehicles in the last three years, using ambush techniques that sounded childishly simple.

“We were scared of the Americans at first,” said our guide from the journey here, and who had followed us into the hujra. “We heard they had technology so powerful that they could see a mouse blink from space. But none of that turned out to be true.”

“Using IEDs or just RPGs, you destroy the first and last vehicles in the convoy so that the road is blocked,” he told me. “The first thing that happens is that the escorts—three or four ANA [Afghan National Army] Humvees, usually—always run away. Then the truck drivers panic. They either jump down from their cabs and run for it, or else they try to steer their trucks off the road. They often crash into each other, and if they are carrying fuel, they blow up by themselves.”

As a former student of engineering at a polytechnic in Kabul, Abdullah had a natural talent for this kind of work. Later, for fun, he threw a pinch of salt into a glass of Fanta I was drinking, causing the sticky orange contents to fizz violently and bubble out onto the floor: the nerdish trick, it occurred to me, of a successful amateur bomb-maker. His personal record, he said, was eighty-one trucks destroyed in a single, memorable night. Not for nothing did the Americans call his stretch of road “the Highway of Death.”

He made ambushing NATO convoys sound so much like a computer game that I had to remind myself it was real people’s lives we were talking about here, not points on an electronic scoreboard. The truckers were cannon fodder. Not for the first time, I marveled at the appalling risks they took to supply the forces of the Coalition in Kandahar. There was a kind of madness to this war. I was reminded of an old Lucky Luke cartoon in which the U.S. Cavalry goes on patrols entirely unnecessarily, through the same Wild West canyon each month—and is duly ambushed there by Indians, as though both sides were keeping an appointment.

Abdullah confirmed that the new combat outposts along the highway merely offered his men more targets. The conscripts sent to man them seldom ventured beyond their sandbags. In many cases they had learned to survive by deliberately looking the other way when the Taliban were around—or else they could easily be bribed to do so. Abdullah recounted how, in 2009, a group of some thirty ANP [Afghan National Police] came over to the Taliban, together with two trucks of guns and heavy weapons.

“They could see that they were following the wrong path, and that the people supported us,” he said.

The majority of the policemen were from the north of the country and were given a set of civilian clothes and sent home, although the leader of the unit opted to join the Taliban and was now a commander for them in the Jalalabad area.

Nothing seemed to impede Abdullah’s IED-laying teams—not even the buzbuzak drones that, these days, patrolled the highway around the clock.

“We were scared of the Americans at first,” said our guide from the journey here, and who had followed us into the hujra. “We heard they had technology so powerful that they could see a mouse blink from space. But none of that turned out to be true.”

I had presumed he was an ordinary Taliban foot soldier, but he turned out to be one of Abdullah’s most trusted officers as well as the group’s qari, or Koran reciter—the rough equivalent of a regimental chaplain.

“If a sentry shouts ‘Missile!’ we drop everything and run for it,” Naim went on. “Depending on the range and missile type, we have between fifteen and forty-five seconds to take cover.”

Abdul-Basit, his predecessor whom I had met in 2007, and who had since been wounded, captured, and released by the Americans, was now dead: the victim, apparently, of a freak accident with an RPG. His replacement was twenty-eight, and his name was Mullah Naim.

“In the old days it only took one man with a shovel to plant an IED,” he explained. “Nowadays we never go out with less than three: one to dig and two to watch the sky.”

It seemed that the Hellfire missiles slung beneath the wings of the drones had a serious weakness. When a missile was launched at night—which was when the IED teams almost always went to work—it was possible, with keen eyes, to spot fuel-burn shooting from its tail during the ignition sequence.

“If a sentry shouts ‘Missile!’ we drop everything and run for it,” Naim went on. “Depending on the range and missile type, we have between fifteen and forty-five seconds to take cover.”

Once launched, a Hellfire is committed to its programmed target coordinates; it cannot deviate like a heat-seeking missile. No Talib, according to Naim, had been lost to a Hellfire in the course of an IED-laying operation in well over a year.

The Taliban cocked a snook at American technology in other ways. They had learned not to speak for more than about a minute on their mobile phones to prevent the call being traced and their location triangulated. For this reason they all carried at least three mobiles each, and frequently replaced the SIM cards. In combat or during ambushes, meanwhile, they tended to abandon their mobiles in favor of variable frequency field radios which, they had discovered, were immune to electronic jamming equipment.

ISAF had undoubtedly woken up late to the threat posed by these insurgents. Until 2009 there was no more than a single battalion of U.S. troops assigned to Wardak and the next-door province, Logar. Then, however, the Americans sent an entire brigade: as many as four thousand troops from the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, New York. They had originally been slated to deploy to Baghdad; a last-minute diversion that spoke volumes about the U.S.’s changing military priorities. Their main base was in the south of Wardak, at Sayed Abad, from where they would periodically probe northwards towards Chak: a mission few of them looked forward to.

“It is important that you understand that the people here will never stop fighting you,” he said. “Does Obama truly understand that? Does your prime minister?”

“Chak for the Americans was the place where the badasses lived,” recalled a British journalist who was embedded on one of these missions. “They spoke with grudging admiration of Taliban bravery. Everyone remembered a six-hour gunfight in Chak where they’d run black on ammo and the insurgents kept fighting, hours after the Apaches turned up…Chak was certainly in a league of its own. It was one of those places you were guaranteed to get hit.”

I struggled to think of Abdullah as a “bad-ass.” Now, as in 2007, he showed me nothing but charm and courtesy. Over dinner—a large Kabuli pilau on a communal PVC picnic rug—he plunged his fingers into the mountain of steaming rice and nudged the knuckle of mutton buried within it towards me. According to Pashtun tradition, the best cut of meat on the plate always goes to the most important guest. On the other hand, his rigid attention to etiquette was perhaps a good indicator of his ideological beliefs, which were just as uncompromising. Not for him the nuanced offers and promises I had heard from Jalaluddin Shinwari or Musa Hotak. Abdullah saw fighting the foreign invader as a religious obligation.

“It is important that you understand that the people here will never stop fighting you,” he said. “Does Obama truly understand that? Does your prime minister?”

In 2007 Abdullah had told me of his ambition to become a ghazi, an Islamic honorific denoting a killer of infidels—an ambition that had now been fulfilled, although that in itself was no reason to stop fighting. Indeed, he fully expected—and perhaps secretly hoped—to be martyred. The faith of these rebels really was central to their cause. It inspired as well as obliged them to resist, by offering the consolation of paradise to all those killed in the line of duty.

I sat back and watched them pray together after supper. There were ten turbaned Talibs in the room by then, shoulder to shoulder towards Mecca, their qari, Mullah Naim, singing the responses from the front. Their turbans, I noted, were all black: another development since 2007, when their allegiance to the cause was necessarily less overt. You could see that it bound these warriors together, this comforting, calming ritual. Abdullah once described his religion as “peace and perfection: like eating on an empty stomach”—and they did seem almost physically sated by their prayer session. Their worship was, as always, intensely spiritual but at the same time strangely banal. The numinous atmosphere seemed scandalously spoiled to me when, right in the middle of a response, a mobile phone began to chirrup in Mullah Naim’s pocket. I was astonished when he actually took the call, held a short conversation, and returned to his prayers as though nothing had happened. It showed how intertwined the day-to-day business of being in the Taliban and Islam really were; and that when you pray five times a day, even a qari must learn to live with interruption.

G

Excerpted from Taliban: The Unknown Enemy, by James Fergusson. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.

**James Fergusson** is a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent who has covered the Taliban extensively. He is also the author of the award-winning book A Million Bullets. He lives in Edinburgh.

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