A Washington Post correspondent traveling with the Northern Alliance
finds covering the early days of the war against the Taliban to be part
Evelyn Waugh satire.
By Peter Baker
Peter Baker is a Washington Post foreign correspondent.
They told us to turn the headlights off after the checkpoint in
Charikar. It's probably not true, but it certainly seemed that night
that there was no darker place on earth than the road from Charikar to
the front lines outside Kabul in northern Afghanistan. It was October 7,
perhaps a half-hour or so after the Americans and British had begun
their bombing campaign against the Taliban, and there was not a man-made
light to be seen. In this rebel-held territory, no one needed to warn
what few residents remained to pull blackout curtains, since there was
virtually no electricity. The partial moon above hardly seemed to dent
the pitch black.
Our van wound its way along the narrow, rocky roads up the mountain, the
driver gamely guessing where to aim his tires to avoid plunging off the
cliff. The word "road" was really a misnomer; there were no real roads,
at least in this part of Afghanistan, only a consensus as to where most
drivers tried to guide their vehicles with the least damage to the
suspension. Where the bridges had been blown out, someone had usually
placed a flimsy makeshift metal substitute that always seemed ready to
collapse under us.
We finally arrived at the village of Topdara, a long-abandoned hamlet of
mud houses and dirt paths perched on a slope overlooking the Shomali
plain, named for the local word for wind. Topdara seemed a pretty good
vantage point to watch the bombing campaign--high enough up to see the
rockets' red glare but far enough away to avoid being glared ourselves.
The only problem: The Taliban had a pretty good vantage point to watch
us from their invisible posts some 300 yards up the mountain.
Our escorts, mujaheddin guerrilla fighters armed with Kalashnikov
assault rifles, led us by foot through the village to a mud building. We
crawled up cramped stairs, heads ducked low, to emerge from a hole onto
the dusty roof from where we could see the full expanse of the plain.
The occasional thunderclap of explosions could be heard off in the
distance. Reporters instantly pulled out satellite telephones and began
breathlessly reporting the opening of the first war of the 21st century,
describing each white or red flash in the night sky, some
melodramatically recounting the scene as if they were personally taking
incoming fire. "The bombs are falling all around us," one disclosed.
Little did we know at the time that for some of our colleagues that was
actually true, or close enough. Some of those who feared the road more
than the enemy failed to heed the no-headlights rule and found
themselves on the wrong end of Taliban artillery. One American reporter,
Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor, saw a shell explode
just 100 yards away from him. Others hightailed it out of there, no one
neglecting to douse the lights this time.
It was an inauspicious start for the latest generation of would-be Ernie
For the international press corps that made its way into the unforgiving
plains and mountains of Afghanistan, the war against the Taliban at
times has seemed like something out of Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to
Arms"--and at others more like Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop," the classic 1938
novel satirizing British foreign correspondents who invent a war when
one doesn't present itself suitably enough. Frightening one moment,
comical the next.
The first few correspondents to make it into Afghanistan after September
11 largely came from Moscow, perhaps because we could find Tajikistan on
a map. The Taliban had kicked out the Western media and the only way
into the country was Northern Alliance territory and the only way into
Northern Alliance territory was neighboring Tajikistan, the former
Soviet Central Asian republic. Those of us who got to Dushanbe early
were able to fly on a Northern Alliance helicopter to the Panjshir
Valley, the rebel stronghold north of Kabul and home of assassinated
commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, the famed "Lion of Panjshir" who beat back
nine Soviet attempts to capture the valley.
As we prepared to board the aging Russian-made helicopter, we heard
reports that another Northern Alliance chopper had just been shot down
by the Taliban. Swallowing hard, we boarded anyway for a flight that
would take us over the Hindu Kush mountains. As the helicopter ascended
higher than its official limits, skimming just feet over the peaks, Paul
Quinn-Judge, the veteran Time magazine correspondent, leaned over and
shouted: "Good, we're flying real low. That way they won't be able to
shoot at us as easily."
If the helicopter seemed a bit dicey at the time, we had no idea how
lucky we were. Those who arrived later did not have it nearly so easy.
My colleague from the Washington Post, William Branigin, was forced to
take the overland route through the Hindu Kush, a harrowing five-day
journey with a hashish-smoking truck driver. A couple other Post
colleagues, Keith B. Richburg and Lucian Perkins, did not have it even
that easy. By the time they got into Afghanistan, the Anjuman pass was
covered by snow and impassable by vehicle. They made it through after an
eight-hour horseback ride through a blizzard.
The first arrivals set up camp in a small village called Jabal Saraj,
where the Northern Alliance has its headquarters for the front-line
troops to the south. The center of the dusty town is the bazaar, a
couple blocks of stalls offering grain, eggs, vegetables and slaughtered
animals on hooks surrounded by hundreds of flies taking a free taste. A
few merchants sell foreign products, including Pepsi canned in Iran and
tuna fish canned in Thailand. Firewood, fuel, dirty rugs and, of course,
scarves can be found as well.
Up the dirt road was the "guest house" where a few of us first stayed, a
concrete block of a building with no furniture, no electricity, no heat,
no television, no radio, no telephones and no running water. Seven of us
slept in the same room on thin cushions thrown on the floor, protected
from the dust storms outside by plastic sheeting covering the windows.
Most days we woke around sunrise, cleaned ourselves by pouring a bucket
of cold water from the stream over our heads and then ate a breakfast of
stale naan bread with jam bought in the bazaar. Lunch and dinner were
equally elaborate, usually rice and bread, sometimes served with meat
that only some dared eat. Eventually, grapes and apples were added to
the diet. Yet given the persistent illnesses plaguing soft-stomached
Westerners--salmonella poisoning, diarrhea, dysentery, fever and various
mystery ailments--the safest course was to avoid most everything but the
rice. The water was unsafe without purification pills, so everyone stuck
to the tea.
To power our computers and satellite telephones, we bought a
gasoline-powered generator in the bazaar and then strung wires around
the building. But that would prove to be the major challenge to every
correspondent in the place. Each night the generator would break down,
if it ever started at all. Mechanics would show up, insist they had
fixed it--then, as they were demanding large sums of money, the lights
would go off again. Many nights we ended up working by the dim glow of
lanterns or flashlights, praying the laptop and sat phone batteries
would hold out until we filed.
The days were spent roaming around dirt-poor villages, visiting troops
at the front and sitting down with rebel commanders to discuss the
military situation. Maj. Gen. Babajan, the gregarious, girthy commander
of front-line forces at the decimated Bagram air base, loved to show off
his control tower with the shattered windows and the crumbling roof and
the torn-up floors, pointing to dust clouds in the distance that
indicated enemy vehicles moving around. Then he would take us back to
his house, where we removed our boots and sat outside on a carpet in the
shade, munching on grapes while he expansively described how he planned
to recapture Kabul.
But the front never seemed all that lively in the opening weeks, even
after the bombs began falling. Once I spent the night in the top of the
control tower at Bagram to watch the aerial assault along with a pair of
truly talented veteran war correspondents, Quinn-Judge and Mark
Franchetti of the Sunday Times of London. Soon after the sun set at 5:30
p.m., it grew bitterly cold--and with no windows to shield us, the frigid
winds just whipped through the tower. At 7:30 p.m., scattered
anti-aircraft traces sparkled in the distance, as if the Taliban was
desperately shooting at random to hit an American plane it couldn't
actually detect. A loud boom echoed across the Shomali plain, but it
quickly grew quiet again. At 8:05 p.m., the first big flashes of
American ordnance lit up the sky behind the mountain separating us from
Kabul. A half dozen similar flashes followed, but by 8:10 p.m., it
seemed to be over. After a couple afterthought hits a half-hour later,
the loudest thing we heard the rest of the long, cold night was
Other moments were not so peaceful. From time to time, the crack of a
gunshot could be heard nearby. At a front-line post one day, the
commander gestured insistently. "Behind here," he said, pulling me out
of the line of fire. "They shoot here." Any number of journalists
discovered that the hard way. Owen Matthews of Newsweek came under
shelling and gunfire, only to be laughed at by mujaheddin amused that he
rather sensibly took cover. Craig Nelson of Cox News Service managed to
offend a Northern Alliance guard to the point that he was detained with
his hands tied behind his back for a short while. Robyn Dixon of the Los
Angeles Times seemed to survive a dangerous situation every week; once
she and her companions were held captive for hours by a wild,
rifle-wielding teenager who shot at their feet and above their heads and
seemed quite ready to try in between. Their offense: They had stopped so
her photographer could take a picture of a wedding party, including the
bride, covered head to toe.
But much like the characters in "Scoop," when the action was too tame,
some journalists took matters into their own hands. A crew from German
television coaxed a perfectly willing rebel commander into firing his
artillery gun so they could get a better picture than grape-eating
guerrillas lounging around in their robes and sandals.
And even the venerable BBC aired reports from star correspondents
located on the Tajik border, hundreds of miles away from the Kabul
lines, never bothering to tell listeners that they had an entire
mountain range between them and the bombing they were describing. On at
least one occasion, they insisted bombs were falling on the Taliban
forces on the front lines, never mind that none of us actually there saw
any such thing--including one of the BBC's own radio correspondents.
In a rather creative bit of geographic revisionism, the BBC reporters
would sign off giving their location as "north of Kabul." They were
north of Kabul, all right--in the same way that Maine is north of
Peter Baker, a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, was the
first American newspaper reporter to arrive in northern Afghanistan
after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He wrote about the takeover of
NTV, Russia's only major television network, in the June issue of AJR.###