British and American Special Forces were also fighting in the fort at that time, so you're talking about very close air support in an area that's got a lot of large, soft mud walls and a lot of underground areas, with about 450 men running around the compound. I was surprised when I went there. There was surprisingly little damage done because when a bomb hits soft mud it has less of an effect. The bombing was quite accurate but kind of ineffective in terms of suppressing [the prisoners].
How did you get to Mazar-e Sharif, and how did you arrange it?
I came through Uzbekistan and was taken across [the border] secretly at night without any passport clearance, over the famous Friendship Bridge. [It was possible because] Uzbekistan has a sort of working relationship with the Uzbeks in Afghanistan, like Dostum. Technically, the bridge has been closed ever since the Taliban came to Mazar.
We heard today that a Swedish journalist was killed in Talaquan.
I think that journalists are learning two things. One is that Afghanistan is a fairly lawless place without the Taliban in charge. Secondly, there are a number of sympathizers with the Taliban who would have no problem just popping an American or foreigner.
What kind of things are you doing to protect yourself?
Well, I travel with a lot of men with guns. Also, I stick to areas that I feel comfortable in.It's just not wise to go walking down the street. Every time I walk down the street I attract a crowd of maybe 50 to 100 people, following me all the time.
What's your sense of conditions in the countrysideis it under control, how safe or unsafe?
Not at all under control. When the Taliban ran 90 percent of Afghanistan, they actually were effective in suppressing banditry and crime. Now, you've got power vacuums in certain places and militias starting up again. So Afghanistan has sort of gone back to the old days, like on the road where [four] journalists were shot a week ago. That's a very famous place for kidnappings, murders, and robberies because the geography there makes it an easy spot for an ambush.
Have you had any contact with U.S. Special Forces there?
Well, they're driving around in captured Taliban vehicles. They told me, in their exact words: "This place is a snake pit." Meaning that there are a number of areas where they've been in engaged in combat with Taliban forces who were either fleeing or holed up. When I met them, they had been fighting all night and they were pretty tired. There were tens of thousands of spent shells inside the fort with Winchester ammo boxes and remains of American military meal rations and what-not.
There's a lot of activity here by small groups of Special Forces. They're basically coordinating air strikes, and everyone has praised them very highly. They're also keeping in touch with local commanders on what's going on. Today we were having dinner when one of them walked in and talked to Dostum, then left.
Any final thoughts to report?
I think what you don't see on the news is that life pretty much goes on here. People are very, very happy that the Taliban are gone, everybody will tell you all kinds of horror stories about life under the Taliban.People feel free now, they feel somehow liberated and able to make choices, but there aren't a whole lot of choices to make.
The other thing is that the hospitality of the Afghan people is really one of the most amazing parts of being inside Afghanistan. People are really pleased to see any foreigner and always welcome you into their house. They chat with you on the street and shake your handnot as any sort of liberator, but just as they always have with strangers who come to their country.
What happens next?
I'm going to spend some time with General Dostum, and then I'm going down to meet Ismail Khan, who is the de facto governor of Heart, in the south and west.
Look for Robert Young Pelton's account of his travels in Afghanistan in an upcoming issue of National Geographic Adventure Magazine.
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