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Afghan War Eyewitness on Warlords, Future, More

Robert Young Pelton
for National Geographic News
and National Geographic Adventure Magazine
February 15, 2002
 
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Robert Young Pelton has traveled around the world visiting war zones and meeting rebel leaders.

He returned from Afghanistan in December after spending a month traveling with the U.S. Special Forces, and General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former commander in the Northern Alliance and deputy defense minister in the interim government.

Pelton discussed his experiences and impressions of what's happening on the ground in that war-torn country with National Geographic News.


U.S. Forces who have been trained in modern warfare and the use of sophisticated targeting equipment are fighting a different kind of war in Afghanistan. Have the soldiers talked to you about adjusting to mounted warfare?

When the [U.S. Special Forces] landed they had no idea they were about to be moved around on horseback. When we think of horses, we think of large animals with nice comfortable saddles. Basically, the troops rode horses the size of dogs with saddles made out of two pieces of wood with a piece of carpet on the top. They had had to go up and down hills and valleys and they suffered the medical consequences of doing that. So, it wasn't their favorite way of getting around, since they're used to helicopters and hiking.

But they could see why they were using horses, because the initial battles with the Taliban were against a mechanized force that controlled the roads. The U.S. forces moved to the other side of a large chasm in the Dar-i-suf valley on horseback, and the Taliban could not chase them using vehicles, but our troops were free to attack the Taliban anytime they wanted to. So horses are actually an ideal way to get around there. No manual has ever been written on how to coordinate horse attacks with B-52s, so the Green Berets had to do OJT [on-the-job training]. Early on, there was a cavalry charge with about 300 horses where they had cut it so fine that as soon as the bombs hit the ridge the horses were riding through the gray smoke; it was quite an impressive sight.


You spent quite a bit of time with the U.S. Special Forces; would you say they are a special breed?

Not really. The thing that strikes you about them is that they're very normal people who come from small towns and from poor backgrounds. Many of them are career soldiers between the ages of 25 to 35, and the type of warfare they are trained to conduct is not what we normally think of as warfare.

In Afghanistan they're actually working under the indigenous commanders, in this case, Dostum, who is the leader of the Jimbush party, a political party consisting primarily of ethnic Uzbek Afghans, and also Ismail Khan [former governor of the western provinces in Afghanistan and opponent of the Taliban] in the South, and other warlords. So the Special Forces weren't brought in to run the show, they were actually brought in to support each individual commander in their particular brand of warfare. That means they have to think fast, they have to work without any supplies, and they have to mold themselves to the manner of warfare that each particular Afghan commander uses.

But the idea of the Special Forces group, or the A-team—the "A" as in operational detachment alpha—is to be dropped in behind enemy lines to work with indigenous fighters to help them win the war, not win the war for them.

You traveled quite a bit with Dostum, and I imagine you had a chance to get to know him somewhat. He is now the deputy defense minister in the interim government lead by Hamid Karzi. Do you have any insight as to how he might feel being a deputy minister, which is not a full cabinet position?

Well you have to understand that Dostum, of all the warlords in Afghanistan—and warlord is a term that's only used by the media—was the only person who came from the North and was a career soldier in the Afghan army. He rose to the position of General, and he was the single most powerful military commander under President Mohammed Najibullah. He then shifted sides and joined the Mujahadin in the fight against the Russian-backed government. There's been a lot of negative press about Dostum, where they call him a butcher, and a brutal warlord, and so forth. That's because he doesn't talk to the media, and in light of recent events there is absolutely no interest among any of these commanders to have journalists hanging around all the time. Massoud [Ahmad Shah Massoud, legendary leader of the Northern Alliance, assassinated on September 9, 2001] was killed by two people posing as journalists.

Most media attention was focused on the events in Panjshir Valley [headquarters of the Tajik-based Afghan resistance movement] and the [Pakistan] border with Peshawar in the South. Dostum's stronghold is in the north around the city of Mazar-e Sharif. He has a very strong following there. As a testament to that, last April he landed by helicopter with 30 people; two months later he had an army of 18,000 men and they conquered the entire region of Northern Afghanistan. So that kind of speaks to his popular support.

So, here's a man who has been typified as basically, a killer, a brutal warlord, and yet he was the only one who negotiated the peaceful surrender of the Taliban and the Kunduz. But the media continues to call him a brutal warlord.


What was Dostum like as a person, rather than a military leader?

I didn't meet him as a leader, I met him as a tired guy who had just finished hugging 2,000 Taliban. When he negotiated the surrenders in Kunduz, he physically embraced each fighter who came over to pledge allegiance to him. I remember thinking how tired he looked, and the next morning when he popped his head out of his compound, there was a huge line of people waiting to talk to him. Every day he spent 12 to 16 hours listening to people, signing things, and making decisions, and I thought to myself this guy doesn't have a name above his door, he doesn't even have a door to put his name on, he's just doing this because it's his natural proclivity.

He's a very shy man, very gruff, and he looks a little like Bluto from the Popeye cartoons. We kept trying to get him to shave and not wear his grubby old warlord outfit, which consisted of an old Russian field jacket and heavy leather boots. Sometimes he wore a long traditional gown, with a turban and a big belt and I thought my God, he looks like the Jolly Green Giant. We kept telling him he was going to get hammered by the media, with a week's worth of stubble and alternating between looking like a warlord and the Jolly Green Giant.

But he doesn't have a suit and the guy who was bringing him two suits had his luggage stolen in Uzbekistan. So much for being a mighty warlord.

Part of the time I was with him, the word on the street was that there was a Pakistani assassin trying to kill him. I was riding around in his car, which didn't make me feel too comfortable, but he has to operate under those conditions all the time.


Do you think that Dostum will play a key role in stabilizing the new government, or do you think he'll revert to the tribal in-fighting that led to the rise of the power of the Taliban?


You have to remember that the goal of the United States was to completely replace the Taliban-friendly elements in the South, which is predominately Pashtuns [the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, although not a majority]. So, we're going to introduce new people, some of whom haven't lived in Afghanistan for a long period of time, and that is going to create destabilization from the get-go.

Second of all, the U.S. wanted to minimize, or marginalize, the classic war lord structure in the North. That policy quickly changed, and we began supporting the people who had traditional support, people like Ismail Khan and Rashid Dostum. When we helped those people, we essentially put our vote of confidence behind them as the legitimate and natural rulers of that region. What we had not done is figure out how they would be integrated into a government.

So at the conference in Bonn [held in November 2001 to establish the interim government], regional people were asked to attend and represent their needs. And the bizarre thing was that the three key posts were given to three men from the same village. These people had been on the scene for a long time, like Dr. Abdullah, who is foreign minister, Qanooni, who got the Interior post, and minister of defense Fahim, who was Massoud's designate, but they represent the Panjshir Valley which is a very small area both physically and in terms of population. So in a way, the interim government was automatically destabilized by giving such heavy representation to a very small group of people.

Secondly, when you're on the ground, you realize very quickly that theory versus reality are two different worlds. When you drive around Mazar-e Sharif, and when you talk to people, you can see the influence Dostum has. He is the single unifying source, not from a military standpoint but from a political standpoint. He holds no office, he has no position other than being the head of the Jimbush party. And yet he went from village to village, town to town, meeting with people to say to them "you have to form your own government, you need to get back to work, you need to use these new-found freedoms you have, and you need to construct a government."

The other thing people don't realize is that Dostum supported Fahim as the defense minister. He didn't ask to be president or vice president or minister of anything; he just wanted a fair representation of the northern region, which has a slightly different ethnic mix than the south or the Panjshir Valley. So yes, he's a stabilizing force.

Now your last question, will Afghanistan go to hell in a hand basket? There are two dynamics now. Countries like the United States, Europe, and Britain are putting outside pressure on Afghanistan regarding its future. There are also the internal forces of the Afghans themselves. It's my feeling that you can push Afghanistan toward a democratic liberal society, but only so far. At some point you have to hand over the keys to the Afghans and say this is your country, make the best of it. My feeling is that as long as we respect the Afghans' right to sovereignty and assist them in any way we can, there will be stability.


Afghanistan is infamous for its role in poppy production. Do heroin traffickers have much political influence?


Not political influence. Afghanistan is like one of those "Survivor Games" on steroids. You have alliances and allegiances that go from village to province to town. One of those influences is financial, and most of that influence comes from the outside, so you have people from Iran, the Sindh province in Pakistan, and Russians all coming into Afghanistan and offering money for items and products they can't find in their own countries.

Growing poppies is a way for a farmer to make a living. Farmers choosing between growing wheat versus growing poppies know they'll make more money growing poppies. If someone gives a guarantee to buy your entire crop for the year, the first chain in the drug link has been cemented. Then there are the people who run convoys of vehicles through Afghanistan and across borders into places like Iran, and that's usually done by bribing customs houses and local officials. Once again, it's an economic choice, not really a moral choice.

The huge cartels that buy and sell heroin, whether Russian, Pakistani, or Indian, provide the finances for this trade. So the key to defeating the opium trade in Afghanistan is providing an economic alternative for farmers at the ground level. The U.S. has been trying to do this by providing money to subsidize farmers who switch from poppies to other crops like wheat. Financial success and stability always wipes out the drug trade, and warfare and poverty always encourage it.


In addition to warfare, Afghanistan has been suffering from a devastating drought for the last three years. Did it look like international relief efforts were alleviating hunger?


I was actually at the Friendship Bridge when it reopened in December and the very first train of wheat came across from Uzbekistan. The drought has caused subsistence farmers to lose both their source of food and their livelihood, forcing them to abandon their homes and become refugees. The fighting also pushed people away from their homes and into refugee camps, and it's in the camps where the starvation is occurring. There's plenty of food in the cities and small towns, and most people in Afghanistan have enough income to get food, but there is a very large group of people who have been disconnected from their livelihood. The first step to recovery is to get those people back on the land and give them the means to replant.

As an aside, while I heard a lot about the drought, it rained most of the time I was there. People were attributing the rain to the disappearance of the Taliban. So that was a kind of nice feeling.


The December fall of the Taliban and the installation of the interim government coincided with the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims, and the celebration of Eid, a day of family thanksgiving marked by music, dancing, and lots of food. Did the change in government affect this year's celebration?


People were a little nervous about what they could celebrate. They're so used to keeping to themselves and avoiding public scrutiny that they had to be encouraged to go out and enjoy themselves. There was a man dancing outside of a store and people were watching him in horror because they've been trained to think that someone's going to come along and hit him with a stick, so it's going to take a while for them to fully enjoy their freedom.

Dostum held large meetings, particularly at the Eid prayer and continually reinforced his message to people that they have their freedom again. He told women's groups that they could go back to work, start teaching again, and that they had nobody to worry about, it's time to begin your lives again. The people needed that sort of impetus to start again.


Are former members of the Taliban being accepted back into Afghan society?


There's a very strange thing going on in Afghanistan, and maybe it's comparable to what happened in the U.S. after the Civil War. But you have a group of people, who, for whatever reason, were either forced or chose to sympathize with the Taliban, and these are your next-door neighbors. And then you have people who fought against the Taliban, and these people are either related or live close to you. Things have been so mercurial in Afghanistan in terms of the Taliban gaining ground, losing ground, and gaining ground again that there's a sense among the people of let's just hold off and see who wins this time.

When I was in Mazar, people were celebrating the defeat of the Taliban, and then all of a sudden we heard news that there was actually a group of 80 Taliban hiding in a town called Balkh, which is only a few kilometers from Mazar. The next day we got another report that there were actually 300 Taliban fighters. People in Mazar started to give their allegiance to the Taliban, and suddenly there were 3,000 Taliban in the region.

That's just how mercurial it is there. Dostum went in with a number of troops and issued an ultimatum: either hand over the Taliban and their weapons or we'll flatten your village. I guess three deadlines passed, but finally the people in the village decided it would be best to hand over weapons and give the Taliban time to escape. But there's always going to be that problem in Afghanistan. The Taliban didn't vanish; you can't take a shower and be de-Talibanized.


You were in Mazar-e Sharif at the time of the prison uprising that resulted in the death of Mike Spann and the capture of the American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. What happened?


One thing I learned on this trip was to distrust the media. In terms of this Walker story and the uprising at Qala-i-Jangi [the prison], I really saw how the media manipulated words and ideas and inferences. Because I was there for most of the time, I knew what happened, why the Americans dropped the bomb on themselves, how Mike Spann got killed, and so on. But in the media, first there were reports that Dostum slaughtered all these prisoners, when in reality he was in Kunduz negotiating a surrender. And then I heard that the Americans had slaughtered all these prisoners, and there were just a handful of Americans left calling in air support. Then I heard that Dostum had done evil things to the prisoners, forcing them to rise up and kill themselves—I mean this whole thing was just taken out of context.

How did you happen to meet Walker?

After the uprising had been quelled, the prisoners remained in the bunker for another four days. They were finally flushed out with water, and on December 1, 86 fighters emerged. The prisoners were trucked from the prison to the hospital. They were the most pathetic looking humans I had ever seen; they were all freezing, hypothermic because they were wet and it was very cold that night. There was a second truck full of dead and wounded people. They were all taken to the hospital a few hundred yards down the road from where I was staying in Mazar.

Somebody running from the triage room, where patients are admitted and sorted out based on medical need, yelled that one of the prisoners was an American.

I grabbed one of the medics and went down to the hospital. When I walked in, there were eighteen men lying on the ground. Some of them were dead, some were dying, some were alive, and some were sleeping. The stench was overpowering. In the back of the room, the doctor was yelling at some guy to open his eyes, and asking him who he was and where he was from. All the prisoners looked the same because they all had long black beards, long black hair, and their faces were black with soot. The guy kept saying my name is John, my name is John, I'm from Washington, D.C. I went over and started talking to him; he didn't really want to talk to me at first because he was very hypothermic and kept fading in and out of consciousness.

I wasn't really sure he was American; he had a very strange accent; like he was from Austria or some other foreign country. I asked him if he would like to communicate anything to his loved ones. I had to ask him two or three times because he kept dozing off. Eventually he stayed awake long enough to say he wanted to talk to the Red Cross. I told him the Red Cross wasn't there but that I had an American-trained medic with me. The medic couldn't work on the floor so we took John upstairs and got him hooked up to an IV.

We had a hard time getting the IV in because his veins were so tight and his skin was pure white; he was very hypothermic. The IV must have helped, because all of a sudden he just started chatting normally with me, about where he was from, how he got there, and what his feelings were about various things. While I was talking to him, the medic was inspecting his wounds and the doctors were giving him shots of antibiotics and things like that. We talked for about 45 minutes to an hour. Toward the end of our discussion he was given a shot of morphine, which makes you kind of sleepy again.

His wounds were not that serious, and clean, so he didn't need any kind of fixed medical care or equipment, which they didn't have anyway, so I talked to the doctor about moving him. I was worried about the possibility of retaliation. These guys were part of an uprising and they had killed around 20 of the local commander's men plus injured 200. My concern was that someone would slip into the hospital and shoot these guys, so we took Walker back to Dostum's house where I had been staying. He was cleaned up, got some food and a chance to sleep, and the next day he was blindfolded and taken to the Turkish schoolhouse where the Americans had a base inside Mazar.


What were your impressions of Walker?

What impressed me the most was that all the prisoners I tried to talk to did one of two things: Either they wouldn't talk at all and just sat and stared at me, or they would say, gee I was kidnapped by the Taliban, I was press-ganged, I was forced to do this, I was just here looking for a job, etc. Walker was the only one who was really forceful about his support for the Taliban, that he was there to fight the Northern Alliance, and he even seemed to be quite okay with the miserable state he was in, telling me that that's what he had expected.

The other thing that struck me was the fact that he's a very gentle, thoughtful, intellectual person. If you've been around fighters and soldiers a lot, that's just the wrong kind of guy you put on the front lines.


Earlier, as we spoke about the interim government and its chance of survival, you said that at some point the Afghani people need to be handed the keys to their country and to chart their own future. Did you get a feeling from your contacts that the time had come?


Our initial goal, and I can't speak for President Bush but I have a pretty good idea what he wants to do, was to fight a fairly antiseptic war and ignore Afghan politics. In other words, to go in and find the terrorist training camps, get bin Laden, get the al-Queda hierarchy, and basically let the Afghans get on with their business. The secondary goal was to destabilize the Taliban, so we lumped them in together as part of the terrorist network we were going after.

I think everybody understands that the Taliban weren't flying planes into the World Trade Center, but there's a very strong link between bin Laden and the Taliban. And the Afghans understand that perfectly.

But while a lot of Afghans might support the removal of the Taliban, they don't necessarily oppose what the Taliban stood for. So that's the framework you have to keep in mind when you talk about at what point do you say here are the keys, you run this place.

The second problem is that for almost 20 years Afghanistan has been a beggar state; they've been living off aid programs and UN-provided food, and there's just nothing left—no infrastructure, no factories, no highways. The things that we take for granted—like if you're a government official, you need a chair, a desk, a lightbulb, paper, a pen—don't exist there. So, we still have to give them the basic tools that they need to run a country, and it's going to require a substantial amount of investment and infrastructure rebuilding.

Along with that come some really serious problems. For example, the typical Afghan doesn't want foreign peacekeepers in their country and they don't want the UN telling them how to run their lives. The other problem is the intellectuals and highly trained people all fled the country during the last 20 years. Somehow these people have to be encouraged to come back and that's a tough job. You have to get people who have immigrated to the United States, France, Germany, and say to them, go back to Afghanistan and teach, run offices, and invest in businesses.

And even if we patch together a group of people to run Afghanistan, what we're still missing is that second tier, the wealthy people, the educated, the affluent who all left Afghanistan.


Do you think that Dostum and other members of the interim government are targets of assassins?

Of course. The Taliban didn't vanish. For people who believe in the more fundamental views of Islam, people like Dostum and Karzai are absolute targets because they represent what fundamentalists consider to be evil. Although Dostum is a religious man, he spent some time in Turkey and he enjoys a sip of whiskey once in a while; he doesn't believe in forcing women to wear burkas, or to conform to very archaic Islamic rules. People like Karzai are very Westernized, they're very sophisticated and polished, and those are exactly the kind of people the fundamentalists want to kill.

Look for Robert Young Pelton's account of his travels in Afghanistan in the March, 2002 issue of National Geographic Adventure Magazine

BONUS: Pelton goes live on America Online on February 19 at 8:30 p.m. Ask him questions about his experiences in Afghanistan. Members go to AOL Keyword: Live

Don't miss great stories like Robert Young Pelton's and others in every issue of National Geographic Adventure Magazine. Subscribe online now for great savings and a free 3-in-1 tool!Click here>>
 

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