Dispatch From Afghanistan: Aftermath of Fort Uprising

Robert Young Pelton
for National Geographic News
and National Geographic Adventure Magazine
near Mazar-e Sharif,Afghanistan
November 28, 2001

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Robert Young Pelton is in Afghanistan following the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban and efforts to track down Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire fugitive, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and other incidents of terrorism. will publish his periodic reports from the field. Below, Pelton talks with Brian Handwerk in a phone interview.

Where are you now, and what's happening on the ground?

I'm staying as a guest of General Abdul Rashid Dostum about two miles from his military headquarters, which is the Qalai Janghi fort [outside Mazar-e Sharif].

What's the latest on the situation at the fort and with the battle there?

I visited the fort today [Wednesday] with General Dostum and they had collected the Northern Alliance dead, which numbered about 40. There were about 32 Taliban or al-Qaida bodies left there. The exterior of the fort had a large chunk taken out of it from a misdirected American bomb, and inside there had been a number of hits from the U.S. Air Force. It's also a major arms cache, so there were literally thousands of munitions strewn about the place. It was a scene of fierce fighting, so the Red Cross was collecting the bodies today. I also went there with two captured Taliban commanders to view the scene as well. They are staying at Dostum's house with us.

How did the prison fighting happen?

It happened because they weren't being rough with the Taliban, they were treating them with respect, according to the Afghan concept of hospitality. But most of the prisoners were foreigners—what you'd call the al-Qaida group, which is not a term that's used here, by the way; they call them "tourists"—who decided that they wanted to take out as many opposition soldiers as possible. So the mistake the Northern Alliance forces made was in not tying up the prisoners. It's an Afghan cultural thing—they treated them with respect, and that's what they got for their generosity.

It's been confirmed here that a CIA agent was killed at the prison and that five Americans were airlifted for medical attention. What have you learned?

They brought 500 foreign fighters, people who have pledged to die for the cause, and originally they really hadn't searched them well and hadn't tied them up. So one man pulled a grenade and threw it at a group and killed two of Dostum's generals.

The American was killed by a stray bullet away from that scene. After the fighting began, toward the evening they had subdued prisoners but they still hadn't tied them all up. They put them into a sort of a subterranean holding area in the rear part of the fort. Dostum uses this as a headquarters, and on one side there is sort of a modern complex. The CIA officer was in that area and was hit by a bullet.

Why did they not just level the fort with bombing?

The fort is a large complex of buildings, rooms, and subterranean areas. At the time there were around 400 or 450 Taliban. The area is also used to store munitions—boxes and boxes of bullets, mortars, rockets, heavy machine guns, old-fashioned Russian tommy guns, there are literally thousands and thousands of weapons there. When the prisoners were put in this hold, they managed to overcome their guards and grab weapons. The fort's walls are made of soft mud and there are number of hiding places—nooks and crannies. The walls are from four feet to about 30 feet thick. So when they began fighting, we heard explosions around 10:00, and the air strikes started about an hour later. [The United States] ran continuous bombing runs into the fort in intervals from two seconds to two minutes throughout a 24-hour period.

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.ƒIt'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 countryside—is 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.ƒPeople 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 hand—not 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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