Van Dyk Diary: Khost, Southeast Afghanistan

Dec 20, 2006

[Click here for a map of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border regions.]

People start work early in Khost, [also spelled Khowst] here in southeast Afghanistan, on the Pakistani border. It is just after sunrise, around six a.m. I can hear men's voices outside my window at the guesthouse where I am staying. They are adding a concrete floor to a building across the narrow street. No hard hats, no tight western clothes, just loose shalwar keemez, so comfortable in the heat, and a prayer cap, which all men wear beneath their turbans.

I am on the third floor. I haven't seen a building here higher than four stories, except for the large, beautiful mosque, with twin minarets, and a turquoise dome, that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the most powerful anti-Western guerrilla leader in southeast Afghanistan, has built here. Everyone says the money came from Saudi Arabia. The mosque looms gracefully over the city, like a cathedral in Europe.

I went to see it when it was under construction in 2002, looking, naively, for Jalaluddin. Men in prayer caps said they hadn't seen him in years. I lived with Jalaluddin and his men in the mountains here in the 1980s and wanted to talk to him again.

Below, I can hear the pleasant murmur of voices in the street, the sound of feet shuffling by, and of a rooster crowing. The city is waking up. There is little traffic. It is soothing.

My driver and "fixer" are with me. Otherwise, the guesthouse is empty. There is no hot water and there is electricity only in the evenings, but it is clean and relatively safe. The owner draws an iron gate across the outside door at sundown. Khost is more dangerous than it was a few years ago. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban operate here. A man named Sangeen, in his 30s, is in charge of this region. He and his fighters have sympathizers in the city. I watched a video shot in the mountains of him with his men, saying that now is the time for jihad.

Yesterday afternoon, I was having tea outside in a dusty park, among pine trees, and bearded men with turbans, talking with a local journalist. A group of women and children sat on the grass. I took out my camera. "Do you want to get killed?" asked my guide. I put it away. A few minutes later two shots rang out. The journalist raised his hands in a shrug. "Khost," he said. I learned later that a man had been killed. No one said why; no one said anything.

Later that night, I sat on the floor in the back room of a doctor's office and had tea with the doctor, his uncle from Pakistan who had come looking for business opportunities, and a judge. The doctor kept his small clinic and pharmacy open until late at night. Anyone could walk in. It was like a small town. Medicine was stacked loosely all around. A single light bulb hung from a cord. The table for patients in the back was old and frayed.

The judge, a man with a gaunt face and a white beard, sat on a thin carpet on the floor, wrapped in his patou, the thin wool blanket that all men wear in Afghanistan as a cloak and also use to pray on and sleep under. He said that the only time the city was safe was under the Taliban. There was too much corruption now. The shopkeeper is no longer honest.

People go to a jirga, or tribal council, to solve their disputes, instead of to a civil court. A jirga, a meeting of male members of a tribe, is 5,000 years old, as old as the tribes of Afghanistan. A loya jirga, or grand council of all leaders of Afghanistan, decided upon the current Afghan constitution.

The judge asked if I had read the whole Koran, not just parts of it, but the whole Koran. I said I had. He looked at me skeptically. "Everything is in there," he said. "The best time was under the Taliban, because we left these shops unlocked at night. They had the support of the people. If you cut off one hand, that will stop all crime. The people are tired of everything. That is why the Taliban are coming back."

Again, corruption; it is on the lips of everyone. I talked with a USAID worker in Kabul, a legal advisor to the government. I mentioned corruption. He rolled his eyes and warned me about shakedowns at the airport. "Corruption exists because no one knows what is going to happen tomorrow," said an Afghan. "People are afraid. They want as much money as they can get now." The headline in a Kabul newspaper said the Taliban plan to take over the country by 2010.

I asked the doctor what the most common diseases were here. "Hepatitis and tuberculosis," he said. "I don't eat meat and I don't drink the water, only tea. Green tea is good for you." He poured more green tea. It was good in the cold. We put candy in our mouths, this Afghan substitute for granulated sugar, and drank our tea together, sitting on the floor, and talked. It was so much better to talk this way than to sit at tables. It was warmer, more intimate, more open, to sit on the floor, like the men of old, and talk.

There are open sewers in the streets of Khost, as there are in all towns and cities in Afghanistan. Meat, the stable of every man's diet in Afghanistan, it seems, if he can afford it, sits in the sun for two to three days, the doctor said. It is not fresh to eat.

When we left the clinic, at nine p.m., the streets were dark and deserted. There were no streetlights, no lights in any houses, only a few dogs in the streets, and a puppy with its tail between its legs. Two guards, with rifles, stood outside the Kabul Bank, and two policemen, with rifles on their backs, walked by talking to one another. We rang a bell at the guesthouse and the owner came down and unlocked the door, and then the lock on the iron gate, and pushed it open.

But it is morning now. I washed my face in cold water, and noticed again the gray in my beard. It was dark the last time I grew a real beard here, necessary to blend in. We went outside to have tea and warm bread in a teashop. There are many throughout the city, a place for men to gather, never women. My guide will eat beef kebabs, grilled over an open fire, as they try to do every morning. I politely say no, but sometimes, not to stand out, give in.

Soon the streets of this small, crowded, dusty city are filled with men. It is just across from the tribal areas of Waziristan, Pakistan, where the Taliban, according to numerous new reports, are said to be headquartered. The shops are mostly one room, where sides of beef hang from iron hooks in the sun and mounds of raisins, nuts and dates beckon, next to shops filled with richly colored spices, and where in the streets young boys and men stand by wooden carts laden with thick fresh carrots, radishes, lettuce, cucumbers, bananas, and oranges.

Afghanistan is famous for its fruit, especially its pomegranates and melons. The sun is warm and hazy in December and the weather is dry. Men in turbans and sandals sit and talk or walk together, many holding hands, as Afghan men do. Most men wear beards. In the morning I do not see one woman in the streets, only a few little girls.

Afghans are warm and men embrace and kiss one another. They stand close together, in ways that would make a Western man uncomfortable. One of my guides and a local man stand together talking, holding both hands, like a man and a woman. By late morning I finally see a few women, but these, unlike in Kabul, are always covered. The language here is Pashto. This is the land of the Pashtuns.

In Kabul, a Tajik city, the language of instruction in schools is Dari, or Persian. In the south, in cities like Khost and Kandahar, it is Pashto. Afghanistan is divided by language, like Canada and Belgium, although most people are bilingual. Except former King Zahir Shah, now 91, who ruled for 40 years until 1973. He is Pashtun, but only speaks Dari.

I first saw Khost in November 1981, as I walked in single file with my guides, members of the Mujahideen, across a hot wide plain. The men were nervous, wary that someone might see us. We passed a Soviet air base and saw helicopters glistening in the sun, and headed up into the mountains. I breathed easier as we did. Their leader, and mine, now that I think about it, because I was with his men, was Jalaluddin Haqqani, still the most famous name in this region. Sangeen fights under him.

When I arrived at Jalaluddin's camp, at Shi-i-Khot, a valley in Paktia Province, after hiking for three days in from Pakistan, he gave me a plate of honey to go with my tea. We spent a month together as fall turned to winter and the snow came. It was hard to hate him, this man I rode horses with, joked with, whose men made sure I had the best portions of meat, when there was precious little meat to eat, this man now leading the fight against the U.S., against the latest infidel invaders, throughout southeast Afghanistan.

When I lived with him and his men he was an American ally, fighting the Soviet Union. It was a different time. America has changed, but he hasn't. I met one of his former bodyguards in Kabul a few weeks ago. He told me he accompanied Jalaluddin to Islamabad after 9/11, to meet with the Americans.

He said the Americans asked Jalaluddin to come over to their side. He thought about it, his bodyguard said, but couldn't do it. The bodyguard had left Jalaluddin and was now guarding another man, named Mallem Jan, who had also just left Jalaluddin and was now working for Afghan intelligence. The three of us sat together in the restaurant and talked.

Mallem Jan said he didn't dare leave Kabul. I showed them pictures of Jalaluddin and his men from a book I had written many years ago. They pointed out men who had been killed, and where they thought others might be. I wanted to find them, a few men especially, and to talk to Jalaluddin. These men were turncoats, working for the enemy. Or were they double agents?

The next day, in Khost, after talking with the doctor and the judge, we headed up into the mountains, east towards the Pakistani border. We were going right into al-Qaeda and Taliban country. We drove in two Toyota 4 x 4's. There were ten of us. I counted three rifles, bandoleers and pistols. I am sure other men had their weapons hidden.

We drove fast down the Khost highway out of town, endangering everyone as Afghans do, but then we slowed down. We passed an American convoy by the road. Once the Russians were based here and drove in convoys on this highway. Today the Americans have two bases here. One is Chapman Airfield, the former Soviet air base, named now after Nathan Chapman, the first soldier killed in Afghanistan, in 2002, and Camp Salerno, established by the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, named for the beachhead the 505th established in Italy in 1943.

We would see another convoy. The Americans traveled in the middle of the road, forcing other cars off to the side. The convoy stopped. We stopped. American soldiers got out and stood guard. No vehicle is allowed to get close. My guides muttered about the Americans, smiled and looked at me.

There had been a suicide attack scare in Khost two days before. There was a suicide attack the week before. There would be another one in two days. When I walked through the streets, disguised as an Afghan, I tried never to speak English. I looked in a man's eyes and then away, as Afghan men do. I watched for men watching me, to see if I stood out. I seemed okay. I didn't see any other foreigners in the streets, as rare here as a woman without a veil.

International opinion polls and American officials say that Afghans welcome the Americans and are opposed to the Taliban. This may be true in Kabul, and some people talked this way in Khost, but the countryside, where 85% of the Afghans live, is a different world. It was they, not the city dwellers, who first opposed the Soviets. Even the cities I am not sure of. I stayed one night in a home in Gardez, a five hour drive east of here. There is a large American base here. "He hates all Americans," said my interpreter, of my host. "The only reason you are here is because of Pashtunwali."

It is the ancient code of the Pashtuns, which requires that he be a good host, even to his enemies. Jalaluddin had been a good host to me, even though I was an infidel.

We passed the village of Door-na-me, and a cemetery, with its high flags by each grave, blowing in the wind. The day we arrived in Khost, there was a news report that four Afghans were killed, including a 13-year-old girl in Khost, in a raid by American soldiers. I had talked to the local BBC reporter from Khost as we sat in the park, and to another Afghan journalist, both of whom had gone to the village, a vast warren of baked-mud houses by the road.

The Americans had intelligence that some people in the village were Taliban or had ties to al-Qaeda. The Americans surrounded the house in question and their interpreter shouted, in Pashto, for the people inside to come out. The interpreter had a Kandahari accent. The people inside, one of whose cousins was manager of the Azizi Bank in Khost and another whose cousin worked for the police, thought those on the outside were Taliban, because the man shouting was from Kandahar. They thought they had come to attack them because of their ties to the government.

They chose to fight. The Americans killed four, took away the wounded, including an eight-year-old girl, and tied up the rest and left them there, said the journalists. One survivor said the Americans beat him with a rifle. The reporter said he had welts on his face.

As we drove on, I thought of the Americans I had seen by the road. I wondered if they had been on the raid. I then thought of the former Afghan army officer, a senior intelligence official for the U.S. military now, in the 4 x 4 ahead of us. He was taking us, at my request, up to a village a few miles from the Pakistani border. He said he had found 20 caches of weapons for the Americans. My interpreter didn't like him. He said that he had probably killed a lot of innocent people as he helped the Americans.

He said that he also probably worked for both the U.S. and the Taliban. I didn't know what to think. The officer asked if I would give him a job. I said I would think about it. A half hour later, we turned off the narrow paved road, this luxury in Afghanistan, and drove into a valley, crossed a rushing stream, one of many we would cross in the hours ahead, and headed up a gully following a track up into the mountains.

We reached our destination, a canyon, five miles from Waziristan. Two and half years before insurgents attacked an American convoy in this canyon, killing Pat Tillman, the football star and most famous soldier in the U.S. military. [Editor's note: The Pentagon subsequently disclosed that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.] I got out and looked around, studying the terrain. My guards were worried. One reminded me of the Muslim name they had given me in case they had to shout to me.

The intelligence officer told me the name of the commander who led the attack. We would talk, in time, to different people, about the battle and about the Taliban. Everyone here in the mountains knew Jalaluddin. I asked the intelligence officer where he was hiding. "He is in Waziristan just across the border. We know exactly where he is and who is protecting him." I wanted to find him.

I asked a village elder, a woodcutter with kind eyes and white beard, if there were Taliban and al-Qaeda in the area. "Yes," he said, "but it is hard to tell who is who. We all look the same."

I am sure he saw many of them.

"The only time I know they are Taliban is when they come in across the border in groups of 40 or 50," he said. "They pass through here. So do American soldiers, about once a month."

The intelligence officer had said on the way in that he had spotted the local Taliban leader praying by a stream. I had seen him, leading prayers for another man, facing southwest towards Mecca. They had seen us, but didn't pay any attention. They hadn't noticed me. The insurgents had watched Tillman's convoy come into the mountains and then attacked from two ridges, like Indians attacking U.S. soldiers in the American West.

As we left, later, I learned that the other driver in our 4 x 4 hadn't known that he was taking in a foreigner. I was safe. We would have to go back another time when the Taliban leader wasn't there. I still had work to do throughout the area.

That night, back in Khost, the intelligence officer said if I hadn't been there he would have arrested the Taliban leader.

I asked if he was scared. "I walk around my house at night worrying," he said. "I can't sleep before midnight. I carry my rifle everywhere. I am scared all the time." He was an Afghan, working for the foreigners. Everyone in the mountains hated the Americans, said another one of my guides. We sat in a restaurant at a glass table. It was cold and sterile. There were no lights, but a television was on in the corner.

When we sat down the officer had ordered a beer. He practically gulped down the 16-ounce can of Heineken. I was amazed that he drank and that he could find beer in Khost. He had learned to drink by being with American soldiers. Some of the men looked at the can and tried to read the label. They didn't know what it was.

The officer finished the beer and ordered another one, and quickly drank it, and his face flushed red, wrapped his patou around him, hiding his rifle, and went out into the night.

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