November 2001. Even in defeat the Taliban were ferocious. They came fast out of the darkness, in a convoy of muddy pickups and SUVs, hurtling through the old fortress gatehouse and skidding to a halt at the headquarters building. Black-turbaned guards armed with rifles and rocket launchers leapt from the backs of their vehicles and flanked their leader's car, a white Land Cruiser with blackened windows. They carried their weapons with the ease of long practice, and moved with an arrogance and sense of purpose that made us onlookers scatter. Two guards stayed atop their vehicles, manning antiaircraft guns. The remainder formed a perimeter, marking the opposition. It was 10 o'clock, a cold November night. The Taliban had driven into the heart of the enemy camp, inside the high walls and inner courtyards of the Qala-i-Janghi, the House of War.
The nineteenth-century fort lies southwest of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Its massive earth embankments, battlements, and mud-brick walls, twenty feet thick, were built by Amir Abdul Rahman, the creator of the modern state of Afghanistan. Until recently the fort had been a Taliban military base, but for the last month, U.S. bombers had been striking military targets in Afghanistan, and the Taliban had abandoned the fort and its arsenal of weapons. Now it was in the hands of their opponents, the American-backed fighters of the United Front, who had swept down from their mountain hideouts and seized power.
The men on guard were a mixed crowd. The United Front was a coalition of ethnic groups from northern and central Afghanistan. There were stocky Uzbeks with Asiatic features in long corduroy tunics and Uzbek police commanders in Communist-era uniforms, who wore mustaches rather than beards; small, wiry Hazaras wearing checkered headscarves, members of a Shiite group that had fought ferocious battles against the Taliban; and Tajik commandos of the Northern Alliance, in combat fatigues and army boots, the best-trained men of the anti-Taliban forces. The United Front was brought together by the late legendary resistance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud.1 His own faction, the mostly Tajik Northern Alliance, made up the backbone of the fighting force, but he had sought to broaden the resistance to the Taliban with support from other ethnic and regional groups. The fighters were mostly illiterate farmers and laborers, hardened men from mountain villages who had fought for ten years as mujahideen, resistance fighters against the Soviet occupation, and then through another decade of Afghan civil war and Taliban offensives.
The United Front hated the Taliban. The Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Tajiks had been driven deep into the mountains over the last few years where they had struggled to survive. The Taliban were a predominantly ethnic Pashtun movement, whose fighters were mostly from southern
Afghanistan and spoke Pashtu, a different language from the Persiandialect Dari of the northerners. The northern fighters watched the Taliban warily but with weapons shouldered. Their leaders were inside the building, and the Taliban were expected. The door of the Land Cruiser opened and a thickset, bearded man in loose white clothes appeared. Mullah Fazel Mazloom, deputy defense minister in the Taliban regime and commander of all Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan, scowled out from under his heavy black turban. He was a man with a fearful reputation for cruelty and for sweeping military offensives that spared no one. Behind him was Mullah Noorullah Noori, a slighter, younger man who served as the Taliban governor of Balkh and was the senior political figure in the north. The two men had led the Taliban's offensive across northern Afghanistan, conducting bloody reprisals against communities that resisted. They were feared across the region. Just the sight of their convoy speeding through the darkened streets of Mazar-i-Sharif on their way to the fort that night had started a rumor that the Taliban were returning to recapture the town.
I was among a group of Western journalists who jostled forward as the car door opened. A television cameraman switched on his camera light, illuminating the scene and momentarily blinding everyone. The Taliban leader drew back into his car and slammed the door. There was a short silence as everyone looked around, confused. Then the order came: "No lights! No lights!" Television was banned under the Taliban government, and its officials usually refused to be filmed. They were still insisting on this rule, even in defeat, so the cameraman turned off his light. The cleric emerged a second time, his face obscured by a woolen shawl wrapped round his head and shoulders. He stepped down into the crowd, hurrying into the building and up the stairs, followed closely by a coterie of commanders and guards. The jostling eased once they were gone. The journalists spread out, talking among themselves, switching on satellite telephones to report the arrival of the Taliban for talks. The Taliban guards turned their attention to the foreigners. They advanced on me and another female reporter with curious stares until the guards shooed them away. Upstairs, in a long, low-ceilinged meeting room, Mullah Fazel was confronting his deadliest enemies. Assembled on dilapidated sofas and armchairs along the sides of the room were men who, in the last week, with U.S. air support, had smashed his dominion and grasped control of northern Afghanistan: General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the growling Soviet-trained Uzbek militia leader who had often played kingmaker in the wars of the last twenty-five years, switching sides at critical moments and precipitating coups; Atta Mohammad Noor, the tall, lean leader of the Northern Alliance fighters, a bitter rival of Dostum for control of the north when they were not fighting the Taliban; and Mohammad Mohaqiq, the leader of the Shiite Hazara forces in the north, whose people had suffered some of the worst sectarian violence at the hands of the predominantly Sunni Taliban.
Each of these men had been fighting for the last quarter century, ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, sometimes on opposing sides. They had come together in recent months to stem the Taliban advance across northern Afghanistan. Since its formation seven years earlier, the Taliban had sought to gain control over the whole country and establish a fundamentalist Islamist regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. By 2001, they had come close to achieving that aim. Then came the attacks of 9/11 against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and everything changed.
As we waited outside in the courtyard with the guards, we watched some of the United Front's new American allies enter the meeting room that night: a tall, broad-shouldered CIA operative who used the name Dave — or Daoud to the Afghans — wore a long Afghan tunic and hiking boots and spoke the local languages; and several bearded men in the plain fatigues of the U.S. special forces, who had been dropped in weeks earlier to assist the different groups of the anti-Taliban coalition. Several dozen Afghan elders and commanders had gathered too, among them a former Taliban commander, Amir Jan Naseri. An influential Pashtun mujahideen figure from the ancient city of Balkh, Amir Jan had fallen out with the Taliban and defected to the United Front six months earlier. His contacts on both sides allowed him to serve as an intermediary in bringing Mullah Fazel to negotiate. The meeting was a severe turn of fortune for Mullah Fazel. He had commanded over ten thousand Taliban fighters along with hundreds more al Qaeda and other foreign fighters across several battlefronts in northern Afghanistan. He had come close to annihilating the men with whom he now negotiated. When two al Qaeda members posing as journalists assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001, they removed the most important opposition figure standing in the way of the Taliban advance. The United Front had seemed bound to collapse. Mullah Fazel was poised to overrun the last northern districts and complete the Taliban plan to conquer all of Afghanistan.
That was just two days before the attacks of 9/11. Within a month, U.S. missiles began demolishing Taliban frontline positions and military camps with a pinpoint accuracy that shook the Islamist fighters, and awed ordinary Afghans. American special forces personnel in the mountains with the United Front called in strikes on Taliban positions. Afghans on horseback raced in after the strikes to seize villages and hilltops, and finish off stragglers. The Taliban were forced to abandon their command posts and take cover in civilian buildings. They smeared mud over their trucks and cars, covering every bit of glinting chrome in a vain attempt at camouflage. It was no protection against modern guided missiles. Even in the cities, missiles were finding the Taliban, guided by Afghan informers working undercover and equipped with GPS locators and satellite telephones. It took just over a month for Taliban rule to collapse in the north. The first major town, Mazar-i-Sharif, fell to United Front troops on November 9. Two other northern towns, Taloqan and Bamiyan, fell to United Front forces on November 11, and Herat, the main city in western Afghanistan, on November 12. The Taliban were suddenly on the run.
Excerpt from THE WRONG ENEMY by Carolotta Gall. Copyright 2014 by Carolotta Gall. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.