From a ruined 19th century fortress, a correspondent records the crushing of a Taliban revolt.
BY ALEX PERRY ............................Saturday, Dec. 01, 2001
In Afghanistan, nothing is ever what it seems. Including surrender.
On Nov. 24, a bright, warm Saturday, 300 Taliban soldiers who had fled the American bombardment of Kunduz, their last stronghold in the north of Afghanistan, laid down their weapons in the desert a few miles to the north of Mazar-i-Sharif. They surrendered to Northern Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who crowed that his forces had achieved a "great victory" as the pows were herded 50 at a time onto flatbed trucks.
Even by the standards of Afghanistan's warlords, Dostum has an unsavory reputation; in earlier episodes of Afghanistan's wars, he was reputed to have killed those of his soldiers who broke the rules by tying them to the tracks of his tanks. But outside Mazar, his soldiers told their prisoners that Dostum wanted to make a gesture of reconciliation to help unite Afghanistan's warring tribes. Afghan members of the Taliban would be free to return to their homes, while foreigners would be detained before being handed over to the U.N. Dostum didn't search his prisoners; that was a mistake, one he would bitterly regret. "If we had searched them, there would have been a fight," he said Wednesday, surveying hundreds of dismembered, blackened and crushed bodies. "But perhaps it wouldn't have been as bad as this."
DEATH IN THE DUST
|The Taliban fighters, many
of whom were foreigners, were transported from the field of surrender to
a holding site in Qala-i-Jangi, a sprawling 19th century prison fortress
to the west of Mazar, where Dostum stabled his horses. The convoy of prisoners
had to pass through the city center; two weeks before, the Taliban had
ruled the streets. They now peered out from under their blankets with shell-shocked,
bloodshot eyes. The people of Mazar stared back at them with open hatred.
Things went wrong almost immediately. Once inside Qala-i-Jangi, the Taliban were asked to turn out their pockets. A prisoner, waiting until Alliance commander Nadir Ali was near, suddenly produced a grenade and pulled the pin, killing himself and the commander. In a similar attack the same night, another prisoner killed himself and senior Hazara commander Saeed Asad. The remaining men were led into underground cells to join scores of other captured Taliban fighters. Despite the grenade attacks, the Alliance guards were not reinforced.
The Taliban then overpowered the Alliance guards, killing them with their own weapons. Dave mowed down three more Taliban and then sprinted to the main building along the north wall, where two Red Cross workers had just begun a meeting with the prison governor. "He burst in and told us to get out of there," says Simon Brooks, a Briton and a Red Cross staff member. "He was really shaken up. He said there were 20 dead Northern Alliance guys and the Taliban were taking control of the fort." As Dave stayed behind to try to rescue Spann, the two Red Cross workers climbed up to the fort's parapet, hoisted themselves over the wall and slid 60 ft. down the other side. Meanwhile, the firing had alerted a pair of TV crews. They too ran to the main building; there they found Dave and were pinned down in the ensuing fire fight.
A few hundred yards to the
south, in the prison block, the Taliban freed their comrades. Three escaped
through a drain under the southern wall; all were soon shot by Alliance
soldiers outside the fort. The Taliban fighters, trapped in the southwestern
quarter of the fort, stormed a nearby armory, making off with AK-47s, grenades,
mines, rocket launchers, mortars and ammunition. Alliance soldiers held
on to the southeastern corner, which an arched gateway, a courtyard and
the gatekeeper's house. Other fighters took positions on the north wall
and the roof of the main building. A vicious exchange of fire across the
grassy parade ground followed. Two Alliance tanks along the north wall
started firing into the Taliban area.
A bearded American in a Harley-Davidson cap and mirrored sunglasses raised Dave on the radio. "Shit shit O.K. Shit O.K. Hold on, buddy, we're coming to get you," he said. Then, cutting the radio, he turned to his commander: "Mike is mia. They've taken his gun and his ammo. We have another guy. He managed to kill two of them with his pistol, but he's holed up in the north side with no ammo." As a hurried discussion of tactics began, Harley-Davidson went back to his radio. Then he cut in: "Shit. Let's stop f___ing around and get in there." Pointing to the sky, he added, "Tell those guys to stop scratching their balls and fly."
Outside the fort, Alliance soldiers began pouring out of the northeast battlements, skidding over the walls and down the ramparts. The wounded were whisked away in commandeered taxis. A fire fight raged through the afternoon. Two American fighter planes began circling the area. Inside, Time's translator, Nagidullah Quraishi, was ordered to the gatekeeper's roof and told to translate conversations between the Western soldiers and their Afghan allies. Alliance General Majid Rozi told the Americans and the British that a white single-story building inside the Taliban area needed to be hit, and the visitors proceeded to spot the target for the planes far above. "Thunder, Ranger," said the American radio operator, speaking to the airplanes above. "The coordinates are: north 3639984, east 06658945, elevation 1,299 ft." He turned to his comrades. "Four minutes."
"Fifteen seconds." From the sky, a great, arrow-shaped missile appeared, zeroing in on its target a hundred yards away and sounding like a car decelerating in high gear. The spotters lay flat. Alliance commanders and soldiers crouched against the door leading to the roof. The missile hit at 4:05 p.m. For a split second, as the concussive sound waves radiated outward, lungs emptied. Shrapnel whistled by. Then Alliance soldiers burst into applause. A U.S. soldier picked up a fallen piece of metal. "Souvenir," he said, grinning. Six more strikes followed before the British SAS commander re-established contact with Dave, still penned in with the four journalists. The SAS soldier told the Alliance commander that after two more strikes, his men should fire all their weapons. "Our guy is going to try to make a break for it," said the Briton. The conversation turned to Spann. "From what I understand, he was already gone before we got here," said an American.
"Three minutes," said the
SAS guy. "Two minutes
30 seconds." Everyone crouched once more against
the wall. Again a glistening white arrow screamed down, again the split-second
blackout. "One more," said the SAS man.
By Monday morning, the Alliance had established a new command post at the northeast tower on top of what an American commander described as "10 tons of munitions, rockets, mortars, the works." A tank was driven onto the tower. From his seat on the garrison roof, commander Mohammed Akbar guided mortar and tank fire to Taliban positions in the southwest. "Excellent right on the nose!" he shouted, as bullets from Taliban snipers whizzed just over his head. Then came the next mistake.
Around 10 a.m. four more Special Operations soldiers and eight men from the 10th Mountain Division arrived at a position about 300 yds. outside the fort to the northeast. Inside the fort, bomb spotters were preparing three more strikes; a pilot circled overhead, radioing instructions to the spotters, his voice clearly audible on handsets held by the soldiers posted outside the fort. "Be advised," he said to the soldiers in the fort, "you are dangerously close. You are about a hundred yards away from the target." "I think we're perhaps a little too close," came the spotter's reply. "But we have to be, to get the laser on the target." Pause. Bomb spotter: "We are about ready to pull back." Pilot: "We are about to release." Spotter: "Roger." Spotter: "Be advised we have new coordinates: north 3639996, east 06658866." Pilot: "Good. Copy." Spotter: "Mitch and Siberson are making their run now." Spotter again: "Two minutes."
At 10:53 a.m. the missile slammed into the north wall, perhaps 10 yds. from the Alliance's command center in the northeast tower. Much more powerful than previous strikes, it sent clouds of dust hundreds of feet into the air. "No, no!" Alliance commander Olim Razum yelled at the 10th Mountain soldiers. "This is the wrong place! Tell them to cut it!" A Special Operations man glanced up at the cloud and shouted, "Incoming shrapnel get down!" As the dust cloud cleared, a U-shaped hole the size of a small swimming pool appeared in the wall next to the northeast tower. The tank had flipped onto its back, its gun turret blown off. Alliance soldiers, bleeding, coated in dust, began sliding down the side of the fort and staggering across the surrounding cotton fields. "It missed," said a soldier named Afiz, blood dripping from his eyes and ears. "I don't know where my friends are." From under the fort's entrance arch, SAS and American soldiers emerged choking and spitting. "We have one down, semiconscious, no external bleeding," a radio crackled. "We have men down," a Special Operations soldier told Time. "Get out of here. Please."
Within 20 min., the casualties and walking wounded were loaded into seven jeeps and minibuses, which sped off to the U.S. base. Nine men were airlifted out. Nik Mohammed, 24, an Alliance soldier on the northeast tower at the time of the strike, said he helped pull three uniformed soldiers he believed to be American from the rubble of the collapsed wall and claimed that two of them were dead. On Tuesday the Pentagon said that there had been no military deaths but that five U.S. service members had been seriously injured and had been evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Four British soldiers were also reported wounded over the previous 22 hr., one seriously, though British officials who never comment on the SAS will not confirm that they were wounded at Qala-i-Jangi. On the Alliance side, there were said to be as many as 30 dead and 50 injured.
At 4:50 p.m. a small group
of Special Operations soldiers returned. Dave was with them. He climbed
up the northeast tower to confer with Rozi. "You don't want to leave here
tonight," an American soldier told Time, checking his night-vision goggles.
"There's going to be quite a show." The soldier used a reporter's satellite
phone to call his wife and tell her he might be on the TV news that night
"Tape it all day, will you? O.K. Love you, babe." At midnight an American
AC-130 gunship began lazily circling Qala-i-Jangi. It flew five times over
the same spot, spraying the southern end of the fort with a golden stream
of fire. Later a massive ball of flame lifted up from the fort, kicking
off a fireworks display as mortar rounds and ammunition belts fired off
into the night sky. Explosions sounded through the night; the blast blew
open doors 10 miles away.
At 10:50 a.m. U.S. and British troops positioned themselves along the parapets to the east of the Taliban compound. "Did you see the show last night?" one asked Time, grinning. "We watched for two hours. Really something." Around 100 Alliance scaled the southwest tower and lay down along the walls, firing on the Taliban below. Others manned the western tower. Before long, wounded and dead Alliance soldiers were being ferried through the gates. A U.S. soldier ran back to greet an SAS comrade who had felt the full force of Monday's air strike. "How's your hearing today?" he bellowed. Pause. "I said, How's your hearing?' "
By 1:25 p.m., from the southwest tower, commander Akbar estimated Taliban strength at "11/2" men. On the field below lay hundreds of dead and dying. Two embraced in death. Alliance soldiers stepped gingerly over the bodies. Some of the dead had their hands bound, and Alliance soldiers used scissors to snip off the strings. At 2:10 p.m. Akbar decided all the Taliban were dead and walked down onto the field. His men, by now plainly spooked by the suicidal bravery of the Taliban, had to be forced to break cover. One wounded Taliban soldier, lying in the long grass, was shot to pieces. Alliance soldiers started looting, taking guns and ammunition and rifling the pockets of the dead for money, pens and cigarettes. The Taliban's new-looking sneakers were a particular target. Within minutes, the Alliance fighters had thrown away their shoes and yanked the sneakers from the cold, gray feet of the Taliban dead. The bloated carcasses of 30 horses, with entrails spilling, added a thick stench to the smoke and gunpowder. All the dead were described by the Alliance as "terrorists" and "dangerous foreigners." "I killed four Chechens, four," said Mohammed Yasin excitedly. "I can show you the bodies." The occasional explosion from the smoldering arms depot sent Alliance men scampering across the field, hurdling bodies as they ran for cover.
In a basement under one pock-marked house, five Taliban fighters were trapped alive. Grenades were thrown in the tiny windows and AK-47s fired after them. With Alliance soldiers too afraid to enter the stables, a tank was brought in, crushing bodies under its tracks before firing five rounds into the block. In a ditch on the main parade ground, a young Taliban fighter, lying sprawled on his side, was still breathing. An Alliance soldier dropped a rock on his head. A few yards away lay a bloodied prayer book.
Even in the heat of battle, warriors can be rational; few fight to the death. But the Taliban at Qala-i-Jangi truly did, and beyond it. Spann's body, recovered by a Special Operations squad, had been booby-trapped; a grenade had been hidden under the corpse of a Taliban fighter which lay on top of the American. As late as Thursday, those removing bodies were still taking fire from Taliban fighters who had somehow survived in the basements underneath the fort. On Saturday, the basements were flooded; Northern Alliance observers expected perhaps five or six surviving Taliban to come out. In fact, at 11:00 a.m. no less than 86 filthy and hungry prisoners emerged; they were given bananas, apples and pomegranates, clothing and shoes. Three trucks took the wounded away. One of the 86 told Alliance fighters he was an American. The 20-year old, who had been wounded in the leg, said he was from Washington DC. He would not give his name, but said that he was a convert to Islam who had come to Afghanistan after a spell at a madrassa in Pakistan to help the Taliban build a perfect Islamic government.
The battle was finally over. It had ended as it started, with a surrender. And its story held within its chapters a brutal lesson. The war against terrorism, they like to say, is a new form of war. But at Qala-i-Jangi, as the blood of horses and dead young men snaked into the dust, the oldest form of war imaginable seemed to have made a cruel and bitter return.